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Ungrateful Daughters

Ungrateful Daughters:

Third Wave Feminist Writings


Justyna Wlodarczyk

Ungrateful Daughters: Third Wave Feminist Writings By Justyna Wlodarczyk
Ungrateful Daughters: Third Wave Feminist Writings By Justyna Wlodarczyk
Ungrateful Daughters: Third Wave Feminist Writings By Justyna Wlodarczyk

Ungrateful Daughters: Third Wave Feminist Writings, by Justyna Wlodarczyk

This book first published 2010

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

12 Back Chapman Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2XX, UK

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Copyright © 2010 by Justyna Wlodarczyk

All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.

ISBN (10): 1-4438-2369-4, ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-2369-2




Chapter One The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


Chapter Two First Person Singular: The Phenomenon of Third Wave Anthologies


Chapter Three Passing and the Fictions of Third Wave Subjectivity: Rebecca Walker, Danzy Senna, Dorothy Allison


Chapter Four Revolution Grrrl Style Now: Michelle Tea and the Post-Punk Queer Avant-Garde




Works Cited





0.0. On feminism and fluoride

For our generation feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice that we have it–it’s simply in the water. 1 —Baumgardner and Richards, Manifesta

The feminism-fluoride metaphor, coined by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards in Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future to describe the impact of feminism on the generation born in the 1970s and early 1980s, has become hugely popular since the publication of their book in 2000. Judging from the number of times it has been quoted in other publications, on the web and in popular conversations, it is the third wave’s leading metaphor. Ironically, the one third wave metaphor which has made history concerns feminism’s invisibility. 2 Not only is it strikingly non-visual, fluoride being something one can hardly imagine or draw a picture of, it is also, probably unintentionally, very context- specific; water fluoridation, as an element of prevention of dental caries, was implemented in the largest cities in the United States, and hardly anywhere else in the world. Thus the effects of fluoridation are very much like the effects of the second wave of feminism, a typically American and urban phenomenon. The original use of this metaphor is characteristic of the often internally contradictory character of third wave discourse revealed upon closer analysis–fluoridation is meant to stand for something ubiquitous, which in reality it is not; it is intended as something positive (prevents cavities), yet it has been strongly opposed on the grounds of causing discoloration of the teeth and the weakening of bones. Third wave

1 Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000, 17.

2 Interestingly, another metaphor of the Third Wave which has become very popular also refers to its invisibility. Ednie Kaeh Garrison in “U.S. Feminism-Grrrl Style! Youth Subcultures and the Technologies of the Third Wave” views the waves in “third wave feminism” as radio waves rather than ocean waves (Garrison 151). Radio waves are something which is invisible and yet permeates all walls and boundaries.



feminism proudly embraces contradiction as a strategy, yet the question of how self-aware it is of the contradictions it contains remains open. While the fluoride metaphor was originally used to describe the impact of second wave feminism on younger women, it is also a useful way of looking at the topic of this book. The reflection of third wave sensibility in recent literature by American women writers has so far gone largely unnoticed, even though numerous young writers openly embrace their membership in the contemporary women’s movement. Conversely, quite a lot of academic research has been done on decoding postfeminist discourse in fiction and popular culture, possibly because of the immense popularity of certain forms of popular cultural productions exhibiting postfeminist sensibilities, for example, television series like Ally McBeal, Desperate Housewives and Sex in the City, 3 the romantic comedy, “girl power” cartoons and chick lit. Another possible reason for the lack of critical interest in third wave writing is the confusion between postfeminism and third wave feminism, and the incorporation, more or less conscious, of postfeminist discourse into third wave ideology and writing. The aim of this book is not to resolve this confusion, but to reveal its sources and mechanisms; to show the third wave’s troubled relationship with the second wave; its opposition to postfeminism and its simultaneous engagement in postfeminist discourse; to present the writings of some talented young women whose work has, so far, been largely unnoticed. To begin with, I need to briefly analyze the differences between postfeminism and third wave feminism.

0.1. Why not postfeminism?

The third wave declares itself to be steadfastly and adamantly opposed to postfeminism, as seen, for example, in my analysis of the “founding documents” of the third wave presented in Chapter I. However, not much effort is placed by the authors of these documents on a thorough definition of postfeminism and on explaining specifically why and how the third wave differs from this discourse. I would like to make the claim that the third wave is actually informed by postfeminism at least as much as it is opposed to it, although third wavers themselves are often not aware of this fact. This lack of awareness is a result mostly of the anti-academic character of the third wave and of the confusion resulting from the multiple and somewhat contradictory uses of the term postfeminism.

3 See, for example, Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (eds.) Reading Sex and the City, Janet McCabe (ed.) Reading Desperate Housewives.

Ungrateful Daughters: Third Wave Feminist Writings


Interestingly, this very anti-academic character is also responsible for the third wave’s unconscious incorporation of some aspects of contemporary cultural theories. As a result, in third wave writings and ideology we can trace which elements of the academic understanding of postfeminism have transpired to the general public. The biggest problem with defining postfeminism is the existence of multiple meanings of the term, all of which deserve to be presented in order to analyze their connection to third wave feminism. The first meaning, or rather range of meanings, refers to the critique of feminism’s rigid stance on identity politics and the need for drawing connections between feminism and other philosophical ideas. Ann Brooks, in her introduction to Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms explains that “the term [postfeminism] is now understood as a useful conceptual frame of reference encompassing the intersection of feminism with a number of other anti-foundationalist movements including postmodernism, post-structuralism and post-colonialism” (Brooks 1). In this understanding postfeminism originates within 1970s feminist theory and takes it a step further; develops some concepts, while problematizing others. The most contentious concept questioned by academic postfeminism is that of identity. Obviously, one of the basic goals of second wave feminism was raising the consciousness of women’s identity as women; as a group sharing certain features, problems and life experiences. The emergence of this identity was seen as necessary in order for the concept of sisterhood to come into being, and for feminism to be effective in achieving political change. However, while feminism was hard at work on making women aware of the commonalities they shared, other movements, more visible in the sphere of philosophy and cultural theory than in politics, were questioning the notion of stable, fixed identity and subjecthood. The urgency of recognizing the existence of these ideas and incorporating them into feminism increased as feminism moved farther from being only a political movement to a fully developed cultural theory, or set of theories. As Elizabeth Wright writes in her account of the emergence of postfeminism included in Lacan and Postfeminism: “the emphasis upon collective action soon revealed internal strains through its neglect of difference, first of class and colour, and ultimately of identity. In part as a consequence, postfeminism began to participate in the discourse of postmodernism since it destabilises any notion of a fixed and whole-some subject” (Wright 6). In a chronological analysis of how and why this need became acknowledged, it is vital to point out the French 1970s “difference



feminism” and theorists such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, whose ideas turned in a completely different direction from those prevalent at the time in the Anglo-Saxon world, that is the belief that if the “playing field” was leveled, if gender, understood as the socialization of girls into femininity, was done away with, women and men would emerge as basically similar, as simply human subjects. The trope of insurmountable differences in subjectivity introduced by French feminists was later developed by postcolonial theorists, such as, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Chela Sandoval. Other theorists, such as, Judith Butler and Donna Haraway, began an inquiry into the validity of the sex/gender distinction and carried out a radical denaturalization of the body. Meanwhile the work of, for example, Linda Nicholson and Nancy Fraser, examines the relationship of postmodernism and feminism, emphasizing that each perspective can be helpful for the development of the other one, as “postmodernists offer sophisticated and persuasive criticisms of foundationalism and essentialism” while “feminists offer robust conceptions of social criticism, but they tend at times to lapse into foundationalism and essentialism” (Fraser and Nicholson 20). Postfeminism, in this context, is understood as a successful mixing of the different paradigms, but also, by virtue of the other “post” perspectives added to the mixture, as a conceptual shift from debates about equality and ways of achieving it to debates about difference. Each of the theorists mentioned above is not exclusively a postfeminist theorist and some of them would most probably object to being classified as such, which is yet another problem with using postfeminism as a tool for categorizing. By using it I am not embracing it, but simply trying to fill in with names the conceptual framework sketched out by those who, like Elizabeth Wright and Ann Brooks, see postfeminism as the incorporation of other perspectives into feminism, in order not to reject feminism in general but to criticize it from within. Wright observes:

Postfeminism has begun to consider the question of what the postmodern notion of the dispersed unstable subject might bring it. […] Postfeminism is continuously in process, transforming and changing itself. It does not carry with it the assumption that previous feminist and colonialist discourses, whether modernist or patriarchal, have been overtaken, but that postfeminism takes a critical position in relation to them (5).

Such a view allows for fluidity, for constant reclassification and renegotiation, thus making it possible to classify numerous theorists as postfeminists. However, when using Anzaldua’s and Sandoval’s ideas in Chapter III to analyze writings by Rebecca Walker and Danzy Senna, I

Ungrateful Daughters: Third Wave Feminist Writings


prefer to refer to them as “Third World feminists,” acknowledging the contested nature of the term postfeminism. Interestingly, and possibly unavoidably, this shift in feminism’s focus from equality to difference was accompanied by another shift: the separation of a unique and unified social movement with a theoretical framework into two different ones: an academic trend and a political/social ideology. From a time perspective, this split may look inevitable, but what was remarkable about second wave feminism was the close connection between theory and activism, maintained both on the conceptual and on the personal level. Some of the most important theorists of feminism–to mention just a few: Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan, Germaine Greer–were also well known as activists, appeared in the media representing feminism as a political movement, participated in and organized some of the more radical political actions. Postfeminism, even though its echoes do transpire into popular culture, has never become an ideology mobilizing the masses for action and its proponents have not become the leaders of a social movement. Meanwhile, the types of street activism which persisted into the 1980s and 1990s, such as pro-choice marches organized mostly by NOW, the anti-pornography campaign and activism in support of ERA, were ideologically stuck within second wave identity politics and additionally tainted with the conservative discourse of the 1980s. The third wave’s relationship to this understanding of postfeminism is usually rather naïve, though one aspect of the “academic” understanding of postfeminism which third wavers comprehend is its impact on the funneling of feminism into the academia and the focus on theory, even if they are not sure what this theory is. This explains the third wave’s adamantly anti-academic attitude and the attempt to pull feminism out of the academia and back into the streets. Ironically, quite often third wavers become aware of the existence of feminism while attending women’s studies courses, which explains the high volume of campus activism (Students Organizing Students, Take Back the Night, Voters for Choice). Even though third wavers themselves are often not aware of the existence of the theory sometimes classified as postfeminist, they are quite often informed by it, as a result of the same mechanism which makes all cultural theory relevant to popular culture–that is theory describes culture, therefore culture reflects theory. This is one of the reasons why aspects of postfeminism are a useful tool in the analysis of third wave literary texts, as I demonstrate in this book, especially in Chapter III. The idea of fluid and shifting subjectivity is explored in the writings of, for example, Rebecca Walker and Danzy Senna.



0.2. Postfeminism 2

The second definition of postfeminism, or rather the second group of definitions, is connected to the mostly media generated trend of using the word postfeminism to describe the contemporary world as one where the goals of feminism have already been achieved and thus feminism is no longer necessary. In Interrogating Postfeminism, an anthology exploring how postfeminism functions as a concept in popular culture, Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra provide this definition: “[p]ostfeminism broadly encompasses a set of assumptions, widely disseminated within popular media forms, having to do with the ‘pastness’ of feminism, whether that supposed pastness is merely noted, mourned, or celebrated” (Tasker and Negra 1). Angela McRobbie’s definition, presented in her by now classic article “Postfeminism and Popular Culture” is a lot less positive. According to McRobbie, postfeminism is “an active process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 1980s come to be undermined” (McRobbie


Tasker and Negra note that the term began to be used in the popular media in the 1980s, and Chris Holmlund records the first use of “post- feminism” in a popular publication as a 1982 article in New York Times Magazine titled “Voices from the Post-Feminist Generation,” but the real popularization of the term as a discursive phenomenon and as a buzzword took place in the 1990s. Most scholars evaluate postfeminism as a discourse which is not ideologically neutral, but which, in fact, operates as a tool of the conservative right and of the corporate media, although there are scholars who imbue postfeminist cultural projects with subversive potentiality. According to postfeminist discourse, “the post-feminist generation” is supposedly the age group born during or after the second wave of feminism; the generation that has grown up with feminism and benefited from its gains. As the beneficiaries of feminism, they are in a position to make truly free lifestyle choices and to follow their individual inclinations and talents at a time of equal opportunities for all. Angela McRobbie calls this basic premise of postfeminism as the “taken into accountness” (McRobbie 28) of feminism and claims that in postfeminist discourse the gains of feminism can only be acknowledged, or taken into account, if feminism is understood to have already passed. This is a basic reading enabling a positive evaluation of feminism, which simultaneously allows for thorough dismantling of feminist politics. The “taking into account” of feminism leads to its dismantling through ironic gestures signifying a simultaneous recognition of feminism (or

Ungrateful Daughters: Third Wave Feminist Writings


sexism) and the acknowledgment of the lack of need for employing the feminist perspective. Postfeminist discourse seems to be saying: “yes, we know this could be read as sexist, but in today’s sexism-free world we can all enjoy it.” Among the many examples provided by McRobbie possibly the strongest one is her analysis of a billboard “showing the model Eva Herzigova looking down admirably at her substantial cleavage enhanced by the lacy pyrotechnics of the Wonderbra” (32). This kind of advertisement would have certainly been deemed as sexist in the 1970s, but, as McRobbie claims, it is not a naïve reenactment of the sexist ads from days gone by, but a highly ironic performance of sexism which gives away the creator’s familiarity with feminist critiques of advertising. The ad plays back to its knowledgeable postfeminist viewers the very concepts they learned about in their women’s studies classes in college. Protesting against the ad would be the dull, politically correct feminist response, while the postfeminist response is a recognition of the ad as ironic. McRobbie adds that such a reaction is also a signifier of generational difference, the older feminists would be outraged, while “the younger female viewer; along with her male counterparts, educated in irony and visually literate, is not made angry by such a repertoire. She appreciates its layers of meaning; she ‘gets the joke’” (33). This way feminism dismantles itself as something outdated, lacking a sense of humor and irony. This specific strategy leads to what McRobbie calls the “ironic normalization of pornography” (34), that is a situation in which women consent to being perceived as sexual objects, all the while emphasizing the role of their freedom of choice and the power they supposedly obtain from flaunting their sexuality. McRobbie analyzes the proliferation of soft- pornographic images in contemporary visual culture from this perspective. Women consent to their presence because objecting to them would mark them as “uncool.” In this way postfeminism tricks women into surrendering their subjecthood and allowing themselves to be objectified. Furthermore, the very language of feminism, with words such as liberation and empowerment, is made grotesque in its strictly sexual usage. 4 To describe postfeminist ideology McRobbie also uses the term “double entanglement” to signify the attempt to deal with, and normalize, “the coexistence of neoconservative values in relation to gender, sexuality and family life” with the ongoing “processes of liberalization in regard to choice and diversity in domestic, sexual and kinship relations” (28). In

4 A similar argument is made by Ariel Levy in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.



other words, postfeminism is the conservatives’ attempt to hold their ground, while being aware that certain changes in the organization of social relations are inevitable. However, “double entanglement” also signifies that social theory cannot be created in a vacuum, that these changes have to be “taken into account” if a theory is to be useful. The very same term, that is “double entanglement,” could also be used to describe how third wave feminism operates. On the one hand, it grows out of the opposition to postfeminism as championed by the media in the early 1990s, but it is simultaneously a product of postfeminism, since all its proponents are themselves products of the culture which created postfeminism. Some ways in which third wave feminism replicates the very discourse it tries to undermine will be analyzed in detail in Chapter II and Chapter IV, but a brief look at the main theoretical differences between postfeminism and the third wave is due in the introduction.

0.3. Postfeminism vs. the third wave

The third wave defines itself in opposition to the popular understanding of postfeminism, 5 that is through defining what it is not and why. The primary difference, not surprisingly, emerges as the need for collective action, required to secure the gains of feminism and to pursue new goals. Postfeminism claims to be a description of the existing status quo. This status quo is presented as an achievement in itself; one which should be enjoyed and not challenged in any way. Therefore, postfeminism can in no way be seen as a social movement, but only as a social theory. Alison Piepmeier, best known as co-editor of Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21 st Century, writes in an article contrasting postfeminism and the third wave:

Postfeminism relies on competitive individualism and eschews collective action; it obscures or makes invisible the many ways in which women are often fearful, subjected to rape and other kinds of violence, and politically and economically underprivileged. The third wave, however–in texts from

Third Wave Agenda to Manifesta to Colonize This!–grapples with

women's intersectional identities and demands an end to all the forms of oppression that keep women from achieving their full humanity (Piepmeier


5 and through links to and differences from the second wave of feminism, but those differences will be examined in Chapters I and II.

Ungrateful Daughters: Third Wave Feminist Writings


Postfeminism puts emphasis on the individual and that individual’s achievements. McRobbie calls this the process of female individualization. The empowered and liberated individual, who is aware of the ideologies surrounding her (and including feminism), is able and expected to make decisions. As the strength of the social structures a woman is expected to fill (marriage, childbearing, etc.) decreases, the capacity for personal agency increases. Postfeminism presents collective agency as a thing of the past, once necessary as a political strategy, but now obsolete and certainly inferior to the strength of personal agency which one can exercise in the postfeminist world. While the third wave, right from its inception, heralds the need for collective action and rekindles the second wave concept of sisterhood, though emphasizing community based on the appreciation of difference rather than on the assumption of sameness, my analysis of third wave texts presented in Chapter II reveals that the concept of female individualization can easily be recognized in third wave narratives. A celebration of the individual and individual achievements leads to the postfeminist fascination with consumption, which the third wave strongly rejects. In postfeminism consumption becomes a measure of one’s success and, simultaneously, a tool of empowerment. The successful postfeminist woman can afford to buy expensive clothing and accessories and uses this power to improve her mood and boost her self-confidence. Postfeminist consumption is very much a tool of the capitalist economy, but in a similar way in which postfeminist irony is a tool of the conservative right. A postfeminist woman consumes in an ironic and acutely conscious way; she is aware that the Wonderbra and high heels may have once been signifiers of female oppression, but their signification has now changed into that of status symbols, as a result of their consumption by successful women. Third wave feminists challenge these postfeminist ideas about consumption in several ways. Naomi Klein’s book No Logo serves as an ideological framework for numerous third wavers, whose agendas include the rejection of a globalized capitalist economy through personal lifestyle decisions and collective action. Klein’s book, considered a manifesto of the anti-globalization movement, reveals how the choice available through consumption is in fact illusory. Before Klein and the rise of the anti-globalization movement, the Riot Grrrl movement, similarly to other youth countercultural movements, openly rebelled against conspicuous consumption and capitalism through ways of dressing and behaving, but also through the establishment of alternative media, record distribution networks and the use of “do it yourself” technologies.



Ironically, many of the concepts of the Riot Grrrl movement, as described in Chapter IV, were later taken over by mainstream popular culture, commodified and sold under brand names–a key example being the “grrrl power” slogan itself. Of course, the commodification of rebellion is not exclusive to the third wave, but is a phenomenon affecting practically all countercultural movements. What makes the rebellion against consumption even more complicated in the case of the third wave is the fact that numerous third wave feminists are actually proponents of the postfeminist take on consumption. Naomi Wolf (whose ideas are discussed in Chapter I) and Elizabeth Wurtzel openly embrace consumption as an avenue for exercising choice, while rejecting the label of postfeminists. In some ways their attitude towards consumption is a reenactment of postfeminism’s strategy of “preemptive irony” as defined by McRobbie. They seem to be saying: “Yes, I know it’s bad, but let’s not be square, dull, boring.” The third wave, in its opposition to the second wave’s perceived seriousness, wants to be seen as light-hearted, fun and having a keen sense of humor. Another similarity between postfeminism and the third wave is preoccupation with youth. In postfeminist discourse this idea is realized symbolically through the opposition of the “death of feminism” with the vitality and exuberance of rediscovered femininity, but it is also obvious on the literal level–postfeminism’s heroines, as described in articles in popular magazines and presented in popular culture, are “vital, youthful and playful” (Tasker and Negra 9). They are usually no older than in their mid thirties and the older they are, the more attention they spend on preserving their good looks. Postfeminism’s entanglement with consumerism facilitates its obsession with the retention of youth; with beauty, resulting from the ability of purchasing the right health care products, being one of the signifiers of professional achievement. These ideas are interestingly subverted by third wave writers originating from the working class. For example, Michelle Tea, whose work is discussed in Chapter IV, is utterly fascinated with bad teeth which, for her, function as a badge of honor signifying working class origins. However, the third wave is also young, almost by definition. According to most classifications third wavers are usually women born between 1961 and 1981, so the generation “easily collapsed into the larger category of Generation X” (Henry 5). They often are, quite literally, the daughters of second wave feminists (the relationship between the two generations will be discussed in Chapter I) and their rebellion against the second wave is often described with language usually reserved for describing family relationships. The young daughters are, just like

Ungrateful Daughters: Third Wave Feminist Writings


postfeminist heroines, “vital, youthful and playful,” which gives them the energy required for activism. However, along with the development and aging of the third wave, a curious paradox can be observed. Due to the classification of the third wave as “women under thirty”–which was somewhat customary but also codified through some policies; for example, the Third Wave Foundation only accepted members less than thirty years of age–it theoretically becomes possible to “age out” of the third wave. Alternately, women over thirty proclaim their affiliation with the third wave as if it guaranteed eternal youth.

0.4. The case for third wave literature

While the very existence of the third wave of feminism, not to mention its agenda and ideology, has been highly contested, there is no such controversy regarding third wave literature. The reason is simple–there is practically no scholarly debate on the topic. Even though there do exist scholarly analyses of the works of individual writers I discuss in this book, these names are hardly ever placed alongside each other and classified as third wave literature or third wave fiction. One of the first scholars who dared to put them together, Jennifer Drake, provides several reasons for this lack of critical attention and media interest in the category of “third wave literature.” In her entry on “Third Wave Fiction” included in Leslie Heywood’s encyclopedia The Women’s Movement Today Drake explains that the publishing industry views the label “third wave fiction” as a marketing limitation, especially when contrasted to the highly popular “emerging writers” category. In other words, it is easier to sell a book marketed as ideologically neutral but with a defined target age group and fitting into an existing marketing category. Obviously, since most of the writers whose work could be marketed as third wave are still young and do not have well-established reputations, they have not yet received full critical attention. The emergence of third wave writing has also, according to Drake, coincided with the memoir boom of the late 20 th and early 21 st century, thus books by many of the authors I write about here can be found in the memoir section of bookstores, which, again, is a common-sense marketing strategy aimed at increasing sales and broadening the possible target group. The non-fictional anthologies discussed in Chapter II, which focus on defining the goals of the movement and which offer short personal narratives, have enjoyed relative success as college textbooks and trade books. Drake defines third wave fiction as:



writing that possesses or performs a third wave feminist sensibility in its embrace of hybridity and contradiction over purity and either/or modes of thinking. While third wave fiction is most often produced by emerging generation X or generation Y writers, the work of some established writers can be understood as prefiguring or participating in third wave literary production. While third wave fiction takes on many forms and themes, two major trends in third wave fiction may be delineated: postmodern multicultural literature and punk postmodernism (Drake 145).

I kept this very broad definition in mind while making my choices of texts for this book and trying to provide a representative selection of authors. Being at liberty to make the choices myself, I decided not to include authors who, although they exhibit what Drake refers to as “third wave sensibility,” do not self-identify as “third wavers.” However, the same strategy and Drake’s definition allowed me to include writers who do not fit into the 1961-1981 age brackets, but who “can be understood as prefiguring or participating in third wave literary production”–which explains the presence of Dorothy Allison, a well established writer who, however, often self-identifies as a third wave feminist. I treated actual feminist activism as a bonus, bearing in mind the controversies surrounding the definition of feminist literature in general. Therefore, I assumed that if a writer self-identified as a third wave feminist and had been involved in the movement, then definitely their work qualified as material for my analysis. Since such a huge volume of third wave writing is either non-fictional or borders on non-fictional, I could not exclude some examples of autobiographical writing. In the end, basically all of the works discussed have some autobiographical content, which is proof to the strength of the memoir boom which, in turn, is analyzed in Chapter II. The concept of third wave theory, which I felt should be included in the book as a separate chapter, also proved to be difficult because the third wave so strongly opposes academic theory. Therefore, I finally settled on doing what most instructors of women’s studies courses settle on when teaching about third wave feminism, and analyzed (in Chapter II) the anthologies usually marketed as college textbooks and containing mostly personal narratives of feminist activists. Of course, certain exclusions had to be made and this is why a general overview of the writers whom I do not analyze in detail but who could be classified as third wave is needed. Drake writes about two main trends within third wave fiction, the first one being postmodern multicultural literature, which according to Drake, begins with Edwidge Danticat’s fictions, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), Krik? Krak! (1995), The Farming

Ungrateful Daughters: Third Wave Feminist Writings


of the Bones (1998), and Behind the Mountains (2002) and continues with ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003) and Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land (1996). As Drake writes, these writers “are in dialogue with the work of established authors such as Toni Morrison, Bharati Mukherjee, and Leslie Marmon Silko. Perhaps these three writers could be called first sightings of the third wave in their insistence on exploring the sometimes violent messiness of individual, communal, and national identities in the context of globalization” (146). Drake lists four distinct features of third wave multicultural literature:

“[f]irstly, third wave fiction often begins with the assumption that so- called marginal identities are normative, or, conversely, that the normative is marginal” (146). Not only are third wave narrators simply representatives of ethnic minorities, their identities are often much more complex, as will be evident from my analysis of Walker and Senna’s works. This complexity and marginality is for third wave writers something obvious, a given, it does not require explanation. Secondly, “third wave fictions often emphasize the humor in cultural hybridity and cross-cultural exchange” (147). As examples of this sense of humor Drake lists Gish Jen’s and Zadie Smith’s books. Thirdly, “characters in third wave fiction often resist identity categories in favor of embracing the fluidity of identity” (147). I examine this resistance of identity categories in Chapter III, analyzing the concept of passing in Danzy Senna’s novel Caucasia and Rebecca Walker’s memoir Black, White and Jewish. And lastly, “third wave fiction writers engage popular culture critically and with pleasure” (147) just like third wave feminism in general, third wave writers are highly literate in popular culture. Drake lists the other significant trend within third wave fiction as punk postmodernism, which she defines as “autobiographical fictions […] set in contemporary urban subcultures, usually lesbian, and [which] variously explore sex, drugs, violence, music, low-wage work, gender identity, travel, and friendship” (278). Representatives of this trend include Lynn Breedlove with her novel Godspeed (2003) and the semi-autobiographical works by Michelle Tea. Drake traces third wave punk fiction back to the writings of Sarah Schulman (co-founder of the Lesbian Avengers), who was in turn clearly inspired by the beatniks and whose stories are set among New York City’s lesbian bohemia of the 1980s, and to Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1984) and Don Quijote (1986). In Chapter IV I analyze Michelle Tea’s Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America and The Chelsea Whistle as inspired by post-punk aesthetics and providing an insider’s view of late 1980s pre- third wave feminist/queer communities.



There are several writers whose work does not neatly fit into either one of these categories, but who deserve to be mentioned as third wave writers of fiction on the basis of their aesthetic sensibilities and ideology. Drake lists Aimee Bender, an extremely talented short story author, as someone who has a talent for “creating quirky and difficult characters and exploring the nooks and crannies of contemporary life” (148) while avoiding swerving too much in the direction of postfeminism. Aimee Bender has published three short story collections: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998), An Invisible Sign of My Own (2001) and Willful Creatures (2005). Drake also mentions “chick lit,” a hugely popular new literary phenomenon, placing it on the border of postfeminism and the Third Wave. I briefly look at chick lit, along with other new genres of popular literature such as “hip-hop lit” in Chapter I, which analyzes the aesthetics and politics of the third wave.




1.0. Introduction

This chapter outlines the emergence of the third wave of feminism in the United Stated and the various strands within it, in order to provide a general view of how politics and aesthetics intermingle in third wave discourse. In “U.S. Feminism-Grrrl Style! Youth Subcultures and the Technologies of the Third Wave” Ednie Kaeh Garrison calls these strands “nodes” 1 (Garrison 151) arguing that this metaphor, taken over from the world of computer technologies, where nodes are critical elements of a system and points in a network where lines intersect or branch, better reflects the technologics of the third wave. The various strands within second wave feminism are usually presented in opposition to each other and the language used to describe them encourages contrasting, thus overviews of second wave feminism explain how radical feminism differed from liberal feminism, etc. Added up, these strands form a self- contained structure, described synchronically at a specific point in time. A node is a connection point or a redistribution point, thus the term puts emphasis on connectedness and cooperation rather than on divisions. It also allows for a more diachronic description and for abandoning the idea of a structure, in exchange for that of a network. Indeed, the nodes of third wave feminism do not simply add up to form a complete picture of the movement, but often overlap and interconnect. Hip-hop feminism is predominantly an African American phenomenon, while the Riot Grrrl was overwhelmingly white, but the node metaphor makes it easier to see how they both draw inspiration from the same source: popular music (hip-

1 Full quotation from Garrison: “I want to argue that this ‘movement’ called the Third Wave is a network built on specific technologics, and Riot Grrrl is one node, or series of nodes, that marks points of networking or clustering” (151).


Chapter One

hop and punk, respectively). This chapter will also briefly describe the popular literary genres which are in some way connected to third wave feminism.

1.1. The emergence of third wave feminism

Third wave feminism, despite its relatively young age, already has an extensive historiography with several different “emergence narratives.” 2 These stories of how the third wave came into existence differ with regards to which event they view as the founding moment of the third wave, yet what they all share is a narrative structure which assumes a waning of interest in feminism throughout the 1980s and what can be defined as an explosion of writings about feminism and feminist activism in the 1990s. While this structure itself can be easily problematized, the persistence of the re-birth metaphor deserves to be analyzed as do the choices of the founding moments. 3 However, it should be mentioned as a word of caution, that it is impossible to look at the third wave purely in terms of chronological developments. Firstly, the third wave is not and has never been a monolithic construct in terms of a main political or ideological “party

2 Historical accounts of third wave feminism include the Introduction to The Women’s Movement Today, an Encyclopedia of Third Wave Feminism, edited by Leslie Heywood, Chapter I “Daughterhood is Powerful” of Astrid Henry’s Not My Mother’s Sister and Chapter II, “What is Feminism?” in Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner’s Manifesta.

3 In Not My Mother’s Sister Astrid Henry quotes a New York Times article “Coming of Age, Seeking an Identity” dated March 8, 2000 according to which more women identified as feminists in the 1980s than in the 1990s. Henry also writes that “the notion that the 1980s can be dismissed as a post-feminist decade is, in great part, a fiction that has helped to propagate the conservatives’ view of feminism” (Henry 21). The late 1970s and early 1980s were a period of the infamous sex wars (see: Lisa Duggan and Nan D. Hunter. Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture, New York: Routledge, 1995 and Emma Healey, Lesbian Sex Wars, London: Virago, 1995), but the 1980s were also a decade of the solidification of Women’s/Gender Studies in academia and a period when some of the most important feminist theory was published, for example, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. The metaphor of “rebirth” requires the preceding “death” of feminism, always eagerly announced by the media (Baumgardner and Richards in Manifesta quote Erica Jong’s calculations according to which the media announced the death of feminism a staggering 169 times since 1969). The 1980s function as a decade of the “death of feminism” both in feminist historiography relying on the wave metaphor and in popular sources.

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


line”. In this way the third wave is similar–and of course based on–the various ideological strands within the second wave, which included the liberal feminism of Betty Friedan and the radical anti-establishment ideas of Valerie Solanas. Secondly, and even more importantly, the third wave is composed of multiple aesthetic nodes, originating within various aspects of American pop culture, which have existed and still exist alongside one another, evolving internally, but not necessarily transforming from one into another. Arguably, the two pop cultural communities which have been the most influential for third wave feminism have been hip-hop and punk. Nonetheless, several “historic moments” are described as key events, or key publications, for third wave feminism, each one pointing to what later became an important issue on the agenda of third wave feminism. I would like to discuss the “primary documents” anthologized in the second volume of Leslie Heywood’s The Women’s Movement Today: An Encyclopedia of Third Wave Feminism. The publication, even through its name, assumes an aura of authority. Therefore, the history it narrates can be called an almost “official” history of the third wave. As in any thematic anthology, the editor-historian’s choices are most certainly based on the desire to draw the most representative picture of the movement possible. Yet, as anyone familiar with Hayden White’s work on metahistory and the concept of emplotment knows, such a goal necessarily entails selectivity–it is worthwhile to compare which of the feminist publishing boom publications of the early nineties made it into the Encyclopedia and which ones did not, in order to decipher what kind of story “alternative” history can be created from the publications which were omitted. Heywood and Drake track down one of the earliest uses of the term third wave in the title of an anthology of writings about racism, The Third Wave: Feminist Perspectives on Racism (Heywood and Drake 1), which had been stalled in publication due to financial problems of its independent publisher. 4 However, the two women who were instrumental in bringing the term to public attention, although their visions of what third wave feminism should be like differed substantially, were Rebecca Walker, an activist and author whose work I analyze in Chapter III of this book, and Naomi Wolf, another popular and prolific writer. Both Walker’s and Wolf’s writings from the “emergence period” of the third wave, which

4 The book was due to be published in 1991 by Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, but, in the end, was released in 1998. It is also important to note that Astrid Henry records the first use of the term “third wave” in a 1987 article “Second Thoughts on the Second Wave” by Deborah Rosenfelt and Judith Stacey. However, as Henry notes, in the 1987 article the term is not used with a generational meaning (Henry 23).


Chapter One

I roughly define as 1991-1995, that is before the publication of the first third wave anthologies, are included in Heywood’s encyclopedia. 5 In a 1992 essay in Ms. magazine titled “Becoming the Third Wave,” Walker expressed her outrage at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s response to Anita Hill’s testimony during the hearings preceding Clarence Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court. 6 In 1991, Thomas was to become the second African American Supreme Court justice. At that time Anita Hill, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and Thomas’s former colleague, accused Thomas of past sexual harassment. 7 After the Committee reluctantly held formal hearings, the US Senate chose to believe Thomas, discrediting Hill’s testimony. The case began to be viewed as a confrontation between women’s rights and the political gains of the African American community. Hill, also an African American, was viewed by many as a race traitor trying to obstruct Thomas’s political career for personal reasons. Walker, then twenty-two years of age, was outraged that such accusations were meted against a woman who had been a victim of sexual harassment. In her Ms. article she claimed the hearings were not meant to establish Thomas’s guilt or innocence. They turned into a spectacle of public humiliation which Hill was forced to engage in, and became a lesson about “checking and redefining the extent of women’s credibility and power” (Walker in Heywood 3). Walker explains how the experience of watching Hill’s hearings helped her understand that “the fight is far from over” (5) and issues a plea to “all women, especially women of my generation” to join her in the fight. She ends the article with the statement “I am not a postfeminist feminist. I am the Third Wave,” which marks the first occurrence of the term “third wave” in a popular publication. What makes Walker’s essay and the ill-fated Third Wave Perspectives on Racism anthology significant as founding documents of third wave feminism is the foregrounding of racial issues as central to the new generation of feminists. The absence of African American theorists and activists from the second wave of American feminism is a frequent

5 The second chapter of this book is devoted exclusively to third wave anthologies published in the period 1996-2006.

6 Walker’s article was originally published in Ms. Jan/Feb 1992 and later reprinted several times in various publications.

7 Anita Hill published an account of her story in 1998 in book form - Speaking Truth to Power, New York: Anchor Books. Her testimony is included in Miriam Schneir’s Feminism In Our Time: The Essential Historical Writings, World War II to the Present. New York: Vintage, 1994. 469-477.

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


complaint voiced by numerous third wavers, 8 although there have been critical voices, such as Kimberly Springer’s 2002 Signs article “Third Wave Black Feminism?”, which claim that this absence has been fabricated by the wave structure itself. 9 Nonetheless, situating an article by biracial Walker about the Anita Hill case as the historic emergence of the third wave is a significant gesture. Walker is a young black woman speaking about the intersections of race and gender, thus her piece signals both a generational shift and the changes in feminist leadership and agenda that this shift signifies. While the article discusses a case dealing with the intersections of race and gender, its strength as a founding document of third wave feminism lies also in the multiple intersections in the identity of its author. Walker is biracial and bisexual 10 –thus she herself embodies the trademark hybridity of the third wave, which as Jennifer Drake writes, “operates both as a metaphor for understanding the complexity of contemporary experience and as a lived reality” (Drake in Heywood 179). Furthermore, the fact that her mother, Alice Walker, was a well known feminist herself, serves as a similar real life embodiment of the metaphor of feminist generations. Who could possibly be more suited to being the icon of third wave feminism? Although Walker represents the positive, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, aspect of the third wave, the rhetoric she uses in the Ms. article foreshadows some aspects of the third wave which are somewhat problematic for the movement’s political efficacy. Astrid Henry notices that the third wave feminists’ extreme individualism can be recognized in Walker’s article. Henry writes: “Walker does not speak in a collective voice. There is no ‘we’ in this statement, just an ‘I’” (Henry 43). Henry’s observation points to the first of many contradictions inherent in third wave feminism–the tension between the third wave all-inclusiveness and emphasis on, to quote the title of an essay by Linda Alcoff, “the problem of speaking for others.” Third wave writers feel the need for sisterhood rooted in collectiveness– both as a personal longing, or third wave melancholia, and as an effective

8 I address this accusation in several sections of this chapter.

9 Springer argues that the definition of the (all white) women’s suffrage movement as the first wave of feminism forces an automatic comparison of any type of later feminist activity with the white suffrage movement. At the same time this concept of the first wave obscures the involvement of African American women in their struggles for rights as women. Springer’s article, originally published in Signs 27.4 (2002), is anthologized in Heywood’s The Women’s Movement Today, 33-46. 10 However, in “Becoming the Third Wave” Walker does not mention her mixed racial heritage or her bisexuality. The figure of Rebecca Walker will be discussed in detail in Chapter III, which analyzes her memoir Black, White and Jewish.


Chapter One

political strategy, but it often seems they are unable to fulfill this need. This contradiction is developed further in Chapter II, which analyzes the discourse of third wave anthologies. Returning to the “myth of origin” of third wave feminism, the placement of Walker’s article as the opening of the third wave by Heywood is not necessarily justified by historical circumstances. There were numerous other texts, often full-length books as opposed to Walker’s short article, appearing at more or less the same time, which also used the term third wave, also signaled the coming of age of a new generation of feminists and which generated a much greater media stir than a short piece in Ms. I am referring, specifically, to two books by Naomi Wolf: The Beauty Myth and Fire with Fire. Rene Denfield’s The New Victorians, a case against the anti-pornography feminists of the 1980s which, for Denfield, symbolized the entire second wave, and Katie Roiphe’s The Morning After are two more books published in the early nineties, which, although written from a feminist perspective–the authors self-identified as feminists–were meant to attack the “old ways” of feminist thinking. Wolf, who it should be added was actually a short-lived media celebrity and hailed as the next Gloria Steinem, published several books, served as Bill Clinton’s campaign advisor and then reappeared on the public scene in 2004 when she accused her former Yale professor Harold Bloom of “sexual misconduct”–an accusation with a striking and strange resemblance to the Hill/Thomas harassment case. Yet, Heywood includes only a short piece from her book Fire with Fire, with the stipulation that it is a “controversial” text. Rene Denfield is omitted altogether, although her “pro-sex” attitude has become a trademark of third wave sensibility and is represented in the Encyclopedia by several essays from Lisa Jervis’s anthology Jane Sexes it Up. What Wolf, Denfield and Roiphe share is certainly skin color, class affiliation and sexual orientation. They are all very white, very middle class (verging on upper middle class), very educated and very heterosexual. In many situations this must have certainly been an advantage, but in this one the combination of these factors may have contributed to their omission from the annals of third wave history. The racial and cultural diversity of the movement is embraced by all and strongly emphasized by white third wavers, who not only seem genuinely proud of the inclusive character of the third wave, but also repeatedly refuse to take-on leadership roles which the media attempt to impose on them. Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, authors of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future (2000) a book which became hugely successful as a long-awaited and unique compilation of the

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


goals of the third wave, co-authored an essay titled “Who’s the Next Gloria?” (published in Piepmeier and Dicker’s Catching a Wave) in which they criticize the idea of designating individual leaders of the movement as an outdated concept. The article was written after the success of Manifesta had launched the two white, Manhattan-based, fashion-savvy writers into national fame as “the next Glorias.” 11 I am not implying that in reality there are no non-Caucasian third wavers, that would be a radical untruth, 12 but that curiously third wave discourse produced by white, educated, middle class third wavers is structured in such a way as to emphasize, or maybe even overemphasize, the role of non-Caucasians and disadvantaged groups. The third wave as

11 There do exist critiques of the whiteness of the third wave posed from within the movement. In general, most of the “ethnic” anthologies which will be analyzed in Chapter II express this sentiment. There even exists a text which directly criticizes Manifesta as an exclusionary text. In “Heartbroken: Women of Color Feminism and the Third Wave” Rebecca Hurdis, who identifies as “an adopted woman of color feminist” expresses her heartbreak over the fact that influential women of color feminist theorists are not listed as influences in Baumgardner and Richards’s book. She does, however, overlook the fact that Manifesta’s main goal is, as the authors claim, pulling feminism away from the academia and back into the sphere of activism. Thus, basically all important theorists are omitted–not just Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga, but Judith Butler as well. Interestingly, there never appeared an official “white” response to this text. In fact, there has never appeared

a text written by a white third waver, which would directly confront such

accusations. Hurdis’s text was, however, included in Heywood’s Encyclopedia, most likely to emphasize the variety of voices and positions within the third wave.


Chapter II of this book I make the argument that third wave texts do not engage


a real dialogue with each other, indeed they may present conflicting positions,

but the conflicts are rarely worked through. I think the story of Hurdis’s text is an excellent example of how this mechanism functions. The critique is never addressed directly and analyzed, but incorporated into mainstream thought through

anthologizing in an important publication.

12 At this point, it is vital to emphasize the leadership role of African American and multiracial women like Walker in the Third Wave, both as activists and as key thinkers. In addition to Walker’s 1992 article, her 1995 anthology To Be Real:

Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism and her 2001 memoir Black White and Jewish: Memoir of a Shifting Self, other important third wave texts published by African American and multiracial women include a collection of essays Bulletproof Diva: Tales of Race Sex and Hair (1994) by Lisa Jones, daughter of Jewish-American writer Hettie Jones and African American poet and activist Amiri Baraka; the autobiography/feminist manifesto When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost (1999) by Joan Morgan, and several memoirs and works of fiction, for example, Veronica Chambers’s memoir Mama’s Girl (1994) and Danzy Senna’s novel Caucasia.


Chapter One

presented in the major anthologies edited by third wavers, and all the editors but Walker have so far been white, is a lot less white than it would seem from the examination of the third wave’s early history. This phenomenon can be seen as an internalized form of political correctness, but that term already connotes something negative, while it seems that the need to create an inclusive movement, even if it means underplaying one’s role in it, is a genuine need of the white third wavers. Furthermore, as Astrid Henry notices, while a lot of mainstream second wave ideas are scorned as racist and classist, the theory produced by second wave women of color is foundational for third wave feminism. This fascination especially with African American thought and culture expressed by white Americans is of course not limited to third wave feminists, but can be viewed as part of a larger phenomenon which Cornel West describes as the “Afro-Americanization” of American popular culture. 13 This shorthand phrase refers to the fascination with African American culture, especially in the realms of sport and music, and does make sense when one bears in mind that even white third wavers have grown up listening to hip-hop and cheering for Michael Jordan. Yet, Henry claims that the phenomenon is much deeper. Her overall argument in Not My Mother’s Sister is that the emergence of the third wave of feminism required the symbolic matricide of the second wave. This differed significantly from the relationship between the first- and second wavers, for whom the passage of several decades created a situation in which the first-wavers were literally dead by the time the second wave emerged. The passage of time created a relaxed situation in which second wavers could acknowledge their debt to “the great foremothers” without the need to engage in dialogue with them. Meanwhile, second wavers often are the actual mothers of third wavers,

13 West talks about this phenomenon in multiple essays and book chapters, most

significantly in Race Matters. The phrase refers to the disproportionately large presence of African Americans (mostly males) in popular music and athletics. West notices that even though this presence will not force young white consumers of popular culture to question their preconceived notions of race, it does create “a shared cultural space where some humane interaction takes place” (Race Matters 84). This fascination with black athletes and rappers among white suburban teenagers leads to the imitation of black styles of dressing, behavior in speech. Cornel West notices the ironic character of this phenomenon: “just as young black men are murdered, maimed and imprisoned in record numbers, their styles have become disproportionately influential in shaping popular culture” (RM 88). For a discussion of the African-Americanization of popular music see, for example, “On Afro-American Music: From Bebop to Rap,” originally published in Semiotexte in


The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


which results in the psychologically grounded need to rebel from the preceding generation, as described in Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence. Yet, at the same time the need for role models and influential ideas is also a psychological reality. Henry claims that this internally contradictory need is solved by the simultaneous portrayal of second wave feminism “with a capital F” as exclusionary and white, as the mother which they need to kill, and the acknowledgment of the third wave’s influence by texts written by women of color (favorite theorists include:

Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, Barbara Smith), without acknowledging them as part of the second wave. Henry claims that “in order to argue for a new, ‘real’ feminism, young feminists need and old, out-of-touch feminism to whom they can shout ‘get real’” (Henry 166). This, in turn, results in a paradoxical situation in which the third wave becomes responsible for perpetuating the perception of the second wave as a white monolith. Additionally, the history of race relations in the US complicates things even further. Henry argues that “feminism’s ‘whiteness’ is intrinsic to its caricaturization as a puritanical mother. Third wavers describe this maternal feminism as prudish, embittered, and moralistic in a way that is clearly indebted to stereotypes of a certain form of uptight, white femininity” (167). I will discuss these stereotypes of the second wave in more detail when I examine the accusations meted out by the third wave against the second wave, but Henry’s observation of the “intrinsic” whiteness of the second wave leads to an interesting reworking of the familial metaphors of feminism. As Henry notices, after Ann DuCille’s article “The Occult of True Black Womanhood,” in this metaphoric relationship black second wave feminism becomes the third wave’s “mammy,” while white second wave feminism is still its mother. Henry explains that “DuCille uses the mammy metaphor to critique what she sees as white feminists’ cooption and fetishization of their relationship to black feminists” (168). This also explains why black (and women of color) feminist thought can never be seen as a part of the second wave–that would put it in the position of the despised mother. Although Henry does not write about this, the use of these familial metaphors accounts for, or questions, depending on which attitude one assumes, the position of women of color within the third wave. The “daughter-bad white mother-good black mammy” relationship, apart from the fetishization and cooption of black feminism, assumes that, unless miscegenation took place, the child has to be white. Thus, while bleaching the second wave of any pigmentation, it also bleaches the third wave. This would explain the burning need to include feminists of color in the third


Chapter One

wave expressed by white third wavers as an unconscious attempt to deny the existence of the mother/mammy division. At the same time it would also explain the reluctance of feminists of color to identify as third wave as unconscious (or perhaps conscious?) recognition of the existence of this familial triangle and their fear of being used. I have, however, noted that the presence of women of color activists and theorists within the third wave is a fact, which would seem to counter the claim that I have just made. Yet, with the exception of Walker, basically all minority women within the third wave tend to present themselves in ways which emphasize the complexity of their identities, not simply as third wavers. Rebecca Hurdis identifies as “adopted-Asian-American-woman-of-color-feminist.” One of the root causes of such hyphenated identities is the perception of “the movement” as white, which results in the need to emphasize one’s non-whiteness.

1.2. The conservative trio: Roiphe, Denfield, Wolf

Returning to the official history of the third wave, another early (1993) text represented in most, though not all, accounts of the history of the third wave is Naomi Wolf’s Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21 st Century. Wolf’s first book, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women, published two years earlier, 14 garnered even more popular media attention. It was rather immodestly praised by Germaine Greer, the author of The Female Eunuch, as “[t]he most important feminist publication since The Female Eunuch.15 Australian-born Greer is known as the “sexy” feminist, with the main idea of The Female Eunuch being that contemporary society has made women feel ashamed about their bodies, which results in decreasing their sense of self-worth and thus their autonomy. The solution is free sexual experimentation and denouncing monogamy. At the time of the publication of Wolf’s first two books–she has published several more since that time–her classification as a feminist writer was questionable. In their 1996 Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism, Heywood and Drake dismiss Wolf as post- feminist, along with Christina Hoff Summers and Katie Roiphe (Heywood

14 The first US edition was published in 1991, the original edition was published in Canada in 1990. 15 On the book jacket of the Canadian 1990 edition. Interestingly, The Female Eunuch was reissued in 2002. The reissuing of the book was initiated by Jennifer Baumgardner, who also wrote the foreword to the 2002 edition. In other words, Germaine Greer certainly is the third wave’s favorite second wave feminist.

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


and Drake 2 and 50). However, in the 2006 The Women’s Movement Today: An Encyclopedia of Third wave Feminism Heywood includes an excerpt from Fire with Fire, albeit with the comment that it is a “controversial essay” (Heywood 13). Wolf’s Fire with Fire is thus an interesting case of a book which became “more” feminist as it aged. And it is important to note that the reason is not a change in Wolf’s allegiance - Wolf has self-identified as a feminist ever since the publication of The Beauty Myth. Katie Roiphe and Rene Denfield also identified as feminists at the time of the publication of their books, respectively The Morning After–an interpretation of the date rape awareness movement on college campuses as a case of feminist hysteria, and The New Victorians–an analysis of the anti-pornography strand in 1980s feminism. Yet their books, even with time, have not made it into the third wave canon and Wolf’s books have. A brief analysis of Fire with Fire from the perspective of a decade and a half after its publication reveals the reasons. Similarly to Walker’s Ms. article, Wolf begins the book with a reference to the Anita Hill hearings. She claims the fall of 1991 (the date of the hearings) sparked a “genderquake” which brought about “unprecedented female political activism” (Wolf 1993 xv). However, the main contribution of Fire with Fire to the debate on young women and the feminist movement which began taking shape in the early 1990s are the terms “victim feminism” and “power feminism.” The terms sound relatively self-explanatory and indeed, the gist of the difference between the “two traditions,” as Wolf calls them, lies in the reasoning behind claims for the equality of women. According to Wolf, “victim feminism is when a woman seeks power through an identity of powerlessness” and “it is what all of us do whenever we retreat into appealing for status on the basis of feminine specialness instead of human worth” (Wolf 1993 135). The predominance of “victim feminism” has, according to Wolf, scared young women away from the women’s movement, because they do not want to be seen as victims, whining and complaining about how bad the world has been to them. They are smart and confident and want to be perceived as such. “Power feminism,” defined a lot more vaguely in spite of being the book’s main theme, as “a tolerant assertiveness” and “a claim to human participation and human rights,” consists of claiming women’s power and acting from that standpoint. The bulk of the book is devoted to a critique of “victim feminism,” which, although not explicitly equated with the second wave or even with the women’s movement–Wolf writes: “[v]ictim feminism is by no means confined to the women’s movement” (Wolf 1993 135)–is described as “outdated,” “old” and referred to mostly in the past tense “[victim


Chapter One

feminism] evolved out of the aversion to power of the radical left” (143) with frequent references to the 1970s. When the characteristics of “victim feminism” listed by Wolf one by one in the chapter “Two Traditions” (135-142) are scrutinized, it is easy to see that Wolf lumps under this designation multiple and competing strands within contemporary feminism, usually grossly simplifying their tenets. The accusation “[victim feminism] is sexually judgmental, even antisexual” is a reference to the anti-pornography stand taken in the 1980s by writers like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, but it ignores the existence of the strong anti-censorship strand within 1980s feminist activism. 16 Wolf’s claim that victim feminism “exalts intuition, ‘women’s speech’ and ‘women’s ways of knowing” and “idealizes women’s childbearing capacity as proof that women are better than men” attacks views expressed by cultural feminists like Mary Belenky and Carol Gilligan, who studied the different learning patterns of males and females 17 –without, it must be added, exalting those exhibited by women or claiming that they were inborn. Wolf completely misreads Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born as a treatise on the natural joys of motherhood, while the book is in reality an analysis of how motherhood functions as a culturally produced institution. Rich is branded a “bad feminist” for two contradictory reasons–that is, claiming that all women are lesbians (122- 123) and for “idealizing women’s childbearing capacity” (135). Wolf’s list of characteristics of “victim feminism” includes statements such as “[s]ees women as closer to nature than men are,” an obvious reference to ecofeminism and writers like Vandana Shiva, without any form of analysis. Summing up, it would seem that Wolf singles out a “pop version” of difference/cultural feminism as the main culprit in the propagation of “victim feminism,” but radical feminists also receive their share of scorn from her, as can be deduced from arguments such as “[victim feminism] denigrates leadership and values anonymity” and “sees money as contaminating.” These accusations could refer to the late 1960s and early 1970s experiments in alternative forms of organization, as practiced by groups such as The Feminists, 18 Redstockings, New York Radical Women

16 as represented by, among others, popular Village Voice columnist Pat Califia. Califia’s collected articles were published in Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex in 1994.

17 See Mary Belenky’s Women’s Ways of Knowing and Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice.

18 The manifesto of The Feminists states the group’s organizational principles as “The Feminists is an organization without officers which divides work according to the principle of participation by lot. […] Traditionally official posts such as the

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


and numerous feminist collectives. Wolf does not mention the continuous existence of liberal groups, like NOW chapters, which diligently followed Robert’s Rules of Order or the heated debate within radical feminism on the issue of leadership and organizational structure. 19 All in all, Wolf’s “victim feminism” is a grotesque version of second wave feminism. She creates a monolithic structure, instead of representing the manifold currents present within feminism. The monolith she creates can by no means appeal to young American women–it sounds prude, antisexual, self-righteous and out of touch with young women’s concerns. Exactly, as Astrid Henry phrases it in Not My Mother’s Sister. In fact, “victim feminism” as presented by Wolf resembles the negative media portrayals of feminism prevalent in the media coverage of the women’s movement. 20 Wolf suggests making feminism more appealing to the younger generation and calls this facelift “power feminism.” Wolf’s new version of feminism addresses, simultaneously, all the problems which she sees in the monolith of second wave feminism and solves them. Instead of being antisexual, her vision of the feminism of the new generation is “unapologetically sexual.” Instead of being “manhating,” it extends an invitation for men to join the women. Instead of promoting “groupthink” and denigrating leadership, it focuses on the individual and “encourages a woman to claim her individual voice rather than merging in a collective identity.” Instead of being “obsessed with purity and perfection” and being “self-righteous,” it is “always skeptical and open.” Instead of “seeing money as contaminating,” it “knows that poverty is not glamorous” and “wants women to acquire money.” Victim feminism is rooted in the academia and thus automatically out of touch with reality, while Wolf’s

chair of the meeting and the secretary are determined by lot and change with each meeting. […] Assignments may be menial or beyond the experience of a member” (Koedt, Levine, Rapone 371). For a closer look at the organizational structure of radical feminist groups in the 60s/70s see Alice Echols’s Daring to be Bad:

Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975.

19 See, for example, Joreen’s (Jo Freeman’s) “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” in Koedt, Rapone and Levine’s Radical Feminism.

20 For more on the relationship between the second wave and the media see, for example, Patricia Bradley’s Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 1963-1975. Bradley’s main argument is that the media interest which radical feminists tried to capture from the very beginning (through events such as the 1968 Miss America Protest) in order to allow more women to learn about the movement’s ideas, became a double-edged sword because mainstream media, in order to increase “viewer appeal” of the news items created and promoted detrimental stereotypes about feminism–feminists became “bra burners” and “man haters.”


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version of third wave feminism keeps in touch with the real world. The list goes on, but the main changes concern attitudes towards sex, money, individuality, inclusiveness and diversity which, according to “power feminism,” should all be embraced and encouraged. In Not My Mother’s Sister Astrid Henry argues that the reason why Heywood and Drake claimed in 1996 that Naomi Wolf, Katie Roiphe and Rene Denfield, were post-feminists rather than third wave feminists was to “distinguish their own version of third wave feminism from that of this conservative trio” (Henry 31). Henry does not agree with that stance and analyzes works by the three writers as opening the third wave of feminism. Apparently, the argument was well-received and Wolf’s Fire with Fire made it into Heywood’s Encyclopedia of Third Wave Feminism. However, I would argue that the rejection of Wolf’s version of the third wave by the editors of Third Wave Agenda was rooted in the belief that in 1996 the third wave still had the possibility of developing in a completely different direction–one which would make Wolf’s ideas long forgotten a decade later. The inclusion of Wolf’s work in the third wave canon in 2006 is a recognition of the fact that Wolf’s views did in fact shape a large segment of third wave thought and largely shaped public perception of what the third wave is about, even if such a turn of events had not been considered a desirable possibility by other third wavers in 1996. The majority of third wavers have unquestioningly accepted Wolf’s concept of victim feminism and the monolithic view of the second wave. This acceptance was most certainly aided by the media portrayal of the feminist movement, especially in the 1980s. This monolithic perception of feminism is often connected with a dismissal of the need to actually learn about the second–not to mention the first–wave of feminism. It sometimes seems as if third wavers know about the second wave only from writers like Wolf or from the popular media. In many popular third wave publications, especially third wave anthologies of personal essays, the contributors half-jokingly refer to the second wave’s feminist political correctness police or the feminist “Commandments of Political Correctness” (Sheryl Wong in Piepmeier and Dicker 295) all the while rejoicing in the possibilities offered by the new third wave feminism, which enables “embracing individual experience and making personal stories political” (Wong 295). In fact, Wolf’s call for encouraging “a woman to claim her individual voice rather than merging her voice in a collective identity” and the idea that “women have the right to tell the truth about their experiences” foreshadowed, or maybe even sparked, the development of one of the favorite genres of third wave writing–the personal essay. Interestingly, the

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


narratives produced by the women “claiming their individual voice” are often stories of abuse and victimization, a discourse which would seem at odds with Wolf’s call for “power feminism.” Feminist anthologies of personal essays and the problems inherent to the genre are discussed in more detail in the next chapter, but for now it will suffice to say that some critics suggest that the third wave’s emphasis on personal experience has weakened its power as a movement for political and social change. Wolf’s ideas about “power feminism” have also shaped some strands within third wave feminism. The embrace of sexuality as a site of power and pleasure has become one of the key issues for third wave agenda, as documented by the numerous third wave books and articles on sexuality. The anthology Jane Sexes it Up explores young women’s sexual fantasies and very real unorthodox sexual practices, from S/M to prostitution, in a non-judgmental fashion, while popular third wave magazines like Bust and Bitch offer advice on vibrators and dildos. However, pro-sex feminism, as described by Wolf, has been attacked by numerous critics (see Angela Mc Robbie’s argument summarized in the “Introduction”) as blurring the boundary between third wave feminism and postfeminism. Wolf’s preoccupation with good sex as a major feminist issue has brought about ridicule expressed in terms like “bimbo feminism” and “do-me feminism.” 21 The idea that flaunting one’s sexuality as an identifying and unique characteristic of a feminist has also been attacked from within the movement, by numerous writers analyzing the watering down of the third wave feminist message to the Spice Girl motto of “girl power.” 22 Furthermore, Wolf herself has come to represent a certain type of third wave feminist, opposed to Rebecca Walker. In the mythology of the third wave, Walker stands for its multicultural, multiracial, multisexual and internally contradictory character. In contrast, Wolf is white, middle-class,

21 In the “Bimbo Feminism” chapter of her book True Love Waits, Wendy Kaminer describes bimbo feminism as a sexual rebellion against parental prohibitions on sex confused with a political revolution. She claims that the personal discourse of “bimbo feminism” could be “a productive developmental stage for young women who need to address personal conflicts before they can take on political ones” (Kaminer 27). 22 See, for example, Jennifer L. Pozner’s article in Feminista 2.1 “Makes Me Wanna Grrrowl.” Pozner writes: “It's probably a fair assumption to say that ‘zizazig-ha’ is not Spice shorthand for ‘subvert the dominant paradigm.’ Of course, that's precisely why the tough talking, Spandex clad, Svengali-molded demi-divas have been hyped so thoroughly as girl power spokemodels. It is hardly threatening when a group of jiggling, giggling girlie-girls bounce across a stage singing nonsense words, or even when, in interviews, they preach Wonderbra power to appeal to the young women who long to look like their favorite Spice Girl.”


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well-educated–she is a Yale graduate and a Rhodes scholar–unapologetically and joyfully heterosexual, pretty, high-heeled and designer-clothed. With the exception of the “unapologetically sexual and pretty” part of the description, she is in fact the 1990s embodiment of Betty Friedan, the founder of the second wave’s liberal wing. Wolf’s first book, The Beauty Myth, amazingly different in tone and style from the second one, analyzes how media images of beauty affect the self-esteem of young women. Both in its method and in its general idea–the belief that there is one broad issue responsible for the woes of middle-class American women–The Beauty Myth resembles Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Astrid Henry’s use of the adjective conservative in describing the trio of Wolf, Roiphe and Denfield does not refer to their social conservatism, as all three accuse the second wave of sexual conservatism. It does refer to their economic liberalism and to their target audience of middle-class, educated women. In fact, many third wave writers who focus on sexuality in their writings are white, Anglo, educated, middle-class women, for example, Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women and The Bitch Rules, 23 and Lisa Miya-Jervis. Post-feminist or not, Wolf had to be included in the 2006 account of the history of feminism, because even if she herself had in fact been an impostor using feminism as a springboard for her writing/media career, she still influenced a significant part of third wave thought. Yet, if Wolf is the conservative, bland and vapid wing of the movement who made a huge media splash with her sex appeal and good looks, where are the real radicals? One possible answer is: they simply did not produce significant writings. Wendy Kaminer phrases the relationship between feminism and the publishing industry like this: “If it ultimately fails as a liberation movement, feminism will at least have achieved considerable literary success” (Kaminer 22). Indeed, all the waves of feminism are now viewed as a discussion about the published views of activists and theorists and all compilations of primary documents require the actual existence of such texts. The radical wing of the second wave produced a number of manifestos or statements of purpose, which were later collected in anthologies of historical writings, like the one edited by Miriam Schneir. Many of the individual members of the various radical groups went on to publish books of their own. The third wave never produced group manifestos, a significant comment on the third wave attitude to “groupthink.” In fact, the only type

23 A spoof on Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider’s dating advice books - The Rules:

Time-Tested Secrets to Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right.

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


of third wave text bearing the word manifesto (or rather manifesta; feminist wordplay on the word) in its title is a publication written and signed by two individuals–Amy Richards’s and Jennifer Baumgardner’s Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future. However, a significant–and radical in its definite countercultural character, though very homogenously white in its racial composition–node of the third wave feminism, the Riot Grrrl movement and accompanying women’s music scene never entered the mainstream publishing market. As a result, it is hard to expect a reflection of the movement’s early years in publications like the Encyclopedia of Third Wave Feminism, although Heywood does include later (dated 2000 and later) accounts of riot grrrl’s origins and ideas. The Riot Grrrl movement has been so influential that is deserves close analysis. Chapter IV of this book is devoted to the history and ideas of riot grrrl and the literature originating from within that movement. Any historical account, almost by definition, focuses on events and ideas which were visible, controversial and attracted public interest, capturing the attention of the media. Thus, some of the early third wave ideas which were deemed unsuitable for broadcast by the media, never became hot topics and have been omitted even from insider’s account of third wave ideas. A case in point is a story related to the already discussed Hill/Thomas hearings. In an article titled “The Invisible Ones” in Bulletproof Diva Lisa Jones draws the silhouette of Clarence Thomas’s sister–Emma Mae Martin. Martin never became a public figure, though her name was used by her conservative politician brother in order to personalize his opposition to welfare recipients and to emphasize his status as a “self-made man.” Jones recalls that Thomas used his sister “as an example of all-gone-wrong with liberal handouts and civil rights leadership” and was specifically quoted as saying “She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check” (Jones 117-118). In reality, as Jones explains, the actual story of Martin’s life differs significantly from the picture painted by her brother. While Clarence Thomas attended Yale Law School, Martin worked two minimum-wage jobs to support the rest of the family. She was forced to seek government assistance when her elderly aunt suffered a stroke and, as an act of compassion, she offered to care for her and her children full-time. Clearly, her lawyer brother did not offer to help out in the crisis. Martin spent four years on public assistance and then returned to her entry-level job at a hospital, where she began her workday at 3:00 AM. Jones comments:

“While Thomas was pulling himself up by the bootstraps, self-helping himself, Martin took care of auntie, because who else would? And for this, he calls her a welfare queen” (119). The case never became a media


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scandal, never garnered much public interest and in no way hindered Thomas’s road to the Supreme Court. Jones argues that Anita Hill’s sexual harassment case was “a more appealing ‘middle class’ women’s issue than welfare rights.” Of course, Jones does not question the validity of Hill’s claims; she simply notices the reason why some valid accusations, like Martin’s never-vocalized complaint against her brother, are never publicized. Firstly, women like Martin are “the invisible ones” in the society, having no resources and no time (two full-time jobs and a family to take care of) to even consider raising their issues in a public forum. Secondly, unlike educated middle-class women, their access to the media or other avenues for telling their side of the story is practically nonexistent. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, over the years their belief in the possibility of the system righting the wrongs which have happened to them has probably decreased to nothing; they may feel powerless when faced with discrimination. Although the third wave genuinely wants to represent those who do not have a voice in the society, sometimes this task proves to be impossible because of the reality of social divisions in the US.

1.3. Chick lit

Some concepts related to third wave feminism have been influential for ideas surfacing in popular culture. Sometimes the relationship between the third wave and popular culture is so symbiotic that it is difficult to decide whether it was third wave feminism which influenced pop culture or whether it was pop culture which influenced third wave feminism. I will discuss both the positive aspects of this relationship, that is how the third wave draws from popular culture and at the same time subverts it, and the negative aspects, that is how certain radical feminist ideas have been commercialized and diluted in pop cultural texts, in Chapter IV. With regards to Wolf’s concept of power feminism, it is difficult to talk about the commercialization of a radical idea, as I have shown, the concept was not radical from the beginning, but it does bear a striking resemblance to a genre of popular fiction, interchangeably referred to as feminist and postfeminist–namely to chick lit. I will not be discussing chick lit in detail, as the genre is very formulaic, but it is important to acknowledge its existence, especially in connection to Wolf’s idea of power feminism. The mother-book for chick- lit is without a doubt Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996), which in turns clearly refers to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the comedy of manners (Ferriss and Young 5, Harzewski 41, Wells 49).

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


Although Cris Mazza, the editor of a 1995 anthology titled Chick-Lit:

Postfeminist Fiction, argues that her use of the term not only predates the Bridget Jones phenomenon but also signifies a completely different, more serious and sophisticated, type of literature, it must be acknowledged that the definition which has become ingrained in the minds of countless readers worldwide is the one which Mazza deems a perversion of her original concept: “[s]omehow chick lit has morphed into books flaunting pink, aqua and lime covers featuring cartoon figures of long-legged women wearing stiletto heels” (Mazza 18). Although chick-lit has been on the market for only a decade, and has been marketed as such for even less–the term “chick lit” did not appear in the original Bridget Jones reviews–it has enjoyed tremendous commercial success and has received an almost unbelievable amount of critical attention, especially from feminist critics. The main line of argument among critics seems to be the progressive character of chick lit–the question of whether the genre advances the gains of feminism, perverts them, co-opts them for commercial use and, regardless of what the answer to any of these questions is, how feminists and feminist literary critics should react to the genre. In other words, is chick-lit postfeminist literature or is it third wave feminism? In her review of three anthologies of feminist criticism devoted almost exclusively to chick lit, Jennifer Mahrer explains the critical attention devoted to chick lit as an expression of our, that is feminist critics’, skill at “unearthing progressive potential in what might at first appear to be patently sexist or otherwise conservative depictions of women” (Mahrer 194). Mahrer succinctly summarizes the main line of contention among critics as basically trying to answer the eternal question of whether overt “bashing” of any type of genre written specifically by and for women does or does not perpetuate the long tradition of disrespecting female writers and readers, Hawthorne’s “damned mob of scribbling women.” The genre itself quickly became highly formulaic, which probably was a key element in its success story. Indeed, as Mazza notes, even the covers of chick lit novels exhibit the same features; bright colors with a strong predominance of pink, fancy fonts imitating the style of women’s handwriting, cartoon-like figures of women dressed in skimpy clothing, fashion accessories such as handbags, necklaces, fancy wine glasses. Chick lit has been called an offshoot of the film genre romantic comedy (Harzewski 39) and the visual side of the novels certainly reflects that. The book itself has become a sort of fashion accessory and must necessarily look chic. Harzewski notes that product placement has become common practice in chick lit books, with writers being paid a fee for making their


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heroine drive a Ford or use L’Oreal cosmetics. Avon Trade, a chick lit imprint, of HarperCollins features a bag in its logo with a slogan–“because every great bag deserves a book” (Harzewski 35). The heroines, even though they very often have problems with their body image, diet, dye their hair and even undergo plastic surgery, are still surprisingly and uniformly pretty. They are usually in their mid to late 20s and 30s, are white, college-educated and usually work in entry-level positions in the media industry. They can be journalists, PR-specialists, copywriters, or work in the publishing industry. Without exception, they live in big cities, where the plots of the novels are also set. Their hobbies include shopping, which often results in credit card debt. Their interests center around fashion, there is a strong fixation on clothing and accessories in almost all chick lit novels–from Bridget Jones to The Devil Wears Prada. Chick lit novels are supposed to be light-hearted and funny, with the main sources of humor emerging from the heroine’s internal struggles and anxieties, her foibles about dieting and failures with starting an exercise regimen. The heroines are usually able to reflect on their lives with a certain dose of irony. The plot is always organized around the character’s (strictly heterosexual) relationships, although, unlike the classic romance, chick lit novels do not usually end with marriage. The heroine’s professional career, family issues and friends are always in the background, but what pushes the plot forward is the possibility of finding Mr. Right. The male characters themselves are often underdeveloped and seem to serve a secondary role, with much of the plot revolving around the complications which ensue from misinterpretation of symptoms of the man’s interest or lack thereof. The fact that most chick lit novels are narrated in the first person by the main heroine and utilize the confessional mode even technically renders these men silent. All chick lit novels contain at least several sex scenes and they all exhibit a strong fixation on frequency of sexual intercourse as evidence of one’s success in life and status, which, of course, is yet another feature differentiating chick lit from the Jane Austen type comedy of manners. However, sex by itself is never enough for chick-lit heroines, they all desire a stable, long-term, monogamous relationship, although the search for Mr. Right regularly includes sexual experimentation with various Mr. Wrongs. Another difference between the classic romance and chick lit is the status of money. Harzewski notes that in the classic romance money, although usually the ultimate reward in the search for a good husband, was never an explicit reason underlying the desire for a man. In fact, stock characters such as the gold-digger are cast as female villains and the

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


ability to tell between the woman who wants his money and the woman who loves him is basically the only challenge facing the male hero of a romance. Chick lit drastically changes this scenario; it becomes fair game for the heroine to be interested in rich men and this does not make the reader any less sympathetic towards her quest. Harzewski recalls a novella from Bushnell’s Four Blondes in which the main character, Janey from Manhattan, prides herself on being able to spend her summers in the Hamptons without paying a penny; her ever-changing boyfriends are the sponsors. When questioned by a friend about the ethics of this enterprise, she responds, “I’m a feminist […] it’s about the redistribution of wealth” (Bushnell in Harzewski 40). This comment can, of course, be read as ironic and self-conscious commentary on the cooptation of feminist ideas, but it does express how the attitude of entitlement has shifted from the paradigm of political rights to lifestyle choices (“I deserve to be able to wear Prada and I will do anything to realize my right”) Ties between Wolf’s idea of “power feminism” and the ideology of chick lit can be seen on several levels–one of them being the attitude of entitlement which forms the basis of the victim feminism/power feminism division. The blatant materialism and consumerism exhibited in chick lit bring to mind Wolf’s critique of victim feminism “seeing money as contaminating” and clearly show how her type of argumentation can easily lead to product placement in novels. Of course, the strongest link is the obsession with (hetero)sexuality. Admittedly, the “find Mr. Right” script is one not taken over from “power feminism,” but the idea of having as much sex as possible along the way clearly is. Harzewski recalls Ann Snitow’s analysis of the popularity of Harlequin romances in the 1970s, the decade of the greatest activism of the women’s movement and of the greatest changes within the model of the family, as fascination with the ability of the genre to offer a traditional, stable and conventional view of male-female relationships at the time of changing social realities. According to Harzewski, humor and parody inherent to the genre function as a defense mechanism against the multitude of lifestyle choices offered to the “liberated” woman. Harzewski writes:

Chick lit […] responds to upheavals in the dating and mating order through a mixed strategy of dramatization, farce and satire. Daughters of educated baby boomers, chick-lit heroines, in their degree of sexual autonomy and professional choices, stand as direct beneficiaries of the women’s liberation movement. Yet they shift earlier feminist agendas, such as equal pay for equal work, to lifestyle concerns. Unlike earlier generations, chick


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protagonists and their readers have the right to choose; now the problem is too many choices (Harzewski 37).

It should, however, also be remembered that one of the lures of classic romances had always been their status as (sexual) fantasy. While chick lit authors regularly claim to be writing “about women just like you,” in reality most chick lit readers are not even remotely similar to the heroines of the novels. The allure of chick lit lies in its status as fantasy, much like that of the romance. Chick lit is a romanticized version of the career woman’s imaginary problems–the kinds of problems many women would actually love to have. The ideological framework of these novels aligns them with the status quo rather than social change and, therefore, with postfeminism and not third wave feminism.

1.4. Keeping it real

I have already quoted Astrid Henry’s evaluation of the conflict between the second and the third waves as the third wave’s attempt to shout “get real!” to the second wave. The concept of realness deserves more attention. The title of Walker’s 1995 anthology of third wave feminist essays is To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism. The anthology marks the first print appearance of the concept of “realness” in third wave writings. The idea of “realness,” “being real,” and “keeping it real” has become one of the important themes of third wave feminism, especially for African American women. The phrase itself is transferred from hip-hop culture, where it serves as a political slogan and rallying cry for hip-hop fans. 24 In Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop Imani Perry describes the multiple meanings of the phrase, which over the past decade has crossed over from hip-hop into various genres of music and art. Perry traces the origins of the phrase within hip-hop culture as signifying loyalty to the African American community and pride in one’s heritage, even if it includes poverty and a “projects” background, what Perry calls “a rejection of sanitized Hollywood depictions of life and of conscious efforts to cross over and become accepted by white audiences” (Perry 95). Other associations include a dedication to a high standard of artistry, as opposed to commercialization and “selling out” to the pop industry. Astrid Henry

24 The phrase originates in the lyrics of numerous popular rap songs, for example, Jamal’s “Keep It Real” from Last Chance, No Breaks (1995), Milkbone’s title song from the Keep It Real album (1995), MC Ren “Keep It Real” from Villain in Black (1996), Shaggy’s “Keep’n It Real” from Hotshot (2000).

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


explains that the phrase has been used within hip-hop culture “to signify authenticity, something that cannot be faked” (Henry 148). It is obvious that Walker did not use the phrase “to be real” in the title of her anthology by accident. In Not My Mother’s Sister Astrid Henry examines the implications of the title with regards to a generational view of feminism. She explains what kind of a relationship with the second wave it represents, bearing in mind the functioning of the adjective “real” in hip-hop culture. The juxtaposition of the two parts of the title, suggests that the new generation’s desire for authenticity is a reaction to the constraining and regulatory ideas of the second wave, which downplayed authenticity and emphasized repetitive schemes and patterns. Henry writes:

Walker relies on the association of being real with honesty. Doing so, however, would seem to imply that what will distinguish this new generation is their refusal to live a lie–“a feminist ideal not of their own making. Being real […] is about rejecting the previous generation’s definition of feminism when it doesn’t fit with our experience. […] the claim for realness is posed as the third wave’s challenge to the second wave: our generation will tell the truth about our lives (Henry 151).

The truth is understood as openness to the contradictions inherent to the lives of young women. These contradictions stem from the multiple roles they play in society; the multiple, changing and overlapping identities they assume throughout their lives and the various and often contradictory desires which dominate their lives. The truth, Walker suggests, lies in the recognition of the “lived messiness” 25 (Heywood and Drake 8) of the lives of young women, to use another phrase which has made history since its initial use in the “Introduction” to Heywood and Drake’s Third Wave Agenda. Walker implies that the willingness to recognize the truth is what distinguishes the younger generation from the preceding one. The title of Walker’s anthology is a promise to explore

25 Full quote from Heywood and Drake: “The lived messiness characteristic of the third wave is what defines it: girls who want to be boys, boys who want to be girls, boys and girls who insist they are both, whites who want to be black, blacks who want to or refuse to be white, people who are white and black, gay and straight, masculine and feminine, or who are finding ways to be and name none of the above; successful individuals longing for community and coalition, communities and coalitions longing for success; tensions between striving for individual success and subordinating the individual to the cause; identities formed within a relentlessly consumer-oriented culture but informed by a politics that has problems with consumption” (8).


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aspects of that messiness in a way which the second wave had ignored. The use of hip-hop vocabulary is also a declaration of the method which will be used in realizing the goal–a preference for the street rather than for the academy and for using down-to-earth language which young women are familiar with, as opposed to more abstract, theoretical language. Through the use of the language of hip-hop, a musical genre and youth culture originating within the African American community, the title also reclaims the feminist movement for African American women. According to Henry, this matter-of-fact acknowledgment of the generation’s entitlement to feminism as a birthright, to use a term popularized by Baumgardner and Richards in Manifesta, of a group of racially diverse people “might be its most revolutionary statement” (Henry 149). In spite of the revolutionary promise the book’s title delivers, the ideological framework of To Be Real is fraught with the types of inconsistencies which have been at the root of the critique of the third wave. Although third wave feminism’s embrace of contradiction and rejection of theory preempt accusations from both a theoretical and a common-sense perspective by default, the inconsistencies are highly noticeable. Firstly, Walker’s manifesto-like call for “realness” in the third wave is based on a limited understanding of the second wave, as evident in the preface and afterword to the anthology, in which Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis express their frustration with the ignorance of the contributors regarding second wave agenda and history. Responding to texts arguing for “new revolutionary ideas” Steinem writes: “I confess that there are moments in these pages when I–and perhaps other readers over thirty-five–feel like a sitting dog being told to sit” (Walker 1995 xxii). Secondly, and perhaps even more significantly, the idea that a feminism based on “realness” can be achieved in a postmodern world is a naïve one, as exposed in the opening essay of the To Be Real anthology, Danzy Senna’s “To Be Real.” In this essay, Senna, a multi-racial young woman raised among competing cultural traditions, explains how the desire “to be real”–that is, to find an authentic identity which she could claim as her own–dominated her adolescence. As Henry comments, Senna finally came to understand that “the quest for realness […]–for an authentic identity to make me real–ultimately reveals such realness to be an impossibility” (Henry 151). Henry reads the third wave quest for realness, which appeared as a driving force in the adolescence of many third wavers, as “part of nostalgia that haunts this generation, a desire for an authentic political identity and a political movement of their own” (Henry 151). Indeed, one of the driving forces of the third wave seems to be a very postmodern nostalgia, as described by Jameson in his seminal

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


essay “Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of late Capitalism,” with the exception that the “lost object of desire” which is nostalgically looked back upon is not the 1950s, but the late 1960s, early 1970s, the heyday of the second wave. Of course, this nostalgia does not curtail criticism of the second wave, but the idea that the late 1960s were a period when the agenda was clear, the enemy was easy to identify, the movement was strong and the idea of sisterhood was real haunts many third wave texts, including Henry’s project which, as she admits in the introduction, grew out of the feeling that she had “missed something.” Henry stops her comparison of Walker’s and Senna’s understanding of “realness” on the observation that Senna considers “realness” to be an impossibility, but this observation can be taken even further. Walker obviously misreads the title of Senna’s essay in her introduction to the

volume. In a nutshell, Walker views “realness” as a desire for authenticity, Senna claims that authenticity is no longer possible and the aspiration to realness is actually a rejection of complexity, rather than an embrace of it. Clearly, Senna’s beliefs are influenced by contemporary postmodern theory. Her descriptions of protests she attended as a college student immediately evoke Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra: “the whole protest

had seemed simply a cheap imitation of 1960s protests I had seen [

television and in the movies. It was a crude imitation of my parents’ life experience” (Senna in Walker 13). It is highly ironic that the title of the first anthology of third wave essays is, in fact, the result of a misunderstanding, resulting, it would seem, from Walker’s lack of familiarity with contemporary concepts of identity–from not understanding theory. It should, however, be noted, that Walker’s 2001 memoir Black, White and Jewish, which is discussed together with Senna’s Caucasia in Chapter III of this book, reflects her agreement with the arguments Senna put forward in “To Be Real.” As an interesting side note, the actual development of the concept of realness within the hip-hop community, the culture from which Walker freely borrowed the title of her anthology, reflects the theoretical concerns connected to the concept. While “keepin’ it real” started out as an affirmation of the poor urban roots of hip-hop, the phrase began to be used by impostors of the lifestyle, raised in the suburbs and private school graduates. Walker herself is, in some ways, such an impostor. She is clearly trying to tap into the hip-hop sensibility and culture which she is not truly a member of, as a very middle class Yale graduate. Ironically, in the 1990s hip-hop music began to be fraught with questions of authenticity as countless MCs began lying about their childhood experiences, in order to present themselves as “tougher” and more “streetwise” than they really




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were. Thus, the call for “keepin’ it real” backfired on the hip-hop community as the concept of realness proved to be one impossible to achieve in the contemporary world. Of course, one is not affiliated with hip-hop culture simply on the basis of one’s social class background. Hip- hop is also a set of aesthetic sensibilities which deserve to be analyzed in more detail.

1.5. Hip-hop

Hip-hop is most often discussed in terms of politics and commercialization, not in terms of aesthetics. It is very likely that many opponents of hip-hop, that is those who treat it as the incomprehensible mumble of a group of gun-touting gangsters, would cringe at the concept of an aesthetics of hip- hip. Yet, this very postmodern aesthetics has influenced contemporary youth culture and, as a consequence, also third wave feminism, to a huge extent. Hip-hop music, which originated in New York in the 1970s, was from the beginning part of a much larger culture, which also included breaking (or breakdancing) and graffiti. All of these activities violate middle class social norms and aesthetic conventions–breaking as a form of dancing which does not take place in ballrooms but on pavement and graffiti as an art form practiced on non-traditional surfaces such as subway cars. Hip-hop music participates in the postmodern merging of “high” and “low” art; similarly to much of pop art it violates the idea of originality and uniqueness as a necessary and valued component of art. The techniques which made hip-hop famous and which are integral to the genre include sampling, looping and layering, all of which fall under the category of “cutting and blending”–that is, using pieces of non-original prerecorded music to create new songs. Overlaying, that is the mixing of certain sounds from one record with those of another one already playing, is also a common hip-hop technique. Richard Shusterman, a music scholar, summarizes hip-hop’s attitude to originality, while making a claim that it is a postmodern art form which challenges deeply entrenched Western aesthetic conventions: “Artistic appropriation is the historical source of hip-hop music and still remains the course of its technique and a central feature of its aesthetic form and message. The music derives from selecting and combining parts of prerecorded songs to produce a ‘new’ soundtrack” (460). Shusterman also notes that there has never been any effort to conceal the fact that hip-hop artists were using prerecorded sounds. In fact, good sampling is among deejays a source of pride. As Shusterman writes, in hip-hop music: “[o]riginality thus loses its absolute

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


originary status and is reconceived so as to include the transfiguring, reappropriation and recycling of the old” (461). Hip-hop is deeply rooted in the realities of 1970s changes in the social structure of urban communities, specifically the ethnic dislocations in the South Bronx, which were spurred by the construction of the South Bronx Highway. The impact of this investment was devastating on the remaining Bronx population, causing massive job loss and a ghettoization of what once was an economically stable area. Similar processes took place in other large urban centers at the time. Many theorists argue that the aesthetic qualities of the music which began to be created in the “ghetto” reflect the process of urban decay which took place in big cities, especially New York’s Bronx, in the 1970s, and that hip-hop culture is an attempt to rebuild the concept of community in these changed conditions. Mark Anthony Neal observes that “the emergence of hip-hop, which appeared in a rudimentary state in the 1970s, was representative of a concerted effort by youth urban blacks to use mass-culture to facilitate communal discourse across a fractured and dislocated national community” (Neal


In Black Noise, an early and exceptionally insightful book on hip-hop music, Tricia Rose argues that one of the qualities of hip-hop music is rupture, which is incorporated into the songs on the level of rhythm, flow and language. She discusses ruptures from a theoretical standpoint, claiming that:

interpreting these concepts [those of “scratching” and “cutting and blending”] theoretically, one can argue that they create and sustain rhythmic motion, continuity, and circularity via flow; accumulate, reinforce, and embellish this continuity through layering; and manage threats to these narratives by building in ruptures that highlight the continuity as they monetarily challenge it. These effects at the level of style and aesthetics suggest affirmative ways in which profound social dislocation and rupture can be managed and perhaps contested in the cultural arena. (Rose 39)

Rose thus sees rupture as an aesthetic technique which serves an important social function–that of giving the listeners a positive example of dealing with rupture. A practitioner of hip-hip–colloquially called a “hip-hop head”–should be prepared for social rupture and, in fact, “find pleasure in it” and use it “in creative ways that will prepare […] for a future in which survival will demand a sudden shift in ground tactics” (Rose 39). Scratching, blending and rupturing notwithstanding, hip-hop’s primary area of artistry is the spoken word. It is that aspect which best reveals hip-


Chapter One

hop’s African roots, as it utilizes the traditionally African spoken word forms, such as “the trickster tale,” “boasting” and “toasting”–performances in which the speakers recount stories of their ingenious wit and slyness, boast about their abilities, successes, prowess and popularity or honor figures of authority. One of the most valued skills among MCs is that of improvisation or freestyle, the ability to create lyrics “on the fly,” often in response to challenges posed by the preceding performer or crew. Some of the most notable hip-hop performances in history were “battles of the MCs,” that is gathering in which popular MCs square off on stage together and the audience choose the best performer of the night. Such confrontations led to the practice of “dissing,” that is songs which are intended specifically to verbally attack another crew or performer. 26 Of course, these African spoken word forms did not miraculously appear in 1970s hip-hop out of nowhere, or rather straight out of Africa, but have been a part of African American culture for centuries. In To The Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip-Hop Aesthetics, William Cobb emphasizes the connection between the hip-hop verbal art and the heritage of African American literature:

The heart of the art of hip-hop is how the MC does what he does–the specific catalog of trade trickery he uses to get his people to open. And just as the MC is at the center of hip-hop, his tools–verbal craft, articulation, improvisation–are at the center of black cultures. The pedigree runs deep. It connects that dreadlocked mic-gripping orator to the tradition of black verbal gamesmanship that starts with the black preacher, whom Du Bois reckoned with in The Souls of Black Folk as “the most unique personality created by the Negro on American soil. Zora Neale Hurston identified the preacher as the first black artist in America (Cobb 15-16).

26 Interestingly, “dissing” (sometimes spelled dising) is a word which began its career as a slang version of the word “disrespect” (first noted appearance was in a 1985 song by LL Cool J), became popular throughout hip-hop culture and has now entered mainstream English as a word with no negative connotations. This is, of course, an example of the spread of hip-hop culture in mainstream American culture. The language used in hip-hop has always been close to the language of the street and of the ghetto. Many theorists claim that the use of such language by MCs who certainly knew how to speak “proper” English, was an attempt to disguise the meaning of the track, make it incomprehensible for those who did not understand street English. The MCs’ use of language can also be read as an excellent example of “code-switching,” using a certain “insider” code when addressing a specific audience.

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


Indeed, the hip-hop MC has become a modern day preacher, whose influence on people, especially young people, cannot be underestimated, which explains the mainstream preoccupation with the themes of hip-hop, the message the music is emanating. A detailed analysis of these specific messages falls outside of the scope of this book, 27 but it cannot be overlooked that what makes hip-hop such a well-suited medium for hip- hop feminists is not just its aesthetics, but primarily its value as a tool for conveying social outrage. The emergence of hip-hop was influenced by the appearance of the angry black urban “underclass,” although for several years in the 1970s the music served as an escape from the everyday woes of young Blacks. Hip- hop’s roots are connected to the era of the DJ, a period of the appreciation of the technical skills of the person mixing and sampling the sounds–the first big names in hip-hop, for example, DJ Kool Herc, did not actually sing or rap, but focused on improving the techniques of producing hip- hop’s sound. Old-school hip-hop’s political message is connected to the passing of the era of the DJ and the rise of the MC, that is a shift of emphasis from the sound to the words. However, hip-hop’s first commercial hits, including the first hip-hop hit to go gold “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) by the Sugarhill Gang, were not straightforward protest songs but party songs, with lyrics reveling in the vocal skills of the rappers and their ability to make the crowd “move their feet.” These songs clearly reference the African traditions of “toasting” and “boasting,” which also strongly influenced the further development of hip-hop genres, from hip- hop strands as varied as the “Native Tongues Posse” 28 to “gangsta rap.” 29

27 My subjective ranking of books discussing the politics of hip-hop would certainly include the following titles: Tricia Rose’s Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994), Mark Anthony Neal’s Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetics (2002) and Imani Perry’s Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip-Hop (2004). 28 A group of the late 1980s and early 1990s hip-hop artists, who emphasized the African heritage of African Americans as a source os strength and power, also known for pioneering eclectic sampling and their use of jazz beats in hip-hop, which produced a softer and gentler sound. The Native Tongues Posse included the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. The female rapper Queen Latifah, whose song “Ladies First” is analyzed later in this chapter, is also considered to be a part of the Native Tongues Posse.

29 Currently gangsta rap is probably the most commercially successful and internationally successful sub-genre within hip-hop. The themes which hip-hop is most often criticized for, that is the glorification of violence and extreme misogyny, can be found mostly within this genre, which was popularized in the early 1990s by mostly West Coast crews, for example, N.W.A. Other


Chapter One

The strongest early expressions of “urban rage” came from a group called Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Their 1982 song “The Message” describes the dead-end situation faced by many black urban youths, for whom deteriorating standards of living coupled with a lack of money and lack of perspectives of advancement in life, lead to desperation and hopelessness. Grandmaster Flash raps: “Broken glass everywhere/ People pissing on the stairs/ You know they just don’t care/ I can’t take the

smell, I can’t take the noise/ Got no money to move out, guess I got no choice.” In turn, this feeling of having no way out of the situation, leads to

a building up of rage which is about to explode. The song’s infamous

chorus “Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge” is both an expression of frustration and a warning about the violence which may erupt as a natural consequence of the situation. The music video for this song is set

on the streets of the Bronx and the shots of the neighborhood most definitely reflect the urgency of the lyrics. The clip finishes with a police arrest of the group of rappers singing on a street corner, an obvious example of discrimination and police prejudice. The song is thus an expression of frustration and a protest against the conditions young black urban youths are forced to live in. Hip-hop music, as phrased by Layli Phillips and colleagues in their article about women in hip-hop, braids “strands of protest and pleasure together into a seamless flow” (Phillips, Reddick-Morgan, Stephens 253) and “represents the voices and visions of the culturally, politically and economically marginalized and disenfranchised” (254). As such it would seem to be an especially well-suited medium for those who are doubly marginalized, that is African American women, and for conveying issues of gender equality in general. Indeed, women MCs have been present in hip-hop since its inception, although hip-hop is most likely not defined as

a women’s genre in the popular imagination. In fact, the immensely

popular and commercialized version of “gangsta hip-hop” which emerged in the second half of the 1990s and which regularly objectifies women as objects of sexual desire and a kind of currency among the male rappers, 30

has turned the discussion about women in hip-hop into an analysis of the

representatives include the pioneering Schooly D from Philadelphia, Tupac Shakur, Ice T. 30 A lot of scholarship has been devoted to the negative portrayal of women in hip- hop. For an analysis of the specific stereotypes used to describe black women see for example, “Freaks, Gold Diggers, Divas and Dykes: The Sociohistorical Development of Young African American Women’s Sexual Scripts” by Stephens, Phillips and Layli. Sexuality & Culture, Winter2003, Vol. 7 Issue 1, p 3.

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


various sexist stereotypes appearing in the lyrics of the male MCs’ songs, rather than a discussion about the contribution of women to hip hop. Meanwhile, the fact remains that women MCs were holding their own in the world of hip-hop right from the 1970s, with names such as Sha- Rock (Sharon Jackson), Lady B of Philadelphia and The Mercedes Ladies, the first all-female rap crew. Of course, not all women MCs embraced feminist sensibilities, and certainly none of the early women rappers took on the label of feminist, but as Gwendolyn Pough argues in her book Check It While I Wreck It, their presence is already a disruption of the patriarchal order of hip-hop. To describe the presence of women in hip- hop Pough uses the term “bring wreck,” which in conventional English connotes destruction, but which is used in hip-hop vocabulary as a form of praise, to describe skill and greatness of an MC. The essence of hip-hop is that on a technical level, as noticed already by Tricia Rose, it incorporates disruptions/ruptures in a way which highlights the continuity of the piece as it momentarily challenges it. The presence of women rappers is exactly such a rupture, but on a higher level–not that of the rhythm of a particular song, but that of the politics of hip-hop in general.

1.6. Hip-hop feminism

Hip-hop feminism’s status as a distinct strand within third wave feminism is more of a thesis which needs to be defended than a simple statement of fact. Arguably, some women who identify as hip-hop feminists do not identify as third wave feminists for reasons similar to those for which many African American feminists chose to disassociate themselves from the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s; that is a belief in the different needs of African American women and a fear that focusing exclusively on women’s rights would endanger the much needed unity of the black community in the struggle against racism. 31 However, the same story looks very different from the opposite perspective. The third wave embraces hip-hop feminism as its integral component, as exhibited by the inclusion of an excerpt from hip-hop feminism’s founding book as the third text (after Walker’s “Becoming The Third Wave” and Findlen’s “Introduction” to her anthology Listen Up!) in Heywood’s Encyclopedia of Third Wave Feminism.

31 A lot has been written about African American women and the women’s liberation movement. For an “insider’s” historical account see Barbara Smith’s “’Feisty Characters’ and ‘Other People’s Causes’: Memories of White Racism and U.S. Feminism” in Du Plessis and Snitow’s Feminist Memoir Project.


Chapter One

The term hip-hop feminist was coined by Joan Morgan in her 1998 book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost as a term which, as Morgan felt, best described her intersectional identity: “we need a feminism committed to ‘keeping it real.’ We need a voice like our music– one that samples and layers many voices, injects its sensibilities into the old and flips it into something new, provocative and powerful” (Morgan 62). A hip-hop feminist is thus not just a description of someone who listens to hip-hop music and identifies as a feminist, but a term which, through the inclusion of the aesthetic sensibilities associated with hip-hop, signifies much more–specifically, an allegiance to specific aesthetic and social ideas, what Mark Anthony Neal, a well known music scholar and author of a seminal book on post-soul music Post-Soul Aesthetics, calls “a politics of style” (Neal 371). While Morgan’s book contains practically no theoretical definitions, the way in which it is organized already points to what these aesthetic categories specific to hip-hop feminism are. Morgan revisits “old” feminist issues, like domestic and gender specific violence, from a new perspective, she switches freely between issues creating a non-linear and slightly chaotic yet highly readable flow. In typical third wave style she discusses her place in feminism and hip-hop, dwells on personal references and locates herself within the urban landscape of New York, particularly the Bronx. She purposefully styles her voice as an intervention and disruption in the fabrics of both hip-hop culture and feminism. Through recreating these aesthetic sensibilities in book format, Morgan also makes her book more appealing to her target audience–other women who could possibly identify as hip-hop feminists as well. Admittedly, most of the well-known women rappers do not identify as feminist, hip-hop or otherwise. Still, the themes which they talk about in their songs and the ways these themes are depicted correspond exactly to the “theoretical tenets” 32 of hip-hop feminism, as described in Morgan’s Chickenheads and other books which are usually classified as hip-hop feminism, for example, Lisa Jones’s Bulletproof Diva, Tales of Race, Sex and Hair and Mama’s Girl by Veronica Chambers. These three books are analyzed in the article Third Wave Black Feminism? in which Kimberly Springer examines the relationship between black feminism and the third wave as well as the main themes which are of interest to young black feminists today. Meanwhile, Phillips, Reddick-Morgan and Stephens, in their article about female rappers, categorize the themes of women’s rap

32 I use quotation marks for the term “theoretical tenets,” as I am sure all of the writers describing hip-hop feminism would object to the idea that what they have created is a theoretical description.

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


songs in an attempt to describe the development of feminist consciousness within hip-hop culture. The themes they define are: “talking back to men in defense of women and demanding respect for women,” “women’s empowerment, self-help and solidarity” and “defense of black man against the larger society” (Phillips, Reddick-Morgan and Stephens 9). Interestingly, Springer also mentions three very similar themes as crucial for contemporary black feminism: “young Black women’s relationship to our personal and political histories. This history includes our relationships to past social movements, our biological mothers and our political foremothers.” The second theme is “relationship to self” and the third one is “Black women’s relationships to men: biological brothers, brothers in the political sense and fathers” (Springer 1060). The theme of connectedness to the past often includes the experience of what I termed in the first part of this chapter “third wave nostalgia,” but which should be reformulated for the purposes of this section as “African American nostalgia,” that is, a feeling that all the important developments on the arena of civil rights took place in the 1960s and were completed by the time the writers came of age. This created a mixture of nostalgia for a time when goals were clearly visible and possible to achieve, but also, at least among those who later called themselves hip-hop feminists, the need to search for new and more subtle ways of action, which Chambers recalls watching documentaries about Black history: “It seemed that all the big black battles were over by the time I was born” (Chambers 1065) and, as Springer notices, Morgan “recalls envying her mother’s generation of women, not because their lives were easy but because of the simultaneous emergence of the women’s movement and dissemination of ideas about independence and self-fulfillment at that time” (Springer 1066). Chambers’s parents instituted a “Black History Day” at their home. The young woman grew up surrounded by references to the struggle of African Americans, aware of the need to acknowledge and honor heroes of the civil rights and women’s rights movements, but came to realize that their generation’s “struggle songs consisted of the same notes but […] were infused with different rhythms” (Morgan 21-22). One of the goals of hip-hop feminism is thus postulated as looking for new ways to tackle issues pertinent to the young generation, drawing from lessons of the civil rights struggle and from African heritage, all the while maintaining a gender perspective. An excellent example of how these postulates are put into practice is the song and music video “Ladies First” from rapper Queen Latifah’s debut album, All Hail the Queen (1989). The rapper’s assumed name already associates her with the tradition of African royalty, as does the dress she is wearing in the video, an African headscarf and African garb.


Chapter One

The video opens with stills of Black women famous for their participations in the civil rights and women’s rights movements: Madame C.J Walker, Sojourner Truth, Angela Davis, Winnie Mandela and Harriet Tubman, in an effort to pay homage to their achievements. The video then proceeds to present Queen Latifah as a military strategist, knocking over white chess pieces on a chessboard and replacing them with clenched fists, symbols of black power, but also of the women’s liberation movement. These scenes are interspersed with footage from South Africa, depicting the fight against apartheid. Interestingly, the lyrics of the song do not reference issues of race and focus solely on gender, specifically on the need for self- respect among women and women’s skill and artistry as MCs:

Grab the mic, look into the crowd and see smiles Cause they see a woman standing up on her own two Sloppy slouching is something I won’t do Some think that we can't flow (can’t flow) Stereotypes, they got to go (got to go) I’m a mess around and flip the scene into reverse (With what?) With a little touch of “Ladies First”

The juxtaposition of lyrics relating to gender and images connected to race is a brilliant move which emphasizes the connection between these two aspects, as is the use of images of women who were on the front lines of both struggles. The use of the term “ladies first” is clearly ironic. After all, it is a phrase expressing the kind of chivalry which masks the denial of women’s rights. Queen Latifah reclaims the phrase through the visual associations with famous women, true pioneers in the fight against racism and for gender equality. What makes this process of reclaiming even more ironic is the fact that the phrase “ladies first” would not have been used to address Black women in the US. Thus, the reclamation is double–it is both a call to truly put ladies first and the expansion of the term lady, conferring class and dignity upon Black women. The spirit of sisterhood, a concept used by both feminists and black women, is also conveyed through emphasis of the collaborative effort of Queen Latifah and her co-rapper, Monie Love. As has been mentioned, in hip-hop performances MCs usually confront one another in a battle to establish who has the greater vocal skills. In “Ladies First” Queen Latifah flips this concept–she and Monie Love are clearly cooperating not competing, they are both trying to achieve a common goal. Even the use of the chorus emphasizes collaboration among women. In “Black Noise” Tricia Rose admits how unusual collaborative songs are in the world of hip-hop, especially in debut records which are supposed to establish and

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


confirm the newcomer’s talent: “[Queen Latifah’s] decision to collaborate

on her debut album is as surprising as it is ambitious; it suggests that being

a solo rap artist does mean isolating yourself from your peers” (Rose 16). Emphasis on African heritage is in turn a strategy for raising young Black women’s self-esteem by providing them with images of beauty and behavior alternative to those promoted by mainstream popular culture. Memories of playing with dark-skinned dolls resurface in almost all the childhood accounts written by hip-hop feminists, as do accounts of “doing” each other’s hair. While for the white third wavers it was second wave feminism which was “in the water,” their African American friends also absorbed “black power” ideology. In Chapter III I analyze how this influenced the main protagonist of Danzy Senna’s Caucasia. It is no accident that the topic of hair features so prominently on the agenda of hip-hop feminism–Lisa Jones’s book is subtitled Tales of Race, Sex and Hair. Jones writes “Everything I know about American history I learned from looking at black people’s hair” (Jones 12). Hair is the ultimate third wave symbolic material which combines politics and style. It is at the same time a natural aspect of the body, an expression of

dominant ideology or a sign of rebellion against it, a means of showing allegiance to a specific peer group and a statement of personal style. For decades the popular practice of straightening black women’s hair, through

a process involving high temperatures and lots of chemicals, was practiced

by all who wanted to be fashionable. “Good hair” was considered to be the

least kinky and nappy type, hair similar to the hair of people of European ancestry. As Kimberly Springer notes in “Third Wave Black Feminism,” and Phillips, Reddick-Morgan and Stephens in “The Case of Feminism and Womanism in Rap and Hip-Hop,” one of the three major thematic areas in women’s hip-hop music with a feminist message and in hip-hop feminism

is the relationship between black women and black men. In fact, one of the

major concerns expressed by black women in the late 1960s and 70s regarding the second wave of feminism in the US was that it would pit black men and women against each other at a time when unity was of primary importance. Similar concerns surface in contemporary hip-hop feminism: young African American women recognize the problems faced by young black men, the demographic group least likely to survive until the age of forty-five. Yet, at the same time sexism and misogyny within hip-hop culture are

a pressing problem, which needs to be addressed. Proliferation of sexist

lyrics, attitudes and images–especially in hip-hop videos–increased with the development of the “gangsta rap” style, connected to the West Coast.


Chapter One

Of course, seeds of sexism were present from hip-hop’s beginnings. After all, one of the traditions used as the basis for hip-hop lyrics was that of “boasting,” which often including boasts about one’s sexual prowess and sexual conquests. The first rap hit “Rapper’s Delight” included such sexual boasts as: “I’m imp the dimp the ladies pimp/ the women fight for my delight,” but boasts such as these were taken tongue-in-cheek, especially as the performer was a short and very chubby jovial man. In the 1990s misogyny in hip-hop lyrics and videos reached an unprecedented scale. There have been two kinds of musical responses from women within the hip-hop community. One is outright opposition to the objectification of women in rap music and to sexism in the African American community in general, often phrased as a call for self-respect among black women. These songs very often use the very same aspects of hip-hop culture, which have been used against women, turn them around and use them to warn women against allowing themselves to be used by men. Salt’N Pepa, a female duo popular from the mid 80s to the early 90s, released the song “Tramp” in 1985. “Tramp” uses the hip-hop tradition of “diss” songs to attack men who treat women without the respect they deserve. The female speaker in the song is aware of the fact that she attracts men (“I know the real deal, I know what they want/It’s me (why?) because I’m so sexy”) and knows that her sexuality can attract men who are only interested in her as a sexual object (“You are what you are, I am what I am/It just so happens that most men are tramps”). The speaker then proceeds to tell the story of a first date with a man who “undressed [her] with his eyeballs” and was only interested in sex. The speaker immediately breaks up with the man and tells him that “You ain’t treatin’ me like no prostitute.” The song is a typical example of Salt’N Pepa’s feminist message, the main components of which include a high dose of self- respect for oneself and one’s body, a consciousness of the woman’s sexuality not only as a tool to attract a man, but also as a source of joy and the belief in the right to pick and choose among men as partners. As Tricia Rose writes:

Salt’N Pepa are carving out a female-dominated space in which Black women’s sexuality is openly expressed. Black women rappers sport hip- hop clothing and jewelry as well as distinctively black hairstyles. They affirm a black, female, cultural aesthetic which is rarely depicted in American popular culture. Black women rappers resist patterns of sexual objectification and cultural invisibility… (Rose 126).

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


It is important to note that not all of Salt’N Pepa’s songs relating to relationships between men and women are phrased as “diss” songs. In fact, one of their more famous songs “Whatta Man” is an outright ode to “a mighty, mighty good man,” who, in contrast to the “playas,” is honest, loving and respectful. These two types of songs, that is songs “dissing” the dishonest Black men who want to take advantage of women and praising those who know, to quote Alicia Keys’s song “A Woman’s Worth,” “how to treat … [a] woman right,” are interspersed in the albums of numerous female rappers. Some artists go beyond this black/white, good man/bad man dichotomy and describe more complex tensions present in the relationships of African American men and women. Alicia Keys’s first big hit “Fallin’” from her first album Songs in A Minor describes the speaker’s complicated though very intense relationship with a man; a relationship which gives her pleasure and pain at the same time and which makes her feel confused. If we base a reading of the song simply on the lyrics, a purely psychological reading of the song seems valid–she loves him, although he sometimes treats her badly. However, the video for this song suggests a more political reading. In the video Keys takes a bus to the penitentiary where she visits the man she is singing about and who is an inmate there. Through the video, the song becomes a political statement about the toll the high rate of imprisonment of African American males is taking on relationships and families. The bus traveling to the prison is filled with African American women, all on their way to see the men they love. On their way to the prison they pass fields where female inmates, all of them African American, are laboring as the guards watch over them. In her analysis of this song in Prophets of the Hood, Imani Perry notices that this “visual duality”–women inside the bus and women outside the bus–comments on two issues related to black women, the first being that many black women are in relationships with men who have been incarcerated and the second being that many black women are incarcerated themselves for becoming unwittingly or naively involved with men participating in illegal activities (Perry 179). In connection with the video, the lyrics become a realist mixture of psychological and social commentary. The speaker seems unable to resolve her personal problems, but the existence of these problems is socially and politically motivated. In the writings of hip-hop feminists themes related to African American men are discussed in a way similar to how they are treated in hip-hop music; that is, in three basic ways: “dissing” disrespectful men, praising the loyal and honest ones, and discussing the complicated personal effects of political and social problems affecting black males. A


Chapter One

lot of emphasis is placed on the fine balancing act of, as Springer writes quoting the Combahee River Collective Statement, “struggling with Black men against racism but also struggling with Black man about sexism” (Springer 1075), which has been a recurring theme of black feminism for decades. The men which appear in the three representative texts are usually the author’s biological brothers (Chambers’s only brother Malcolm was the focus of most of his mother’s attention throughout their childhood), lovers (often very supportive of their careers and their feminism, Morgan’s book was admittedly inspired by a lover who convinced her to put her views into writing) and very rarely fathers–all three writers examined experienced the divorce of their parents, after which their fathers became almost completely absent from their lives. Divorce is a generational experience for many third wavers, but being raised by a single mother seems to be a running theme among hip-hop feminists. Another issue which emerges from an analysis of the hip-hoppers’ relationships with men is their inherent heterosexuality. In fact, not only are there almost no popular queer female rappers, the “theorists” of hip- hop feminism, clearly heterosexual themselves, do not explore any alternative expressions for sexuality. Kimberly Springer notices that for all the emphasis on reclaiming a positive black female sexuality implicit in the song lyrics and in the writings of Morgan, Jones and Chambers, there is surprisingly little sexuality being discussed openly. The rappers and the writers often flaunt how sexy they feel, and criticize the popular perception of black women as oversexed and animalistic through the dismantling of stereotypes concerning black women, 33 but they omit the more specific aspects of sexuality. Springer writes: “Instead, black women’s (hetero)sexuality is alluded to in their musing on ‘fine brothers’

33 Interestingly, the one stereotype that both Jones and Morgan explore in detail is that of the black woman as the strong and silent type, who feels the burden of responsibility for her family and for her race on her shoulders, yet still manages to take care of herself and others, especially “endangered black males.” Morgan calls this stereotype the “strongblackwoman,” spelled together to emphasize “the transformation of a stereotype into an accepted and recognizable identity trait for black women. This linguistic move solidifies the idea of ‘strong,’ ‘black,’ and ‘woman,’ as nonseparable parts of a seemingly cohesive identity. […] Morgan wants to take apart the strongblackwoman image for what it is: a way for black women to deny emotional, psychic, and even physical pain, all the while appearing to keep it together” (Springer 1069-1070). The title of Jones’s book, Bulletproof Diva, is also a reference to the same stereotype. Jones attempts to redefine it by reclaiming the term “Bullettproof Diva,” but at the same time making it broader, giving the “Bulletproof Diva” the right to cry and be weak when she needs it.

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


and dating mores. Black women’s sexuality is something to be repressed, except on a surface level of relationships with Black men” (Springer


To prove this point, Springer recalls one of the few episodes in Jones’s text which could have been developed further as a comment on black women’s sexuality. In Chambers’s memoir Mama’s Girl, when Veronica gets her first period, her mother reacts with fear, afraid that her daughter is now at the risk of becoming a pregnant teenager. Veronica herself is also genuinely worried about a possible unplanned pregnancy derailing her plans for a career and for furthering her education. However, even these fears are something of a side note to the main plotlines, even though Veronica’s attitude to her sexuality could significantly contribute to one of the major plotlines–that is the exploration of her bouts with depression. The reader also never learns how well grounded the fears of an unwanted pregnancy are, Veronica’s boyfriends are never personalized as actual people, but rather presented as the ever changing stock types filling in the role of “Veronica’s boyfriend.” All we learn about her relationship to these boyfriends is that “No guy ever said a word to me that didn’t sound like a lie. The answer [to sex] was always no” (Chambers 70-71). Springer classifies this sexual conservatism of hip-hop feminists as “a step back” from the kinds of explorations of sexuality which took place in the writings of the earlier generation of Black feminist writers: Audre Lorde, Michelle Wallace and Alice Walker. Springer suggests that one of the reasons for the flaunting of heterosexuality in these texts, without a deeper exploration of female sexuality as such, is in fact the experience of fatherlessness, which may have led to the realization of the need for contact with men only in heterosexual relationships and the silence on the topic of sexuality in good (“middle-class”) African American families. Admittedly, there do exist some exceptions, a few queer hip-hop artists who make their sexuality central to their art, but none of these artists enjoy mainstream popularity. God-Des and She, a duo of lesbian feminist rappers, have been active on the New York club scene. Interestingly, they are both Caucasian and hail from Madison, Wisconsin. Another, and more well-known, exception is artist Me’shell Ndege’Ocello whose image is deliberately androgynous and whose texts are overtly and consciously feminist. Heywood and Drake list Ndege’ocello in the Introduction to Third Wave Agenda as an example of “third wave feminist hybridity, contradiction and activism” (Heywood and Drake 6). Ndege’Ocello, who, coincidentally, used to be in a long-term relationship with Rebecca Walker, explores problems within lesbian relationships, but also, especially


Chapter One

in Plantation Lullabies (1993), the need for unity among black men and women.

1. 7. Hip-hop lit

In order to draw a more complete picture of hip-hop culture and hip-hop feminism, a few words need to be devoted to a very recent literary genre growing out of the hip-hop culture, and specifically out of gangsta rap, known as hip-hop lit, gangsta lit or urban fiction. The genre will not be analyzed in the following chapters because it is not part of the explosion of feminist writing, although a few of the writers seem to exhibit elements of a feminist consciousness and try to provide a message of self-empowerment to their young readers. However, hip-hop lit is an explosion of its own, currently topping the charts in terms of the numbers of titles published. New publishing houses devoted exclusively to hip-hop lit have been established and most of the major publishing houses have created divisions devoted to hip-hop lit. The boom began around the year 2000 and can be credited to the establishment of the first publishing house, Triple Crown Publications in Columbus, Ohio, devoted exclusively to hip-hop lit. In fact, the creation of this publishing house is itself an interesting reflection of the entrepreneurship of young African American women from a disadvantaged background. In 2001, Vickie Stringer, a native of inner city Detroit, finished serving a prison sentence for dealing drugs. While in prison, she had handwritten a “90% autobiographical” novel recounting the experiences which led to her imprisonment. Stringer could very well have been one of the women portrayed in Alicia Keys’s “Fallin’” video, as it was her involvement with a drug-dealing boyfriend which eventually led this middle-class raised, college educated, churchgoing young woman to face a prison sentence and to be separated from her two-year old son. The book describes the glamorous lifestyle she led as a drug dealer, but can also be read as a warning about the dangers of this lifestyle, especially as it was written by a prison inmate. The manuscript of Stringer’s first novel, Let That Be The Reason, was rejected by numerous publishers, which prompted her to borrow money from a friend and set up Triple Crown Publishing, named after The Triple Crown Posse, a gang she and her boyfriend were members of in Columbus. The publishing house became an almost overnight success, selling over a million books in its first two years of operation (Cunningham 1). Vickie Stringer is now a millionaire, planning her retirement in Mexico.

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


Most hip-hop novels are set in the inner cities and reflect the coming- of-age of the main character, usually African American or Latino, including his or her initiation into the world of crime. Hip-hop lit, like hip- hop lyrics, “reflects the culture of the streets, set in the urban world of hustlers, gang members, thugs, wannabe rappers and their girlfriends (young mamas). The most extreme of these tales can be easily identified by the violence, sex, hustling and crime” (Meloni 38). There seem to exist certain variations within the genre, often the novels authored by men present a glamorized account of crime and sexual conquest, while the stories written by female writers (Nikki Turner, Deja King) bring accounts of the women’s resourcefulness when faced with difficult conditions or cautionary tales of how the seductive allure of the life of glamour may turn out to lead to the character’s downfall. The covers of hip-hop novels resemble the aesthetics of hip-hop CD jackets–dark colors with a prevalence of black, red and gold, bright lettering, realistically drawn human forms, often featuring objects or accessories connected to the hip- hop lifestyle, such as guns, fast cars, jewelry and, of course, scantily-clad women with big breasts. The books are written using language of the streets, which can either be seen negatively as a “dumbing down” of standard English or as one of the first appearances in print of African American Vernacular English. Of course, the use of street language is considered a mark of legitimacy of the author’s experience and constitutes one of the features accounting for the popularity of the genre. As librarians report, hip-hop lit, similarly to hip- hop music, is attracting a readership much broader than inner-city youths, often attracting white suburban teens and young adults–the target group for hip-hop lit is the 15-25 age group (Meloni 40).

1.8. Conclusion

It should be noted that although I have been using examples from both female hip-hop performers and hip-hop feminist writers, only the latter self-identify as feminist. Most of the “rappers with a feminist message” reject the feminist label, even though they clearly espouse the ideas. Robin Roberts, a music scholar interested in Queen Latifah’s Afrocentric message, repeatedly calls her a “feminist rapper” and talks about Latifah’s “feminist consciousness,” 34 yet it is important to point out that Queen Latifah herself does not identify with feminism and in fact for quite a

34 This can even be seen in the title of Roberts’s article on Queen Latifah: “’Ladies First’: Queen Latifah’s Afrocentric Feminist Music Video.”


Chapter One

while actively rebutted this identification, stating “I’m not a feminist […] I’m just a proud black woman.” In a later (1997) interview with Rolling Stone Queen Latifah is not as univocally negative regarding her self- identification, but she certainly does not feel to be a part of what is perceived as the feminist movement and explains why:

RS: Do you respond positively or negatively to the word “feminist”?

QL: I have mixed views on that word–always did. When I was growing up,

I watched the news a lot. Whenever I would see them talking about

feminists, it was usually a bunch of white women hollering, marching and screaming, but I didn't know what they were talking about. So when I first came out, and people started calling me a feminist, I was like, well, I don't dig the image that I had when I was growing up. To me, I'm womanist, feminist, whatever–but that’s all in the mind. I don’t have to attach myself

to a political group. (Mc Donnell and St. Nicholas 122)

What is fascinating and very revealing about the picture of feminism in the 1970s painted by Queen Latifah, is that this very image of “white women hollering, marching and screaming” is one which is strongly rejected by white third wavers, who, as I have discussed after Astrid Henry, are much more likely to be inspired by Lorde and Angela Davis than by Betty Friedan and even Gloria Steinem. What underlies the disidentification of Queen Latifah–a perceptive observer of gender and racial mechanisms and creative songwriter–is the availability, or lack thereof, of different cultural texts. As a woman from the music scene, not from the academia, she has not come across the major Black feminist texts, while she may have stumbled upon The Feminine Mystique or simply news footage of the Miss America protest or abortion rallies. While hip-hop feminism has been created as an alternative to academic feminism, its first proponents are Ivy League graduates who were exposed to a wide range of feminist texts in the course of their studies. They are all journalists or women connected to the world of art, living and working in New York. Their need for creating a third wave black feminism or hip-hop feminism flows from the realities of their lives which combine “street smarts” with their educational background. Hip-hop feminism has quickly become quite popular within the academia, most likely because it suggests that the non-academic real-life experience of numerous students can be of use in the academic context. A few dedicated scholars, including Gwendolyn Pough, have been active in the field of hip-hop feminism for several years, but there has been an explosion of interest and publications on the topic since approximately 2004. A conference on feminism and hip- hop was organized in 2005 by the University of Chicago’s Center for the

The Third Wave: Politics of Style, Aesthetics of Contradiction


Study of Race, Politics and Culture and attracted scholars, artists and others from the entertainment industry, creating numerous possibilities for networking and generating a level of interest which exceeded the organizers’ expectations. Gwendolyn Pough’s anthology Home Girls Make Some Noise!: Hip-Hop Feminism Anthology, the first comprehensive account of the movement, was published in early 2007 Some attempts to introduce the perspective of hip-hop feminism on campuses were initiated by students, sometimes working together with individual faculty members. This was the case of the now famous “Spelman Controversy.” In 2005 rapper Nelly, long known for his sexist lyrics and video clips, released a song called “Tip Drill,” which crowned him as the ultimate sexist in the music industry. The song’s title referred to a street slang term for a specific sexual practice. The term is also used to describe a woman endowed with large buttocks and an ugly face. The lyrics express Nelly’s desire to use such women as disposable objects of temporary sexual gratification, because their lack of beauty makes them unfit for any other form of relationship: “I said it must be ya ass cause it aint yo face.” The video features a large number of “video vixens” wearing only thongs and bikinis, gyrating their behinds and imitating sexual intercourse with Nelly. In one of the final scenes Nelly swipes a credit card through a woman’s backside, signifying the act of paying for sex, the commodification of male-female relationships. Shortly after the video hit the charts, the rapper was signed up for hosting a bone marrow drive on the campus of Spelman College, a historically all-black women-only college in Atlanta, Georgia. A group of students and several faculty members opposed his presence on campus on the basis of the sexist lyrics of his songs and, in the end, Nelly withdrew and did not visit the college. However, the protest grew and finally, with the backup of Essence magazine and the Black Women’s College, it turned into a week-long forum which culminated with a town hall meeting called “Take Back the Music.” 35 The meeting spurred a media campaign by the same name, which promotes pro-women hip-hop lyrics. In other words, although hip-hop feminism did not originate in the academia and is promoted as a “feminism of the streets,” it is certainly making its way there.

35 For more information about the Spelman Controversy, see, e.g.: “The Hip-Hop Discourse: Coming to a Campus Near You.” By: Keels, Crystal L., Black Issues in Higher Education, 5/19/2005, Vol. 22, Issue 7. For current updates on the Take Back the Music Campaign see the campaign’s website at <http://www.essence.com/essence/takebackthemusic/>


Chapter One

This chapter has presented some of the major nodes of third wave feminism, their relationship to each other and to the second wave of feminism. Another node, punk third wave feminism, will be presented in Chapter IV. This Chapter has also touched upon the major debates in third wave feminism, one of them being the third wave’s opposition to theory and its strange relationship to the academia. This issue will be developed further in the next chapter.




2.0. Introduction

This chapter examines the prevalence of autobiographical writing in third wave feminism and in the history of feminist writings in general. It examines the concept of feminist confession, its sources, uses and development and traces the gradual transformation of the feminist essay from a genre aiming at presenting theoretical concepts in a “user-friendly” manner while challenging classic academic discourse to a genre which is currently anti-theoretical and focused almost exclusively on evoking empathy in the reader. I make the hypothesis that the causes of this shift lie in the influence of the recovery movement on third wave feminism and in the current memoir boom in the publishing industry. Furthermore, the chapter also examines in detail the most popular type of third wave publication; the feminist anthology, comparing and contracting the third wave anthology with its predecessor; the second wave anthology.


Chapter Two

2.1. A classification of third wave anthologies

Life writing 1 and the women’s movement have had an intimate connection ever since the first wave of feminism emerged in the 19 th century. The essential historical writings of the early American women’s movement include short personal pieces, such as Sojourner Truth’s famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” and even personal records–like the marriage agreement between Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. 2 In the late 1960s and 1970s the personal essay became a staple of feminist aesthetics. Feminist theorists, like Jane Tompkins, Nancy Miller and many others, built a case for the inclusion of the personal voice of the theorist in pieces of literary and cultural criticism. 3 Yet, there has never been such a proliferation of life writing as now, in the third wave of feminism. Judging by the numbers of new titles, it seems that various forms of life writing have all but replaced feminist theory and fiction. The “epidemic” has reached such proportions that editors of volumes of academic essays feel obliged to emphasize in their calls for papers that personal memoirs are not acceptable as submissions. 4

1 Life writing is a term used by numerous feminist scholars to escribe a wide range of genres which would have traditionally been called autobiographical, ranging from diaries, memoirs, confessional poetry to internet blogs. The term “life writing” is used consistently in, for example, Sidonie Smith’s and Julia Watson’s works on women’s autobiographical writings. Smith and Watson, recognizing the challenges set forth to the concept of autobiography as a certain kind of narrative which emerged in the European Enlightenment and which “celebrates the autonomous individual and the universalizing life story” (Smith and Watson 3) settle on the terms life writing and life narrative as much broader and less biased terms.

2 These founding documents of the women’s movement are anthologized in Miriam Schneir’s Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings. The personal writings anthologized in this volume include also George Sand’s letters and her “intimate journal,” Abigail Adams’s correspondence with her husband and excerpts from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which is often considered to be the first example of the poetics of the feminist essay–a piece starting out with the description of a personal experience which inspires the narrator to analyze and generalize on the condition of women.

3 The history and poetics of the feminist essay will be discussed later in the chapter.

4 See, for example, this CFP announced in November 2006 through, among other channels, the Women’s Studies Discussion List for a forthcoming volume about menstruation: “NO fiction, poetry, or memoir. (This means that unless there is a specific reason for it to be in your piece, we do not want to hear about when you

First Person Singular: The Phenomenon of Third Wave Anthologies


Furthermore, one specific medium for publishing life writing has gained widespread popularity as a trademark of third wave feminism. This genre is the feminist anthology. Many of the key third wave publications are collections of personal essays, written by self-identified feminist activists, writers and theorists, usually, though with exceptions, written specifically as responses to calls for submissions for the various anthologies or, as Gail Chester writes in her account of the history of feminist anthologies, “newly commissioned pieces of feminist non-fiction” (Chester 194). Some of these anthologies explore the shape of feminism today, while others focus on specific issues within contemporary feminism–mostly the aspects of class, race and ethnic background, all through the use of the personal essay. The first category includes To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (published in 1995 and edited by Rebecca Walker), Listen Up! Voices from the Next Feminist Generation (edited by Barbara Findlen, also published in 1995), Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism (published in 1997, edited by Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake), Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21 st Century (edited by Rory Dicker and Alison Piepmeier, published in 2003), The Fire this Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism (published in 2004, edited by Vivien Labaton and Dawn Lundy Martin), and the most recent addition We Don’t Need Another Wave: Dispatches from the Next Generation of Feminists (edited by Melody Berger and published in 2006). The second category, anthologies with a more defined thematic focus, can be divided into two main sub-categories, one organized around specific feminist issues, the other one around the identity of the contributors. The first sub-category consists of collected writings on a specific topic, for example, body image–Body Outlaws: Young Women Write about Body Image and Identity (published in 1998, 5 edited by Ophira Edut); sexuality - Jane Sexes it Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire (published in 2002, edited by Merri Lisa Johnson); motherhood– Breeder: Stories from a New Generation of Mothers (published in 2001, edited by Ariel Gore and Bee Lavender); hip-hop music–Home Girls Make Some Noise!: Hip-hop Feminism Anthology (edited by Gwendolyn Pough, 2007). The unifying theme for the remaining anthologies is the ethnic, racial, sexual or class identity of the contributors: Dragon Ladies: Asian

got your first period or how bad your PMS is. This is not a collection of first- person narratives).” 5 The first edition (1998) of Body Outlaws was published under the title Adios, Barbie. The title was changed for the reprint editions because of a lawsuit carried forth by Mattel, the producer of Barbie dolls.


Chapter Two

American Feminists Breathe Fire (edited by Sonia Shah, published in 1997), Yell-Oh Girls! Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity and Growing Up Asian American (edited by Vickie Nam, published in 2001), Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism (edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman, published in 2002), Without a Net:

The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class (edited by Michelle Tea, published in 2004). A case can also be made for the existence of a third category, anthologies of texts previously published in numerous feminist magazines and zines. Zines, discussed in more detail in Chapter IV, were the primary means of third wave “guerilla publishing” in the early 1990s. Several of the magazines which started out as countercultural alternative publishing venues (including: Bust, Bitch, Hip Mama and HUES) have achieved huge popularity, which culminated with the publications of volumes collecting the most significant pieces published in these magazines. These include:

The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order (edited by Michelle Karp and Debbie Stoller, published in 1999); A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World: Writings from the Girl Zine Revolution (edited by Karen Green and Tristan Taormino, published in 1997), and BITCHfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine (edited by Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler, published in 2006).

2.2. A historic look at feminist anthologies

As Gail Chester points out in her analysis of British feminist anthologies, the form of the anthology is especially well suited for radical social movements because “the mechanism of the anthology can be used to capture and contextualize a significant moment of political debate” (Chester 196). And indeed it was the radical, and not the liberal, wing of the women’s movement which produced the most influential anthologies, including Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful, Vivian Gornick’s 1971 Woman in Sexist Society, Feminist Revolution published and edited by members of the Redstockings, and Radical Feminism, edited by Anne Koedt, Ellen Levine and Anita Rapone in 1972. An anthology can be put together relatively quickly. In spite of the technical problems an editor inevitably encounters with collecting submissions from contributors, the process usually takes less time than the completion of a full-length book by one author. An anthology by definition encompasses a variety of opinions, or at least various realizations of one general worldview. The form enables the representation of a dialogue taking place within a specific group. The first sentence of Sisterhood is Powerful reflects how the

First Person Singular: The Phenomenon of Third Wave Anthologies


anthology realizes the concept of a dynamic exchange of ideas: “This book is an action.” A thematic anthology can become a snapshot of the ideas circulating at the time; it may, if it is skillfully put together, capture the “aura” of a movement at a given period. Early second wave anthologies, like Sisterhood is Powerful and Radical Feminism, achieve that goal. The thematic choice of materials, the organization and layout of the pieces, the figures of the contributors themselves foreshadow the concerns which were later developed in theory and the directions which feminist activism would take. Some of the pieces touch on issues which already were or would shortly become the primary concerns of the movement (abortion law repeal, power arrangements within the heterosexual family unit), and some suggest possible future sites of conflict within radical feminism (for example, pornography and prostitution). As Joreen’s (Jo Freeman’s) piece on the problems resulting from the rejection of patriarchal structure, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” from Radical Feminism, shows, the editors were not afraid to include critiques of the women’s liberation movement coming from within the movement. Essays from the various anthologies form a dialogue, respond to the ideas presented in the other ones, sometimes even to specific texts. The process of collecting and organizing materials was carried out with feminist principles in mind. Although any social movement can create an anthology of its writings, the ease of creating informal and short pieces makes the form especially well suited to a movement of women because, as Chester claims, “the composition of a relatively short piece can be fitted in with the many other duties which occupy women’s time, and its length is not overwhelming to the less experienced writer” (Chester 195). Most of the anthologies, with the exception of Feminist Revolution, sported the names of the editors and the task of editing was sometimes shared between several women–an idealistic gesture recalling the collective character of the work and the spirit of sisterhood. 6 Chester argues that what distinguishes the genre of the feminist anthology from other types of anthologies is the editorial intention to portray diverse perspectives, an integral part, as Chester claims, of feminist sensibility in general. Although the second wave has actually been criticized for its exclusionary character, it is obvious from the texts chosen by the editors of the

6 For a thorough and thoughtful discussion of the concept of collaborative writing as a feminist practice see Pamela Cotterill and Gayle Letherby’s article “Collaborative Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of Working Together” from Ang- Lygate, Corrins and Henry’s anthology Desperately Seeking Sisterhood: Still Challenging and Building.


Chapter Two

anthologies, that they did their best to try to avoid such accusations. For example, Robin Morgan’s early (1970) Sisterhod is Powerful includes texts on and by lesbians, women of color and working class women. Of course, there is no possibility of escaping the fact that the movement at that time was predominantly white and based mostly in the urban northeast, however, the need to acknowledge diversity was recognized by the editors. Many of the pieces included in the early anthologies turned into “feminist classics,” which were later translated into many languages and taught at colleges. Chester points out that “published material which is collected within the covers of a book is almost always granted higher status than that which appears in a periodical and pamphlet, and is thus more likely to be canonised” (Chester 203). The early anthologies used both original pieces and articles which had been earlier included in the annual Notes of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The inclusion of various forms of expression was an organizing principle of the editors, the articles ranged from personal accounts to theoretical studies and also included some of the most important documents of the women’s movement, poems, songs, as well as appendices listing “Drop Dead Lists of Books to Watch Out For” and “Abortion Counseling Information.” The contributors included academics, who later went on to publish (or had just published) substantial works of feminist theory (e.g. Shulamith Firestone), literary criticism (Elaine Showalter, Naomi Weisstein, Cynthia Ozick, Kate Millett), activists who later organized feminist services (Lucinda Cisler) as well as writers of fiction (Alix Kates-Shulman, Marge Piercy). The anthologies meant to provide a platform of discussion within the movement, bring together the most important voices in the debates of the time and make the texts accessible to a wider audience than the limited circle of readers of the Notes. The hodgepodge of contributors and types of contributions mirrored the dynamic state of the women’s movement at the time and the rejection of aesthetic norms considered to be patriarchal. Robin Morgan comments on the mixture of the personal and the theoretical in the anthology she edited: “There is […] a blessedly uneven quality noticeable in the book, which I, for one, delight in. There is a certain kind of linear, tight, dry, boring, male super-consistency that we are beginning to reject. That’s why this collection combines all sorts of articles, poems, graphics and sundry papers” (Morgan xvii). These anthologies paved the way for the development of feminist theory, by opposing what the editors considered to be stifling patriarchal legacies through the mixing of genres, styles and registers and the mixing of the theoretical with the personal.

First Person Singular: The Phenomenon of Third Wave Anthologies


2.3. Getting personal in theory

It is this mixture of the personal and the theoretical, so evident in the early second wave anthologies, which became an important element of feminist aesthetics in general. Feminist scholars working within their disciplines began introducing elements of personal experience into research and scholarly writing, arguing that the disjunction between personal experience and theory made it impossible to offer complete analyses. This trend was especially visible in the field of feminist literary criticism, where the agreed upon starting point of feminist criticism, that is the constructed character of aesthetic value judgments, prompted an inquiry into how those judgments were formed. Although many of the important “founding” pieces of literary criticism offer commentary on the role of personal experience for the critic, Jane Tompkins’s 1987 essay “Me and My Shadow” makes a succinct and clear case for the inclusion of the personal in literary criticism. Tompkins summarizes feminist philosopher Alice Jaggar’s analysis of reasons why women have been excluded from the realm of theory–briefly, because women are the bearers of emotions which men are expected to repress in order to produce legitimate theory, women’s epistemic authority is undercut–and, using strong colloquial language, phrases a personal plea for doing away with the disjunction between the private life and the public work of academics. Tompkins defiantly declares:

Well, I’m tired of the conventions that keep discussion of epistemology, or James Joyce, segregated from meditations on what is happening outside my window or inside my heart. The public-private dichotomy, which is to say the public-private hierarchy, is a founding condition of female oppression. I say to hell with it. The reason I feel embarrassed at my own attempts to speak personally in a professional context is that I have been conditioned to feel that way. That’s all there is to it (Tompkins 2131).

The concept of introducing the personal as a category of thought and gender as a category of analysis was a direct influence of the close relationship between the activist and theoretical wings of the women’s liberation movement, an attempt to transfer the core tenet of “the personal is political” onto academic fields, such as literary criticism. Feminism was supposed to transform academic discourse and this was one of the revolutionary strategies for achieving that goal. In the 1980s, with the incorporation of women’s/gender studies into academic structures, most anthologies which included the word “feminist” in the title became highly academic and lost the quality of coming from


Chapter Two

within an active women’s movement, as the movement itself was losing momentum, going through structural, organizational and leadership changes. This is not to say that the anthologies using feminist analytical methodologies ceased to exist in the 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, the numbers of publications aimed for the academic market and offering feminist perspectives on issues from crime to neuroscience, with special emphasis on the social sciences, prove the opposite. Chester argues that in Great Britain “the more academic type of anthology” still prevails (Chester 199) and that “on the whole there has been a decline in feminist anthologies with a political base in the Women’s Liberation Movement” (200). Influenced by the development of Women’s Studies courses and departments in the 1980s and 1990s, the feminist anthology turned into an academic genre, to be used as a textbook in the college classroom.

2.4. Features of third wave anthologies

This had been the case in the United States as well, up until the mid 1990s and the emergence of the first “third wave” anthologies. Walker’s To Be Real (1995), following a resurgence of pro-choice activism in the early 1990s and the mobilization of feminists of all ages in support of Anita Hill as evidenced by Walker herself in her 1992 Ms. essay “Becoming the Third Wave,” delivered a refreshingly new type of feminist anthology, offering perspectives from within the women’s movement on the most important concerns of the young generation of feminists. Arguably, the collection embodies a rebellion against two aspects of what young women associated with feminism–its increasingly academic character and its prescriptive didacticism; the younger generation’s perception of having to conform to certain “party line” views in order to be a part of the movement, as described by Walker herself in the introdution to the collection. The solution applied in To Be Real, which, as it seems from the introduction was Walker’s personal idea and actually met with resistance from people whom she had asked to contribute to the volume, was to put together a collection of personal essays with emphasis on submissions from a diverse range of young people and to avoid editorial intrusions in the form of commentary or even the division of the book into sections; therefore leaving the interpretative work to the readers. This gesture can also be viewed as a gross exaggeration of the tenets of theorists like Tompkins and of the strategies of earlier second wave thinkers, a total exclusion of theory from theory. Walker explains her selection of materials in the introduction to To Be Real: “I prefer personal testimonies because they build empathy and

First Person Singular: The Phenomenon of Third Wave Anthologies


compassion and are infinitely more accessible than more academic tracts” (Walker xxxvii). Yet, the personal character of the essays has turned into a double edged sword. Empathy and compassion, intentionally elicited by the editor, preclude productive criticism and dialogue, as it is impossible to argue with someone else’s personal experience. Thus, in an attempt to provide counterarguments to ideas presented by contributors of To Be Real, the editors of many of the third wave anthologies which followed Walker’s book replicate her editorial strategy by combining first-person confessional pieces. As a result, the pieces in the various anthologies do not address each other and do not create a platform for discussion, because they are preoccupied solely with relating the narrator’s personal experiences. The idea of a critical debate is also constrained by the production process described by Walker in the foreward–the simultaneous creation of “newly commissioned” pieces of writing. Unlike second wave anthologies, which collected pieces that had been in circulation in leaflet or brochure form, all of the texts in To Be Real were written specifically for publication in the anthology, ordered by the editor, as it can be assumed from the “Introduction,” as young feminists’ views on specific issues. Walker’s anthology is not meant to record a heated debate coming from within the third wave. The debate is with the second wave, or, as I argued in the previous chapter, with the third wave’s concept of the second wave. True, sometimes the arrangement of pieces within the anthology suggests the possibility of two opposite third wave views on an issue, but these are not presented as a vibrant, ongoing debate within feminism. For example, two pieces on body image–bell hooks’s “Beauty Laid Bare: Aesthetis in the Ordinary” and the interview with supermodel Veronica Webb “How Does a Supermodel Become a Feminist?”–take two opposite stands on the issue of how beauty standards presented in the media affect young women, but one never directly engages the other. Walker’s book was soon followed by Barbara Findlen’s Listen Up, which replays the strategy used by To Be Real. The stories collected in Listen Up include testimonies from fitness instructors, sexual abuse survivors, ex-anorectics, obese women, immigrant women, women of color, abortion stories and birth stories. These two books were followed by Third Wave Agenda, an anthology which differs from both Walker’s and Findlen’s anthologies by mixing academic-style criticism with personal testimony, photographs and feminist artwork, resembling in its organizational structure, though not in the aesthetics of the artwork, the famous second wave anthologies. Read chronologically, Third Wave Agenda seems to have moved on from the purely confessional mode of the first two anthologies and undertaken an analytical project; it spells out the


Chapter Two

connections which the first two anthologies only hinted at. Yet, the anthologies which follow might as well have sprung out of a vacuum; instead of taking the cue from Third Wave Agenda, or going in a different direction altogether, they revert to the personal testimony style of Walker’s and Findlen’s collections. Melody Berger’s We Don’t Need Another Wave (2006) is a collection of very short essays written almost exclusively by college-aged women; women who have not only grown up with feminism, but who have actually grown up with the third wave of feminism and feel exhausted with the debate over the differences between the second and the third waves, which, to them, are similarly insignificant as debates about ancient history. Yet, what they deliver is more of the same type of writing as what was published ten years earlier; stories of oppression, discrimination, and success stories of how the intuition and courage of the authors helped them overcome discrimination and improve their self-confidence. Before analyzing some selected pieces from the anthologies in a closer way, it will be helpful to discuss what kinds of narrative practices have had influence on the development of third wave writing, in addition to the already discussed form of feminist anthology. I would like to argue that the most important “building blocks” of the third wave essay include the legacies of three narrative practices. They are: the feminist confession, the feminist practice of consciousness-raising and the language and ideas of the 1980s self-help movement (in short, “recovery talk”). Together, these three narrative practices contribute to the shape of third wave anthologies, which either replicate them or engage them in confrontational ways.

2.5. Block I: feminist confession

Rita Felski’s 1998 essay “On Confession” provides an interpretive framework for analyzing the genre of feminist confession. Felski defines feminist confession as “a type of autobiographical writing which signals its intention to foreground the most personal and intimate details of the author’s life” (Felski 83). Felski’s definition is very broad and can, in fact, encompass at least several non-fiction genres, yet the books she focuses on are mostly full-length memoirs. Although Felski emphasizes the intimate character of confession, she also immediately notices that in feminist writings there is always a tension between presenting the personal and the need to generalize–that is to present the personal as representative of a woman’s life. Many theorists have already written on this topic more broadly, with regards to women’s autobiography in general, noticing that while the classic eighteenth century enlightenment genre aimed to

First Person Singular: The Phenomenon of Third Wave Anthologies


foreground the unique life of an exceptional individual, autobiographies written by women tend to focus on collective life, not on individual achievement. Felski notices that even in the most personal of the feminist genres, the confession, there is still a tension between representing personal experience as unique to an individual and as representative of a group. She argues:

feminist confession […] is less concerned with unique individuality or notions of essential humanity than with delineating the specific problems and experiences which bind women together. It thus tends to emphasize the ordinary events of a protagonist’s life, their typicality in relation to a notion of communal identity (84).

The reasons why this tension is a defining feature of the genre are threefold. Firstly, many arguments have been put forward concerning the greater significance of communal identity for women, ranging from reasons based on women’s supposedly better social skills, through arguments emphasizing women’s involvement in the community, to ideas

of women as the carriers of communal identity who pass it on to children

through the process of socialization. Whichever concept one accepts, they all center around the idea that community is crucially important for women. Secondly, the tension between the individual and the representative becomes a given when the adjective feminist is added to the genre of

confession. Feminist literature in general is interested in portraying the lives of women as gendered beings and in revealing how gender-based oppression shapes their lives. This goal is sometimes undertaken more overtly, as in genres such as the consciousness-raising novel, but is an

inherent feature of practically all writing that can be described as feminist. Therefore, feminist confession by definition should provide, or at least encourage, a reflection on how the narrator’s experience was shaped by her gender and, what follows, how it resembles the experiences of other women. Paradoxically, confession is well suited to this political endeavour, because of its simple, concrete non-theoretical language. This

is why it was an important genre for numerous social movements of the

1960s, not just for feminism. Because confession avoids theoretical abstraction, it is easily accepted by movements which express ambivalence towards “classic” theoretical language.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the tension between the personal and the representative in feminist confession is connected not just to the political function of the narrative, but also to the implied existence of the addressee, who, in the case of this genre, is not just the general public, but

a sympathetic female confidante. The existence of this implied reader


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forms the definition of what constitutes commonality, what experiences the narrator assumes will be empathetically understood by the addressee. Felski writes:

This sense of commonality is accentuated through a tone of intimacy, shared allusions, and unexplained references with which the reader is assumed to be familiar. The implied reader of the feminist confession is the sympathetic female confidante and is often explicitly encoded in the text through appeals, questions, and direct address. The importance of the reader is directly related to the belief that she will understand and share the author’s position […] (86).

This expectation encourages a specific type of interaction and a specific style of narration–unrelativized first-person narration with a thematic concentration on feelings and personal relationships, frequent use of informal and non-literary style and the downplaying of the aesthetic and fictive aspects of the text. The text is supposed to be read as a spontaneous overflow of feelings, produced without careful consideration of its aesthetic aspects. Obviously, no literary text is produced this way, but what the attempt to achieve this effect reveals is the importance of the desire to connect with the reader on an intimate level. In The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms Carla Kaplan suggests that the desire to be listened to by an ideal listener is one of the most important paradigms in feminist writing. She identifies the erotics of talk as a topos which can be placed alongside, or opposite, the search for a voice, arguing that the search for a voice is a more action- and goal-oriented paradigm while the topos of the erotics of talk is concerned less with achieving a measurable political goal and more with fulfilling an often unconscious desire, the desire to be understood. Kaplan writes:

An erotics of talk might be understood as wish fulfillment fantasy: a desire to be reassured that exchange between people is still possible, that we are not merely alone, speaking to ourselves, talking into the empty void of a world from which meaningful and satisfying interrelationship has been eradicated (Kaplan 15).

Kaplan is not analyzing feminist confession as a genre, but Felski’s idea that one of the main reasons for the creation of confession writing is the longing for intimacy with a sympathetic reader fits perfectly into Kaplan’s discussion of how the “erotics of talk” functions in women’s fiction. However, Felski’s analysis is not a laudatory review of feminist confession. On the contrary, she emphasizes several problems inherent to

First Person Singular: The Phenomenon of Third Wave Anthologies


the genre. On the political level, although the confession is sometimes used as an alternative to traditional political discourse, the very personal character of the genre makes it prone to reinscribing the very limitations it is trying to overcome. Specifically, although the description of one’s life as a member of a marginalized group may carry subversive potential, through the topos which Kaplan would call “assuming a voice,” at the same time “the internalized cultural values which define specific identities as marginal, or deviant can come to the surface in feelings of anxiety and guilt” (Felski 88). Obviously, patriarchal ideology has shaped the narrating subject just as much as it has shaped anyone else and traces of that ideology will be detectable even in a genre which speaks against it. Although stepping out of ideology is, of course, impossible, a more overtly analytical or theoretical genre makes the critique of this ideology more straightforward. Yet, this is just the first side effect of using a genre which claims to be “unmediated” and “honest.” The dynamics of confessional narrative, from a reader’s perspective, assume that it is possible to reveal someone’s “true self” and, from a writer’s perspective, that self-examination and self- disclosure can and do lead to self-knowledge. Both of these assumptions have been questioned by postmodern theorists. The self in a narrative is always carefully constructed, no matter how aware or unaware of this fact the writer is. Therefore, it would seem that confession is a genre which should not exist in its traditional form in the postmodern world in which the recognition of problems with self-representation is common knowledge. Yet, not only does it exist, in recent years it has flourished. The third wave confessional boom is part of a much larger phenomenon. Felski argues that the reason for the resurgence of interest in confessional genres, and it should be noted that her article was published in 1998– before the proliferation of blogs and other multi-media confessions–is in fact connected to the longing for the community which has been lost with the advent of late capitalism. Tracing the history of the genre, from the Middle Ages when confession was used as a mechanism of social control, and a reaffirmation of social order to the eighteenth century when confession became an affirmation and exploration of free subjectivity, she recounts the argument that capitalism offered individual emancipation from authority of tradition, but at the cost of alienation from society, which ceased to be a source of accepted values and systems of belief. In such a society, and the contemporary postmodern society, the popularity of confession can be seen as a logical result of the increasing alienation; a longing for the lost sense of intimacy and community, both the desire of the reader for intimacy with the narrator and the author’s desire for


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intimacy with the reader, the “sympathetic female confidante.” Felski writes:

[T]he production of the text itself functions as an attempted compensation for this failure [failure of intimacy], generating in the relationship between the reader and author the erotic mutuality which cannot otherwise be realized. Writing, seemingly, the most isolated of activities, becomes the means to the creation of an ideal intimacy (Felski 89).

And indeed, the effects of reading a confession can be amazingly strong–another explanation for the popularity of the genre at a time when strong emotions are in demand. Felski describes several instances of readers falling in love with the narrator of a confession. This is exactly the erotic charge Kaplan describes when she talks about “the erotics of talk.” However, and this is something Felski fails to say outright, although the relationship can be intense, the actual ideal intimacy is an illusion because the narrator of the confession is a textual construct. In the history of the women’s movement there existed a practice which aimed at creating actual intimacy and simultaneously focused on achieving political goals. The legacy of this practice–and I am referring to consciousness-raising–is highly debated, yet, it is most definitely one of the building blocks for the use of the personal in third wave feminism.

2.6. Block II: consciousness-raising

Quite overtly, the role third wave anthologies play in the contemporary women’s movement is dramatically different from the role played by second wave anthologies. Arguably, the feminist anthologies of today attempt to play a function which in second wave feminism was realized through a different genre, the second wave fiction bestsellers, often called consciousness-raising novels, which, in turn, were rooted in the legacy of consciousness-raising groups from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Consciousness-raising was both a theory of communicative ethics and that theory’s realization in practice, through certain protocols followed by women attending CR meetings. Consciousness-raising, a term borrowed from Marxism, was a technique used by feminist groups to make women aware of the political character of personal experience, or, to rephrase, of the fact that certain misfortunes were not falling upon them because they were unlucky people, but because they were women. Sara Evans describes the goals of CR in Personal Politics: “People first had to understand that their problems were social and not personal in nature and that collective action could solve

First Person Singular: The Phenomenon of Third Wave Anthologies


them” (Evans 133-134). The process of consciousness-raising was carried out in small groups of about 10 to 12 women, meeting weekly to discuss different issues on the basis of personal experiences of the women in the group. The women sat in a circle and took turns speaking, without being judgmental and interrupting the other speakers. In The Erotics of Talk Kaplan recalls Jurgen Habermas’s idea of the “ideal speech situation,” that is a context in which all speakers engage in discourse in the public sphere on an equal footing. Specifically, an ideal speech situation is one where every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in discourse; it is a “situation of dialogue free of external pressures and internal distortions in which participants would respond to the force of the better argument alone” (Habermas in Kaplan 9). Consciousness-raising was an attempt to enact the “ideal speech situation” through enforcing specific protocols. The process might seem calm and peaceful but its goal was, as Kathie Sarachild, a member of Redstockings, a radical feminist group from New York, described in a 1973 essay “Consciousness-Raising: A Radical Weapon”: “to start a mass movement of women to put an end to the barriers of segregation and discrimination based on sex” (Sarachild 144, emphasis by Sarachild). Even CR meetings were never all talk, as it was assumed that certain material conditions had to be met in order for CR to be able to take place. As Kaplan writes, “group members did everything from provide child-care services to help each other get jobs or get out of stifling relationships in the belief that life changes had to precede, not just result from, women’s ability to speak freely” (Kaplan 154). However, most importantly, CR groups were supposed to transform into radical feminist groups organizing various kinds of events; CR was supposed to move from words to actions. Consciousness-raising later transpired into various forms of feminist art, from poetry to zines. It was realized on a larger scale in popular feminist novels of the time: the consciousness-raising novels I have referred to, feminist art and media. Lisa Maria Hogeland, while analyzing the feminist novels of the 1970s, notices that CR has not become a thing of the past, although it has most definitely transformed. The role of CR novels of the 1970s was to “provide […] more personal narratives, more and more extended versions of the testimony that women provided in the face-to-face group meetings which were the basis of CR” (Hogeland 24). When reading such novels the readers were expected to identify with the main characters and see the common features, the similarities between their lives and the lives of the characters in the novels and to recognize the


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forces shaping the lives of the fictional characters as the same forces which have influence over their lives. In Feminism and Its Fictions Hogeland describes her experiences with asking contemporary students to read 1970s CR novels. It seems the students did not take to such novels as easily as she had expected them to. Hogeland explains:

My feminist students today read in ways different from the ways I read as an undergraduate feminist in the late 1970s. Reductively (and polemically) put, I see our reading strategies as shaped by this disjunction: my students read for difference where I read for identity. Or, perhaps more accurately, my students read for specificity where I read for universality (xiii).

The paradigm for second wave consciousness-raising was indeed that of identification and generalization, a naïve and simplistic paradigm which most definitely brought about the demise of the practice itself. Yet, bearing all this in mind, Kaplan still feels feminism owes a lot to the idealistic project:

[I]t is easy to deride consciousness-raising for self-indulgence, assumptions of female sameness, a failure to address sufficiently the effects of race, class, and sexuality, a kind of generalized and operative naivete. But it is also hard to overstate the positive, political impact of women’s groups gathered to talk (Kaplan 154).

After all, at the height of the consciousness-raising there were more than 100,000 women involved in CR groups. It is hard to say that CR failed because it most certainly mobilized huge numbers of women, but it definitely waned, declined in popularity and importance. One of the reasons was the gradual realization of CR’s exclusionary character and of the silences it enforced while eliciting certain types of responses. Specifically, the definition of womanhood created by the experiences shared in CR was a definition pertaining only to a specific group of women–those who engaged in CR. And they happened to be mostly white, middle class and heterosexual. Furthermore, in Kaplan’s terms, CR did not achieve all of its goals because it shifted from an attempt at combining “the politics of voice” with the “erotics of talk”– the project of creating a safe space for the articulation of ideas that would lead to social change, to the practice of “the erotics of talk” exclusively. It turned out that complete safety was not productive. The safe and comfortable environment of CR may have, in fact, become too comfortable for many women to leave. At the same time, while constructive ideas

First Person Singular: The Phenomenon of Third Wave Anthologies


could have been developed within CR, the very protocols which ensured “equal footing” curtailed debate and disagreement. Kaplan argues that the seeds of that failure were present from the beginning–complementing Lisa Hogeland’s argument that CR evolved from “hard,” task-oriented CR to “soft,” talk-oriented CR–in the rigid organizational and operative structures of CR groups. Kaplan asks: “[w]ithout some license for challenge, disagreement and question, how could participants hope to transform one another, to recreate understandings, to challenge and provoke new forms of consciousness itself?” (155).

2.7. Consciousness-raising and the third wave

My claim is that the personal essays collected in third wave anthologies serve the same function (that of consciousness-raising) as CR novels of the 1970s, but the characteristics of CR have changed, as have, according to Hogeland, general paradigms of women’s reading practices, from reading for universality to reading for specificity. Third wave feminism has been shaped by multiculturalism and postcolonialism and, in general, a sensitivity to difference and a fear of generalizations. Therefore, third wave narratives place more emphasis on diversity of experience. This makes the form of an anthology of personal essays much better suited to representing the “mindset” of third wave feminism than that of a novel with a single main character and a storyline documenting the character’s transformation. Furthermore, compilations of personal essays on a specific topic resemble the process of classic small-group consciousness-raising. Of course, what makes these anthologies different from the stories exchanged in CR groups, and which violates the golden rule of feminist consciousness-raising–that the stories be shared with others because of the confidence that they would never leave the room–is the public character of this testimony. This is not to say that public testimony was an unacceptable strategy for second wavers. It had been used by the women’s liberation movement to its advantage in, for example, public speakouts on abortion, rape and sexual harrassment. Its effectiveness in swaying public opinion in favor of the cause, lay in the same features which Walker found important for the texts included in To Be Real–in generating empathy and compassion. Public testimony can be an empowering form of breaking the silence about taboo topics and there are moments when the anthologized essays manage to achieve that. Yet, the strength of public testimony lies in its shock value, in the “detabooization” of the taboo, a feature which becomes lost in the repetitiveness of the genre. In the second wave, public testimony


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was a point of departure for theory and activism and a strategy for the realization of political goals. In third wave writings, these points become questionable. So far, I have discussed these anthologies as consciousness-raising tools aimed at the outside public, at the readers. Most overtly, the goal of these texts is to elicit empathy and “raise the consciousness” of the reader, convince her that because the stories she is reading are so diverse, she too, can identify as a feminist. Yet, there is also one more CR aspect of the anthologies, their function as therapeutic support groups for the contributors. Many of the key figures in third wave feminism, writers, activists and theorists, have also published full-length memoirs, often very early on in their careers–Rebecca Walker’s Black White and Jewish: Memoir of a Shifting Self was published when she was thirty, most works by the prolific Michelle Tea are autobiographical and the two most overtly autobiographical ones The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America and The Chelsea Whistle, a memoir of Tea’s childhood, were published by the time she turned thirty. bell hooks’ Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood proves an exception to this “memoir under thirty” rule, yet hooks’s comments about the importance of publishing a memoir provide insight into this phenomenon of third wave feminist memoir writing. hooks argues that “telling the story of my growing up years was intimately connected with the longing to kill the self I was without really having to die. I wanted to kill that self in writing. Once that was gone–out of my life forever–I could more easily become the me of me” (hooks in Felman 16). What hooks is admitting to in this passage is the therapeutic effect of memoir writing on the writer, a fact which begs to be analyzed not only in the case of full-length memoirs, but also in the case of the aforementioned anthologies. Not only does an anthology like Yell-Oh Girls aid the process of consciousness-raising of the readers, but also creates a community of the contributors resembling a consciousness-raising group. Hogeland explains:

CR had long been recognized to have, at least incidentally, a particular kind of therapeutic effect–specifically, it was understood to replace therapy, in the sense that the assurance women received from CR that they were not crazy would enable them to forgo patriarchal therapy’s enforced reconciliation with gender-based systems of domination (Hogeland 27).

CR as understood by second wave feminists was supposed to be a tool leading to political action. One of the conflicts in the 1970s women’s movement concerned the direction CR was going in. Hogeland writes that so-called “soft” CR was “so intensely focused on personal experience that

First Person Singular: The Phenomenon of Third Wave Anthologies


the rules for its practice disallowed theorizing, generalizing, and challenging.” In The Culture of Recovery Elayne Rapping views soft CR groups as precursors of self-help groups, which, as some theorists and historians claim, led to the deradicalization of the women’s movement in the 1980s.

2.8. Block III: recovery culture

In The Culture of Recovery: Making Sense of the Self-Help Movement in Women’s Lives (1996) Elayne Rapping analyzes how certain feminist and New Left ideas dating back to the 1960s turned into founding blocks of the self-help movement, at the same time masking their original revolutionary goals of achieving political change. Rapping’s book traces the roots of the self-help movement, which permeated 1980s’ popular culture not just via actual self-help groups but also through made for television movies, popular talks shows and bestselling books, back to the organizational structure of radical feminist consciousness-raising groups. Indeed, groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and other kinds of “12-step recovery” groups which stemmed from AA; 7 for example, Sexoholics Anonymous (SA), Codependents Anonymous (CODA), Overeaters Anonymous (OA), 8 adopted the methods for conducting meetings introduced by CR groups. Yet, these technicalities were not the only feature self-help groups took over from CR. Most importantly, CR provided a basic set of guidelines for sharing personal experiences with the hope that these narratives would lead to individual empowerment and, at least in the case of classic CR, to collective action aimed at changing the circumstances of oppression. Rapping writes:

CR, like the newer kinds of recovery theories, ultimately builds a worldview which is powerful in its all-inclusiveness and ability to explain and integrate many phenomena. It posits a simple, common set of root

7 For a description of the history and organization of Alcoholics Anonymous see Alcoholics Anonymous. The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism, New York: Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed. new and rev. 2001. 8 It is important to note that although AA was founded by Bill Wilson and Bob Smith in 1935, well before the second wave of feminism in the US, AA groups were predominantly male. The popularity of 12-step groups among women soared in the 1980s when the range of various recovery groups was increased. Rapping argues that the appeal of these groups to women was connected with the existence of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s.


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causes […] which, it is assumed, affect all members identically (Rapping


In the case of CR groups the root cause is the fundamental inequality of men and women in a patriarchal society. Rapping argues that in the recovery movement the root cause of the individual’s life problems is phrased in the language of illness; it is one’s “toxic” parent or a childhood trauma that make one prone to “addictions” responsible for the resulting calamities which can only be overturned through the rigid adherence to a 12-step program. Rapping views the development of the recovery movement in the early 1980s as a logical solution to a “post 1960s” world, which had suddenly become confusing and difficult to navigate. The recovery movement, according to Rapping, offered a comforting and supportive environment (61). In this way, a self-help recovery group also resembles a CR group; both create friendly and safe spaces one can belong to and constitute a community based on shared experience. However, the goal of the recovery movement at its best is the rehabilitation of the individual as a productive member of the society, not the change of the factors in the organization of the society which caused the individual’s problem in the first place, revealing the main difference between the two types of groups. Poignantly, in the self-help movement the social causes of individual’s destructive behaviors go completely unnoticed. The personal does become public, that is private lives become public knowledge of everyone in the group, but it does not become political because the language of disease precludes change. For if one’s problems are caused by an incurable disease–and admitting this state is the first step in all types of 12-step programs–the best that can be done is managing the symptoms in a way which enable “the patient” to resume the life she had been leading before the onset of the disease. One can hardly blame people struggling with life threatening behaviors, such as alcoholics, for not wanting to become involved in social change, but, as Rapping’s research shows, in the heyday of the recovery movement, the majority of self-help groups did not deal with alcoholism. Rapping’s experiences as “auditor” of various self-help groups in New York City led her to observe that, although there indeed existed groups which dealt with actual addictions, many of the self-help groups used the addiction model as a springboard to discuss various kinds of non-addiction related behaviors and, sometimes, turned into “gab fests or kaffee klatsches for people to gripe about their private lives and get agreement and support” (118). Such groups were not focused on providing specific solutions and on supporting the members in adhering to a recovery

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regimen, but functioned as outlets for personal stories which could not be told in any other group. Rapping carried out the research for her book in New York City, predominantly among urban professionals. The meetings themselves were scheduled during lunch breaks in the Manhattan-based corporations the members worked in. As she writes, “[m]ost members simply came in, yelled, whimpered, or blankly recited their deepest, most publicly controlled, secret anguish, usually in terms learned in recovery literature and meetings, inflected, subtly, with gender politics and then left” (110). These groups functioned as ersatz communities for the 1980s urban world, offering a safe space to bring up one’s personal problems, without the need for creating closer personal ties with other members of the community. In The Erotics of Talk Kaplan, while putting forward her theory of the search for the ideal listener in feminist writing, notices that one of the reasons for the preoccupation with the implied addressee of confessional literature is the strong cultural prohibition on self-talk, that is, on speaking to oneself, without an addressee. Paraphrasing sociologist Erving Goffman’s ideas presented in Forms of Talk, she writes that “no form of talk is as self-effacing, humiliating, or damaging to one’s social standing as talking to ourselves: displaying our lack of a proper and appropriate interlocutor” (Kaplan 13). Self-talk is either perceived as immature (after all, small children talk to themselves) or dangerous (lunatics and drunks talk to themselves too), therefore, as Kaplan writes, “the compulsion to produce a listener is not only a strong one, but is also motivated by a number of negative associations” (13). Rapping’s description of recovery groups such as CODA suggests that their members are not interested in establishing a community operating outside of the meeting rooms. The primary purpose of the groups thus becomes providing listeners, even if completely passive and uninterested ones–as Rapping notes, many of the attendees never listen to what other speakers have to say, but are engrossed in preparing their own performance. The existence of the listeners confirms the speaker’s maturity and social standing, all the while not requiring the type of emotional commitment an actual personal relationship would require. The group becomes, in fact, an alibi for engaging in narcissistic self-talk. Furthermore, membership in such a community does not require any commitment to activism beyond attending meetings. In fact, the popularization of the self-help movement through the media and books created, as Rapping writes, “a mass social movement held together by a set of ideas and beliefs about social and personal life […] more dependent upon books, TV programs, conferences and seminars–than upon actual


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group or individual activity to determine membership and identity” (136). This creates yet another difference between the functioning of CR groups and self-help groups. Feminist CR groups in the 1960s were supposed to evolve into activist groups, even if this did not always happen. But the point of defamiliarizing gender relations and uncovering a “root cause” of the problems was to mobilize the members to collective action. In terms of chronology, Rapping’s book predates the third wave anthology outbreak and was, or at least can be read as, written during a void in feminist activism; Rapping refers to the feminist movement only in the past as she analyzes the influence it exerted on the popularization of the late 1980s and early 1990s self-help movement which, as she notices, has become the dominant form of women’s organizing. Rapping does not foresee the emergence of the third wave of feminism, although clearly her analysis provides a partial answer to the question of the prevalence of the broadly defined “personal” in third wave feminism. She describes how radical feminism shaped the recovery movement, but what can be implied from the analysis is how the self-help movement of the 1980s shaped the third wave of feminism of the 1990s. It cannot be negated that the young women of the 1990s grew up with the gains of feminism, but they also grew up in the times of the self-help movement which had a similarly significant influence on them. One of the major “symptoms” of the recovery movement’s influence on third wave feminism is the lack of transition from personal experience to either activism or theory in the essays written by third wavers. However, the writers themselves would, without a doubt, refute such accusations. What clearly happens in the third wave is the stretching of the definition of political activism to include personal growth and development. The moments which are dubbed as “political” or “revolutionary” are instances of the realization of one’s oppression and the emergence of the will to change one’s victim status. In several essays in Barbara Findlen’s Listen Up, the discovery of feminism is portrayed as a successful strategy for dealing with a personal problem and for improving one’s self-esteem. Abra Fortune Chernik’s essay “The Body Politic” is an account of her struggle with anorexia, in which “feminist insight” played a crucial role:

Armed with this [feminist] insight, I loosened the grip of the starvation disease on my body. I determined to recreate myself based on an image of a woman warrior. I remembered my ocean, and I took my first bite. Gaining weight and getting my head out of the toilet bowl was the most political act I have ever committed (Chernik in Findlen 108).

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A similar paradigm can be traced in an essay describing a different

author’s struggle for self-acceptance as a fat woman. According to Nomy Lamm, her self-acceptance of her fat body as beautiful is an act of revolutionary significance: “Where’s the revolution? My body is fucking beautiful, and every time I look in the mirror and acknowledge that, I am

contributing to the revolution” (Lamm in Findlen 137). Most of the stories

in Findlen’s anthology are also personal accounts of continuing struggle

for self-acceptance in spite of being labeled as odd, queer or strange, on the basis of race (JeeYeun Lee’s “Beyond Bean Counting”), class (Maria Cristina Rangel’s “Knowledge is Power”), disability (Cheryl Green’s “One Resilient Baby”), sexual activity (Rebecca Walker’s “Lusting for Freedom”), experience of sexual abuse (Emilie Morgan’s “Don’t Call Me a Survivor”). In most of these stories feminism becomes a catalyst which

allows these “outcast” women to increase their self-esteem and, therefore, to function better in life. Their common complaint seems to be the lack of acceptance from society in general and from the communities they grew

up in, which they view as lying at the roots of their problems. Rebecca

Walker ends her section with a plea which could summarize the demands

of most of the other contributors: “We are growing, thinking, inquisitive,

self-posessed beings […]. We deserve to have our self-esteem nurtured and our personal agency encouraged” (Walker in Findlen 24). The most political moments in these accounts are the instances in which the authors decide to change their lives by improving their physical health and mental self-esteem. Sometimes, such changes require alterations in the individual’s behavior (anorectic Chernik stops starving herself), but sometimes only a new perspective is necessary for the individual to change her life (Lamm’s acceptance of her fat body). Feminism is then realized through resisting temptation to accept mainstream society’s ideas about the nature of one’s experiences. In other words, the authors practice feminism by not dieting, not succumbing to the pressure to perceive themselves as ugly–in general, through lifestyle choices.

2.9. The politics of third wave confession

Many of the stories included in Findlen’s Listen Up are structured as recovery narratives, the kinds of stories Elayne Rapping heard recounted during the meetings of various self-help groups she attended. All such stories include elements of confession, the baring of one’s soul. I have discussed how, according to Rita Felski, confession operates as a feminist genre and why she claims it cannot deliver what it promises. As can be implied from the practices of self-help groups, confession is also the basic


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narrative paradigm for the recovery movement. Stories told at meetings follow one of two scenarios. They can be a progressive account of the individual’s pitfalls, mistakes, increasing harm inflicted on others and oneself, a story of falling down to the very bottom and finally “seeing the light,” recognizing one’s addiction and joining a twelve-step group. This type of narrative resembles the “conversion narrative,” which is deeply ingrained in American culture and which has also, albeit with some alterations, been used by the feminist movement in its various stages of development. The original “conversion narrative,” as practiced in seventeenth century Puritan New England, was supposed to prove that the individual was accepted into the divine state of grace and was required for full church membership. Such narratives consisted of specific stages which the “convert” went through on his way to salvation. In the Cambridge Introduction to Early American Literature Emory Elliot calls these steps, as outlined by seventeenth century Puritan minister Thomas Hooker, the “morphology of conversion.” Elliot writes: “The six essential stages of this morphology of conversion were contrition, humiliation, vocation, implantation, exaltation, and possession; and these he subdivided further. He required that a prospective member demonstrate to him and then to the congregation a successful passage through these stages” (Elliot 47). The “Twelve Steps” of Alcoholics Anonymous basically mirror the stages of conversion–the recovering alcoholic is supposed to move from the recognition of his addiction (Step 1 9 ), through contrition for his wrongdoings (Steps 5, 8 and 9), to an awareness of the saving power of “God as we understand him” (Steps 10 and 11) and to “carrying the message” to other alcoholics. Humiliation and Vocation, the stages of Puritan conversion which consisted of misery and despair in the possibility of Salvation have not been included in the twelve steps of AA, but remain an integral part of the recovery process creating a separate sub-genre of the “recovery narrative,” which can be called the “temptation narrative.” In The Culture of Recovery Rapping relates moving accounts of the struggles of recovering alcoholics, their setbacks, their early morning jitters and aborted trips to the liquor store. The forms of third wave feminist confessions, as exemplified in the popular anthologies, draw on the “recovery narratives” of the twelve step programs and, automatically, on the classic “Puritan conversion narrative”–

9 The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous published by Hazeldean Publishing in 1993 provides a detailed account of the Twelve Step program, including elaborate descriptions of each of the steps. A list of the steps can be found on page ix of this publication.

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as the recovery movement is openly based on religious ideas. In fact, the various kinds of feminist confession narratives can be roughly divided into three types of categories. I would propose to call them: “the feminist conversion,” “third wave temptation narrative” and “the coming out story.” These are not neat divisions, the boundaries of each type of narrative are not clear-cut and sometimes overlap, but this framework still provides a basic typology of third wave confessions and enables an analysis of what elements are drawn from which sources of inspiration and of how third wave confession differs from the previous uses of confession in the women’s movement. I would like to take a closer look at several pieces from the anthologies, using examples from Walker’s To Be Real, Findlen’s Listen Up and Berger’s We Don’t Need Another Wave. These collections consist of the highest percentage of pieces which can be called confessional. The “feminist conversion narrative,” a personal story describing how one became a feminist has been widely used by the preceding generations of feminists, though rarely realized in essay form. Most second wave “conversion narratives” were written as chapters in full-length memoirs, or, the complete opposite to this full-length genre–letters to the editors of popular magazines. As Felski notes, in the confession genre, the existence of the addressee is of crucial significance. And some of the chronologically second wave pieces which operate as “conversion narratives” were in fact forms which could not exist without a clearly defined addressee, that is letters–letters to the editor of a popular magazine such as Ms. or responses to the authors of popular feminist books. The title of Betty Friedan’s second book, It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement (1976), is a direct reference to the types of letters she received after the publication of The Feminine Mystique (1963). Friedan included fragments from these letters in the second chapter of It Changed My Life. The letters were highly personal stories recounting how the discovery of Friedan’s book and, concurrently, feminism dramatically altered the authors’ perspectives on a multitude of issues. The authors describe their “pre-feminism” lives which lacked a sense of purpose and no perspectives for a happy future. A 26-year-old mother of three wrote: “Here I am! I feel like an appliance. […] My brain seems dead, and I am nothing but a parasite” (Friedan 21). Then they turn to the dramatic change brought about by the discovery of feminism, “the feminist conversion” and its effects. A woman from Iowa described how The Feminine Mystique finally put into words her own thoughts and feelings and gave her the motivation for self-development: “Thank God someone had the insight and courage to write it. It struck at the center of


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my being. I am finally confident of myself and my desire to launch the career I’ve wanted for so long” (27). A young bride-to-be wrote: “I saw in marriage the opportunity to ‘become a woman’ by completely immersing myself in husband and home. I still want to marry, but now I know I can only give to my marriage what I am as a person. And I know I cannot be a full person if I live exclusively in a ghetto of diapers and dishpans” (27). These feminist conversions, sent in to Friedan, share a lot of the features of the pieces included in third wave anthologies. They are direct and intensely personal. They are written in informal, nonliterary style, they are not meant to be works of art–in fact it can be assumed they were not meant for publication–but authentic revelations of one’s soul, written without the consciousness of how problematic such an attempt may be in theoretical terms. The form of the letter emphasizes the existence of a sympathetic addressee and fosters the atmosphere of intimacy created by the piece. Another feature which is striking in the short section Friedan devotes to these letters is the overwhelming feeling of emotional and physical isolation which the women were experiencing. There are feelings of physical alienation in middle-class suburban homes in towns scattered across the continent: “Some of us are trapped, with no hope of freedom” (26), feelings of alienation from one’s husband “[i]t takes a real woman to sit home every night raising his kids while he’s living it up high, wide and handsome” (24) and, most significantly, isolation from other women: “I renounced all social life and recreation in order to spend time with my children” (23). The achievement which they credit Friedan with is the easing of their alienation through a sense of the commonality of their experience: “I am grateful because you have dispelled some of the loneliness I have felt” (23). It is important to emphasize that the letters included in It Changed My Life document the “feminist conversion” of a specific group of women, Friedan’s target audience of her first book. The women’s assumption of Friedan’s sympathy and friendliness was based on their belief in the commonality of their shared situation. As Felski writes, “feminist confession, by contrast, is less concerned with unique individuality or notions of essential humanity than with delineating the specific problems and experiences which bind women together” (Felski 84). The Feminine Mystique, the book the women were referencing as the turning point in their lives, had been written from the perspetive of a middle-class stay-at- home housewife and mother and the women who sent their letters to Friedan were mostly in the same social and financial situation. Thus, the problems they encountered in their lives as women were also specific to this category of women. It is now common knowledge that Friedan’s

First Person Singular: The Phenomenon of Third Wave Anthologies


positioning of herself as the “typical housewife” was a tactical maneuver aimed at fostering a bond of intimacy with a specific group of women rather than an unproblematic self-identification. 10 The Feminine Mystique has been criticized for its lack of representativeness and focus on middle class white women and it is important to note that there exist examples of feminist confessions written at the same time by women from completely different backgrounds. Yet, the reason why I include the discussion of these letters is because setting them next to third wave confessional pieces reveals the most clearly the evolution of the genre of feminist confession from the second to the third wave of feminism. The third wave versions of feminist conversion, as realized, for example, in Abra Fortune Chernik’s “The Body Politic” (in Findlen), Elena Azzoni’s “Seventh Grade Slut” (in Berger), L.A. Mitchell’s “The Healing Vagina” (in Berger), reveal the influence of “recovery talk” on the structuring of the conversion narrative. Such stories open with the description of a significant problem in the narrator’s personal life; a problem which may stem from a traumatic childhood experience, or from the internalization of society’s expectations and contradictory pop-cultural messages. L.A. Mitchell opens her essay with a description of how her hatred of her body kept her from realizing her full potential in life: “I was, to use a word I now despise, ashamed of my desires. Even more than that, I was terrified of myself” (Mitchell in Berger 107). Chernik describes the effects of anorexia on her psyche: “Curled up inside my thinness, a refugee in a cocoon of hunger, I lost the capacity to care about myself and others” (Chernik in Findlen 103). The story follows with descriptions of how succumbing to the “illness” (which is not always a physical disorder like anorexia) ruined the narrator’s relationship with friends and family and brought down her self-esteem. When the narrator reaches the very bottom, some life-altering force makes her turn around and realize the harm she is doing to herself and others. The turning point may be the direct influence of feminist mentors, “[i]n feminist circles I have found mentors, strong women who live with power, passion and purpose” (Chernik 110), or women’s studies courses in college, “I went off to college and found myself in my first women’s studies class. I don’t even remember choosing it, but within a semester I declared it my major and began attending protests and marches for

10 for example, in Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique Daniel Horowitz documents Friedan’s work in the post-war labor movement and other leftist causes, revealing that The Feminine Mystique was not a naïve heartfelt appeal made by a stay-at-home housewife, but was carefully framed and marketed as such by the pragmatic and politically experienced author and her publishers.


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women’s rights” (Fox in Berger 70). As an aside, I would like to note that the positive role women’s studies courses play in these narratives is unexpectedly significant for a movement which claims to be decidedly anti-academic. Often, this type of conversion actually leads to what in recovery language amounts to the last one of the twelve steps–carrying the message to others. Third wave conversion narratives usually end in one of two possible ways. In the first scenario the narrator discovers feminism which helps her solve certain problems in her life. Once that goal is achieved, the narrative ends with a manifesto for self-acceptance and tolerance of difference. This is the case in Chernik’s “The Body Politic.” The narrator discovers feminism, manages to gain weight and get her head “out of the toilet bowl.” She finishes the account with this appeal: “As young feminists, we must place unconditional acceptance of our bodies as the top of our political agenda” (Chernik in Findlen 110). While Chernik only articulates this plea, L.A. Mitchell sets out to realize it in practice through becoming a gynecological technician and conducting workshops for other women: “Sharing how I feel about my cervix with people is something I now take pride in doing–it’s a passion, if you will. I can often be found in a room with three of four medical students, pointing out my own plush, fleshy bulb” (Mitchell in Berger 107). This element of proselytizing is a structural element of all conversion narratives, from the Puritans to Alcoholics Anonymous. What the third wave takes over from the recovery movement are the institutional forms for “spreading the word.” Rapping notices that practically all therapists within the recovery movement boast of having been “in recovery” themselves. Similarly, the primary motivation for the authors of the anthologized pieces who decided to become activists is the desire to help people who are in the same situation as they once were. Mitchell becomes a gynecological technician, HIV-positive Lisa Tiger (“Woman Who Clears the Way” in Findlen) becomes an AIDS activist and organizes workshops about safe sex; rape survivors volunteer in women’s shelters and incest survivors raise awareness of the sexual abuse of children. Another sub-genre of the confessional narrative which can be identified in third wave anthologies is the “coming out” story. Originally, one of the founding narratives of the LGBT community, the coming out story is a narrative form used by gays and lesbians to relate their experiences of struggling with their sexual identity and, finally, coming to

First Person Singular: The Phenomenon of Third Wave Anthologies


terms with it. 11 The term itself is borrowed, with full consciousness of the irony inherent in this loaning, from the upper-class practice of debutante balls, where young ladies “came out” in society, that is, were presented as eligible for marriage. A typical coming out story, inevitably narrated in first person singular, usually follows a set pattern. It opens with an account of the narrator’s childhood, haunted by his or her sense of some unspeakable difference from other children. This sets the scene for the growing realization of the character of that difference; accounts of the narrator’s internal struggles and then the actual “coming out”–the revelation of his or her sexual identity to friends and family. A coming out story may also include descriptions of the narrator’s rejection by society, family and friends and the accounts of struggles, usually at least partially successful, to be accepted as a homosexual; or the search for a supportive community to replace the friends one lost as a result of coming out. The coming out story, just like other forms of confessional narratives, is written for an implied reader. In this case the reader is a closeted homosexual, who is already past the stage of the realization of his or her sexual identity but has not yet made the decision to reveal it to others. A coming out story is not written solely for the sake of self-discovery but with the aim of enticing the still closeted homosexual persons to come out and openly claim gay/lesbian/transgender identity. The opening of the narrative, the description of childhood problems and alienation, establishes an intimate bond between the author and the reader who has presumably experienced similar issues. Once identification is achieved, it becomes more likely that the reader will treat the following sections of the story,

11 Numerous collections of coming out stories have been published in the past 30 years, although accounts by men predominate. For coming out stories by lesbian and bisexual women see, for example: Joan Larkin, ed.: A Woman Like That:

Lesbian and Bisexual Writers Tell Their Coming Out Stories and Moore, Lisa C. Moore, ed.: Does Your Mama Know? An Anthology of Black Lesbian Coming Out Stories. Interestingly, anthologies of coming out stories began to be published in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Clearly, the popularity of recovery movement and talk- show culture influenced the timing of the emergence of this genre as well. The idea of self-acceptance, propagated by popular therapists, aided the goals of the LGBT movement. However, there also exist numerous “therapeutic” methods and organizations, based closely on the ideas of the 12-step program, for what is termed “coming out of homosexuality.” The most popular organization is Exodus International. In these methods homosexuality is treated like an addiction similar to alcoholism. At least thirty self-help books have been published to date on this topic, most religious, but some also psychological. Examples include: Coming Out Straight: Understanding and Healing Homosexuality by Richard A. Cohen, and Jeff Konrad’s You Don’t Have to Be Gay.


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that is the actual coming out, as a probable scenario for what could happen in his or her own life. Third wave anthologies include many narratives based on the “coming out story” pattern. Some of them are classic coming out stories involving sexual identity, but many replicate the narrative structure of the coming out story, even though they do not pertain solely to sexual identity. In fact, the most popular pattern among the stories is the “coming out as feminist” scenario. In these stories the author struggles with her identification as a feminist, usually because her views on a specific topic do not represent “mainstream” feminist views. Due to these differences, the narrator may feel personally rejected by the feminist movement, may feel she is not “radical enough” to be a feminist, or, in some instances, that she is too radical. Whichever situation is the case, the narrator, often with the help of “good” feminist mentors or friends, comes to understand that she has the power to shape the feminist movement instead of just adapting to it. In the piece “Femmenism” in To Be Real Jeannie DeLombard describes how hard it was for her to reconcile her taste for lipstick and sexy clothing with her feminist convictions. DeLombard, a lesbian who engages in butch-femme relationships as the femme part of the couple, felt that the feminist movement perceived butch-femme relationships as “an antiquated relic” (DeLombard in Walker 25). She conformed by playing down her femininity, wearing “oversized men’s shirts, bulky knee-length Greek fisherman’s sweaters and baggy Indonesian pants” (25) and found herself in a passionless long-term relationship. DeLombard notices that ironically, while second wavers were forced to conform as girls to notions of femininity which they found appalling, she found herself “having to fight for it tooth and nail” (33). Over time she begins to understand that she need not suppress either her feminist convictions or her femme desires and calls herself a “femmenist.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jennifer Reid Maxcy Myhre, whose essay “One Bad Hair Day Too Many, or the Hairstory of an Androgynous Feminist” is included in Findlen’s anthology, is a head- shaving, androgynous, butch woman, who also grew up with feminism. She writes: “Even as a child, I considered myself a feminist, supported the ERA […] and was quick to react to statements from junior-high classmates that women should be barefoot and pregnant” (Reid Maxcy Myhre in Findlen 85). Yet, although her appearance is the complete opposite of DeLombard’s she also found herself ostracized by certain women within the feminist movement: “I am a feminist with whom even other feminists are sometimes uncomfortable: ‘She gives us a bad name’” (88). In spite of the lack of acceptance Reid Maxcy Myhre does not leave

First Person Singular: The Phenomenon of Third Wave Anthologies


the movement or try to conform in her appearance. She shaves her head completely, thus making a fashion statement and posing a challenge to the other women within the movement. Meanwhile, Stephanie Abrams, whose piece “Model Vs. Feminist: Seeing Beyond the Binaries” was included in Berger’s anthology, claims she can be “a model, a feminist, an X, a Y, and a Z-all at once” (Abrams in Berger 286). What all these stories share, in addition to the confessional mode in which they are written, is a scenario in which the narrator, after numerous trials and mishaps, discovers thar she is, and has always been, a feminist– whether she shaves her head, works as a fashion model or is a lipstick lesbian. The coming out narrative does not involve any change in the narrator’s beliefs or behavior, other than the narrator’s growing self- acceptance and increasing articulation of the demand for tolerance and inclusion in the feminist movement. Just like the protagonists in the classic coming out stories, the narrators confront friends, family and other feminists demanding their acceptance as feminists.

2.10. The audience of third wave confession

The question which I have not yet tackled, but which has been in the background throughout the discussion of third wave anthologies is the question of the audience–who are they written for, who buys them and who reads them? Felski writes about the implied reader of the feminist confession as “the sympathetic female confidante,” although she is aware of the constructed character of the writer/reader bond. Second wave anthologies were often composed as platforms for discussion within the movement, although their impact often greatly exceeded that target group and spread into the academia. Meanwhile, third wave anthologies, with the exception of Third Wave Agenda which was published by an academic press, do not target the academic market, but reach out to two different groups at the same time. The first one is young women, mostly college students, who are “on the fence,” who are still undecided if they should call themselves feminists and what such an identification would entail. Narratives such as the “feminist conversion” and, perhaps most importantly, the “feminist coming out story” are meant to encourage young women to take on the feminist label, even if they do not provide a common agenda. The message sent out by these narratives can be paraphrased as “It’s cool to be a feminist and you, too, can be one.” The second target group, implied indirectly through the generational emphasis in the titles of all the anthologies, is the second wave of American feminism. Most of the anthologies use the phrases “Third


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Wave,” “New Generation,” “Young Women,” therefore addressing, in a confrontational way, the tradition of feminism within the United States. The curious exception is the most recent publication We Don’t Need Another Wave, which replicates the generational paradigm while at the same time attempting to fight it. The titles locate the anthologies as manifestoes of the third wave, promising a program for the future, an agenda and situating the “new generation” opposite the “old generation.” This manifesto-like quality has helped the books conquer a location which they did not initially attempt to reach: the academia. Although I have said that the anthologies are not academic publications, they are often taught in the academia, usually in introductory women’s studies courses. Interestingly, Findlen’s book, the most personal of the early anthologies seems to be a favorite choice for Introduction to Women’s Studies classes. 12 I would argue that two forces are responsible for placing this book in the academic classroom. The first one is the often unconscious wish of women’s studies teachers to “reach” their students and convert them to feminism. Assigning books like Findlen’s Listen Up is an attempt to bridge the generational divide between students and feminist teachers through the inclusion of materials which the students feel comfortable with, without the need for analysis. The second reason is that Findlen’s Listen Up is considered a great example of third wave aesthetics in its compilation of the first person singular with a wide variety of narrators, constituting trademark third wave diversity.

2.11. Conclusion

I have described the three narrative practices which have had the greatest impact on third wave anthologies and on the shape of third wave discourse in general–the feminist confession, consciousness-raising and the recovery movement. I have touched upon the major problems connected with each of these legacies. Third wavers have, more or less consciously, tried to use feminist confession and consciousness-raising in a way which would differentiate third wave use of the practices. In fact, it is a major project of the third wave to avoid the paradigms of identification and sameness inherent in both second wave confession and CR. As Lisa Hogeland writes in Feminism and Its Fictions she used to read for “identity,” while her

12 A Google search performed on January 3rd 2007 for the phrases “course syllabus” “listen up” “Findlen” yielded exactly three hundred results. The courses which used Findlen’s book as course material included: Introduction to Women’s Studies, Women in Contemporary Society, Critical Perspectives in Women’s Studies.

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students read for “difference.” The difference is realized in the anthologies through the inclusion of submissions from a variety of contributors representing different races, different class and ethnic backgrounds, different lifestyles and worldviews. Yet, as I have just proved through the analysis of the influence of “recovery talk” on third wave narrative practices, this diversity of contributors does not result in narrative diversity. Almost all of the myriad contributors create pieces which realize one of the two narrative patterns I have described. The diversity of the anthologies is realized mostly on the editorial level. It is the editor (or often co-editors) of the anthology who choose the submissions in a way which incorporates a wide range of contributors. The intensely personal character of the submissions, with a focus on self- acceptance and self-esteem, actually precludes any attention paid to diversity within the essays themselves. Paradoxically, although the paradigm of identification is frowned upon in the broader editorial framework, it is still a very significant paradigm for the contributors, whose main preocuppation is their own lives. The third wave, clearly drawing on poststructuralist theory, places a lot of emphasis on the contingency and intersectionality of various identities, but the only way in which this intersectionality is realized in the individual essays is through the “feminist coming out story,” the type of narrative which says “You can be X (or Y or Z) and feminist at the same time.” However, even in the case of this type of narrative, the single-issue focus of each of the articles is striking, especially as representative of such a multi-issue movement as the third wave is said to be. It seems that of the multitude of issues composing third wave feminism, there are single issues which are of importance for individual women, but no agenda which is actually shared. To be fair, I have to add that there are exceptions to the lack of critical insight in the essays. I have already mentioned that the various third wave anthologies do not engage in a discussion with one another and that, viewed in chronological order, they can be seen as exhibiting “progressive personalization.” Although Findlen’s Listen Up was published in the same year as Walker’s To Be Real, the two anthologies are very different in character. Listen Up consists exclusively of personal confessions, while Walker’s anthology shows that attention was paid to the diversity of genres, not just the diversity of contributors. In fact, one of the pieces, “Missionary Position” by Gina Dent, can be viewed as an early (1995) warning against the prevalence of confessional narratives in third wave feminism. Dent’s article deals with her own experience of posing a theoretical question concerning the personal confession told by the participant of an academic conference on women’s issues. The woman


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recounted her story of sexual abuse leading to prostitution, which only ended with her “feminist conversion.” Dent’s theoretical question regarding this personal story was met with hostility and the woman who had made the confession left the room in tears. Dent tries to theorize her experience arguing that feminist confession, even when performed in a public context such as an academic conference, creates expectations of “sacredness” and “intimacy.” A confession is to be honored and respected as such, not used as the basis for discussion or theorizing. Dent respects that argument as relating to speech acts performed in private settings, but questions its validity for public situations, such as an academic conference. In her view, the increasing “confessionalization” of feminist discourse will lead to the stifling of debate on various important topics. As Dent’s essay shows, the practice of confession is not used within the feminist community to stimulate intellectual debate or create a public forum for the exchange of ideas. On the contrary, the underlying assumption of those who choose to confess is that their stories will be treated with the same kind of sensitivity reserved for approaching a loved one’s account of personal problems. As I have mentioned, Kaplan makes a similar argument in The Erotics of Talk regarding the failure of consciousness-raising: “[w]here consciousness-raising suffered, ultimately, from the one-sidedness of its own communicative norms, from its mandate to create only an erotics of talk at the expense of the contestation that might realize such utopian ‘ideal speech situations’” (Kaplan 161). Unfortunately, it seems that may of the third wave anthologies do not encourage dissent and discussion, through the (ab)use of personal confession. Instead, what they do encourage, as explicitly worded by Rebecca Walker in the introduction to To Be Real, is empathy. Empathy is a concept which is meant to replace the now problematic category of identifiction. Yet, empathy is often defined as the ability to put oneself in another’s position, the ability to feel what someone else is feeling. Thus, the concept is in fact very close to the one which it tries to replace. Kaplan argues that “[t]he mandate to support one another will produce illusory recognitions that cannot help but disappoint. It will not generate ‘concrete others’ about and from whom we need to learn, but ‘generalized others’ we can imagine we already understand” (156). I have already noted that the reason for the popularity of third wave anthologies, and the reason why they are put together in a certain way, is that the genre seems to lend itself best to the goals of the movement or correcting the mistakes of second wave feminism, that is, promoting diversity, providing “equal footing” to representatives of various groups

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and moving away from the paradigm of identification. However, my analysis proves that the possibilities offered by this genre are either illusory or have not been used to the fullest advantage. In fact, I will argue in the next chapter that full-length ficion or fictionalized autobiographies have turned out to be more successful in realizing the tenets of third wave feminism than the short essays collected in the anthologies.




3.0. Introduction

This chapter focuses on some aspects of what I call “third wave subjectivity,” stemming from a framework of shared experience, resulting in a mindset or sensibility present in the work of third wave writers and contributing to what I have described in the first chapter as third wave aesthetics. The “shared experience” factor, obviously a necessary element for the formation of any kind of group identity, is not as easily discernible for third wave writers as it was for the preceding generation. For second wave writers the shared experience was that of living in a patriarchal society and, more importantly, the awareness of the existence of the oppression of women, the existence of women as a political category and of the political dimension of personal experience or, as Jane O’Reilly succinctly phrased it in the first issue of Ms. Magazine in 1972–“the click.” The feminist click was a moment when the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fell into their places and made the “big picture” visible, a change of perspective which permanently influenced the views of the subject, altered (or “raised”) her consciousness and gave her the impetus to embark on a new aesthetic project as a writer.


Chapter Three

There usually are no such clicks for third wave writers. 1 There is no sudden transition, no epiphany or feminist conversion, but rather a process of “becoming,” or sometimes simply “being.” In this chapter I would like to focus on this very process, arguing that although specific experiences leading to the development of third wave consciousness vary greatly and it is, to use David Halperin’s description of queer identity, “an identity without an essence” (Halperin 62), elements of different experiences overlap, weaving themselves into a nonuniform and amorphous, yet politically potent subjectivity.

3.1. Third world influence on third wave subjectivity

Third wave feminism and its critiques of the second wave of American feminism have been shaped by the discourse of Third World Feminism. 2

1 The concept of the click has been reworked by some third wavers, see: Kim Allen, “The Feminist ‘Click.’” The Third WWWave. Online publication retrieved 20 June 2006 from: http://www.3rdwwwave.com/display_article.cgi ?138. Allen argues that because third wavers have grown up with feminisn, they did not need to have their consciousness raised about its existence. The moment of the ‘click’ or ‘clicks’ is, according to Allen, the realization that feminism pertains to them and that they, too, can influence the shape of feminism, not just accept it as an unchanging set of attitudes. 2 The first critiques of the second wave of American feminism which did not constitute reactionary backlash but proposed changes within the movement without altering the basic demand for eradicating the oppression of women came from groups who felt their presence and issues of importance to them were missing from the agenda of the women’s movement. These included African American women and lesbians. The key texts of the 1980s included: Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks are Men, But some of Us Brave: Black Women’s Studies. New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1982; Audre Lorde. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984. The 1980s also marked the emergence of the terms Third World Feminism and US Third World Feminism. Third World Feminists criticize Western feminism on the grounds that it does not take into account the experiences of women living in Third World countries and the existence of feminism in those countries. US Third World feminists are feminists living in the United States, but either born outside of the US or second generation immigrants, coming from immigrant families. Third World Feminists and US Third World feminists strongly advocate coalition building among minority feminists based on “common differences.” Third World Feminism has overlaps with postcolonial feminism. The key texts include: Chandra Mohanty, Ann Russo, Lourdes Torres, eds. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991; Cherrie

Passing and the Fictions of Third Wave Subjectivity


Therefore, it is not surprising that the “end-result” of third wave subjectivity has been described most aptly by Chicana/Hispanic theorists, writing not about the third wave of American feminism, but about US Third World Feminism generally, or Chicana feminism specifically. Yet, the hybrid identity which, for example, Gloria Anzaldua writes about in Borderlands is not, as she herself admits, the exclusive property of Chicanas:

the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.” (Anzaldua Preface, unpaginated)

The marginal and minority status of the “New Mestiza,” Anzaldua’s term for an individual aware of her conflicting and meshing identities and using them for transgressing binary categories of identity, creates a constant need for negotiating one’s relationship with multiple cultures and the need to ceaselessly reconsider one’s own identity. This ongoing process of identity formation is a source of power and pleasure, of exhilaration and, at the same time, of discomfort:

[L]iving on borders and in margins, keeping intact one’s shifting and multiple identity and integrity, is like trying to swim in a new element, an “alien” element. There is an exhilaration in being a participant in the further evolution of humankind, in being “worked” on. I have the sense that certain “faculties”–not just in me but in every border resident, colored or non-colored and dormant areas of consciousness are being activated, awakened. Strange, huh? And yes, the “alien” element has become familiar–never comfortable, not with society’s clamor to uphold the old, to rejoin the flock, to go with the herd. No, not comfortable but home (Preface, unpaginated)

Arguably, the metaphor of “trying to swim in a new element,” the state of not fitting in and the process of developing “certain ‘faculties’” rings true for third wave identity in general, not just for Chicana identity. Third wave writers of fiction have taken over the concept of subjectivity from US Third World feminists and have applied it to subjects who are not necessarily “third world.” Yet, this process is not a hostile appropriation, a colonizer’s tactical maneuver aimed at decreasing the power of the


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struggle of the colonized, but a gesture which recognizes this model of subjectivity as necessary for the development of political agency for third wave US feminists. To prove my point I have chosen works by three writers, coming from different backgrounds, though none of them “third world,” using different aesthetic styles and focusing on different primary issues in their fiction. I will be analyzing a novel by Danzy Senna, a writer born in 1970 in Boston of an African-Mexican father and an Irish mother; a memoir by Rebecca Walker, also a mixed-race writer and well-known feminist activist; and a novel written by a precursor of third wave aesthetic sensibility, more established writer Dorothy Allison. 3 I will also be using some stories from Allison’s partly autobiographical short story collection Trash. All these texts, although very different from each other, exhibit stages of what can be called the process of the formation of third wave subjectivity. Terminology created by Chela Sandoval in her book Methodology of the Oppressed and in her earlier essays will aid in discussing these stages as clearly as possible. The “methodology” described by Sandoval is a set of skills developed by colonized citizen-subjects enabling them to survive in the colonizing culture, and also to ultimately change it using, or rather abusing, the very tools provided by that culture. According to Sandoval, women of color have long been able to read situations of power and shift their identity accordingly as tactics for negotiating hegemonic structures of meaning and power (Sandoval 2000 69-71). These skills include:

the ability to self consciously navigate modes of dominant consciousness, learning to interrupt the “turnstile” that alternately reveals history, as against the dominant forms of masquerade that history can take, “focusing on each separately,” applying a “formal method of reading,” cynically but

3 I am aware that the inclusion of works by Dorothy Allison in a discussion of third wave fiction and memoir is problematic, because Allison’s date of birth (1949) would locate her within the second wave of feminism. Yet, I think she is more “third wave” both with regards to the chronology of her publications, the themes she focuses on and the aesthetics of her work. Allison’s first collection of short stories was published in 1988 and her first novel (Bastard Out of Carolina) in 1992, long after the second wavers had made their literary debuts. Her characters struggle with navigating their many intersecting identities–working class, lesbian, S/M, feminist. Her pieces have been anthologized in third wave volumes, for example, in Zahava’s Feminism 3 and Michelle Tea’s Without A Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class. Arguably, if not generationally part of third wave feminism, Allison has most certainly been an important influence for younger writers.

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also un-cynically, and not only with the hope of surviving, but with a desire to create a better world. (104).

Sandoval’s work includes a detailed analysis of works by Frantz Fanon and Roland Barthes whose “1957 Mythologies represents one of the first attempts to encode in Western academic, technical, and ‘scientific’ language […] ‘the methodology of the oppressed’” (81). In this passage Sandoval is summarizing her preceding discussion of Roland Barthes’s essay “Myth Today,” and the language she uses is borrowed from Barthes’s analysis of how ideology functions using the example of a cover of a Paris Match magazine from 1956, featuring a black boy wearing the uniform of the French colonial empire and saluting. According to Barthes, the dominant mode of consciousness is internalized by citizen-subjects (or the subjects of ideology) through the taking in of form and meaning together. A technique which enacts the methodology of the oppressed is the taking apart of form and meaning– “focusing on each separately.” This “formal method of reading,” which is an attempt at deciphering how ideology is created, interrupts the formation of ideology and goes against its own dynamics, because ideology is meant to be transparent; meant to be consumed and not analyzed. According to Barthes, the act of deconstructing ideology can be performed either cynically or un-cynically. Although the cynical mode of analysis deconstructs ideology, it does so not “with a desire to create a better world,” but selfishly, in an attempt to take advantage of the ideology for personal reasons, strengthening it at the same time. As Sandoval writes, “this cynical mode of focusing perception is that of the advertiser, that self-conscious producer of ideologies” (100). The advertiser is interested only in selling his product. Meanwhile, the practitioner of the methodology of the oppressed deconstructs ideology in order to change the world, in order to interrupt the turnstile of history. The Wonderbra ad with Eva Herzigova, analyzed in the Introduction as an example of postfeminist discourse, utilizes this cynical mode to expose sexism, but without aiming to change the assumed status quo. Postfeminism, in general, could be described as a cynical discourse. Sandoval also describes the specific techniques used by “uncynical deconstructors” to achieve their goal of making the world a better place through enacting the methodology of the oppressed. The methodology relies on the use of five different “technologies” or techniques of “inner psychic resistance” and “outer social praxis” which Sandoval also takes over from Barthes. By “inner social resistance” Sandoval understands strategies which allow a subject to recognize and resist ideology on a


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personal level, while “outer social praxis” is the putting to use of these strategies in the society. The first one of these “inner” strategies is “semiotics” or “sign- reading” (1), or the observant deciphering of cultural figuration. By this Sandoval understands the perception of signs not as transparent pretty pictures, but as standing in for something else. Just like Saussurian linguistics, Sandoval emphasizes the arbitrary relationship of the signifier and the signified, but is aware of another level above the sign itself, that of ideology. Sandoval also equates “semiology” with Anzaldua’s concept of “la facultad” and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “signifin’”(81). Anzaldua’s “la facultad” is a certain sensitivity developed by those who are “cast out” by their “tribe,” who are outsiders–“the capacity to see in the surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface” (Anzaldua 38). The second technology of the methodology of the oppressed is deconstruction, or, in Barthesian terms, “mythology” (Sandoval 82), that is the revealing of elements which create the transparent appearance of the sign as ideology. Deconstruction is the next step after the recognition that signs are ideological; this step not only recognizes ideology, but also reveals how it is created, thereby challenging dominant ideological forms. The third technology and the first “outer one,” that is a technology necessary for “purposeful interventions in social reality” as opposed to simply changing one’s consciousness, is “meta-ideologizing,” or the appropriation of ideological forms in order to rework and re-use them in a revolutionary fashion. I claim that this technology is of primary importance for third wave feminism in general and also for third wave fiction. Sandoval quotes Barthes’s description of “meta-ideologizing” as the “ideologization of ideology itself,” the addition of a third level two-tiered relationship of the sign and ideology. “Meta-ideologizing” challenges dominant ideology not through speaking outside of it, but by speaking within it, in a way which subverts it. 4 Sandoval writes: “This self-conscious

4 Sandoval’s (and Barthes’s) description of how meta-ideologizing holds revolutionary power through the subversion of ideology in its self-conscious enactment recalls Judith Butler’s ideas described in Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter. Butler locates revolutionary potential in subversive re-enactments of gender; repetitions which through their self-consciousness emphasize the performative character of gender, that is the idea that the re-enactment itself constitutes gender. Interestingly, Sandoval only briefly refers to Butler although she must have been aware of her concepts, especially as most of Methodology of

Passing and the Fictions of Third Wave Subjectivity


production of another level of signification parasitically based on the level of dominant ideology serves to display the original dominant ideology as naïve–and no longer natural” (Sandoval 108). “Meta-ideologizing” is a trademark strategy of third wave activism; some well known examples of the application of this technology include the appropriation of the color pink or the word “girl”–phenomena described in Chapters I and IV. At this point it will be useful to analyze them from a different perspective, that is, to trace how the development of concepts like “girlies” fits Sandoval’s paradigm of technologies for enacting the methodology of the oppressed. The stage of “sign-reading” can be equated with the recognition that the word “girl” is used not only as a descriptive term for females under 18, but also as a derogatory term coding women’s subservient position and dependence. The second step, that of “mythologizing,” is the (second-wave feminist) analysis of the history and roots of the use of the word “girl” to humiliate and objectify women. Meanwhile, the third wave appropriation of the word “girl” in slogans such as “girl power” and “girls rule” and its re-working in terms such as “girlie”and “grrrl” are examples of meta-ideologizing at work. Meta-ideologizing is also a prominent strategy of third wave literature and paves the road for the activation of the remaining two outer technologies:

“democratics” and “differential movement.” Democratics consists of using the first three techniques not just for survival, but for active change; “with the intent of bringing about […] egalitarian social relations” (82). The last technology is “differential movement,” which can be understood as conscious and informed organized oppositional activity. According to Sandoval, “differential movement is a polyform on which the previous technologies depend for their own operation.” (82) Of course, Sandoval is not the first scholar to theorize how the colonized resist dominant discourse. 5 However, Sandoval proposes a

the Oppressed (with the exception of Chapter II, first published in 1991) must have been written after the publication of Gender Trouble. 5 Sandoval herself is greatly indebted to the theorists who published before her. In fact, her book is often more of a summary of Frantz Fanon, Roland Barthes and others than a presentation of her own ideas. Her analysis of the roots of the methodology of the oppressed goes back to Hegel’s recognition of the insights available to the slave and not to the master. She re-reads Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Roland Barthes’s Mythologies through a Third World Feminist lense. She is also inspired by Gloria Anzaldua’s writings. In fact, Anzaldua’s concept of “la facultad,” developed in Borderlands/La Frontera is equated with oppositional consciousness. Personally, Sandoval used to be a student of Gloria Anzaldua’s at the University of California, Santa Cruz.


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highly comprehensive, precise and meticulous method, suited for tracing the subtle changes in feminist fiction. Furthermore, as it is relatively recent, it incorporates and opens a dialogue with many ideas of theorists who came before her–mostly Barthes, Fanon, but also Said. I propose that the third wave narratives listed (and not only these) use the first three of the technologies described by Sandoval, with a special emphasis on “meta- ideologizing,” in a way which enables the coming into existence of “democratics” and “differential movement.” In other words, although these works may not, at first glance, seem to be as engaged in a political project as novels by second wave writers, they in fact lead to the development of third wave subjectivity in the reader, which, in turn, paves the way for the development of “differential movement.” It will be especially fruitful to trace how technologies one (“sign-reading”) and three (“meta-ideologizing”) are developed in these texts and how one specific ideological activity or narrative, the activity of passing, is used to deconstruct the notions of race and class. It will become evident that in third wave narratives the “traditional” notion of passing is transformed from an activity which, although unarguably transgressive in itself, ultimately leads to stabilizing racial hierarchy, into an activity with revolutionary power. “Traditional” passing narratives enacted the first two of Sandoval’s technologies, that is sign-reading and deconstruction, while the third wave passing narrative moves on to “meta-ideologizing,” the next step on the road to creating a better and more egalitarian society through “democratics.”

3.2. Passing

The term passing has significance for both American social and literary history and is rooted in slavery and the oppression of African Americans. The historical practice of passing grew out of the so-called one-drop-rule, which categorized all persons with even the slightest percentage of African ancestry as black and, therefore, devoid of privileges accessible to whites, including freedom itself. 6 Setting up life in a different location under a

6 For more on the origins of the one-drop-rule see James F. Davis. Who is Black?:

One Nation’s Definition. The one-drop rule was developed in antebellum south in the United States and first written down in the first decade of the 20 th century. According to this rule, a person with even a tiny percentage of African ancestry was considered legally black with all the resulting consequences. The rule was developed to minimize the consequences of miscegenation between white slaveowners and black female slaves (as the resulting offspring would not be entitled to privileges connected to being related to the white master) and to assure a

Passing and the Fictions of Third Wave Subjectivity


new white identity allowed many light-skinned people of African descent an escape from slavery or, later, from other forms of institutionalized racism. Obviously, the act of passing brought about freedom at a huge expense and great risk. As Elaine Ginsberg writes in the introduction to the anthology Passing and the Fictions of Identity: “such an individual crossed or passed through a racial line or boundary–indeed trespassed–to assume a new identity, escaping the subordination and oppression accompanying one identity and accessing the privileges and status of the other” (Ginsberg 3). The risk of being discovered as someone assuming a false identity was an everpresent threat, greatest in the pre-civil war times under the fugitive slave law. However, the practice of passing did not end with the abolition of slavery, but persisted well into the 20 th century, albeit altering its forms. The anthology edited by Ginsberg analyzes instances of not only racial but also gendered passing–stories of women passing as men, for myriad reasons, one of them being the possibility of accessing occupations and activities unavailable to women, as in the story of Loreta Velazquez, who cross-dressed as a man in order to take part in the civil war as a soldier, Lt. Harry Buford (Young 181-217). Ginsberg’s definition of passing emphasizes the “fraudulent” assumption of privilege by the person who was passing. With this definition in mind, the phenomenon of passing after the abolition of slavery reveals the persistence of racial discrimination and the existence of gender-based discrimination. However, there also exist documented cases of reverse passing; passing which involves the relinquishing of privilege, as in the cases of passing for black or passing for female. The term itself still functions in

steady supply of slaves for work on the plantations. It was later used in the post Civil War south to ensure segregation, often resulting in situations when a phenotypically Caucasian person was classified as black via the one-drop rule. Davis analyzes the various ways of dealing with miscegenation in other countries and proves that the one-drop rule was specific to the United States. George M. Frederickson writes in The Black Image in the White Mind: “[R]aising the social status of those who labored at the bottom of society and who were defined as abysmally inferior was a matter of serious concern. It was resolved by insuring that the mulatto would not occupy a position midway between white and black. Any black blood classified a person as black; and to be black was to be a slave… By prohibiting interracial marriage, winking at interracial sex, and defining all mixed offspring as black, white society found the ideal answer to its labor needs, its extracurricular and inadmissible sexual desires, its compulsion to maintain its culture purebred, and the problem of maintaining, at least in theory, absolute social control” (277).


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the transgender community to describe instances when pre-operational male to female transsexuals manage to function as women in everyday casual situations. 7 A famous case of white to black passing involved the journalist John Howard Griffin, who chemically altered his appearance and travelled in the still segregated south, in the 1950s, as an African American. Griffin described his story of passing in the book Black Like Me, the publication of which brought about an outrage in Griffin’s Texas community and forced him to relocate elsewhere. Griffin’s story shows how the relinquishing of privilege 8 can also bring about serious consequences for the “traitor,” the one who willfully gives up his superior position. A brief summary of the conceptual framework of the “classic passing novel” is needed in order to show how third wave feminist writers have transformed the concept of passing and why it is a crucial concept for third wave identity. One of the earliest passing novels is William Wells Brown’s Clotel, published in 1853. The main heroine, who is the slave daughter of Thomas Jefferson, escapes to the North, passes for white, returns to the South to rescue her own daughter from slavery and dies a tragic death during this attempt. The novel, although not coherent stylistically, already exhibits some features of the post-Civil War passing

7 See, for example, Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us.

8 It should be mentioned that the assessment whether a white person passing for black relinquishes privilege or actually takes advantage of the privilege he possesses remains problematic, especially bearing in mind the history and significance of blackface performance in America. Minstrel shows with white actors dressed up as “darkies” were a popular form of entertainment in America since the first half of the 19 th century. Minstrel shows presented blacks as ignorant, lazy and child-like. Susan Gubar presents a detailed analysis of the role of blackface in American culture in her book Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture. One of the main arguments of Gubar’s book is that blackface minstrel performances served to justify the oppression of blacks (by presenting them as foolish and infantile) while at the same time forming a unified American identity in the audience of the minstrel shows, an identity formed on the basis of the racial white/black dichotomy. In Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class Eric Lott notices the class aspect of minstrel shows, which were a form of entertainment prepared by poor whites for other poor whites. Lott argues that blackface performances in the north in the years before the Civil War reflected the racial conflicts experienced by the white working class and their fears connected with the changing economy. Lott argues that blackface performances helped unite the white working class with their superiors in their fight against the common enemy–the negro.

Passing and the Fictions of Third Wave Subjectivity


novel boom. The main hero is the product of the relationship of a white master and a black slave woman, a union which most definitely was not a consensual one. The act of passing uproots her geographically and breaks the ties with her closest family–in this case, the daughter. Although successful in her new life, the protagonist is tormented by guilt for having forsaken her family. Structurally, the tragic ending seems to serve as punishment for crossing over “the color line,” for being a traitor to one’s race. Later passing novels–including James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life (1933), Jesse Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun (1933)–play out a similar script, with some variations. In each novel the main character successfully passes for white, but feels guilt for willfully cutting himself or herself off from racial heritage. Analyzing these novels in detail goes beyond the scope of this chapter, but what is pertinent to my topic is that while necessarily emphasizing the constructivist approach to race (because literature that deals with “borderline” cases, by nature reveals how artificially boundaries are established), the novels seem to present, in spite of Plum Bun’s subtitle A Novel Without a Moral, a very essentialist moral. All of the protagonists suffer for “betraying the race.” Furthermore, the narratives emphasize some deep essence of blackness which forces passing characters into constant vigilance, stemming from the possibility of being recognized for who they “really” are. They also possess the mysterious ability of spotting others who are passing. Blackness, the identity which is renounced, is portrayed as the “authentic” one, while whiteness is the opportunistic, fake identity. The one exception to the script, and a sign of changes to come, is Nella Larsen’s Passing. The novel is usually read through its ambiguous ending, which seemingly conforms to the passing genre. In the ending the main passing character, Clare Kendry, either falls or is thrown out of a window by her friend Irene Redfield, also light skinned but identifying as black. Regardless of the interpretation of the ending, the plot still seems to conform to the scenario of the “tragic mulatto,” 9 punished for her racial

9 The “tragic mulatto” or “tragic mulatta” was a stock character in 19 th century American fiction, to some extent also in 20 th century fiction and movies. “Tragic mulattoes” are presented as liminal figures, forced to make a choice between living in the white or the black world. The choice, regardless of which one it is, is never the right one and leads to the character’s tragic demise. Some early detailed analyses of “tragic mulattoes” are presented in Sterling Brown’s Negro Poetry and Drama (1969) and Donald Bogle’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks (1973). Sterling Brown writes that: “White writers insist upon the mulatto’s


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transgression. Martha Cutter observes, in her essay “Sliding Significations:

Passing as a Narrative and Textual Strategy in Nella Larsen’s Fiction,” that Clare Kendry’s passing is different from that of characters in “classic” passing narratives, because she does not pass into the white world permanently, but keeps returning into the black one, changing the basic principle of the passing narrative–that once you pass, there is no going back. Clare Kendry is a character who cannot be pinned down and dissected, because she is always on the move. Cutter writes:

Larsen raises “passing” to a subversive narrative strategy and to an artful

method for keeping open the play of textual meaning. [

signs that is the novel Passing, Clare functions as a signifier whose meaning cannot be stabilized, fixed, confined, limited; and “passing” becomes the ultimate mechanism for creating a text that refuses to be contained, consumed or reduced to a unitary meaning (Cutter 76).

] In the galaxy of

In fact, according to Cutter, it is the attempt to secure a single identity through passing that causes Larsen’s other characters (most notably Helga Crane from Quicksand) to become entrapped within social definitions. It is this uniform identity, requiring a constant performance, which constrains the character. Passing as a subversive and dynamic narrative strategy becomes an attempt to free a text from the limitations imposed on it by the race-obsessed American culture; yet it is possible only within the very same culture. In third wave fiction the motif of passing occurs often, and it has been reworked in a way which does not force the protagonists to conform to an “authentic” identity, as in the classic passing narratives. Rather, it shows how the constant shifting of intersecting identities allows protagonists to grow and develop a “third wave consciousness.” Ginsberg writes that “[p]assing is a tactic that allows an individual creative subjectivity” (11) and indeed for generations passing, or even the possibility of passing, has been at the root of the creative impulse of writers of passing novels, usually light-skinned African Americans themselves, who could have passed for white if they had only wanted to. Instead, their “novels with a moral” allowed them to indulge in their fantasies without actually

unhappiness for other reasons. To them he is the anguished victim of a divided inheritance. Mathematically they work it out that his black strivings and his self- control come from his white blood, and his emotional urgings, indolence and potential savagery come from his negro blood” (145). More recently, critics have examined how the figure of the “tragic mulatto” was a necessary component for the construction of national identity in a nation facing westward expansion (for example, Eva Allegra Raimon, The Tragic Mulatta Revisited, 2004).

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“committing the deed” they so despised, and which, at the same time, mesmerized them. For third wave feminist writers, living in a multi-ethnic postmodern society, passing, sometimes willful and sometimes accidental, is a reality of everyday life. Writing about passing as a reflection of processes they experience themselves, and not as an elaborate forbidden fantasy, has helped them in transforming the discourse of passing.

3.3. Rebecca Walker’s shifting identities

Rebecca Walker’s Black, White and Jewish is an important work not just by virtue of the memoir’s aesthetic value, but as the first full-length piece of writing by one of the most important leaders of third wave feminism. Walker’s heritage–she is the daughter of renowned African American writer Alice Walker and the Jewish civil rights activist Mel Leventhal–and history of activism–she is one of the founders of the Third Wave Foundation and editor of To Be Real, one of the key anthologies of third wave writing–create expectations that are not easy to fulfill. The memoir has been criticized by Jewish reviewers–angry with the one-sided representation of Jewish life–and by the LGBT community, as downplaying Walker’s bisexuality. 10 The book’s value lies in its representative character–in a way, it is the ultimate third wave book. It is a memoir written by a feminist activist self-identifying as third wave, a writer whose heritage, understood as the history of her parents’ political activism, places her firmly within the framework of feminist generations. Her mixed racial heritage is yet another characteristic feature of the diversity of the third wave as a movement which, together with her childhood experiences of constant relocation and change, sets the scene for the instances of passing which I would like to examine. Black, White and Jewish is a Bildungsroman, set between Walker’s early childhood and her graduation from high school. The crucial event in young Walker’s life is the breakup of her parents’ marriage, their subsequent geographical relocations and the shared custody arrangement they reach regarding Rebecca. Walker’s mother moves to the West Coast where she pursues an artsy writer’s lifestyle in San Francisco, while her ex-husband starts a new family, whose upward social mobility leads him from Washington D.C. to Larchmont, an upper-class suburb of New York

10 See, for example, Julius Lester’s review of Black, White and Jewish: Memoir of a Shifting Self in Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Fall 2003, 22.1: 136 and Austin Bunn’s “Walker, in Her Own Shoes.” Advocate, 27 Feb 2001, Issue 832: 65-66.


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City. Their childcare arrangement consists of shuffling Rebecca across the continent every year or two to live with a different parent. And it is this shuffling, sliding, shifting that the memoir describes. The focus, admittedly, is surprising for a memoir of a feminist activist. If memoirs of second wavers deal with the childhood and youth of the author–not all of them do, many are accounts of the author’s activism in the women’s movement 11 –they focus on the experiences which formed the author as a feminist, instances of discrimination, patriarchal family arrangements or the lack thereof, the moment of “the feminist click.” For example, Saturday’s Child, a memoir by well-known radical feminist Robin Morgan, editor of one of the most influential anthologies of writings from the women’s liberation movement Sisterhood is Powerful, was published in 2000, long after the peak of the author’s political activism. In the memoir Morgan describes the influence of her status as a child radio and television star–she hosted The Little Robin Morgan Show and played Dagmar in the popular television show Mama–as a formative experience for her feminism. Such memoirs by “veteran feminists” 12 often mirror the structure of the “consciousness-raising novel.” Most memoirs written by second wavers also resemble the structure of the shorter essays collected in third wave anthologies analyzed in the previous chapter, or rather, the shorter and later pieces mirror the longer and earlier ones. Interestingly, many of the most popular consciousness-raising novels of the early 1970s are highly autobiographical, but are still structured, sold and classified as fiction. Clearly, Walker’s memoir does not fit the second wave paradigm. The preponderance and significance of autobiography for third wave aesthetics has already been discused in the previous chapter, but it should be noted that another representative feature of the third wave memoir is its lack of focus on politics, or what may be viewed as lack of a visible “consciousness-raising” elements in the structure of the work. There are no “feminist clicks,” no activism, no organized women’s movement. The structure of the consciousness-raising novel, culminating with the

11 For example, In Our Time by feminist activist and theorist Susan Brownmiller, Tales of the Lavender Menace by Karla Jay or accounts from the monumental Feminist Memoir Project edited by Snitow and DuPlessis. 12 I use this phrase in quotation markes to refer to well-known second wave activists. However, I have not coined the phrase itself. Since the late 1990s there exists an organization called Veteran Feminists of America, which honors second wave activists and publishes historical accounts of second wave feminism. Robin Morgan is a member of this organization. The organization can be reached at the web address: <http://www.vfa.us>

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protagonist’s realization of the political character of her personal experience, is hard to spot in third wave memoirs. The events are not arranged into a narrative with an overt political purpose, that of “converting” the reader to feminism. Walker’s Black, White and Jewish is not explicitly preoccupied with politics, feminist or otherwise. Some of the young writers whom I classify as “third wave” are not political activists and feminist theorists. In their case, the absence of feminism as a movement is understandable, because feminism as an organized movement is not a part of their lives. However, it is extremely striking in the case of Rebecca Walker, one of the more well-known activists. Not only is this not a memoir of feminist activism, but the word feminism is not used throughout the book. Without additional background information, it would be impossible to guess that Rebecca Walker is one of the key figures in the third wave of feminism in the United States. Also surprisingly, Rebecca Walker puts very little emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship in terms of the interactions between two generations of feminists. Walker’s mother Alice is present in the book as a mother, not as a mentor or intellectual inspiration. She is slightly negligent and extremely busy–she pays someone to go clothes shopping with Rebecca and to attend the parent-teacher meetings at her school. Yet, the book does not turn into a tirade about Alice Walker as the absentee mother, guilty of her daughter’s traumatic childhood. Alice Walker is just absent, at least most of the time. Yet, the mother-daughter relationship is an important motif for third wave feminism; understood both literally and as the relationship between the various generations of feminists. In Walker’s case, these two levels could be combined, because her mother actually was a feminist writer and thinker. Yet, the memoir does not discuss this. This complete absence of issues which Walker is involved in in her adult life is poignant. This is not a story structured to entice the reader to make the connections between the personal story being narrated and the political situation of women as a group. Strangely, although it is, as previously claimed, the most representative third wave memoir, it is not meant to be representative at all, but an individual account of one individual’s twisted life. As Lisa Hogeland generalized the reading strategies of her own generation and that of her students in Feminism and Its Fictions, she read for “identity,” while the next generation reads for “difference.” And Walker’s memoir does not encourage reader identification. What makes it typical of the generation is the shared experiences of diverse forms of “twistedness” in the lives of third wavers. And, in that way, Walker’s book sketches the framework of third wave feminist sensibility. In fact, although Walker does not present a feminist


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analysis of her life, some of the issues which Walker faces in her memoir

are those which formed third wavers as a generation. These include political events, such as the Reagan presidency, though these are definitely

in the background, and, more prominently, pop-cultural fads and fashions

as well as personal experiences shared by numerous third wavers. Experiencing the breakup of their parents’ marriage is a formative experience shared by many third wavers; in Walker’s case the significance of the event was increased by her parents’ different ethnicities and the nomadic lifestyle the event forced Walker to adopt. Furthermore, if we go back to the steps for enacting Chela Sandoval’s

methodology of the oppressed, as described in the opening of this chapter, our perspective on Walker’s biography and the memoir itself may change.

I would like to argue that the memoir describes the development of

technologies one (sign-reading) and two (deconstruction or Barthesian mythology) and leads up to three (meta-ideologizing), which paves the way for technologies three and four, that is conscious and organized oppositional activity. In a way, the memoir describes the “education” of a future activist. And where it stops, activism begins. The geographical shifts Walker maps throughout her childhood and adolescence reflect the shifts in racial identity which she must cope with. Although she describes herself as “a movement child,” the result of love and a common struggle rather than of violence and rape which characterized the heritage of the “tragic mulatta,” she still cannot help being torn between the two worlds. It does not help that after the breakup of their marriage, her parents settle in areas populated by their respective racial communities. Thus, although Black, White and Jewish is not a passing narrative per se–Walker, although fair skinned, is not light enough to pass as Caucasian and, furthermore, she is not technically forced to renounce her blackness–she must alter her behavior and speech to correspond with the racial community of each of her parents, while living with the respective parent. When her father sends her to a Jewish youth camp, she tries to blend in, look as Jewish as possible, but the uncomfortable feeling of not fitting in, of impersonating someone she is not, never leaves her: “When I am at camp I wear Capezios and Guess jeans and Lacoste shirts, and I assume the appropriate air of petulant entitlement. And yet I never get it quite right, never get the voice to match up with the clothes, never can completely shake free of my blackness” (Walker 2001 180). Walker feels she is “too white around black people, or too black around whites” (271) and tries to overcome this by mastering the art of code-switching, which is the most difficult task to accomplish in the

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linguistic realm. She notices that clothing and behavior also distinguish the two communities she switches between (Guess jeans and Lacoste shirts at Jewish camp and a gold chain and her boyfriend’s football jacket at Washington High School in San Francisco), but those switches are relatively easy to accomplish. The language she uses “betrays” her more easily. Once Walker starts attending a private artsy alternative high school in San Francisco, her black boyfriend Michael, who attends the public high school, becomes suspicious: “[H]e starts to call me half breed now that I go to Urban, half breed because he says that my white comes out when I am at Urban, when I slip and say like every other word” (268). The use of the word “slip” by Michael shows that he has internalized these distinctions in the use of English, but also that he is aware, albeit instinctively, of the constructed character of race, which becomes all the more important when, as in the case of Rebecca Walker, one cannot rely only on appearance. A slip is an error or oversight, something one must consciously work on avoiding, because once a slip of the tongue occurs, it reveals fears and desires located in the unconscious. In this case, what is revealed is Walker’s whiteness, a disqualifying fault in Michael’s eyes–yet one which can go unnoticed because Walker’s white father is not physically present in her life in San Francisco. The linguistic code-switching which teenage Walker instinctively uses is an example of what Chela Sandoval views as one of the technologies for enacting the methodology of the oppressed, specifically the first technology–“semiotics” or “sign reading.” Her behavior could also be called an expression of, using Anzaldua’s language, “la facultad.” At this point, the chameleon-like linguistic adaptation to the environment is a “survival strategy” rather than a conscious move aimed at changing the world. Walker simply wants to fit in and tries to behave accordingly. Yet, the fact that her use of “black English” is not perfect, that she “slips” and reveals more about herself than she intended, already begins to turn her linguistic performance into a subversive act. The subversive character lies in what these slips reveal–they expose the ideology of language, problematize what was previously perceived as natural and transparent and force both interlocutors to confront what they wanted to hide, their growing distance from one another and the reasons for this situation. The conversation between Michael and Rebecca moves beyond “semiotics” into the realm of Sandoval’s second technology–“deconstruction.” Through revealing how language constructs racial identities, these identities begin to be deconstructed. In “Passing for White, Passing for Jewish: Mixed Race Identity in Senna and Walker” Lori Harrison-Kahan analyzes the connections


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between blackness and Jewishness as presented in the two writers’ works. She also analyzes how social class works as an integral part of each of Walker’s identities. According to Kahan, Walker herself is not able to theorize how class becomes an element of the equation, although she instinctively feels drawn to the working-class lifestyle of her black and Hispanic friends. Of course, she is aware of the fact that her father’s family is well-off and represents the bourgeois lifestyle while her mother’s alternative life does not bring about material affluence. Yet, she views her transcontinental travels as transporting her from one homogenous location to another. For Walker the West Coast becomes irrevocably connected to blackness, while New York signifies the bouregois lifestyle her father’s Jewish family leads. Race, class and geographical location combine to form one side of a complex opposition which shapes Walker’s life: black, poor, Californian vs. Jewish (here signifying whiteness), upper middle class, suburban New Yorker. In turn, each element of the threesome combination becomes represented “in shorthand” by blackness and whiteness. The affluence of Mel Leventhal is reflected by the neighborhood he lives in, the people he meets, the schools his children attend, even the summer camps he sends them to. The social stratification of the American society makes it practically impossible for teenage Walker to meet Jewish peers who are not well-to-do. It is likely that a child devoid of Walker’s California experiences would not have questioned this arrangement. It is probably both Walker’s budding political sensitivity and the fresh memories of living with her mother which make her rebel against Jewishness, as represented by her father’s family. Yet, as Harrison-Kahan notes, “Whether she acknowledges it or not, Walker is not disidentifying with Jewishness, as much as with just one version of middle class Jewishness. In affirming her own multiplicity, Walker ends up overlooking the multiplicity of Jewishness itself” (Harrison-Kahan 38). Interestingly, she does feel a connection to what Jewishness used to signify in the past. The only moments when Walker feels a positive connection to Jewishness take place when the heritage of suffering and discrimination is invoked. Walker feels sympathy, even empathy when she reads The Diary of Anne Frank as a little girl, the kind of empathy which transfers into fears for her own family:

When I get to the end of the book and read that Anne Frank was taken by the Gestapo and killed, I feel something I have never felt before. I feel terror and loss and like nothing can save me from the same death as Anne’s. I imagine the Gestapo is going to come to my house and take me

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and my father and stepmother and put us in the back of a truck to Auschwitz (Walker 2001 89).

Discovering this heritage of terror and suffering is a consciousness- altering event for Walker, as evidenced by the objects she chooses to keep with her throughout her constant moves, until adulthood: “The Diary of Anne Frank stays, the Derrida reader goes” (167). But it is empathy based not just on pride, especially as at the time when Walker reads Anne Frank’s diary her knowledge of Jewish traditions is very limited, but mostly on the history of victimization, a feeling of being the underdog and the fear of being “found out.” She feels an instant connection to Anne Frank, a girl who must hide her identity in order to survive; Walker feels this is exactly what she is forced to do as well, although, of course, the consequences would not be as dramatic. The significance the book acquires for Walker suggests that an additional psychological phenomenon may be occuring–namely displacement. The girl’s unresolved anxiety about her own heritage, the fear of being “found out” as black is displaced onto the fear of the Gestapo coming to take her Jewish family away. It is difficult for Walker to understand the connection between the heritage of the Jewish struggle and the present Jewishness she encounters– “the Jewish dream to live in the suburbs, as close to Scarsdale as possible; to have a Volvo or two in the garage next to the kids’ bikes and baseball gear; to eat Dannon yoghurt and bagels every Sunday and light Shabbat candles on Friday” (207). She views Jewishness temporally–the “good” Jewish heritage and the “bad” contemporary bourgeois lifestyle. Harrison- Kahan proves that Walker is in fact rebelling not so much against Jewishness as an ethnicity, but against Jewishness as middle class affiliation. To prove this point she analyzes how Walker often identifies with an ethnicity she has no biological connection to–Hispanics. In fact, these moments can be described as the only instances of actual passing in the memoir. When the Leventhal family live in Riverdale, Walker becomes close with Hispanic friends she met in the Bronx, she even has a Puetro Rican boyfriend. “The Bronx means being ready to fight. It means walking around with my friends Sam and Jesus and Theresa and Melissa and being seen as I feel I truly am: a Puertoriquena, a mulatta, breathed out with all that Spanish flavor. A girl of color with attitude” (198). Walker also tends to identify with the Hispanic maids who clean houses for her Jewish friends. Through this identification, she instinctively acknowledges her affinity and respect for those who were not born into affluent families, but had to struggle hard for everything they have achieved in life. It is easier for her to express this affinity in ethnic, not class terms–she feels


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Puertoriquena, not working class–because in the world as she has experienced it, class divisions correspond with ethnic divisions. This is clearly a stage, where Walker has still not gone beyond Sandoval’s first technology, that is the “sign-reading” she engages in is still somewhat instinctive, rather than self-aware. She sense certain connections, but misses others and cannot reflect on her experience.

3.4. The mirror scenes

A different episode when Walker self-identifies as Spanish, as Walker-the- narrator later admits: “an outright lie,” deserves a closer look. The scene is set at a suburban high school attended mostly by wealthy white teenagers

from Larchmont and “black kids [

(207). During the year she spends there, Walker socializes with the white students. She meets her best friend, Lauren, in a girls’ bathroom, after both of them slip out from class–Lauren from AP English and Rebecca from a social studies class about the United Nations. The setting is one of girl-to- girl intimacy. A high school bathroom is a place where many secrets are revealed, where friends meet for gossip and engage in small acts of rebellion against school authorities, like smoking or skipping classes. Rebecca is washing her hands, very likely directly in front of a mirror, where she can see a reflection of her face as she lies to her best friend. When the question “What are you?” is posed, Rebecca answers: “I’m Spanish, like from Spain” (208). Of course, denouncing her black ancestry is to some extent an act of cowardice, a lack of courage to confront the well-bred and polite yet very racist Larchmont students. It is also an attempt to fit in, as emphasized by the language used by Walker, the infamous “like” which littered the sentences of WASP teenagers in the 1980s. This is language which Walker would certainly avoid when speaking to her boyfriend Michael in California. Yet why Spanish instead of Hispanic? Ellen Mc Cracken, in the introduction to New Latina Narrative, notes that Hispanics have become the generic “Other,” so varied in looks as to be unclassifiable through physical appearance, yet signifying difference and exoticism in a way that Jews no longer do. Walker wants to emphasize difference, but at the same time she wants to remain “cool.” Assuming Spanish identity, not even Latino but a more sophisticated European version, is an easier way of coping with Lauren’s racism than admitting to blackness. It is also a way of accessing the “glamour” of Europe and differentiating herself from Latin Americans. As Harrison-Kahan writes: “‘Spanish’ is the closest Walker can come to ‘Hispanic’ while still retaining insider status”


from the wrong side of the tracks”

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(Harrison-Kahan 36). At this point, Walker is using the awareness of ideology she has gained through skillful “sign-reading” (that is, it is obvious to her that being black would stigmatize her in this environment) not to subvert it but to achieve a personal gain. Being “Spanish” is by no means a subversive repetition of ethnic identity. The setting of this scene also suggests the irony inherent of the narrator’s ethnic identification. “Mirror scenes” are poignant turning points of many passing narratives and of cultural texts focusing on blackface performances. 13 The bathroom scene in Walker’s Black, White and Jewish is a playful re-working of such archetypal scenes. Like other mirror scenes in passing narratives, it deals with fundamental questions of racial identity. Yet, it is set in a high school bathroom, a milieu of questionable social seriousness and the protagonists communicate with each other using teenage suburban slang. Interestingly, Walker’s Black, White and Jewish is not the only significant third wave text to include a mirror scene. Danzy Senna’s novel Caucasia, which also deals with racial identity and, even more openly than Walker’s memoir, with racial passing, includes a crucial “mirror scene” as well. Caucasia’s main protagonist, Birdie Lee, is the daughter of a Caucasian mother and an African American father. Birdie is light skinned– her white grandmother claims she looks “Sicilian”–but her full sister Cole, three years her senior, is much darker, unquestionably African American in appearance. The book opens with a description of a stormy period in her parents’ marriage; with each parent engrossed in their own activities. Birdie’s mother is helping the black power movement while Birdie’s

13 Scenes in which the main protagonist examines his reflection closely in the mirror (and this examination often sparks an important turning point in the narrative), often referred to as “mirror scenes” abound in literature of racial passing, although they are not restricted to such works. In the article “Mutiny Against the Mirror” Jenijoy LaBelle points to the significance of mirror scenes in women’s literature: “[T]he mirror is inescapably oxymoronic. Some authors are intensely aware of this oxymoron, but most tend to sublimate it by emphasizing one pole or the other of the double identity of the image in the mirror. These displacements and emphases become important elements in the characterizations of women in literature and point to fundamental structures in the production of female consciousness” (LaBelle 53). Some of the most important passing narratives also include mirror scenes. Examples include Jake Robin alias Jakie Rabinowitz (played by Al Jolson) carefully examining his blackface image in the mirror before making the decision to fulfill his dying father’s wish in The Jazz Singer, John Howard Griffin analyzing his blackened reflection in the mirror in Black Like Me, James Weldon Johnson searching for signs of black ancestry in his face in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.


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father, Deck Lee, is working on an academic book about race. In this context Birdie develops a very close relationship with her sister. The two girls spend most of their time together, invent secret games, even a secret language which they use when they do not want the adults to understand them. Birdie does not distinguish herself from her sister, views the two of them as one: “Before I ever saw myself, I saw my sister. When I was still too small for mirrors, I saw her as a reflection that proved my own existence. […] That face was me and I was that face and that was how the story went” (Senna 5). The irony in this identification is located in the difference of the color of the girls’ skin. Birdie cannot tell herself apart from her sister, although strangers would not believe that the two girls could possibly be related. Self-differentiation comes to Birdie with subsequent interactions with outsiders, and, notably, the school system. Birdie is sent to a private “black power” school, where she is teased by the other children for her white appearance. After another humiliating incident Birdie examines her own reflection in the mirror:

That night I looked at myself in the steamy bathroom mirror while I brushed my teeth, the white toothpaste foaming onto my hand, making me look like a rabid dog, and I tried to think what Sicilian meant by reading my own face. I glanced at my sister’s reflection behind me. She was also brushing her teeth, only neatly. Her hair was curly and mine was straight, and I figured that this fact must have had something to do with the fighting and the way the eyes of strangers flickered surprise, sometimes amusement, when my mother introduced us as sisters (Senna 29).

According to Lacan, when a child stumbles upon a mirror the child is suddenly faced with an image of itself as whole, whereas it previously experienced existence as a fragmented entity with libidinal needs. The image itself in the mirror is described by Lacan as the "Ideal-I" (Lacan 1286). In Caucasia racial differentiation, or racial consciousness, is thus located in the realm of the Lacanian “imaginary” into which a child passes via the mirror stage; possibly also in the realm of the symbolic, as this specific mirror stage coincides with the loss of the girls’ invented “Elemeno” language and the acquisition of “proper” English. In Caucasia, Birdie and Cole, when they are just several years old, communicate with each other using an invented secret language which they call Elemeno. They later lose the ability to speak this language. According to Lacan, once a child begins to recognize that its body is separate from the world and its mother, it begins to feel anxiety which is caused by a sense of something lost. The demand of the child, then, is to make the other a part of itself, as it seemed to be in the child’s now lost state of infancy: “It is

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this moment which decisively tips the whole of human knowledge into mediatization through the desire of the other, constitutes its objects in an abstract equivalence by the co-operation of others” (Lacan 1289). Therefore, the child’s wish is impossible to realize and, ultimately, functions as a reminder of loss and lack. The world “before race,” the world in which Birdie and her dark-skinned sister were one is for her the lost real, something she once had, wants to regain, but never will. This loss is also played out in the plot of the novel. Birdie not only loses her sister symbolically through the recognition of difference, but also quite literally. The girls’ parents split and each one of them takes the daughter who physically resembles the respective parent. This way Birdie finds herself on the run with her slightly paranoid conspiracy-theory driven mother and Cole disappears with the sisters’ father. The entire second half of the novel is based on Birdie’s desire to regain her lost sister and her own “lost blackness.” Curiously, because Birdie’s self-recognition, based on the difference in physical appearance, is so traumatic for her, and because she is raised by her parents in the “black power” tradition, it is the phenotypically white self which becomes repulsive for her. She perceives herself as a “rabid dog” foaming at the mouth, disgusting and abhorrent, while her sister is the “neat” one. This perception is a complete reversal of the typical feelings of the “passee,” always on the lookout for the dangerous and wild blackness just waiting to reveal itself, to spring up unexpectedly, to betray the passee’s “true” self. The significance of this reversal can be perceived most fully when Birdie’s comparison of her white reflection to a rabid dog, foaming at the mouth is contrasted with passages from other “traditional” passing narratives. In John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, Griffin chemically alters his appearance to pass as black. After he darkens his skin, he shaves his head and looks at himself in the mirror:

Turning off all the lights, I went into the bathroom and closed the door. I stood in the darkness before the mirror, my hand on the light switch. I forced myself to flick it on. In the flood of light against white tile, the face and shoulders of a stranger–a fierce, bald, very dark Negro–glared at me from the glass. He in no way resembled me. The transformation was total and shocking. I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was something else (Griffin 15).

In this “mirror scene” it is the misrecognition (in the understanding of the Lacanian meconaissance) of oneself as black which fills Griffin with terror. Although Griffin’s aim is to discover the racism of others, he is perplexed with the racism he uncovers within himself–the sheer terror of


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seeing himself as a “wild” negro. In the case of Birdie Lee, it is the whiteness within herself that causes fear and discomfort, which locates her far away from civilization, making her “wild.” Although this scene in Caucasia lends itself beautifully to a Lacanian reading, it is also possible to analyze it using Chela Sandoval’s terminology of the “methodology of the oppressed.” In this scene Birdie becomes aware of the difference between herself and her sister, she learns how to read the signs which were present earlier, but which she was unable to decipher. The realization marks the first step in the enactment of the methodology of the oppressed, that is semiotics of sign-reading.

3.5. Post-passing and postethnicity

Later on in the novel, Cole is taken away to Brazil by her father and his new black girlfriend, Carmen. Birdie’s mother, increasingly paranoid about being wanted by the FBI for her revolutionary activities, decides to run away from Boston and change her identity. The mother and daughter team live “on the run” for two years and then settle down in a small New Hampshire town. Sandy and Birdie Lee transform into Sheila and Jesse Goldman, widow and daughter of Jewish intellectual David Goldman. The Jewish identity is supposed to protect them from being discovered by the FBI, while serving as explanation of Birdie’s slightly nappy hair and darker complexion. Sandy buys Birdie a cheap star of David and the two settle down in an idyllic rural landscape, where Birdie/Jessie engages in horseback riding and flirting with boys, while Sandy/Sheila finds a new love interest with whom she sets up house. During that time Birdie successfully passes as white, although it should be noted that for Birdie this is involuntary passing. It is Sandy who undertakes the enterprise of passing. Being a child, Birdie is forced to go along with her mother’s wishes, even though she most definitely misses the life she used to lead. After six years, haunted by memories of her sister, Birdie runs away from home and sets out on a search of the lost half of her family. While staying in Boston with her aunt Dot, she finds out that her father and sister have long returned to the US and live on the West Coast. She flies there and locates her father who, in turn, leads her to Cole. The novel ends with Birdie and Cole’s long-awaited reunion in Oakland. The few articles published on Danzy Senna’s Caucasia focus on the construction of race in the novel. Rightly so, as racial identity is clearly the novel’s main theme. The conclusion scholars seem to agree upon is that the main protagonist of the novel, Birdie, via her complicated personal experience of “race changes,” comes to understand that race is socially

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constructed and, therefore, learns to “look beyond race” in her life. Sika Alaine Dagbovie writes in “Fading to White, Fading Away: Biracial Bodies in Michelle Cliff's Abeng and Danzy Senna's Caucasia”: “Birdie strives to think beyond race.[…] She struggles to reject imprisoning labels of color” (Dagbovie 104). Interestingly, Daniel Grassian in “Passing into Post-ethnicity: A Study of Danzy Senna’s Caucasia” uses exactly the same vocabulary to analyze the experience of Caucasia’s protagonist. He writes: “Birdie learns to look beyond color” (Grassian 334) and “this realization [the realization that race is performative] allows Birdie to see beyond race” (328). While Grassian’s conclusion that Senna’s treatment of race in Caucasia mirrors the understanding of race in David Hollinger’s Postethnic America, is acceptable, the premise he uses (which is the same premise implied by Dagbovie’s article) to arrive at that conclusion is not. Birdie does not “pass into post-ethnicity” via “looking” or “seeing beyond color,” she does not “make strides towards an identity without ethnicity and racial affiliation” (Grassian 331). In fact, I would argue that the opposite phenomenon takes place–yes, Birdie’s experience undeniably (and not surprisingly) leads her to understand the performative character of race, but this realization does not lead her into surrendering racial affiliation. On the contrary, it helps her finally embrace it. Birdie’s escape from her mother and her white boyfriend is the first step on the way to consciously shaping her identity as a multiracial person. Birdie’s ethnicity becomes a conscious choice, not an imposition, but by virtue of it being a choice it becomes more, rather than less, “real.” Grassian reads Birdie’s aunt Dot, clearly a role model and figure of authority for Birdie, as “refusing to submit to ethnic categorization” (332) and setting the example for her niece in escaping race. To justify this reading, Grassian uses Dot’s conversation with Birdie: “I’m never completely at home anywhere. But it’s a good place to be, I think. It’s like floating. From up above, you can see everything at once. It’s the only way how” (315). Yet, what enables this attitude is Dot’s return to Boston from India, prompted by the sounds of African American music she hears on the radio. Dot’s departure for India represents her quest for a spiritual life divorced from the physicality of matters like race. She is unable to pursue that quest in the United States because of the omnipresence of racism and the impossibility of cutting oneself off from issues of race, the impossibility of living only in the realm of the spiritual. But her return to the place she wanted to escape from signifies the need to reconcile spiritual growth with her racial heritage. It is a conscious acceptance of blackness and its political significane in America, not an escape from race.


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Grassian also takes at face value the message of Deck Lee’s book, which Deck proudly shows to Birdie during their reunion as the fruit of many years of his labor, his real child. The book, titled The Petrified Monkey: Race, Blood and the Origins of Hypocrisy, analyzes the constructed character of race. When confronted with his daughter’s life story, Deck lectures Birdie on the impossibility of passing: “We’re all just pretending. Race is a complete illusion, make-believe” (391). Grassian acknowledges that “Birdie believes Deck to be right” (Grassian 333), while ignoring the obvious irony of the scenario in which the father, who abandons his own child because of race, which he at that point understands as physical similarity, lectures the long-lost daughter on the non-existence of race. Birdie’s racial consciousness is informed by a paradoxical mixture of theories of performativity (as espoused by her father and also as experienced by her white-Jewish life in New Hampshire) and a belief that performativity may be sufficient as a concept, but is not sufficient to explain the intricacies of living race in the contemporary society. Neither is the idea of taking equally from the various cultures one is “genetically” entitled to, which, as Grassian implies, is what Birdie learns to do in the end. In fact, Senna is also the author of a satirical story/essay on multiracialism, written around the same time as Caucasia was published. In “The Mulatto Millenium” the narrator, Senna’s alter-ego, imagines a scenario in which mulattos institute a regime which aims at creating “racial harmony” through the popularization of miscegenation. She scoffs at the imaginary mulatto demonstration in which:

a lean yellow girl with her hair in messy Afro-puffs wore a T-shirt with the words JUST HUMAN across the front. What appeared to be a Hasidic Jew walked hand in hand with his girlfriend, a Japanese woman in traditional attire, the two of them wearing huge yellow buttons on their lapels that read MAKE MULATTOS, NOT WAR” (“The Mulatto Millennium” 20).

According to Senna, “the mulatto movement” she parodies in the text, would, in the long run, not lead to the elimination of discrimination based on color, but rather to its strengethening through the promotion of assimilation, the return of the old idea of American society as a melting pot. Senna seems to be saying that seeing “beyond color” (“JUST HUMAN”) is short-sighted and naïve, though may also be as well- intentioned as the hippie movement’s solution to all world problems (“Make Love, Not War”). This story pertains not only to the idea of multiracialism in general, but also to the attempts to introduce a “multiracial” category on the 2000 US

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census in particular. The idea of a separate category was not well received by civil rights groups; it was looked upon as an attempt to decrease the visibility and the numbers of African Americans by lumping the “mixed” blacks together with other people of mixed ethnicity. Another third wave writer, Lisa Jones, daughter of African American writer and activist Amiri Baraka and Jewish-American writer Hettie Jones, commented on the census issue in 1994, arguing that the multiracial movement was not out to empower people by connecting them to their heritage, but rather by divorcing them from the politics and history of blackness in a way which makes them think they have advanced on the social ladder through assimilation: “Race is not seen as a political/economic construct, a battleground where Americans vie for power and turf, but a question of color, a stick-on, peel-off label. If there is an end goal to the census movement’s efforts, it appears to be assimilation” (Jones 57). In “The Mulatto Millenium” the narrator is mocking the idea that any group of people is superior to another just by virtue of ethnic origin, the idea of fighting essentialism with essentialism, which, as it seems to the narrator, the multiracial movement is doing. The narrator of the story encounters a woman preaching biracial superiority: “Ever wonder why mutts are smarter than full-breed dogs?” (“The Mulatto Millenium” 14). Senna cannot agree with the idea of biracial superiority as a theoretical concept, but also does not think the theory could be transferred onto real life. The concept of “mixed is better” is a utopian one in American society which, while taking pride in its diversity, sports a history of racial categories unheard of in other parts of the world, but which, in a general overview, amount to the crude idea that any mixes with white spoil the whiteness. Grassian correctly notices that Birdie’s racial anxiety is heightened in the presence of other multiracial people:

As she ages, Birdie only becomes conscious of her racial identity when she sees other ethnically mixed people. When she is amidst ethnically homogenous groups, Birdie becomes a chameleon, taking on the attributes of the majority in order to protect herself from being ostracized or from social scorn (Grassian 322).

One of these people who remind Birdie of the fact that she is passing is a mulatto student at her school in New Hampshire. Samantha was a foundling and for a long time remains one of the least popular girls in school, awkward in her actions and her appearance. But there comes a time when Samantha undergoes an amazing transformation, turning from an ugly duckling into a swan and immediately gaining in popularity. She


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finally accepts her body, becomes comfortable in it, spreading an aura of “coolness” around the school. Yet, Samantha’s “coolness” is not the result of her mixedness, but of the conscious recognition of the blackness within her, the discovery that “black is beautiful” leads directly to Samantha’s “beautification.” Other children, though recognizing the change Samantha went through, classifly her as black, not assigning a separate “mixed” category to her. When a black boy, Stuart, starts attending the school, it is a common expectation of the students that he and Samantha become a couple, which reveals that the New Hampshire schoolchildren have not only internalized the one-drop rule (Samantha’s “black blood” outweighs the “white blood”), but also prescriptions against miscegenation (“black” dates “black”). Interestingly, Samantha defies those expectations, is not interested in Stuart and begins dating a Caucasian boy. Samantha’s story, although a minor one in the plot of the novel, becomes next to Aunt Dot’s plot, an example of a postethnic and third wave attitude to race, a milestone in the development of Birdie’s own race-consciousness. The last scene of the book, in which Birdie sees the face of a mixed- race girl on a school bus in California, is yet another one which, I argue, Grassian misreads in his article as Birdie’s outright affirmation of an identity without racial affiliation, while in fact it speaks of Birdie’s acceptance of blackness as a voluntary but crucial affiliation. Birdie has just spent the night with her sister Cole, reunited after six years of separation. She goes out to the corner store and, as she is walking back to Cole’s apartment, she notices a school bus full of children.

They were black and Mexican and Asian and white, on the verge of puberty, but not quite in it. They were utterly ordinary, throwing obscenities and spitballs at one another the way kids do. One face toward the back of the bus caught my eye, and I halted in my tracks, catching my breath. It was a cinnamon-skin girl with her hair in braids. She was black like me, a mixed girl, and she was watching me from behind the dirty glass. For a second I thought I was somewhere familiar and she was a girl I already knew. I began to lift my hand, but stopped, remembering where I was and what I had already found. Then the bus lurched forward, and the face was gone with it, just a blur of yellow and black in motion (Senna


Grassian argues that “[I]n this final vision, Birdie learns to look beyond color. She prevents herself from identifying with the mixed girl who looks like her and in the process rejects racial categorization. The last image of the blurring of colors is a fair representation of Birdie’s mindset” (Grassian 334). However, what happens in this passage is not total disidentification. Birdie does recognize the girl as similar to herself,

Passing and the Fictions of Third Wave Subjectivity


primarily black (“black like me”) and secondly mixed (“a mixed girl”), she wants to wave to her as a gesture of solidarity stemming from her newly- discovered racial consciousness–this is a gesture she would not have offered if the scene was set a few months earlier in New Hampshire, a gesture she did not offer to Samantha. Yet, she realizes that the gesture is not necessary at this time and place, the bus full of colorful children from multiple ethnic backgrounds and not the all-white New Hampshire landscape. Birdie has accepted the blackness within her, as represented by her reunification with Cole, and is therefore not paralyzed by anxiety anymore in the presence of other “mixed” people. But this attitude is not the result of the repudiation of racial affiliation. Arguably, what accounts for the optimistic tone of this novel’s ending is Birdie’s reconciliation with Cole and with the part of her heritage she was forced to suppress while passing. Similarly, Walker’s memoir ends with Rebecca’s name change. She officially changes her name from Rebecca Leventhal to Rebecca Leventhal Walker, a symbolic acknowledgment of the African ancestry represented by her mother’s last name. Clearly, identifying as black, which is what the protagonists of both the third wave passing narratives I have discussed ultimately do, is a political decision. It can be read as logical progression from “sign-reading” and “deconstruction,” Sandoval’s first two technologies of the “methodology of the oppressed,” to the third one, that is “meta-ideologizing.” This technology challenges dominant ideology not by speaking outside of it, but within it, in a way which subverts it. In the case of both these texts, the characters/narrators undergo parallel processes of development. First, they develop something of an instinct, a knack for how racial ideology works (“sign-reading”), then they become more aware of how racial ideology functions in complex settings (“deconstruction”) and, finally, rather than attempting to step outside of this ideology, to “look beyond race,” they remain within it, but their appropriation of that ideological identity category constitutes a subversive repetition rather than a straightforward identification. It is also an act of the symbolic recognition of the role African Americans have played in American history and an appreciation of their achievements. Senna’s narrator in “The Mulatto Millennium” explains why she, as a child, identified as black:

Black people, being the bottom of the social totem pole in Boston, were inevitably the most accepting of difference; they were the only race to come in all colors, and so there I found myself. […] Let it be clear–my parents’ decision to raise us as black wasn’t based on any one-drop rule from the days of slavery, and it certainly wasn’t based on our appearance […]. Instead, my parents’ decision arose out of the rising black power


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movement, which made identifying as black not a pseudoscientific rule but a conscious choice. You told us all along we had to call ourselves black because of this so-called one drop. Now that we don’t have to anymore, we choose to. Because black is beautiful. Because black is not a burden, but a privilege (“The Mulatto Millennium” 16).

On the other hand, as Senna-narrator recounts her experiences of growing up, she also expresses an anxiety she had about contacts with mixed race children, her need to prove her blackness: “[Mulattos were] something to be avoided. I veered away from them. […] Instead, I surrounded myself with bodies darker than myself, hoping the color might rub off on me” (17). Although she does not state it clearly, it is obvious that some change must have taken place in her subjectivity between the time she describes and the time when the observations were written down. Much like Caucasia’s Samantha discovers power in her blackness but does not choose it as a defining factor of her life (and sacks Stuart), thereby customizing her construction of blackness, Senna’s coming to terms with her heritage does not turn her into a zealous fanatic of “the black cause,” and it makes her suspicious of the fanaticism of the “mulatto” cause as well. Rather, her experience of race allows her a certain kind of detachment. In an interview for Nextbook Danzy Senna casually admits to being mistaken for Israeli or Arab all the time: “In cabs, the drivers think I’m whatever they are.” (Senna in Comninos 1). Clearly, this does not bother her. While I may not agree with Daniel Grassian’s reading of Senna’s Caucasia as a novel in which the main character “makes strides towards an identity without ethnicity or racial affiliation” (Grassian 331), I do agree with the importance of linking the novel and, more generally, third wave writing about racial/ethnic identity to David Hollinger’s concept of postethnicity. In Postethnic America Hollinger tackles criticism waged at late 1970s and 1980s American multiculturalism by proposing the alternative concept of “postethnicity” as the future vision of America. He proposes a society of citizens with multiple and overlapping voluntary affiliations. He prefers the term affiliation over identity to emphasize performative and temporary aspects. Hollinger’s postethnic society is one based not on biology and physical appearance, but on (revocable) conscious consent. In other words, for many reasons one may choose to emphasize or slight affiliations with certain groups and these choices may change over an individual’s lifespan. 14 Hollinger argues that such a

14 Hollinger is, of course, not the first theorist to write about the “choosing” of identities in America. Hollinger himself acknowledges Mary Waters’s Ethnic

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perspective would be more conducive to political action aimed at the greater good of the nation, not just at realizing particular interests of various identity groups:

A postethnic perspective thus resists the pluralist temptation to depict society as an expanse of internally homogenous and anallogically structured units […], [it] is alert for opportunities to construct global solidarities capable of addressing ecological and other dilemmas that are global in their impact” (Hollinger 13).

Interestingly, the example Hollinger uses to provide an example of the differences between the multicultural and postethnic perspectives is that of Alex Haley, author of Roots. In the chapter “Haley’s Choice and the Ethno-racial Pentagon” Hollinger wonders why Haley chose to trace his ancestry back to Gambia via his mother’s roots, rather than explore the Irish heritage of his father. Not surprisingly, he reaches the conclusion that Haley did not have a real choice, because if he had taken the second option, he would have not only been scoffed at by Irish Caucasians but also treated as a traitor by African Americans. Hollinger uses this case to prove the point that while “the United States is endowed with a nonethnic ideology of the nation; it is possessed by a predominantly ethnic history” (Hollinger 19). In a postethnic America, the vision Hollinger champions, a person of Irish-African ethnicity “could march in a St. Patrick’s day parade without anyone finding it a joke” (21). A postethnic America would offer Haley a real choice. Both Walker in Black, White and Jewish and Birdie Lee in Caucasia make a choice similar to Haley’s in that they ultimately decide to emphasize affiliation with the African side of their heritage. What makes their choice different from Haley’s is, paradoxically, the voluntary character of their affiliation. It is not an affiliation which is imposed on them by lawmakers or by their families. Sadly, this voluntariness does not result from the changed structure of the American society, but from the color of their skin, their ability to pass. They are not living in a postethnic America, which remains a theoretical concept, but in a racist reality where self-identifying as black, if one has any African heritage, is a decent political decision, a way of enacting the third technology of the “methodology of the oppressed.”


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Yet, postethnicity is an important concept for third wavers, and, for activists, a goal to be achieved through political and social change. A postethnic society would be one in which all the steps of the “methodology of the oppressed” have been enacted, the final result of the process of emancipation of the oppressed. What makes these passing narratives truly different from the “traditional” ones is not just a reversal of the process of passing, but also the understanding of the concept of race which the process leads to, or which results from the everyday experiences of the characters. Both Senna and Walker transform their “tragic mulattas” into characters who are not tragic, but witty, observant and self-aware, whose racial heritage makes them sensitive to issues not only of race, but to injustice and oppression in general. They are more perceptive observers of the society due to being constantly in-between. Yet, they are active subjects shaping their own lives. While they evidently take pride in embracing their identity as African Americans, such a decision is also an example of Sandoval’s “meta-ideologizing”–a strategic move which appropriates dominant ideology with the goal of benefitting minority groups, and not, as was the case in traditional passing narratives, a decision based on succumbing to the strength of essentialism. They may use their experiences of living in the society as racialized subjects to advance the cause of “democratics,” the fourth technology described by Sandoval en route to “coalitional consciousness.” Democratics is the use of the three preceding technologies (sign-reading, deconstruction and meta-ideologizing) not just for survival, but for active change. Adrian Piper’s performance Calling Cards is an excellent example of how this technology works. Piper, a performance and conceptual artist, who is very light-skinned but of African American ancestry and identifying as black, used the misperception of her race to confront anyone who uttered a racist remark in her presence. This is the text printed on the cards:

Dear friend,

I am black.

I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with

that racist remark. In the past I have attempted to alert white people to my

racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative, or socially inappropriate. Therefore, my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even

when they believe there are no black people present, and to distribute this card when they do.

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What makes this gesture different from just “meta-ideologizing” is its obvious outward direction, it is not a technology located solely within the subject’s consciousness, but steps outside and reaches towards the other. Sandoval differentiates between technologies of “inner psychic resistance” and “outer social praxis.” Democratics is the first one of the “outer” technologies. What should be emphasized about the methodology of the oppressed at this point is that although the individual technologies may refer to the interests of a specific minority group, the cumulative use of these strategies should help in establishing “coalitional consciousness” and improving not just the situation of individual groups, but lead to a more complex reversal of power relationships. In this way, the apprent lack of “political” and “feminist” content in these two third-wave feminist texts becomes significant. They are an account of the development of the successive steps of the realization of the “methodology of the oppressed,” specifically the “inner” technologies. These paved the way for “outer” technologies. From this perspective it should not come as a surprise that after the period described in Black, White and Jewish Rebecca Walker became a prominent third wave activist.

3.6. Passing and class: Dorothy Allison

As I outlined the genealogy of the term “passing” in American culture and literature in the first part of this chapter, I mentioned that, although originally used in the context of race, the meaning of the term has expanded to include other forms of transgressive appropriations of power. I have been arguing that this chameleon-like adaptation to one’s surroundings, involving a usurpation of privilege, is both a trademark theme of third wave feminist fiction and a defining feature of third wave sensibility. It is the endings, the finales, among other factors, which make “third wave passing narratives” different from “classic passing narratives.” The experience of passing does not lead to the character’s ultimate downfall, but, on the contrary, becomes fundamental for the development of survival skills in the contemporary American society, what Gloria Anzaldua calls “la facultad” and Chela Sandoval incorporates in “the methodology of the oppressed,” and a sensitivity to recognizing oppression in all its forms. Ultimately, it becomes a tool to develop a hybrid identity, or, using David Hollinger’s terminology, a step towards postethnicity. This does not mean passing is an easy process, a playful masquerade or a game of dress-up, because due to the fear of the consequences of being “found out.” These qualities of “third wave passing” can be discerned not


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only in writings by mixed-race authors or in fiction dealing with the theme of race mixing, but are also of primary importance for third wave writers of Anglo heritage. Passing as a survival strategy and a way of developing one’s identity is an important theme in the works of Dorothy Allison. Allison, born in 1949, is not a third wave feminist by date of birth, but her works most definitely exhibit features of third wave aesthetic sensibility, including the exploration of passing in the context of class. Allison does not refuse the label of a “third wave writer” and has been anthologized in Irene Zahava’s early (1996) short story collection Feminism3: The Third Generation in Writing. Passing in the context of class may seem to be a a misuse of the term, as one’s class affiliation can actually change, although demographic data proves that social mobility in America is more myth than reality. Still, the possibility itself leads to the main problem with the theorizing of class– specifically that the realm of theory falls outside the scope of the working class experience, and those studying the working class from within the academia are, automatically, not currently working class themselves. The point is succinctly presented in Michelle Tokarczyk and Elizabeth Fay’s volume Working Class Women in the Academy, which analyzes the in- between status of academics of working class origin. The same is true of literature; most writers of working class origin are technically not working class anymore by the time they start writing. Yet for Dorothy Allison the fact of having been born in a working-class poor family has been the defining event of her biography. For her, class affiliation is shaped mostly by childhood experiences. She writes in Skin, a volume of personal essays:

The central fact of my life is that I was born in 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina, the bastard daughter of a white woman from a desperately poor family, a girl who had left the seventh grade the year before, worked as a waitress, and was just a month past fifteen when she had me. That fact, the inescapable impact of being born in a condition of poverty that this society finds shameful, contemptible, and somehow deserved, has had dominion over me to such an extent that I have spent my life trying to overcome it or deny it. (Skin 15)

For Allison’s characters, attempts at achieving a semblance of conformity to mainstream social values, attempts at realizing the American Dream, acquiring a college education, a respectable white-collar job, are rebellions against class affiliation, but also against the system which assigns that affiliation. These rebellions are often outwardly successful ones, but never complete. The end result is always an overtaking fear, a feeling of being out of place and of being discovered for who one “really”

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is. In her memoir Allison writes about her own college days: “Don’t let me lose this chance, I prayed, and lived in terror that I might suddenly be seen again as what I knew myself to be” (Two or Three Things 45). For Allison, class is not just annual income and educational level but also, if not primarily, a set of behavior patterns, including ways of dressing and thinking. Allison’s characters, when entering the outside world, become aware that emphasizing their heritage and ways through which it is manifested invites ridicule and dooms them to failure. In order to assure

a better reception to increase their chances of success, they try to blend in,

pretend to be middle class, change their behavior. If done with the utmost care, the process makes them “pass” as middle class. In a piece included in the volume Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature Allison recounts how she tried to “pass” in college: “I copied the dress, mannerisms, attitudes and ambitions of the girls I met in college, changing or hiding my tastes, interests and desires” (Skin 22). Yet for Allison’s characters, passing is not just a typical teenage desire to be a part of the “hip” crowd. It is irrevocably tied to feelings of shame, humiliation and anger of an immense magnitude. When the family of Bone, the main character of Bastard Out of Carolina, moves yet again

after they are unable to pay the rent for their apartment, Bone is enrolled in

a new school. There, when asked by her teacher to introduce herself, she invents a middle class name and background:

The first day at the district school the teacher pursed her lips and asked me my name, and that anger came around and stomped on my belly and throat. I saw tired patience in her eyes, a little shine of pity, and a contempt as old as the red dust hills I could see through the windows of her classroom. “What’s your name now, honey?” the woman asked me again, speaking slowly, as if she suspected I was not quite bright. The anger lifted in me and became rage. “Roseanne,” I answered as blithely as if I’d never been called anything else. I smiled at her like a Roseanne. “Roseanne Carter. My family’s from Atlanta, just moved up here.” (Bastard 67)

The rage Bone feels is her reaction not only to the contempt, but also to the pity in the teacher’s voice. Her attempt at passing for someone else, a successful one as we later find out, is not motivated purely by a desire for privilege, though as Bone says, she “enjoyed a brief popularity” at school, but is a direct escape from the pity she receives as the child of those who do not exemplify the American Dream. Despite the prevalence of the myth of the self-made man, Allison’s characters learn that achieving success in the real America, if one is born


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poor, requires accepting charity. This is a skill which they have trouble mastering and a necessity to which they react violently. The main character of the short story “Steal Away,” a young working-class student attending college on a scholarship, enters into a relationship with her sociology professor who has “red hair, forty shelves of books, four children and an entirely cordial relationship with her ex-husband” (Trash 83). The student’s initial fascination is shattered when she learns that the only reason why the teacher is taking an interest in her is charity. “‘Your family is very poor, aren’t they?’ My face froze and burned at the same time. ‘Not really,’ I told her, ‘not anymore.’ She nodded and smiled and the heat in my face went down my body in waves” (Trash 83). Again the attempt to pass as middle class results from the character’s problems with accepting charity, from pride and from the desire to be treated not as a representative of a type, though this time the type which the character represents for the second person in the interaction is different than in Bone’s encounter with the school teacher. There, the teacher had assumed Bone to be “white trash,” here the professor is turning to a Dickensian mythology of the honest and humble poor, which functions as motivation for the ego-boosting acts of kindness performed by the “more fortunate.” In Skin Allison writes about how problematic that myth was for her:

“There was a myth of the poor in this country, but it did not include us, no matter how hard I tried to squeeze us in. There was an idea of the good poor–hard-working, ragged but clean, and intrinsically honorable. I understood that we were the bad poor” (Skin 18). The families of Allison’s characters are not the mythical poor, necessary for the preservation of the American Dream–after all, there should always be someone who can advance through hard work–but the real poor who end up pregnant at fifteen or in jail by sixteen, who drink alcohol, party hard and sexually abuse their step-children. They are the poor who perpetuate the cycle, generation after generation. As Allison writes in her memoir of the women in her family: “We were all wide-hipped and predestined. Wide-faced meant stupid. Wide hands marked workhorses with dull hair and tired eyes, thumbing through magazines full of women so different from us they could be another species” (Two or Three Things 33). As Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz point out in the Introduction to White Trash: Race and Class in America, “white trash” is the only racial slur which is still in use, perhaps not in academic writing but most certainly in everyday conversations between members of the middle class (Newitz and Wray 1). Being born “white trash” is a heritage one should want to abandon, a strange concept in today’s multicultural society. Consequently, Allison’s characters develop a combination of pride and

Passing and the Fictions of Third Wave Subjectivity


self-loathing, visible in both of the “passing” episodes I have described. Allison writes about herself: “The women I loved most in the world horrified me. I did not want to grow up to be them. I made myself proud of their pride, their determination, their stubbornness, but every night I prayed a man’s prayer: ‘Lord, save me from them. Do not let me become them’” (Two or Three Things 38). Possibly the most interesting way in which the desire to advance in the social hierarchy and the rage against the middle class are juxtaposed is in Allison’s short story “Steal Away,” where the “scholarship student” to whom the sociology professor rather insincerely extends her charity is obsessed with stealing. She steals all sorts of things, becoming very effective and efficient–“toilet paper from the Burger King restroom, magazines from the lower shelves at 7/11, and sardines from the deli” (Trash 81). She does not only steal what she needs for survival; she steals everything in a methodical frenzy of accumulating material possessions. The heroine also steals books, from libraries and from her professors’ offices. She not only steals them, but devours them with what Renny Christopher and Carolyn Whitson in “Toward a Theory of Working Class Literature” call “a kind of guerilla intellectual terrorism” engaging in a silent debate with the original readers by crossing out their notes and adding her own. She takes revenge on the sociology professor by stealing her books as well : “On her desk there was a new edition of Malinowski’s The Sexual Life of Savages. I laid my notebook down on top of it, and took them both when I left. Malinowski was a fast read” (Trash 84). In addition to how this obsession quite literally embodies the concept of stealing knowledge, the irony of this particular choice of object to be stolen requires emphasis. The main heroine and her family are savages, subjects of scientific description, not personal contact. More is to be learned about them from a book than from a lunch date which the sociology professor forgets about several times in a row. Stealing things from the professors, members of the middle class, is a way of using them without becoming them. Using the language put forward in Methodology of the Oppressed, what the heroine engages in is a form of meta-ideologizing, although not a clear cut example. The character is not just appropriating hegemonic ideology, but actually taking physical possession of this ideology through illegal means. Most definitely, she is not stealing it in order to consume the product innocently, but rather to learn the enemy’s language. She is, therefore, re-working it in a subversive manner. Furthermore, becoming “what was expected of her”, that is a thief, is a way of appropriating that shameful identity in a conscious manner. And it is a gesture which others like her clearly recognize.


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The shocking ending of the story proves this point. The character’s parents come to attend her graduation and take her back home. They are utterly bored throughout the ceremony and visibly uncomfortable in the setting of the academia. As they are getting ready to leave, the girl impulsively decides to steal “a vacuum cleaner and two wooden picture frames I’d stashed behind the laundry room doors that I knew would perfectly fit into the Pontiac’s truck” (Trash 85). To her parents’ smiling approval, she loads the stolen goods into the trunk. When they reach the entrance to the campus she makes her father stop the car: “I climbed out and pulled the commemorative roses off the welcome sign. I got back in the car and piled them into my mama’s lap” (86). The gift of stolen roses shows her need to demonstrate that it is still “us against them,” a declaration of resistance to class assimilation. The main character makes it clear that acquiring her new degree has not changed her “real self” but only taught her the art of deception, a skill clearly admired “back home.” It is this ability to deceive which earns the mother’s admiring comment:

“Quite something, my daughter” (86). Deception can be a skill held in high regard by members of oppressed groups, exactly because it demonstrates the deceiver’s ability to use hegemonic ideology in an advantageous manner. It also proves that dominant ideology is not inhaled without reflection, but used for a concrete purpose: that of improving the position of members of the minority group. Several other stories by Allison, including the short story “I’m Working On My Charm” revolve around deception as a necessary survival skill of the poor. In “I’m Working On My Charm” the deception is double. The need to pass as a “charming” gentile girl from the south brings about recollections of the main character’s experiences of working as a waitress with her mother, when conforming to the Yankee tourists’ expectations of how southerners speak earned her extra tips. A co-worker advises, “Sweets, you just stretch that drawl. Talk like you’re from Mississippi and they’ll eat it up. For some reason, Yankees got strange sentimental notions about Mississippi” (79). In this story the heroine actually works at passing as the stereotype of the southern hillbilly. Another “skill” deeply ingrained in Allison’s characters is a strong distrust of authority of any kind, a very different lesson than the one taught to middle class children. In Bastard Out of Carolina it is the officials in the city hall who stigmatize Bone as soon as she is born by stamping the word “illegitimate” in red letters at the bottom of her birth certificate. Bone’s mother, Anney, makes regular visits to the county courthouse attempting to plead with the authorities, trying to exchange Bone’s birth certificate for a new one. She is turned down each time by the employees.

Passing and the Fictions of Third Wave Subjectivity


Her wish is only realized when the courthouse, the source of authority and law in the county, burns down, along with all the documents stored there. The explosion of good humor among Bone’s family members is unanimous: “[Mama] blew at the sparks again, whistling into the phone and then laughed out loud. Halfway across town, Aunt Ruth balanced the phone against her neck, squeezed Granny’s shoulder, and laughed. Over at the mill, Aunt Alma looked out a window at the smoke billowing up downtown and had to cover her mouth from giggling like a girl” (Bastard 16). A blow to the system of authority which classifies them as “white trash” is cause for celebration. Class is not only behavior, it is also a shared set of values. A strong distrust of the values commonly accepted as important in middle class society is crucial for the forming of a fear of “being discovered for who one really is” which Allison writes about in her memoirs and which is a topic that comes up repeatedly in other stories of upward social mobility. Bastard Out of Carolina, “Steal Away” and most of Allison’s other works are also a provocative and in-your-face settlings of accounts with the myth of the good poor and a confrontation with the stereotypes of “white trash.” It is as if Allison is making a defiant statement: “So you think poor people steal? Here you are. They steal with their parents approval.” “So you think they try to cheat the system?” “They celebrate when it fails.” On a side note, this is also Allison’s strategy for dealing with the lesbian themes in her fiction–unapologetic, stark and defiant. Her lesbian characters do not replicate any of the “politically correct” ideas about lesbians. Just as her working class characters are not the poor of Charles Dickens, her lesbian characters are not created to send a positive political message to mainstream readers about how nice and unthreatening lesbians are. Nonetheless, the values and skills which the upwardly mobile characters learn at home are not just the art of deception and a distrust of authority, but also the power of the extended family network and family solidarity. In “You Nothing But Trash,” an article analyzing the concept of shame in Bastard Out of Carolina, J. Brooks Bouson traces how Allison “interweaves scenes of Bone’s abuse by her stepfather with episodes of respite and safety in which Bone stays with members of her extended family, such as her Aunt Ruth or her Aunt Raylene” (Bouson 118). It is the lack of this kinship support system which Allison’s upwardly mobile characters miss the most after they enter middle class life and which, more often than not, pushes them to attempt reconciliation with the families they grew up in. It is never an easy and unproblematic approval, a total and


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unconditional acceptance of one’s family, but a gradual coming to terms with the problematic legacy of working class origin.

3.7. Conclusion

Works by the three writers analyzed in this chapter share features which make it possible to classify them as third wave. They all deal with the formation of contemporary women’s subjectivity in the “borderlands.” Living in the borderlands, being a hybrid, are the shared experiences for most third wave subjects, although the exact mixtures which go into creating their hybrid identities are never the same. The subjects which emerge from this process not the cognitively autonomous subjects of Western philosophy, but are constantly in a state of flux and becoming. The subjectivity of the characters is shaped by numerous overlapping cross-identifications, rather than by the type of either/or binary affiliation characteristic of second wave feminism. Subjects of third wave literature are hybrids or mestizas, even if there was no actual race-mixing in their family’s heritage. They grow up in a world where they cannot take identity for granted, but need to constantly negotiate who they are and which aspects of their identity they choose to emphasize at a given time. The social and geographical mobility of life in the contemporary United States constantly forces them to reaffirm or change their affiliations. Economic circumstances force Bone’s family to move to a different state, the character in “Steal Away” is the first in her family to go to college, the divorce of Walker’s parents creates a need for the girl’s transcontinental travels, and Birdie’s mother’s sets off on a paranoid flight from the FBI– all these occurrences force the characters to renegotiate their identities in ways which may not have been possible if they were living in a different time, in a different place. As this chapter shows on the example of passing narratives, these multiplicitous subjects create narratives which reflect the changes in subjectivity, moving away from simple binary oppositions to more complex combinations. As Chela Sanvodal argues in Methodology of the Oppressed, these third wave feminist citizen subjects often realize certain technologies, with the aim of changing power relations in a way which would empower those who are oppressed. The third wave passing narratives analyzed in this chapter overtly realize the first three of Sandoval’s technologies of the methodology of the oppressed : sign- reading, deconstruction and meta-ideologizing. These are all “inner” technologies, visible on the level of the development of the characters’ subjectivity. Yet, it can also be argued that the existence of texts which are

Passing and the Fictions of Third Wave Subjectivity


preoccupied with revealing how third wave feminist subjects function in the world forces into being the fourth technology of democratics, that is the first outer technology which reaches out to other citizen-subjects with the intention of achieving socal change. In many ways, the existence of books such as the ones analyzed is exactly the same gesture as Adrian Piper’s handing out of Calling Cards to people who utter racist remarks. Although these texts are not as overtly political as second wave texts were, their very existence is sufficient for encouraging political changes in the consciousness of the readers.




we write tell-all books about our rotten childhoods the bad food you fed us -the coat-hanger beatings can i process my bad relationship with america, can we go to couple’s counseling can we sit down and talk about all this bad energy? —Michelle Tea 1

4.0. Introduction

This chapter combines an analysis of the work of writer Michelle Tea with background information on the riot grrrl movement, a radical strand within third wave feminism, originating in the punk music scene. It should begin with a disclaimer stating that Tea was never a formal member of a riot grrrl chapter, even though her politics, style and general background reflect the ideas of the movement, and even though reviewers often describe her books as providing an inside look into the riot grrrl and queercore communities. The reasons for Tea’s lack of formal involvement in riot grrrl are easy to understand after even a brief glance at the geographical/historical factors in her biography. She was born and raised

1 Michelle Tea. “The Beautiful.” The Beautiful: Collected Poems. San Francisco:


Chapter Four

on the East Coast while riot grrrl developed on the West Coast, and she is slightly older than most of the riot grrrls. Yet, looking at Tea’s work with the background knowledge of the riot grrrl movement gives it a certain ideological and aesthetic grounding. Respectively, Tea’s work is one of the few literary glimpses available into the radical third wave communities of the late 1980s and 1990s. Referencing the scarcity of materials available on the movement Julia Downes notices in her article on riot grrrls that a “spectre of mystery haunts those interested in documenting and writing about riot grrrl. It feels like an unwarranted invasion into the safe spaces of female youth, like reading that hidden diary, decoding a secret myth, or eavesdropping on a slumber party” (Downes 12). The movement has left behind a lot of volatile DIY publications, but no official history, even though, as some claim, it was the most radical fringe of the third wave and, certainly, in its heyday, the most numerous. Tea is in no way an official historian of Riot Grrrl, but the word “eavesdropping” is an excellent description of what she manages to achieve. With the observant eye of a documentary maker she captures herself and her punky and radical characters in their most private and intimate moments.

4.1. The Riot Grrrl movement

In one of the first inquiries into the politics and style of the Riot Grrrl movement, the article “U.S. Feminism-Grrrl Style! Youth Subcultures and the Technologies of the Third Wave,” Ednie Kaeh Garrison describes the purpose of the movement as “feminist consciousness raising within the punk subculture and the positive encouragement of women and girl artists and cultural producers” (155). In 1991 a group of young women active in the punk scene on the West Coast (specifically, in Olympia, WA) organized to protest sexism in the music underground and named themselves “Riot Grrrls.” The word “grrrl,” as Laurel Gilbert and Crystal Kile write in Surfergrrls:

coined by Bikini Kill singer and activist Kathleen Hanna, is a spontaneous