Monday, January 24, 2011


Apparently things are not going well for third-wave feminism. I haven’t fully been paying attention to the ups and downs of feminism since the late 1960s, when I gave up my subscription to Ms. magazine in response to an article that pretty much said that women in “men’s” professions, like science, had betrayed the cause. Things were hard enough without having my sisters turn on me.

I was informed of the third-wave difficulties rather rudely by the book review section of the January/February Atlantic. Caitlin Flanagan has been critical of various aspects of today’s femaleness for some time, and she was assigned to review a powerpoint presentation that I would have panned, had I watched it. The real shocker, however, was Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s review of a couple of books on porn and women as sex objects. Andrea Dworkin had nothing on Vargas-Cooper!

I had to read Vargas-Cooper again to make sure I hadn’t been put off by a single poorly worded sentence. But no, I read it right.
Male desire is not a malleable entity that can be constructed through politics, language, or media. Sexuality is not neutral. A warring dynamic based on power and subjugation has always existed between men and women, and the egalitarian view of sex, with its utopian pretensions, offers little insight into the typical male psyche. Internet porn, on the other hand, shows us an unvarnished (albeit partial) view of male sexuality as an often dark force streaked with aggression. The Internet has created a perfect market of buyers and sellers (with the sellers increasingly proffering their goods gratis) that provides what people—overwhelmingly males (who make up two-thirds of all porn viewers)—want to see or do.
There’s more like that, but I was never fond of Andrea Dworkin either.

Men are brutes! Vargas-Cooper offers a personal anecdote to reinforce the message. Frankly, I would have put my clothes back on and walked out, never to see this guy again. If we’re anecdotalizing, my experience of men has been quite different.

Neither Flanagan nor Vargas-Cooper suggests a way forward. And, to go back to the issue of careers, which took up a big part of second-wave feminism’s (and my) energy, we have an egregious example at the University of California Veterinary School. It’s true that women are now preparing for careers in veterinary science and practice that was unimaginable when I was in college, but apparently at least one of the male professors hasn’t adjusted. The one described in the link was so put off by a student’s pregnancy and delivery that he asked the class to vote on how to deal with her grade.

A more reasonable, apparently male, professor suggests that part of the problem here is that academic careers demand full-time (and by that I mean 24/7) focus on the job. And he is right.

There were so many battles to fight. There were no women in veterinary schools. There were six women and ninety-four men in my graduate-school entering class. Most of the traders on Wall Street are still men. Most science professors in the most prestigious schools are still men. It’s easy to get oversensitized about this, but most of the Atlantic bloggers and the replacements for James Fallows on his blog are men. The new governor of Ohio has appointed mostly white men to his cabinet. And the Republicans (some of them, anyway) are winding themselves up for physical, literal, warfare over abortion. (I’ve seen that last in a couple of places today but can’t find a link just now.)

So we didn’t solve all the problems. In the sixties and seventies, it was simply not possible to revise the structure of jobs and work. First we had to get some minimal laws passed so that being hired depended to some degree on our qualifications for the job.

It all seemed to be going well for a while, I guess, although those of us who had had professors like that one at Davis or had been told we were the best qualified for the job, but the boss couldn’t see working with a woman, knew that many of the problems were only papered over. But a great many young women seemed to be happy with making a bunch of money to buy uncomfortable but glitzy shoes, drink all night, and sleep with people they didn’t know. It turns out there are a large number of downsides to that sort of thing.

Flanagan and Vargas-Cooper focus on sex, but that’s not the only, and probably not the basic problem. Humans have molded so many of their behaviors that it’s hard to believe an essentialist theory of men, which Vargas-Cooper seems to espouse, in the same way it’s hard to believe an essentialist theory of women. Food is at least as biologically basic as sex, and look what we’ve done with our behaviors around that.

I’d like for us to look at the world together and figure out how to make it better. There are benefits to having children when the father and mother are both young. So we need to think about how to integrate that with jobs. And any serious changes there run afoul of our current market-based monasticism, of which the academic 24/7 is only one manifestation. That’s the long struggle. My sense of younger men is that they’re much more likely to join in such an effort than men of my age were.

For many of the problems described in those reviews, I’ll point out something we recognized early on in the second wave: If you don’t want to be a sex object, don’t act like one.

I’m wondering if these are the first murmurings of a full-up backlash (fourth-wave feminism?) or just a bunch of people who are not happy with their lives.


nadezhda said...

Nice post CR! I've reached the point where I simply can't read the whiners anymore. Usually I glimpse the name "Caitlan..." and I automatically click to another site. But I'm glad I stopped my twitchy mouse finger and read your thoughts.

I vote: "Just a bunch of people unhappy with their lives." But it's so much more comforting to have someone else to blame, isn't it. It's like they expected that since they don't have to put up with all the garbage their predecessors did (which, by the way, they can't truly imagine), they're mad that their predecessors didn't also invent a happiness pill.

And since misery loves company, stirring up another round of backlash so their own unhappiness gets validated by others would seem to work. Especially if they get nice paychecks for their whining while they're at it.

I guess there's an audience for the clap-trap -- if nothing else the knee-jerk contrarians who like wallowing in "progress is terrible" stories or editors who count on those stories to generate page hits. Color me cynical.

Cheryl Rofer said...


It's good to hear from you again!

I see a potentially positive side to this latest round of whining. The third-generation feminists may be beginning to realize that their predecessors left some problems for them to solve!

I'll agree that that might be a big step. But if the "Sex and the City" generation can't make it, maybe the next will.

And - I'll say it again - we need to hear more from you!