I am the first to admit that contemporary feminism suffers from an optics problem, and I am the first to admit that an optics problem is no trivial matter. Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris Christmas ornaments, crocheted vagina hats, women at the helm of execrable tech companies urging us to “lean in” until we topple into the maw of misinformation: these are just a few of the “cringe” artifacts that feminism, in its glibbest iteration, has spawned. Believe me when I say that I take vulgarity seriously. If I did not think that aesthetic odiousness is an indication of moral rot — if I did not believe, in other words, that cringe is an ethical affront — I would probably not be a critic.
In his classic 1960 essay, “Masscult and Midcult,” the deliciously iconoclastic Dwight Macdonald complained that middlebrow cultural artifacts, with their pretense of profundity, are not innocuous. The reason we cannot just sit back and let people enjoy prestige TV and the like is that the so-called “midcult” appropriates the stylistics of difficult art, co-opting the avant-garde and masticating every provocation into a creamy pap. In other words, middlebrow muddling saps revolutionary art of its power. A similar complaint can be levied at the aesthetics of contemporary feminism: Amanda Gorman’s feel-good paean to American empire and Ruth Bader Ginsburg votive candles seamlessly assimilate the language of radicalism, thereby neutralizing it. Needless to say, both serve as alibis for the true machinery of inequality.
If the inadequacy (to say nothing of the distastefulness) of corporate feminism were not bad enough, there are also the glaring drawbacks of the #MeToo movement — its dogmatism, its disregard for due process, its fetishization of the conspicuous performance of legible victimization, its allergy to rigor, and its narrow fixation on consent.
I am ashamed to report that, for a time, these considerations pushed me towards skepticism. I followed many women I know and love in rejecting the bland, commercial creature that “feminism” had come to represent for us, and, worse, in mistaking this docile pet for the authentic animal. No doubt we were all tempted, albeit subconsciously, by the promise of plaudits and pats on the head that women invariably receive when they declare themselves “different from other girls.”
But reality is too demoralizing for much post-leftist posturing. Pussy hats are embarrassing, but sexism is evil, and the ubiquity of misogyny remains — I cannot emphasize this enough — enraging. Sex work is still criminalized; abortion is still unacceptably inaccessible; and there are still so many men who remain anachronistically incapable of regarding women as full-fledged human beings, so many men who insist, as Amia Srinivasan intimates but does not fully explore in The Right to Sex, that their desires for exclusively white, thin, pliant, and maternal mates are apolitical and innocuous. Even more than Kamala Harris Christmas ornaments, it is misogynist men who are obscene and offensive. Coming to see these sorry specimens as pathetic is imperative. If some belletrists have suggested that such men are obsolete, relics of a bygone era of Rockwell paintings, their misperception is entirely the product of the commentariat’s economically and culturally elite composition. There are many places in the country, to say nothing of the world, where the majority of women are still stay-at-home mothers — and where the only available model of feminine achievement is one promoting domestic and philanthropic accomplishment as the best that can be hoped for. Those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in environments where female servitude is not the norm would do well to remember that we are still in the minority.
The next frontier is in large part aesthetic, by which I do not mean it is superficial. Only someone insufficiently attuned to the importance of style would think that to aestheticize a task is to trivialize it. On the contrary, we need a feminism as moving and momentous as its mission — a feminism that rejects corporate sanitization and in-this-house cringe along with it. All of this is to say, we are called upon to cultivate a more robust feminism, rather than to reject the enterprise altogether. Aborting the baby along with the cringeworthy bathwater is not just unnecessary: it is unconscionable.
Becca Rothfeld is the nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post, an editor of The Point, and a contributing editor at the Boston Review.