Dec 2 2016

How to Win at Feminism: The Definitive Guide to Having it All—And Then Some! by Beth Newell, Sarah Pappalardo, and Anna Drezen

Becca Rothfeld

web exclusive


How to Win at Feminism:

The Definitive Guide to Having it All�—And Then Some!

by Sarah Pappalardo, and Anna Drezen Beth Newell

HarperOne

$23 List Price

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In September 2015, in an effort to appeal to millennial voters, Hillary Clinton submitted to an interview with Lena Dunham for Lenny, Dunham's newsletter. "What would a Clinton administration bring back to the White House?" Dunham asks perkily. Hillary begins: "I will focus on raising incomes, women's rights, and . . . " But Dunham interrupts: "I mean more like what furniture. Like, what cute furniture are you definitely going to bring back with you. Like I don't know if you're into Etsy or Anthropologie." Hillary looks at her with exaggerated shock. "Uh . . . " she falters. It's a nauseatingly cutesy routine. The point, of course, is that no one takes female politicians seriously. A woman in the White House could never be anything more than an interior decorator. Ha, ha. The joke, far past its expiration date at its inception, is now less funny than ever.

But even then, Dunham's attempt at light-hearted commentary on the roles to which powerful women are habitually relegated fell flat, perhaps because her interview wasn't much different from what it purports to critique. Its focus is on Hillary's personal and emotional life, not her platform—and the result is a cloyingly sanitized gender politics that shock and unsettle no one, least of all confidently complacent men. Like so many fashionable feminists, Dunham pays lip service to female accomplishment but remains wary of emotional "excess" and confident self-assertion that deviates too far from a comfortable script. Quirkiness is charming until it's genuinely challenging, at which point it becomes disagreeable. (In Girls, Dunham sometimes forays into bolder territory.) Clinton is not allowed to express brash confidence, the exclusive province of men, but she isn't entitled to a full-fledged display of feelings either. All that's left to her is a neutered femininity, contrite at every turn.

Dunham's joke about White House furniture is a low-stakes one, at best a feeble challenge to a culture in which female achievement is the ultimate faux pas. But the website Reductress, a satirical online magazine cofounded by comedians Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo in 2013, forays more boldly into similar territory. ("How to Campaign for Hillary in a Quiet, Doubtful Way," it goads us.) Last month, Newell, Pappalardo, and editor Anna Drezen decamped from the Internet to try their hand at a longer-form project. The result, How to Win at Feminism: The Definitive Guide to Having it All—And Then Some, is a whirlwind parody of contemporary mainstream feminism headed by Plinky the Fairy Witch, a "second-wave feminist fairy who was trapped in a tampon dispenser at Lilith Fair for twenty years." In various mock instructional chapters ranging from "How to Feminist" to "How to Savor Being a Savior," Newell, Pappalardo, and Drezen show how women often couch their bids for male approval in the breezy rhetoric of feel-good pop-progressivism, packaging compromise in the language of activism. "When a woman openly shares an opinion, she is often viewed as angry or 'reactionary,'" Newell, Pappalardo, and Drezen caution. "You don't want to get flagged by men as annoying or unlikable, do you?" Of course not. A handy list of "chill" alternatives to rage or complaint follows. Rather than "feeling disempowered," try decorating: "Men aren't as offended by feminism when it's presented subtly, right under their noses, in the guise of being things other than self-respect." Instead of yelling, try drinking tea: "When he just doesn't get why you 'can't just take a joke,' a relaxing organic rooibos tea can help you meditate on why you've stayed in this relationship for so long without starting to hate yourself." The "Women at Work" section counsels successful women on "how to apologize for having it all": "Apologize to your baby for having a PhD," it exhorts. "Say 'I'm sorry' every hour, on the hour." There are useful tips on "how to take up more space, but not too much space," because "we want to say to men, 'We're here in the room. You can literally see us,' without being too annoying."

How to Win at Feminism is a brutally funny, brutally sad primer on how to diminish and deprecate yourself at every turn, and there's a wealth of substance behind its easy bluster. It's satirical, but its jokes paint a painfully accurate portrait of life as an exercise in apology. For a woman, to be at all, but especially to be successful, is already to be too much. And how relieving it is to see all this taken irreverently but also seriously, for once.

Because beneath its flashy pink trappings and satirical snark, How to Win at Feminism is a deceptively serious book. Parody is a mode of legitimization, rendering visible so many of the feelings that we're not supposed to express or even acknowledge: the sting of unanswered texts ("8 Brands More Responsive Than Your Boyfriend"), or of work-place invalidations ("Wow! This Guy Harassed Dana Then Endorsed Her For Editing On LinkedIn"), and pressures to frame our most crippling insecurities as if they were no more than quirks ("Earrings to Twist Compulsively While Panicking at Social Events"). These aren't just private travails—they're also systematic affronts. The slick apparatus of commercial feminism glosses over the underlying cultural logic that always diminishes women, by promoting an easier, sexier brand of empowerment. To "win" at this kind of feminism is to position oneself as trendily progressive while refraining from alienating men at all costs. Its object is akin to Dunham's: to afford us the self-congratulatory thrill of identifying as revolutionary without risking much of anything. This is feminism recast as self-promotional entertainment.

Last month, when I accidentally liked one of my never-quite-boyfriend's ex-girlfriend's profile pictures, I found vindication for my behavior on the Reductress site. The offending "like" was the logical endpoint of weeks of sharing the ex's photos with long-suffering friends, so that we could jointly evaluate her eyebrows, but it left a visible trace. I could no longer retreat into the comfortable apparatus of plausible deniability or hazy euphemism—and as I scrambled over the slippery terrain of millennial relationship-space—a morass of ill-defined non-commitments and quietly institutionalized evasions—I discovered that a straightforward acknowledgement of investment is the least forgivable gaffe. The accidental "like" was taboo because it brought into the open what is often so maddeningly implicit. In its wake, I had to admit to my stalking, and to everything it portended: I had to admit to caring, in all its unabashed nakedness.

Thank god, then, for the Reductress article "Cool New Identities To Assume After You Accidentally Friend His Ex-Girlfriend," which was concrete proof that my seemingly anomalous blunder was of a piece with wider cultural tendencies. It demonstrated that I was not uniquely crazy, and that I wasn't even particularly unique. I discovered the rare pleasure of having my secret feelings acknowledged: Reductress repurposed my embarrassment and weaponized it against the never-quite-now-not-at-all-boyfriend. It was not so much a parody of my blunder as a parody of a culture so allergic to emotion that it recoils from even accidental admissions of affection.

It can be heartbreaking to care so much when the world rewards male callousness and denigrates female passion, no less on the national stage than interpersonally. But for every heartfelt text that that some boy ignores—"5 Heartfelt Texts That Mike Will Respond To With 'K'"—and every woman who apologizes for succeeding, Reductress reverses the usual order. Here, it's the men who reply with "k"—and the culture that countenances them— that appear ridiculous.

Becca Rothfeld is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard.

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