Elevate Difference

Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters

Jessica Valenti is a part of the feminist blogger elite, and for good reason. The blog she helped to establish, Feministing.com, receives a significant amount of web traffic and is well-known among young, internet savvy, hip feminists. Full disclosure: I read Feministing every now and then. Having read Valenti’s writing on the blog—which tends to be oversimplified and, quite frankly, bratty—I was hoping her analysis in book form would show a tad more depth. Unfortunately for Valenti, there’s a downside to fame; it opens you up for public criticism.

If Full Frontal Feminism is supposed to be the spark that ignites young women to claim their identity as "feminists" and hop aboard the Third Wave train, then women are in deep trouble. Valenti writes like feminism's version of Ann Coulter, and let’s face it, Ann Coulter is hardly known for her intelligent commentary. Flamboyant and egotistical, much of Valenti’s analysis is trite, at best. She makes sweeping generalizations (“When you’re a feminist, day to day life is better. You make better decisions. You have better sex.”), repeatedly refers to her opponents by juvenile names ("The consequence of having the last name Buttars is apparently being a huge asshole."), confuses “truth” with “opinion,” and seems to have done very little actual research to back up her claims, as very few citations accompany her assertions. 

At times, she doesn’t feel the need to make an assertion at all, responding with a facile yet grandiose “Puke,” a deliberately ironic “Yeah,” or a pithy “Terrifying,” as though this is all that she needs to make her case. And despite hackneyed attempts every now and again to mention other marginalized groups, the truth is that this book overwhelmingly reflects the viewpoint of its white, middle class, (I assume) heterosexual, entitled, American, liberal feminist writer.

Valenti doesn’t give her readers credit for being able to do the thing she most wants them to do: think critically. This is apparent in the fallacious style by which she presents her perspectives. My personal favorite—taken straight from the right wing, talk radio instruction manual—is how Valenti uses the bait-and-switch tactic to “prove” her point (e.g., contending that anti-abortion advocates simply hate sex). A close second is when she uses the most extreme cases to illustrate a point as though they aren’t the exception to the rule (e.g., making the case for all women to have access to Emergency Contraception because rape victims should have access to it). These tactics are most unfortunate because, even as a person who is largely ideologically aligned with Valenti, I began to question her standpoint as fearmongering overshadowed politics.

Perhaps Valenti believes that young women won’t be moved unless they’re shocked by what she says, or completely scared to death. Fear is a powerful motivator, but it belittles the audience in the process. Oh, and did I mention that she uses the book as a forum to talk public trash about petty tiffs she’s had with other bloggers? If fear doesn’t sell you on feminism, apparently Valenti believes taking sides in some inane, personal dispute will.

Full Frontal Feminism is written in sound bytes, each chapter being comprised of smaller (usually) one page-long explanations of a given issue: sex education vs. abstinence only, virginity pledges, expensive weddings, unattainable beauty standards, and other typical feminist fare. Apparently, the television has taken its toll (or so Valenti thinks) on the public because there is no sense of organization or logic to the structure of the book. And solutions? Those must have been left for someone else to tackle because you won’t find them here, at least not outside of the standard volunteer, give money, and vote.

Now I know I’ve pretty much run this book into the ground, but I do want to say that I get what Valenti is trying to do here. And it’s a really smart idea. She wants to reach out to young women who don't call themselves "feminists" and let them know that it’s okay, cool even, to be down with the F-word. She wants to tell them that they already believe in feminist ideals and have benefited from the women’s movement. And she wants to encourage them to continue in that tradition in order to kick some misogynist ass. That’s a really honorable goal that, unfortunately, was a victim of poor execution.

If you’re truly looking to find out why feminism matters, you’d be better served to flip to the booklist in the back of Full Frontal Feminism and read some of the titles listed there—including Colonize This_!, _Listen Up: Voices from the Next Generation, To Be Real, and The Fire This Time—because cool packaging is really great, but if there’s nothing of substance inside then what you are selling is just the packaging.

Eds note: Since comments seem to have been discontinued on Feministing in order to silence critique, folks are welcome to continue discussion in the "Comments" on the _Full Frontal Feminism _review on this blog. All comments have been, and will continue to be, approved. Feminist Review blog encourages healthy and necessary debate. As our mission says, "Feminist Review blog believes that all opinions - positive and critical - are valuable and seeks to give voice to communities that remain on the margins" and to create a space where "differences can be represented and explored."

Written by: Mandy Van Deven, April 27th 2007

I think the book assumes that anyone reading it is already aligned with the viewpoints of feminism, and may or may not have chosen to embrace the label of "feminist." This is a choice, I don't think it's necessarily a bad choice. After all, anyone who doesn't want to "Puke" or find the actions of right-wingers "Terrifying" is unlikely to purchase or read a book called "Full Frontal Feminism," don't you think? The book is intended to galvanize people who are already aware of and disgusted by sexism, she's not trying to convince the other side to convert, she's trying to convince her own side to stand up for themselves. I don't think it's fair to criticize a book outside the context of its intentions. To me, that seems unfair.I think there's a big difference between scrutinizing a book and attacking the author. I think your review crossed the line. I think you could have offered constructive criticism and suggestions, without putting the author, and anyone who agrees with her, on the defensive. Maybe I'm overly sensitive. But comparing her to Ann Coulter? That seemed harsh to me.

The book lacked substance because of it lacked explanation to accompany the multitude of snarky comments, like "Puke" or "Terrifying". Why should I puke? Why should I be terrified? Those questions largely weren't answered in this book, at least not for readers that aren't already aligned with Valenti's viewpoints.The question of 'why attack other feminists when there are right wingers out there' is an interesting one to me because I don't feel like any person or group should be beyond scrutiny, particularly (for me) when they are representing a group that I identify with. We need to challenge each other, push each other in order for us to grow... as individuals and as a "movement". Yes, we should back each other up on the points that we agree on, and I do back Valenti and Feministing. To this day, despite all the past hub-bub, I send the ladies at Feministing announcements about articles, events, etc that I feel they would be interested in because I support what they're trying to do. And I tell people to read their site. And I read their site, though, I'll admit that I read it much less than I used to. I don't, however, do those things for the people who you're referring to as "better targets" because I don't have any investment in those folks stepping up their game.The long and short of it is this, I have room in my strategic vision for people who occupy many different ideological and experiential spaces. And I think that honest, critical dialogue has the ability to be transformative, if one is willing to not only engage in it, but also be open to hearing, really hearing, what others realities are.

Maybe I'm out of line. I don't mean to imply that you're not entitled to your opinion. Your review just seemed unnecessarily harsh. You can not like a book without accusing the author of undermining her own beliefs.

You called Valenti "bratty" and claimed her book had no substance - based, as far as I can tell, on a lack of footnotes. Modern feminism needs energy and anger and passion, all of which "Full Frontal Feminism" provides. If you're not advocating exclusion, why attack a fellow feminist? Surely there are better targets.

I completely disagree with Kellie's analysis of this review; admittedly, this is probably because I wrote it. Substance can be found outside of academia, and none of the books that are recommended at the end of the review are academic books. I don't see this review as saying that there isn't room for Valenti's contribution to the movement - assuming that there is an actual "movement," which I don't think there is - because she certainly has become popular with a particular demographic (though the irony of Kellie's comment is that this demographic tends to be college educated), and I'm not one to advocate for exclusion or exclusivity. I see this review as a warning of the danger that there will never be a movement if all one presents is a "personality". Charisma is just one quality of a good leader.

I couldn't disagree more with your review. I adore Feministing and I adored "Full Frontal Feminism." There is a time and a place for dry, critical analysis and books with sixty pages of footnotes. You criticize this book as though it is supposed to be a dull and pragmatic Women's Studies textbook. Obviously the goal of this book is to energize the young women's liberal feminist movement, and I believe it succeeds in that goal. I found it refreshing and personal, intimate and inspiring. I would recommend this book to any young woman. There is room for all kinds of contributions to the movement, and I'm troubled by the way closed-minded academics insist on excluding Jessica Valenti's work because she has something they don't: a personality.

I will admit I haven't read the book yet, but I generally enjoy Jessica's posts on feministing. I find them opinionated, yes, but not confusing her opinion for fact, just asserting herself and not feeling the need to put "in my opinion" in front of everything. I also don't find her tone or profanity to be "dumbing down" anything. It's like the conversations people have sitting over coffee, instead of what they write for their women's studies class. I think there's a place for that in the book world.Naturally not everyone will enjoy everything they read, and I wasn't going to post to just criticize your criticism of it. But, I did feel like there was one thing I could add. Which was to this comment: "I was also left wanting slightly more in depth discussion about some of these issues." I got the impression quite a few of you who didn't like the book felt this way, but, I'm pretty sure you were SUPPOSED to want more. It's a book to create interest, so that people will want to go out and find the more "high brow intellectual" writings on the subject. If you're already into that, I can see why you might find that approach to leave something to be desired, but there are many young women I know (I'm 22) who aren't, and might really respond to this.

Haven't read FFF, don't intend to. But I thank the author, (and this review) since without the controversy I mightn't have found this blog!Woo Hoo!Yay me!

Oh darn. Jessica closed the comments down over at Feministing because she doesn't want to take comments. And here I wanted to comment on something one of her commenters said. I'll do it here, since it's provoked by this review:"there is no "party line" to tow (at Feministing) that I'm aware of, except perhaps the one that says women are the experts on their own experience, which a lot of people seem to have a serious problem with." To me, this comment is half on and half off. The thing I really dislike about Feministing is the tendency to zoom at record speed from "my experience" to normative commentary on how "feminists" should look at things and what feminism should be. (Despite little throwaway comments on the diverstiy in "feminism.")If commentary on the site was limited to "in my experience," no one would complain. But the site has greater pretensions than that and no, Feministing, you are not experts on "womens' experience." So, what Feministing will no doubt learn, with the publication of this book, is just how vigorously all kinds of people police the borders of the "feminism" you have so glibly claimed thanks to your capacity to post on the net. Feminist Review was very kind indeed.

I'm a little late to the party here, but I wanted to say that I agree with your assessment of this book. I picked it up over the weekend and while I found it somewhat amusing, I also decided that I was not its target audience. Particularly since I seem to be one of those "smart gals with PhDs" who is interested in "cleaning up poopie all day" at least for awhile.Besides being slightly offended, I was also left wanting slightly more in depth discussion about some of these issues. And I agree it is possible to be informal and funny while being slightly more responsible about what you are writing. "Academic" does not have to be boring!The one good thing it did was introduce me to the world of feminist blogging and I will be keeping an eye on this site and others in the future.

Those are some fantastic alternate book recommendations. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous, the problem with what you say is that the book is written in such a way that only regular readers of feminist blogs will understand it, much less find it enjoyable. It's filled with partisan bile that will turn off non-political readers. It has numerous references to feminist bloggers and blog wars nobody has heard of. At one point it even talks about Bill Napoli, an obscure politician if there ever was one, without saying who he is or what he said until a full chapter later.

Fun/funny and intellectual aren't mutually exclusive. There are plenty of popular press books that aren’t academic in tone, but have a lot of complex, backed up analysis. Nobody Passes by Mattilda (also put out by Valenti’s publisher, Seal Press) is a perfect example.

I think you've completely missed the point of the book. You criticize it for it's language and style, and a perceived lack of depth. But if I understand correctly, the book is written to be a fun and funny introduction to feminism for young women. In other words, Valenti's project is popularization by writing something readable and entertaining.You, on the other hand, apparently think that what feminism needs is more "intellectual" discourse. Another literary review. I think Feminism has been pretty successful at putting together wonky products like this, why not try to, you know, get other people to understand what you are doing and stop criticizing who are trying to create an audience for all of the "feminist reviews" out there?

To see what this is in response to, feel free to read http://feministing.com/archives/006940.htmlFeminist Review is comprised of a group of nearly 350 writers from all over the world. All of these people are Feminist Review, including Mandy Van Deven (i.e. me - whose review writing pen name has been Ama Lee for years, as pen names are common in the writing profession, and I keep my writing fairly separate from my day job). Read the site or look at the MySpace page. You'll know who writes for it. Look at the street address where mail is delivered to. It's my address. Not only is it all over the internet, but your sister has been to my apartment. No secret there. Even read my bio at the end of the interview with Jennifer Baumgardner on Feministing, which states that I write for FeministReview.org. Check out the name of who the site is registered to, me again. There's no "out"ing involved here. But now we can add Accusation #4 to the list.As for name calling, that is your interpretation of my criticism of your writing. I maintain that I have never called you anything except a fantastic feminist whose work I respect. I have, however, written a very unflattering review of your work, where I still gave props where I believe it was deserved. What you call "backpedaling," was actually me diplomatically explaining the difference between personal and professional criticism. You have since consistently made accusation after accusation and criticized me (yes, personally) with no evidence to back up your claims.It seems to me that you’ve turned a professional criticism into a fictitious personal vendetta because it is acceptable to be publicly incensed about the latter, but not the former. I’ve been working in both publishing and activist communities for nearly 10 years side-by-side with people who don’t always adhere to the same personal or political ideology or aesthetic sensibilities. I have had my work challenged (and vice versa) by people who I went out and had a beer with later that evening. This is a part of being a professional, and I assumed that you would understand that. Even now I see no need for it to be otherwise. I have no fear for my credibility as a feminist, writer, colleague or friend.

Writing this review arguably takes as much guts as standing up as a feminist in the first place. On point analysis about a variety of topics I sometimes hesitate to personally voice; wouldn't want to further splinter the community, if there even is one. Yet reviews like this keep people in check - or should - and the sad fact that it probably won't make anyone on Feministing rethink their analysis is why I stay here read, do my own work, and don't much think about theirs at all.

Thanks for calling them on being elitist. All too often people are afraid to criticize lest they be seen as anti-feminist. Your review is right on.

great food for thought here. i haven't ready the book, and i'm not sure i will - especially if more reviews end up characterizing it as merely a longer version of what i can get over at feministing.honestly, i was turned off when she debuted the book cover. that alone created a fair amount of debate, which jessica was only willing to engage in for a little while before she bowed out of the discussion.

Thanks for your honest review. Though I haven't read the book I think your review shows an important facet of being a good feminist (and member of society): that just because your identity politics align you with on marginalized group doesn't mean that you have to agree with or like everything stated by everyone who is part of that group. I appreciate that you recommended other books to read to broaden our feminist horizons. This was a great review!--Lacey D.

Your review seems pretty dead-on. I also read feministing, and I'd also hoped that the book would have more substance than Jessica's usual posts.The way you're being treated over there for posting a negative review is gross, but really not very surprising. Cult of personality, loyalty without logic, and so on. I understand taking offense to the word "bratty," but beyond that, nothing you said was unfair, or, oh, untrue. Good luck not getting kicked out of the in-crowd!

Agreed. I haven't read the book, but I'm not too surprised at your description of the contents. I've criticized Jessica Valenti's style of feminist discourse on my blog and I thought I was the only one who found her approach a little shallow (if well meaning) and kind of embarrassing. She doesn't speak for me as a young feminist under 25.

I read Feministing quite often. I do not share many of their answers to the problems that many of us recognize exist. It deeply bothers me that if anyone disagrees with them, they are labeled "trolls." If you are looking for converts and most women I know do NOT want to be called "feminists." Hmmm, why do they think that is? That is about what my high school students do. I guess I am looking for a good in depth response.Anyway, you sound intelligent and respectful. I appreciate your tone. I will have to come by more often. Thanks!

Love this review. ...I ordered the book, but haven't actually got it yet - So I went to the book store, had a sit down with a coffee and read it there.I couldn't agree more with what you're saying. THere is definitely an over tone of "Fuck you, I don't need to back myself up because you're all just idiots" which will never help anyone win any sort of real debate. I had the same feelings as when I read Dr.Phil's son's book - he just tried so hard to "reach" a younger audience ... so he ended up using profanity and more or less - dumbing it down. Just as Jessica has done.Her lack of real arguments is what really bothers me the most. After reading her book, and then Chris Mooney's book on the rights war on science you can see a huge intelligence and talent difference - They're about the same age, but Mooney's book has pages upon pages of citations and sources for people to look further. He backs himself up with proofs and out smarts the other side instead of attempting to out cool them.

Hi,I think you've probably got a lot of valid points there. I haven't read the book but much of what you've written reflects the Feministing site in general (including the removal of your comment which I caught just before it was deleted - deleting criticism doesn't seem like a very open-minded approach to me).I enjoy reading Feministing as a sort of guilty pleasure, but as far as I can see there's very little thought that goes into the posts or comments.I'm pretty sure most of the commenters are very young, and I guess that's the audience Jessica and the others present to.The problem, as I see it, is that it's all very well getting a feminist message out there, but Feministing makes feminism look ridiculous, and positively encourages a lack of thought or sensible balanced discussion from it's readers. That, I think, is very damaging.Anyway, well done for not just towing the party line, and taking things a bit more seriously.