Women’s Websites: A Double-Edged Sword
Jessica Valenti is a feminist writer and blogger. She is the founder and editor of the popular blog and online community, Feministing.com, and the author of three books: Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters, He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut…and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know, and The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. She is also a co-editor of the anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, which was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Top 100 Books of 2009.
Question: Why are so few women engaged in public debate?
Jessica Valenti: I wonder that constantly. I -- whether it's the op-ed pages or the Internet, women's voices are out there, but they're not -- you know, they're not put out into the mainstream, and they're not brought to the forefront. And I do think that's part of systemic sexism. Like I don't think that there's a guy behind the desk at every newspaper saying "No, woman" and sending her on her way, but that's what's systemic about it, right, like that people don't quite realize that maybe they're attracted to a male op-ed more than a female op-ed, or because of networking they know this person from going out to a bar with them. There's all sorts of reasons, I think, kind of day in and day out that influence that sort of stuff.
And I also think that right now, on-line especially, there's this trend of kind of having women's Web sites or women-only spaces, which I don't -- you know, I go back and forth on. You know, obviously Feministing is kind of a women's space in a certain way, even though we have a lot of male readership and people who don’t identify as women. So there is a kind of an upside to it, but I think to a large degree, when we kind of separate ourselves out, it furthers the notion that women's issues -- that there are such things as women's issues, that these aren't everyone's issues, that women's issues are special issues or special-interest issues, or we're bringing in the gender card. Well, when men talk, that's the gender card too, you know. So I'm just really weary of all of this separating out.
Question: Why are most websites for women aimed at consumption?
Jessica Valenti: Yeah. I've been thinking about this a lot, that all of the Web sites for women -- and I'm thinking specifically of like corporate Web sites for women -- are really consumer-driven. They do really assume that all women want to do is shop and -- well, and shop and shop. And I don't think it's surprising, because I think it's recreating the same paradigm that you see with a lot of women's magazines or that you see in real life or with advertisements or with TV. But I do think that we have this incredible opportunity because being on-line -- the Internet is a relatively new space -- we do have this incredible opportunity to change that dynamic, to make sure that women are present in all sorts of spaces, not just women-only spaces. I mean, I think a part of that is going to have to be making general public spaces on the Internet a bit safer for women. If you go to places like YouTube, it's a cesspool, and a lot of the comments are really horrifying and misogynist and harassing. And I think that online harassment has become so ubiquitous on the Internet that a lot of women do feel safer, whatever that means, in spaces where they know like people are not going to bother them in that kind of way.
I'm talking about -- the Internet generally -- whenever you hear something about sexual assault, right? If there's an article about sexual assault, if there's a video about feminism on YouTube, you're going to get the most horrible, disgusting comments ever. And sometimes the comments are pornographic, and sometimes the comments are really harassing. So I think that it's kind of a difficult place for women to write sometimes. I mean, the Internet is the new public space, right? And because women are out in public, people don't like that in much the same way that if you're walking down the street you get harassed. I think the same kind of thing happens online, and I think that's why a lot of women are hesitant to put their voice out there.
There's been all sorts of stories. There was kind of an infamous incident happened a couple of years ago when a technology blogger called Kathy Sierra, her life was threatened. She had people posting Photoshopped pornographic pictures of her, and this has happened to me; this has happened to a lot of feminist writers I know. When you put your voice out there in a really public way, or you're saying something that's strong, or you're saying something that's political, or you're saying something that people aren't necessarily used to hearing women say, people get really uncomfortable. And because folks have the anonymity factor, and they don't have the same kind of accountability that they do in the real world, they're much more likely to say really horrible, disgusting and scary things. And there's only so many rape threats you can get before you start thinking, hey, maybe I shouldn't be writing.
Question: Is feminism growing as a movement?
Jessica Valenti: I think feminism is taking off. It's just not visible in the way that we would like it to be. I do think that there is a real crisis of masculinity that's happening in America. I think the problem is -- the way it's being framed is that there's a problem with masculinity because women are too powerful, or women are taking up too much space. And that's the way it's being talked about, rather than what's going on with men that maybe they're in school less, or that they feel like they have to adhere to a certain ideal of what men are supposed to be like? So instead of focusing on men and focusing on what we can do to prop them up, people seem really incredibly focused on the fact that women are doing well and maybe that's not such a good thing.
Question: Is it more effective to promote feminism to those who are marginalized?
Jessica Valenti: That's a great question. I think it is effective when activists work from the margins, and I think that's the best way to go about it. And I do think that it's increasingly being more effective with the work that's being done online, that it is a bit more democratized, that whatever kind of activism is being done, it's not necessarily coming from one centralized place. One feminist organization isn't saying, okay, go out and change the world, or go out and organize around this. While they are doing that, they're doing it in conjunction with other groups that are doing it in conjunction with other blogs. Small blogs are starting up big campaigns. I think that's really a step in the right direction, because you are getting more voices out there, and maybe while one organization is focusing on one aspect of an issue -- they're focusing on abortion, right? -- another organization is saying, okay, but what about birth control? Another organization is saying, okay, what about sterilization and the right of women to have children? So just the idea that all of these different voices can be working on the same issue but bringing something different to the table I think is really important.
Question: How do conservatives hijack feminist language?
Jessica Valenti: I think what bothers me the most about the way that people appropriate feminist language is that they are the same people who are -- you know, anti-feminists -- they're the same people who say that feminism is ruining the family, yet when it behooves them to, they'll say Sara Palin's a feminist -- when all of a sudden it works in their favor. And I think that's really upsetting to a lot of feminists. But it also is really dangerous in terms of how the word becomes watered down and who gets to use that word, and who gets to use that word for the work that they're doing. Something else that's really happening that I've noticed -- and this has happened with like third-wave feminists -- is that people seem to think, because of the way that the media has appropriated third-wave feminism or young feminism, that all young feminists are about is like pole dancing and girls gone wild and how empowering it is. Like they'll start calling anything feminist.
I saw an article about a year ago where the manager of the Pussycat Dolls, which is kind of this like striptease band, girl band, said, oh well, the girls are totally third-wave feminist. This is what third-wave feminism is about. Like you don't get to use that word. You don't get to say that something is feminist as a way to sell back sexism to women, as a way to further consumerist ideas. It's really incredible, but it's really effective, right? Like it's an incredibly effective tool. One of the funniest things I saw was that the fastest-growing form of plastic surgery is the designer vaginas, the labiaplasties and the replaced hymens and all of this sort of stuff. And if you look at the press releases from a lot of these places, they use feminist language. They say things like women now have equal sexual rights, so cut your labia off. You know, it doesn't really make sense, but they know that that's a great way to think that they're woman-friendly. And you see that a lot, I think.
Question: Will Sarah Palin’s legacy impact how future female candidates are viewed?
Jessica Valenti: I hope not, but yes. Yeah, I do. I mean, I think that the election and watching Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton and the way they were treated was a really, really interesting moment. And it was bad for both of them. You know, as much as I disagree with Sarah Palin, there's no denying that she was the victim of sexism over and over again in the campaign. But what you kind of saw happening was that both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton filled these models of femininity, like whereas Hillary was like the ball-busting -- what was it? -- the takeout that her voice reminds me of taking out the trash. She was like the ball-busting man hater, and Sarah Palin was the male-friendly like sex symbol. And neither of those are really great, accurate, realistic, nuanced, complex models of what it means to be a woman, or what it means to be a woman in politics. But that's what they were stuck with, and I think that we're going to continue to see those kinds of narratives when it comes to women in powerful positions, that people aren't comfortable thinking of women as people, right? Like we're not people, we're women, and that means something completely different, especially when you have power.
Recorded December 11, 2009
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