Books for the Budding Feminist

First of all, I wanted to go ahead and mention that I’ve changed the name of this blog from “A Second Infancy” (which I realized over time was giving the impression of a mommy-blog) to “Discharmed” (which really makes no frackin’ sense but I like the way it sounds! Interpret the meaning how you wish). I also made an effort to create my own banner which resulted in epic failure because the theme I’m using only allows for a puny header, hence the microscopic image at the top of my pages. Maybe one day I’ll invest in a domain and then have more customizable freedom with my layout but until then I’m just going to have to suffer through the clunkiness.

The purpose of my post today is to showcase some neat reading material for people who have “feminist tendencies” but haven’t quite unpacked their opinions and beliefs. Despite their obvious importance, I tried to avoid including more “dated” feminist works in here (think A Room of One’s Own or The Feminine Mystique). Let me reiterate: these books are still very significant, even today, and I encourage others to read them! However, when I was first dipping my toes into women’s studies, I found myself drawn to books that I found to be especially relevant and observant of trends now, in the early twenty-first century. These books aren’t exactly cut-and-dry as far as what the women’s movement in the U.S. *should* be doing, rather, they function as discussion-starters or as food for thought. These books make you think about the issues currently at hand in our culture, in the wake of events like the Steubenville rape case. Although the writing style in these texts is simpler than what one might find in an academic study of feminist theory, I feel like that makes them more accessible.

These books require an open mind. I don’t know if I agree 100% with everything these texts argue for or against, but that’s the beauty of thinking for yourself, right?

purityThe Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (2009) by Jessica Valenti — This was the first “feminist” book I ever read. As someone who has always objected to the double-standard between men and women’s sexual freedom, I feel like Valenti perfectly articulates the hypocrisy of this way of thinking. The Purity Myth explores the virgin/whore dichotomy in American culture, examining not only our culture’s obsession with sex and with abstaining from sex, but also the responsibility we force upon women to protect themselves from sex. The book’s thesis basically is as follows:

“What’s the difference between venerating women for being fuckable and putting them on a purity pedestal? In both cases, women’s worth is contingent upon their ability to please men and to shape their sexual identities around what men want.”

And if you’re not into the idea of reading the whole book, check your library to see if they carry The Purity Myth documentary film-adaptation on DVD. I wasn’t able to find any instant-streaming links online which is a bummer, but the film is seriously almost as good as the book.

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The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (1991, updated 2002) by Naomi Wolf — Huh, another book that uses “myth” in the title! The Beauty Myth is older than the other books I’ve described in this post but its argument that society’s obsession with female physical appearances as a way to strip women of power is still relevant today, I think. I’m reminded of the documentary Miss Representation (2011) in which Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin had their public images contrasted during the 2008 election. Clinton was characterized as a “ball-busting harpy” and Palin stereotyped as a ditzy, sexualized homemaker. Both Clinton and Palin’s appearances were scrutinized while their political opinions and platforms were regarded as afterthoughts. Wolf’s book is actually more academic than the others in this list, as she examines the expectations of women to stay beautiful and illustrates the parallels between beauty and religion, sex, hunger, violence and more. I find it problematic that our culture is obsessed with the pissing contest of determining what is beautiful; think about the many images floating around facebook that shame thin women while glorifying curvier body types (bodies that are often still posed and dressed in a way that panders to the male gaze). I also like how Wolf clarifies that sexism and misogyny hurts both male and female genders (I wish that the book had less of a gender-binary approach and examined alternative gender identities but this was the early 90’s so I’m not sure how commonplace genderqueer discussions were). In any case, I think that this text is essential for feminists who want to understand more about the more “subtle” oppression of women in a society that glorifies the unattainable.

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005)Femalechaupigs by Ariel Levy — This book is definitely more of an eyebrow-raiser for me. I really like Levy’s approach to the internalization of the “male gaze” that women seem to struggle to satisfy and I also like her exploration of the girl-hate that can be found even outside of high schools.  Raunch culture is what Levy argues encourages women to compete with one another to seem as appealing as possible—”hot”—to men, even if it means degrading and tearing down other women and their physical appearances. This book is especially important to me because I, too, used to wave my internalized misogyny like a banner, insisting that I wasn’t “like all of the other girls.” I wanted to be like one of the boys but more than anything, I wanted to seem attractive to boys, which meant performing a certain way. This is the part of Levy’s argument that I find a little problematic:

“A tawdry, cartoonlike version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous, it no longer seems particular. What we once regarded as a *kind* of sexual expression we now regard *as* sexuality.”

Some parts of the book seem a little slut-shamey to me and I have to wonder if demonizing sex and sexuality is really the answer to objectification. As I pointed out in my post about Victoria’s Secret, women should of course be encouraged to wear and do whatever they damn well please. But Levy’s argument hinges on the notion that women aren’t aware of what they’re doing as being degrading and that by embracing sexuality, women are doing nothing more than pandering to men and male desires. That being said, I do like much of what Levy is saying in this book and even her more problematic and complex arguments make for some pretty interesting discussion.

cinderCinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (2011) by Peggy Orenstein — What kind of third-wave feminist book list would this be without a book about young girls and the gendering of children’s products? Cinderella Ate My Daughter is as much a critique of consumer culture as it is a critique of the hyper-femininity little girls are expected to consume as small children before “graduating” to more adult, arguably sexualized toys like Bratz or Monster High. Orenstein in particular focuses on the shift that happened in the early 2000’s—when I was entering my pre-teen years—that resulted in a booming market directed at young girls, flooded with products like never before after the success of the Disney princess line of costumes, dolls and toys. Although I’m not a parent (and frankly, I don’t ever plan to be one) I find Orenstein’s “exposé” pretty interesting even if it isn’t exactly “fight-the-power!” feminist. Orenstein even attends a children’s beauty pageant and meets some of the contestants and their parents, many of whom appear on TLC’s reality show (and my guilty pleasure) Toddlers and Tiaras, in order to understand more about the lengths parents will go to ensure that their little girl is the sparkliest, prettiest child in the room. Parent blogs are all abuzz with this book which I find interesting because Orenstein is equally as critical of parents as she is of the companies that sell “girliness” to female children while still recognizing that ultimately parents have limited control over what their children are exposed to on a daily basis.

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Feminist Frequency: Conversations with Pop Culture (2009—present) — Okay, so this is totally not a book! I just couldn’t resist featuring Anita Sarkeesian’s fabulous website and videos here  because her content was what really got me started thinking about feminism and women’s issues. Sexism in the gaming community is a pretty hot topic right now and is definitely something that I’ve not only noticed, but also been a victim of in the past. Sarkeesian is currently producing an entire series of videos—known as “Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games”—in order to examine in-game sexism that can function to reinforce gender stereotypes and even result in a sexist attitude that plagues the gaming community as a whole. Her original “Tropes vs. Women” series, comprised of six seven-to-ten minute videos, is definitely worth watching.

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