A vogue for self-exposure has reduced feminism to naked navel-gazing

The current wave of confessional writing from media-savvy young women walks an unsteady line between extending the politics of the personal and unit-shifting titillation

I get naked on TV. A lot, writes Lena Dunham in her bestselling memoir Not That Kind of Girl. Exhibitionism isnt 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 sisters genitals, for trivialising child abuse, for 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. Kathryn Harrison confessed to a consensual affair with her father in The Kiss (1997). Kate Millett, Eileen Myles and Violette Leduc (among many others) wrote sexually explicit memoirs long before Dunham or even her parents were having sex.

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. 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 Zeislers 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 makeup, want to get married and have children, still like men.

A host of expositional feminist memoirs have been published in Dunhams wake: think Lindy Wests Shrill, a tirade against size privilege and the unfair asexualisation of fat women; Kim Addonizios Bukowski in a Sundress, which details the alcohol-infused sexual escapades of a middle-aged poet; even the Twitter-account-turned-book So Sad Today. In the latter, Melissa Broder details her struggles with depression, drugs and random, usually unfulfilling, sexual encounters. Like Dunham, Broder shares the worst: her fascination with an uncircumcised penis, her fetish for vomit and several ruminations on pubic hair. If Broder feels bad about her struggle because it is nothing compared with other peoples struggles, she doesnt bother telling us that until page 90. It hurts anyway, she writes.

So Sad Todays Melissa Broder. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Observer
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 worlds empathy, feminism is also protected from critique. Questioning the reality of suffering however self-absorbed marks us 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 Richs words, are washing other peoples dishes and caring for other peoples children. Entitlement of the white, female confessional kind is the name of this new feminist game.

As the lives of women have been largely unrecorded by history, the personal has always been tied intrinsically to feminism, as women took it upon themselves to document their own lives, to accumulate toward collective understanding and practice as Rich once wrote. But then, as she says, the personal became the true coin of feminist expression. Today, were 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.

Lindy West: Privilege means those of us who need it the least get the most help. Photograph: Jenny Jimenez for the Guardian

Exposing the flimsy feminism of some does not mean personal narratives never work in feminist expression: Violette Leducs La Batarde (1964) is explicit, but never fickle. Similarly, Kate Millets Sita (2000) and Rachel Cusks 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, Nelson 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 Eyres 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 Nelsons work, that show the artistry in self-exposition, the role of curation in the task of mining ones 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 womans 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.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/12/a-vogue-for-self-exposure-has-reduced-feminism-to-naked-navel-gazing

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