Hey, watch my hat sail into the ring…

…re: feminism and education.

When I got back on-line yesterday after an overwhelming family weekend (you can pretty much ignore that Friday night musing about relaxing), I found my Google reader filled with I-think-Round 2 or 3 (??) of argument and confrontation related to Feministing Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism (FFF).  Now, RP readers know that I tend not to engage in debates I don’t know too much about; indeed, my blog personality is a lecturing one.  My comments on other people’s threads tend to be towards correction or filling in blanks with research that I think would strengthen the argument in the post.  (Unsurprisingly, I am often ignored.  Who’s less fun than a troll?  A smarty pants.)

Broadly speaking, women of color (WOC) bloggers are taking white, male community college professor Hugo Schwyzer to task for adding FFF to his course list, and using the vocal enthusiasm he is hearing from some of his students of color, who comprise the majority of his classroom, I believe, as a ringing endorsement for FFF.  The larger context for this is that there has been a wide and vocal condemnation of the book from WOC bloggers for being exclusionary in its stereotypical white, upper-middle-class feminist perspective (did you check out the book’s cover?).  His report of his students’ enjoyment of the book is therefore effectively translated as proving the WOC blogosphere wrong.

Here are the most recent posts about this that are in my Google reader, beginning with the professor’s that stimulated the criticism.   I ended up reading through them for hours, and eventually posted a comment at Brownfemipower’s post about the silo-ing and/or silencing of perspectives and activism of women of color in women’s studies curricula.  I wish, a day later, that I could remember in which post the author asked where were the white women criticizing FFF.  It was made as a critique, if I remember correctly (feel like I’m playing catch up…this is why I am often so often just a lurker!), of how the professor’s post indicated that a few of his women of color students liking the book therefore meant it was actually not offensive to WOC, as if women who fit this description (according to whom, RP readers ask) are a homogeneous and tightly bounded group such that the opinions of a few individuals can stand for everyone, versus the basically infinite opinions possible re: this book among all women who read it.*   Well, here’s one white woman, at least.

Through Sylvia at Problem Chylde: Learning in Transition, I found an earlier brief review of hers of FFF, with a link to this longer one.   Both point to my main problem with the book, which I discovered when I picked it up earlier this year at a bookstore and read excerpts from it for a few minutes.  I was new to Feministing at the time, and discovering the book on a shelf at an independent local retailer seemed kind of neat.  Then I began reading, and was struck by how shallow and glib the tone was.  It had that forced hipster thing going on that I just hate, and seemed equivalent to the cool, older girl deigning adolescent you with her presence and leaving you to try to emulate her and her infinite wisdom about sex, fashion, relationships and boyz.  As Ama Lee writes at Feminist Review, “Valenti doesn’t give her readers credit that they can do the thing she most wants them to do: think, analyze, and be critical.”  (She also compares her to Ann Coulter…yikes.)  And as Sylvia writes, “…if anyone talked to me with the language this book uses, let alone put it in writing, I’d be done with them.  Like, totally.  (Pun intended.)”

For me, in addition to it’s exclusionary perspective, abundant all over academia, the idea of a college professor using such a superficial book that deliberately talks down to its audience like this is infuriates me. I see why women of color who take offense to this book are so pissed off.  Not only does it narrowly cast mainstream feminism as essentially about “the pro-life/pro-choice/mostly-fetus centered debate of women’s reproductive autonomy”, to quote Sylvia again, with occasional token “lip service to our [women of color, working class and poor women, lesbian, gay and transgendered women, disabled women] pet issues” (to quote her a third time), but it does so in a decidedly condescending tone.  And is getting  lot of press for it.   This sh*t drives me nuts.

But hey, smut sells.  Yet, it’s bad enough that feminism in this frame leaves the majority of us grappling with larger, more complex struggles out of “the movement.” It’s even more infuriating that possible recruits on the fringe are being lured in with a book that has about as much depth and range as a fashion magazine.  The insult in this particular case is this white man inflicting it on his majority students of color, whereas those of us not in his class can either exist in blissful ignorance about the book, ignore it, or rant about and deconstruct it and the limitations of feminism on our respective blogs or in other public fora. 

What’s so problematic about education is how the subjectivity of researchers, teachers and other authorities is infused into the curricula and student development.  A significant part of the research on the reproduction of inequality focuses on schools as a key site in which this occurs.  It’s why sociologists 100 years after The Chicago School are still arguing about whether social relations in poor and/or ethnic/racial communities are “disorganized” or not, because they don’t adhere to the ecological model of urban organization proposed by the white men considered to be the founding fathers of urban/community studies.  It’s why women are too often absent from ethnography, because the traditional ethnographer has been the “lone wolf” male who integrates himself into communities under study by going to bars and hanging on the streets (to paraphrase sociologist Maria Kefalas).  While I’m all about increasing the definition of legitimate perspectives in the classroom, and access to a much broader range of analysis, students deserve better exposure to the strengths and limitations of feminist theory and activism than is provided in FFF.  Now I’m curious to see what else is on the syllabus.


*I liked this point because one of my biggest cognitive problems with questions of racism, anti-racism or racial justice – especially in the blogosphere – is that they too often become binary or reductive, i.e., problems, conflicts and oppression boil down to racism with no other -isms present, and whites are necc. the oppressor.  In the context of feminism, the oppressors are white women, who are therefore also in bed with the patriarchy (though apparently with at least 18 rounds of birth control strapped to their thongs).  The construction at this stage comes across as very instrumental on the part of whites/perpetrators, which is easier to digest at an aggregative, macro-structural level than it is at a micro level, which is the level of analysis a good deal of the blogosphere specializes in, by its very nature of being a virtual universe of endless soapboxes (for those with access to computers).  Just I loathe in my Ivory Tower the assumption that the white, male perspective is the logical, objective interpretation of our social world, with its accompanying presumptive, prescriptive abstraction of the lives of women, communities of color, and poor communities, to name just a few, so do I resent alternatively being labeled by default as part of the problem when it comes to racism.  I wrote about this at greater length last week, so I’ll stop here...


2 Responses to “Hey, watch my hat sail into the ring…”

  1. November 26, 2007 at 11:49 pm

    Thank you for your insightful post. I am following the FFF controversy regarding ethnicity, but have not commented on it much in the blogsphere because I have little to add. I must say, however, that I did not understand why the discussion over at Hugo’s place was so heated (and, at times, a bit venomous) until I read your post. My main problem with FFF is similar to yours: I did not appreciate all the cussing that Jessica used in the book. Also, being someone who isn’t a big advocate of abortion, I took offense to her comment about not sleeping with “anti-choice” people. But until I read your post, I did not understand why there was so much controversy about ethnicity and social class about FFF. Thanks again.

  2. November 27, 2007 at 5:47 pm

    Interesting… I didn’t realize Valenti had written a book, nor did I know it was “controversial”… so I have catching up to do (i read this post last night, but needed more time to take it in). Having read some of the excerpts at Amazon, I have to say I’m a little dismayed, too, about a professor using it in Women’s Studies. Not because of overt issues of class and race, but because it is so much jargon, and very very glib. At first, having read the professor’s post, I thought “oh, well, maybe it’s a way into feminism for people who have preconceived notions,” but reading the excerpts on Amazon, I think that’s way too easy. I think Valenti’s book is the equivalent of Easy Feminism Lite – diet feminism for people who would find the real stuff too challenging, too all encompassing. But I think you have to get the full dose to really get the point – yeah, it kind of sucks, as Valenti suggests when WalMart won’t fill a birth control prescription; but the discussion of women’s bodies, birth control, corporate paternalism, and the role of religion are much bigger topics than that, just for starters. Valenti doesn’t even seem to want to bother to go deep, and i think it’s disrespectful to the ideas, never mind the audience, that Valenti can’t bother to take this exercise seriously.

    When I took Philosophy and Feminism in college – a course I value to this day for the ideas it exposed to me – as the only man in class, I read and read deeply. And I listened. It’s insulting to me to see those ideas turned into “pop feminism” for Valenti to sell. I’m not sure I’ll agree with turning this into a broad aside (oooh, unintended pun) on race and class, but I think Valenti deserves the brickbats generally, and the professor deserves to be raked over the coals. Feminism – the basic proposition that women are equal and should be treated equally – is not hard; it doesn’t need pop psychology or glib cultural referencing to get over.

    As a final aside, I think part of what’s at play here is a question about teaching at the University level, and a broader question about what the American notion of “college for all” has done to education. This isn’t the “canon” question that Allan Bloom raised, but it’s close – democratizing college education has led to a democrtization of just what it is we teach. And I think the question of standards, and curriculum, are tough ones we generally like to avoid (certainly, I think, it’s a big ugly elephant in the room in the liberal arts). I’m appalled that this book made it into a syllabus anywhere; I suspect that’s not just something that happened in a community college. That, really, worries me more than the book itself.

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