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.
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."
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."
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
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."
To Be Real falls way short as the former type of book and
is seriously flawed as the latter.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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)."
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?"
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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
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:
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
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!
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