There is anti-feminism, and there is anti-womanism that masquerades as a critique of feminism.
There is anti-feminism, and there is the deliberate misinterpretation of feminism for misogynist ends.
In both cases, the latter sells, and it sells well.
Let’s start with a story. I wrote a blog post a few years ago that would change my career. It was a barely cogent, typo-filled mess—one confused critic rightfully called it “slipshod”—but to this day, it remains one of the most widely read things I’ve ever written. I called it “the coming wave of sex negativity.” It was part trend report, part prediction. My guess was that the oversharing, nominally “sex-positive” register that millennials had popularized would go out of fashion and would be replaced by something more sex skeptical—something more “reactionary chic.” It was less about what I suspected people would actually do and more about how I thought sex would be talked about—in the press, on social media, in our slang. Teen Vogue can’t possibly be printing anal sex apologia forever, right?
Of all the crazy things downstream of this post, the craziest was that people didn’t read it as a summary of what I was seeing and what I expected to see more of; they thought it was a straightforward endorsement of “sex negativity.” And so I quickly (and, thankfully, briefly) became “the sex negativity chick.”
The response from the right was basically, “Here’s a woman willing to critique the excesses of liberal feminism; we always need more of those.” The problem was that my criticisms—my real criticisms—weren’t all that divisive or, frankly, particularly interesting.
To borrow a cliche, my sexual politics were all things that were widely accepted as common sense even five years ago. Things like believing that “woman” is a biological reality. Or taking young people with a grain of salt when they say things like, “I never want children,” because you don’t know what you want at 17 or 18 years old, especially in a society that does everything in its power to nurture perpetual adolescence. Or thinking that there’s an upper limit on how many people you can sleep with before it becomes spiritually deleterious, and it’s a lot lower than the zeitgeist is telling us it is. Or believing that the term “casual sex” is an oxymoron, because sex can never be “casual” or purchased in good conscience, including via pornography.
You might think, “That sounds pretty conservative, Katherine.” In some environments, like liberal arts college campuses, sure. But “moderately conservative,” or even just “conservative,” also isn’t the same thing as “reactionary” or “sex-negative.” And even in this environment, merely being a prude isn’t entertaining.
Regardless, that’s what I got billed as pretty quickly: a burgeoning anti-feminist. It became extremely clear to me that people were hungry for anti-feminism. I could build a career if I turned the volume up to 11. But the kind of critique I was willing to offer wasn’t all that titillating. I wasn’t saying, nor would I ever say, that all women are sluts. I was saying that we sometimes put ourselves in uncomfortable situations and have sex we don’t want under the guise of “empowerment.” Unfortunately, people will hear the latter as the former.
Eventually, I started declining invitations to speak about romance. I was going to disappoint people who thought I would be more extreme than I am, and I often did. But I learned a lesson: I knew what to do if I wanted a career boost.
Fast-forward to three years later, and Pearl Davis, anti-feminist par excellence, creator of “Repeal the 19th Amendment” tee-shirts, is a master of social media engagement. She’s not the first play at this grift, but she’s the most successful in recent history. While women who’ve come before her—at least recently—have been consigned to the “alt-right” media ghetto, Davis regularly enjoys mainstream media appearances. Everyone knows who she is, even if they’re no fans. She’s not a thoughtful critic of feminism, as the cheekily named “reactionary feminists,” like Mary Harrington, Anna Slatz, or Louise Perry, are. She’s a court jester who uses anti-woman language to pluck the low-hanging fruits of misogyny. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that she isn’t a critic of feminism so much as an anti-womanist. Even though some people take her message seriously, and she herself may take it seriously, the truth of the matter is this: she’s primarily an entertainer.
Gender war discourse is, in the words of a younger female friend of mine, a “clown show.” It’s reality television. And while it’s neither ineffectual nor divorced from real concerns, I also don’t know that I’d call it a political movement.
Pearl Davis doesn’t really want to “repeal the 19th.” She wants clicks. If girl-boss feminism has been reduced to a “lifestyle brand,” so has its mirror image. Pearl Davis and her counterparts represent “consumer antifeminism,” just as the Target sweaters that read “she/her” represent the most commercialized expression of liberal feminism. If it paid to be a feminist, if the competition weren’t so stiff, many “anti-feminist influencers” would be. Indeed, many anti-feminist women claim to be disillusioned feminists, often with failure-to-launch feminist personas tucked away in their past if you know where to look. Feminist or anti-feminist, but always with the ambition to “make it” on social media.
The consumer anti-feminist, ever the entertainer, capitalizes on a number of humiliation tactics. Popular videos shame individual women for poor life choices and promote the idea that “all women are sluts” who single-mindedly want to destroy the family to prolong a life of no-strings-attached sex and male validation. Salient issues like domestic violence are minimized as sensationalist edge cases or, sometimes, whole-heartedly endorsed, as in the case of Shahrazad Ali, an early ‘90s anti-feminist.
Although there are numerous thoughtful and legitimate criticisms of both “wokeness” and mainstream feminism, at some point, the pushback grew beyond legitimate critique and became a racket. The consumer anti-feminist washes over the rich history of feminism and flattens it into a caricature of itself. The “feminism” of the anti-feminist influencer becomes a cheap imitation: a monolith that is broadly anti-man, anti-family, anti-beauty—whatever is convenient for the audience-hungry talking head.
The reality is, of course, much more complicated. There is “feminism” as it’s packaged to us in the media, a weak avatar of rah-rah-rah girl power, and then there’s feminism, a diverse ecosystem of often conflicting ideas.
We’ve Been Here Before
Americans have been at this particular rodeo—feminist vs. anti-feminist, politically correct vs. politically incorrect—more than once. Back in 1992, for example, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi sparred with Camille Paglia on Donahue, but their debate could have very well aired in 2022. Paglia’s comments on college campus date rapes sound eerily familiar, as do Faludi’s on the “husband shortage” that was allegedly plaguing single, educated women thirty years ago.
Many of the arguments anti-feminists are having with feminists have been circulated for decades now. And that’s to say nothing of the debates within modern feminism. I think of Ellen Willis’ 1984 article, “Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism,” where she discusses the double-bind of “subordination or abandonment” in critiques of the family.
But for a woman in a familialist society, the price of freedom to live independently is all too likely to be “freedom” to support and rear children alone or be unwillingly childless. Furthermore, the economic inequality rooted in the patriarchal family system actually worsens as women are denied access to men’s incomes, and single motherhood itself becomes a barrier to economic advancement. In short, feminism inevitably destabilizes the family, and so long as the family remains an unquestioned given of social relations, women are trapped into choosing between subordination and abandonment.
Contemporary critics act as if feminists have never acknowledged these questions—as if aging millennial women are the first to discover the “danger” of eschewing marriage—and that a return to a nuclear family structure is the only solution. Others argue that modern women have forfeited being “marriageable” altogether, and men should “go their own way” if they can’t pluck a virgin straight out of high school.
The consumer anti-feminist suggests the ultimate goal of feminism is to allow women to live as hedonists accountability-free. In reality, feminists have grappled with questions about marriage and family life for decades, if not centuries. For many, the answer was and is to re-configure society wholesale, rejecting liberalism with the nuclear family as the center of gravity. Many thoughtful anti-feminists actually make similar observations: that the creation of the nuclear family is where the problem started, as it divorced the family from the wider community. Where radical feminists or Marxist feminists may say the solution is to “abolish the family” or to “expand the idea of the family” to accommodate non-traditional family structures, the anti-feminist may promote a return to larger, multi-generational families as an antidote to the individualistic atomization of the contemporary family.
The Feminist Market Has Become Oversaturated
In Faludi’s 1991 book Backlash, she argued that backlashes take hold not when a movement’s aims have been achieved but when they’re on the precipice of achieving them. But there’s another way to look at it, one that’s not incompatible with Faludi’s theory.
Backlashes also happen when the market has become oversaturated. That’s what we’re seeing now. There are backlashes to the most recent expression of feminism—which, again, is more of a brand than a line of argument, political movement, or philosophy—everywhere. They take many forms, from Pearl Davis-style anti-feminists, to “bimbo revivalists,” to “tradwives” like Estée C. Williams, to the “stay-at-home girlfriends” who offer a slightly less socially conservative spin on the same idea. For more intellectual fare, there is no shortage of wannabe Paglia-types who will self-identify as “dumb broads” and claim to know the “true nature of women.”
Many of these women self-consciously pander to audiences of disenfranchised men by telling them what they think they want to hear. They’ll parrot their talking points. In large part, it’s because there was a free space in the market.
In fact, for all the writing that’s been done about “women of the far right,” only the far right itself has accurately diagnosed the problem. In a 2017 essay titled “The Dissident Right Is Being Subverted by Fame-Seeking Women,” Matt Forney popularized a derisive term for it on the now-dead website Return of Kings: “tradthot.” Although the article and website weren’t exactly well-known for their kindness to women, there was something to Forney’s critique. Sure, some women enter these spaces because of a legitimate affinity, just as some women feel marginalized by feminism and look for other resources. But the ones who turn into money-making personalities? More likely, they saw something missing in the market and took advantage. None of these people, Pearl included, have deeply held political beliefs or programs, even if they do have legitimate problems with feminism.
Even the most well-meaning, well-researched commentators can find themselves trapped in this cycle, usually by greater fault of their need to pay their bills than some impulse to become a cynical opportunist.
Yes, mainstream feminism does have very real limitations. It’s important to diagnose those flaws, and even more important to articulate viable alternatives. Unfortunately, both feminism and anti-feminism have devolved into lifestyle brands that use entertainment to make money by addressing people’s concerns superficially. Until that changes, we’ll just keep repeating the same tired arguments, dressed up and monetized in more and more extreme forms.