Although Ellie Levenson’s feminist primer makes some sensible points, this is undermined by a raft of offensive statements, a defence of rape jokes and a desire to speak only to the young, white, able-bodied, straight, educated and middle-class, argues Amity Reed
When I read the press release that accompanied my review copy of The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism the first paragraph caught my attention. It read: “If you support equal rights, but are less enthusiastic about the man-bashing and bra-burning side of feminism, Ellie Levenson has the answer in this fresh and witty new look at the F-word.”
Really? A book supposedly championing feminism that would proudly trot out two tired stereotypes right off the bat? There’s not much witty or new about that, I’m afraid. I’m not sure if the author truly believes that a man-bashing and bra-burning side of feminism really is prevalent, or if Levenson and her publisher decided that accepting and perpetuating those stereotypes would score them some much-needed points amongst more dubious readers who may pick it up thinking they’ve come across the latest offering from the ‘chick-lit’ genre. Whatever the case, I wasn’t impressed.
As it is, those who do mistake it for ‘chick lit’ wouldn’t be blamed for their mistake – the cover isn’t entirely dissimilar to those within the shopping/romance/sex/friendship genré aimed at women aged 18-30. Featuring a silhouetted pair of legs in a skirt and heels, a smattering of stars and curly fonts, and use of the word ‘girl’ instead of woman in the title, there’s not much that sets it apart as a feminist text. Again, this seemed a conscious decision by the marketing team in an attempt to reach a wider audience. I suppose it’s a smart move if you’re trying to sell books and get ‘ordinary’ women to learn about gender issues, which I think is important, but it still promotes the notion that we can be drawn in by pretty covers alone and that feminism is something that needs softening up and toning down to be appealing.
It becomes clear very quickly that this approach is exactly what Levenson utilises to make her points: accessible, affable and easy-to-digest feminism for the uninitiated.
Correction: it is feminism for the young, white, able-bodied, straight, educated and middle-class uninitiated. There is absolutely no mention of how race and class divisions affect women’s lives and only the briefest mention of sexuality in the introduction, where Levenson excuses her heteronormativity by claiming that she knows nothing of lesbianism and therefore feels unable to speak with any authority on how that fits into feminism. That there is not even a nod to other sexualities and identities on the gender spectrum seems to me rather narrow-minded and privileged, or poor journalism at best.
Would it have been that difficult to include even just one chapter or section on experiences outside of those she has firsthand knowledge of? This was an opportunity to bring other factors besides simply being female to the table of mainstream feminism, but Levenson chose instead to sweep it under the rug alongside other ‘difficult’ issues. In this aspect, her writing leaves a gaping void that somewhat tarnishes the more sensible parts of the book.
Ultimately, this is a book for women who are just becoming interested in feminism, those who aren’t sure if they are feminists or not and people who may have negative associations with the movement, but are open to having those views challenged. For them, Levenson does a decent job of outlining a variety of political and social issues that are worth thinking about and I agree with her wholeheartedly on some specific points (men’s role in feminism, whether we need a new word, why we should avoid gender-coding language and how beauty standards are hurting women, amongst a few others).
I also quite liked the “(wo)manifesto for change” towards the end of the book, featuring a top 10 list of ways, both big and small, that women can get involved in feminism. If her goal was merely to get those who otherwise might never have picked up a book about feminism to look at women’s issues through a more critical lens, then I’d say she’ll be at least moderately successful.
However, those more versed in feminist thought will perhaps find the subject matter to have a bit too much breadth and not enough depth. Some will even find Levenson’s views on certain topics ill-informed, offensive or downright misogynistic.
One of her most outrageous statements is that there are different levels of rape, with violent attacks by strangers being far worse than date rape, and that “changing [your] mind after penetration is not rape”. She also things that rape jokes can be funny and serve as an outlet for us to release our fear surrounding the issue. Her astonishing naivety or wilful ignorance (and I’m not sure which is worse) regarding rape jokes as part of a permissive rape culture that entirely diminishes its gravity and prevents it from being taken seriously makes me, in turn, not take Levenson very seriously and diminished my overall impression of her book.
Consequently, I could really only recommend this book to a person who thinks feminism is a worthwhile cause, but doesn’t think much of actual feminists or the movement itself. If you’re looking for a primer in how to gain more equality without risking becoming one of ‘those’ feminists (you know, the hairy, angry, academic, serious type with no boyfriend or sense of humour) then this book might be right up your alley. Otherwise, it very well may make you go screaming down one instead.