So I just read Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters, by Jessica Valenti. Ms. Valenti is perhaps best known as the founder of the blog Feministing, and this book is like her blog: smart, sassy, unapologetic, and determined to get things done. I enjoyed the book, and learned a thing or two from it, which was fantastic. However, I think the book’s rebel yell in favor of feminism could alienate some of the very readers Ms. Valenti hopes to win over.
Don’t get me wrong—I love a good rebel yell. Had I been as together and dedicated as Ms. Valenti clearly was as a young woman, I might have written a very similar book. Full Frontal Feminism is deeply earnest in its desire to appeal to young women, to get them to see that feminism will give them the tools they need to fight back against oppressive cultural messages and laws. But in her fervor, Ms. Valenti makes some assumptions about her audience. She assumes, for example, that young women will share her attitudes and opinions as they are learning the facts she presents. And many young women undoubtedly will. But others—those raised in Christian, conservative homes, for example—might be turned off by Ms. Valenti’s in-your-face approach. And that’s too bad, because every young woman should feel that feminism is accessible to her, particularly when she is first encountering it.
The very valuable message Ms. Valenti is communicating—that young women shouldn’t let culture make them feel ashamed of their bodies, their sexuality, their desire, or their choices—is presented in a way that won’t exactly win over the young woman who doesn’t want to buy culture’s double-standard but is far from ready to buy her first vibrator. For example, Ms. Valenti mentions a favorite shirt that says, “I don’t fuck Republicans.” Funny, if you’re already an all-out feminist ready to rebel against anti-woman legislation, and don’t mind cussing on your clothing—but maybe not so funny if you’re a young woman raised in a Republican family, frustrated with culture and trying to sort out your own beliefs. What this book needs is a middle ground.
There are ways in which Ms. Valenti looks for that ground—for example, she emphasizes that young women need to be able to make mistakes in their sexual lives as they sort out who they are in this culture. She even uses the words “middle ground”: “Sometimes doing silly, disempowering, sexually vapid things when you’re young is just part of getting to the good stuff. I guess what I’ve come to—and this is what works for me—is that you have to find your own middle ground” (p. 48). However, the author sometimes contradicts herself: for example, she is sure to tell young women that if they want to show their breasts to passersby or wear mascara and high heels, it’s all good as long as they are aware of their motivations. (In both cases, she urges young women to be sure they are acting for themselves, not to please others.) However, she is very much not OK with a married woman taking her husband’s name, apparently missing the ways in which a married woman might recognize patriarchy at work in the institution of marriage while still adhering to some of its silliness.
Ah, but while Ms. Valenti occasionally overshoots on attitude or betrays an inconsistency in her thought processes, she makes up for these lapses with substance. The book is chockfull of facts, anecdotes, and resources to get a young feminist off and running, including a final chapter full of suggestions for taking action. The author covers the major issues young women are facing—the sexual double standard, sexual assault and rape, birth control and abortion, marriage and weddings, and work and family. The author also does an absolutely wonderful job of clarifying the ways in which feminism has been too white and too straight for too long. Chapter 13, “A Quick Academic Aside,” gives a brief account of the various ways in which sex, class, and race intersect in the lived experiences of women, and the ways in which feminism hasn’t represented these experiences. And throughout the book, Ms. Valenti points to the ways in which women of color and poor women are affected by societal norms, laws, and expectations.
If you’re a young woman wondering about feminism, go ahead and give Full Frontal Feminism a read—just be aware that you don’t have to join Ms. Valenti in her rebel yell if you don’t want to. Feminism will accept a shy smile, a fist pump, a high-five, or just about any other form of enthusiasm you’d like to show when your realize that Ms. Valenti is spot-on when she says that feminism will make your life better.