Roxane Gay, Camille Paglia and Jessa Crispin at War in My Head

Roxane Gay, CHF
Photo courtesy of Chicago Humanities Festival. Credit: Ben Gonzales

Several weeks ago, I went to hear Roxane Gay read from her latest book Hunger as a part of the Chicago Humanities Festival Now summer programming. The event fell on the second to last day of spring. For me, it closed out a season of feminist re-evaluation spurred by new book releases and lectures by high profile feminist writers visiting Chicago to promote their books. Roxane Gay speaking about the experience of being in her body, and through that nexus discussing the fat acceptance movement, gender politics, and Black Lives Matter added necessary contrast to the conservative radicalism of Camille Paglia’s lecture at the Harold Washington Library in March and the February release of the recent novel-length manifesto written by former Chicagoan Jessa Crispin.

My contemplative feminist spring started when I read Crispin’s book Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. I found myself in a tailspin, not because as the title implies the feminist movement is losing Crispin, the editor and founder of the recently deceased online herald of feminist literary criticism Book Slut, but rather because the book read like an unfocused, overlong rant. No one reads social theorists to find their intellectual glass slipper. But it’s rare for me to read someone considered a thought leader only to find I take more issue with the nature of their writing and the lack of structure to their argument, rather than their ideas.For many people, the November election of a man who’s unabashedly and proudly sexist over a more qualified, more legitimate female candidate, revealed a deep crack in  the gender equality movement. Crispin, admittedly not a supporter of Hillary Clinton, was probably not as surprised as the rest of us by the November election results nor what it might suggest about the state of American feminism. Her book purports that the feminist movement is diseased and weak despite the ever-increasing popularity of the self-identifier. This manifesto is Crispin’s reJessa Crispin, bookjection of any alignment with the wimpy third wave feminists concerned with the expansion of beauty norms, sex positivity, and individualism, which she sees as a form of settling, a glass-half–full acceptance of systemic oppression.

Her book rails against the idea of empowerment feminism, a pseudo-feminist capitalist movement. She argues that the term feminism has been repurposed into this notion that we as women are have power to form our identity and that we exercise this power through our choices, namely our purchases. Practicing “self care,” expanding beauty norms to include women of all shapes, and using capitalism for our own personal gain no matter who we might trample on in the process are hardly feminist acts. These third wave feminist trends strike Crispin as compromises and tacit acceptance of the fact that we exist within a system that continues to oppress women and minorities. Crispin criticizes Sheryl Sandberg’s lean-in-ology by arguing that it’s merely joining the oppressive system instead of fighting against it, and denounces the idea of entering the capitalist system and working for your own gain. She continually argues for overthrowing the patriarchy that to her seems synonymous with capitalism. But this strikes me as an argument only an academic would be able to make, because they profit off capitalism without getting their hands dirty. Crispin makes it seem like there’s no way to enter the workforce and earn a living wage without joining the oppressors. Crispin’s feminism demands nothing less than the complete dismantling of the patriarchal system in which we live, yet she doesn’t offer any practical suggestions about how we dismantle this system nor how we make enough money to eat and pay rent while we’re dismantling. A healthy, childless woman arguing for drastically cutting ties and bashing those who won’t for acting selfishly and choosing comfort is pretty infuriating.

Crispin argues against the so-called feminist desire to expand beauty norms. She argues that there’s no place to consider beauty in the feminist movement at all. Crispin seems to dismiss the sex positivity movement, never really addressing it directly but rather referring to the third wave’s widescale pushback against Andrea Dworkin and her ilk. She suggests sex positive women are merely afraid of feminism appearing unattractive and anti-men. Crispin’s version of feminism is proudly anti-men and doesn’t exist in a binary system where attractive and unattractive are the only descriptors for a woman’s appearance.

She calls outrage feminism–the feminism of angry Facebook statuses and demanding people’s resignations–distracting and ineffective. Getting one person fired doesn’t change a system, and she thinks the angry mob often gets it wrong. She criticizes today’s feminists for their quick-fire judgment of older women and well intentioned men who don’t know the most current feminist fad lingo.

She criticizes false feminist ideologies, without offering an alternative way to be. She doesn’t outline what feminism ought to look like, nor what feminists ought to be like. The entirety of the book is grand unspecific criticisms. In 200+ pages, I can count on one hand the number of concrete examples that she employs to help make her argument. This format of vague, broad statements might’ve actually made a good manifesto if she’d limited herself to a few pages.

Crispin is a former Chicagoan. Her first book The Dead Ladies Project was published by the University of Chicago Press and it was a beautiful text interweaving the story of women writers, artists and influential wives who have been entirely neglected by the canon and forgotten by history, along with Crispin’s own story living in the cities frequented by these womstrong like mom teeshirten. She’s a capable feminist critic, writer and storyteller, but I don’t know why she wrote this bloated coffee table book without any pictures. Despite the weakness of the text, I value the criticism of empowerment feminism. Being a #GirlBoss is not an accomplishment for the feminist cause, it’s merely benefits your own interests. Buying this t-shirt for your friend’s daughter that says “Strong Like Mom” doesn’t help any moms or women, it supports Target and your ego. It was probably sewn by someone’s mother in her 12th hour of labor. I wish Crispin had offered more constructive suggestions for how we might resist oppressive forces.

In March, just after I finished Crispin’s Why I am Not a Feminist, the Chicago Public Library hosted Camille Paglia for a lecture and Q&A in promotion of her latest book Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism. Paglia took the stage a few minutes late. Standing off to the side, and with little introduction, she launched into what felt like a 30- minute tirade. During a rare breath she would look down at a piece of be-scribbled paper to guide her next diatribe. Paglia calls for “equity feminism” in which women don’t receive any “special treatment.” She believes that the current epidemic of sex assault on college campuses is more accurately the incidence of privileged young women acting like children and complaining about sex they regret having. Paglia kept referencing the idea of a drag queen in an alleyway, taking off their stilletto and using it as a weapon against attackers, as a sort of symbol for why she thinks women ought to protect themselves. Despite the offensive and repugnant nature of this opinion, and in the spirit of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, she makes some interesting points about underage drinking and sexual assault. She talks about MADD moving to change the federal drinking age to 21 in the early ‘80s and how bars were once a safe place on college campuses for socializing and intellectual debate. Rather than lessen underage drinking, the drinking age merely pushes college students out of public spaces when they want to drink. Fraternity parties and house parties are male-dominated spaces where drinking, more so than discussion, guides the course of the evening.

Paglia describes the women complaining about sexual assault now as inviting even more big brother control into their lives. I don’t entirely agree with her, but I do think we ought to snuff out the cause of the problem rather than just do a better job of punishing the criminals. We need to change the way our sons think about consent and teach women to be assertive and dominant, but she’s right, ending the sexual assault crisis will require us to change the way we socialize on college campuses.Paglia spoke a lot about college campuses. She’s been a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia for most of her career. As a millennial, I was struck by her criticism: college administrations are bloated and useless, resulting in increased cost for students; and universities are forgoing the value of a core education, which is a great disservice to students who graduate with a narrow range of knowledge and little understanding of the humanities and the world around them.

Camille Paglia Chicago
Credit: Time Magazine

While her seat in academia allows her to observe issues in university structure and culture, she seems cut off from the rest of the world. At one point during her lecture Paglia offhandedly mentioned that we Americans hyper focus on the enslavement of blacks, which compared to the rest of history was a brief episode. She pointed out that slavery exists today and we don’t make much of a stink about it. Comments like these speak to Paglia’s largest weakness—her position as a scholar seems at odds with her ability to understand people, and have a sense of compassion. We live in a post-slavery society that’s still in the process of reconstruction, but she doesn’t really see that because she’s not a black person, nor has she considered what life as a black person in America might be like. There is no cultural event or period in our history as a nation that can compare to that of slavery, so suggesting an objective comparison to different eras of slavery in history is not only pointless, but laughable.

I was familiar with most of Paglia’s rhetoric before her Chicago lecture from her essays and interviews. She talks a lot about the terrible disservice we’re doing to young men by feminizing school and pushing them away from their instincts. I rather think the type of elementary education she advocates, which encourages independence and creativity and offers children more unstructured time and freedom is beneficial for both sexes. Paglia extends this opinion to the workplace too it seems. She argues that women in the workplace not only encroach on male space and feminizes the workplace, but also that it makes women unhappy. Women have spent their days cloistered with other women for centuries, whether washing clothes or rearing children, and now the lack of female camaraderie is leaving women depressed. Paglia claims the feminine response to unhappiness is to make men suffer too. Here again, I think Paglia is grossly out of touch. I think growing depression, anxiety, and mental illness has more to do with the changing nature of work, and the level of inactivity and waning social interaction. We need to spend time with others to be happy, and sedentary digital jobs means that happens less and less. Regardless of my criticisms, Paglia’s version of feminism—pro-sex feminism in which women needn’t compromise between a personal life, their sexuality, and a professional career—has won. The hard-line, pseudo-socialist, Dworkian feminism Crispin calls for seems mostly dead.

And then there’s Roxane Gay who is probably the most famous feminist writer in this threesome, the least radical, and therefore the least interesting to me. Her approach is the most appealing and the hardest to critique. In Hunger, she tells the story of her body, writing her experiences and through those stories discussing systemic and cultural issues. Bad Feminist is a series of personal essays rife with pop culture critique. It’s closer to a project Paglia would take on, but vested in the personal while Paglia turns to history books. When Paglia makes grand statements about: minimizing the history of slavery in the U.S.—I  can say she doesn’t know what it’s like to be a black person in America today; women suffering from depression because they are working in mixed gender environments—I  can say she’s never stared at a computer screen for 40+ hours a week; victims of sex assault being wimps—I can say she’s never been assaulted. When Roxane Gay writes about the body acceptance movement and more specifically, fat acceptance, it is difficult to criticize her. While Crispin’s version of feminism scorned the beauty acceptance movement as a tacit acceptance of male oppression, Gay forgoes beauty and merely focuses on acceptance of one’s body.

There were a few moments in Roxane Gay’s CHF appearance that made me feel uncomfortable. The first was when she offhandedly mentioned the court of public opinion like it was a good thing. An audience member asked her whether she stands by her shaming of Nate Parker and whether black women ought to stand by him as a black artist or if as feminists they should shame him. Gay stood by her denouncement of Parker saying that where the court system failed, the court of public opinion has ruled decisively and he will likely never work again. She said she wished the same treatment were applied to Casey Affleck. I cringed in my seat, not because I consider either man respectable, but because of Gay’s reliance and even pride in the court of public opinion. Sometimes, the actual courts get it wrong and often I’d guess the public does too… While denouncing Affleck and Parker are probably safe bets, Gay seems quick to decide the fate of others.

The second uncomfortable incident also happened during the Q&A. An older white woman who seemed to be a big fan of Gay (she mentioned she’d attended the writer’s last speaking event in Chicago) asked about how to be a good ally to minorities. Roxane Gay seemed annoyed by the question. She essentially shut the woman down telling her to start by not asking that question. I was reminded of Jessa Crispin’s confusing contradictory statements about being less critical of men while also vitriolically denying that there’s a place for men in the feminist movement. Gay seemed to contradict the very notion of an intersectional feminist movement, suggesting there’s no space for non-minority women, and especially those who ask questions.

Real Housewives of Orange County

Ultimately it’s been freeing to attend these lectures and read these books without looking to agree. I applauded Jessa Crispin’s critique of empowerment feminism, “self care,” and beauty norms; Paglia’s call for fierce, stronger women and sex positivity; and Gay’s fat acceptance rhetoric and hyper-personal approach to social issues. I was struck by a few commonalities and extreme differences in these women. Both Paglia and Gay are avid watchers of the Real Housewives series. I was shocked. I’ve never thought of that show as anything but trash, yet both extremely brilliant academic women spoke about their fandom. While I’m not willing to waste my time on that show, I found it really comforting and freeing that they’re so shameless about enjoying it. I now feel somewhat less embarrassed saying I read mommy blogs and occasionally listen to country music, and that I find both really interesting. Paglia mentioned that she also listens to men’s sports radio shows, because she feels it’s one place she hears men being men, authentically and without any restraint. I think that’s part of why I read mommy blogs: there’s an authenticity and a truth to them that’s missing from most writing. On the other hand, country music has this base quality to it that I think is bizarre and funny.

A dissimilarity between these women is their response to critics. Roxane Gay reads all the reviews of her books and listens to how her interviews came out. She said she wrote Hunger because a reviewer critiqued Bad Feminist for not including the story of her assault. Paglia hasn’t said she reads every review but she does seem to give a lot of care and attention to the interviews she gives. Reading these interviews is great fun because they convey just what a whacko she is (here’s one of my favorites). Jessa Crispin on the other hand doesn’t seem to care one lick for her reviews, and she often seems annoyed and put upon in interviews. She said she doesn’t care in her book. She seemed to scream it at her readers. Maybe that’s why she isn’t as famous or well regarded as the others, and maybe she would’ve written a better book if she’d spent some time perusing criticism of her past writing.

My feminist spring has drawn to a close, but my feminist summer, feminist year, feminist life is just getting started. Here are some pro-women, pro-equality, cool-ass events coming up in Chicago that I’m hoping to check out and you should too:

Activism Series: Women Employed!


Sappho’s Salon


Emma Terhaar
Emma Terhaar