An Open Letter to Charlotte Raven about My Footwear and My Feminism

I contain multitudes.

I contain multitudes.

An Open Letter to Charlotte Raven about My Footwear and My Feminism

By Kirsten Clodfelter

Dear Charlotte,

I appreciate that you have words of wisdom to share with the next generation of “hip” young feminists as we get dressed each morning, but the truth is, I don’t want you in my closet any more than I want Republican legislators in my vagina.

Admittedly, I am not exactly the poster girl for “girly.” Aside from the two days a week that I’m on campus to teach, I write from home, where I hang out with an awesome but not quite fashion-adept toddler. (Yes, you read that right. I have a Master’s degree and did not seek full-time employment in order to stay at home with my kid—BY CHOICE!) Most of the time, I live in yoga pants, rarely brush my hair, and sometimes go three entire days without showering—like, in a row. But I do own a pair or four of high heels, and occasionally I even wear them.

As someone who didn’t win the genetic lottery as far as grace and poise are concerned, it is true, as you argue, that I sometimes look silly when I put on said high heels. But no part of that silliness is due to the fact that while wearing them I also identify as a feminist.

I imagine many other women might agree, like, I don’t know, Hillary Clinton. Or Betty Friedan. Or Eve Ensler. Or Anita Hill. If Wendy Davis had rocked pink peep-toed Christian Louboutinis instead of her iconic pink sneaks during that heroic filibuster, she would be no less of a champion for women’s reproductive freedom. And though it might only be the very highest stripper heels causing the self-harm you mention, it seems that the bigger concern is the idea that women wear heels because female sexiness is interpreted—by men and women alike—predominately through an oppressive male gaze.

And I get that. I do. But I also wonder if in many ways that male gaze isn’t already broken by the act of acknowledging it, by a feminist—or anyone—stopping to practice genuine self-awareness when considering what’s attractive or interesting or fulfilling outside of the boundaries established by those patriarchal norms.

In this space, we might find that kick ass, grrl power Doc Martens are sexy or awesome or strong, but so too are pleather high heels. Or crocs. Or whatever. (For the record, Dr. Marten was a nazi before he staked his claim in the footwear market, so I’m just going to stick to my Rocketdogs.)

If you can’t believe this inclusive view of feminism is possible, then I’m curious to know what other behaviors I engage in that would draw criticism or ridicule. The Belle Jar has already come up with a pretty decent list, but I’m still looking for a handbook or something to clarify the following: Is it anti-feminist to tweeze my eyebrows? Wear my hair in a high, tight ponytail? Don pantyhose and pointy-toed flats? Gorge on holiday cookies? Birth a child? Go to the dentist? These intentional actions could be considered forms of self-harm too—they’re at times uncomfortable, restrictive, or bad for our bodies, and some are done solely for aesthetic value. But do you know what seems much sillier than a feminist wearing heels? One who says that other women are less feminist because of how they dress.

I agree, whole-heartedly, that in the context of feminist discourse, asking if a feminist can wear high heels is a tired, trivial question. But rather than dismiss it in the moment with a witty one-liner or, better yet, just ignore it completely in favor of talking about something more meaningful, you dedicated an entire column to parsing what a feminist looks like—to you. Fortunately, many of us already know that feminists can look like a lot of different things.

But what about the people who don’t? By anointing yourself Dress Code Monitor of the entire movement, you give permission to non-feminists to continue to objectify women and to make value judgments based on a person’s attire. These ideas perpetuate the terrible myth that a woman can’t be intelligent or taken seriously (by either gender) if men find her attractive, that the way a woman dresses or behaves makes her responsible for her sexual assault, that we need not look farther than a woman’s ankles to determine her worth. This is irresponsible and dangerous, and it definitely isn’t feminism.

As far as respecting the human body is concerned, there is a pretty significant leap between, say, wearing heels and female genital mutilation (SFW, no photos)—a type of self-harm on which our attention and concern might be better spent. And as someone who was previously married to a verbally and emotionally abusive spouse, let me be very clear in assuring you that there is absolutely no—as in fucking zero—similarity between putting on high heels and regularly being devalued, manipulated, or intimidated by someone who claims to love you.

The most troubling part of your piece, though, comes in the moment that you narrow your definition so that “[f]eminism emphatically isn’t about making women feel comfortable about bad or harmful decisions or choices.” But what you’ve missed is that feminism is emphatically about no longer universally dictating what constitutes a “bad” or “harmful” decision for another woman.

In her book, Gender Communication Theories and Analyses, Charlotte Krolokke elaborates:

Third-wave feminism manifests itself in “grrl” rhetoric, which seeks to overcome the theoretical question of equity or difference and the political question of evolution or revolution, while it challenges the notion of “universal womanhood” and embraces ambiguity, diversity, and multiplicity in its transversal theory and politics.

This is the reason that it isn’t acceptable to revoke Alisa Valdes’ feminist card because it took her awhile to recognize her abusive relationship, why it isn’t acceptable to slut-shame Miley Cyrus or Danica Patrick because of what they are or aren’t wearing, why it isn’t acceptable to make a blanket statement positing that wearing heels is a stupid decision, to offer a battle rally that “fear of seeming judgmental” shouldn’t stand in the way of others being, well, super judgmental about a person’s wardrobe.

Here’s the cool and actually not at all annoying thing about feminism that your piece left out: Women get to practice it wearing whatever the fuck we want. I can identify as a feminist while wearing a flannel button-down or stilettos. I can call myself a feminist with glittered curls or a purple mohawk, while listening to Tori Amos or Taylor Swift or Ke$ha. I can be a feminist with a baby on my hip or while getting cozy in the kitchen baking cupcakes for my feminist boyfriend, and I can do it without narrow, divisive views like yours boxing me in with the static vision of what a “real” feminist looks like.

Love ya like a sister, maybe,

Kirsten

***

Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. Her writing has been previously published in The Iowa ReviewBrevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter teaches in Southern Indiana, where she lives with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com@MommaofMimo

A Review of John Rybicki’s When All the World is Old

Rybicki3dforweb

A Review of John Rybicki’s When All the World is Old

By Kirsten Clodfelter

John Rybicki opens each section of When All the World is Old, his third poetry collection, with excerpts from journal entries written by his late wife, the poet Julia Moulds. Her voice echoes in brief flickers so that as we move forward into Rybicki’s own language, we hear her still: “I worry again and again about him losing me.” The weight of that loss—of knowing what trauma is coming before it’s yet arrived, and then, when it finally has, of learning how to navigate a way through it—is explored with candor and power in his stunning writing. Rybicki honors Moulds by building this book not just to her or for her or about her but also, in using her voice in the pages, literally of her—ensuring that his devastation becomes ours as well, a burden that weighs us down as we read, but maybe, in the tiniest way, is also one that we can help shoulder.

My mother was 41 when she died, just a handful of years younger than Rybicki’s wife, but they prepared differently. For my sisters and I, there was no tender last love note, no post-bath, steam-written secret message, no treasure to decode across the mirror or window or anywhere, later, no matter how willing we would have been to “place our mouths close to the glass” and “fog it with our breath / after she is gone.”

Rybicki writes about the kind of day-to-day living shaped by the long-shadowed awareness that the minutes we have left are diminishing; he admits, “It has been too much for too long and we know it / is time to take hold of the lightening and let it kill her…” and it’s cruel, the way we are tasked with somehow being our best, or happiest, or most loving selves in that final interim before the goodbye—if we are lucky or unlucky enough to have that kind of warning—while at the same time facing down the very worst things we can imagine. Rybicki asks, “Why can’t I say yes to the laughter in my chest?” But of course we already know why. It’s because we understand, as Rybicki understands, that his “wife is the center of it all. Everything grows / from her.”

So Rybicki does not laugh, but he does put on his bravest face. At her request: “Keep me safe,” he “is on his watch,” is “trying to smuggle her / out of a burning city,” careful to offer his reminder gently, “…Whatever you do, / love, don’t look back,” the way we might pull a blanket over the folded body of a person in our care when we find that they’ve fallen asleep on the couch. But Rybicki cannot shelter us from the truth—even the most impressive love we are capable of giving is not always enough to keep someone from leaving, and in the pages of this book we are asked to stand shoulder to shoulder with Rybicki and look back with him as the city smolders, to bear witness to the depth of his adoration and anguish, watching for the moment when he finally feels ready to “stand in defiance / of our parting and go to war to make you live again.”

In the months after her diagnosis, I used to catch my mother sneaking cigarettes in the bathroom. Smoke would leak through the door when, after wandering through the entire house, I’d finally think to crack it open and look for her there, interrupting—in the sudden and unceremonious way that children are always doing—her meager attempt at disappearance. She would fan her hand in front of her face frantically—the worst fucking magician you’ve seen in your life—and after the pinched, “Shit, shit,” and the tell-tale flush, she’d study me slyly and say, “Don’t tell your father.” Maybe in those moments she was thinking of our history, of the innocuous secrets we already shared and also of all the ones we wouldn’t, the things that at some point she must have realized she’d now never get to know—the first time I kissed a boy, had my heart broken, screwed up a friendship, found my footing and felt sure of the way forward, fell in love. Her voice was always very serious when she’d say this, or maybe it only appeared that way because of how easy it was by then to see the bones of her face—but those words weren’t a warning, they were a plea.

At ten, I was too young to understand why I should have been outraged to find my mother layering this extra poison into her body—cigarettes on top of radiation on top of chemo on top of cancer on top of cigarettes, but then, by the time I was old enough to reason that this action was selfish or ignorant, I was too young to understand that sometimes these little rebellions are a small pleasure, an anchor. When you’re dying, there are still things that need doing. There’s milk that needs to be bought, litter in the cat box that needs changed, lunches to pack before school, math homework that needs checking. So from time to time she snuck a cigarette—one of only a few choices she could still control, a type of ownership of her body’s betrayal. Who cares?

It’s the smallest things that we gather into our pockets and carry with us as daily reminders. In “On a Piece of Paper You Were About to Burn,” Rybicki recounts his desperate missing in glimpses and asks us not to look away: “You rock on the kitchen floor hugging your own legs, / weeping and kissing a face so tiny / you could cover it with a penny.” He’s seeking an answer, “How do you hold the dead,” and we don’t know either, so we keep reading to figure it out with him.

My daughter, 20 months old, loves to stand beneath a certain picture collage in our living room and hold her hands above her head, calling, “Up, up,” so that she can be lifted to honk the nose of each subject in the photographs, proudly naming us as she points, “Momma, Dada, Bebe.” When I am the one doing the holding, she is the most interested in pictures of her father, and I offer tiny, sing-song consolations, “Daddy’s at work,” “… at the store,” “…will be home right after nap.” But I am capable of imagining, in a different circumstance, the exact way it would break me right open to hear the squeal of this question each morning as we looked at those photographs and not have a single way to explain that Dad won’t be home at 4:30 or with hugs or groceries or ever again, and to think of it always leaves me in tears, the pain of that loss—just the idea of it—fresh and immediate and real even when my partner is in the next room watching television or asleep beside me in our bed.

In a collection that easily calls to mind other aching and beautiful homages to the way we survive after loss, like Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy and Donald Hall’s Without, John Rybicki’s poems in When the World is Old force us toward these moments of consideration with urgency—a reminder, perhaps, to keep our perspective or practice gratitude for the collection of small, warm moments we are gifted to share with others, because eventually the people we love are going to leave us—and no matter when that is, no matter how long we’ve had to prepare—it’s going to be too soon.

John Rybicki, When All the World is Old, Lookout Books, 2012: $13.50 (direct)/$16.95.

***

Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. Her writing has been previously published in The Iowa ReviewBrevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter teaches in Southern Indiana, where she lives with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com, @MommaofMimo

Emily Yoffe: Don’t Empower My Rapist

Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Emily Yoffe: Don’t Empower My Rapist

by

Kirsten Clodfelter

Last week, Emily Yoffe wrote an article urging young women, especially those on college campuses, to stop getting so drunk if they’d like to reduce their risk of being sexually assaulted or raped. Yoffe writes Slate’s popular advice column “Dear Prudence,” of which I am an avid reader. Traditionally, much of Yoffe’s writing has offered at least a thoughtful perspective on issues that are complicated or don’t always have a clear answer, but this piece is not one of them. “College Women: Stop Drinking” is disappointing and dangerous.

As many other writers and bloggers have aptly discussed already, teaching men not to engage in risk-taking behavior that has the potential to hurt or victimize others—educating men not to rape—is the fundamental, and most important, part of abdicating rape culture. In her piece, Yoffe uses Antonia Abbey’s research (some of which, by the way, is more than twenty years old) to note that “more than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol,” though she fails to make clear that the perpetrators of sexual assault are often more likely than the victims to be intoxicated. And even if this weren’t the case, how can it seem acceptable to put the onus of risk avoidance squarely on the shoulders of college-aged girls when the reality is that ALL college students would be safer and better off if they drank responsibly?

As an undergraduate, I was not quite a prime example of the young women Yoffe addresses in her article. I didn’t drink often, and despite what Yoffe claims, when I did choose to drink or party with my friends, these actions were not the product of a post-feminist society in which I was brought up being told that I have every right to match men drink for drink without somehow asking for it (though girls do have this right and are not asking for it). Conversely, I was not any more deterred from drinking by the anxious “advice” I received from my father, a single dad who, as I was growing up, echoed many of the warnings Yoffe offers in her piece.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I traveled with two close male friends whom I’d known for years to Montreal. Our first night there, we were chatted up by Jerimiah, an affable bartender in his early thirties who bought us a round in celebration of our arrival and offered to take us out the first evening he had off work.

When that night came, he escorted us to an impressively popular bar in the city, the line to get in stretching down the block in that forever-long way in which all things are exaggerated when you’re still a teenager. He walked us smugly ahead of everyone else, nodded to the bouncer, generously paid our cover fee, and led us through the door like he owned the place. It’s so mortifyingly obvious now, as an adult, to see how we were targeted. Once inside, he made sure the three of us had drinks in our hands at all times.

As Yoffe’s article suggests, like most victims, I didn’t need anything slipped to me — I took each drink willingly. Despite the dangers of being in an unfamiliar city in another country, I was with two friends whom I trusted. Everyone we had met thus far on our short trip had been extraordinarily friendly. And anyway, I rarely partied. A society full of misinformed, well-meaning grown-ups just like Yoffe had, consciously or otherwise, made me think that rape was something that happened to other girls—ones who were far more reckless and irresponsible and slutty than I was. I felt safe.

I started to black out before the night was over, so getting me out of there was easy. Though my memory of that night is only in pieces, I was told later that Jerimiah asked my friends if they would be able to get home okay on their own and then told them he was taking me to his house. Plenty drunk themselves, they didn’t argue. And why should they have? When we propagate the idea that victims are responsible for their own safety, or even when we target messages about consent only to the men who are themselves engaging in sexual behavior, we fail to encourage (or even acknowledge) the importance of bystander prevention or social responsibility.

But instead of going to Jerimiah’s home as he’d told my friends, I was taken to a hotel. Here, my credit card was used to pay for the room—something I can’t imagine offering on the tip money I made waitressing when I wasn’t in class. At one point as we kissed on the bed, I made it clear that I was not going to have sex with him. I had only slept with one other person in my life, news I delivered half-proudly, half-sheepishly: my high school boyfriend of three years with whom I had recently broken up. I distinctly remember feeling self-consciously young as I offered this explanation. I was interested in some type of hook-up (whether genuinely or because of all the alcohol I had been plied with, I can’t be sure), but for nineteen-year-old me, that kind of intimacy wasn’t going to come in the form of intercourse.

I expected his disappointment, but Jeremiah seemed unfazed. Maybe he responded with, “Sure,” and a shrug of his shoulders; or maybe he said nothing at all and kissed me in a way I might have found, at the time, to be romantic. Maybe his eyes lit with the sudden understanding that this was going to be even easier than he’d thought. We kept kissing. He took off my panties. Then he kissed me some more. When his pants came off and he climbed on top of me, I told him again, “Hey, no sex.” Then I came to with him inside of me.

I panicked, but I didn’t fight him. I’d like to think that I was beginning to realize, finally, that I might be in very real danger, alone in a foreign city with a complete stranger, separated from my friends who would have no idea where to even look for me. More likely, I was probably still too drunk to think rationally and coherently about what to do next. Finally, he stopped having sex with me and passed out on the bed. I waited until I heard snoring, managed—still stunned—to quietly dress and quickly gather my things, and fled.

The part of our brains that helps with sound judgment and realistically processing long-term consequences doesn’t fully develop until our mid-twenties. However naively, I thought that the fun, cool person my friends and I met at the bar on the first night of our summer vacation had a genuine interest in showing us a good time. And though Yoffe warns of predators who act just like this, some with even less obvious warning signs, I have a hard time believing I would have acted differently even if I’d read Yoffe’s article days before our trip. I’m too smart for that kind of manipulation, I surely would have thought, much in the same way that teenagers and young adults often feel inappropriately invincible.

When we fail to account for these relevant factors, articles like Yoffe’s reinforce the terrible idea that if girls didn’t actually want it, they shouldn’t have been out drinking in the first place. In the wake of the horrific news out of Steubenville last year, I came across an article comment from a man who expressed dismay that a teenage girl would dare to feel victimized by the boys who assaulted her while she was intoxicated. When a girl goes to a party with the guys and gets wasted, “this is just the price of admission,” he said, and the casual insistence of his statement, the way in which this seemed so obvious to him, has been impossible for me to forget.

Speaking to this, Andrew Smiler writes for the Good Men Project in “It Takes a Village to Raise These Rapists” that many people within a community (parents, teachers, coaches, peers, the media) contribute to the kind of entitlement that drives teens and young men to target and assault girls, particularly when they’re compromised in some way. Though it’s evident that Yoffe finds such behavior rightfully appalling, she doesn’t spend much time in her piece taking those who participate in it or enable it to task.

In a culture of partying that the author herself admits is not going away any time soon, Yoffe would have done better to take a page from the Amanda Hess Playbook and discuss the more practical and meaningful ways in which we should shift victim blaming to outreach and advocacy instead. The foci of more inclusive social responsibility are many: Reminding young, inexperienced drinkers to keep an eye out for each other; implementing K-12 programs that more fully teach students about consent alongside how to intervene when someone appears unable to give it; a push for policy changes that force universities and communities at large to do better in not failing victims of rape or assault; encouraging professors to use teachable moments to engage students in an honest dialogue about how pervasive our rape culture is; reinforcing the reality that one’s gender does not determine their valuethat women are not objects, and that the responsibility for prevention falls on the shoulders of many people long, long before the first drink is ordered at the bar.

In a response to her critics, Yoffe acknowledges that other action needs to be taken too, particularly in how we educate men about consent, but that “[i]n the meantime, this weekend, some young, intoxicated women will wake up next to guys they never wanted to sleep with.” To warn people (and not just women, but everyone) that predators find drunk, vulnerable girls to be easy targets is not irrelevant to rape prevention. But in the way Yoffe elects to address it, she perpetuates the idea that the women who fall outside of the safest or most conservative standards are, in fact, asking for it, that rape is still just a women’s problem. (Though Yoffe does state emphatically that “perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crime,” in a piece that talks almost exclusively about how the best way to prevent rape is for girls to get less drunk, what else can we expect the take-home message to be?) Even worse, to the most twisted and predatory young perpetrators, Yoffe’s sentiments can easily be misinterpreted as yet another justification for these crimes, empowering rapists who seek out and prey on victims who are too drunk to say no.

Not long ago, one of the friends who accompanied me on that trip to Montreal (perhaps forgetting in the intervening decade what happened to me there) casually mentioned that he feels the media makes too big a deal out of rape culture, that although things are surely bad for women in some parts of our country and elsewhere in the world, the hysterical, hypersensitive concerns over objectification, sexism, or victimization don’t very accurately reflect what he’s witnessed or experienced, that rape culture in America hasn’t been his reality. I think articles like Emily Yoffe’s, and the ideas they condone, are likely a big part of the reason why.

***

Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. Her writing has been previously published in The Iowa ReviewBrevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter teaches in Southern Indiana, where she lives with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com

Danica Patrick Can Do Whatever She Wants With Her Body

Danica-r

Danica Patrick Can Do Whatever She Wants With Her Body

by Kirsten Clodfelter

 

Even if, like me, watching auto racing isn’t one of your top five (or top one hundred) favorite ways to spend a weekend, you’re probably at least aware of Danica Patrick, who in the last ten years has grown to be ubiquitous within the industry. A quick highlight of her many accomplishments: In 2009, she placed third at the Indy 500, and she won the IndyCar Series’ Japan 300 in 2008. In this year’s Daytona 500, she was the fastest pole qualifier (the first female racer ever to earn this spot) and in this same race became the first female to lead a lap in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (she lead five). This contributed to her finishing the Daytona 500 in the top twenty percent, in eighth place. There’s plenty of debate among racing enthusiasts about whether or not these feats legitimize her as a talented driver (for the record, I’m saying they definitely do), but either way she’s the most successful woman in the history of American auto racing, and that’s a pretty big deal.

Danica Patrick is also a spokesperson for GoDaddy.com. Recently, Laura Helmuth at Slate’s Double X wrote an article expressing her outrage over Patrick’s participation in her most recent Go Daddy Super Bowl ad. Unlike previous ads in which Patrick has appeared in a towel or glittery lingerie, Patrick narrates this ad entirely covered (dressed in leggings and a leather jacket). Meanwhile, model Bar Refaeli and actor Jesse Heiman—representing beauty and brains, respectively—make out, an analogy for how perfect things can be when the sexy side and the smart side of the tech industry combine under the Go Daddy umbrella.

“Offensive commercials are everywhere,” says Helmuth, “and there’s only so much outrage to go around. But people are right to be pissed at Danica Patrick. She squandered the good will of a multitude of fans who wanted to see a woman win at what used to be a man’s game.” Helmuth builds her argument around the idea that Patrick is doing a disservice to women’s lib by agreeing to sometimes get sexy on TV, even going so far as to call her a “harmless, hair-flipping mascot.” But here’s the thing: Danica Patrick can do whatever she wants with her body—it’s her choice—that’s the beauty of feminism. There’s space for Patrick to be both a talented driver behind the wheel and a sexy, flirtatious woman behind the camera.

Helmuth calls the most recent Super Bowl ad “sexist and stupid,” and she’s correct—it is both of those things. Those adjectives can be applied to many of Go Daddy’s commercials. But I don’t see anyone arguing that Bar Refaeli needs to hang up her modeling career in favor of focusing on her current business venture in order to encourage young women to apply their intelligence and savvy toward becoming international business moguls. Helmuth, in her article’s subtitle, argues that Patrick is setting back the women’s moment, but if that’s the case, then Helmuth is most certainly guilty of doing the same, particularly when she instructs Patrick in the article’s headline to just “shut up and drive.”

I’ve seen plenty of photo spreads of tennis phenom Maria Sharapova in a bikini, and I don’t find her to be any less of an athlete for it. The talented Venus Williams stunned crowds at a 2010 French Open game when she showed up wearing a fun and unique cancan-dancer-inspired outfit that looked like something she could have picked up at Victoria’s Secret. She went on to win the match and several subsequent rounds before her elimination on day eight, but I don’t see her being called a “harmless, hair-flipping mascot.” Soccer star David Beckham and tennis ace Rafael Nadal left very, very little to the imagination with their Armani underwear campaigns, but no one claimed this made them irrelevant to their sports.

There’s another important aspect to Patrick’s actions that Helmuth completely overlooks in her article. Sports reporter Jenna Fryer comments on this aptly: “Nobody gets a job driving race cars at the top level without sponsorship, and those who successfully find a corporate partner will always get the rides. Every single week, in a series somewhere, there’s a driver on the track only after finding enough sponsorship to buy the seat for that particular race.” She also adds, quite pointedly, that “[i]t’s doubtful anyone has ever paid attention to what five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson has worn to a press conference, but one publication noted that Patrick wore ‘orange hooker heels’ to last Thursday’s announcement.”

And so what if she did? Patrick faces sexism from the racing industry, from sports anchors, from celebrities, from talk show hosts, and likely from other racers. I cannot imagine telling a woman who complained about sexist behavior in her office to just buy a more conservative blouse, put her head down, and focus on her expense reports. In the face of this kind of misogyny, we don’t instruct women to shut up, to cover up, to stop being themselves, or to do anything that might make it easier for her naysayers to forget she’s a woman. In fact, outside of the most dangerous or life-threatening situations, we almost always encourage the opposite. Rather than adding another tired, critical voice about Patrick’s wardrobe choices, we should champion for Patrick to navigate both of these selves fluidly and with our full support.

We are all accountable to each other, and in the spirit of that sentiment, it’s my hope that anyone in the limelight uses that platform to do good things, to be a positive role model, to advance causes that help others, and to teach young men and women to respect themselves and each other. What I see reflected in Patrick’s actions is someone who feels capable and self-assured enough to put her best foot forward in the worlds of both racing and modeling, who doesn’t feel she has to sacrifice one interest for the other, and who is comfortable in her own skin, whether that skin is under the full coverage of a firesuit or simply a bath towel. Slut-shaming Danica Patrick for not donning only turtleneck sweaters off the track isn’t setting a great example for the next generation of potential female racers either.

In 2008, Patrick appeared in a GoDaddy commercial featuring a girl who aspires to be a professional racer. It’s my sincere hope that Patrick will take on an even bigger role in advocating for women to make their way in what has long been a “man’s industry,” but whether she does or doesn’t, she can wear pretty much whatever she wants.

Yes, many of those Go Daddy ads are cheesy and sexist. Yes, I love that Sarah Fisher runs her own racing team and that Lyn St. James founded a program to train girls to race, and yes, I hope Patrick takes a few pages from their books and does more to reach out to young women, encouraging them to forge a path into the parts of our culture that are still traditionally dominated by males. But I also think it’s time to take a step back and reflect on the purpose of international protests like slut walk, about the current push to educate both men and women that the number of layers of clothing a woman is wearing does not correspond to how deserving she is of sexual assault. We need to do better to teach our daughters and sons—the next generation of feminists—that someone’s intelligence, skill, or success does not have to be mutually exclusive from the way they choose to celebrate their body.

 ***

Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University (’10). Her work has been previously published in The Iowa Review, Brevity, Word Riot, Narrative Magazine (as the runner-up in their 2011 30 Below contest), Rock & Sling, and Hunger Mountain, among others. She is a regular blog contributor at Fogged Clarity, and she writes and teaches in Southern Indiana. You can read some facts about her at KirstenClodfelter.com.

 

Image Credit: Danica Patrick on Pole Day at Indy, 2007. Photo by Tim Wohlford. Creative Commons 2.5

Okay but Seriously, Stop Blaming the Victim

Okay but Seriously, Stop Blaming the Victim

by

Kirsten Clodfelter

As a feminist, I admire Hanna Rosin. I enjoy the important work she’s done in co-founding DoubleX, and I regularly teach excerpts of her essay, “The End of Men,” to my undergraduate composition students. As a new, breastfeeding mom, I’m appreciative of her refreshing, my-body-my-choice approach to the Breast is Best agenda. This made Rosin’s response to The Feminist and the Cowboy author Alisa Valdes’ recent blog post (since deleted but cached here), in which Valdes revealed the terrifying abuse she suffered at the hands of the book’s “hero,” all the more surprising and disappointing.

Valdes’ memoir details her dissatisfaction with feminism and its “dreary shroud of lies,” all while lauding a man who forces her into submission, helping her to see the way things are, according to Valdes, biologically supposed to be. As Rosin points out in her initial review of the book, some of the scenes with the controlling cowboy are definitely “creepy”; the red flags have been raised.

But after Valdes comes clean about the cowboy’s aggressive, intimidating behavior, the headline of Rosin’s next Valdes piece is disaffected and bored: “The Cowboy Abused the Feminist. What a Surprise.” In this article, Rosin writes, “Many of us skeptical, desiccated feminist types suspected that submission would mostly just lead to being submissive and that the long-term result would be something less than happiness.” This criticism of the submission Valdes touts isn’t wrong. However true it may be, though, it’s not an adequate reason for glossing over the issue of domestic violence.

In her book, Valdes rejects second-wave feminism and instead aligns herself with the theory of “difference feminism,” celebrating her newfound femininity under the guidance of her macho boyfriend. Any person, a so-called “reformed” feminist or otherwise, who has been victimized, manipulated, or brainwashed by an abuser (and in Valdes’ case, it seems, over a long enough period of time for that behavior to become normalized) does not deserve a cavalier, yawning, here’s-my-shocked-face brush off from anyone, but especially not from someone who is herself a feminist.

Rosin appropriately takes Valdes to task forpublicizing a book that is encouraging women to submit themselves to a romantic formula whose end sum is ‘painful, controlling, emotionally abusive, crazymaking,’” and this is truly an important part of the conversation that we should all continue to address. Had Rosin taken the time to speak with Valdes, though (and I can’t say for sure if she attempted to reach out to her), she would have learned that, according to her conversation with Max Read at Gawker, Valdes now readily acknowledges that she’s written “a handbook for women on how to fall in love with a manipulative, controlling, abusive narcissist.”

Rosin closes her article discussing the possibility of Valdes writing a follow-up, which she may use as a platform for processing some of the cowboy’s reprehensible actions. Rosin is quick to silence that voice, “But as the cowboy would say, Alisa: Stop. It’s over.” I agree wholeheartedly with Rosin that Valdes is doing a grave, dangerous disservice by continuing to promote this sham of a love story in any way, but I think what we’re seeing in Valdes’ string of recent, controversial blog posts following the memoir’s release is an attempt to reconcile the abuse she’s suffered. How, then, is it helpful or kind or ethical to tell Valdes to put a lid on it?

If we attached that “What a Surprise” headline to the provocatively-dressed eleven year old in Texas who was gang-raped in November of 2010 or to the blackout-drunk high school student in Steubenville who last year was sexually assaulted and peed on as she was carried unconscious from party to party by members of the football team, there would be, and rightfully so, a loud and raging outcry.

So why the cold shoulder to Valdes? Is it that she marketed herself as a disgruntled product of the worst parts of feminism and used her memoir to push an anti-feminist agenda? In his article for The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky writes that even after revealing the abuse, “In comments on her [blog] post, Valdes insists that she still rejects the feminist ideology that prevented her from trusting men. She insists she still stands by her claim that ‘feminism stole my womanhood.’” Are Rosin, and other writers and article commenters discussing this issue, feeling some flicker of validation in light of this development? If Valdes claims that feminism directed her to believe that men were un-trustworthy, and then it turned out that she couldn’t trust that powerful, manly, dominant cowboy after all, is this supercilious attitude a consequence of haughtily thinking that, well, those feminists were right?

But as feminists, as people who champion for women—for their equality, for their freedom, for acknowledgement of their value—do we really want to shame someone who rejected that ideology (and, arguably, just a small but vocal minority within the feminist umbrella) with a big dose of, hey, that’ll teach her? The feminist community should be a safe space for the many women who don’t have one, not an exclusive, snobby club only for people who subscribe to a very particular and rigid set of ideals about the movement. My experience with feminism and, in speaking with my friends and colleagues, many other men and women’s experience as well, is thankfully nothing like what Valdes has described. Regardless, to turn up our noses at her now only helps prove her point.

Some of the worst comments I’ve seen from readers of Rosin’s article and others around the Internet suggest that Valdes is making up the whole thing as some type of twisted publicity stunt (because certainly I can think of nothing that might sell a love story more than traumatizing abuse). Others, rather missing the point, demand that in light of submitting to her abuser, Valdes’ “feminist card” be revoked. The most offensive demand that Valdes “shut the fuck up” and call her an idiot, an attention-seeker, and “an embarrassment to humanity,” and then there’s just the ridiculously obnoxious, such as, “Giddy-up, bee atch.” Are we not better than this? When we find out a woman has suffered through a violent relationship, do we really believe that the appropriate response is to tell her we guess that means she really isn’t a feminist? Or worse, that she brought it on herself? That she deserved it?

In September, Mary Elizabeth Williams smartly shut down the idea that Rihanna should be castigated for her reconciliation with abuser Chris Brown; yet when Valdes writes a book in which she professes her love for a man who she later begins to realize is abusive, or even after that, when she reflects on her complicated feelings for her former abuser and denies some of the worst conclusions being drawn about him (a pretty common consequence of a long-term, abusive relationship), the common response seems to be annoyance that anyone, least of all Valdes, is surprised by this information.

Valdes is being shamed when what she needs is a supportive community that won’t stand for domestic violence to rally around her. Where is the calling out of the publishing community—her publisher, agent, and editor who read early drafts of this book, who surely must have seen the obvious, early warning signs of manipulative, controlling, and dangerous behavior that many reviewers have already mentioned—and still elected to market the book to women as a beautiful romance with a fairy-tale finish? (To be fair, Max Read at Gawker has at least mentioned this issue of mutual accountability.)

Tracy Clark-Flory recounts some of Valdes’ abuse in her article at Salon, detailing in Valdes’ words from her initial blog post that the “cowboy became emotionally and physically abusive, and during one fight ‘simply dragged me down the hall to the bedroom, bent me over, and took me, telling me as he did so that I must never forget who was in charge.’”

Yet both Berlatsky and Rosin, in their respective articles, describe this particular incident from Valdes’ now shattered love story as “something close to rape.” As Valdes has told it, however, dragging a woman down the hall during a fight and then physically entering her body while you remind her who’s in charge is rape. Are people choosing not to call it that because then they’d have to show more outrage?

Regardless of whether or not we agree with every decision Valdes has made up to this point or with the way she’s choosing to communicate parts of her story currently, she is brave for speaking out about her experience. The message of Valdes’ book is, frankly, reprehensible, but voicing the truth about Steve Lane’s twisted behavior—possibly at risk to her own physical safety—so that others who might still read her book have a more accurate understanding of what was really going on is commendable.

One thing that I imagine would be the helpful for Valdes at this point, as with any abuse victim, is a little empathy. What is certainly not helpful are other men and women, other feminists, rolling their eyes in light of this news. If this is the so-called “feminism” that Valdes felt she had to run away from, honestly, can we really blame her?

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Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. Her work has been previously published in The Iowa Review, Brevity, Word Riot, Narrative Magazine (as the runner-up in their 2011 30-Below contest), Rock & Sling, and Hunger Mountain, among others. She is a regular blog contributor at Fogged Clarity, and she writes and teaches in Southern Indiana. You can read some facts about her at KirstenClodfelter.com.