Read Angry: On ‘Good’ Feminism and the ‘Bad’ Reader

It’s interesting to observe how as feminists, we use anger in our message towards each other—specifically in what and who we read, or more importantly don’t read/aren’t interested in, and how that affects our overall identity. The rise of #MeToo has burgeoned a constant political threat to our sexual/reproductive rights, and the egregious disparity in pay and working equality.

Every ism needs a dose of anger to propel its message—whether that is about lack of representation, the status quo, or how one should live. But anger isn’t simply a one-dimensional, uncontrolled rage. In its best form, it is functional, directional, and even eloquent. Chaotic anger, on the other hand, loses sight of any focus and becomes overwhelmed by itself.

In a 2017 interview in the Guardian with Jessa Crispin, author of Why I Am Not a Feminist, Crispin is incendiary, amongst other things: calling out feminism for being a commodity, declarable simply by purchasing an overpriced ($600) t-shirt. She isn’t wrong. She singles out the author of Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay, for “… saying that she hasn’t read Andrea Dworkin, and that we don’t have to, either. Really?” Recently, thanks (or not) to Twitter’s need to show you tweets by people you may not follow but are liked by ones you do, I found myself reading the tweets of a new, primarily academic, feminist journal focused on visual culture. I stopped at a tweet by what I assume was one of the editors, talking about a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Guardian interview. Apparently Adichie “ … finds the feminist classical texts ‘boring’ …” The tweet clarified that she loved “…CNA & her writing, but I must say this: DO NOT DISS SIMONE DE B. DO NOT EVER EVER DO THAT. Do not EVEN!!!!!!!”

I was bewildered, briefly angry. Then, just tired.

Crispin is angry with Gay for what she interpreted as an unwillingness to read; something I assume she sees as part of a necessary feminist canon, and therefore not deserving of being a …‘real/more serious’ feminist? The journal’s tweet was unconsciously much weightier under its all-caps, multi-exclamation levity. I don’t name them because I believe it was meant humorously; however, there is something unspoken and relevant that begs to be discussed. Some feminists aren’t allowed to be critical (or ignorant, in the sense of remaining unread) of other feminist texts. It simply isn’t … feminist, as if feminism required an ironically Stepford-Wife collective devotion, again, to what is seen as the canon. In a 2013 interview in Totally Stockholm, the writer Deborah Levy says “… writing and reading aren’t about always knowing where we are going or declaring our certainties – it is about airing our doubts …” If we get (chaotically) angry about other’s choices or non-choices, that anger shuts out the fundamental doubt that exists therein; ignores the questions it asks: doubt/repression of our sex is what brought us to feminism in the first place.

Gay and Adichie are women of colour. It may have been nothing more than coincidence. Even so, I questioned the juxtaposition of their comments to the responses of Crispin and the journal. If the latter made them in the mindset that feminism is more than the sum of its parts; and therefore colour nothing to do with it—why then, would neither ask what I think are the obvious questions: why do these sister feminists not feel Dworkin doesn’t need to be read, or that classical feminist texts are boring? The answers could be as prosaic as ‘I simply don’t find them interesting enough/haven’t gotten around to reading them’, to ‘I don’t feel they reflect overall society now, or the society I navigate as a woman of colour.’

Feminism needs—requires—querying the relevancy of its pillars. To not do so is a kind of idolatry, which leads to blindness. Not just in regard to colour, but other complexities of what it is to identify as a woman, and the question of whether we are all considered equal within that identity.

(This is not a defense on behalf of Gay or Adichie, because they don’t require it from me. It is a question asked as a woman caught between the privilege of being half white, and the cultural marginalization of also being ‘other’—quite literally, as when growing up, forms did not have my maternal culture as a box to tick.)

Canonical feminists as idols suggest a fervently guarded permanency that will not allow feminism to reflect its multiplicities- exactly what would make it stronger. This opens up the conversation of who women look to for wisdom, what helps them identify with the world they are navigating. To not do so limits who they are, who they could be, how they are seen. I admit this may be too close a read. But isn’t this the point—that we should be paying minute attention to what women read, and how they read?

We talk a lot about the canon as it exists in schools/universities today. It is primarily white and of one perspective. When people talk, rightly so, about the importance of decolonizing or proposing new texts alongside old ones in order to restructure how history and literature are taught and considered, the argument against this is generally that some sort of erasure or denial of importance is taking effect. I have yet to hear any convincing argument. If a canon has to exist, then it only seems like common sense that it should reflect diverse peoples and cultures. Crispin and the journal’s comments show that if there isn’t an official one, then there are certainly texts that are the next best thing to it as far as (white) feminist importance, which still dominate its thinking. I would never say to anyone that you aren’t a reader if you haven’t read x or y (by a certain point in your life).

Inferring that someone might not be the ‘right’ kind of feminist by feeling less than reverent about some of its pillars does not make someone less of a feminist.

Establishing the intellectual high ground; so flippantly, hints at the privilege of one’s security in declaring themselves in the position of making such declarations in the first place. Reading is a process, and readers come to books at different times, and may not ever read certain titles at all. The organic nature of reading—how you develop as a reader, a person as a result of that self-tailored knowledge are the best things about it. Why should this not apply to the feminist canon, if a canon must be had at all?

Thom Cuell, an editor at the online magazine Minor Literature[s], interviewed the author Isabel Waidner for the experimental anthology she edited, Liberating the Canon (Dostoyevsky Wannabe 2018). Waidner inquires the homogeneity present in (UK) literature, and suggests that an intersectional avant-garde is (part of) the way forward. In a similar sense, why would any ism, especially feminism, be exempt from wariness of a homogeneity of its own kind? An ism static because of its collective belief that its canon or its voices are beyond change or criticism is an ism that is destined to failure, or at least bound to lose sight of all the hope it had for its believers.

Feminism is probably one of the best opportunities we have of showing that an ism can be inclusive, and flourish through well-directed anger.

Reading is an ideal act to examine in order to see how we treat and divide women’s intelligence in feminism. I haven’t read Dworkin, I have read de Beauvoir, I haven’t read Adichie but I have read Gay—and there’s no real reason for the have nots beyond I haven’t yet done so. I can give you a list as longer than I am tall with names on both sides of have/have not, but would never refer to myself as less of anything because of it. The way I see it, I’m constantly in progress. And while I’ve certainly read books on friends’ recommendations, I’ve never not read something because someone said it was problematic, and absolutely never read a text because it was deemed ‘ok’ to do so as a feminist, as the title of the article ‘Should feminists read Baudelaire?’ on suggests. I was presented with the insecurity in myself, as a feminist and a good reader, and that took me by surprise. I considered then, that this thought might be a certain privilege. If my security in reading comes from privilege, my privilege is the kind (almost) anyone can access: just read whatever you want. Readers are inquisitive. A non-academic woman reader is capable of interrogating misogyny, taking the beautiful where it can be found, and subverting a problematic message, turning it into one of feminism. Perhaps our only message to feminist readers should be to read everything (you want), and use your intelligence to manipulate, rewrite texts in your head—and on paper. Thinking about reading is radical, and all women have this power.

I wholeheartedly encourage women to read the article—and whatever the hell else they want. In parsing my anger (by now I’ve accepted that I am indeed angry), I realised that my issue comes from the insinuation that I might require validation for my choices, and that I might not be a ‘good’ feminist because I am a ‘bad’ reader. Bad, because I don’t give a damn what people think about whom I read and what I think about them. It isn’t anyone’s business.

Feminism, to me, isn’t laying out my thoughts for a collective OK.

Feminism, as a reader, is assuming I have the intelligence to make and parse my own choices, without mental flagellation that any thoughts I have may not jibe with any chorus of criticism/approval. If we’ve spent this long breaking free from a male-centric point of view, the reward—the respite—is that I am now among people who value my free thought, the individuality of my tastes and choices, regardless of whether they agree. Feminism is allowing a woman to be, not tacking a qualifier onto it. If there is anything to be taught to feminist readers, it is that words arranged into a certain meaning do not need to retain it for posterity; the message can, and should be manipulated—almost all reading should be critical. The freedom of this should be the only validation we require.

I have spent a lifetime reading male authors, and for whatever reason, innately finding the feminine—the feminist—in them, because I was looking for the self I wanted to be. If I had to discover a rich world of female writing, then I approached reading men with the attitude that there would be no portrait or declaration of woman that I would embrace as who I was or should be; instead, create the woman I wanted from them if they did not exist. I’ve delighted in Zola’s Denise and Nana, rising to the top of their commercial and sexual societies on their own terms in Au Bonheur des Dames and Nana, Maupassant’s Elisabeth, in ‘Boule de Suif’, the prostitute with more empathy and courage than a carriage-load of bourgeoisie, aristocracy, and nuns combined. In the opposite vein, I’ve read de Beauvoir’s letters and found her vulnerable, a woman who felt she had the key to the ideal relationship with Sartre, and yet drowned her letters to him in numerous and the most ordinarily romantic affectations. I am not finding fault—instead humanity, which is infinitely more important and useful to me as a woman and a feminist than putting her on an intellectual pedestal. Maybe the women questioning/not reading the ‘canon’ feminists are looking for a more identifiable feminism, too—and to be identifiable is not necessarily an easier form, but to rest unchallenged on an unchanging canon certainly is.

If we have learned anything from our experiences thus far, it is to give due weight and consideration to a sister feminist’s comments, not only in terms of subject, but respect; that each of us have something to say. The canon as it is regarded by many feminists cannot be allowed to hold that same immovable position, especially if it is leveraged to show the ‘superiority’ of an old way of thinking. Gender/class/cultural superiority and established, perpetually damaging ways of thought are exactly what feminism and decolonizing seek to disturb. My second question is will your feminism welcome me? It is easy enough to see how simple, offhand public responses like those of Crispin and the journal can lead to an unwillingness by some women to not participate or hold back from feminist discussions for fear of ridicule or disdain; the feeling that they don’t deserve to be, can never be the right kind of feminist. This fear seems a ridiculous one, and yet it is the kind of tiny, nagging doubt that can grow to become an unfixable breach in feminist communication.

How do we talk about this anger? We run the risk of what started as directional anger, useful in bringing us together as feminists, turning into a chaotic anger that divides us internally—at that point you may as well give up, because we’re back to a position of nothing, and we don’t want that. When we territorially guard our canon saints, or (unspoken) deem a woman not a true feminist for not meeting our reading list (or deviating from the right kind of thought about it), then we aren’t feminists at all. We’re simply unmoored in our anger, thinking we’re the life raft everyone else has to cling to for salvation. The potential death of feminism by intellectual infighting isn’t some kind of righteous martyrdom—it is just death.

Ask yourself why someone might not find a certain text interesting, or even of value. Ask yourself why she might not feel she has to read it at all. The answer might lie in a point of view that you haven’t considered—because it was never relevant to your privilege. Even if you previously thought you’d been inclusive simply by noting its existence—by reading feminists of colour, or saying trans women are women—that isn’t enough.

It’s too early in feminism to be able to say with certainty that the responses of Crispin and the journal are simply because we’re all feminists and therefore it’s not a big deal to do so. It’s worthy of comment because white feminist privilege still dominates: it isn’t questioned, but gets to ask all questions. In this way feminist privilege used against itself is particularly damaging: it potentially sends the damaged back into the ‘safety’ of the patriarchal, marginalized establishment, because sometimes it’s easier to navigate a bad place when you understand exactly who you are and how you function within it. When I ask myself will your feminism welcome me? it might be easier to say I don’t need it—and in truth, sometimes I feel like there will never be a place for me. To an extent, we must find the immediate people who we feel are our kin in thought. But it puts off answering the question that is always there: how are we—if it is indeed possible—to be cohesive in a greater sense in order to progress?

Call yourself a feminist, but before anything else, you need to acknowledge that a woman can be feminist without being a reader—after all, you wouldn’t call a woman who couldn’t read incapable of being one, would you? Women should be given the benefit of their existing, individual intelligence, and the ability to navigate problematic authors and texts without your permission. Do not just look to the hierarchy of academia and published names for guidance, but find the millions of women who have less of a platform but just as much thought to offer. Let’s stop for a moment and consider the impact of a throwaway statement on the women who are watching us quietly, wondering how a feminist should act, noting how publicly declared feminists do act. Instead of saying ‘you should’, ask ‘what do you think?’ and let it include all voices and identities. Read angry, be angry, but make sure it’s the kind that allows the rest of us our anger and its agency.

Tomoé Hill is an editor at Minor Literature[s]. She tweets @CuriosoTheGreat.

Image: Millie Deegan (1988) by BulShark Gal.

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