To Be Real
Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism
Publishers Weekly Review:
Edited and introduced by Walker, journalist, Ms. editor, and coauthor of House and Home: Spirits of the South (Univ. of Washington Pr., 1994), this anthology adds to the growing body of work by and about younger feminists. "An eclectic gathering of folks: 20 young activists, academicians, artists explore the theme of how they define themselves as individuals, against both traditional stereotypes and the feminist ideas and ideals of their parents' generation. bell hooks's "Beauty Laid Bare" discusses the role of material objects in traditional black culture; Naomi Wolf's "Brideland" examines the enduring attraction of the bride image. Other topics include sex in cyberspace, women and aggression, the politics of taking names, feminist hip-hop, how to hold a nonsexist stag party, and the trials of an aspiring corporate attorney. On the whole, it's an energetic and original collection that belongs in most libraries."-- Beverly Miller, Boise State Univ. Lib., Id. Copyright © 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Reviewer Emilie Fale is Assistant Professor of Communication at Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY:
The 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.
Rebecca 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.
Gina 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.
How 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.
Naming 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 women's subordination.
Unlike 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.
Danzy 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.
Min 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 work.
Jason 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.
In 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.
On-line 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 of reality.
Reviewer Emilie Fale is Assistant Professor of Communication at Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY. References Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Connell, R.W. Masculinities. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995. Scott, Joan W. "The Evidence of Experience." Critical Inquiry 17 (1991): 773-797. Walker, Rebecca, ed. To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism. New York: Anchor Books, 1995. Copyright 1998, Women and Language