Flimsy feminist memoirs

Titillating confessions in autobiographies may sell books, but accomplish little for the women's cause

LONDON • "I get naked on TV. A lot," writes Lena Dunham in her 2014 best-selling memoir Not That Kind Of Girl.

Exhibitionism is not new to her, she explains. In fact, she rather likes being naked, as her body is "a tool to tell the story ".

That story is, of course, her own: a compendium of corporeal confessions, with an emphasis on their most awkward and impolite dimensions, belches and farts, periods and pubic hair.

As soon as it arrived on shelves, the book was headline news as Dunham variously apologised for touching her sister's genitals, trivialising child abuse and amending her accounts of college sex. It was publishing gold.

The ribald and raw is not a new phenomenon in memoir. Others have done it before Dunham and shared far more perverse secrets.

So how Dunham and her ilk - Melissa Broder, Amy Schumer, Lindy West, even poet Kim Addonizio - have emerged as the confessional darlings of millennial feminist writing is important.

In her memoir, actress Lena Dunham writes about getting naked a lot on television.
In her memoir, actress Lena Dunham writes about getting naked a lot on television. PHOTO: REUTERS

We are now in a time where the avowal of nakedness (both physical and emotional) is key, where the publicly exposed woman is truly courageous. The line between titillation and transgression is a fine one and, in a voyeuristic world that expects women to all be coquettish exhibitionists, titillation does feminists no favours.

To borrow Bitch Media founder Andi Zeisler's argument in We Were Feminists Once, what we are seeing now is feminism used as a brand; dislocated and disconnected from any collective political project. Sex has always sold well - but feminist sex sells even better.

This new taste for feminist memoirs has been nicknamed "clit lit", but it extends beyond sex - where nastiest translates as most honest, self-obsession becomes a universal experience. It all feeds into the much-discussed notion of a "bad feminist" - a logical fallacy that has resulted in mass hand-wringing over whether women can be feminist and still like high heels and make-up, want to get married and have children, still like men.

A host of expositional feminist memoirs have been published in Dunham's wake: think West's Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman, a tirade against "size privilege" and the unfair asexualisation of fat women; Addonizio's Bukowski In A Sundress: Confessions From A Writing Life, which details the alcohol-infused sexual escapades of a middle-aged poet; even the Twitter account-turned-book So Sad Today: Personal Essays from Broder.

In her book, Broder details her struggles with depression, drugs and random, usually unfulfilling, sexual encounters. Like Dunham, she shares the worst, including her fetish for vomit.

If she "feels bad about her struggle" because "it is nothing compared with other people's struggles", she does not bother telling the reader that until page 90. "It hurts anyway," she writes.

In a voyeuristic world that expects women to all be coquettish exhibitionists, titillation does feminists no favours.

This "hurts anyway" is indicative of the wider attitude in this brand of feminism. Not only do the privileged have an equal and pressing claim to the world's empathy, but feminism is also protected from critique. Questioning the reality of suffering - however self-absorbed - marks one as sour, lacking compassion.

But busy putting their everything on show, Dunham and Broder are little concerned with collective purpose, feminist or otherwise. There is no real guilt here, in their eager elevation of the white, upper- middle-class woman as representative of all her sisters, their agonies requiring commiseration and consideration from the world.

In Shrill, West recognises that "privilege means those of us who need it the least get the most help". Her awareness, however, is but an aside, never provoking a more serious dialogue with whether her reality - relative to that of millions of other women who cannot aspire to even the basics of life - deserves elevation into a feminist cause.

None are more than tangentially bothered with how their narrative self-absorption blots out the women who, in feminist poet Adrienne Rich's words, "are washing other people's dishes and caring for other people's children". Entitlement of the white, female confessional kind is the name of this new feminist game.

Today, we are on an uncomfortable tightrope between a bold new dialogue about women and sex, and the monetisation of that conversation by powers that recognise that as a gap in the market.

Exposing the flimsy feminism of some does not mean personal narratives never work in feminist expression: Violette Leduc's La Batarde (1964) is explicit, but never fickle. Similarly, Kate Millett's Sita (2000) and Rachel Cusk's Aftermath: On Marriage And Separation (2013) both trawl through the wreckage of broken relationships to expose emotional trauma.

Most recently in The Argonauts (2015), Maggie Nelson weaves the personal and the political to create a narrative that is both raw and honest, and critically and politically engaged. Using the realities of her own life and her relationship with a trans partner, she reveals the incongruities between the theories that loom over lives and the realities that dominate them.

Her narrative is neither solipsistic nor a cold critique. Yet it is both literary and feminist. "Reader, we married there," she says a short way into the book, Jane Eyre's words reconstituted to fit the comedy of rushing to marry in California before the midnight passing of Proposition 8.

It is arrangements like these, frequent in her work, that show the artistry in self-exposition, the role of curation in the task of mining one's own life for feminist fodder.

But in so many of these books, honesty remains untempered by art, their aesthetics dependent on the instant gratifications of titillation and provocation. There is a lesson for all women here: declaring a woman's sovereignty over body and mind must not be reduced to a willingness to be naked, to prurient confessions or anecdotes of despair and self-doubt.

These books may sell well in their "empowering" packaging, but accomplish little and may even hurt the cause itself. If dominion over the self is one feminist imperative, so too is dignity. Claiming one should not mean - no, must not mean - relinquishing the other.


• Shrill and So Sad Today are available from Amazon.com at US$15.60 (S$21) and US$9.59 respectively. Bukowski In A Sundress is available for order online from Books Kinokuniya at $26.16.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline 'Flimsy feminist memoirs'. Print Edition | Subscribe