Over the past few years it has been great walking into book stores and seeing feminist books on display upfront – many of them marketed as best-sellers – rather than politely stocked in the designated Gender Studies section somewhere in the back. Most of the books are memoirs, essay collections, comedy works, or a combination of all of these. My modest bookshelf of feminist books by second- and third-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and bell hooks, and occasional first-wavers like Virginia Woolf, began to spill over with what is a distinct new wave of feminist values, ideas, and humour (sometimes eagerly but prematurely described as post-feminist – alas we have not reached post-patriarchy yet). Here are some of my favourites:
Rebecca Solnit‘s Men Explain Things to Me (Haymarket Books, 2014) is a polemical, political, and powerful collection of essays, in which she reminds us just how far we still are from complete gender equality, safety, and respect. Her title essay “Men Explain Things to Me” (from 2008) inspired the term “mansplaining“ that began to circulate in mainstream media soon after the essay was first published and became the New York Times‘ word of the year in 2010. She sums up her main argument like this: “I love it when people explain things to me they know and I’m interested in but don’t yet know; it’s when they explain things to me I know and they don’t that the conversation goes wrong” (p.14).
She continues: “Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence” (p.4). She believes that “most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of fact and truth, to have value, to be a human being” (p.10).
In her essay, “The Longest War” (2013), Solnit argues that “violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender” (p.21), however “violence always gets explained as anything but gender” (p.24). She reminds us that in the U.S. alone, “rape is reported every 6.2 minutes, but the estimated total is perhaps five times as high (p.22). She addresses virtual and discursive violence against women by online gamers, as well as global violence against women supported by patriarchal regimes that try to “silence and punish women for claiming voice, power, and the right to participate. Welcome to Manistan.” As many feminists, she believes that “there’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed” (p.35). Globally. She encourages us to explore masculinity in greater detail to eradicate these injustices and crimes.
Her other essays focus on Virginia Woolf, the sexual assault charges against the former head of the IMF, and rape culture in general. She traces the history of the term rape culture, which “insists that a wider culture generates individual crimes and that both must be addressed – and can be. The phrase had first been used by feminists in the 1970s, but what put it into general circulation, evidence suggests, were the Slut-walks that began in 2011 as a protest against victim-blaming. A Toronto policeman giving a safely talk at a university told female students not to dress like sluts. Soon after, Slutwalks became an international phenomenon, of mostly young, often sexily dressed women taking back public space (rather like the Take Back the Nights walks of the 1980s, but with more lipstick and less clothing). Young feminists are a thrilling phenomenon: smart, bold, funny defenders of rights and claimers of space – and changers of the conversation” (p.121).
Solnit concludes with the idea that “new feminism is making the problems visible in new ways, perhaps in ways that are only possible now that so much has changed” (p.122), which is particularly evident in the work of younger feminists.
Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” (Doubleday, 2014) is a highly personal, witty, smart, and well-written memoir of the creator of the series Girls, who rightfully believes that the concept of “too much information” (TMI) is outdated, hypocritical, and prudish, and that there is nothing gutsier “than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter. That personal writing by women is no more than an exercise in vanity and that we should appreciate this new world for women, sit down, and shut up” (p.xvi).
She offers a collection of personal experiences, learned lessons, observations and revelations, ultimately proving that our stories matter, the personal is political, and that there is no such thing as perfection, so our precious time is better spent doing what matters to us. She talks about her feminist and artistic upbringing in New York City, her admiration of strong and creative women, her early attraction to jerks, her many dating disasters, and her dating code, which can be summed up as follows: “when we embark on intimate relationships, we make a basis human promise to be decent, to hold a flattering mirror up to each other, to be respectful as we explore each other” (p.50) – a code which too many men still do not adhere to, or disrespect, sometimes in the form of sexual or emotional abuse.
She talks about the sex scenes and nude scenes in her show and the frequently asked question about being “brave enough” to reveal her body on-screen. Her answer is: “It’s not brave to do something that doesn’t scare you” (p. 105). She does not take any credit for gradually and single-handedly challenging misogynistic beauty standards of anorexic thinness and the perpetuated self-hatred of all the women who do not look like the photoshopped models. She has developed a healthy relationship with her body – although the chapter of detailed diet descriptions gets a bit tedious – and has always known that “Barbie is disfigured. It’s fine to play with her just as long as you keep that in mind” (107).
From her stories, it becomes apparent how important supportive families based on feminist values are for the cultivation of intelligence, creativity, and empowerment. She expresses her admiration of both her parents despite their shortcomings and contradictions. She shares her mother’s wisdom, who told her, “You will find that there’s a certain grace to having your heart broken,” (p.144), and lists 15 things she has learned from her mother that range from silly to profound, including, my favourite: “Respect isn’t something you command through intimidation and intellectual bullying. It’s something you build through a long life of treating people how you want to be treated and focusing on your mission” (p.108).
But perhaps the best parts are her observations about female relationships which are often paired with observations about writing (or other creativity). She describes female bonding, girl crushes, support networks, and collaborations – the bread and butter of her show Girls – and the need to capture them in writing and on film as follows: “The world is full of so much shit we can’t fix. And in our work, we create a better or clearer universe. Or at least one that makes more sense. A place we’d want to live, or can at least understand” (p.135).
Oprah Winfrey‘s What I Know for Sure (Flatiron Books, 2014) is a personal growth memoir that includes many feminist insights and values. At the heart of the book is another female friendship and support network. She describes her friend Gail, who “has helped me through demotions, near-firings, sexual harassment, and the twisted and messed-up relationships of my twenties, when I couldn’t tell the difference between myself and a door mat. Night after night, Gail listened to the latest woeful tale of how I’ve been stood up or lied to, done wrong, she’d always ask for details. She never judged me, yet when I let some man use me, she’d often say, ‘He’s just chipping away at your spirit. One day I hope he chips deep enough for you to see who you really are – someone who deserves to be happy.'”
Oprah believes that “it’s important to know when and how you were programmed so you can change the program. And doing so is your responsibility, no one else’s. If you’re holding anyone else accountable for your happiness, you are wasting your time. You must be fearless enough to give yourself the love you did not receive.” She addresses things like fear, noting that “I know for sure that when you remove the fear, the answer you’ve been searching for comes into focus.” She also examines courage, the true measure of which “is not whether you reach your goal; it’s whether you decide to get back on your feet no matter how many times you failed.”
She also looks at issues of power and empowerment, which we mistakenly attribute to others and belittle in ourselves. She describes her experiences and realizations as follows: “My biggest mistakes in life have all stemmed from giving my power to someone else, believing that the love others had to offers was more important than the love I had to give to myself. I remember being 29 and in a relationship based on lies and deceit, down on my knees, crying after Mr. Man, who we shall not name here. I’d been waiting for him all evening, he stood me up and it wasn’t the first time. He arrived hours after our date was supposed to start, and I dared to ask why. I remember him standing in the doorway and hurling these words at me, ‘The problem with you, baby doll, is that you think you’re special.’ At which point he turned on his heels and slammed the door in my face. I’d grown up watching my cousin Alice be physically abused by her boyfriend and I’d vowed I would take such treatment. But sitting there on the bathroom floor after Mr. Man walked out, I saw with great clarity the only difference between Alice and me was that I hadn’t been hit. Mr. Man was wrong, I did not think I was special, and that was the problem. Why was I allowing myself to be treated this way? Even with these insights it took me another year to end the relationship. I kept hoping and praying that things would get better, that he would change. He never did.”
She explores themes such as self-actualization and decision-making, and being connected with ourselves to know “our truth” of who we are, what we want, and what really matters to us, and to live from that place of connection and creativity. She sums it up as follows: “The decision [was] to either pursue the life that was meant for me, or to be stifled by the one I was living. I recognized the truth that I’m alright just as I am, I am enough all by myself. That revelation brought its own miracle – around that time the call came for me to audition for a talk show in Chicago. If I had stayed entangled in that relationship my life as I know it would never have happened. What is the truth of your life? It is your duty to know. In order to find out, know that the truth is which feels right and good and loving. Love doesn’t hurt I’ve learned in the years since I was 29, it feels really good. It’s that which allows you to live every day with integrity. Everything you do and say shows the world who you are. Let it be the truth.”
Amy Poehler’s Yes Please (Harper Avenue, 2014) is her first book, and a memoir full of humour, insight, and encouragement. The book reflects many of her feminist values that began to be increasingly apparent on her show Parks and Recreation (2009-2015) and her web platform Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls. In her introduction, she talks about the difficulties of writing a book and taking on challenging opportunities in general: “What do we do? How do we move forward when we are tired and afraid? What do we do when the voice in our head is yelling that WE ARE NEVER GONNA MAKE IT? Well, the first thing we do is take our brain out and put it in a drawer. Stick it somewhere and let it tantrum until it wears itself out. You may still hear the brain and all the shitty things it is saying to you, but it will be muffled, and just the fact that it is not in your head anymore will make things seem clearer. And then you just do it. You just dig in and write it. You use your body. You lean over the computer and stretch and pace. You write and then cook something and write some more. You put your hand on your heart and feel it beating and decide if what you wrote feels true. You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing. That is what I know. Writing the book is about writing the book. So here we go, you and me. Because what else are we going to do? Say no? Say no to an opportunity that may be slightly our of our comfort zone? Quiet our voice because we are worried it is not perfect? I believe great people do things before they are ready” (p.xv).
She included a chapter on the topic of apologies – something we rarely see in print and rarely talk about. She begins by stating, “I say ‘sorry’ a lot. […] But this doesn’t mean I’m a pushover. It doesn’t mean I am afraid of conflict or don’t know how to stand up for myself. I am getting to a place right in the middle where I feel good about exactly how much I apologize. It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for. It takes years to find your voice and seize your real estate” (p.65). Then she examines her own experience of inadvertently making an offensive joke on SNL and later apologizing for it to the people affected. Having learned that an “important part of apologizing is not making excuses,” and that it’s “hard to do it without digging yourself in deeper. It’s also scary and that’s why we avoid the pain” (p.68), she provides two examples, an apology from the brain (a list of excuses and accusations) and an apology from the heart (an actual apology that allows for healing).
It goes like this: “I am reaching out because life goes by fast. I don’t want my one life to go by without expressing this to you. I want to do and be better. This apology is yours. Feel free to do whatever you want with it. My hope is that it gives you comfort, but my goal is that it doesn’t cause you any pain. I am truly sorry. Thank you for taking the time to read this” (p.83). In just a few lines she identifies several essential insights that life is short and time is precious, that connection to others is vital and that we should not waste our lives hurting each other and should instead try to make it a bit easier for each other. That kind of wisdom only comes from experience. It cannot be understood passively, it has to be lived.
She addresses her divorce briefly and in a considerate manner, noting, “I don’t think a ten-year marriage constitutes failure. That being said, getting a divorce really sucks. As my dear friend and relationship sponsor Louis CK has noted, “divorce is always good news because no good marriage has ever ended in divorce” (p.87-88). In terms of balancing life, two children, family, career, she notes that “every mother needs a wife. Some mothers’ wives are their mothers. Some mothers’ wives are their husbands. Some mothers’ wives are their friends and neighbors. Every working person needs someone to come home to and someone to come get them out of the home. Someone who asks questions about their day and maybe fixes them something to eat. Every mother needs a wife who takes care of her and helps her become a better mother. […] The biggest lie and biggest crime is that we all do this alone and look down on people who don’t.” (p.152)
When it comes to friendships and maturity, she believes that the people you meet later in life and choose as your friends are able to provide more meaningful friendships and relationships. She explains that “getting older is awesome, and not because you don’t care as much about what people think. It’s awesome because you develop secret superpowers. Getting older makes you somewhat invisible. Getting older also helps you develop X-ray vision. The strange thing is that the moment people start looking at you less is when you start being able to see through people more. You get better at understanding what people mean and how it can be different from what they say. Finally, the phrase “actions speak louder than words” starts to make sense. You can read people’s energies better, and this hopefully means you get stuck talking to less duds. […] You use the word “boundaries.” You can witness bad behavior and watch it like you would watch someone else’s child having a tantrum. Gone are the days (hopefully) when you take everything personally and internalize everyone’s behavior. You get better at knowing what you want and need. Lastly, because you are a superhero, you are really good at putting together a good team. You can look around the room and notice the other superheroes because they are the ones noticing you. The friends you meet over forty are really juicy. They are highly emulsified and full of flavour. Now that you’re starting to have a sense of who you are, you know better what kind of friend you want and need.” (p.100-101).
In terms of career advice, she has a few words of wisdom: “Treat your career like a bad boyfriend. Here is the thing. Your career won’t take care of you. It won’t call you back or introduce you to its parents. Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around. It will forget your birthday and wreck your car. Your career will blow you off if you call it too much. It’s never going to leave its wife. Your career is fucking other people and everyone knows but you. Your career will never marry you. Now, before I extend this metaphor, let me make a distinction between career and creativity. Creativity is connected to your passion, that light inside you that drives you. That joy that comes when you do something you love. That small voice that tells you, “I like this. Do this again. You are good at it. Keep going.” Career is different. Career is the stringing together of opportunities and jobs. Mix in public opinion and past regrets. Add a dash of future panic and a whole lot of financial uncertainty. Career is something that fools you into thinking you are in control and then takes pleasure in reminding you that you aren’t. Career is the thing that will not fill you up and never make you truly whole. You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look” (p.222-223).
Amy Poehler’s friendship with Tina Fey has produced a lot of happiness in this world. They both speak very highly of each other in their books, and continue to collaborate together on films, shows, sketches, events. “Tina Fey is my comedy wife. I have known her for almost a double decade. We met each other when we were poor and single. Now we are both rich as shit and have husbands all over the world. […] Most of my memories of her at SNL involve Tina sitting at her computer, working on something for someone else. Tina wrote a lovely chapter about me in her book, and boy have I dined out on that for a while” (p.229-230). “Hosting the Golden Globes in 2013 with my life partner, Tina, was so fun. Sometimes Tina is like a very talented bungee-jumping expert. All it takes is for Tina to softly say, “We can do this, right?” and I suddenly feel like I can jump off a bridge” (p.163).
Tina Fey’s Bossypants (Back Bay Books, 2011) is already a classic, but I still wanted to include it here because it’s my favourite book on this planet, I’ve read it multiple times, and I don’t get tired of reading it. Tina is a master of making feminism part of our daily nutrition of humour, wit, intelligence, and leadership. Navigating between self-deprecation and pure creative genius, she has developed an intolerance to patriarchal bullshit and shares the wisdom she acquired along the way. She addresses the ridiculous body-image and artificial beauty standards we are all affected by, asking, “How do we survive this? How do we teach our daughters and our gay sons that they are good enough the way they are? We have to lead by example” (p.24). She too comes from a supportive family and describes her parents with admiration and respect. She describes her college years and first jobs, and her early career days touring with improv groups before she came to Chicago’s Second City comedy club, where she met Amy Poehler. She also mentions early dating disasters and lasting friendships with gays and lesbians, and her love of improv.
She sums up the rules of improvisation, which extend beyond comedy theatre and can be seen as a life philosophy, as follows: “The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. […] Now obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with YES and see where that takes you. As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. […] What kind of way is that to live? […] The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. […] To me YES, And means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion.[…] The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. […] THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities” (p.84-85).
She provides an anecdote to illustrate her admiration of Amy: “Amy Poehler was new to SNL and we were all crowded into the seventeenth-floor writers’ room, waiting for the Wednesday read-through to start. There were always a lot of noisy “comedy bits” going on in that room. Amy was in the middle of some such nonsense with Seth Meyers across the table, and she did something vulgar as a joke. I can’t remember what it was exactly, except it was dirty and loud and “unladylike.” Jimmy Fallon, who was arguably the star of the show at the time, turned to her and in a faux-squeamish voice said, “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.” Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit. With that exchange a cosmic shift took place. Amy made clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it” (p.143-144).
This anecdote extends into her views on careers: “My unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people what way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you. If the answer is yes, you have a more difficult road ahead of you. I suggest you model your strategy after the Sesame Street film piece “Over! Under! Through!” (If you’re under forty you might not remember this film. It taught the concepts of “over,” “under,” and “through” by filming toddlers crawling around an abandoned construction site. They don’t show it anymore because someone has since realized that’s nuts.) If your boss is a jerk, try to find someone above or around your boss who is not a jerk. If you’re lucky, your workplace will have a neutral providing ground – like the rifle range or the car sales total board or the SNL read-through. If so, focus on that. Again, don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions. Go “Over! Under! Through!” and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares. Do your thing and don’t care if they like it” (p.144-145).
Tina and Amy became globally renowned after their Palin/Clinton SNL sketch. “This sketch easily could have been a dumb catfight between two female candidates. What Seth and Amy wrote, however, was two women speaking out together against sexism in the campaign. In real life these women experienced different sides of the same sexism coin. People who didn’t like Hilary called her a ballbuster. People who didn’t like Sarah called her Caribou Barbie. People attempted to marginalize these women based on their gender. Amy’s line “Although it’s never sexist to question female politicians’ credentials” was basically the thesis statement for everything we did over the next six weeks. Not that anyone noticed. You all watched a sketch about feminism and you didn’t even realize it because of all the jokes. It’s like when Jessica Seinfeld puts spinach in kids’ brownies. Suckers! That night’s show was watched by ten million people, so I guess that director at The Second City who said the audience “didn’t want to see a sketch with two women” can go shit in his hat.” (p.216-217)
I was reluctant to include Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014) in this list of books, but after re-reading it for a second time, I found a few redeeming ideas in it worth quoting. My main reason for wanting to exclude Gay’s book is its very premise and main argument that reluctant or “bad” feminism is still better than no feminism – a premise constructed as a contradictory and not very useful frame in the introduction and the conclusion of a volume of essays that are undoubtedly feminist. While some of the essays are interesting, although not always original, insightful, or innovative, the ambiguity that Gay adds to the term and conception of feminism is not useful to people who have already worked out their own understanding of feminism. Rather, it seems to be addressed to all those who are still uncomfortable with the term itself, while nonetheless adhering to the feminist code. This ambiguity has traditionally only polarized feminism. Especially the American feminist movement.
In her introduction, she outlines her contradictory argument as follows: “Feminism, as of late, has suffered from a certain guilt by association because we conflate feminism with women who advocate feminism as part of their personal brand. When these figureheads say what we want to hear, we put them on the Feminist Pedestal, and when they do something we don’t like, we knock them right off and say there’s something wrong with feminism because our feminist leaders have failed us. We forget the difference between feminism and Professional Feminists. I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain… interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself” (p.x-xi)
She goes on to provide multiple essays of critical analysis of mainstream media, television shows, films, and literary texts. Many of her observations are valid and useful, as for example: “Often in literary criticism, writers are told that a character isn’t likable, as if a character’s likability is directly proportional to the quality of a novel’s writing. This is particularly true for women in fiction. In literature, as in life, the rules are all too often different for girls. There are many instances in which an unlikable man is billed as an antihero, earning a special term to explain whose ways in which he deviates from the norm, the traditionally likable. […] When women are unlikable, it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations by professional and amateur critics alike. Why are these women daring to flaunt convention? Why aren’t they making themselves likable (and therefore acceptable) to polite society?” (p.87-88) “What goes unsaid is that women might be more ambitious and focused because we’ve never had a choice. We’ve had to fight to vote, to work outside the home, to work in environments free of sexual harassment, to attend the universities of our choice, and we’ve also had to prove ourselves over and over to receive any modicum of consideration.” (p.98)
One of her strongest and most important arguments are in her essay about rape humour by male stand-up comedians. She notes, “When women respond negatively to misogynistic or rape humour, they are “sensitive” and branded as “feminist,” a word that has, as of late, become a catchall term for “woman who does not tolerate bullshit.” […] Somewhere along the line we started misinterpreting the First Amendment and this idea of the freedom of speech the amendment grants us. We are free to speak as we choose without fear of prosecution or persecution, but we are not free to speak as we choose without consequences. […] Sometimes, saying what others are afraid or unwilling to say is just being an asshole. We are all free to be assholes, but we are not free to do so without consequences. […] Qui tacet consentire videtur is Latin for “silence gives consent.” When we say nothing, when we do nothing, we are consenting to these trespasses against us” (p.180-181).
She makes highly valuable points about racism and sexism in mainstream media. “My reaction to 12 Years a Slave is born, largely, of exhaustion. I am worn out by slavery and struggle narratives. I am worn out by broken black bodies and the broken black spirit somehow persevering in the face of overwhelming and impossible circumstance. There seems to be little room at the Hollywood table for black movies that to earn a seat, black movies have to fit a very specific narrative.” (p.231) She also opens up a wider discussion of every-day racism: “There are unspoken rules about racism. In her deposition, for whatever reason, Deen decided to break those rules or ignore them, or she believed she was rich and successful enough that the rules, frankly, no longer applied to her. There is a complex matrix for when you can be racist and with whom. There are ways you behave in public and ways you behave in private. There are things you can say among friends, things you wouldn’t dare say anywhere else, that you must keep to yourself in public” (p.292)
Gay concludes her book with the following statement: “No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman. I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all” (p.318). While to some this may sound inspiring and enthusiastic, I could not help thinking, please work out your own contradictions with feminism, without adding to the ambiguity, confusion, and misconceptions that the anti-feminist backlash and patriarchal ignorance have already provided. Everyone has the right to call themselves what-ever they want, but when calling people to action to de-construct patriarchal and racist representations, narratives, and practices, and to think more critically about media and culture through feminist critique, perhaps undermining the very term “feminism” is a bit counter-productive and, frankly, disrespectful towards feminists who don’t need a descriptive, qualifying, or self-deprecating adjective.