Rebecca Walker
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TO BE REAL: TELLING THE TRUTH AND CHANGING THE FACE OF FEMINISM
by Sonia Shah, © Contemporary Women's Issues Database, May 01, 1996


     
 

Edited by Rebecca Walker. Doubleday, 1995, 12.95. There are few things more irksome than an insider pretending to be an outsider. These insider-cum-outsiders--Steve Forbes comes to mind--capitalize on outsider status, often perverting and diluting real outsider critiques, leaving those truly outside the mainstream to flounder with even fewer resources and less cultural tolerance. They steal the thunder and take up too much room.

In To Be Real, consumate feminist-establishment insider Rebecca Walker--daughter of novelist Alice Walker and goddaughter of Gloria Steinem--presents herself as a sort of outsider to feminism who will, to paraphrase her chosen subtitle, tell us the real truth about feminism and change the face of it by doing so. Walker and her friends, she writes in a book-promotional letter, "resisted being labeled or boxed by a word that felt dated and totalizing in its demands." Young women such as herself, she writes, are not "'dumb and ignorant'. . . because we don't call ourselves feminists, rather we are making our own way, discovering our own truths and developing our own language."

Walker has compiled in To Be Real twenty essays that, as she writes in the introduction, "explore the ways that choices or actions seemingly at odds with mainstream ideas of feminism push us to new definitions and understandings of female empowerment and social change."

There are two ways to think of this book. On one hand, it could be seen as one of those books that apply crusty old feminist critiques to the current scene, adding some modern refinements and updating here and there. Books like that--Barbara Findlen's Listen Up!: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation is one example, to which Walker contributed (as did I, to be fair)--serve a useful historical purpose even if they are a bit dull for those already familiar with feminist thought. After all, any feminist who is still alive and alert to the world is continually re-applying feminism to her current scene. That's what life is. Still, those readers new to feminism who simply can't relate to the historical contexts of classic analyses can perhaps better understand them when applied to modem situations and icons with which they are familiar If so, so be it. The ideas should get out there in as many different and differently accessible forms as possible.

On the other hand, To Be Real could be seen as a book that not only adds on to the existing body of feminist thought but exposes its fallacies to uncover a truer, better feminism. I suspect Walker and her big-house publisher (Doubleday/Anchor) hope folks read To Be Real as the latter myth-smashing type of book. "With sincerity and emotion," waxes Anchor's press release, "the writers fearlessly describe their liberation from feminist ideals, notions that conflict with the reality of who they are."

Unfortunately, To Be Real falls way short as the former type of book and is seriously flawed as the latter.

What does To Be Real tell us that either updates or exposes feminism? Well, that some feminists like to wear skirts, some like to be spanked before sex, some are men (gasp!), some want to have kids, and some are aroused by pornography.

Jeannine Delombard tells us in "Femmenism" that she "wanted to wear pouffy pastel party dresses." Naomi Wolf writes in "Brideland" that she "absolutely had to create a wedding dress that had an eighteenth-century bodice, three-quarter-length sleeves, and an ankle-length skirt with voluminous panniers." Donna Minkowitz shares that "reading about real-word rape and torture" turns her on sometimes.

A few contributors pose some more provocative--and substantive--critiques. Veena Cabreros-Sud defends violent resistance to sexist violence and criticizes the class bias of the nonviolent stance of some feminists: "Most white feminists look at me disdainfully when I recount some of my choice violent moments. . . . The messages are, on the surface, 1) I'm educated and you're not, 2) I'm upper class and you're not, and 3) I'm a feminist and you're not." Other notably insightful essays include Greg Tate's piece on Black lesbians and bell hooks's light-hearted but thoughtful chapter on aesthetics.

Is any of this new? Well maybe, if you bought the backlash media caricature of feminists as grim, man-hating Stalinists. And if you never bothered to read any kind of feminist literature. The worst thing, though, is that To Be Real contributors--save the few exceptions mentioned above--don't say "No, gentle reader, we feminists are not the dopes Newsweek and the New York Times say we are, we are diverse, fully alive people with a variety of interests and passions." Not at all. No, To Be Reals contributors claim--quite smugly and self-righteously--that they are recovering from other feminists.

Throughout, contributors complain about orthodoxy in feminism (much of which seems to be in terms of fashion). Nary a shred of evidence is presented to defend these claims, save accounts of some meetings and recycled gossip here and there. Still, despite the lack of evidence that feminists have set up a strict ideological and lifestyle regimen, and the overwhelming but unmentioned evidence that the mainstream media has unfairly presented feminists as having done so, the well-fed contributors to To Be Real blame the feminists. According to former Newsweek journalist Danzy Senna, second-wave feminism of the 1970s had a "party-pooping rigidity, where revolution came defined by strict dress codes."

"Certain aspects of lesbian feminism were enabling . . . rather than empowering. . . . The standard dyke or lesbian feminist uniform--baggy, rumpled clothes, Birkenstocks, no makeup, unstyled hair," criticizes Jeannine Delombard, "may have contributed to the negative body images many of us had (and may still have)."

Princeton professor Gina Dent complains that "the current practice of confession . . . [establishes] a feminism that puts forward its program so stridently, guards its borders so closely, and legislates declare its name." Corporate lawyer Min Jin Lee asks: "Why should I have to bill so many hours, why should I give up relationships, why should I always be politically neutral, why should I wear these incredibly boring clothes, why should I give up having children?" Well, for no reason but that you choose to do it, thinks this reader. But Lee somehow holds feminists responsible: "So, Harriet, Susan, Charlotte, Angela, Betty, and Emma . . . did I miss your point?"

To Be Real contributors describe the negative effects of imposed orthodoxy--self-censorship, in authenticity, shame, fanaticism--well and in detail. In Pact, feminists themselves have persuasively shown that coercion is not always physical--that the authority of culture., ideology, and economics can be just as punishing and coercive as that of the sword. But the coercion that To Be Real's contributors tacitly decry--from feminism and feminists--has neither culture, economics, nor physical might behind it. They claim to have been coerced to toe a rigid feminist line by some books and a few women in their lives. But rather than chalk their submission to this orthodoxy up to their own youthful lack of courage and integrity, they blame feminism.

Now, let us for a moment imagine that feminism, in practice or in its excesses, has perhaps set up these rigid protocols as the contributors claim. Are they really so had? So very difficult to transgress? What happens if you cross these supposed boundaries? Are you barred from women's studies classes? Kicked out of feminist study groups? Ignored in feminist organizing? Condemned in the feminist press? Coopted, maligned, dismissed? It's hard to say. Few of the contributors have been involved in feminist political circles enough to know. The fear of rejection alone--for such transgressions as wearing skirts and buying Snoop Doggy Dogg records--has been enough to keep these men and women away from entering feminist circles. (Funnily enough, any similar fears of rejection they may have had about mainstream institutions hasn't prevented them from entering corporate law offices or the like. For that, they somehow found the courage.)

Anyone who has seen and heard about any of the many instances of violent coercion and cruel exclusions in the world may find themselves more than a little impatient with these whinings about the coercive power of frowns and sneers. For me, reading Zlata's Diary and Red Azalea--about a thirteen-year-old girl's journal during the war in Sarajevo and a woman during the Cultural Revolution in China respectively--put To Be Reals arguments against feminist "orthodoxy" in shamefully stark relief. photo omitted

What to do? Can feminists really be held responsible for these folks feeling like they can't come to the party? I'd have to say no. Not that feelings aren't worth paying attention to. But to move from someone's feeling to an assignment of blame requires more than just the expression of that feeling. Without some real evidence of actual exclusionary or coercive events documented by different people over time--such as has been shown (and felt) by feminists of color in their interactions with white feminists--I can't see how feminists can be held responsible for these writers' perceptions. The real culprit is the backlash media. That the contributors blame feminism instead points to the continuing need for feminists to slam the media lies about us. And also to the sad fact that it is still easier to criticize feminists than patriarchal institutions.

Gloria Steinem attempts to clarify her take on the maligned feminist position in her pained foreword to the book. It's the most negative foreword I've ever read. Her characteristic graciousness can barry conceal her offense at the contents of the book. "In fact, feminism has always stood for the right to bare, decorate, cover, enjoy, or do whatever we damn please with our bodies," she writes.

If anything, the idea that there is or ever was one "right" way to be a feminist has become more prevalent in the 1990s. . . . I confess that there are moments in these pages when I--and perhaps other readers over thirty-five--feel like a sitting dog being told to sit. . . . Imagine bow frustrating it is to be held responsible for some of the very divisions you've been fighting against, and you'll know bow feminists of the 1980s and earlier may feel as they read some of these pages.

Steinem's compromise with the book is that "it will take a while before feminists succeed enough so that feminism is not perceived as a gigantic mother who is held responsible for almost everything, while the patriarchy receives terminal gratitude for the small favors it bestows." In her afterward, Angela Y. Davis largely concurs:

What I find most interesting about these stories is the way many of them imagine a feminist status quo. . . Whatever it is, it establishes strict rules of conduct which effectively incarcerate individuality. . . . I feel obliged to try to understand these writers' position, while simultaneously arguing for the same kind of nuanced vision of historical feminism that the anthology wants to apply to third-wave feminism.

Still, according to Davis, Walker's effort is "daring," since "anytime we challenge the 'old school,' [we] run the risk of treading dangerous turf." I have to disagree. In the case of feminism, challenging the old school is pretty well the most lucrative thing you could possibly do. Check out the press for and sales of feminist-bashing books by Katie Roiphe, Naomi Wolf, Camille Paglia, and others compared to those books that build on feminism!

Sonia Shah is not over 35. She works as an editor/publisher in the South End Press collective and is currently editing an anthology of radical Asian women's writing.


Copyright 1996 Sojourner Feminist Institute

 

 

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