Why I Disagree With Everything In National Review's "Jailhouse Feminism"

The National Review's Mary Eberstadt believes self-proclaimed feminists are delusional, self-harming, thuggish, and pornographic. Seriously?

Mary Eberstadt recently wrote a piece in the National Review entitled "Jailhouse Feminism," in which she argues—deftly if maddeningly—that today's self-proclaimed feminists are delusional, self-harming, thuggish, pornographic, and generally too well-educated to behave the way we do. Our vocabulary is apparently too damn big for us to be angry, ornery, or vulgar.

Oh, and we're accomplishing nothing in the process.

Her "way in," as it were, is not surprisingly about the word "slut":

"Repurposing the word, it’s argued, will protect women from the damage done by 'slut-shaming,' or criticizing women for their sexual conduct. By 'women,' of course, is meant sexually active women of a certain type, the kind who in a different age were known as, well . . . you know. Of course this approach takes for granted the sexual revolution’s first commandment, which is that any such act ever committed by any woman is by definition beyond reproach. The more the word 'slut' gets hurled around, the harder it is not to think about its meaning, and the more likely it is to stick somewhere unwanted.

[A piece in the Daily Beast] showcased author Leora Tanenbaum, a writer who has used the word 'slut' in the titles of her books (Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation and I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet). She now campaigns to ban the word from the lexicon."

Let's parse some of this out, shall we?

1. The Reappropriation Of Derogatory Terms

Hate to break it to ya Mary, but this is a real-life phenomenon with a lengthy—and successful—history. Inverting the meaning of a word—or phrase—with the direct purpose of rendering it not only impotent but in fact, empowering, is a necessary and potent alchemy. From the "N" word—carrying with it perhaps the ugliest and most sordid history imaginable—to the more benign but ubiquitous notion of "Like a Girl," we've strove again and again and again to dismantle pejorative language by imbuing it with new meaning.

2. Banning Words From The Lexicon 

There is perhaps some undeniable irony here, but then again, Leora's book titles and campaign are designed to be an "elephant." To be the huge, looming, oh-so-problematic thing in the room. They're designed to, yes, make you flinch, recoil, and consider exactly what it is you are calling these women. These girls. The sharpness of the "S," dipping down into the back of the throat for a dull "lu" before your tongue hits the roof of your mouth, ending the word with the cruel crispness of a hard "t."

I think using the very term you seek to destroy in all its potent ugliness and perhaps more importantly, its associated societal and psychological bullshit, makes perfect sense. To me, it's like Anthony's Burgess's ultraviolence treatment a la A Clockwork Orange—pry open the eyes and pour in the disgusting deluge. Force-feed somebody diet cola and cigarettes—even something delectable like chocolate cake or porn—and they'll start to gag. To wonder what exactly they're tasting, what exactly is transpiring before them.

Moreover, and I cannot state this strongly enough, words are potent symbols of meaning; until we all get the next humankind upgrade and can communicate our actual intentions and feelings telepathically, we're going to have to settle on words for the time being. So let's all be a bit clearer in how we use them.

Courtesy of the Merriam Webster DIctionary:

Indulge me while I unpack some of this—Eberstadt, you paying attention?

Okay. Firstly, we have slut being made synonymous with slovenly: "You're an unkept, messy girl." I am, like, the biggest Slut ever if we intend to use it this way. This facet, for me, isn't very problematic.

Secondly, we have somebody who is saucy, minx-y, which in turn is defined as: "a sexually attractive and playful woman who often causes trouble." I think we can all agree this woman sounds awesome. "Trouble" is vaguely insulting but also vaguely alluring. I'd put this on par with the whole "bad boy" trope, as long as we're wandering down this road of genderized language.

But then comes the shitstorm of societal shaming. Things get far more complicated once "promiscuous" is made synonymous with Slut:

Oh my god, a sexuality that's comprised "all sorts of persons or things?!" Depraved! A sexuality "not restricted to one class, sort, or person?!" Sickening. A sexuality that is not restricted to one person? The end of days is upon us.

For me, when the smoke clears, Slut isn't even actually a "bad" word. (I realize that the dictionary threw "prostitute" in the mix, but truthfully, I don't believe people use them interchangeably.) If we take Slut simply as a word—a woman with many casual sexual partners—you're looking at the majority of the Western world possessing a vagina since 1960. In this context, it ceases to truly be derogatory. 

It's the fact that as a society, we have conflated women's sexual freedom—consensual, mutually pleasurable intercourse between two human beings—as wrong. We've blemished her body. We've shrouded her in shame. We've taken what is one of the most simple and lovely acts on earth (maybe Eberstadt has never experienced Afternoon Delight?) and rendered it as some destructive societal erosion. The idea seems to be that with every unmarried orgasm, every skin-tight skirt and sensual swing of my hips on a city street, I am taking myself—and every women with me—one step closer to the Darkness.

3. The Idea That Women Need To "Quiet Down"

If pursuing physical pleasure and sexual prowess is wrong, I don't want to be right. So yeah. Fuck you. We're angry. But our rage is distasteful to Eberstadt, and while she never says it explicitly, she finds it unladylike; she'd prefer her women a little softer and quieter please.  

"Well-off and well-educated women, particularly those of progressive mien, have been aping the vernacular of sailors in port for quite a while now  . . . the language of contemporary woman has become a cacophony of rage punctuated by curses—especially when progressive-minded women are talking among and about themselves . . . Today’s feminism exhibits instead what might be called jailhouse sensibility—a purposefully tough, at times thuggish filtering of reality that is deliberately stripped of decoration or nicety; snarling, at times animalistic; instantaneous in taking offense; in all, a pose toward life more common in a prison yard than among relatively well-off beneficiaries of higher education.

Yeah, you're damn right. We do want attention. And deserve it. We want orgasms without love or commitment. And we're tired of being told there's something wrong with that. Stop policing my body, my brain, and my agenda. 

Yeah. We're angry and we like it. We've been told for centuries that we're to be pretty as a picture; shave your legs, smile when asked; be gracious; soft; quiet; downcast your eyes; be polished; demure. Well fuck you very much. Thanks, but no thanks. Sorry if our struggle isn't smooth enough going down for your taste. Sorry if it feels like gravel.

We want to be bigger, louder, and, yes, snarling. You should be scared. Because we're coming to tear the whole fucking house down around your ears. Samson has nothing on what we're prepared to do.

The whole point of this entire "fourth wave feminism" is to fundamentally redefine what female even means. And if women want to scream, rant, swear, and talk sex like sailors, then great. Don't infantilize them by pretending you understand "what's actually going on," i.e. we've all succumbed to some reductive bullshit of "sex sells." Don't condescend with faux pity at our inability to speak in any other language than that of "bondage and captivity." Because it's bullshit.

My feminism—while angry—is perhaps not AS angry as other woman's; it's not as naked either. Then again, my feminism is certainly rawer than many of my friends (they would not write explicitly about their sexual exploits, for example), but we don't judge one another. If Rihanna wants to gyrate in a a denim thong and act like a stripper, fine. If Miley wants to lick hammers and Marina Abramovic wants to have her clothing snipped off by strangers with scissors and Roxane Gay says, “It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away . . .” I say yes.

This is feminism. I can disagree, I can find it off-putting, offensive even. But I sure as hell can't say that's not what it means to be a woman. Or tell her she doesn't "get it." "Pornographic" content (as Eberstadt refers to most of pop music) belies the puritanical backwash she's been drinking. 

But you know what? She's right on one account. This isn't our mother's feminism. And thank God. Because we still have a helluva lot more to do. And when BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS are being compromised—like the right to choose, like access to reproductive care—shit that yes, we have been protesting now for more than 50 years, is being threatened, it would be defeatist, deranged even, to not be screaming louder at this point. Have you ever been in an argument? One in which you are deeply invested and the other person is not only not listening but making things worse? You start to scream. It feels like there's no. other. choice.

And again, we will scream until we're hoarse. We'll even scream on your behalf even though we're baffled and saddened by your stance. Because it's jailhouse bitches like us who've fought for you to even have a platform to say what you'd like to. So on behalf of glorious shit kickers everywhere, you are so welcome.

4. Blaming Feminism For Slut-Shaming

Let me address one of these final points:

" . . . feminists and feminist-friendly media are doing more to keep 'that word' [slut] in circulation than all the fraternity houses and biker bars in America combined."

We are using this word—again—as a means to spurn a dialogue. To talk about language. To talk about the meaning of the words we use. How on earth are you supposed to talk about the word "slut" without using the word SLUT?! The "S" word? Even if we did that, as we've done with the "N" word—as it's been deemed too ugly, too denigrating for "casual" discourse—the notion of female promiscuity would still be a morass of shit we have to wade through. You could call it whatever you want as some sort of more tactful euphemism, but the problem would still remain.

You're missing the whole point. It's not about "Slut." It's about letting women determine their own lives.

Are feminists and feminist-friendly media using this word to talk about a pervasive and damaging gender bias? You better fucking believe it. Are they doing more to keep "that word" entact in its entirety than fraternities and biker bars? You've got to be kidding me. This is a dangerous mindset.

1 in 5 women will be raped during their lifetime, many of whom are subjected to this violence because these men—bolstered by our society—believe they're "Sluts." Because we've come to conflate bodies of sexual freedom with chattel, we've relegated women's entire selves to that which is between their legs. Girls who are interested in sex without commitment, sex for the sake of fleeting physical pleasure, should be punished. Should be taken by force. Because that's what "they were asking for." 

Don't you dare say this is feminism's fault. 

5. Feminism's Good And Ugly Fight

Eberstadt had this to say on why us feminist thugs are not succedding:

"It is well known that animals, when they are under terrible pressure at close quarters, turn on one another. Prisoners, for related reasons, do the same."

Gliding over the fact that you've called us "animals," which is odd anyway as we ARE animals (that's one of the reasons we like sex so much!), I'd like to address the notion of imprisonment and "turning on one another."

It's naive to believe that the kind of civic discourse we need to have surrounding sexuality and womanhood is going to have a unified front. Again, revolution is not tidy. By definition. There are going to be arguments and dissent and confusion and tumult. Just look at the disparity between you and I. And there is ever gradation in between; women 10 times more radical than I and women who fight their good fight by simply not wearing tight clothes. Who "act like boys." Again, I am not interested in things being simple or smooth because I'm a realist. The fight, even among ourselves, is deeply important.

Oops sorry, I actually have a couple more points.

". . . graphic autobiographical works grimly praised for their brutal honesty, i.e., their willingness to spare no one, including family members and former romantic partners. Fans of these kinds of confessionals are legion enough to suggest that the appetite for watching women debase themselves and one another may be insatiable, too."

Jesus H Christ. Talking about former relationships and messy, awkward sex isn't debasing yourself. This is exactly the neo-virginal bullshit surrounding the mantel of femininity that's so insidious. EVERYONE has a family. EVERYONE has had their heart broken or been humiliated during sex.

Talk to the hundreds of thousands of women who read those books or watched those movies and got down on their hands and knees to thank the big G that they're not alone. That we're not all stumbling along in the dark. Well, we are, but we're holding hands as we do it.

And good grief. Stop telling us we're too educated to be angry, to curse, to take off our clothes and like what we see.

"The Kirkus review of 'I Am Not a Slut,' for instance, clarifies that 'the term slut' has 'metastasized outward throughout our culture, with girls often reclaiming the term to defuse it in mutual conversation' and praises the author for 'optimistically promoting the incremental elimination of societal slut-shaming with education and the self-actualization of young women.' Where’s Google Translate for academic feminism?"

If that needs a Google translator, you just need a dictionary and an entry-level course on literary theory. That costs about $400 at any community college.

And I'd be happy to front you the money.

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