All writing is political. Whether or not it is about politics doesn’t matter. From historical novels to children’s books, personal blogs to celebrity memoirs, writing exists in a political realm that shapes and is shaped by the way a product is created, where it is published, who buys it and how it is received. In this realm some people have power and others don’t, some narratives are celebrated and others aren’t. The politics of writing comes down to space: who gets to occupy it and who is left out.
Memoir and autobiography can be ways of claiming space, of demanding to be seen. In her 1976 article, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous writes, “woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.” Particularly when one’s identity is oppressed in the real world, the very act of writing about that identity is a radical act: you literally write yourself into existence.
Women of colour, women with disabilities, Indigenous women, queer women and people outside the gender binary have been historically relegated to the fringes of the publishing industry. For these women, memoir is a particularly powerful tool to reshape the dominant narrative and claim space in the canon.
The Internet has changed the rules about who has access to the space of writing and, in turn, who will find an audience. From the early days of the LiveJournal blogging site to the current reign of Tumblr, first person testimonials are the lifeblood of online writing. Platforms like Twitter and Medium allow writers to connect directly with an audience. Self-disclosure has become mainstream, with companies like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat profiting from the human instinct to share—be it your feelings, your stories or what you ate for lunch.
Legacy media have been forced to adjust to the new world order. While publications like the Guardian and New York Times rely on editorials and opinion pieces, new media operations explicitly seek out underserved audiences. The Establishment differentiates itself by proudly declaring its commitment to “bolstering diverse voices, surfacing the stories of those most often erased, and stemming the tides of virulent misinformation with thoughtful, substantive, fact-based media.” GUTS, a Canadian feminist magazine, supports itself through Patreon, a service that allows readers to pay monthly donations, not unlike the way public radio operates in the United States. These new media ventures have seen a gap in the market and are finding the fresh voices to fill it.
The first person narrative still does well online, drawing large numbers of eyeballs to Internet publications and websites like Jezebel, Thought Catalog and Rookie, which specialize in the format. The xoJane series “It Happened To Me” is emblematic of the genre: “IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Father, Aunt and Uncle All Died Within a Four-Month Span,” reads one title; “IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Farted in My Tattoo Artist's Face While Getting My First Tattoo,” goes another.
This style of writing has been criticized for exploiting young women writers—and they are almost always women. There is a voracious appetite for these stories and a lot of competition. Authors go to extreme lengths to have their work published; editors are under increasing pressure to produce viral content. Among the ever-churning sea of content, however, a movement is afoot. The proliferation of such platforms, business models and stories creates the conditions for the next wave of feminism.
We live in a time of unprecedented access to other people's lives: you can follow an eating disorder survivor turned body positive blogger on Instagram; you can share an essay by a woman of colour about her experience as a computer scientist; you can listen to a podcast that exclusively interviews people who aren’t white men. The ability to easily access these stories, to learn from others about their experiences and to grow, can foster a more intersectional perspective of politics.
The women’s memoir, though not a new phenomenon, means something different in 2017 than it did in 2007 or 1997. The mid- to late-oughties have seen a rise in the publication of books by women that explicitly take up issues of feminism. This has a lot to do with the Internet and how it evolved over this period. I look at several of these memoirs here to examine the trend within the context of the particular aspect of feminist discourse the authors are trying to work through and improve upon.
Each of these books highlights a unique perspective in the confessional/memoir/personal essay genre, and can be traced back to the contemporary feminist movement that prioritizes identity and lived experience. They represent a thin, very recent sliver of the vast history of women’s writing, particularly memoir writing, but one that is shifting whose voices are heard, what perspectives are highlighted and whose thought is influential in society.
Gay at the TEDWomen 2015 conference in Monterey (Marla Aufmuth/TED)
For me, Bad Feminist stands out as a juggernaut in the canon that weaves together memoir, first person narrative and cultural criticism. Among the books discussed here it was also the first to be published, in mid-2014. Roxane Gay’s challenging title brought the conversation about feminism to the forefront. Even just seeing the word “feminist” everywhere helped hugely to normalize the discourse about it, especially online.
Like every good millennial feminist who spends a lot of time on the Internet, I follow Gay on Twitter. Her feed is a mix of live-tweeting television shows, insightful political and cultural commentary, and skewering trolls. Gay is just as lively in the media, where she challenges both interviewers and her audience to reconsider their notions.
“People think they know me, but they only know what I choose for them to know,” Gay said in an interview with the Pittsburgh City Paper. While she shares some extremely personal details in Bad Feminist, including of a sexual assault, you get the sense they are only what the author considered essential, rhetorically, to achieving her goal.
Bad Feminist takes pop culture deadly seriously. From interrogating the white saviour complex at the heart of the 2011 film The Help,to her love of catchy pop music that she knowsis misogynistic and problematic (think Robin Thicke’s 2014 song “Blurred Lines”), Gay uses pop culture to explore wider social and political issues such as racism, sexism and rape.
Throughout she is honest, funny and sharp. And all the while unapologetic—about her antipathy to feminism, her tastes (Gay loves Scrabble, I don’t), her intellect and her fortitude. By situating these essays in a wider cultural context, Gay explores the ways small bits of culture coalesce into broad social movements and collective ways of seeing the world, for both better and worse.
Halifax author Erin Wunker is also unapologetic if perhaps less ambiguous about her feminism, as the title of her new essay collection suggests. Notes From a Feminist Killjoy is a touching mix of memoir and cultural theory. An academic by vocation, Wunker deftly situates her personal experiences within the context of the thinkers she studies, both inside the canon and online. One of those sources, Sara Ahmed, inspired the title of the book with her concept of the feminist killjoy, and Wunker cites heavily from Ahmed’s blog, Feminist Killjoys: killing joy as a world making project.
True to form, the book begins with a methodology on intersectional feminism, which is the basis for Wunker’s broader work. “I’m inserting myself into a long and varied tradition of women and other marginalized people working from a situated position of knowledge,” she writes. The author proceeds to interrogate her choice of genre and style using the same critical lens she later focuses on rape culture, friendship and feminist mothering.
Wunker criticizes the inherent sexism in the notion that the “I” of situated knowledge is feminized, “and therefore narcissistic,” challenging herself to embrace the first person instead. In fact, Wunker revels in her situated knowledge, explicitly locating herself in her political context, namely as a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgendered woman. “I can only speak with authority for myself,” she explains.
Notes From A Feminist Killjoy is written as a series of short sections, almost aphoristically. Wunker explains that the book was written slowly, in fits and starts, small pieces at a time, in the months after her daughter was born. The result is a style that can be clunky at times, with awkward pacing. But this serves a greater purpose, as Wunker often writes around issues rather than about them.
In her powerful chapter on rape culture, for example, Wunker confronts the ways in which rape, and the spectre of rape, though often invisible, permeates our society. “Rape culture is shorthand for the reasons why women are taught to protect themselves from being raped, the consequence of which is that men are assumed to always already be potential rapists,” she writes.
In her halting style, Wunker shares the memory of a great aunt slapping her legs together because "good girls don’t sit with their legs open.” She describes being eight years old and followed home “by two boys from my class yelling at me about my breasts. I don’t yet wear a bra.” The anecdotes are brief but powerful. Wunker then mixes the personal and the political, bringing in other voices like Audre Lorde and, as mentioned, the British-Australian scholar Ahmed, to contribute to a larger discourse about rape culture that is currently being articulated in feminist thought.
I loved this book. Wunker's ability to put deeply intimate stories alongside critical analysis makes for an intellectually stimulating read that doesn't feel like work. Once I settled into her aphoristic style, I was able to enjoy how her thoughts flow into each other and develop into a new way of thinking about the world. Wunker doesn’t have all the answers, but she’s probing, grasping, fumbling toward something like an explanation—and it is a joy to be alongside her.
The concluding chapter in Lindy West’s 2016 memoir, Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman,is titled “Abortion Is Normal, It’s Okay to Be Fat, and Women Don’t Have To Be Nice To You.” It’s a fitting summary of some of the major theses of the book, and a great example of how West mixes humour and politics in her writing.
Shrill is a fairly straightforward memoir detailing West’s experience of growing up in Seattle, her relationship with her body, and her career as a successful columnist and critic. Her essays tell a story of a shy girl who found her voice. I admire how she weaves personal stories—about her abortion, her father’s death, her relationship with her husband—into broader discussions of politics, feminism and identity.
Before reading Shrill I had no idea that West began her career as a theatre critic for Seattle’s The Stranger, or that she had such close ties to the comedy scenes of her home town and Los Angeles. I already knew about her “war” on rape jokes, but believed falsely that her popularity was growing because she was a feminist writer. West explains the opposite is true: she was a writer first and only became a feminist writer after digesting how people reacted to her. West was framed as a radical feminist because she had the audacity to call out misogyny and toxicity in her community.
Shrill’s subtitle, “Notes From A Loud Woman,” is both a declaration and an explanation. Like so many of the books I read for this essay, the concept of space is central here. But when a self-described fat woman writes about taking up space it has a different meaning to academic musings about disparity in publishing statistics. West's writing on existing in a world that disparages her body, that insists she is unhealthy, that actively discriminates against her, that tells her she is worth less than other people, is deeply compelling.
West promotes her book in June 2016 (Emma Story)
The chapter “You’re So Brave for Wearing Clothes and Not Hating Yourself!” is an incredibly thoughtful and revealing description of West’s experience as a fat woman and why it is so problematic and toxic: “As a woman, my body is scrutinized, policed, and treated as public commodity. As a fat woman, my body is also lampooned, openly reviled, and associated with moral and intellectual failure.” West expresses the human toll that these toxic conceptions of health and body type take: “There was something about me that was symbolically shameful. It’s not that men didn't like me; it’s that they hated themselves for doing so. But why?”
As much as Shrill is about West’s identity as a fat woman, it is also about her identity as a writer and of becoming confident in her own ideas, her own voice, and the dark consequences of that visibility.
West was hired as a writer before the Internet really became “a thing.” She came up during the change from print to digital, and saw firsthand how mainstream publications reacted to developments like commenting, forums and social media.
When West talks about the abuse, harassment and trolling she has experienced as a fat woman writer on the Internet, she repeatedly frames it as workplace safety issue. Time and again, after showing the abusive comments to her colleagues and superiors, there came the same dismissive answers: revenue, free speech, “it’s just the Internet.”
The thing is, the Internet is real. The trauma is real. “Online harassment is not virtual—it is physical,” West writes. It takes a toll on one’s mental and physical health, the stress of the continued onslaught of trauma manifesting in anxiety and depression. It’s a theft of time and energy.
West spends as much time dealing with trolls and harassment as she does “writing new material, generating new ideas, pitching new stories, and promoting [herself] to new audiences.” Dealing with trolls becomes part of the job, part of the cost of doing business. Except it’s a problem only a specific slice of the population needs to deal with: people who already face huge barriers and prejudice. “What could I have accomplished by now if I had just been allowed to write?” West asks. “Who could I have been?”
I wish I lived in that world.
Jessica Valenti is a professional feminist writer and the co-founder of Feministing, one of the earliest and more important feminist blogs of the 2000s and 2010s. She is now a columnist for the Guardian (U.K.), where she also produces a podcast called “What Would a Feminist Do?” Sex Object, though not Valenti’s first book,is her first major piece of personal writing. In an interview with New York Magazine’s The Cut, she described her ambivalence about writing a memoir:
I feel like I did wait this long to write something like this, though, because, one, I hate the idea that women are only listened to when they’re talking about sex, and, two, I think as a culture we tend to view women’s experiences and women’s memoirs, especially when they’re about sex, as frivolous or unimportant. That really bothers me. I reject the idea that our experiences, and our sexual experiences, aren’t important.
If Sex Object succeeds at anything, it is in putting Valenti’s unique and personal experiences (yes, her sexual ones, too) into a larger social and political context. The title is not self-aggrandizing or vain. (“Being a sex object is not special,” she writes in the introduction. “This object status is what ties me to so many others.”) It refers to Valenti's experiences of a woman who has been objectified over and over again, by different people and in many different ways throughout her life, and the psychological toll this takes.
Sex Object is an exploration of what a lifetime in a sexist, misogynistic society does to women, “not just how we experience the world, but how we experience ourselves.” Introspective speculation is the heart of Valenti’s memoir; anecdotes alluded to at one point are expanded upon later. Throughout, Valenti’s mother and daughter serve as through-lines of intergenerational trauma and violence: “My grandmother’s rape is my mother’s molestation is me getting off relatively easy with abusive boyfriends and strangers fondling me on subways.”
One of the most striking parts of the memoir occurs when Valenti describes her experience with online harassment. A dozen pages of endnotes are dedicated to a selection of abusive and harassing messages the author received between 2008 and 2015. These messages are horrible and discouraging, but hardly surprising to anyone who has suffered from the Internet menace known as trolls.
Valenti speaking at Roanoke College’s 8th Annual Women’s Forum (Roanoke College)
At times, reading Sex Object was exhausting. I found myself dreading returning to the book, feeling drained by the unrelenting slough of abuses both large and small. The small horrors of Valenti’s life accumulated inside of me until I felt heavy and slow. This was especially pronounced in the second section, where Valenti devotes each chapter to an individual man or relationship. By the end I kept forgetting which one was which.
These stories are only exhausting because they are so relatable. I recognized too many of my own experiences: the feeling of a man rubbing against you on a crowded bus, the process of learning how to protect yourself from cat-calling, and the first time I didn’t want to do it but didn’t say no.
This exhaustion is exactly the point Valenti is trying to make. She writes, “maybe we are doing ourselves a disservice by working so hard to move past what sexism has done to us rather than observe it for a while.” By writing about her traumas big and small, and the toll they take on her mental health, Valenti shows the reader exactly what happens when you grow up in a society that hates women: women end up hating themselves.
Though I am glad I read it, I will likely not return to this book. The theory of objectification is one thing; it’s quite another to see reflected in another person’s experiences your own small pieces of abuse and trauma, portioned out into bite sizes. But in this way, of the memoirs described here, Valenti’s is perhaps closest to describing the mechanics and broader ramifications of rape culture.
The emergence of the Internet and digital media as the dominant medium in which public discourse is shaped has had a profound effect on social, political and culture thought. The world is changing. Feminism is changing.
The books described here reflect a new stage of thinking and explore issues in contemporary feminism in new and exciting ways. While they use different styles and approaches, at the centre of each book is the author’s lived experience and identity, which is itself a profoundly political—and clearly very popular—statement.
It says, we are here. We exist. It’s your turn to listen.
Davis Carr is an Ottawa-based communications professional specializing in tech and non-profits. She is Community Lead at TechGirls Canada, Co-founder of JustChange Ottawa and an instructor for CampTech.
This article was published in the May/June 2017 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.