Against New Feminism
Last September, the McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo, New York, hosted an event to celebrate the publication of the critical edition of Chris Kraus’s Aliens and Anorexia. The event was called “Alien Insurrection: An Evening with Chris Kraus, Emily Gould, Ariana Reines, Kate Zambreno, and Others,” and Kraus and seven other women were to give readings of the book and discuss “new feminism,” which I had never heard of. The venue was packed, the whole bottom floor of the bookstore overflowing with women: women wearing all black, women with notebooks, women with their hair heaped on top of their heads in the turn-of-the-century Gibson Girl style popular in the lit world. It was clearly an event that both the audience and the panel of readers had dressed up for, and everyone was eyeing each other up and down, unused, I think, to seeing so many other literary women in a room, uninterrupted by the presence of men.
Yet the event that everyone had dressed up for never materialized. Chris Kraus and the other panelists did read from Aliens and Anorexia, but it was almost impossible to understand any of them. Each spoke with her own theatrical affect; some in a quiet, sexy husk, others with an overly-dramatic swell of gravitas. The result was that no one in the audience—which I imagine was mostly made up of fans of Kraus’ more famous book I Love Dick—gained any sense of what Aliens and Anorexia was about.
Inclined to leave, I made myself stay because I wanted to hear the panel about “new feminism.” This, unfortunately, did not occur. After over an hour of reading, ten or fifteen minutes were spent on audience questions, all of which were, like the reading, answered obscurely with varying degrees of performative flourish. Then the event ended. There was no panel, and “new feminism” was never mentioned. My suspicion is that this is because new feminism does not exist.
One of the readers at the Alien Insurrection talk, Kate Zambreno, wrote a book called Heroines that was edited by Kraus and published in 2012 by what Zambreno calls the “dumb cunt” imprint of Semiotext(e), an MIT-based publisher founded by Kraus’ husband, the French literary and cultural critic Sylvère Lotringer. Heroines is memoir-criticism, a hybrid text that blends Zambreno’s investigation into the crimes against the “mad” wives of modernism with an account of her own life. “Mad” is in quotation marks because part of Zambreno’s project is to challenge the pathologization of these women as insane. Perhaps “wives” of “modernism” should be in quotations too; after all, not all the women Zambreno writes about were wives (Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein), some were more famous than their husbands (Virginia Woolf), and several were not from the modernist period at all (Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Sylvia Plath).
Zambreno’s initial premise is to accuse the modernist husbands— along with other male conspirators—of their wives’ spiritual, creative, and even literal murder. (Zelda Fitzgerald, as most people know, burned to death in Highland Hospital, the asylum in which Scott had originally placed her. She was confined within a locked room, most likely tied to a bed.) In fact, she claims, few or none of these women were mad in the first place, but were rather driven insane by the impossibility of life alongside men who beat, raped, and neglected them, stole and suppressed their work, forbade them from writing, committed them to asylums, and abandoned them. There are probably few within the cautious world of the academy who would have attempted such radical revisionism for this large and messy collection of cultural figures, and Zambreno’s work is persuasive and important. Yet Heroines works best when Zambreno’s touch is light or nonexistent, when she lets the modernist women speak for themselves. Take, for example, this announcement Vivien(ne) Eliot, wife of T.S., unsuccessfully attempted to have placed in the Times: “Will T.S. Eliot please return to his home, 68 Clarence Gate Gardens, which he abandoned Sept. 17th, 1932.” Zambreno is a skilled curator of this kind of astonishing, heartbreaking primary material. Perhaps her greatest asset is knowing when to let the modernist women speak for themselves, and allowing their broken, desperate words ring out.
Zambreno told an interviewer in The Paris Review: “I’m not sure I think much about academia.” This is evident in Heroines, a text entirely out of touch with contemporary academic feminism. While this out-of-touchness is certainly not a bad thing in itself (it could, under different circumstances, have been a great thing), even the most casual reader of “third wave” academic feminism will cringe at much of Zambreno’s book, and for good reason. As much as she rails against the second wavers, Zambreno still succumbs to many of their most embarrassing missteps: erasing queerness and people of color, embracing gender essentialism, and treating the issue of domestic labor with haughty disdain.
Lesbianism is mentioned twice in Heroines: once, when Zambreno erases it (“I mean, Gertrude Stein was basically a patriarch, right?”) and again when, discussing Djuna Barnes, she irritatingly refers to it as “girl-on-girl.” This absence is certainly a strange choice for a book that includes fairly extensive analysis of Barnes’ Nightwood as well as exploration of the biographies of Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, Anaïs Nin, June Miller, and Barnes’ lovers Thelma Wood and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, all of whom were unquestionably on the spectrum of what we now think of as queer.
Throughout Heroines Zambreno returns to the idea of a wife: what it means to be a wife and to act as a wife—“to wife” as a verb. In discussing her relationship with her own husband, John, Zambreno goes back and forth between enthusiastically placing herself within the lineage of the abused modernist wives, and claiming that John—who cooks and cares for her, financially supports her, and facilitates her career as a writer—is really the one doing the “wifing.” In any case, Zambreno’s point is clear: To wife is to lose. In her words, the wife is the “pawn,” powerless and used. The author Mary Gaitskill, whom Zambreno lists in her book as one of her contemporary heroines, argued in an interview with The Believer that while she and her husband take turns playing the “wife,” what they could really use is a third party to “wife” both of them so they could get on with the important aspects of their lives. As our post-second wave, post-Equal Pay Act society shows us, the idea of wife-as-loser inevitably leads to the desire for a “third party wife.” Indeed, almost all powerful white women—women who, according to popular culture, are the ones advancing the cause of feminism, the shards of a broken glass ceiling glittering at their feet—are “wifed” by poor brown women who they employ to be the loser so they don’t have to, so they can be on equal footing with their powerful white husbands. What Zambreno and Gaitskill don’t acknowledge is that someone is always going to have to perform the domestic labor and personal sacrifices associated with the role of the wife, and that therefore characterizing the wife as loser preserves the hierarchy of some people over others, even if the actors end up being switched. If Zambreno’s argument were more expansive, if it acknowledged queerness not only within the lives of its historical subjects but also as something that exists now, she would probably have found an escape route out of this wife-as-loser trap, born out of a narrow, white, “lavender menace” era of feminism.
The front cover of Heroines is a collage of pictures of women featured in the book. They are all white except Nina Simone, and I was intrigued to see how Simone would be incorporated into a book about the wives of modernist writers. Well, this is how: There is a single sentence about Nina Simone in the entire book, and the sentence is about her irrelevance. It is during a scene in which Kate the narrator and John are on a tour of Highland Hospital, the asylum where Zelda Fitzgerald burned to death. Kate feels that the tour guide is paying insufficient attention to Zelda, and illustrates this by writing: “For a moment maybe these tourists are silent, attuned to Zelda’s story: a screwball comedy become tragedy. Or perhaps the guide is now narrating that Nina Simone took singing lessons with Dr. Carroll’s [the hospital director’s] wife as a young girl.” This is how Nina Simone ended up on the cover of Heroines. It’s almost comical, like a private school brochure trying to disguise a racially homogenous student population with a picture of a black girl. This lie—this appropriation of one of the most important black artists of the 20th century—is a crime in itself. Yet it also reveals a key flaw in Zambreno’s work: its limited perspective, its fixation with the visible. To say that there were no modernist writers of color is exactly the kind of lie, the kind of erasure, that Heroines is supposed to be reversing; yet with her whitewashed cast of characters, Zambreno becomes a perpetrator.
One of the most pervasive ideas about feminism is that it is in constant need of reinvention—a damsel forever in need of saving. From this perspective, “new feminism” is an appealing title, though a completely non-specific one; those outside of academic and activist feminist movements are keen to see every phase of feminism as a revolutionary, back-to-the-drawing board moment, as opposed to something that has grown organically out of centuries of heterogeneous thinking and fighting. The blurb on the back cover of Heroines claims that Kate Zambreno “reinvents feminism for her generation.” Is this the “new feminism” that was promised at McNally Jackson? If so, this would suggest a movement encompassing Zambreno and Kraus and the other speakers, along with people like Kathy Acker, and Eileen Myles, and Sheila Heti, and even the horrendous performances of Marie Calloway, whom Zambreno defended in an essay on Thought Catalog called “All the Sad Young Pretty Girls.” Note the word “pretty.” In one of the few negative reviews of Heroines, Emily Keeler wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “A feminist friend emails me about Heroines… ‘I inherently distrust the kind of woman who is obsessed with glamour, to me a bit of an empty suit.’” It’s true: Zambreno is obsessed with glamour to the point of shallowness, often to the point of absurdity. She fixates on the outfits of the modernist women, describing how she buys flapper-style dresses so she can look like them. In perhaps the most ridiculous moment in an often ridiculous book, she writes about buying a nail polish from the “Swiss collection” of the expensive brand O.P.I. as an “homage” to the period of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life she spent locked up in a Swiss asylum. I would assume this was a joke, were this not a book filled with details about Zambreno’s outfits and many trips to Sephora, and which argues that to dismiss these details as insulting to Fitzgerald, frivolous, or vain, would automatically be an anti-feminist move.
Zambreno, having saved the modernist women from the pathologizing, belittling narrative bestowed on them by academic literary criticism, having emphasized that their writing is important and worthy of study, bizarrely appropriates them in order to make an argument for—to adopt a series of the adjectives she uses—“damaged girl internet diary writing.” This genre unfortunately extends beyond Zambreno and the blog that provided the basis for Heroines, Frances Farmer Is My Sister. It encompasses Calloway and others—in fact, according to Zambreno, encompasses all of the girls and women blogging on Tumblr (“So many of these Tumblr spaces are gorgeously written.” Are they?). It takes us beyond the premise that there is value in women’s writing to the weirdly essentialist idea that there is inherent value in all writing by women. “A disgust for Anaïs Nin is perhaps a disgust for the girls with their online diaries.” Perhaps. But even if this is true, the reverse is not; just because one woman’s diaries are worth reading, doesn’t mean all women’s diaries are.
The kind of internet writing Zambreno is fighting for is more regurgitative than deliberate (she actually uses the word “bulimic,” in the true Tumblr tradition of glamorizing eating disorders and thinness). In the online diaries of Zambreno’s “fucked up girls,” suffering—particularly gendered suffering, eating disorders, self-harm, and degrading sexual encounters—is aestheticized. This raises suspicions about much of the critical content of Heroines, fixated as it is on the mental illness, abuse, and suicide of the modernist women it seeks to save. Woody Allen in Annie Hall: “Sylvia Plath—interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.” Why else is Sylvia Plath even in Heroines? She’s not a modernist and wasn’t married to one, but she is very popular on Tumblr.
Zambreno’s “new” feminism is decidedly anti-aspirational. (Stylish) suffering is presented as an integral part of femininity or “girliness” (the words Zambreno uses are “fucked-up,” “toxic,” “damaged,” “messy,” “goopy” (?), “gooshy” (??), and, hundreds of times, “girl”/“girly,” as if it were an intentional fuck-you to feminism that tells people not to use “girls,” but “women”). Zambreno’s feminism is for women whose mothers were feminists in the ’70s and ’80s and who therefore resent the shoulder-padded, you-can-have-it-all, you’re-a-woman-not-a-girl kind of feminism. It is unsurprising that Kraus, Zambreno, et al. are popular with college-educated, white, heterosexual literary women, women who are smart and accomplished and who were told they were inheriting the earth, yet who find themselves still surrounded by Great White Literary Men who would rather fuck them than read their work. New feminism is for women who sleep with men in an era of unpaid internships and ubiquitous internet porn. There’s a moment in Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s zeitgeisty Frances Ha when Frances’s best friend Sophie, who has a successful career in the lit world, describes the guy she’s seeing: “It’s like with me and Patch…the way he always likes to come on my face.” She adds, “He’s a nice guy,” and later in the movie they get engaged. New feminism is for the women engaged to Patch.
The problem is that, like the talk at McNally Jackson, like most of the internet girl writing Zambreno defends, there is no substance to new feminism. At its worst, new feminism is a way around feminism, a way of accepting anti-feminist practices under the banner of feminism. Zambreno writes that, earlier in her life, she was “convinced that I was going to be a writer, even though I hadn’t yet written anything.” She later says of the Tumblr bloggers, “Many of these girls identify intensely as writers, as artists,” never drawing a distinction between identifying as something and producing the work (be it art or feminist theory/practice) that qualifies you to adopt such an identity. The same problem exists for new feminism, so often a title with nothing beneath it. New feminism was born into a climate of unchecked sex positivity, of a desire for feminism that was appealing to the general public, and of extreme sensitivity to what Zambreno calls “girl-on-girl crime”—misogyny committed by women, women labeling other women as “bad feminists.” New feminists thus cannot be called bad feminists even when they are; even when they erase women of color, ventriloquize dead female writers, or glamorize mental illness. It is within this lack of borders, of boundaries, that new feminism supposedly resides. But there do need to be boundaries of quality. There need to be standards for what counts as valuable writing, just as there need to be standards for what counts as valuable feminism.
Without these boundaries, everything bleeds out and in, and in place of so-called new feminism we are left with nothing.