In Which Mona Eltahawy Moderates a Muslim Feminist Revolution

(Warning: I’m spending the next few mini-paragraphs talking about the “Twitter angle” of all this because of an ongoing fascination I have with social media as a site for minority protest. If you’d rather fast-forward to the important stuff, skip ahead to the Tweets.)

Dear CF,

What follows is more or less a transcript of a conversation happening on Twitter between several Muslim women (and some men) on feminist Islam. It covers a lot of things on its extraordinary way—the condition of women in Saudi Arabia, the fact that Khadija (the first wife of Muhammed) rode her own camel without his permission, how the mutawa (religious police) stopped seventeen schoolgirls from escaping a fire, and later, the fact that Saudi journalists (female) Amal Zahid and Amira Kashgari were recently banned from writing for an Arab newspaper after signing a petition for reform.

It’s a series of anecdotes, laments and frustrations (Eltahawy calls her contributions rants) that slowly build from the impotency the word “rant” suggests into something a lot more defined, targeted, and, well, revolutionary.

There’s by definition nothing I can add to this discussion, but because Twitter is a transient medium, I thought it was essential to archive at least some of what’s happening there tonight. This is one of the most important conversations I’ve ever witnessed. It is an intense and humbling privilege to see it happening in real time. As with the #MooreandMe campaign, there’s a plurality of voices building something. I’ve never seen a revolution gather force in real time from the layering of voices; it’s the kind of thing you think about, dream about, but never really hope to see. But that might be what’s happening here.

Egypt has proven that a collective and headless revolution is possible. For all the talk about social media and how it’s a tool-not-agent (all of which is right and true), one of its most astounding effects is that it democratizes a revolutionary platform that would ordinarily demand a leader who crafts and delivers a message. In other words, Twitter does away—to a tremendous extent—with the need for leadership as representation. The medium allows people to represent themselves.

That’s not to say that this movement is leaderless—Eltahawy is a leader; no one could doubt that, and I’m sure there are others. But Twitter makes it possible for her to also be a conduit. There isn’t much repackaging she does here; not much shaping of a message or campaign. What one sees instead is a discussion that’s giving rise—organically, if that can responsibly be said of something computer-driven—to something. I don’t know what, but it’s BIG.

(I’d suggest, by the way, that what Eltahawy does here—listening, reproducing and amplifying other voices, and building momentum into the discussion from time to time as if she were tending a fire—is “real” leadership, or perhaps the “New Leadership,” as opposed to the grandstanding we’ve come to think of as the sine qua non of, for example, politicians. Eltahawy might be one of the first true leaders of the Internet age. Others include Asmaa Mahfouz and Wael Ghonim.)

After all we’ve written and thought about “selfish” and “unselfish” feminism, about the problems posed by Qaddafi’s female guards and the uneasy relationship between Middle East and West, it’s an honor to witness how Muslim women are talking not to the West (that’s a fraught interaction) but to each other about their vision for the future and—maybe as importantly—their vision of the past.

Almost all of the Tweets that follow are from the formidable and tireless Mona Eltahawy’s Twitter Feed. Please bear with the choppiness of the conversation and retweets; the story that’s told here and dwelling in the gaps is a hell of a lot more powerful than the one I could tell by smoothing and explaining (to the limited extent I even could).

It was hard to know where to start and end, but I’m choosing this Tweet as the opening salvo that opened up a remarkable exchange across the Twitterverse:

Read more of this post

What Can We Say About Qaddafi’s Female Guards?

Dear CF,

Whether it’s women in auto-racing or women as bodyguards, the image of a woman performing activities traditionally coded male has been a powerful inspirational idol for 20th century Westerners and, specifically, for Americans. (That includes feminists and others—here’s a Fox News story about the merchant marines illustrated, puzzlingly, by a photo of two female welders.)

There’s a reason Rosie the Riveter became an icon, and it transcends party lines. Here’s an archive of those images from the Library of Congress. The image is above is of a woman fixing the nose section of a bombardier, an image which was prepared by the Office of War Information in 1942. In other words, it’s an image put forward by the government—a piece of PR, in fact.

So what do we do with these images of Qaddafi’s female bodyguards?

A few things leap to the eye:

  1. The Libyan women in these photographs lack the fragility that typifies the 1940s image of the American worker-woman I started this post with, who looks like she’s (for lack of a better word) nurturing that bombardier.
  2. Whereas the American woman in the image above looks like she’s in a lovely dream in which fuselage is the gossamer glister-loom for the ballet of American warfare, these bodyguards hold AK-47s as if they were AK-47s. They are quite real. Regardless of whether or not these photographs were staged (who knows?), the fact remains that these bodyguards are real soldiers, trained to kill. They are not—and this apparently needs saying—a cute harem.

That’s not to say rumors don’t abound. They do. For example:

  • That Qaddafi demands that the guard be composed exclusively of virgins. In this NY Times interview, Raina Ajami, who made a documentary about the bodyguards, she says that several of the guards are in fact married).
  • That they must wear makeup and lipstick and sometimes heels. Maybe? But it looks like several aren’t wearing makeup here. (BTW, take a look at Rosie’s mascara, courtesy of the War Production Co-ordinating Committee).
  • That they service Qaddafi sexually, and that many a young woman dreams of serving the Leader. Doug Sanders (who does not equate sex with service the way many others do) describes the women’s dedication this way:  “The Leader, as he is universally known, personally selects his Protectors from their ranks and from a neighbouring female military academy. The women here worship him – – some wept as they described their desire to become Protectors.”

That is SO terrible.

Here, by the by, is what (liberated Western woman) Holly Williams writes in her profile of Hugh Hefner for The Independent:

What I wanted to be when I grew up, more than anything, was a Bunny Girl. I had always been keen to meet Hugh Hefner, the man behind these iconic creations and who was something of a hero to me in the sexual wasteland of my youth. And now, living in Los Angeles, and with the publication of Hefner’s six-volume, illustrated autobiography, I was finally going to get my chance. Maybe it was not too late to fulfill my Bunny aspirations.

As far as compensation packages go, the Libyan bodyguards receive the standard policewoman’s salary, which was around $250 in 2004. Here’s one of Hefner’s Bunnies’ account of her remuneration:

Like others, though, she took the deal and writes that upon picking up the $1,000 from Hef’s bedroom every morning (the time when he would discuss their failings), girls also received a $10,000 down payment on a car, and all the plastic surgery they wanted. Apparently, breast augmentation is the first and most urgent of Hef’s requirements in his girls and costs him over $70,000 a year.

While we’re on the subject of the Western media’s obsession with power-drunk males and what they do with all that power (CHARLIE SHEEN CHARLIE SHEEN PORN STARS CHARLIE SHEEN), let’s take a gander at Qaddafi’s visit to Italy in 2009, which includes this tidbit:

Khadafy’s itinerary includes:

* A potentially explosive meeting tomorrow with 700 women who are prominent in Italian business, culture and politics. The get-together at a Rome concert hall will be hosted by Maxim model Mara Carfagna, who was named appointed minister of equal opportunities last year by Berlusconi.

My point: this isn’t an Arab vs. Western thing. And if we had to choose between forms of misogyny that coexist in weird ways with female empowerment—ah, but we don’t, do we?

That’s the problem.

I don’t know what to say about Qaddafi’s female bodyguards. I’ve been thinking a great deal about them—about their command, their makeup, the unwritten agreements they’ve made that I can’t see. On a personal level, I get a nostalgic pang it gives me to see women driving tanks, because in my heart I like violence. The reptilian parts of my brain want equality there too.

The smarter layers of my psyche correctly remind me that this isn’t equality: it’s another form of military servitude, and there is one important difference worth remarking between Rosie the Riveter and Qaddafi’s guards In the U.S. it was the war—and scarcity—that finally broke the system and let women weld and install electrical systems. In Libya it’s luxury, not poverty, that allows 40 women to do the work of guarding the Leader.

So far, I’ve been triangulating Rosie the Riveter, the Playboy Bunnies and Qaddafi’s guard, and I’ve done so partly because the media has been so insistent over the years on figuring the bodyguards as “Bond girls,” “Glamazons,”  etc. There’s an insistence on sexualizing the guard that may have something to it, but doesn’t ring true for me. The women in the photographs above don’t look like sex slaves. They may be—I really don’t know. But I find the universal belief that they are and must be frankly bizarre.

Other ways the guards have been read: some see them as a “feminist” challenge to Islam. These women have their faces uncovered. They wear men’s clothing and makeup.

Others read them as Austin Powers lady-robots, lacking only semi-automatic nipples.  As a corollary, some suggest that women are harder (conceptually) to kill, which makes them a very effective guard.

It seems to me that the images above prove what we’ve always known: that power smears itself across the worldscape in ways that fracture our theoretical models and our alliances. That leaders are brilliant at exploiting the fissures that exist just under the surface of any society. That women are a useful substrate for leaders launching a new cadre of moral enzymes.

There’s another reason I wanted to compare the Playboy Bunnies to Qaddafi’s guard, one that goes back to Rafia Zakaria’s post for Ms. Magazine comparing breast augmentation and female genital mutilation. It was a controversial post, mainly because people read past her argument and went straight to the analogy. They objected, rightly, that breast augmentation is “voluntary” and elective surgery that is available to adults, whereas FGM or FGC is imposed on minors. In doing so, they missed Zakaria’s point, which was that Westerners are amazingly quick to assume that they exist in a universe where they have free will, and that no one else does. By making the comparison to breast augmentation (a procedure with major health risks whose principal function is to gratify male tastes), she was suggesting that women in nations we “pity” for their “oppression” live in a mental universe not unlike our own, wherein the illusion of choice runs rampant.

In other words, Western women are very quick to take up arms on behalf of women they believe to be oppressed. That stance isn’t unlike “white-knighting”—the practice wherein male gamers sail in to “protect” female gamers from other male harassers, weakening the female gamers position.

The best version of this argument I’ve seen in recent memory is Laila Lalami’s impeccably titled article, “The Missionary Position,” in which she observes that

being a Muslim woman means being saddled with what can only be referred to as the “burden of pity.” The feelings of compassion that we Muslim women seem to inspire emanate from very distinct and radically opposed currents: religious extremists of our own faith, and evangelical and secular supporters of empire in the West.

She goes on:

These expressions of compassion are often met with cynical responses in the Muslim world, which further enrages the missionaries of women’s liberation. Why, they wonder, do Muslim women not seek out the West’s help in freeing themselves from their societies’ retrograde thinking? The poor things, they are so oppressed they do not even know they are oppressed.

This is the tyranny of the Western feminist, which Meghan Drury sketches out beautifully here.

Lalami considers the strange double-bind the Western feminist is in, and offers some advice:

So now what? Where does this leave feminists of all stripes who genuinely care about the civil rights of their Muslim sisters? A good first step would be to stop treating Muslim women as a silent, helpless mass of undifferentiated beings who think alike and face identical problems, and instead to recognize that each country and each society has its own unique issues.

I agree wholeheartedly, and that’s what I think we need to do with these images of Qaddafi’s bodyguards: regard them as a group that chose to side with and defend a dictator for reasons that to them may have seemed compelling, and with which we’re free to disagree.  However anticlimactic that may seem, it’s the only sane and respectful choice.



Becoming a Doula, Pt 4

Part 4: Doula who?

I like the narrative big deal element of birth.  I love how bibles break down a life into its big events (the sacraments)–and I agree, the real deal -it-doesn’t-get-bigger-than-this moments seem to be birth (baptism), recognition of self and belief (confirmation), recognition of responsibility and faith in improvement (confession), love and commitment (marriage), and death.  Especially for birth, love and death, it can’t be faked–self narrative can’t distract from the true grandiosity of the event–I adore things like this because the rest of the time I’m wobbling between my own illusions mostly based on sitcom season finales, and critiques of other’s reliance on readymade sentiment.

So, I met these women.  They were awesome–and there was something inherently charming in that one could pay to have unbiased and unconditional support in a stressful time.  A doula is an advocate with the only focus of helping mama have a good experience.  I had just finished a brutal wedding that, while successfully hitching me to my own true love, had also devastated deep friendships, revealed major family weaknesses, and completely rearranged my sense of reliable folk and my ability to eat shit for the comfort of others.  A wedding doula would have been magic, and I understood on a fundamental level that in the big moments, the support necessary might be nowhere in sight, and if present, and leaned on, it might break and be even more devastating.  So, instead of a symptom of a robot world where emotion is prostituted, hiring unconditional love out might actually be the must nurturing thing a person could do for themselves (and possibly their kid, and future family).

So that’s where I was coming from. And then, I started talking to the people I knew who had babies.  One guy was a waiter at the restaurant my husband worked.  He and his wife are hipster parents right out of central casting, and I imagine them being as prepared as any pre-parent would be for birth (which I assumed meant reading books, balancing cups on their stomachs, and eating right).  They had prepared, but once at the hospital, the picture changed.  They didn’t know what to expect, and they didn’t know what was going on.  The pain was intense, they did whatever they were told, and he described it as getting on a train and seeing where it took you–a really scary train.  Mama was put on Pitocin (a common drug to induce contractions), and eventually had a Cesarean section with very little understanding of what and how and why.  Since it was the birth of his child, it was amazing, but he also said it was traumatic for both of them.  They sounded as if they had been mistreated in a normal way–and it seemed like a doula would have been a huge help.

And then there were the really bad stories.  Doctors comparing a woman’s labia to mashed potatoes as they performed an episiotomy (a surgical cut to widen the birth canal); women berated for whining while in labor, jerk doctors saying jerk things in front of their patients, jokes about sexual position of being in stirrups, the doctor taking the husband aside and telling him to persuade the mother to do something a certain way–manipulation and not treating the delivering woman like she is part of the process, when in fact she is the process.  Anger ensued.


How I Became a Doula, pt. 2

Part 2: I say sexism is my mother’s problem

Next preface: I’m a little groggy when it comes to feminism.  Until I was 24, I was of the “I’m not a feminist, but…” variation.  In general, I thought the term was overblown, and no longer necessary.  Gender equality seemed present enough.  I enjoyed challenging ideas of femininity, but it didn’t seem political.  I was pro-choice, but didn’t really think about it.  I was pro-woman, but didn’t really think about it.  I assumed that sexism was part of my mother’s generation, and that the world was a fair place for a lady.  I thought feminists were interesting, but over-involved, and generally a distant clan akin to vegans and the dreadheaded students at my college that skateboarded and wore Birkenstocks–not exactly uncool, but an enclave of their own.  I never took a women’s studies course, and imagined the classes to be a room full of women making complaints.  I had an English professor that mentioned that hysterectomies were over-prescribed, and I was shocked by it, and mostly shocked that she was lecturing about something that had nothing to do with Jane Austen.  She also told us she had her baby at home. I made her a role model because she was so smart, strong, and she had a couch in her office, and played classical music, and was something I had never quite considered before.

The next year, I interviewed her midwife for a writing class project where we had to research a profession.  I looked through the midwife’s  photo books in her waiting room, picture after picture of naked women, tired and happy people, t-shirts, blood, placentas, babies and vaginas. The calmness of that office, it warm wood floors, the smell of lavender, didn’t do much to keep me from flashing back to high school biology class, watching a two minute video of a baby being born.  My reaction was the same to the photo-book: I am not freaked out and; this is all very disturbing.

Life after prefaces: I leave college.  I drink a lot, and hang out with a group of boys where every time I mention the word misogyny they ask me if I just learned the word in Women’s Studies 101.  We get in arguments about Toni Morrison and the expansion of the cannon.  My brain kind of goes numb for a few years, fully interested in the details of a physical life that it was sharpened to ignore while in college.  And, I adapt to the great letdown of adulthood: nobody is watching.

For a review of my failed activism, see Part  1

Onwards, to Part 3!

Becoming a Doula, Finding the F-Word the Long Way

Dear M,

I have been trying to write for a while on my experience as a doula. It was through my doula work that I realized feminism matters, and that activism comes in all shapes and sizes.  I’m going to cut up my thoughts into a few parts for the ease of reading, and hope they remain readable and interesting.  Doula-ing and even writing about doulawork is absolutely navel-gazing, but with real navels.  Think of the next set of posts as a kind of mini-series, with sprawling plots, melodrama, and declarations of love.



For starters, here are some prefaces.

Part 1: I have so many prefaces

I am not pregnant, or interested in becoming pregnant.  I don’t get on very well with babies, but do feel lucky when they make intense eye contact with me.  I also love seeing happy parents and happy children, but motherhood often looks like a giant con to me–one where you plunk down all your capital and find out that you paid to get a huge demotion that comes with a lot more grunt work.  The majority of my fears are either about catastrophe (sharks, bent metal) or palimpsests of mediocre living.  But this is not about that.

The next preface: I am a shoddy activist.  My history in making a difference can be broken down into half-assed moments heavily informed by television:

  • Watching the episode of The Wonder Years where Fred Savage rips paper out of his notebook in rebellion, inciting his entire class to do the same.  It made me want to start a revolution.
  • Putting a pin that said “Homophobia is a social disease” on my bag in seventh grade, admiring the compression of the statement.  I didn’t realize that this meant I had inadvertently outed myself until about 15 years later.  This might explain why I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was in my twenties. That pin got thrown out the bus window by a dickwad 7th grader.  It was one of the first times that somebody had done something directly mean to me or my property.  Even my friends laughed.  Fucking middle school.
  • Bob Saget hosted a TV special about saving the rainforests, and recycling.  There were a lot of kids involved, and it seemed representative, as if we were having a teleconference.
  • But, then there was the episode of Family Ties where Tina Yothers freaks out because she can’t do enough to save the environment–I think she starts crying about a shampoo bottle.  This always seemed like a cautionary tale against activism, because it will just make you unhappy.
  • My freshman year in college I was part of a program that had lots of hotshot students coming up with sexy projects.  My friend and I found out that our professor was good friends with Dave Matthews.  We decided that our way of saving the world (and more so, making a name for ourselves) would be to get ten kids from all different backgrounds and fund them for college as long as they gathered once every year.  We didn’t know about the 7 Up series, but it was along those lines with the incentive of free college.  We thought we would break down some serious shit.  We wanted Dave Matthews to fund it.  I remember my face flushing violently as we proposed our idea to our professor.  He told us he almost mentioned it on the phone to Dave, but didn’t.  I also wrote about the project in my hated composition class, and got a B on the paper because the idea seemed “under-developed.” Our other ideas included getting everybody on campus to give us one dollar each so that we could go to Paris.

Next up: ignoring feminism, adulthood, and professors with nice offices…Part 2

Dear Sarah Palin: Refudiate the Mama Grizzly, For She is Pro-Choice.

I was thinking about this “mama grizzly” model of womanhood and decided to do a little research, since this, according to Ms. Palin, is the way of America’s future. It turns out the Mama Grizzly’s maternal excellence—the reason Sarah Palin chose her as her symbol—is a direct function of her ability to become a mother when circumstances are precisely right, and not before. In a nutshell, Mama Grizzlies abort.

What I found: Not only do female grizzlies like to play the field—with multiple partners, and repeated encounters that last up to an hour—they also terminate the pregnancy if the timing is poor.  A female grizzly won’t carry a fetus to term unless she is in “peak condition” and has the wherewithal to support her offspring. As is the case with other bears, “if the mother has not accumulated enough fat to sustain herself as well as developing cubs,” the fertilized embryo will be reabsorbed into the not-going-to-be-a-mother-yet’s body.

From Mountainnature:

After mating, the female may be pregnant, but that does not mean she will give birth to cubs. There is an old joke that you can’t be half pregnant, but bears have proven this statement to be false. Bears, weasels and some seals have developed a process called delayed implantation. The fertilized egg develops into a small embryo called a blastocyst. This is where the interesting stuff begins. After this brief period of development, of the fertilized egg suddenly stops growing and simply floats freely in the uterus for several months.

If a sow is in peak condition when she heads into her winter den, the embryo implants in the uterus and begin to develop. She’ll wake up during January or February to give birth. …

If the sow is not in peak condition at the onset of hibernation, her body will reabsorb the embryo and not give birth that year. This gives bears more control over their reproductive rate than just about any other animal.

Humans included.

Keep your paws off my uterus and no one gets hurt.


The Art of The Comment

Dear Millicent,

I have been thinking of your profile of Jezebel and its evolutions, and agree with the tensions you noted between taking things to task and supporting everybody. It is a problem when every viewpoint is humanized (though, isn’t that an accomplishment of empathy, or just a distracting use of pathos?), and echoed in pop critiques of women’s studies (whininess, black holes of offense and correction, righteousness that insists on the merits of heart and humanity but which cannot offer the same to  the uninitiated).

I hear those critiques most often from people who have never gotten near women’s studies (full disclosure: I have never gotten near women’s studies).  But the field, like feminism, is more vital than its critics give credit for: it’s not the grumpy wall flower as much as the exuberant and just misfit (for imagery here, I am thinking either of Ricki and Delia in My So Called Life at the World Happiness dance, or of Babs in The Way We Were, soused and dancing all night even though she was supposed to be working the refreshment table).

I also like your description of the commenting culture on Jez, and Gawker.  I have to admit that I rarely read the comments, and often wonder why commenting is such an inherent part of blogging.  The idea is sound–a large extended conversation, full of challenges and calls and answers–and I am giddy to read any comments we have here on this site.  However, in general (and again, please do comment here, I am just a grump), comments seem to be a barage of self applause: commenters either offering inane agreeance, witty snarks, or complaints about their workplace.  It seems that Facebook and Twitter have capitolized on this need for constant narration, and I want all comments to really just set up shop over there.  There are times when I have read comments that have taken the conversation in other directions, or that have called shenanigans when appropriate, but I rarely consider commenters part of site.  When reading Jezebel, I read their content alone, and consider the commenters in their own club, with queen bees who can type up a quick response and be instantly applauded.  But then again, maybe I am just jealous because I am not one of them, and we all like applause.

Feministing has a community site as part of their blog, where commenters can post full blog entries.  I like this model more than general comments, and often the editors post one of the community posts to the mainpage.  One of the last comment sections I read diverged into a long scolding of a commenter for using the word “lame” to describe something they didn’t like.  In the following 20 comments, there was an agressive defense and shuddering of the use of the word.  It seemed both irritatingly petty (the old trials of PC language), and wildy effective.  Though it annoyed me that one couldn’t relax about anything, even a slang adjective, while reading a blog, it was also the right fight.  At its base, the word is inappropriate, and disrespectful.  This reminded me of your discussion of the small choices where it is tempting to inclusively let all answers stand as correct (taking a husband’s last name, etc.), and the assertion that the choice (the answer, not just the right to choose) actually matters very much.

And, in a sweep back to the other side, my training as a doula totally disagrees, which makes things interesting.  Doulas are supposed to support a woman’s choices in labor, and bring in no personal opinion besides offering information.  The idea is that doulas are not there to make their version of an ideal birth, but to assist the mother in experiencing her ideal birth.  I consider my work as a doula the most directly feminist thing I do.  I help women have more power, voice and control at a vulnerable moment, and I get to see direct outcomes.  This would suggest the original version– –that we are all snowflakes, and power comes from not denying anybody their snowflakehood.  But, when it comes down to brass tacks, I only like this model when all the snowflakes are snowing for their own good as defined by, well, let’s be honest here, me.

So maybe the great work is not in defending the right to all viewpoints, but digging to the harder, more uncomfortable area of conversation that addresses responsibility?  A hard task for Jezebel, because responsibility is never an effervescent topic.  It makes me think of those horrid serious talks that parents only have with their kids while driving. And maybe that is where commenters come in.  How much more palatable would a lecture on unloading the dishwasher have been if there was a chorus of wits making fun of the DJ on the radio, the claustrophobia of the seatbelt,while making sure that I did indeed absorb that the dishwasher needed to be unloaded by me, or else no ride to the mall.



Judging Jezebel

Dear CF,

What a delicious problem you’ve brought to our picnic table. Of course feminism shouldn’t be divisive. It should be like being pro-human, or pro-kid. BUT. By the time I finished this post I realized I was defending divisiveness and having a problem, not with feminism, but with how it gets tacitly defined (or rather undefined) on sites like Jezebel. Maybe you can help me work this out.

I like your explanation of XX in 3)–that it’s a shined and softened 2.0 version of something a bit more raw and funkified.

You know, it’s funny—I remember being irritated by the XX blog on Slate when it first came out, and am irritated still. I was irked by Jezebel when it started too. That said, I’m pleased by the juggernaut Jezebel has become. It’s a vigorous animal, though the accusations of “echo-chamberhood” might have some merit.

I enjoy Jez. I look at it daily. I like its size and its breadth and the ways in which it’s slowly expanded to include the merely frivolous as well as the concerns and injustices of third world women. It offers a much-needed vehicle for smart-girl niggles and nostalgia (oh, Fine Lines!!). And yet sometimes it reminds me of a much younger version of the woman I idolized but never quite wanted to be.

To get back to your question, though: why are all these women shying away from feminism? I’m as irritated by this as you are. (I’m apparently a grumpy gus today.) I’m surprised at Sarah Haskins.

Let’s take seriously the case against feminism for a second. Many critics of (let’s call it “XX”-wave) feminism claim the “movement” has become about the right to choose in the most frivolous way possible. In the Jez comments a consensus frequently emerges that everything a woman does can potentially fit under the feminist umbrella. Except judging another woman.

(Isn’t it ironic that as we as a nation are talking about the merits of having another female Supreme Court Justice, judging has become a bad word?)

The ladyblogs frequently try to root their mission in a set of ethical principles–“no bodysnarking” has become a mantra on Jez. But the results, which amount to prepublication censorship, can be, well, a bit Animal Farmish. It’s been interesting to watch this happen. The discourse community Jez generated was too big for the site to develop the fearful and snarky commenting culture Gawker achieved in its heyday (when there were executions, and when a commenting account was difficult to come by). Instead, Jez is regulated (quite capably) by hortense. And while it would be a mistake to call Jez humorless—it’s hilarious—it’s also true that the humor is carefully circumscribed and that the editors have no sense of humor about themselves. For all Linda Hirshman and company might claim otherwise, this is no longer a blog based on transgression. God forbid someone should criticize Tracie—who suffered plenty at the hands of Gawker commenters and has developed a coping mechanism called Napoleonic petulance.

I wonder if the issue with Jez in particular (I don’t know Feministing very well) isn’t—and I may be projecting here, because I see this is in myself—that Jez’s driving principle isn’t action but reaction. Maybe reaction is the only kind of action possible on a site like this? Action is impossible because it demands initiative, an agenda and a mandate?

The blog seems to be struggling constantly with two ideological extremes:

  • one, frequently articulated by the commenters: everyone is different.  How dare anyone reduce women as a class to anything? We are all snowflakes. This comes up in response to scientific studies or behavioral pieces.
  • The other extreme, where Wrong and Right have a small but well-regulated kingdom: Jez has become a blog for women with a very specific, if obvious, take on women’s issues and condemns people along fairly nondebatable lines: rape is bad. Children being forced to marry is bad. Domestic violence is bad. Photoshop is bad. I agree with you that Jez did something new. It used to be much more polemical than this —more along the lines of Bitch Ph.D—but as posts have gotten shorter and more frequent and the commenting culture hardened, I feel the editors have smoothed and polished the provocative edge that the XX Factor takes to task. (Frankly, that article, beyond its more obvious problems, is a hopelessly outdated analysis of Jezebel.)

It seems to me that this tension produces a culture of feminism where a two-tier system of choice is established, and only the “choices” that don’t really matter—whether or not to take a husband’s last name, for instance—benefit from the snowflake treatment. Being a feminist means I have the right to choose! To judge another woman is girl-on-girl crime!

The problem, of course—and Jez struggles with this too—is that those choices do matter. To create a hierarchy of choice is to suggest that certain things matter more than others. Should taking a husband’s last name be a political issue or merely a question of aesthetic taste?

These conversations happen in the comments. You said, by the way, dear CF, that you exclude the commenters in your analysis. As you can tell I’m incapable of doing that; I think the commenters are critical to Jezebel and what it’s become. The XX blog is a very different animal, I think, precisely because it doesn’t allow for that direct engagement between poster and postee.

I’m not sure Jez the blog is conscious of that tension, which is potentially a paralyzing one. I occasionally read AskMen to see what the menfolk or talking about. It’s instructive. There is no pretence that men are snowflakes; the site’s whole project is about subordinating your individualism to the demands of sex and money.

Jezebel wants to have it both ways, and that’s what makes it interesting and frustrating. Mainly, I think, because of the issue of “girl-on-girl crime”? Feminism was never about the absence of judgment. When I watch Bea Arthur as Dorothy (and I have been, lately, a lot), it’s her judgment that I admire. She is a judgmental character. Deeply flawed, but, like Judge Judy, sure of the moral and political codes that guide her decisions.

The chaotic kind of “right to choose” feminism seems to be emerging on Jez—a goodhearted, communal approach whose philosophical confusion derives, I think, from its unique mix of social life with political discussion. Politics and social worlds have never mixed well, as Emily Post and Miss Manners can tell you. Anytime an opinion is expressed about porn or sex work, someone crops up who works in the industry and the issue gets humanized, which is both interesting and problematic in a blog that’s as much about social identities as about ideas. The consensus to withhold judgment has the unintended effect, I think, of exploding any kind of generative code, be it moral, political, or otherwise.

Underlying the whole project is the terrible possibility of rejection. We are women, we are friends.  Even though we’re all unique and have different views. This is all well and good. It’s the tacit conclusion—let’s all be on the same side—that gets sketchy.

This gets back, I guess, to my objection to the title and concept of Slate’s ladyblog. Genetics is the least interesting and least intelligent selection principle for an ideological forum. What meaning does a club offer when the only criteria for membership is the possession of two matching chromosomes?