Jailhouse Feminism

Published February 19, 2015

National Review - March 9, 2015 issue

Never mind fifty shades of movie promotion for a moment. Now that the children have left the room, let’s take a look at something else going on out there, in the name of liberation and womankind, that requires explanation.

Slut-shaming, slut-bashing, slut culture, slut walks, slut pride, Slut: The Play, the StopSlut Movement, Sluts Across America, the UnSlut Project; “Slut Like You,” the song; books titled “Sluts,” “Slut!” “A History of Sluts,” “The Ethical Slut,” and “I Am Not a Slut” — the epithet hardly lacks publicity these days. What’s happening to make this one the new four-letter “it” word?

From the point of view of the feminists responsible, the public proliferation of “slut” is a good thing — an attempt to “take back” a pejorative used for centuries to denigrate and deride. 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. That said, one can otherwise sympathize with the feminists’ intent here. Spurred in part by heartbreaking cases of teenage girls who suffered catcalling on social media and committed suicide, the sisters mean good. Trouble is, their initiative suffers mortally from the “Don’t think of an elephant” paradox. 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.

Take, for instance, a recent Daily Beast article that managed not one but two uses of the word in its title alone (“‘Slut’ Author’s War on Slut Shaming”). The piece 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.

Again, is anyone seeing elephants?

In similar quixotic fashion, the New York Times also weighed in the other week on the question of what to do about the s-word — all the while deploying it not only in the title of the piece (“Should ‘Slut’ Be Retired?”) but also a whopping 34 times in the text. Tanenbaum also tells the paper of record, apparently with no humor intended, “I think it is too risky right now to use that word” — when, between them, feminists and feminist-friendly media are doing more to keep “that word” in circulation than all the fraternity houses and biker bars in America combined.

Even so, something deeper is at work here than ideological tussling over a word that no halfway-civilized person would use anyway. The promiscuous slinging of “slut” is only the beginning of the obscenity- and profanity-saturated woman-talk these days, from otherwise obscurantist academic feminism on down to popular magazines and blogs.

The b-word, for example, has also enjoyed a renascence, as Bitch magazine and Bitch Media and the books Bitch, Bitchfest, The Bitch in the House, and Bitches, Bimbos, and Ballbreakers go to show. 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, as Ariel Levy mapped nine years ago in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. In a turn that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it demands, 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.

The interesting question is why. A cynic might say it’s just smart branding. After all, sex sells; women talking about sex sells; and even women talking about women talking about sex sells, too. Everyone knows that slapping a salacious word into a title will pull more eyeballs to the screen or page. Maybe it’s time the objects of exploitation got some of their own back. Why shouldn’t enterprising modern women perform some commercial jujitsu exploitation, via the promiscuous use of “slut” and other rough talk, to sell their stuff? A play called “The Private-Parts Monologues” would have folded on opening night.

Yet listening in on some of the conversation today suggests an explanation other than simple venality. Something else is up out there making female trash talk all the rage — something unexpected, poignant, and, at the same time, awful to behold. It’s the language of bondage and captivity, told by prisoners of the sexual revolution.

Understanding as much means first having to listen to some of it, which isn’t easy. First, there’s the problem of jargon. 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?

Second, when today’s woman-talk is understandable, its tone is hard to take for a different reason: It is remarkably aggressive and angry. Fifty years ago, Susan Sontag wrote of what she called “camp sensibility”; this label quickly caught on, and signaled an ethos Sontag defined by artifice, stylization, “neutrality concerning content,” and overall “apoliticism.” 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.

Promiscuity is practically sacramental in this place. It’s all hook-up, all the time, as popular music by self-described “feminist” artists proves handily. In the aforementioned song “Slut Like You,” a quintessential anthem of the day, self-described feminist singer Pink mocks the idea of falling in love, adding, “I just wanna get some” and “Wham bam thank you ma’am / Boo-hoo / I’m a slut like you.” A 2010 video by singer Ciara, co-starring a mechanical bull, was so untoward that Black Entertainment Television declined to air it. Rihanna, who also professes to be a feminist standard-bearer, can make Miley Cyrus’s performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards look like Julie Andrews twirling in the Alps.

And on it goes. Many of today’s so-called feminist singers can’t warble without throwing in a pole dance or an homage to leather. Avril Lavigne, in addition to providing some of the soundtrack of Fifty Shades, has made a sexualized song and video about little-girl icon Hello Kitty. Kesha, Britney Spears, the defunct Pussycat Dolls, not to mention the queen cougar of them all, Madonna: The trick isn’t finding a female vocal artist whose work is enthusiastically pornographic; it’s locating any whose isn’t.

Jailhouse feminism’s unique level of anger is not exactly lost on feminists themselves. “Why Are Feminists So Angry?” asks Jessica Valenti in a recent piece in The Nation; her answer is that they are tired of fighting for the same things their mothers did. Feminist backlash ensues against any attempt, even the most anodyne, at rollback of the revolution. When the watchdog group Parents Television Council protested raunch at the 2013 VMAs, for example — which to many people might seem like shooting fish in a bucket — it was dutifully attacked by the blogger Amanda Marcotte as a “retro” and “reactionary” organization whose entire existence “is predicated on using children as a cover story for what they really want, which is an entertainment industry that treats grown adults like we are children.”

Some might say it was ever thus — that feminism has always been angry. But there’s a difference between the peevishness behind, say, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” and the potty-mouthed bile-o-rama now evident everywhere. Valenti’s piece, for example, is tellingly accompanied by a picture of an irate woman holding a poster that reads, “I cannot believe I still have to protest this sh**.” Measuring just by the yardstick of profanity, today’s is not your mom’s feminism after all.

Obscenity isn’t just a pressure valve. It’s a form of anger and aggression unto itself, typically spewed by people who feel threatened and want to act tough. Or, as Miley Cyrus, former Disney child star turned liberationist poster person, explained to V Magazine about her art: “Everything just kept sh**ting on me and sh**ting on me. So then I started taking all of those sh** things and making them good, and being like, I’m using it. . . . So, that’s how I started making art. I had a bunch of f***ing junk and sh**, and so instead of letting it be junk and sh**, I turned it into something that made me happy.”

And today’s feminist rage is often directed not at men but at women. Bell Hooks slams singer Beyoncé as a “terrorist” for “her impact on young girls.” Writing in The New Inquiry, Anna Breslaw takes down lefty Tina Fey, whose “‘nerdy’ on-screen persona and adamant faux feminism masks a Thatcherite morality and tendency to slut-shame.” Feminist blogs and magazines read similarly, like entries in Mean Girls Gone Wild. The New York Times even produces a dominatrix to report that “it pains and frustrates me to see this kind of judging and conflict within feminist communities.”

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. The frenzy among many supposedly enlightened women these days is likewise pitiable and hard to watch. And what everyone outside their frantic conversation needs to understand is that feminism is in fact getting a big thing right here: Today’s women should feel cornered.

Violence and implied violence are all over the popular culture — as exhibited by Fifty Shades, by Miley Cyrus’s new video “exploring” sadomasochism, and by plenty of other music videos that do the same, including those of many of the industry’s top names. Their commercial success implies a truly frightening appetite out there, sated only by watching women get hurt — and the stories that percolate from time to time about domestic violence in the entertainment industry suggest that not all bad apples fall far from artistic trees.

There’s also the trash-talking and purported tell-all adventuring that has become a genre unto itself — Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned,” Michelle Tea’s The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, and related 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.

All of which leads, finally, to a sad and monumental fact. Beneath the swagger and snarl of jailhouse feminism is something pathetic: a search for attention (including, obviously, male attention) on any terms at all.

If that means being trussed up like a turkey, so be it. If loping about on TV in your birthday suit does the trick, so be that, too. And if getting smacked around from time to time is part of the package — if violence is what it takes to keep an interested fellow in the room — that is a price that some desperate women today will pay.

Feminism has become something very different from what it understands itself to be, and indeed from what its adversaries understand it to be. It is not a juggernaut of defiant liberationists successfully playing offense. It is instead a terribly deformed but profoundly felt protective reaction to the sexual revolution itself. In a world where fewer women can rely on men, some will themselves take on the protective coloration of exaggerated male characteristics — blustering, cursing, belligerence, defiance, and also, as needed, promiscuity.

After all, the revolution reduced the number of men who could be counted on to serve as protectors from time to time, and in several ways. Broken homes put father figures at arm’s length, at times severing that parental bond for good. The ethos of recreational sex blurred the line between protector and predator, making it harder for many women to tell the difference. Meanwhile, the decline of the family has reduced the number of potentially protective men — fewer brothers, cousins, uncles, and others who could once have been counted on to push back against other men treating mothers or sisters or daughters badly. In some worse-off neighborhoods, the number of available men has been further reduced by dramatic rates of incarceration. And simultaneously, the overabundance of available sexual partners has made it harder to hold the attention of any one of them — as has the diminished social and moral cachet of what was once the ultimate male attention-getter, marriage.

The result is that many, many women have been left vulnerable and frustrated. That’s why a furious, swaggering, foul-mouthed ideology continues to exert its pull. Jailhouse feminism promises women protection. It promises to constrain men in a world that no longer constrains them in traditional ways — for example, via marriage or larger related moral codes. Into this vacuum, feminism speaks a message of ostensible hope: We will rein men in by other means.

This is the deeper meaning of draconian speech codes on campuses and elsewhere: They promise to limit what men can do and say, in a world in which the old limits on male behavior no longer apply. Women, for all their empowerment, are now more vulnerable than ever before, thanks to the changes wrought by the very revolution that feminism embraces: This is the unspoken, unacknowledged truth beneath today’s furious and ultimately tragic conversation.

It’s a predator’s market out there. The fact that there’s no cottage industry related to “stud-shaming,” or even such a word, says it all. Many women are now exactly what feminists say they are: victims — only not in the way that feminism understands. They are captives behind enemy lines, but the enemy is not patriarchy or gender-norming. It’s the sexual revolution itself. And like other people held hostage for too long by a hostile force, these women are suffering from a problem that has had a name for some time. It’s Stockholm syndrome.

– Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization. This article appears in the March 9, 2015, issue of NR.

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