twenty-three contributors in To Be Real offer varied perspectives
and experiences that challenge our stereotypes of feminist
beliefs as they negotiate the troubled waters of gender
roles, identity politics and "power feminism."
The editor, Rebecca Walker, remarks in the introduction
that the "personal testimonies" are preferable
to academic articles because the former "build empathy
and compassion, are infinitely more accessible than more
academic tracts" (xxxvii). Nonetheless, these essays
are useful for feminist discourse scholars interested in
examining the social construction of reality.
Walker makes a commendable effort to encourage a discussion
of"contradiction and ambiguity, in using and much more
than we use either/or" when making choices and leading
'feminist' lives (xxxv). The inclusive "and" is
evident in the diversity of voices, positions and politics
of the essays, such as Cabreros-Sud's challenge to the peace-loving
ivory tower "mass-consumable" feminism joined
to her call for powerful, subversively defiant "guerrilla
girls" (46). The inclusive theme also animates both
Minkowitz's thoughtful piece on the politics of desire and
violence and bell hook's essay on reclaiming the term "beauty"
from its liaison with sexism and capitalism. We can enjoy
"beauty" again, hooks argues, by grounding "beauty"
in an ethics of mindfulness, non-oppressive consumption,
and the spiritual health of beauty.
Dent explores feminists' use of personal experience to advance
feminism and argues that the public performance of confession
within feminist circles transforms feminism to a religion.
She describes how a "feminist code of speaking a confession
(admitting one's guilt of past wrongs and the ensuing conversation
of feminist activism) has a "missionary zeal"
(63,73). As Joan Scott has done for history, Dent questions
the use of personal experience, which is always political,
and in this case religious, as evidence for feminist theory.
The problem with a religious feminism lies, Dent suggests,
in bringing the next generation into the fold, and she warns
that, "we risk [feminism's] dissolution in the name
of religious freedom" (74). Anna Bondoc concurs with
Dent and adeptly names feminist activism "the Church
of Progressive Politics" in her essay on identity (170).
In this same vein, even Rebecca Walker confesses guilt feelings
about her book in her introduction, because she fears the
book will not appear political enough (xxxix). However,
the politics in To Be Real are evident in the analyses of
power, gender, sexuality, class and race.
gender and sexuality get discursively produced in gay and
lesbian communication receives a thoughtful reading in Jeannie
DeLombard's essay. She coins a new term, "feminism,"
which she defines as "looking like a straight woman
and living like a dyke" (21). The challenge her position
makes to binary opposition is exemplified by her statement:
"Feminism" is calling yourself girly-girl and
insisting that others call you a woman. The politics of
deciding what you choose to call yourself and what others
call you depicts the complexities of gender and the politics
of language. DeLombard also discusses the differences between,
and the complexities of, lesbian culture and gay male culture.
is no less political for heterosexual couples like Jennifer
and David Allyn who, after a decision to marry, struggled
to decide a surname that expressed both individuality and
belongingness, and who saw hyphenating Like the Allyns,
Allison Abner acknowledges her awareness of the politics
of naming related to marriage. Abner states that the term
"wife" always sounds like the losing side of an
equation where x is greater than y, x being "husband"
(188). Her wariness of traditional patriarchal marriage
reflects her understanding of how these gendered terms reflect
DeLombard who insists that others call her woman, Jocelyn
Taylor remarks that she "left her politics at the door"
when she worked as a stripper in the Hustle Joint. They
were all called "girls" and referred to each other
as "girls" (222). Taylor's material constraints
(her need for cash) conflicted with her feminist beliefs,
and the money she earned financed political media activism.
The culture and gendered language of a place of employment
can conflict with our political sense of who we are. The
politics of language, for DeLombard, Abner, and the Allyns,
hinges on gendered terms, and can include distinctions of
ethnicity and materiality. The search for and negotiation
of empowering names, life relationships and material constraints
is ripe for analysis because to study the complexities and
contradictions of how we speak of ourselves illuminates
power relations and multiple identities.
Senna recalls noticing the power relations of gender (and
the power of heterosexual relations) as an 11 year old,
and writing the following two sentences in her diary, "Always
wear lipstick. Never get married" (7). These two sentences
are a code for "the power in attracting men" and
"the power in being free of men" (6). Her young
awareness of gender dynamics extended to conversation. She
observed "the finely choreographed dance of womantalk,
where everyone participated in, but no one dominated, the
conversation," contrasted with what happens when men
join the conversation. Men, described as "huge booming
creatures," dominate talk and occupy the center of
everyone's attention. Her analysis of talk practiced in
her home explains her personal experience with the structures
of gendered power.
Jin Lee's essay on her experience as a corporate lawyer
centers on the intrusive verbal and nonverbal messages of
control and harassment by a male lawyer at the closing of
a deal. Amruta Slee also pessimistically describes communication
in the work place. She considers the work place a "minefield"
where "you could be aggressive but not too aggressive,
if you thought someone was dumber than you it was a good
idea not to show it, you curbed your irritation at the small
slights and hostilities and learned limitations quickly"
(273-4). Senna, Lee and Slee demonstrate in their essays
the blatant and subtle gendered power dynamics at home and
Schultz's essay, "Getting Off on Feminism," is
about an "altenative bachelor party." Instead
of a more traditional party with an emphasis on "guys
talking shit about girls," the host encouraged a public
conversation "about what makes you feel sexy"
without hiring a sex worker (110-111). Intimate self-disclosure
by men, to a room full of men in party-mode, challenges
hegemonic masculinity (see also Connell 77). According to
Schultz, by "breaking the silence" through self-disclosure
on the subject of feeling sexy, the party goers "found
a new way of interacting" (124). Perhaps these men
were able to interact in a "new way" because the
party was a one-time event, but the essay raises curiousity
about how men talk in other gatherings where interaction
rules can be challenged.
addition to the discourse analysis in To Be Real, several
essays address the construction of gender and sexuality
in popular culture, performing art, and on-line. Naomi Wolf's
essay declares the traditional wedding, complete with virginal
white gown, to honor women's sexuality that comes at a cost.
She analyzes bridal magazines and the wedding rituals they
promote taking into account issues of class and culture.
Lisa Jones' account shows how a group of African-American
women's "Radio Caldonia High-Fidelity Performance Theater"
challenged norms of womanhood. Her essay illustrates the
effective politics and strategies of Black feminist humor
and art as a mode of expression and as a way to build alliances
with Black men.
communication and electronic mail offer another venue of
interaction in which to study discursive productions of
social reality. Mocha Jean Herrup's essay draws from theories
of social construction in challenging arguments that favor
an essential identity. Herrup describes her experience of
"cybersex" (sexually charged conversations in
virtual reality) as interactive, and she finds that "what
you think of as your 'real-life self' becomes implicated
in whatever sexuality you experience on-line" (245).
The choice is yours to be a gay man, straight woman, or
whatever you create. Similar to Judith Butler's notion of
the "performance of gender," Herrup contends that
"you must write, create and present a self" (245).
In an interesting discussion of the ethics of "gender
passing" (creating a fictional identity), Herrup argues
that the fear of being lied to is really "the fear
of being confronted with the fact that one's sexuality is
not as well-defined and unambiguous as one may have thought"
(245-6). Her account also recognizes the structures of essentialist
thinking that impede a view of socially constructed and
ambiguous self. Further research on the implications of
on-line technology for our understanding of gender and sexuality
seems entirely warranted.
The impact of this collection of personal narratives as
alternatives to feminist "tracts" might be limited
to reinforcing the attitudes of "true believers."
For example, in contrast to Senna's critique of men's conversational
power, Lee relies only on the details of personal experiences
and the reader's ability to read between the lines for the
analysis of power. Lee's appeal depends on her ability to
get empathy from her reader, but to persuade readers by
eliciting feelings of compassion and empathy was Walker's
goal anyway. Insights of the essays by Babreros-sud, hooks,
Dent, Senna, and Herrup extend their insights well beyond
Walker's call for narratives of personal experiences by
including analysis of the structure of power. They attend
to sometimes explicit, but often implicit gender ideology,
feminist ideology, material of power. They attend to sometimes
explicit, but often implicit gender ideology, feminist ideology,
material concerns, and the ambiguities of constructionism
and sexuality as distinctly challenging an otherwise patriarchal
cultural ideology of essentialism and binary opposition.
The book has heuristic value as it promotes the need to
question the mundane, to challenge assumptions, and reminds
us of the implications of a performative social construction
Emilie Fale is Assistant Professor of Communication at Ithaca
College, Ithaca, NY.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion
of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
R.W. Masculinities. Berkeley, CA: University of California
Joan W. "The Evidence of Experience." Critical
Inquiry 17 (1991): 773-797.
Rebecca, ed. To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing
the Face of Feminism. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.
Copyright 1998, Women and Language