Feminist works and whatnot
I was talking to a girl at my school about I-forget-what but eventually it gravitated toward the Vagina Monologues and Eve Ensler. She asked me if I had read I Am An Emotional Creature. Before I could think about it, I blurted out “yeah, it was terrible.” We were both surprised (I usually try to be more polite, and I don’t think she had ever seen me be that curt) and I clarified my answer by describing the things I found objectionable - mostly the fact that none of the characters had any real depth and all the stories come off as inauthentic (example - would a Chinese factory worker really care about the body image problems barbies cause in the US to the point that that’s their entire monologue?). And I won’t even get into the stereotypes of the Latina girl.
She agreed with the points I made but responded with something to the effect of, “But Eve Ensler got me into feminism. People need to read works that are basic and accessible before they tackle the hard stuff.” Which I agreed with. I wouldn’t send my best friend, who is intimidated by academic jargon and has no background knowledge of poststructuralism, to read Judith Butler to learn about feminism, for example. Feminism SHOULD be accessible and relate-able or else we risk being stuck in the ivory tower without creating change “on the ground.”
But why are writers like Eve Ensler and Jessica Valenti considered accessible? And for whom?
I was also introduced to feminism* through the Vagina Monologues. I saw it when I was 13. It was a fun show but it didn’t particularly resonate with me. It felt like it was trying so hard to be shocking and in-your-face. It reminded me of the kids in elementary school who yelled “vagina” and ran away giggling because they said a naughty word - I wasn’t sure how it was helping women. I liked the fact that it had many different stories written by different kinds of women, but I learned later that Eve Ensler wrote all of them. Now my critiques of the VagMons are different but the fact remains that it does not speak to me.
When I was in high school, I read The Feminist Mystique because my history book said it started a movement and the idea of starting a movement with a book was fascinating to me - much more interesting than fill-in-the-blank history worksheets. Yet again, it didn’t resonate with me because it was obviously dated (and I got the impression Friedan didn’t like gays, which, lo and behold, she didn’t. Which was a huge turn-off for me because I was out in high school). I had much the same response to the essays I read by Gloria Steinem my first year of college - I understood why they were inspiring to some, but they weren’t personal. Last year I read The Purity Myth, which I enjoyed but a white straight woman talking about a largely white straight phenomenon did not personally resonate with me (understandably). I didn’t have much of an emotional response to any of these books - the books that are supposed to be primers and introductions to feminism. And accessible.
On the other hand, when I read The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, when I was 15, I cried because of how it touched me. As silly as it may sound, I did not know it was possible to be a woman of color and a lesbian at the same time. It was after reading that that I came out as a lesbian - I was too afraid of “becoming white” previously. (That feeling did not entirely go away for many many years afterward). Last year, after reading Audre Lorde and Angela Davis, I finally decided that feminism was relevant to me and I proudly took up the label of feminist for myself.
In other words, the “inaccessible” “challenging” black feminist writers were the ones who influenced me the most, even when I didn’t know much about feminism, even though Jill Filipovic of Feministe claimed that "Angela Davis… bell hooks… are [not] particularly good starting points." Really? Because they were for me.
So when I talk about accessibility in feminism, I’m not just talking about conversational tone or lack of jargon - I’m talking about experiences. When we say that white, straight, implicitly middle class feminist experiences are the most “accessible” and everything else is “not a good starting point,” that makes a statement about who should be accessing feminism.
*By “feminism” I mean feminism-that-explicitly-calls-itself-feminism, which doesn’t include the implicitly feminist egalitarian and anti-oppression exposure I got from my mom, Tamora Pierce books, zines, punk rock, etc.
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