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Reformist vs. Revolutionary Feminism Revisited

28. Sexy Feminism by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Heather Wood Rudulph

A couple years ago, I wrote a post entitled Thoughts on Reformist vs. Revolutionary Feminism, based on bell hooks' Feminism Is for Everybody. Since then, it's been one of the most popular hits on the blog. It seems that a lot of people are wondering, what is the difference between reformist and revolutionary feminism?

I don't have all the answers or know all the history. But, in my understanding, "reformist feminism" aims to give women equal rights to men, as applied in Western democratic, capitalist societies. Reformist feminists are the advocates of equal pay and of more women in CEO positions and STEM fields. Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In and even Betty Friedan of The Feminine Mystique would be considered reformist feminists. these women are aiming to increase women's presence and power in the workforce, aiming to treat women exactly (or almost exactly, save the contentious motherhood issue) like men.

"Revolutionary feminists," as I understand it, have more radical aims. There are probably a wide variety of aims and not all revolutionary feminists (nor reformist feminists, for that matter) agree on what should be done or how. but the aims of revolutionary feminism include overturning current political and economic systems and instituting systems entirely free of hierarchy. The goal of revolutionary feminism is a world where everyone is truly treated as equals, even regardless of, say, willingness to work or raise families.

When I wrote that post two years ago, I considered myself more of a reformist. Now, I'm not so sure. I'm somewhere in between. Certainly, I don't advocate an immediate overthrow of the government. That would cause far too much chaos and bloodshed. Actually, any bloodshed is too much. But I've begun to think differently about the world since reading bell hooks' book.

That's a very long introduction to the place I was at when I picked up Sexy Feminism at the library. The book, which came out this year, is based on the authors' eponymous website, Judging from their book and the criteria above, I would classify Armstrong and Wood Rudulph as reformist feminists, but also people who are thinking carefully about what it means to live as a woman in our society.

Unlike hooks' book, which deals with issues from education to reproductive rights, Sexy Feminism tackles, for the most part, the small, everyday issues--waxing, makeup, dieting, and plastic surgery. To be honest, I didn't really relate to a lot of it, and I'm not sure if it's because I'm singularly unfocused on appearance or the authors' research is not as all-encompassing as they appear to think, but in any case, they presented a lot of interesting information on things that some women will do or feel they have to do, for the male gaze or for themselves. That, the authors seem to think, is the real feminist issue-are you doing it for men or doing it for yourself?

One part of the book I found valuable was their discussion of first, second, third, and fourth wave feminism. I didn't even know there was a fourth wave! Repeatedly, the issue of sex-positivism comes up, a sticky issue between second and third wavers. Second wavers, Gloria Steinem among them, think that all porn is anti-feminist, as is stripping and sex work. Third wavers believe in the right to "express their inner slut." Armstrong and Wood Rudulph take, I think, the thoughtful and logical position that, well, it depends.

You can't put on a micro-mini and fishnets and call it feminist. But it's not necessarily anti-feminist either. If that's what you want to wear, if you're doing it to assert your right to dress however you want, well and good. But if you're putting it on for a boyfriend and you don't really feel comfortable or if you think it's the only way you'll get hit on in the bar, well, stop, rethink. According to Sexy Feminism, women do all kinds of things from Brazilian waxes (described in graphic detail and they sound like torture, why would anyone do that, ever?) and nose jobs, because they think it's what men want.

I spoke with my friend about this and she and I agree, YOU DO NOT NEED TO DO ANYTHING SPECIAL TO FIND THE PARTNER THAT IS RIGHT FOR YOU. Armstrong and Wood Rudulph include a chapter on dating, and they compare two of the most influential dating books for women and for men, The Rules and The Game, respectively (I'm not linking because no one should read them). Their parody of the interaction between followers of both was pretty hilarious and telling; the two could never get together because neither would admit to liking each other nor would they agree to see each other at a time or place convenient for the other. The authors admit this, and I will too--these strategies can work. For tricking a man into dating or maybe even marrying you and for tricking a woman into bed. But guess what? These books assume that just anyone is good enough for you. You're better than that and you won't be happy for very long with someone that you don't really know or like, and who doesn't really know or like you. The best way to find a mate, if that's even what you're into? Find someone who likes your hobbies, who feels comfortable interacting at a level that you do. The girls who like to primp will end up with guys who appreciate it. The girls and guys who like to stay at home and watch movies will find each other. Feminist dating means breaking the rules. Armstrong and Wood Rudulph even progressively hint that you can have whatever kind of relationship is right for you, be it long-term monogamy or serial hook-ups. It's okay to go after what you want, but respect the other person enough to be upfront about it.

Armstrong and Wood Rudulph rely heavily on Gloria Steinem to speak for them, even to define feminism, which in her words is "the belief in the full social, economic, and political equality of women and men. I would just add 'and doing something about it.'" They take the last idea to heart in the last chapter, actually called an afterword, on activism and provide lists of activist opportunities. While useful, it's a relatively small portion of the book. They also refer frequently to Betty Friedan, who has been critiqued for identifying problems that were mostly only applicable to upper middle class white women. While Armstrong and Wood Rudulph, in fine twenty-first century fashion, give plenty of lip service support to homosexuality and transgender people, there's not a really full discussion of issues for them and some of the comments about dating "well, this doesn't really apply to lesbians" is frankly untrue. Hierarchical gender dynamics can still come into play in homosexual relationships (not that they do necessarily, but they can). Furthermore, there is very little mention of women of color and no discussion of particular issues or stereotypes they face. This is very much a book for straight, white, upper middle class women.

Then again, the book is not really anything less than it is trying to be. The authors admit to covering primarily appearance-related issues and to being straight, white suburban women themselves, so it is quite likely they know who their audience is. For information on the horrifying things that women will do for appearances and thought-provoking discussion of where feminism and sex positivism intersect, this is your book. Revolutionaries, look elsewhere.


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