The Feminist Blog: A Retrospective

Dear CF,

I’m glad you wrote about Jessica Valenti’s departure from Feministing—she’s an ethical force. Glad, too, that you wrote about the VIDA report on how gender equality breaks down across various publications. It’s a chart that bums me out even more than it should.

You wrote that one of the explanations offered for lower publication rates for women might be lower submission rates, and wondered “if because women are more conditioned to external appraisals of their worth, this makes them overly realist, negatively realist,  in their assessment of their chances at a writing career.”

I think that’s a major part of it (by the way, it makes me sad that “realist” has somehow become synonymous with “pessimist”—that’s a mindset worth resisting).  My other suspicion is that our culture trains men (brutally) to bounce back from rejection and try again. Take dating. Even if they strike out, there’s always the possibility of reward. They’re doing what’s expected of them, even when they fail. As scary as it may be, it’s not transgressive. Not so for women for whom dating, in its traditional formulation, remains receptive—we’re in the business of advertising, which is different from salesmanship.

If men learn persistence, we learn something a little more arbitrary, a little more hopeless. Martin Seligman’s famous experiments with rats come to mind—learned helplessness is a real thing.

The VIDA report makes it all the more important that we recognize what Valenti and others have done. The blog seems to be a dying form (thanks for pointing me to this article). With Broadsheet, DoubleX and The Sexist gone, Valenti departing and Jezebel’s arteries hardening, it doesn’t look good. I admit I worry about the future of the feminist platform. It’s worth taking some time to reflect on the phenomenon that is (or has been) the feminist blogosphere. Just as we’ve stopped to think about what Twitter has done for feminist activism, it’s time to take stock of what feminist blogging has made possible and to think about what happens next.

(I’m also sort of delighted to have a chance to rescue great posts from the feminist blog archives—the fact that they get buried as a function of stupid chronology is the blog’s greatest formal weakness. When we find a better way to organize internet-writing, we’ll all be better for it.)

So: Valenti. She did so much  good thinking out loud, throwing her real struggles and vulnerabilities into the black cauldron that is the internet. (Remember when she wrote about getting married? Or the amazing piece about her daughter’s birth?) The more women we have thinking through difficult life events (like Meghan O’Rourke did on her mother’s death, like Lauren did back in 2003 talking about her rape, like Jaclyn Friedman did with breakups and “healing sluthood“, like you’re doing here with consent), the better equipped we are to name the phenomena that confuse and depress, sometimes without our conscious awareness. The more we do that, the better equipped we are to recover from learned helplessness.

Like zines, the feminist blog came into its own as an alternative to, well, everything else. Not just Cosmo, Seventeen or YM with their embarrassing period stories and ads but also cyberspaces—chat rooms, comment sections, all those places on the Brave New Internet where you had to either strip yourself of your gender or wear it as your defining trait. (18/F!)

Not that you stepped outside of your gender in the feminist blogosphere. You obviously didn’t. But what changed were the default baselines from which the conversation began. You were allowed to assume femaleness as the default perspective, and that was, in its own way, revolutionary.

Like zines, the feminist blog tended toward the cynical. The voice was caustic, raw. High on wit, high on sarcasm, it was a space intended to allow for the expression (or, at an even more basic level, the development, acknowledgement and recognition) of a multitude of ideas that revolved around two energizing emotions: anger and desire.

Not that they were merely reactionary; the phenomenon wasn’t as simple as anti-Victorian rebellion. Nor did the feminist blog’s mission quite match the zine’s—for one thing, they lacked the intimate confessional quality, the idiosyncrasy and the despair. The feminist blog was never a monologue. It was a dialogue from its inception. That formal difference made it something else, a pragmatic younger sibling, realist and raunchy.

(I’m not casting aspersions on the zine, by the way—it’s a fabulous creature in its own right, and one that rightly insists on its materiality, cutting and pasting with gluesticks instead of mice. Relatedly, everyone should read the 2009 Gender Agenda that has The Rookie Files’ article, “Jezebel vs. Bitch.” It’s a print edition but available, demi-ironically, as a PDF here.)

What the feminist blog did: maximize the opportunities inherent in the form. It benefited from a happy and not-remotely-accidental combination of good writers and—in the majority of cases—good commenters. The result was an ongoing project of noticing: naming trends and patterns, thinking through a lens of real experience that usually has to be removed in order to successfully consume something “mainstream,” like a movie. The latter, by the way, is a coping mechanism we all learn; watch something from your actual point of view and you’ll spend your life paralyzed by rage. Instead, you overlook. You take what you can get. The fictions you take pleasure in become contingent on the parts you manage to actively forget.

Example: I love A Philadelphia Story because Hepburn’s character is marvelous, believable, eccentric and flawed. In order to love that film,  I have to erase the ending from my consciousness. If I remember that it ends with her parroting Cary Grant like a ventriloquist’s dummy, happy to have finally relinquished control of her own life, I—well—I lose it. More to the point, I lose her, and she’s one of the few amazing female film protagonists we have.

My method obviously doesn’t make for very effective film criticism, and it doesn’t make for very efficient living. What the feminist blogosphere did, among other things, was develop a real working vocabulary for what your life and mine is like. Part of that vocabulary is inherited from the academy. This is a good thing. Gender studies departments being rare, blogs stepped in to make the products of that scholarship accessible to those outside the university who wanted in on the conversation. Not only were they organs of scholarly (heh) dissemination, they also effectively expanded the ivory tower’s findings on the ground. They became research labs in their own right. (Take Melissa McEwan’s post at Shakesville on coded misogyny, which I need to write more about, as I think I’m seeing some and it’s breaking my heart. And that’s one of many incredibly educational posts she offers).

That trend-naming for life experience matters deeply when you’re not allowed to see yourself as a remotely believable protagonist in any of the media your peer group consumes. You don’t fit the storylines your culture has written for you, which leads to a particular brand of loneliness. It would be less lonely, or different, at any rate, if we weren’t expected to know and rehearse those lines. In a world where no one paid attention to us, we would feel another kind of sadness, a different brand of grief.

As it is, we live in a complex economy of subtle punishment and reward, all of it built around the assumption that we’re being scrutinized. We do it ourselves. Look at a picture of a heterosexual couple. Any heterosexual couple. Notice that even though you’re staring at them both with the same set of eyes, you see her face, her hair, her clothes, her body shape, at much higher resolution, even as you miss the signs of aesthetic success and failure on him: his scruff, his wrinkles, his cuff-links, his skin discolorations, fingernails, neck-beard. This is the problem of the gaze. Whether the observers are real or imagined, the gaze remains.

To call the damage this does “objectification” is right but insufficient. Unself-consciousness is a luxury. (The loss of it, incidentally, explains why celebrities are such uninteresting people—watch any interview of Hailee Stanfield and you’ll see more presence of mind, more personality, more content than you will with anyone who’s undergone the misfortune of “media training.”)

The loss of self-consciousness is where brilliance happens. Self-transcendence is the site of the imagination, of invention. It’s the sine qua non of  (in Mikhaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term) “optimal experience”: What the gaze does—like those eyes on the billboard in The Great Gatsby—is sap your creative energy and drive, or rather redirect it towards a project of pure image. It’s a lifelong quest, learning to reappropriate all the RAM you spend thinking you’re being watched. We spend the weakest, most frustrate moments of our lives registering our failure at the parts we’re meant to play.

Unfortunately, because our culture finds stories disposable and frivolous, we’re all the more vulnerable to their shaping effects. Sitcoms are the Spanx of our psyches. Little do our male peers know that their souls, like ours, are being slowly strangled by mediocre and frankly overpriced corsetry. But, thanks to Melissa McEwan and Jessica Valenti and Amanda Marcotte and Amanda Hess and Kate Harding and Sady Doyle, we do know a lot of this. Feminist blogs helped us recognize the Spanx.

Spanx, here, is just another word for what David Foster Wallace calls “water” in his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. In that speech he warns that if you don’t worship consciously you will worship unconsciously, and you might as well choose your gods:

Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.

I’m interested in this part of DFW’s speech for two reasons. One has to do with the issue of self-worship, which is often the flip side to a paralyizing self-consciousness. The other is that the feminist blog—an outsider—has “made it” just as the blog as a form is (allegedly) dying. Women are ON the internet.

As great a victory as that is, it brings with a new set of hazards. Once a movement succeeds, it has to work hard not to ossify. That’s true for any counterculture; here, for example, is what Emily Rutherford writes about the LGBT community’s gradual acceptance into the mainstream, and how that forces a redefinition of the outlier position [via]:

To me “kink” was synonymous with “BDSM,” and I had to wonder […] where I, whose realm is primarily queer identity and politics, would fit in. […] As the LGBT community becomes increasingly mainstream and increasingly integrated into a “straight” (for lack of a better word) paradigm, what takes its place as the radical outlier? Maybe “kink” is the new “queer”; […] I don’t think it’s erroneous to draw parallels to gay liberation, when a minority sexuality community decided it was going to establish its own boundaries (or lack thereof), and not allow the law or the medical profession or anyone else to do that for them.

She’s working with different populations, but the risks of “mainstreaming” are similar. In a word, they’re the risks that attend anyone newly in possession of privilege. For feminist sites, they include:

  • switching perspectives—from aggressive and perceptive outsider critic seeing the world through fresh eyes, it’s relatively easy to fall into an island of snap judgments. A status quo, however noble its origins, can dull the faculties.
  • turning the new vocabulary of (in this case) female experience into a series of preset precepts, or defaults, which often ignore, among other things, women of color. (See Angry Black Woman’s eloquent post on feminism here.)
  • an unconsidered impatience. Let me be clear (that was my Obama impression!): patience isn’t a virtue across the board. Trolls are best ignored, and the new feminist blogosphere had to protect itself from an amazingly vicious community. Here, out of interest, are some sample comment policies, and here’s Marcotte’s take on unmoderated commenting as a social experiment. (As for the critics who cried “censorship!” when hostile comments were removed,it’s worth taking a look at Broadsheet, the exception that proves the rule. The comments section went unpoliced and never really figured out how to manage the vitriol). Things are different now. There are still trolls aplenty (see Sady Doyle’ horrifying account of her experience during #MooreandMe for examples), but there are also people—many of them not-quite-feminists, but curious—who are turned away or shut down before they have a chance to express genuine doubts, or questions, or whatever. That’s a triumph for the trolls.

The belief that it’s not our “job” to “educate” newcomers preserves our ability to converse on our own terms. That had and has value. Still, it doesn’t do much to spread the word. (See Jezebel’s “In Defense of the Gay White Male” and the comments for an example of why this is problematic.)

I know the feeling of tiredness. So do you. Any teacher does. You’ve taught the material and had the conversation a million times. It’s unfair that you have to have it again. They should go read something like this or this, or the links I’ve put at the bottom of this post. But they probably won’t.

If we want change to happen, we might want to take advantage of the incredible successes Valenti et al have made possible and understand this new crop of ignorant question-askers as opportunities rather than impositions. If we’re up to it, we probably should have the conversation again. Patience is activism. Good will is activism. So is good faith. What Melissa McEwan calls “teaspooning” can take many forms, and one of them is just a willingness to explain.

Scarleteen, by the way, is as good as it is because it refuses to tire of having the same conversations. It doesn’t descend to shorthand or jump to the conclusions to which a community that has existed over a period of years could easily jump. It takes its readers step by step. It is careful. That’s not true of all blogs—many are linguistic communities in their own right, with a long history that allows for insider jargon and conceptual shortcuts. I’m not knocking that; it’s great. But it stops being a place of action and becomes a place of reaction. Anger can be catalyzing; it can also, when shared, be comfortable and exclusionary.

I mean this as less a critique than a history; enough time has passed that it makes sense to examine how feminist blogs look now compared to the way they did when they started. Valenti started Feministing in 2004. McEwan started Shakesville a few months after that. Pandagon came under Marcotte’s stewardship a little later. Marcotte attributes the current stripe of feminist bloggery to Susan Faludi in a fascinating post here. Here’s Feministing’s first post (4/12/04). Here’s Shakesville’s (10/5/04). Here’s The Sexist‘s. To detach feminist blogging from its history would be to fundamentally misunderstand it.

As the (white) feminist blog developed into a powerful internet presence, it ran the risk of, as DFW puts it, “getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.” As anyone who loves or is one knows, activists are prone to this.

Feminist glasses are a real thing; how many times have I wished I could just WATCH A MOVIE without getting mired in its gender politics? I would never argue that my feminist glasses are bad—they’re not. They’re true. But it’s a partial truth, like the story of the blind men describing the elephant. Those glasses miss things. And, just as importantly, they can neutralize the possibility of an immersive artistic experience. They can kill that luxury Csikszentmihaly calls flow, which comes from something even more productive than awareness: unself-consciousness.

That’s the paradox, right? That both the gaze and its eradication can, if we’re not careful, have the same result: a cognitive burden that makes flow, or “optimal experience,” or creative work, impossible.

One solution might be to take our mainstreamhood and apply it outwardly. Like Feministing does here, with its post on how immigration is a feminist issue, or Feministe here on issues of disability and race. The big mistake we all make about the examined life is thinking the life we’re supposed to examine is our own. The ideal should be to start there but to transcend the self, to look at yourself through all the glasses you have and then learn to look away, at something else.

If the feminist blog is on its way out, my hope is that feminist bloggers will take the conversation public, outward, the way Ta-Nehisi Coates did with the conversation on race, and the way Jessica Valenti suggests we do here, no matter how many times it turns ugly. An intelligent and principled inclusion seems like the next logical step.

I can’t wait to read her work on the Daily. And I’m thankful to all the feminist blogs, and all the women who write. Here’s to submitting, losing self-consciousness and choosing our gods.

Fondly,

M

P.S.: For those who want to do a little extra feminist reading:

Feminism, Blogged

  • Here’s Angry Black Woman’s Required Reading.
  • Here’s dearwhitefeminists’ open letter to the white feminist community, with a blogroll of WOC.
  • Here’s Shakesville’s Feminism 101, by Melissa McEwan.
  • Here’s Amanda Marcotte’s great post on Susan Faludi and the manufactured enmity between second- and nth-wavers.
  • Jaclyn Friedman on the Ben Roethlisberger rape allegations as a test case exemplifying “rape culture.”
  • Amanda Marcotte on “choice feminism” (which applauds any and all choices made by women), how she isn’t one, and misogynist media narratives, including the Nice Guy phenomenon.

Feminist Book and Film Reviews of a Contrarian Stripe:

  • Batyareads’ fascinating take on Twilight as something different and more interesting than a feminist failure.
  • Subabat’s wonderful review of how Kottsko’s Awkwardness elides the female experience, complete with his interesting response in the comments.
  • Rohan Maitzen’s thoughtful take on that punching-bag of film critics everywhere, SATC 2.

9 Responses to The Feminist Blog: A Retrospective

  1. Carla Fran says:

    Oh hi. I am in love with this post.
    Some questions in a thought stew:
    1.) Do you think “learned helplessness” can have a late onset? I’m thinking of Granpa’s comment about all the ladies yapping about marriage, and am wondering if marriage is often a big reveal of the symptoms of the onset of said helplessness. Enter consent?
    2.) The luxuries of unself-consciousness. This brings up consent again. I wonder if a lot of the struggle in sharing a domestic workload (both doing chores, and both working at home) is witnessing such luxuriations while not having them oneself. I think you’ve articulated one of the key frictions Mr. CF and I have about sharing an office. Conversations about consent (in all situations) remove this luxury from both parties by making everybody self-conscious, kind of clearing the way for both to have access to that great concentrated place of “optimal experience.” This being said, I still don’t know how to do it.
    3.) “The big mistake we all make about the examined life is thinking the life we’re supposed to examine is our own.” I think this is wise and smart, and I wish EM Forster were alive to read it. And it lands so directly on the state of blogging, and it navigates a lot of the bodyslam of how to successfully be in gazeland without reverting to kneejerk arrogance or helplessness as the only defense. I have no idea how to do this. In Traister’s book there is a quote somewhere about how “from the selfish comes the political.” But how to really, honestly do this is a major trick, and I thank the other writers and commenters who are doing it well.
    4.) And the submission (not as in relinquishing power, but as in publishing) thing here fits so well, because boundary making and consent aren’t really the answer, but vocabulary and articulation are. Am still not sure if continuing to submit is the viking call, though. I like the adage “you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket,” but “don’t hate the player, hate the game,” keeps popping up, too.
    5.) Do you ever feel like you can’t let go of the lens because those around you haven’t found it yet, so you have to keep using it (for example, the movies, etc.) at least until those around you have it too, and then you can expand it and relax when and where it comes up?

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  3. This post is just heavenly. Thank you.

  4. Thanks for the link to my SATC-2 post. I love the idea of myself as ‘contrarian’! I don’t write a ‘feminist blog’ but I am a feminist who blogs, and one thing that means to me is simply wearing those glasses you talk about out in public, without being apologetic about them–just acknowledging how things I read or watch look to me, just including that feminist analysis along with all the other things I notice.

  5. Subashini says:

    Many thanks for including a link to my post on this excellent round-up. Am honoured to be in such company!

    Although, I do have some Valenti issues, but I don’t think there’s any need to go into it, especially since others already have elsewhere. And it would sort of take away from the focus of your post, which is a very helpful contextualising of the recent history of (white) feminist blogging. I wasn’t much of a reader or participant of feminist blog culture when it was starting up, and so a lot of these links are actually new to me – and thus very much appreciated.

    The bit about the “lens” – when to relinquish it, when to put it on – or whether that’s the most effective way of dealing with it, is a subject very much close to my heart. I have no answers, but I love the way you’re thinking it through here with such clarity. To answer Carla Fran’s fifth question in her comment, personally, yes, I do over-compensate sometimes because I think others “haven’t found it yet”. That, in itself, is its own problem. I was thinking about the review I wrote on my blog of Paul Murray’s ‘Skippy Dies’, which is a genuinely “likeable” book. I mean, it’s well-written and features some amazing characters, and there is top-notch use of humour and language. Yet, yet… there was a problem with how it approached womanhood and femininity in general, and I could sense a certain something across the board from the adolescent characters to the adult male ones… and I wrote about it. I’m not happy that I did, because I felt like the lens made me myopic, in that particular case. I would have liked to have just enjoyed the book! And so I wonder if I was right to notice what I did, or if I noticed something that wasn’t there?

    “My method obviously doesn’t make for very effective film criticism, and it doesn’t make for very efficient living.” This is so true, and that’s probably why I try to navigate through these very murky waters with the help of others sorting through the same issues. It really helps to be collectively unsure as opposed to just striving to be “right”, all the time.

    Thanks for writing this.

    • Millicent says:

      Dear Subashini,

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment. So much to say concerning all this and, in particular, the impulse you’ve written about to be a “frat boy.” I wrote a response to you and CF that got so long I’ve had to split it into two. It’s coming!

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