Feminists used to be deadly earnest. Today they’re funny, sarcastic, and ironic. What happened?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Oct. 1 2012 10:15 AM

The Mockery Feminists

Feminism used to be deadly earnest. Today it’s funny, sarcastic, and ironic. What happened?

Actors Tina Fey and Jon Hamm speak onstage during the 64th Annual Emmy Awards on Sunday in Los Angeles, California.
Tina Fey is one of a new brand of funny feminists

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.

In contemplating the rise and fall of various feminist tomes recently, one can’t help wondering if the era of earnest popular feminism is over. Are serious, straight feminist figures less in vogue than the ironic, the funny, the hard-drinking, the wisecracking?

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

With her memoir Bossypants, in which she recollects a man calling to her when she was 13 “nice tits,” and her calling back “suck my dick,” Tina Fey is the prototype of the new kind of feminist figure I am talking about. The wildly successful English columnist Caitlin Moran, with her best-seller, How To Be a Woman, is the most recent example. Moran’s tone is light, her persona, cool, brazen, liking a glass of wine. When an article called “ ‘I love my boobs’ says Caitlin Moran” runs in a British newspaper, she writes, “Personally, I don’t have boobs. Not a one. It felt as odd as reading ‘I love my STRIPY PREHENSILE LEMUR TAIL,’ says Caitlin Moran.”

And when we consider the circus of the media response to Naomi Wolf’s loopy new book, and her radical fall from mainstream popularity, some substantial part of the problem is that she retained the super earnest, self-righteous tone of indignant ’90s feminism, and has not evolved into the wisecracking tough-girl icon that we look for now. (I should be clear that there are still dead-serious feminists full of straightforward old-fashioned indignation, such as Jessica Valenti and Rebecca Traister, but they are not quite popular figureheads as Moran is now and Wolf was in the ’90s.) Of course, it’s true, that the silliness of Wolf’s most recent project had something to do with the derision it met with, but the absolute earnestness of her tone, when say, describing her orgasms, the seriousness with which she took herself, was part of the disconnect between her and her readers. (There were always passages of loopiness and new-age silliness in her books, but she didn’t alienate an earlier generation of readers in quite the same way.)

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If you look at the vibrant, chattering feminist blogosphere, which most accurately captures the tenor of popular feminism, the funny, wry, and ironic are ascendant. The tone of Jezebel, and even, to a lesser but still noticeable extent, our own DoubleX, is overbrimming with sarcasm. Take the following pretty typical quote from Jezebel: “Not many things are quite as tiresome as wide-eyed pro-lifers trying to blow our minds with thought experiments about what may have been had the selfish mother of some awesome person chosen to have an abortion rather than do the noble thing and give birth to their sex punishment. In the Bible, Jesus's mother Mary is supposed to be like 15 and unmarried—what if The Lord were aborted?! (Of course the answer to that is ‘Nonsense; God wouldn't make His son as abort-able as normal human babies, plus he'd make sure to impregnate a woman who would be down with carrying Baby God; otherwise, what a dumb plan for a supposedly omnipotent being.’)”

The implicit attitude of this kind of writing is: “Can you believe these bozos are still acting like this?” The tacit assumption is that we all take for granted a certain set of shared beliefs, and we should mock those few retrograde Neanderthals who do not agree with us. The tone is less urgent and more queenly. It contains the idea that feminism is cool, and that it will mock you like a cool and impressive girl at the lunch table if you are in violation of its principles. The idea is to make fun of your enemies, not preach at them. (This is not, I should add, a wholly new thing. There are historical iterations of this type of feminism in the work of Rebecca West, Mary McCarthy, and Germaine Greer, among others.)

Some will vehemently object that traditional feminism is not humorless, and I agree, for the most part, but what I am talking about is a kind of feminism that employs humor or sarcasm as its medium, with outrage manifesting as mockery, power taking the form of laughing, or sometimes just scoffing. One could argue that these cool, jaded, feminist figures belong to an time that Hanna Rosin has dubbed The End of Men, that only now that women are rising precipitously in economic and professional terms, do we have the luxury to sort of sit back and laugh with a drink, and not shout angrily. (And many will, of course, object that we should still be shouting angrily, and that those who engage in this luxury, these Mockery Feminists, are decadent manifestations of a falsely complacent attitude.)

Whatever you think of this, however, it is clear that the most publically successful feminist forums and figures are funnier than they have been in the past, and that when they are not funny they are trying to be either funny or smartly sarcastic. The new mode assumes that serious, righteous outrage is tactically wrong. Not that sexism does not exist, but that its existence at the moment requires a tougher, wilier, more knowing, and sophisticated stance. Earnest outrage seems outdated, an overreaction of sorts, an almost embarrassing outburst of sincerity.

Whether the new feminism is actually funny is a whole other and more complicated conversation. And whether this mode of humor works in the arduous and largely impossible business of changing the world, or even changing one single person’s mind, remains to be seen, but it has energized and animated a pretty jaded and busy generation or two for a few minutes on the train on the way to work.

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