I'm not sure what drove me to pick up Jessica Valenti's
but to say that doing so changed my life would be an understatement. I think I might always have been a feminist; growing up with the Spice Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer ingrained the idea of 'Girl Power' and I've always had a strong sense of justice (as all children have, it seems). But it wasn't until I read Full Frontal Feminism that I understood more about the movement, and began to claim the word 'feminist' as my identifier. I don't know that any women in my life before that point would have actively and proudly called themselves feminists, although many of them lived by feminist principles, so reading this book gave me an insight into exactly what the feminist struggle was about. I remember feeling that impotent rage that I think strikes all young people when they become politically aware; so angry at the state of things, and so unaware of how to affect change. Statistics on domestic violence and rape rang in my ears as I sought out more feminist work out in the world. My birthday present the year after was a pile of feminist literature, much of which still lines my bookshelves. I devoured feminist blogs and books and went on to study Gender, Sexuality and Queer Theory, doing my dissertation on online feminist communities like the one that Valenti set up -
. My feminism became more nuanced, more thoughtful. Still angry, but in a different way. Slowly but surely, feminism (and the other social justice principles I learnt along the way) became the guiding light of my life. And I owe that lightbulb moment, that spark, to Jessica Valenti. So I was more than a little excited to pick up her latest work,
- a memoir that asks the question:
Who would I be if I didn't live in a world that hated women?
This is not a book that tiptoes around the issue of misogyny and objectification, Valenti is unflinching in describing and discussing the effects of growing up female in a world where doing so means 'that it's not a matter of if something bad happens, but when and how bad.' At times, her descriptions of the ways she has been objectified and abused by men (from the 'everyday sexism' stuff, to real violence and violation) feels too raw, maybe even exaggerated. But really, how many of women can't come up with a similar number of stories that have either happened to us, or to people we know and love? We bond over these stories, sharing them between ourselves in the understanding that this is just what it means to be a woman, but, imagine, if just for one minute, that wasn't the case? I am 'lucky' in the grand scheme of things; my stories amount to a handful of street harassment incidents, some uncomfortable conversations with customers and colleagues, and a litany of gropes from strangers in bars and nightclubs. The fact that makes me 'lucky' is a sad indictment indeed. I shouldn't feel lucky, but I do, because I have heard stories from female friends that bring tears to my eyes to even think about - tears of empathy and pain, and also of anger that this is still the world we live in. That the best we can hope for is my story, the lucky one, rather than a life of lightness and freedom, of never having to go through life, as Valenti puts it 'knowing that our discomfort gave someone a hard-on'.
Valenti has been criticised for not giving her memoir an over-arching theme, for not finding a message in all of the pain and hurt and outrage to package up and give readers hope. I think it's all the more impactful due to that. There isn't an answer, and to expect women to be the one to provide one is in itself part of the problem. She is most honest and most scathing when she talks about the daily abuse she has been the recipient of as a prominent feminist on the Internet (flip to the back of the book for just a taste of the tweets and emails she has received, and tell me that these men don't hate women with every fibre of their being). The accepted wisdom is to feel sorry for Internet trolls, to ignore them, but in doing so we expect women to perform the labour of being okay under a barrage of abuse that would take its toll on even the most resilient of people. There are very real consequences to the kind of hate and abuse that men mete out to women they despise on the Internet, and it's all part of the spectrum of other kinds of violence and violation that Valenti describes over the course of her life. If you want a light and fluffy read, this definitely isn't it, but it will make you think and maybe change your perspective, which can only be a good thing. I highlighted so many quotes when I was reading it, but I wanted to leave you with this one...
Still, somehow, "man-hater" is tossed around with insouciance as if this was a real thing that did harm. Meanwhile we have no real word for men who kill women. Is the word just "men"? ... Still no name for the men who kill women because we have the audacity not to do what we're supposed to do: fuck you, accept you, want you, let you hurt us, be blank slates for your desires. You are entitled to us, but we're not even allowed to call you what you are.
Powerful stuff, right? I wasn't kidding.