Nel's New Day

July 29, 2015

Feminism Needs a New Book for Youth

valentiBook discussions are an occasional focus of my local NOW chapter meetings, and one member suggested Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti, a writer who created feministing.com. Although the book was written in 2007, she hoped that the 2014 update would make the book current. Unfortunately, the new edition fails to update many references. For example, she decries sexism in Elizabeth Dole’s presidential campaign to an audience who has no idea who Dole. The use of sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton would have far more appeal to a younger audience.

full againFull Frontal Feminism was first published when Valenti was 28. Her new introduction in the 2014 edition reflected the reason for changing the original sexist cover (left) and her thinking about her entitlement as a white person. The second edition has a much better cover (below). Yet she made few changes to include women of color and update references. The year after she wrote the book, the beginning of the Great Recession caused a tremendous turmoil in the United States that created financial chaos for men as well as women. The changes produced crises that caused a commonality in financial issues for all genders. Another issue not addressed in the update is the explosion of anti-choice laws throughout the states that started to spike in 2011 with 135 separate laws passed in 2011 and 2012.

full next coverReviews of both editions are mixed—some people loved the book while others found it a disappointment.  One review described Valenti’s narrative as the Ann Coulter of the woman’s movement. The author’s ambivalence comes from the obvious point of view from a privileged, upper middle-class white woman mixed with Valenti’s complaints about the attitude of the wealthier girls in her high school.

Another reviewer called the book “Flyby Feminism” because of its superficial and shallow approach. Unfortunately, Valenti fails to give any analysis or explanations for her criticisms and frequently ending a statement with “puke” or a sarcastic comment such as “Need I go on?” In many cases, the answer would be “yes.” Some historical background to Valenti’s comments would have been useful. She simply writes that women gained the right to vote in 1920 although 14 states—almost 30 percent of the United States—had woman’s suffrage when the 19th Amendment was ratified. In fact, women could vote during the Revolutionary War but lost that right by 1807. Valenti’s comment about not knowing who the first feminists “really were,” [author’s italics] could have been replaced by brief references to early matriarchal societies and burning witches.

Like right-wing talk shows, the book uses the “straw man,” “bait-and-switch” method, for example, declaring that all anti-choice advocates hate abortion because they hate sex. Another problem with the book is the number of sweeping generalizations such as “when you’re a feminist, day to day life is better” and “there’s nothing feminists like better than pop culture.” Dogmatic expressions such as “I’m better in bed than you are” are reasons for the superiority of feminism.

The subtitle, A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters, describes the audience, but some of them may not respond well to the patronizing, authoritarian tone. Without support for what Valenti calls “truth,” the statements are delivered as directives. In essence, the narrative demands that readers be open-minded while exhibiting narrowness. In focusing on an inviting approach toward youth, Valenti compares today’s hip, pop-centric, sexually-driven fun-loving Third Wave to the stuffy, academic, boring women of the past without recognizing what these people achieved for greater gender equality. The book’s goal of telling young women that they are already feminists, although they don’t know it, is vital. Yet Valenti she tells her audience how to be “appropriate” feminists, focusing much of this description on having sex without guilt, before complaining about people telling others how to be feminists.

Some of the book’s advice is just bad. Valenti recommends having sex only with men who say that they are feminists, overlooking the fact that some men use this as a ploy to get sex from a woman. In her list of reasons why women stay with abusive men, she omitted the emotional attachment or dependence that the woman may have for the abuser. Other advice is demanding and negative: don’t change your name after you marry, don’t have sex with a Republican, don’t have plastic surgery. The primary “do” is to do be just like the author.

The book does provide 12 pages of solutions, but much of the advice is general, inane, and sexual—i.e., “have orgasms,” go to girls’ rock camps, volunteer, and call out people on sexist remarks. Fortunately, a bibliography at the end guided readers to other books that would benefit young people interested in feminism.

Valenti’s  early writing career was as a blogger, founding femisting.com, which is highly promoted in Full Frontal. Most blogs, especially in earlier days, relied on an informal approach to stating opinion without research. This tradition of a conversational tone may be responsible for the author’s writing style—simplistic, chatty, and peppered with mistakes such as indicating that the Supreme Court picked George W. Bush as president in 2004 instead of 2000.

All said, however, Valenti makes good points in the book, albeit without much backing:

  • Media sexism in stereotyped female appearance [which Valenti failed to point out has been prevalent throughout the centuries];
  • Teen feminist actions such as a high school student opposing abstinence-only sex education;
  • Women not at fault for rape;
  • Overwhelming poverty for women;
  • Men as feminists;
  • Importance of women voters;
  • Intersectionality of oppression from a variety of reasons such as poverty, race, gender, etc.

I was interested in the book’s discussion about the mandatory sterilization of women, still occurring in so much of the United States at the current time that California has just passed a law banning the practice. Those present also brought up issues not addressed within the book such as a focus of feminism on capitalist ideas rather than environment, the negative influence of Texas on education through the state’s control of textbooks with conservative and misleading content, and the fact that women pay more than men do for the same service or item (something that Valenti did not address in the book).

In searching the Internet, I discovered that most feminist books on lists for youth are fiction, and many nonfiction titles are classics such as Mary Wollenstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Women,” written in 1792. General books on feminism for young people are more focused to readers under the age of 15; recently published books for older teens and those in the early twenties don’t seem cover the wide range that “Full Frontal Feminism” does. A thoughtful and accessible book for young woman is badly needed.

The Internet may also promote the confusion of a definition for feminism: in its list of five feminist books, Google listed “She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman.” In my reading about the subject—both feminism and Full Frontal Feminism—the best definition I found is that “feminist” is not a person but a process.

Despite the flaws in the book that our group discussed, the discussion was extremely fruitful. I greatly appreciated the depth and concern that the group members expressed in our discussion.

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