My father left an advance reading copy of Jennifer Armstrong and Heather Rudulph’s new book, Sexy Feminism, on my desk with a note “I bet you could tear this apart.” I picked it up and wanted to hate it (I mean, the cover? Come on!), but I did walk away with an increased cognizance of the tensions within modern feminism and my views on them. This isn’t necessarily the stated purpose, and I’m not sure that I fit into the demographic the authors are trying to reach (as someone who has already claimed the term feminist and assessed its applications in my own life). Armstrong and Rudulph describe their brand of feminism as “one that, above all else, owns the oft-maligned word feminist and aims to show young women how fun, empowering, and, yes, sexy it is to fight for women’s rights and choices…We want to help other women find their own feminism, just as we found ours” (xviii). As someone who has engaged in the academic conversations surrounding feminism and followed them into digital iterations, my reaction to the book veers from harsh criticism to extremely positive resonance, and the text has raised more questions than it could set out to answer between covers. Don’t get me wrong, I had plenty of issues with the book’s contents, which I explore throughout this post. However, overall, I think the book would be a good transition for a young woman who has previously eschewed the feminist title, but is fed up with the image of femininity painted by media, advertising, and magazines.
The primary flaw of Sexy Feminism is actually its cover, which depicts a pair of glossy lips, slightly open, holding the book’s title. The image seems more “sexy” than “feminist”; at first glance the book looks like a romance novel, instead of a modern woman’s guide to applying feminism in her own life. I love that the authors claim the feminism in the title (and later tell their readers that Rule #1 is “Call yourself a proud feminist” ), but it seems they are attempting to modify or rebrand it with the word “sexy.” I was left to wonder if all feminists were sexy, or if some weren’t allowed the privilege. Was this a dig or slight directed at the first, second, and third waves? The authors indicate that “distanc[ing] yourself from the word is to imply there’s something wrong with feminism and/or feminists, an implication that leads to the continued denigration of the cause itself” (4). However, it appears with the modifier in the title that “feminism” isn’t enough, that the stigma associated with the word wouldn’t sell books, and that Armstrong and Rudulph are trying to create “distance” between “feminism” and their brand of feminism. This conflict is brought back into focus later in the text when the authors write, “[T]he dilemma facing second-wave feminists is alive and well. One must look at only a few ads in magazines to see why: A spring color palette of eye shadow is being sold by a model with her mouth agape and sex-hazed eyes” (63). Yet, the cover of this book uses this same image and “sexy” modifier to sell its feminism, making it appear objectified and less-than-serious before you even open it.
The subtitle, “A Girl’s Guide to Love, Success, and Style,” is equally off-putting. I would hope that anyone reading about the contents of this book, which run from graphic descriptions of plastic surgery procedures to detailed analysis of Brazilian waxing and “Vajazzling,” would warrant the title of “woman” rather than “girl.” Also, the positioning of the book as a “guide” to “love, success, and style” feels like a ploy to attract women away from the magazine stand (“20 Tips for a Better YOU!”). This may be an attempt to follow in the vein of all-encompassing woman-focused sites like Jezebel, which deal with feminism, fashion, and politics, but it ultimately reads as a bad Cosmo cover, rather than a serious piece of cultural criticism.
In her review at The New Republic, Hadley Freeman has some similar misgivings about the cover:
[I]t is hard not to feel that a feminist tome that uses as a close-up, quasi-pornographic photo of a pair of parting lips on its cover, paired with the subtitle “A Girl’s Guide to Love, Success and Style” is perhaps a little confused in both its message and its packaging. One can’t blame the authors of Sexy Feminism if the publisher’s designers decided to focus on the first word in the title as opposed to the second. One can, however, query the phrasing of their subtitle: “Girls”? Sisters, please.
Like Freeman, I think the book is not nearly as juvenile or foolish as the cover seems to indicate, though I do think it has value for a wider audience that includes women (in contrast to her conclusion: “ultimately, it’s a book for girls, not women”).
In differentiating itself from prior waves and brands of feminism, Sexy Feminism sometimes perpetuates the negative stereotypes of these earlier moments (and feminism more broadly):
Some splinter feminist groups have, for instance, recommended withdrawing from patriarchal society and establishing entirely new female-run subcultures, ruled out any sex with men as inherently fraught with inequality, and declared lesbianism the only logical orientation for a decent feminist…Feminism is mostly past this by now, but in mainstream society, the movement’s image as a buzzkill lingers, making it a tough sell even for many of the ambitious young women who have benefited from it. With this book, we hope to dispel those negative ideas about feminism once and for all, but, more important, we hope to give any woman with the slightest desire for female empowerment the tools to bring feminist ideals into her everyday life. (2)
This has the impact of diminishing feminists who still adhere to those ideals, minority though they may be, furthering the opinion that they are a “buzzkill” or somehow “negative.” There are plenty of women who see sex as “fraught with inequality,” who don’t shave, or who believe lesbianism to be the purest form of feminism. We all don’t have to leave home for Camp Sister Spirit or Alapine, and other groups are equally limiting in seeing this as the “only logical orientation.” But we need to acknowledge that feminism exists on a spectrum and, in addition to paving the way for us, the women who identify with some or all of these ideals are still an important part of the larger movement.
The moments when the author’s arguments are at their weakest, are when they use a broad lens, ignoring the complexity and tension associated with being a modern feminist. This is most notable in their use of pop star “Sexy Feminist” examples like Lady Gaga. Gaga is absolutely a feminist, and she is sexy too, but the book’s depiction oversimplifies her media image and representation:
“Through fashion, she has protested the use of fur (an outfit made from dozens of stuffed Kermit dolls), told the world she was not a piece of meat (the steak suit), and riffed on how society mutes women (all those lacy facemasks circa “Bad Romance”). She says of most of her outfit choices, ‘They’re meant to be kind of a rejection of what people view about women….I am a feminist. And I want to change the way people view women.’ She went on to say she wasn’t interested ‘in being a perfect placid pop singer that looks great in bikinis’” (91).
Gaga has done a phenomenal job of pushing the message of accepting individuality regardless of gender, sexuality, race, or size. However, there are moments when Gaga reverts to traditional standards of beauty—in her video for “Bad Romance,” she dons both a bikini and fur (I suppose this could be ironic?); she wears bleached blond hair and has lost a considerable amount of weight since she started out in the industry. The image Gaga has cultivated as a feminist who is disinterested in “being a perfect pop singer” is not reiterated in all of her choices. And that is completely okay. If anything, Lady Gaga is emblematic of the complexities and multifaceted nature of modern feminism. Let her be that. Let’s examine that. How does she function in this world? What does she do right and what could she do better to destigmatize media depictions of women and their bodies? When Armstrong and Rudulph write Lady Gaga off as a perfect, “sexy” feminist, they take away the difficulty in navigating the modern media landscape that we all face. Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we aren’t 100% feminist in our choices, and that is okay.
Some other minor critiques, which are primarily accounted for by the brevity and breadth of the book:
- I would prefer that in sections on plastic surgery, dieting, and birth control, the authors first recommend, before any other tip, that the reader reach out to her doctor or gynecologist. But overall the advice they give is sound, and their rundown of options is thorough.
- The chapter on makeup painted is very broad brush, not dealing directly with the class and race issues associated with makeup, instead mentioning them in offhand comments: “China’s earliest form of makeup…was used as a way to distinguish among classes, not between genders” (67), “the lighter the skin, the higher the social rank” (57), “…this [the 1970s] was the same decade in which makeup was first made for women of different skin tones, which was a kind of small civil rights victory” (58-59).
- The book also throws away the fact that “men now run many of these [cosmetics] corporations” (61-62) to get to the fact that women pioneered many facets of the makeup industry. The anecdotes thus feel apologetic or excuse-oriented, like “It is okay to wear makeup because women made it once upon a time” rather than “It is okay to wear makeup because it makes you feel good/comfortable/attractive.”
- The book also slips into a reprehensible pitfall in this section, asserting, “In the Middle Ages, religious leaders decreed makeup blasphemous. They ostracized the women who used it, calling them whores—and often treating them like it” (57). What does it mean to treat someone “like a whore”? That type of language seems to uphold the unfortunate social judgment and treatment of sex workers. This sharply contrasts the section in the middle of Chapter 8 (which deals with slut-shaming directly) where the authors interview Melissa Broudo, attorney for the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. I’ll chalk this up to an error in word choice, because the rest of the book is good about being non-judgmental.
The Promising Start
Sexy Feminism hits it stride when it acknowledges the complexities and inherent tensions of trying to live as a feminist in modern society. Chapters 8-11 deal with this duality, looking at the nature of slut-shaming and sex positivity, flirting and dating, and relationships. In evaluating heterosexual intercourse, the authors explore this tension explicitly, stating, “there’s almost no sex-related act that can’t be somehow twisted into an antifeminist act and thus bring on massive feminist guilt” (148). Armstrong and Rudulph then turn to several sexual practices and eventually conclude (with the help of quotes from feminist rock star like Jaclyn Friedman, Ariel Levy, and Maureen Dowd) that women can’t place judgment on one another, regardless of proclivities. Nor should a consensual, comfortable sexual practice make individuals feel like they aren’t a feminist. This tolerant and non-judgmental attitude with which Sexy Feminism treats sexual appetite and preferences permeates most of the book, particularly the sections about beauty and fashion, which implore readers, “Don’t judge other women based on their beauty habits—each of us is entitled to be as individual here as she wants to be” (68). Note: this doesn’t mean women shouldn’t be critical consumers; the book lists several feminist-minded beauty companies and states readers should “Do your real feminist work in painted face or plain while remaining ever watchful of the images the cosmetics industry feeds you” (60).
The aforementioned “massive feminist guilt” can spring up not only in sexuality, but in building relationships as well: “Therein lies the modern problem with no name. We’ll call it something like debilitating feminist guilt over wanting to join your life with that of a wonderful, feminist guy while also wanting to maintain your own identity” (166). Marriage is a tricky subject that many modern feminists (even Jessica Valenti!) have grappled with in the past, and it was nice to see it treated as a possible area of tension in Sexy Feminism. In this vein, the authors acknowledge that sex and gender norms are also damaging for men and that they “equate manhood with sexual desire, sending both genders into existential crises the minute the guy isn’t in the mood one night” (148). These chapters on sex, dating, and relationships (and the earlier chapter on contraception) are all thus focused around open communication, building comfort and consent, and ignoring the “rules” set out by dating self-help books, websites, and magazines.
I should note that the authors make many attempts to avoid heteronormativity, but the book ultimately reverts to this male-female relationship dynamic. Armstrong and Rudulph discuss lesbianism briefly in all of these chapters, but these moments didn’t resonate strongly and felt like afterthoughts; perhaps this is because they’re focused on patriarchal structures, or it is outside of their lived experience (or mine, for that matter), or simply because these moments are not explored in enough detail to adequately apply Sexy Feminism to lesbian relationships.
One other area where the book was particularly strong, forcing me engage with my personal ideas and actions, was the chapter on dieting. The authors begin with an initial question,
“[I]s all dieting antifeminist? Are you betraying your gender if you join Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig? It depends on the motivations behind the desire to diet. If the goal is to improve your health and feel good, don’t call it dieting; call it living well. If you cite outside influences as motivation—pressure from family, a lover’s passing comment about your ass, or a photo of Heidi Klum in Elle… you may not be making the most empowering choice for yourself” (72).
Questions like this always stump me (as someone who is currently, and pretty much consistently, dieting). Deep, underlying motivations are hard to ascertain. I want to improve my health and feel good about myself, but what if internal desire is motivated by external norms? Who created the standards by which I judge how I feel about myself? The authors go on to levy an interesting critique against some of the country’s biggest diet chains, which are notoriously women-centric and focused on health:
[L]ooking at the campaigns for the country’s biggest diet chains, we see sex being sold here too. For example, Jenny Craig employs actresses and pop stars to transform themselves from slightly above average weight to bikini-body skinny. This is more problematic than it might seem at first glance. When our few prominent cultural models of bodies that aren’t unnaturally thin constantly harp on their new-and-improved status, it takes away their power. That translates, subtly, into a message that the size they were before was not okay. (77)
As a Weight Watchers member, I could only think of the outpouring of publicity surrounding Jennifer Hudson’s weight loss (and Jessica Simpson too, for that matter). I hadn’t ever looked critically at this campaign before. As a consumer, it is important to remember that even seemingly female-centric companies have ulterior motives. Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig could not stay in business without the standards of beauty perpetuated across media.
Some other positives, which rendered the book more thoughtful and engaging:
- The section on plastic surgery is well-researched and informative. It gives a graphic description of different procedures (liposuction, tummy tuck, labiaplasty, etc.), which is the single greatest argument against elective cosmetic surgeries. Simultaneously, the chapter is careful not to shame those who go under the knife for life-saving procedures and gender reassignment; Armstrong and Rudulph clearly distinguish between these and dangerous cosmetic procedures performed for the sake of adherence to norms.
- Another particularly strong part of this book for me was the strike back against the “men’s rights” and anti-feminist movement (whether overtly stated or not). If you don’t know much about “men’s rights” groups and why they suck, check out Kate Harding’s “Fuck You, Men’s Rights Activists” and some facts on the matter from the Southern Poverty Law Center, because I can’t get into it here. Long before the publication of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, critics like Phyllis Schlafly and her daughter, Suzanne Venker, decried the destructive, emasculating nature of feminism. Sexy Feminism gives its readers some of the basic tools and societal evidence to dispute such claims, stating, “The truth is that feminism means choices, and choices breed discontent, because of some irritating quirk in human psychology. Does that mean our lives are worse? No; it just means we have more shit to think about” (140).
The Questions Left Looming
The book ultimately concludes that one can commit a non-feminist act and still identify as a feminist, which I see as its greatest positive for modern feminists, but also as its largest continuing question. I agree fundamentally with the point; it is nearly impossible to operate against the grain of social norms in every aspect and moment of your life, short of, perhaps, joining one of the insular communities like Alapine. But I’m left asking, how egregious can the act be before someone no longer gets to claim “feminism”? I believe (and I think the book argues) that it is up to oneself to define and claim ones feminism, though Sexy Feminism raises the point: “…calling yourself a feminist doesn’t give you a free pass to do whatever you want in the name of your personal liberation,” going on to ridicule Sarah Palin: “I’m totally a feminist even though I’m pro-life and pretty much anti-woman in all my policies, though at least I quit my job as governor of Alaska so it’s not like I can actually make policy anymore” (4-5). I wouldn’t categorize Palin as a feminist, but is it a slippery slope for me to draw that line for her? And what about Lisbeth Salander (fictional protagonist of Steig Larson’s novels), whom the book calls out for having breast augmentation surgery in The Girl Who Played with Fire; is she a feminist? Armstrong and Rudulph attempt to explain:
“[F]eminism’s gray areas also leave lots of room for all kinds of women to identify themselves as feminists…That’s why we’ve come up with our own sexy, fun, empowering brand of feminism—and why we encourage every woman out there to come up with her own as well. So, yes, that means rules, but they’re your own. It doesn’t’ have to mean giving up shaving—or waxing, makeup, high-heeled shoes, short skirts, dates with men, or porn” (12)
But I still get stuck here. If I can make my own rules, what’s stopping my “feminism” from being pro-life and anti-women in the workforce? Those are rules, but they aren’t associated with any kind of feminism I’ve encountered. This displays one of the greatest conflicts existing in contemporary feminism. Are Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer feminists? Even if they don’t identify as such or think we “have a chip on our shoulder? What about Taylor Swift? As Tracy Moore writes in a recent Jezebel piece, “the argument over who is or who isn’t a real feminist can get pretty tired.” She goes on to combat the necessity of defining feminism as “feminism” at all: “Since these [Mayer and Sandberg] are pro-equal rights women who don’t call themselves feminists, maybe it’s time to consider that the term is getting in the way….Call it whatever you like.”
Ultimately, I fall more on the Sexy Feminism side of this particular debate: I think the word is important. I think feminism is not nearing her expiration date and I do think the term is a meaningful signifier that still holds weight in modern discourse. For this reason, I hope Sexy Feminism isn’t just a throwaway book, and that some young women previously turned off by the word “feminist” give the term and its underlying beliefs a second shot.