First, a confession: I hate-watched the first two seasons of Lena Dunham's Girls
. Every situation and character on the show made me cringe. Most scenes involve unpleasant people having unpleasant sex, or scheming to have (unpleasant) sex, or dealing with the discomfort of trying to avoid or distance themselves from earlier, unpleasant sex. Sure there are scenes about how hard it is to be a fragile young writer/aspiring curator/alluring nanny, but everyone's so vile that their antics elicit more schadenfreude than sympathy. And yet Girls
has a brash truth underpinning all its awfulness. As the White House report on rape and sexual assault made clear this year
, most young women find themselves in sexual situations that feel out of their control; many blame themselves for these situations (or are blamed by others); a lot of girls and women still believe sexuality forms their primary identity and negotiating tool; and too many of us aim to please regardless of whether or not doing so means shuttering our inclination to say no, or yes, or anything we want without fear of censure and dismissal. One of the reasons Girls
is unpleasant is because being a girl can be unpleasant, and the show's cleverness lies in how its characters unconsciously internalize and act upon the inferiority, fear, and sexual myths that pervade American womanhood.
It's hard to fight the misogyny within American culture because a lot of people — like Dunham's girls — either don't see it or think we've moved past it. Another, more surprising, obstacle to gender equality is the in-fighting among feminists. The recent Lena Dunham sex abuse scandal is a prime example. Some minority feminists argue that Dunham is too white and privileged to be held accountable for her failures, and many are angered by the unconditional support she's received from elite white feminists. White feminists have countered that the right-wing media's public shaming of Dunham's narrative is a gross attempt to silence a subversive woman and that their support has nothing to do with race or class. The result is a deepening of the racial and class divisions within feminism that distract from the shared goal of making the world an equitable place.
This fighting among feminists is troubling because it implies that there's a "right" way to be a feminist, despite the diversity of human experience. Culture critic and novelist Roxane Gay confronts this issue head-on in her fantastic new collection of essays, Bad Feminist. In Bad Feminist, Gay examines the necessary contradictions of Millennial Feminism, using social, film, and literary criticism, as well as personal anecdotes, to illustrate how a woman can read Sweet Valley High, dance to Chris Brown, and still advocate for gender equality. Gay's essays are perfect for people wary of the feminist label because she's very funny and honest about her failings, but argues passionately, convincingly that we can "disavow the failures of feminism" without disavowing the justice of its goals.
Another great introduction to feminist ideas is Caitlin Moran's hilarious, deliciously off-color and smart memoir/treatise, How to Be a Woman. Moran argues that feminism is too exciting and important to be relegated to academia, the only place she sees people engaging seriously (and in her opinion, inaccurately) with problems of equality and privilege. She's also concerned with what she calls the "'Broken Windows' philosophy, transferred to female inequality," in which ignoring one small problem — cultural disgust with female body hair, for example — leads gradually to a full-scale invasion and degradation of the female form and mind. Like Bad Feminist, How to Be a Woman's accessibility and candor makes it a perfect choice for readers turned off by stodgier or more militant forms of feminist ideology.
Rebecca Solnit's brilliant essay collection, Men Explain Things to Me, takes a cooler and more literary approach to issues like sexual violence, power dynamics, and, in the scathing title essay, the silencing of women. Solnit's writing is flawless and her incisive, journalistic style highlights the fact that feminist issues are really global, humanitarian problems. Another, more accessible author who excels at global feminism is the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. His two books, coauthored with Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, provide vital accounts of both violence against women and the efforts being made to help them. Kristof and WuDunn's books are easy to read and full of anecdotes, making them a great choice for teenage readers.
One of Roxane Gay's central concerns about American feminism, echoed in the textbooky but thorough Feminism Unfinished by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry is that the public perception of feminism is as a movement for white career women (cue Melanie Griffith in Working Girl). In fact, feminism is an everchanging social movement that reflects the shifting demographics and needs of American women. The authors who best articulate minority voices within feminism are the late Audre Lord, whose poetry and essays (read Sister Outsider) manage to express both anger and inclusiveness, and bell hooks, whose seminal Feminism Is for Everybody may be the best general introduction ever written. What I especially admire about hooks is the way she includes men in her work, as subjects and as readers. While I believe men can and should read all of the books on this list, hooks is singular in pushing them into the conversation.
Too often that conversation focuses on women's bodies or Lena Dunham–type scandals that just serve as foils for the misogyny operative in American culture, a misogyny in which all of us are complicit. I won't be watching any more seasons of Girls. But I'm glad that there are people like Dunham and the writers above who are willing to say that feminism isn't perfect, women aren't perfect, but a stable world requires that we fight to live with the same safety, assurance, and justice as men.