feminism is for everybody, but this book sucks

i kind of live-blogged this book on facebook while i was re-reading it. yes, i originally read it shortly after it was released, because i loved bell hooks back then & felt she could do no wrong as a feminist theorist. this book was my first hint that she can do some pretty serious wrong. in the decade since, her writing has gone steadily downhill & is currently almost completely unreadable, incoherent, hippie weirdness. there are little hints of the man-pandering mega-christian hooks was to become here, but my bigger issue with this book is that 1) the book, despite its brevity, veers wildly away from its own stated thesis to act as a basic introductory primer for people reluctant to align themselves with the feminist movement, & 2) the book instead functions as a repository for hooks’s own myriad opinions about what feminism really is & how contentious inter-movement arguments should have shaken out. as such, it is riddled with opinion disguised as fact & questionable arguments built on an ever-shifting bedrock of historical inaccuracy concerning the formations, goals, & fractures within the second wave feminist movement. because there are no citations, footnotes, or leads to supplementary reading about the many, many issues that hooks touches upon in her shallow, four-page chapters, a beginning feminist reader can only assume that hooks’s assertions are accurate & true, because they are presented to be so. hooks positions herself as the leading authority on every issue she writes about (in all of her books), & in this one, she writes about topics that she has absolutely zero personal experience with & her expert tone grates.

i remembered disliking this book quite a bit when i first read it ten years ago. but because i still respected hooks as a theorist & a writer then, i charitably assumed that the problem was the structure–that hooks just wasn’t cut out to with elementary introductory primers. she has historically shone as a thinker when writing about the intersections between race & feminism, & her writing on this topic has not always been simple & easy to digest. so i thought perhaps having to wander so far into a different territory necessitating a radically different authorial voice, hooks struggled.

i re-read it this past week for a feminist book club i recently joined, & i discovered that the real problem is that this book fucking sucks. in one of the earliest chapters, hooks shares her perspective that to be anti-choice is to be anti-feminist–that no person can be feminist if they don’t respect a woman’s right to bodily autonomy in the form of supporting her right to choose abortion. fair enough. then hooks goes on to elaborate that she is personally very opposed to abortion for herself, although she has never been faced with an unintended pregnancy & has not had to actually make the choice. FASCINATING. except not. this is anecdata & it has no place in a book that purports to be an objective primer on feminist issues. this book is not billed as a memoir; therefore, i do not care about hook’s hypothetical personal stance on abortion. she goes on to explain that she has had many friends over the years who were reluctant to take birth control lest men find them slutty. rather than interrogating how a patriarchal culture that is hellbent on controlling women’s sexualities might be playing a role in encouraging otherwise intelligent women to have sex with men who would classify them as “slutty” for making proactive decisions about their family planning options, hooks instead exorciates these women for behaving irresponsibly & seeking repeat abortions after becoming pregnant. she claims that medical science has taught us that repeat abortions are known to cause health problems.

this is where the book lost me. repeat abortions do not in fact cause any health problems. there is some question of whether repeated dilation of the cervix can cause issues like cervical softening or perhaps scarring in extreme cases. but the manifestations of these issues with repeat abortions obviously pale in comparison to the health risks & long-term health impact of bearing repeat babies. & the advent of earlier pregnancy detection & greater abortion access means that women are able to seek abortions earlier in their pregnancies, when less cervical dilation is necessary to complete the procedure.

anti-choice advocates, like the ones that hooks condemns as being “anti-woman, & therefore anti-feminist” have been making a lot of in-roads in trying to convince women that they may suffer long-term negative helth effects from having abortions. they have created the false psychological condition known as “post-abortion stress syndrome” (rightfully unrecognized by psychological authorities) & have falsely linked abortion to breast cancer & infertility. these are all scare tactics designed to intimidate women out of pursuing abortion. there is no legitimate medical evidence to support them. it is sad & enraging to see hooks repeat these myths, especially in a book aimed primarily at young or otherwise inexperienced-in-feminism people who may not be privvy to feminist attempts at countering these lies.

i had a LOT of other similar criticisms of the book. hooks suggests that wealthy feminists & their male allies should pool their financial resources to open low-income housing co-ops & co-operative feminist elementary schools. she does not address the fact that funding public educations & low-income housing is ostensibly the job of the government, & that feminists could/should also pressure the government to meet that responsibility. she suggests that consciousness raising groups, in which women in community with one another (neighbors, co-workers, friends) gather together to discuss the issues facing their gender & strategies for integrating feminist practice into their everyday lives should make a comeback. fair enough, but she suggests that CR groups be run like alcoholics anonymous meetings. she does not explain why a feminist discussion group should be structured like a support network for recovering addicts. are feminists in recovery from an addiction to patriarchy?

the chapter on feminist parenting pretty much didn’t address parenting at all. instead, it functioned as a six-page screed in which hooks congratulated herself for apparently being the only feminist around willing to address the seriousness of child abuse, & to call out female abusers. knowing something about hooks’s personal history as a child abused at the hands of her mother, i could only assume that an autobiographical conceit was at work, because hooks is in no way “one of the only” feminists concerned about child abuse or willing to acknowledge the realities of female abusers. hooks offered no practical tips whatsoever for how a feminist might integrate her political beliefs into her parenting–which is unsurprising, as hooks is not a mother & has no personal experience in this area. but then why address it at all? or why address it without doing outside research in order to flesh out the chapter? there are thousands upon thousands of feminist mothers who probably would have been happy to talk with hooks about their issues & strategies.

this is one example among many that makes plain the fact that hooks wrote the book with no research, completely off the cuff, in order to meet a deadline. she regularly quotes her own previously published books as sources–& they are almost the only sources in the book. there is no list of citations or recommended further reading in the back of the book. to hear hooks tell it, she is practically the only feminist who has been publishing on the topics the book covers, & her books are the best place to turn for further reading. having read pretty much the entire hooks ouvre, i can say that they vary wildly in quality, often use other hooks books as citations & theoretical examples, & often function as a way for hooks to grind an axe in argument with other prominent feminist writers–generally without acknowledging that that is what she is doing. she subjectively encapsulates their arguments & generally does not even mention their names.

in the chapter on female sexuality, hooks spills much ink bemoaning the fact that sex wars of the 1980s “tore apart the feminist movement”. she sums up some of the more provocative theories & assertions of radical feminists like andrea dworkin (including her claim that in a patriarchal society, all intercourse between men & women is rape) & then explains why these theories are wrong & offensive to feminist practice. but at no point does she actually say, “this is my opinionated response to the writings of andrea dworkin.” to do so, she would have to acknowledge that her theories are opinions rather than facts, & she would be giving a confused reader a name to pursue in doing independent outside research. i knew what hooks was talking about because i have been self-educating in feminist theory for twenty years & have read dworkin’s books. but the intended audience for this book is not someone like me. it is a person who is brand-new to feminism & unfamiliar with the big arguments & contentious opinions that have impacted the history of the movement. by presenting her opinions as facts & never naming the theorists she is covertly arguing against, hooks seeks to indoctrinate these uninformed readers into her own school of thought from the outset. it so happens that i do not agree with many of dworkin’s theories around sex & sexuality–but it’s not right for hooks to mischaracterize them (& she does) in such a sneaky, manipulative manner.

i could go on about this for days, but suffice to say, this book is a tremendous disappointment to anyone who comes to feminism hoping to pursue meaningful independent thinking & critical reading skills. hooks shuts down all such possibilities & is obsessed with the opinions one must hold in order to be a “real feminist” she is equally obsessed & tormented by the thought that a feminist could potentially get more media attention that she gets. every chapter contains a snide aside about how people who do not share hooks’s viewpoint about one topic or another “got all the media attention & became the face of the movement”. hooks seems to be strangely unaware that she is one of the most famous feminist voices in the world & has been for at least twenty years. hooks is routinely catty & competitive with other feminists & particularly with women that she claims are not feminists at all. in the chapter on beauty, she complains that older unpartnered women are now having to “compete for male attention with younger women who are not & never will be feminists.” no one has to “compete for male attention”. isn’t part of feminism eschewing the NEED for male attention? & even if a woman does choose to “compete,” can’t she do so in a way that doesn’t malign women that she assumes are not sympathetic to feminism (because hooks of course has no way of knowing which women consider themselves feminists & which ones do not; though she seems to assume that any woman who is pretty & wears make-up & dresses in a feminine way & dares to flirt with a man hooks wants for herself must not be a feminist). she suggests that lesbians choose to be lesbians, which flies in the face of even the most staid & mainstream gay rights theory. she says that prostitutes are kidding themselves if they think they can prostitute their bodies & maintain sexual agency in their intimate personal relationships (which is about one step away from saying, “you can’t rape a hooker”). she essentially calls studies that investigate the impact of patriarchy on the self-esteem of young girls sexist against boys, which is crazy. she even goes so far as to suggest that a renewed respect for the medical value of breastfeeding is sexist, because it shoulders women with more of the burden of feeding a baby. she suggests that a conspiracy is afoot, because the popularity of formula had been experiencing an upward swing until women’s liberation started making some headway, & suddenly breastfeeding came back into vogue. she does not stop to consider that perhaps a renewed interest in breastfeeding was in fact a product of women’s liberation–that women don’t need to be sold an artifical product yoking them to capitalist consumer culture from the moment their babies are born when their bodies can produce a superior product for free.

i could go on & on! there was not a single chapter in this book that did not contain something factually inaccurate, bizarre, or offensive. please don’t give this book to your newly-minted feminist friends! i don’t know what to suggest instead, but there has GOT to be something better!

***************
so that’s the review that i put up on goodreads. damn, it’s long, huh? i didn’t even touch on a quarter of the things i hated about the book though. we discussed the book at feminist book club on thursday night. i was really anxious in advance that everyone there was going to rave over how much they loved the book & that it was going to be a big bell hooks love-in. thankfully, that did not happen. i am not convinced that anyone in the group was more critical than me (if they were, they kept it to themselves), but that’s okay, because i was so critical, i was practically hating.

the discussion was interesting & thankfully did not go down the very 101 anecdata hand-holding path i had feared, but i am still struggling with figuring out if there is space for me to be myself within the context of the book club & its perceived goals. i came ready & prepared to discuss the many shortcomings of the book, armed with quotes, page numbers, & chapter synopses. but we talked about the book very little, & i felt that (some) people there were sometimes surprised by or taken aback by my very direct criticisms of the book. i think i can be forgiven for assuming a book club is going to talk about a book, but i guess i learned for the future that the reading is more a jumping off point for just whatever people feel like sharing or addressing. most of the comments that elicited the biggest responses had nothing to do with the book.

after the meeting, i approached the facilitator, who has chosen the book, & said i hoped i hadn’t offended her with my critiques. after all, she chose the book. i wanted to make sure she didn’t think i was criticizing her or her choice when i criticized the book. she seemed cool with it & asked me more about what i thought. i elaborated on some more critiques i hadn’t had a chance to share with the group, & she looked continually more frowny as i went on. when i was done, she said, “are you really hard on yourself too?” i was kind of taken aback by that because, you know…of course i am! i don’t think it would be politically or morally appropriate for me to be so critical of a book if i’m just kicking back, living a politically apathetic life. i don’t expect any more from anyone else than i expect from myself.

then she said that it’s cool to have criticisms, but you have to have solutions to back them up. i interpreted this to (at least potentially) mean, “don’t complain if you don’t have a solution.” i think that’s bullshit. especially when it comes to complaining about a book! the only solution i could possibly offer would be to write my own introductory primer on feminism–a project in which i have no interest. if i’m going to write a book, i’m going to write a book that i want to write, not a replacement for a book i happened to hate a whole lot. i also don’t have anything that even remotely compares to the author platform bell hooks has built for herself.

i think i offered solutions as best i could. when i complained about hooks’s lack of transparency in covertly arguing with other feminist theorists, i specified what she was really writing about & suggested outside reading a curious person could do in order to learn more. when i complained about the ridiculous feminist elementary school idea, i suggested that we press our government officials to sustain sufficient funding to public schools & asked for recommendations on books or other resources about integrating feminism into parenting (since i don’t really think it’s a public school’s job to indoctrinate a specific political ideology into children). etc. i mean, i know my critical ways can be a bit of a shock to someone who has never experienced them before, but “don’t complain if you can’t offer a solution” is an old chestnut that works great for silencing people that are saying things that make you uncomfortable. so…it was a little surprising & a little uncomfortable.

4 thoughts on “feminism is for everybody, but this book sucks”

  1. I’ve never read this book. The only hooks book I’ve gotten through and own is Outlaw Culture. I’ve tried others and could never get through them for one reason or another. My younger sister however, keeps this book out and nearby all the time it seems. It was like this when we lived together, and I found it on her kitchen counter last night.

  2. It’s interesting that people barely felt like discussing the book. It seems like perhaps the book club members are more interested in discussing politics than bell hooks or her work? Maybe next time y’all could choose an anthology comprised of various writers, or combine a reading with an action/protest that relates to the subject matter.

  3. Oh god. I was (in some ways still am) the hugest bell hooks fan, and I couldn’t get through this book. That was a long time ago, but your review brought it all back. Everything you said is exactly true, at least up to the point where I put it down for good. I can’t speak about the rest.

    …hooks instead exorciates these women for behaving irresponsibly & seeking repeat abortions after becoming pregnant.

    This is right where I stopped reading. I was just so appalled. I haven’t read anything she’s done since. Not even intentionally, I kinda meant to give some of it a chance, but…

    Yours isn’t the only feminist book group I’ve heard of that is (still!) reading this. Why? It’s painfully awful. Her earlier stuff–any of it–surely is more worthy of a whole group’s time, unless it’s a group about the decline of once relevant theorists or something.

  4. I read this book when I was 16 or 17 (two to three years ago). Pretty freaked out now that I didn’t see how fucked up it was at the time; thankfully, it didn’t seem to fuck me up.

    “are feminists in recovery from an addiction to patriarchy?” I just find this phrasing amusing.

    “hooks seems to be strangely unaware that she is one of the most famous feminist voices in the world & has been for at least twenty years.” RETROGRADE AMNESIA.

    So yeah, awesome review. Definitely agree with the commentary, particularly these bits: “i don’t think it would be politically or morally appropriate for me to be so critical of a book if i’m just kicking back, living a politically apathetic life. i don’t expect any more from anyone else than i expect from myself.”

    and: “”don’t complain if you don’t have a solution.” i think that’s bullshit.” makes me think of how my friend Amanda, who writes about developmental disability rights (largely, though not entirely, autism rights), said something about being crap at policy? And like, she writes some really interesting things on how discourse goes and media and many other things. And if she didn’t speak out because she doesn’t have a solution, that’d be a huge loss (not to mention pretty screwy in the context of autism rights, what with all the talk about “cure,” which theoretically would fix problems but has so much wrong with it I don’t know how to begin. and self-advocates are silenced enough already. well, not enough, too much actually, but I don’t want there to be another damn way to do that).

    /says nothing of any real value 😛

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