"Leave on the light for bell hooks"

Most people have a fairly cliché idea of feminism, that it's a movement made of bitter man-hating women whose major problems have all been mostly dealt with - that it's all about women who want to be equal to men. bell hooks (she spells it without capitalisation) found that people held such views even after she explained her experience of feminism, since they figured she was an unusual case, not a "proper" feminist. It didn't help that most works on the theory of feminism are impenetrable academic texts inaccessible to the layperson. Hence Feminism is for Everybody, a book intended to introduce the feminist movement and explain its importance to everybody.

Feminism is for Everybody
isn't a long book, but it took me a long time to finish reading it, and I think there are three reasons for that. It starts off magnificently well, though, with a passionate and inspiring introduction that introduces hooks' definition: "Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression."

That's it! How wonderful, positive and succinct that definition is. It's so good, and so far from the popularly portrayed image of feminism, that I knew I'd found the feminist work I'd been wanting. I've long considered myself a feminist, but never really stopped to consider what that meant, or how to really act on it. I'd never taken a course, and I hadn't tried reading the theory, I'd never joined any groups. I didn't know who to ask or where to begin, let alone what to do on my own to make a difference. Finally, I thought, a book that will tell me "what feminism is, what the movement is all about", as hooks says.

Sadly, this isn't quite that book. Chapter one is "Feminist Politics" with the subtitle "Where we stand", and seems full of promise. Her definition of feminism is explained: she does not believe that men are the enemy, but that sexism is the enemy, regardless of whether it is perpetrated by men, women, adults or children, or if it is ingrained, systematic, institutionalised. You have to understand sexism to be a feminist, hooks rightly says, but she doesn't deliver what her book needs: a clear definition, or at least simple discussion, of what sexism is, its pervasiveness, and perhaps even some figures (and surely there must be plenty of them) to really make it impossible for a novice to ignore. (Recall that this is the book she wishes she could give people who have a mistaken notion about feminism.)

hooks quickly deviates from a clear discussion or definition of sexism to talk about the origins of the feminist movement, of what decisions it made and what influences it had that caused the current - and incomplete - picture of feminism to arise. In a pattern that repeats in the chapters that follow, she spends far too much time explaining and dismantling the popular idea of feminism, and nowhere near enough time building a picture of what feminism is and should be.

This is the same mistake a lot of science textbooks make. We don't need to be told about creationism and Lamarckism to understand evolution; we don't need to go on an historical journey from Ancient Greece via Lavoisier, Dalton, Rutherford and Bohrs to understand modern atomic theory. It's an interesting story, as is the history of feminism, but following it isn't the same as learning what's happening now. In a science textbook, the tangential approach just means it takes a very long time to get to the point (which may have merit, if someone needs to be eased into ideas slowly); in this book's case, the effect is far worse, since the historical discussion focuses so much on feminism's mistakes that we never seem to spend much time on its purpose or meaning.

The book's organisation also leaves something to be desired. I never got a sense that each chapter built on the previous ones. Rather than using the historical angle to lead me from feminism's origins to its current form, the chapters read like essays which could have been arranged in any order. The most compelling is probably chapter eight, "Global Feminism", but it's only four pages long - far too short for what was for me one of the most important ideas in the book.

This sidetracking, and overall feeling of defensiveness, is the first reason I found it hard to get my teeth into Feminism is for Everybody. The second was a minor one, but still important: hooks' prose is weird. She doesn't use any kind of opaque academic style - far from it, she's refreshingly direct and passionate - but she does use the vocabulary of academic feminism. Remember, this is meant to be a handbook for beginners, but she uses "hegemonic" and "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" without ever offering a definition or introduction to these terms. I'm left to wonder if my understanding of them is accurate, complete or even compatible with hers. I think so, but without clearly laying that groundwork I can't be sure. This flies in the face of her desire to create "not a book thick with hard to understand jargon and academic language", another promise made in the introduction.

hooks also chooses some odd conventions which are never explained, throwing me out of the rhythm of her sentences every time I encountered them. The main one is that she doesn't use the definitive article ("the") for the feminist movement, resulting in sentences like this: "From its earliest inception feminist movement was polarized." I can only assume this is significant, but since the significance is never explained I couldn't help but stop and think about it every time it occurred.

I can't discuss her prose style, though, without praising her use of the word "awesome". I know it's become archaic, but I truly miss its use to describe something that inspires awe and wonder, rather than just as a synonym for "very very good". (I have a whole outline for a comedy show based on this idea.) hooks uses awesome sparingly, and clearly means it in the old school way.

The third and most important reason it took me such a long time to read, though, is a positive one: this book has had a massive impact on the way I think. I had to take breaks to allow what I'd read to percolate through my brain and see how my thinking was altered. As my friends and beloved will attest, since starting this book I've become vaguely evangelistic about feminism - I can't stop thinking and talking about it. It's vaguely worrying; I'm trying to spread and support an idea I don't yet fully understand, though I see its shape and feel its importance.

If it fails in its goal of clearly explaining what feminism is and what it's about to someone who isn't sure, Feminism is for Everybody certainly doesn't fail in conveying how important and fundamental feminism is as a movement for social change. To read a feminist book and feel entirely included in its dialogue as a man is quite an experience. I still have a long way to go to understanding what the changes need to be and how to help affect them, but the seed is planted.

So how to sum up? Feminism is for everybody, but Feminisim is for Everybody isn't quite for everybody - not in the way hooks says she wants it to be. If you're at least a little literate about feminism and want some help crystallising your thoughts, or if you're sure there's more to feminism than equality in the workplace and the right to vote, this book will back you up. Just don't expect it to help you explain that to anyone else.

By the way, I'm looking for further books to expand my feminist horizons; if you have any recommendations for books that discuss current feminist theory and/or its practical application, please let me know!

Chapters: 25, plus the introduction
Page count: 118 (not counting the index or "about the publisher" section)
Book's title mentioned on page:
x (in the introduction)
Best name encountered: bell hooks (it's a pen name)
New words: none for me, but I imagine plenty for what should be her target audience
Inner Five-year-old score: 1 (way above the head of any five-year-old)
Fun Wikipedia fact: hooks ran a luncheon lecture series titled "Peanut Butter and Gender" at Berea College in Kentucky

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like it's a pretty ambitious undertaking. I think that there's a lot of ongoing debate about what feminism is, whether it's necessary or relevant and what the main aims should be, so I'm not surprised that the book didn't manage to answer these questions. It sounds interesting, even if it doesn't meet its full potential - I'd love to read it.

    For further reading I'd highly recommend The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf (which you're welcome to borrow when I'm done) - it's nearly 20 years old now but still highly relevant I think. Another good contemporary one is Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy. And it's a little old now, but A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf is still relevant in terms of women and creativity.

    There's also a lot of fiction I could recommend if you're interested; some of it classified as 'feminist' and some that I just think show the barriers women have faced in certain times and societies, or portray gender roles in a critical way.

    And there are some blogs I'd recommend checking out as well, as I think the discourse is as important as the theory, if not more.

    Feministe and Pandagon are pretty wide-ranging in scope, though tend to focus slightly more on the political than the pop culture.

    Blue Milk - about feminist motherhood.

    The Hathor Legacy - critiques the portrayal of women (and men) in movies, TV and books. The founder of the site went to UCLA film school and writes some mind-blowing posts about the advice she was given on making it in Hollywood.

    Tiger Beatdown - a new discovery of mine, she has some great tongue-in-cheek media critique - including a feminist reading of the new Star Trek movie :)

    Oh, and I'm always happy to catch up and talk feminism if ever you're keen!