Where (a lot of) Feminists Go Wrong

Where I knowingly commit the unforgivable act of “mansplaining“.

Where do many feminists, like Eldest Daughter (ED), who I love dearly even when she repeatedly makes fun of me, go wrong? They think women’s equality rests on assertive demonstrations of personal attributes most often associated with males. This is understandable because traditional notions of femininity are extremely limiting, the problem though is the masculine characteristics Millennial feminists want to appropriate—such as physical and sexual aggression and promiscuity, profane/vulgar behavior, and insatiability more generally—aren’t socially redeeming. Of course they’re free to emulate the worst of male behavior, but we’re worse off for it.

My daughters and their friends celebrated the 2011 film Bridesmaids as groundbreaking and watched it until they could cite the dialogue. In essence they were saying, “Because Animal House has nothing on us, men have nothing on us.” Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 stars of out 4, and opined that Bridesmaids “seems to be a more or less deliberate attempt to cross the Chick Flick with the Raunch Comedy. It definitely proves that women are the equal of men in vulgarity, sexual frankness, lust, vulnerability, overdrinking and insecurity. . . .”

Before ED fires off an exasperated, impassioned reply to this post, let me tell you what she’s thinking right now. This is a rare skill of mine, knowing what the members of my family are going to say before they say it. It may be a uniquely male skill some describe as “arrogance”, but I like to think of it as foresight. ED would say, “Debauchery aside father, the fact that you’re writing about Bridesmaids and Animal House together means we’re breaking down the historic, sexist notion that women aren’t as funny as men! So what if vulgarity helps create long overdue opportunities for women in the comedy world! The end justifies the means!” And of course she’d attach a funny gif for good measure because that’s how she rolls.

Wikipedia lists gentleness, empathy, and sensitivity as traditionally feminine traits.

Given these traditional feminine traits, better that young men be more feminine, than young women more masculine. Ideally, overtime, these more socially redeeming traits would come to be seen as gender neutral. Better that all of us be more gentle, empathetic, and sensitive.

This “We can be hella masculine” approach to gender equity is painfully evident on television shows like Comedy Central’s Broad City (BC). When it comes to sleeping around, swearing, and doing drugs, the two female stars are up to any male duo’s challenge. Again, ED would say, “No surprise, but you’re missing the point again father! There’s one more show on television starring two female comedians than there was three years ago!” Always with the exclamation marks.

ED’s frustration has now reached a breaking point, so she’s stopped reading, meaning I can write even more freely about one of her favorite television shows. I admit, despite BC’s vacuous foundation, it is among the most funny shows on television—subjectively based upon how many times I laugh aloud during an episode. Also worth noting, my critique of it as a cultural artifact that allegedly symbolizes New Feminism extends well beyond my negative view of its “we’re every bit as masculine as you” dead-end.

In actuality, because I said she wasn’t, ED is still reading. Here’s what she’s thinking now. “How did I end up with the most Puritan of fathers in the whole U S of A?!” But dearest ED, my critique isn’t based on morality. Abbie’s and Ilana’s embrace of mindless masculinity almost always translates into victimless crimes. So what if they get high or have random sex. The problem with the show is its nihilism, meaning it never raises interesting questions or addresses big ideas about how we should live. Put differently, it leaves no mark on my intellect or soul. ED, “Isn’t it enough just to be laugh out loud funny?! That’s no small feat!” Yes it is if all they’re motivated by is what they can charge advertisers for commercial breaks.

Wikipedia on BC:

The Wall Street Journal referred to the show as “Sneak Attack Feminism.” Critic Megan Angelo quotes Abbi Jacobson, main star of Comedy Central’s Broad City; “If you watch one of our episodes, there’s not a big message, but if you watch all of them, I think, they’re empowering to women.”

By which Jacobson means, “Good news my young feminist sistas, now you can act a male fool too.”

As this insightful analysis from Lili Loofbourow (LL) suggests (thanks ED), television is improving because of women’s increasingly influential contributions. LL convincingly argues that more and more female writers and producers are infusing shows with distinctive, intelligent sensibilities, thus demonstrating the limits of “we’re as masculine” programming.

One example of improved programming is the incredibly creative and hilarious comedy Portlandia which contrasts nicely with BC. Portlandia’s setting and cast are every bit as urban, diverse, and edgy as BC’s, but a typical two or three-minute skit on Portlandia pokes more fun at our modern selves and raises more interesting questions about the limits of materialism, the superficiality of popular trends, and the idiosyncrasies of modern life than several twenty-two minute episodes of BC.

Wrapping up, want to laugh, watch BC; want to think and laugh, watch Portlandia. Either way raise children—female, male, something in between—to be equally gentle, empathetic, and sensitive.

Postscript—Broad City interviews Sleater-Kinney.

4 thoughts on “Where (a lot of) Feminists Go Wrong

  1. I don’t like rude and crude either, but I think it is OK for women to be that way with the same reservations I have for men. That means not having a special category of niceness for the girls and not having a special category of badness for the bad girls. I want my daughters to have vibrant, varied lives- including their sex lives- just the same as my son and I’m happy for them that they are alive now when feminism has made so many gains that enable them to do that.

  2. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

  3. First off, saying “What Feminists Get Wrong” isn’t entirely accurate. You’re referring specifically to people who praise these movies/TV shows as feminist achievements, when in reality a feminist is anyone who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. You’re certainly one of those, so it isn’t productive to “other” feminists as the people you’re arguing against.
    I very much agree with the sentiment that we all should be trying harder to be empathetic, sensitive. And, in turn, I also agree that negative qualities like unchanneled aggression or “insatiability” shouldn’t be valorized in television or movies. But here I part ways with you. First, referring to these traits that you see women emulating as “traditionally masculine,” is damaging because this assumes that these traits can’t be inherent to these specific women, as I believe they are, is condescending to the women that create these forms of media, and is ultimately limiting to their portrayal as full people.
    Second, the actual traits that you seem to be addressing here in the specific examples you give of Broad City and Bridesmaids – “crass” behaviors – fall, I would argue, into a third category. Neither inherently good or bad in terms of their moral repercussions, they are expressions of how we (all people of all gender identifications) often really behave as human beings, and are also, as a bonus – when treated with enough skill – freaking hilarious (although I recognize this can be a matter of opinion).
    I enjoy Broad City and Bridesmaids in large part because I see my life reflected in them, and representation is powerful. How people are seen is often how they are treated, and I would argue that being represented as a women the way I am in Bridesmaids and Broad City – accurately, and with a lot of different, often contradictory traits – is an honor, because to me, they are both true, and positive. Both deal in what the faint of heart could consider “gross things” but it’s a fantasy to think that those aren’t elements of the female world. I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with my friends or my sister that had the words “fart” or “I clogged the toilet” in it less than four times. In my opinion, the inclusion of these elements in these TV shows/movies isn’t about proving anything about the “way women are” (I reserve the right of women to find the word “dump” gross instead of hilarious, shout out to my mother) or that “women can do and be anything men can and are,” but is about something simpler and more powerful – the realistic depiction of some women’s lives as they know it. Scrubbing these depictions clean of anything that could be found uncouth would be a disservice to the portrayal of the specific women in them.
    As an addendum, I think it does any argument disservice to fail to mention all the other ways Broad City and Bridesmaids (and their pop culture kin) depict female life – as having complex internal lives, complex interpersonal relationship with men and women, navigating dreams and practicality in the world of jobs, finding ways to enjoy day-to-day life, supporting people that matter – lest we run the risk of, in our own critique, limiting our depiction of female life.
    So, ultimately, I whole-heartedly agree that empathy and sensitivity should be championed in television and movies, especially because these forms of media reach so many people and are so influential in our societal discourse. For example, this is a huge part of the reason why I think Parks and Recreation is so phenomenal – it celebrates caring about the things and the people that you love – but lest we forget, it wouldn’t be nearly as great if Jerry hadn’t had a “fart attack” or without Leslie’s line to Ben in Season 6, Episode 5, “Filibuster” – “Oh my god, that was epic! I was peeing so freaking hard it was like a jacuzzi jet!” And, in the end, this is why I retain my position that Broad City, Bridesmaids, and their like, are feminist creations. Because the women that create and act in them aren’t emulating men, they are depicting their real (if slightly heightened, as is often the way of comedy) lives. And, since these creators and characters happen to be women, and because real representations of women (and a real idea of who women are in society more broadly) are lacking, Bridesmaids and Broad City are helping promote the equality of the sexes, or, by another word, feminism.
    Watching depictions of complicated women that makes people smile and feel good makes me straight-up euphoric. I don’t know if I have ever felt as good leaving the theater after seeing Bridesmaids before or after, in my entire life. (Kidding, of course, but only slightly.)

    Disclaimer: These are not perfect thoughts and also I have more of them but this has already been an unreasonable amount of time to spend responding to my FATHER’S BLOG on my day off, so that is all

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