Feminism doesn’t need to be scary.
Instead, says Sexy Feminism: A Girl’s Guide to Love, Success, and Style by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Heather Wood Rudúlph, feminism is relevant, sexy, and fun to boot. The new book aims to make feminism approachable to people who might otherwise shy away from it.
Focusing on topics like plastic surgery, dieting, sex, and dating, Armstrong [who is a Bitch contributor] and Rudúlph argue that the principles of feminism can be applied to everyday life. While they’re not exactly breaking new ground (most people know that advertising sends mixed signals and mainstream porn is made to please the heterosexual male gaze), Armstrong and Rudúlph lay out an action plan at the end of each chapter and offer feminist ideas to challenge some of the negative messages women constantly encounter.
Unfortunately, in trying to give feminism this convoluted image of “sexiness” that it just doesn’t have (or need), Sexy Feminism falls far short of its goal. The concept of “sexy” remains ill-defined and questionably applied throughout the book. Yes, there is an aspect of feminism that concerns itself with beauty and sex. And yes, there’s also a case to be made for reclaiming “sexy.” As a self-described guide to love, success, and style, one would think that Sexy Feminism would concern itself with these areas of feminism where “sexy” makes sense.
Instead, with silly zeal, the book attempts to turn everything and everyone into a example of sexy feminism. Case in point: in chapter one, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and acclaimed journalist Christiane Amanpour are featured on a list of sexy feminists. Not a regular list of feminists. Not a list of strong or powerful or admirable women. A list of sexy feminists. The fact that these high-profile women of color work in fields where it’s probably best to stay away from the connotations that come with “sexy” seems to have escaped the authors’ attention.
Like its definition of “sexy,” the book’s focus feels all over the place. The authors outline the ways that women can internalize harmful messages, offering solutions and promoting personal choices, then turn around and declare certain choices non-feminist anyway. The chapter on vaginas, for example, gives a brief history on topics like waxing and vaginal rejuvenation surgery. The authors stress the importance of examining your choices from all angles and doing what you think is best for you. If you decide that you really prefer getting Brazilian waxes, they support you. If you’ve thought it through and still want to vajazzle yourself, though, their verdict is, “Sorry, you’ve lost us, Jennifer Love Hewitt.” Not that I’m a fan of vajazzling, but so much for carefully considered personal choices.
Another contradictory moment happens in the chapter on fashion. The first rule in their feminist action plan for fashion is, “Sexy doesn’t have to be slutty….Don’t forget that fashion is a way to show the world who you feel you really are, but you don’t necessarily have to show all of you.” A couple of chapters later, we encounter the title, “Be a Sexy Feminist, Not a Slut-Shaming One.” The first paragraph poses the questions, “What is sexy? What is slutty? And can the distinction ever be feminist?” Yikes. Meanwhile, Armstrong and Rudúlph complain about the problems with mainstream porn and the pervasive imagery that has resulted from it, all while their book cover features just that: a white woman reduced to nothing but shiny parted lips.
But worst of all is Sexy Feminism’s near-complete lack of feminists of color (sorry, name-dropping Oprah and Michelle Obama isn’t going to cut it). It starts out seemingly innocuous, with the occasional reference to a white mainstream feminist source. Those references start to add up, and all of a sudden it becomes a pattern.
Then I started picking up on a few other ways that women of color were glossed over. For instance, in a section titled “Making Over Feminism: Beauty’s Place in the Movement,” Madame C. J. Walker shares a sentence with “powerhouses” like Mary Kay and Elizabeth Arden. But since Walker doesn’t have the same kind of mainstream name recognition as the other two, unless the reader already knows who she is, they’ll never understand the significance of Walker’s rise to power in the beauty industry. It was one of many lost opportunities where it would have been easy to spotlight a non-mainstream woman of color.
By the time you get to the resources guide at the end of the book, the omission of women of color is undeniable. The Sexy Feminist Reading List features over twenty-five titles, but not one is written by a woman of color.
Armstrong and Rudúlph add a disclaimer to their resources guide, saying, “Even though we don’t agree with every one of these authors on every feminist issue, they all offer thought-provoking arguments particularly relevant to young women currently considering their own feminist beliefs.” The fact that they include controversial authors is not the problem; it’s the irresponsible lack of commentary to help guide their target audience (fledgling feminists) through the list. I, for one, would want a heads up before selecting Janice Raymond—she of second wave “transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence” fame—from a list of “feminist” recommended reading.
Sexy Feminism has some strengths, offering women sound advice for working their way through decisions related to sex and body image. But for a book that purports to be an “accessible, cool, and, yes, even sexy brand of 21st-century feminism,” it sure does come mired with many of the same problems that have weighed down all previous waves of feminism: inarticulate catering to the white middle class.