There was a moment in the early 1990s where a wave of new female writers entered the public feminist conversation.
First, there was the unenviable ‘dissident feminist’ Camille Paglia, whose percussive and chattering style on American television pitched her against other well-known feminist voices like Susan Sontag and Germaine Greer. Paglia’s infamous book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990) took an ‘anti-feminist’ stance and argued that human nature was inherently morbid and violent. She memorably claimed, ‘If civilization had been left in female hands, we’d still be living in grass huts’.
Then came Naomi Wolf and her polemic The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (1990). Wolf was an Ivy League graduate who condemned the harmful practices that the beauty and cosmetic industry propagated against women. Unlike Paglia, Wolf rejected popular culture and its representation of women, bemoaning the billion-dollar industry that devalued women into a false capitalist path of spiritual and emotional fulfilment through make-up and plastic surgery.
Last in this wave was Susan Faludi with her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991), which asserted that the media of the 1990s was moving against many of the gains of 1970s second-wave feminism. The media, said Faludi, was responsible for stigmatising the identity of independent career women and accusing them of having ‘abandoned’ their families for themselves, implying they had supposedly wrought havoc on the heteronormative family unit by doing so. Films like Fatal Attraction (1987) or Basic Instinct (1992) exemplify the thesis of Faludi’s work, by recreating the femme fatale figure as a modern successful career woman whose fixation on men is a pathological and murderous compulsion, presumably caused by her failure to fulfil traditional gender roles of matrimony and motherhood.
A similarly galvanising moment is occurring now in popular gender politics and contemporary cultural texts. But unlike the 1990s wave of feminism, which heavily criticised mainstream representations of women in film and television, these new works of feminist literature not only accept these representations, but actively generate them.
Having enjoyed a meteoric recent surge in popularity, scholar and cultural critic Roxane Gay has released a book of essays entitled Bad Feminist: Essays (2014). The collection provides a wealth of considerations and critiques of modern film and television texts (such as Django Unchained and the Real Housewives series), and embraces intersectional representations of blackness and femininity. Gay’s work is memorable for its self-deprecating humour, extensive knowledge and awareness of its place within the tradition of African-American popular texts, and her anecdotal discussion of her own tragic experiences alongside the politics of popular culture.
Gay’s book can be read as a backlash to the lack of diversity in mainstream feminist representation today. According to Gay, ‘When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.’ The crux of her argument is that ‘feminism’ as a political ideology, a critique of patriarchal culture, and a form of identity should be embraced in its imperfect forms. Decades have passed since the monumental second wave feminism of the 1970s, but today the movement is held to an unachievable standard as we demand ‘perfection’ in our female idols (cue Beyoncé’s ‘Flawless’), yet simultaneously deride the extreme standards set by the cosmetic and magazine industry.
Gay’s thesis is couched in these politics, invested in self-deprecating statements about her own inconsistent personal and intellectual ties to feminism – she enjoys the musical banality of Robin Thicke’s controversial song ‘Blurred Lines’, but loathes its misogynistic lyrics. The emphasis on imperfection is consistent throughout Gay’s essays, and she takes pains to point out that we create unrealistic standards for the new wave of feminist voices today: ‘It is unreasonable to expect Lena Dunham to somehow solve the race and representation problem on television while crafting her twenty-something witticisms and appalling us with sex scenes so uncomfortable they defy imagination.’
Importantly, Gay also embraces modern feminism’s flaws, and argues that recognising its faults and pitfalls can help to ensure a more diverse range of voices are heard and improve the broader, collective nature of the movement. She explores how queer women, women of colour, and trans women have been historically excluded from the feminist movement and have not been taken seriously as agents for the feminist change. She argues for these women to be acknowledged as past, present and future contributors to the cultural and political potency of feminism.
The pin-up girl of popular feminism and darling of the New York press, Lena Dunham, has also released a collection of essays, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned’ (2014). Although both women share the same agenda – laying bare the pains and pleasures of womanhood and modern feminism – Dunham’s wry personal essays are pitched as ‘advice pieces’, arranged as the memoir-ish encounters of a twenty-something woman making her way in New York City.
The essays that constitute Lena Dunham’s memoir are reminiscent of her television show Girls, and are often characterised by hyperbolic tendencies. She is inarguably one of the eminent voices of contemporary feminist discourse today, and her intentions are frequently admirable. She advises her readers that acknowledging their selfish tendencies can be a positive act, and encourages them to treat themselves with respect, rather than subscribing blindly to socially and culturally enforced norms about bodies and gender.
There are certainly, however, moments of hubris in Dunham’s book. At one point, she imagines the next book she will publish, when she is eighty years old: ‘It will be excerpted in Vanity Fair along with photos of me laughing at a long-ago premiere’. One can glean moments of incautious intimacy from Dunham’s terse and uncomplicated prose, as readers migrate from an essay on therapy sessions, to a pathetic chat room rendezvous anecdote, to a frank description of an unwanted sexual experience while Dunham was at college.
There is much to appreciate in Dunham’s wry and searing rhetoric, which ranges from the perils of YouTube and the cultural damage caused by online critiques of women, sexism in the media, to her own struggles migrating from adolescence to adulthood. However, although she does inject her stories with some comments on womanhood and critiques of misogyny, the memoir fails to replicate the cutting commentary she makes elsewhere, notably in Girls.
Despite Dunham’s tendency to obfuscate, and Gay’s excessive – and sometimes distracting – interest in Scrabble, both books continue the modern feminist conversations taking place constantly online and in print. Some of these conversations, like Gay’s essays, are more productive in their ability to acknowledge that sometimes feminism must ‘fail’ (and women must be ‘bad feminists’) in order to improve the movement’s overall inclusivity for women who are often pushed to the margins of feminist discussion. Some conversations about feminism, like those raised in Dunham’s essays, are more effective when generating material that actively presents authentic female voices in their modern milieu, navigating the experiences of young women ranging from anxiety to ennui.
Whether manifesting in Gay’s treatise on the need to diversify the strands of feminism so that other women may feel included in the movement, or Dunham’s unapologetic reflections as a young woman grappling with the misogyny of today, the new wave of cultural critics provides a welcome contribution to the complicated terrain of gender politics, and demonstrates the perpetual relevance and necessity of multidimensional feminist debate.