The other day I got into something of a literary dust-up with an author on Twitter who posted this:
Ayelet Waldman is responding to an article over at Salon, written by Meg Wolitzer, titled “Men Won’t Read Books about Women.” The reason I got into this particular dust-up was because I chose to tell Ms. Waldman that I, as a man,(1) do in fact read books about women. In fact, I make no conscious effort to read male-protagonist books over female-protagonist books, or vice versa. Mostly I’m just looking for a good story with believable characters that hopefully have something to tell me about life in general.
I sent my response as an honest show of support.
I mentioned Tom Robbins because author Joe Hill had just mentioned a few other books that’d come to mind. Her response to my show of support was…not what I expected.
That’s when I realized that I was dealing with a fourth-wave feminist. Let me explain.
The initial wave of feminism, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was centered largely around women’s suffrage.(2) Second-wave feminism began in roughly the 1970s and focused on much larger social issues, many of which we still deal with today: inequality in the workplace, reproductive rights, sexual agency, and several legal inequalities. Third-wave feminism began in roughly the 1990s and, rather than being centered around specific ideas or agendas it’s sort of a rally against the failures of and backlash against the second wave, especially the definition of femininity and the very notion of gender.(3)
So what is fourth-wave feminism?
Good question; I’m glad you asked. Fourth-wave feminism doesn’t really exist other than in my own head. I’ll forthrightly admit that I use it as a somewhat derisive term, but I’ll explain that in a few moments. Let me first explain what it is.
Each of the previous waves of feminism came along with other cultural theories and movements, which I won’t get into here so that your eyes don’t glaze over and get all dry because you’re so bored you’ve forgotten to blink.(4) Our culture is in a weird place right now because post-modernism is pretty much over and we’re sort of waiting for whatever comes next. At the same time, we’re self-aware enough to know we’re waiting for whatever’s next. and we’re aware that we’re aware of that. Plus we’re busybodies and so we keep trying to do work without a solid dominant theory to work with. Meaning we want to address certain things but don’t have a good theoretical grammar that fits into our culture right now.(5)
But there’s been a bit of a stirring over in the literature arena that might catch on. We don’t know what to call it, so we call it post-postmodernism.(6) In a way, it’s sort of a blend of lower-case-r realism with lower-case-h humanism. What it’s purportedly about is examining any cultural artifact with the goal of understanding a bit better the lives of actually real people.
This is what I call fourth-wave feminism: people who talk about social injustices not to solve the injustice, but to get people to understand what it’s like to live as a woman. They treat issues as cultural artifacts for other people to use in order to divine how different life lived as a woman form life lived as a man or anything else.
The reason Ms. Waldman was so dismissive about my owning Tom Robbins books was that she didn’t really care if I read books with female protagonists, despite her tweet. What she really wanted was for me – and others – to understand what it’s like to be a woman today.
This tweet came just a few minutes after the first one and it’s what really set me off. To imply that I don’t trust women’s descriptions of their own experiences because I own Tom Robbins books is ridiculous. Ms. Waldman also talked about what it’s like in the publishing world for women and, you know what? I totally believe her. I have no reason not to. That’s how I roll. I don’t care if it’s a man, a woman, or someone in-between who tells me about their experience, I tend to believe them. I tend to trust their description because I don’t know.
I know technically what it’s like to be a man. As in: between my legs there are some body parts that sometimes get all bunched up or stuck to a thigh or whatever, and I can say that that’s pretty annoying. Beyond that, I’ve never had a lot in common with most men. But I don’t know what it’s like to be a women, a trans-gendered person, a homosexual, or any ethnicity other than white. Hell I don’t even know what it’s like to be skinny. Part of the reason I read books, as I mentioned earlier, is precisely to help me understand what it’s like to be someone other than myself, which is something I can never literally do.
Which is to say this: Ms. Waldman, I totally and completely trust you when you tell me what it’s like to be a woman. I trust female authors when they tell me. I trust female protagonists when they tell me. I trust my wife when she tells me. What makes me mistrust you is how you seemed to want to talk about one thing (women in books) and really wanted to talk about something else (women in life).
This is why I use the term fourth-wave feminist somewhat derisively. If you want to talk about feminist issues, let’s talk about them. But don’t use social injustice as a segue into telling me what it’s like to live as a woman. I will never, ever literally understand life as a woman.(7) I will listen to and I will trust and I will learn from women who really want to tell me. But if you’d rather get more men to buy books with female protagonists, well, I can’t do much to help other than not to be one of those men.(8)
Issues are not cultural artifacts. While they do of course affect the lives of women and others, they are not something from which one can distill the life of a very real person. Write a book. Paint a painting. Sculpt something. Make an artifact and I will happily engage in conversation with that artifact and perhaps come to some understanding or even enlightenment. That’s my favorite way to learn, as it would happen, which is precisely why, as a man, I own books with female protagonists.
- According to any strict definition anyway.
- Which sounds like a bad thing but actually is good.
- Hi. Bo here. Please please please understand that that paragraph was by necessity the most overviewiest of overviews. These synopses of very important cultural movements are not to undermine them in the least, but to set the audience (you) up to understand what I call fourth-wave feminism, which isn’t an actual movement but something I use to define a certain set of actions and an agenda I will in a moment describe for you. If the information I presented is incorrect, please let me know. If you’re upset at how little time I spent on it, understand that I did it for a larger purpose.
- It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy cultural theory. I am not quite that person, but I’m friends with lots of people who are. So I understand both the fascination and boredom with theory.
- Well and plus Deleuze is kinda tough to understand.
- While being horribly aware at how stupid that sounds.
- Even with surgery I wouldn’t understand it. I would only understand life as a trans-gendered woman. Or would I be a trans-gendered man? I’m not really sure which way that works.
- I will admit that I went back through the past ten years of lists (and yes, I keep lists of books I read every year) and discovered that only just about 30% of the books I’ve read were either by a female author or had a female protagonist. I’m a bit surprised by this number. My only defense is that I tend to re-read a lot; if I take every second- and third-reading (and more, sometimes) off the list, the number’s just about 50%.