‘Why I Am Not a Feminist’ Author Jessa Crispin on Patriarchal Capitalism, Clickbait, and Feminist Art

"This is Pre-Revolutionary France, and you’re either the aristocrat with a fucking powdered wig on your head playing the harpsichord in shiny pants, or you’re the peasants with the guillotine."

In February, Jessa Crispin released her new book like a ninja hurling a throwing star across a crowded room. Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto has inspired essays, critiques, and interviews with the Kansas-born author and book critic, who founded and ran the literary website BookSlut from 2002 to 2016.

Despite her book’s disparaging of romance narratives, Crispin’s call for women to throw off the gilded shackles of capitalism’s comforts and dirty their hands for the cause smacks of a different kind of romance. Throughout the book, she uses her rebel posture as a shield to deflect many of the questions she herself raises. But, particularly post-election, Crispin’s voice is a bracing one. Her own “conversion experience,” as it were, came from working as a Planned Parenthood staffer in Austin, Texas, and she’s frustrated by what she describes as “the disconnect between feminist rhetoric and the actual lived experience of women.” Her book is an invigorating splash of cold water on the suspiciously warm and fuzzy brand of feminism that assures women their every indulgence is simply another brick on the pathway to feminist nirvana.

I spoke to Crispin about her new book, the purpose of “feminist pop culture,” and what to do with men.


Flavorwire: Your book reads like it was intended for the lay-woman — you mention other feminist thinkers but it’s not really a history or chronology of feminist thought.

Jessa Crispin: I’ve read so many feminist books over the past ten years as a critic, and there is a definite structure of what that book is, and it mostly starts with, “Here are all the wrongs that are done against women.” It’s the list of complaints, and then establishing yourself within the tradition of who you’re referencing. And I just would die if I wrote a book like that.

Any books in particular?

I could name you a thousand bad examples but I would rather not be turned into that feminist clickbait thing — “Jessa Crispin Against X.” There’s nothing you can do to totally insulate yourself from that kind of reaction. But I was very conscious of, let’s not make it easy.

I think a lot about how to be an effective critic in the age of clickbait — how to make your work stand out and reach people in this sea of content without oversimplifying it. I don’t know if there is a way to do that.

There’s always going to be somebody who gets something out of misrepresenting your work. I was reading this Guardian review of the movie Elle — why this review is coming out five months after the film I don’t know, but for whatever reason there was a new piece by a declared feminist, and she repeatedly misrepresented the content of the film in order to state her idea that the movie is an abomination — that it’s bad for women. There is absolutely nothing you can do if somebody has an agenda like that.

Did you anticipate that kind of reaction in regards to anything specific in your book?

Even before the book was written, people on Twitter were mad about the title.

Was the title your idea or did an editor suggest it?

Oh, that was me. I was just drunk.

The book can be really satisfying to read — it speaks to this cathartic expression of frustration and rage that I think a lot of women feel. And I agree with your critique of “lifestyle feminism” that fits a little too nicely in our capitalist society, which you argue is a contradiction. But how does one begin to dismantle capitalism? Where does the first brick come out?

Well, that’s the thing. Every aspect of our lives is rooted in patriarchal capitalism, and by that I just mean hierarchies of power. The way that we organize our love lives through marriage and the nuclear family is a kind of patriarchal support system. The way that we organize our cities is a patriarchal support system — our jobs, everything. If anything, the most important task is to imagine other ways of organizing that aren’t based in exploitation. Is there a possibility of purity? No. And there’s no one solution. My heroes are always the mystics and the weirdos and the eccentrics and people who are 100 percent incapable of living out a normal life, and then try some sort of crazy experiment.

I feel the same. But when I hear these kinds of arguments I often think, well that works for me but what about the countless women who just want to live a normal life, but also don’t want to be oppressed? Is that even possible?

No. If all you want is comfort and a nice house somewhere and marriage and children and property taxes and a nice kindergarten — if you don’t understand that your comfort is built on the backs of countless others, then I have nothing to say to you. I just can’t have a conversation with these bougie, married women who are like, “I agree with you in principle but you know, can I just donate somewhere?” No, you can’t.

But don’t we have to have that conversation? Don’t we need those women who want to get married and move to the suburbs but who also took part in the Women’s March?

No, we don’t need them.

What do we do with women like that, whose hearts are in the right place but maybe don’t see the connection between their personal lives and the bigger picture?

I don’t know. That’s part of the problem — if you’re still rooted in the culture, then you’re going to see the solutions to your supposed problems as tools of the culture. So if you’re rooted in capitalism, you’re going to think that your money can solve things. If you buy organic produce, if you know your farmer, if you give Planned Parenthood some money, that’s activism, and it’s not. It’s always people who don’t have access to mainstream culture who can see it for what it is. Their traditions, their values, are not deeply rooted in what everybody else is stuck in. You can be converted, you can be made to see the light, but for the most part people are going to resist that process.

And you think we don’t need to worry about those people?

I don’t know, at this point in our culture, what excuse certain people have for not standing in the light. It’s like saying, how many more people have to be killed by the police, live-streamed on the internet, for people to understand that there’s a problem? How many Bangladeshi clothing factories have to fall down, killing hundreds of people, for people to stop shopping at H&M? There is a willful blindness now, I think, where we have access to information and we’re just choosing not to see our part in it. Not to be super cynical and violent, but to me this is Pre-Revolutionary France, and you’re either the aristocrat with a fucking powdered wig on your head playing the harpsichord in shiny pants, or you’re the peasants with the guillotine, and it’s your choice which side you’re on. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. But I do honestly believe that. This is what I see happening.

You write in your introduction that feminism has become “a decade-long conversation about which television show is a good television show and which television show is a bad television show.” As a TV critic I don’t totally agree, but I know what you’re saying. What frustrates me is when people assume that any show, good or bad, should have an effect on actual women’s lives. But for me, pop culture can be useful in helping people imagine different ways of being in the world, and I see your book as an example of that. Where do you see pop culture’s role in the feminist movement? Or should we just ignore it entirely?

Whenever somebody starts talking about whether or not a movie or a TV show is feminist, it’s about, does it line up with ideology? Does a woman behave in a kind of “perfect” way? Feminists freaked the fuck out over Elle. I thought it was brilliant, I’ve seen it five times. I’m really into Gone Girl, the Fincher film. I love it so much and the feminist backlash to it was so predictable and stupid. Like, “You can’t have a woman faking a rape onscreen because then no one will ever believe that women are being honest in their accusations.” Really? Feminism is — or should be — a political ideology, and these sort of lifestyle things, pop culture things, are distractions from the groundwork of actual politics. Do I think that feminists and “enlightened” figures should be absolutely pushing forward their agenda in the art that they make? Yes. Do I think that [Elle director Paul] Verhoeven and [David] Fincher are part of that? Yes, absolutely. And the reason they piss off feminists is because they’re honest. Feminist art is corny, it’s terrible, it’s tedious. There’s a conversation that’s been going on that we’re having, again — is Buffy the Vampire Slayer a feminist work of art? No! No, it’s not! It’s garbage and problematic as fuck. A woman destroying evil with violence but is still cute and fuckable?

Why is Gone Girl brilliant but Buffy is not?

The thing I liked about Gone Girl was, the character seemed like a woman who was using stereotypes and expectations for female behavior against themselves. She understood how women are treated in the culture and she used that to her advantage to fake her own death. So much of those rape revenge fantasy films, where a woman is raped so then she kills — that’s such a masculine version. “If I were raped, that’s what I would do, so I assume that’s what a woman would do.” That doesn’t seem genuine to me. All those stories are written and directed by men, and they’re not smart. But Gone Girl seems to have a very interesting feminine consciousness under it, and I love and trust Fincher to deal with gender. It’s a very unpopular opinion to have but I still think Fight Club is brilliant, I think his serial killer movies are brilliant. He understands power, he understands gender dynamics. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, on the other hand, there’s the love triangle, that sense that every man is in love with Buffy. The laziest way a filmmaker or storyteller [can] convey to the audience that a woman has value is to have men fall in love with her.

It’s interesting to hear you say this, because there is a real sort of romance to the way you write about feminism, or even to hear you talk about our current political moment as Pre-Revolutionary France. I think that kind of drama can be useful because it gets people fired up and want to act. When you talk about pop culture as a distraction, I understand that and for the most part I agree, but I also feel like it’s impossible not to be distracted by it. It’s our wallpaper.

I guess it just doesn’t play a very big role in my life. The things I like have always been, for whatever reason, obscure and unpopular. Throughout my entire career, people have labeled me as a contrarian, which is a really good way of delegitimizing my work because I don’t have a genuine worldview — my worldview is a response to or a reaction to the mainstream. Havel wrote about how he hated the word “dissident” because it positioned him outside the culture, and positioned him within a different, parallel culture.

How would you defend yourself against the “contrarian” label?

I don’t know that I find it interesting to try to defend it, other than to say, it’s possible to think that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is bullshit, and it’s possible to come to that from a gendered place, and not have a desire to be unpopular or edgy or whatever.

But that is a really satisfying stance to take — I know I get a little fired up when I don’t like something that everyone else seems to like.

I don’t know if I feel that way. Most things I go into in this genuine sense of, “Maybe I will like this.” I don’t come to things with the expectation that they’re going to be terrible. Although I did do that with The Young Pope — I thought I was going to hate The Young Pope and I was like, crying through every episode, texting my friends, “The Young Pope understands me!” I’m actually writing about it, because I feel like everybody is wrong about it.

Why?

It’s about what happens when you remove the feminine from the religious experience. He’s obsessed with everybody’s conversion experience — he makes everyone tell him, when did you know, which is the Holy Spirit, which is the feminine aspect. Because he never had that, he never had the feminine. [Ed. note: Crispin is referring to the show’s protagonist, played by Jude Law, an American-born pope who was orphaned as a baby.] He doesn’t drink, which, archetypally, is a feminine experience — drinking, dissolving, softening. He smokes, which is super phallic, so it’s all about — the ending is him sort of finally experiencing the feminine.

It sounds like you’re writing a piece about feminist pop culture! This could be on Jezebel, I hate to tell you.

Oh, no! Fuck me, no.

Tonally, your book is pretty confrontational, which I like — it snaps you awake. But I felt like there was a contradiction there, because at times you argue that we all need to be a part of this fight, but then you seem to say that if you’re not interested in this version of feminism than we don’t want you. How do you speak to all women in a way that will get them engaged? Or is that a fool’s errand?

I think it’s a fool’s errand to try to convert a woman who’s very comfortable and who has no empathy to feel empathy. Should we be open and welcoming to anyone who finally comes around? Yes. But at this point we shouldn’t necessarily waste our time.

So do you think the idea that literature breeds empathy is bullshit?

Hitler read a lot of books. Stalin read a lot of books.

I’m pretty sure Steve Bannon’s fairly well read.

Yeah, he seems to really enjoy like, eight books.

I don’t want to get into Trump too much, but what does interest me about this administration is that their description of the world and how awful it is it sounds like a big blockbuster movie. That’s also why I sometimes feel we need to fight fire with fire and counter those visions with an alternate version of what our world looks like or could look like. And I think film and television give people a framework for thinking about the world in different ways.

I wrote a piece for The Baffler about how dystopia can only be fought by utopia. But it’s worrying to me that feminists are like, “We don’t have our own superhero movie.” The whole superhero idea is that the world burns and one hero rises to save everybody, which is gross. Are we going to talk about the power dynamics and the fascistic impulses buried in that? The Hunger Games is the same idea, but now it’s a teenager. Once the apocalypse happens, teenagers are going to be useless! I don’t know why that’s the dominant storyline — one teen will save us.

I don’t see it happening that much in film, envisioning a way forward, and if I did that would maybe be interesting but I’m very cynical about the ability of — is there anything more embedded in consumerist capitalist culture than Hollywood and television?

The superhero thing also strikes me as a very American kind of fantasy — one man to save us all. You’ve done a lot of traveling, some which you wrote about in your last book, The Dead Ladies Project. Have you encountered any models for the kind of ideal community you’d like to see amongst women in the U.S.?

Most of the manifesto was written in Athens and Istanbul, because a) I check Twitter less there, and b) I know anarchists and political rebels there, who are living in squats, who are organizing these alternative community centers. My friend Jeffrey in Athens runs a monastery which is a kind of communal living space that’s engaged in providing shelter for refugees and organizing community networks for people to go to so they don’t have to go to the police, because the police have a bad habit there of hitting people and shooting them in the face. What do you do if the police force is abusive? Rather than just resist the police, replace them. It doesn’t feel like the American imagination is up for the problems it faces. You don’t see an organized anarchist movement that does anything but set shit on fire. It’s fine if they want to set some shit on fire, but destruction is not a creative process.

At the end of your book, you write that this is not just a project for women — the goal is to learn to take care of each other as humans. Men are humans, too. So what do we do with men? 

We tolerate them, we give them the space to figure things out on their own, but we don’t sacrifice for them. The thing that I keep coming back to is that men have not encountered feminism yet. We’re a hundred years into this project. I can think of like, three interesting straight men on the planet who seem in some way enlightened in the gender project. I just don’t feel like they have that much to offer at this point, bless their hearts.

What if we want to have sex with them?

So fuck them. People express to me their frustration with the contradiction they think I make in my book — that we need to be empathetic toward men but they should also not be our problem. But to me those are two different things. I have straight male friends; I don’t do emotional labor for them. I like them but when they start asking for dating advice and when they start making excuses and when they start resisting understanding of how they are a problem in women’s lives, then I just refuse to participate in that. I refuse to try to make things easier for them to understand. And I can have empathy for that but I’m not going to spend my time trying to drag them into consciousness. That’s not our job. They have the information — if they’re not using it, that’s their problem.

What would be the most helpful thing for every woman to go out and do, tomorrow?

Divorce their husbands.

What if they’re good guys?

Have you ever met a husband and you’re like, “Oh yeah no, this seems OK, he seems to really support her”?

What if you want children and you don’t want to raise them alone and you need a legal framework for making sure that doesn’t happen?

We need to establish that. But fuck that. Raise them with your sisters or your friends.

What if you’re raising a boy and you want him to have a male presence?

Find some queers. There are some nice gay men. I’m not saying we should shun all men, but we should stop carrying their bodies on our backs. They should stop being strengthened by our presence. If we’re not actually getting anything other than cash from them, then we need to get out. I feel like most women I know who are married have the financial support system of their husbands and absolutely no other support system — the emotional support and intellectual support comes from their social groups. So leave your husbands, live in communes, join a coven. I don’t know what else to say.