Monday, July 30, 2007

Full Frontal Feminism- A Review

Full Frontal Feminism, the book by Jessica Valenti, created quite a stir in the feminist blogosphere this spring when it was released. I finally had a chance to read it tonight, and here are my thoughts:

1. Yes, the cover art is squicky. Apparently, this was the focus of a lot of the early criticism of the book by the feminist community. I agree, a picture of a thin, white, nude, disembodied female torso is a strange choice for a pro-feminist book.

2. When I said I read it in one night, that's no exaggeration. Though I am a quick reader, the book is pretty spare. I do have to give Ms. Valenti props for readability, though. She keeps the tone light and breezy (one of the causes for earlier criticism, but I'll get to that in a moment).

3. Ms. Valenti calls the book a "love letter to feminism", and it reads as exactly that. It is full of effusive, "Golly, feminism sure is great!" language, and doesn't concern itself with a lot of the details of what feminism is, or was, or is fighting against. The book explicitly says, on page three, that, "Full Frontal Feminism is not an exhaustive review of all things feminist". So, the reader is forewarned that this is not going to be the next addition to the Feminist Theory Cannon.

4. The book is explicitly aimed at the 15-25 year-old crowd, especially those who have had little contact with organized feminism. Ms. Valenti makes this clear throughout. She uses a lot of swearing and slang, no doubt in an effort to build rapport with that age group, and also because she admits that's just how she writes/talks.

Bearing all of this in mind, I think this book is exactly what it claims to be- a starting point for very young women who know very little about feminism. In that respect, I believe it succeeds in its mission. I work with people in this age group on a daily basis, and I can honestly say that keeping the book light on details as well as in tone is actually the right thing to do. I don't mean to assail the intelligence of youth, but honestly, they get preached at on such a regular basis that "heavy" intellectual works are usually a turn off for many of the "casual" readers Ms. Valenti is targeting. Less is more when trying to capture the attention of a group of people all ready over saturated with media and heavily invested in the problematic culture this book is trying to address.

I do have to say, however, that some of the arguments she advances are not the strongest, nor in my opinion, the most convincing, she could muster. I especially have problems with her "anti-abortionists hate sex" argument, because; 1. that is a gross simplification, and; 2. it is likely to be overly confrontational to a lot of the supposed audience of this book. Conservative Christian morality, which is at the base of a lot , if not most of the anti-abortion movement in this country, may very well take a dim view of sex, but that is not the exclusive drive behind the anti-abortion campaign. Though I applaud Ms. Valenti's blunt and truthful statement of her beliefs about abortion: "All I can say is that I think there is nothing wrong with abortion, that the right to control our bodies is one of the most important there is, and that those who are seeking to end that right are concerned not about "life", but control.", I believe she would have done better to give the opposing viewpoint a more nuanced treatment than "anti-abortionists hate sex". Yes, I agree that control, not "life" is the center of the abortion debate, but I think Ms. Valenti should have spent a little bit of time deconstructing the conservative need for control. As many of her readers will likely have grown up in a system that takes for granted the idea that moral control is "good", the automatic response many readers will have upon reading that anti-abortionists just hate sex will be, "No they don't! My (aunt, father, preacher, friends) just want to keep people from making hurtful mistakes, and ending innocent lives." I'm all for skipping over the "heavy" stuff when spending time on it will not do a lot of good, but this is one place, at least, where delving a little deeper and being a little less pat might have done some good.

People criticize the book because of Ms. Valenti's use of cursing and jargon. I'm actually fine with both of these things, though I do think they limit the appeal of the book to a wider audience. I also think the "right now-ness" of the book will limit its relevance in the future. However, its hard to have your cake and eat it too, and I understand the choices that were made here. As a regular reader of Feministing, I also recognize this to be a part of Ms. Valenti's signature style. I, for one, enjoy the slightly deeper and more nuanced writing on Pandagon, Feministe, I Blame The Patriarchy, etc., but I think Feministing is a great entry-level feminist blog, and I still like to go there for quick bites when I don't have time to digest the heavier fare somewhere else.

So, then, I think Full Frontal Feminism can, and should be read in the the same way Feministing is. In a way, the book is just a compilation of the kinds of posts you would find on that site. And in its own way, that's good, because that is what will, in my opinion, best pique the interest of the intended audience. Seen in that light, even the squicky cover art can be viewed in much the same way Feministing's mudflap woman flipping the bird logo is-- a catchy, iconic image that at once buys into and at the same time subtly subverts popular objectification. That is, if you skip over all of the "heavy" details, and keep your eyes on the larger prize of turning new people on to feminism.

I recommend this book to people in the teen age group who are not self-identified feminists, or even particularly interested in feminism but feel something is not quite "right" about the dominant paradigm, or older individuals who want a very clear, simple introduction to feminism. Ms. Valenti has done an excellent job of writing a book that does exactly what she intended it to do. She has done it so well, as a matter of fact, that I believe the book is, in some ways, a victim of its own success.


Anonymous said...

I bought this book for my 15 yr old daughter. Of course, I read it beforehand and I think you've hit the nail on the head. It skims the issues which is about all my 15 yr old can handle what with the MP3 player and cable TV taking up all that time, you know...not to mention the heavy commitments to hanging out with friends, gossiping on the phone...these things just eat up a teenager's time! I encouraged her to do further research into the issues that interested her and told her up front that it was just a quick overview. It piqued her interest and she's reading more. Isn't that a good thing? Wasn't that the point?