Feminism is Boring 

What Will Sarah Vowell Say?

This weekend, Sarah Vowell will stand up in the seedy Roseland Theatre--a venue soaked in cigarette smoke and used almost exclusively for rock and rap shows--and, of all things, read. The fact that she's not doing it as a guest speaker at a private college, and that Fasttixx can charge $15, is a good example of Vowell's ubiquitous appeal as a writer of essays on popular culture, despite her presence as contributing editor on otherwise-pretentious NPR. In her other work (Vowell has written two books: Radio On, and Take the Cannoli, lots of articles in national magazines, and she also writes a column in Salon) Vowell has chronicled a moment in this generation by talking about, among other American wonders, high school in Montana. I took this opportunity to ask her about an American institution I've been confused about lately: feminism.

A lot of feminist magazines and academic feminists bore me with tired rhetoric and insular audiences. But your work doesn't, and I think it's because you apply all that theory--the act of carrying out feminism without saying as much. Do you purposely try to stay away from theoretical arguments?

Yes. I'm definitely a feminist, but I'm 31 years old, and when I first started writing I would bring the f word up a lot more than I do now; especially when I started writing about music in the end of the whole riot girl thing, and it seemed to be a new era of feminism where you could be a bratty, bitchy, funny girl, and still be part of the grand sisterhood--it also didn't seem like there were many girls in rock criticism. But at this point, I feel the most important part about being a feminist is earning equal pay for equal work, and I've achieved that.

I noticed that you had a recent piece in Esquire magazine. Do you ever have any reservations about writing for a "men's magazine"?

One reason I like writing for Esquire is that it just cracks me up to think of who is reading me, because a lot of the content of the magazine is how to impress girls, etc.--and my writing isn't about that at all. But I don't think of it in terms of male or female; in Esquire or GQ I can write a thoughtful, intelligent piece.

But they're still promoting the idea that this kind of literature is only appealing to a certain class and race of men.

Oh, certainly, but not in the five pages that they're running my story. I just like writing that is thoughtful and honest, and I don't really care where it appears. Plus, you know, as a feminist, I talked about financial freedom--GQ totally paid my student loans. I owe my financial freedom to Gentlemen's Quarterly.

Would you write for a magazine that took "men's literature" even further? Would you write for Playboy? Maxim?

No. I do draw the line. I do think Maxim is evil. Playboy--I have a certain old-school respect for the contributions of Hef, because he always said the sexual revolution was really for women, but I still wouldn't write for them. When I began writing I had more morals, probably, but I've just been so beaten down by the marketplace

Interesting that you say you don't have any morals, because what you just said sounds really well thought-out.

Well, maybe I just mean that that I don't have a manifesto anymore.

A lot of your writing deals with making your private life public. How does that affect you personally? Is it empowering?

I don't know if that's empowering; I guess part of it comes from being a music fan and a fan of movies. Because when you're a fan, it's not just about the object of your fandom; it's about your relationship to those objects. I started writing as a critic, and all the critics that I always loved and admired occasionally throw you that bone of personal revolution.

But does it make you more vulnerable?

I'm glad you think I write about private things, because I actually don't. That's one reason that I write essays; I can point the camera at where I want the audience to look. I'm not one of those completely raw people who tell you everything. For example, there was a person in my life for two years, who I will never, never write about.

Why not?

Well, that's why I'll never write about them.

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