“Is this feminist?” is one of the least interesting questions I can think of, so I was ready for former Bookslut editor Jessa Crispin’s new book, Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, a critique of contemporary feminism, out now from Melville House. I thought she might consider more interesting questions, so I was disappointed, then, to find 150 pages dedicated to trying to answer that very boring question—and to do it in a prescriptive way for other feminists. Why I Am Not a Feminist, which it turns out is neither particularly feminist nor really much of a manifesto, makes for a baffling, unpleasant read.
The breadth of Crispin’s disdain for other women’s choices in this book is apparently boundless. Just a few of the things Crispin disapproves of other women doing: marrying men, enjoying TV shows, buying rotisserie chickens, having jobs so they can pay off student loans, supporting Hillary Clinton (I guess we should be glad Trump won?), and wanting rapists to go to jail. Crispin repeatedly privileges a highly subjective ideological purity over any real engagement with why people might make the choices they do. It is from this predetermined, closed-off starting point that she writes her book, and the result is just as disjointed, exhausting, and unproductive as you’d expect.
When, in a recent interview, Crispin took Beyoncé’s feminism to task, as if that is a productive thing for a white feminist to do, and misrepresented the work of writer Rebecca Traister, I gave her the benefit of the doubt (why?). I wish I hadn’t. Because books like this—that package self-righteous anger at other women as if it’s some kind of feminist project—aren’t just poorly conceived, they’re straight-up irresponsible.
Besides, movements don’t run on ideological purity. They run on communication and mutual respect, and an understanding that none of us are perfect, that we’re all figuring it out, and sometimes people take time to evolve their own political views and unlearn the garbage that many of us grow up with (a generosity Crispin, oddly, affords men in her book, but not women).
Though Crispin talks up “compassion and care,” empathy is something not much present in Why I Am Not a Feminist, and that’s a shame. It’s odd to read a polemic against contemporary feminism that takes no concrete stock of feminist activism as it currently stands. The bikini-wax-loving, man-loving, Sheryl Sandbergian straw feminist Crispin rails against in her book reads as an odd construction in the wake of events like January’s Women’s March on Washington and long-established movements like the fight for reproductive rights. It would have been interesting if Crispin had taken her reader to the front lines of these efforts. Instead, I found myself wondering if Crispin had herself spent any meaningful time there, or if the reason she can cling to such a tidy ideology is that she has no experience in the messy work of actually getting shit done.
I also worry that Crispin puts too much emphasis on the importance of disavowing the term “feminist”—as if a white lady with a book eschewing the label because it’s become too popular is at all the most interesting case for its rejection. And that does seem to be Crispin’s concern with feminism: that women whose choices she may not individually approve of get to take part. To this end, Crispin repeatedly makes vague blanket statements about the things some of these bad feminists are supposedly doing to upset her. It makes what should be a searing manifesto into a judgmental, joyless cataloguing of Good Feminism (Crispin’s) and Bad Feminism (yours, if you get married or watch TV), that proposes no concrete solutions to the societal problems it ostensibly discusses, and claims to be steeped in academic second-wave feminist texts while dismissing the idea of intersectionality as “relatively new.”
At times, Crispin’s arguments sound more in line with someone like Megyn Kelly (their stance on free speech is the same) or the Brocialists of Twitter than the second-wave intellectuals she claims young feminists have forgotten. And I’m not so sure they have. After reading her book, I’m still not convinced the problem Crispin is attacking actually exists. Certainly, there is a strain of performative fake feminism mapped out by writers like Portland’s Andi Zeisler, but are feminists the cause of this? Or is advertising?
Crispin makes no effort to differentiate. And ultimately, her book suffers from the very thing it sets out to condemn. If Crispin hopes to critique feminists for not thinking boldly enough, why is her book so contextually shallow? Why no endnotes? Why no references? Why no calling out these Bad Feminists by name? This is a book with plenty of bluster, but not enough nuance. It suffers from its own central critique: It calls on feminism to be more rigorous, but isn’t rigorous itself.