In the Blog

Q&A with Jessica Valenti

June 29th, 2008     by Cate Simpson     Comments

This week Shameless was lucky enough to catch Jessica Valenti, author of Full Frontal Feminism and founding editor of Feministing, while she was in Toronto this week. Here’s what she had to say.

Tell me a bit about the new book [He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know]. The new book basically came about because a lot of the response I got from Full Frontal was that what resonated with people, especially with younger women who didn’t really know anything about feminism or never had taken a Women’s Studies class, was the everyday inequities, the kind of everyday discrimination that all women face but don’t necessarily think about under a feminist framework, like the pay inequalities or the stud/slut double standard.

So I was talking to my editor and we were like, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do a double standard book, almost like a sexism handbook so when you’re out at the bar and someone says something ridiculous and sexist you can pull it out and be like, ‘That’s totally sexist and here’s why and here’s something you can do about it.’”

And also with Full Frontal Feminism obviously “feminism” was in the title and it did reach out to a lot of women who didn’t consider themselves feminist, so this one we went super commercial and marketable and didn’t put “feminist” in the title so we thought we could subversively get more women into it and then hit them with the message once they were in the book. Sneakiness was the general theme of the book idea.

Is there one double standard in particular that makes you angrier than the rest? Yeah, I think the stud/slut one and that’s why I wanted it on the cover because I think that it relates to so many other forms of discrimination, it hits women the hardest. I think the stud/slut thing is behind a lot of reproductive rights limitations, I think it’s behind a lot of violence against women, and this kind of fear of female sexuality and need to control it at all costs. And also I was called a slut in high school so it was also just personal.

Who wasn’t? Or you’re told the reverse and that’s even worse. I know, right? But either way it’s about your sexuality and you not being able to own it or name it or do what you want with it. It’s about someone else having that control over it.

Why do you think it’s important to speak to the more mainstream audience, the people who wouldn’t pick up a book with “feminist’ in the title? Because they need it the most, I think. I think Women’s Studies programs are great and I come from a Women’s Studies background but when I went to go take my first Women’s Studies class I was already somewhat politically engaged, I already somewhat knew about feminism, so I was already likely to get involved on some level. Whereas a more mainstream audience I think is not, and they need it. And I think it’s important that we have as wide a reach as possible, to get that message out there.

That’s been really great to see through Feministing and through the books. We got one email from a girl who was 13 and she came to the site and she was like, “Now I call myself a feminist,” and she was all revved up about it. What could be better than that?

Full Frontal Feminism was more about feminism as self-empowerment and less about a more global feminism. Why this approach? I think because of who the audience was, because I think with a lot of women no matter where they’re coming from a lot of women come to feminism first through the personal and then broaden their scope to the political and what’s going on socially and what’s going on in their communities, so I thought it was important to hit that point first.

I saw it as a stepping stone book, certainly not like the end goal for anyone. I hope that it’s a lot of women’s first book into feminism and it makes them go read a whole bunch of more denser broader-scoped books.

Feministing’s redesign is almost ready to launch. What was your vision for the new site when you started working on the overhaul? We had a lot of people who wanted to write for the site, and we really want as many voices as possible. The whole idea when Feministing came about was that we wanted to create a space and a forum for young feminist voices but of course it was kind of like how many people can we possibly have writing for the site and still know who they are and be in contact and make it sustainable?

So this just seemed like a really good way to put the community in the hands of the community, so it wasn’t us kind of framing the narrative and telling people what to read and write, giving them their own space to write what they wanted to write about.

So far on the community site we’ve been really happy with the quality of posts that are going up and people seem really into it.

Are you concerned about the impact it might have on the rest of the feminist blogosphere if a lot of existing sites start to move under the Feministing umbrella? Oh I doubt that will happen, that would be hilarious. I think that only good things can happen when you create more space for people to write and say what they want to say, so I’m not too concerned about it. We’re not looking for people just to post on Feministing, they can cross-post or write a couple sentences and then link back to their own blog so that they’re getting that kind of traffic for their site or their organization.

We’re not really interested in like holding onto the traffic or anything like that, we’re trying to spread the love.

Is there such a thing as too much content? Totally, totally, totally, we are nervous about that. It’s already overwhelming to see six posts up on the community site yesterday and it’s not even launched yet. My sister just wrote me today and she’s like, “What do we do if we get two community posts on the same subject?” and I was like, “I’ve never thought about that before, I don’t know.”

So we’re kind of learning as we’re going along but what I’m hoping is that because it’s all about amending stuff and user generated stuff the most important issues will kind of rise to the top as people recognize them and recommend them and send them to their friends and stuff like that. And can there ever be too much feminist content?

Here’s the obligatory American election question: Now that the primaries are over, what’s going to be the next big talking point from a feminist perspective? I think we have to get it together, people are still pretty torn up about the Obama-Hillary stuff and there’s a lot of hard feelings. It’s funny because we get emails from both sides from people who are like, “You are so pro-Hillary, this is disgusting,” and people who are like, “You are so anti-Hillary, how dare you call yourselves feminists?” So it’s this really strange time in feminism where people are just at each other’s throats and I think we just need to get it together and unite under a McCain Bad platform.

There’s been a lot done in the mainstream media through the primaries to kind of foster divides along race and sex lines… Well, I think the problem is that there was a divide, this was something that was there, this was like long brewing and I think that because of the feminist blogosphere, that people are talking to them about it more, whereas a reporter would never go to a blogger like four years ago, they would go to NOW or something and they would only hear one side of the story.

I think what the mainstream media was doing was hitting the race against gender thing. I think there was one USA Today headline that actually said “A White Woman or a Black Man?” And I think that the problem was that we had a real opportunity there as feminists to enter the conversation and add some complexity and nuance to it and we didn’t, and what happened was that mainstream feminists went in and they were like, “Yes that’s right!” and played into it, and it was so frustrating and so irritating to see.

Do you think there’s going to be a lot of fall-out from that? Yes, but I’m hoping we can use it as a moment of progressiveness and change. I think it will be hard but I think we have a real opportunity to really face our demons head on and really do something about it rather than keep talking around them and talking through press releases, but it kind of remains to be seen.

Over the last few months the feminist blogosphere has had a rough time in terms of talking about race, and there’s been some nasty clashes. How will these discussions inform your blogging in the future? That’s a hard question. I think they inform our blogging daily. And I think clashes are fine, I think critical engagement is fine. I think that some of the clashes on the blogosphere have been really painful and terrible and some of them have been really right-on and some of them have not been really right-on, but I think it’s always a good thing that we’re talking about stuff and it’s always a good thing when there’s a conversation. It’s always a good thing that you have that in your head when you’re writing and I think that’s one of the great things about the blogosphere and about having a comments section and about being accountable to your community. You’re not just writing in a vaccuum, you’re writing in a community and you’re writing for other people and you have to constantly be accountable to yourself and your readers and it’s a really great way to be an activist because you’re always on your toes which I think is really important.

Does Feministing have a comments policy? We have a no hate speech policy. We’ve amended it, now we’re a little bit harsher than we were… It’s hard because when we started we had no comments policy at all, we just left it open because I was really idealistic and I was like, “Let them come in, I’ll convince them!” and I would spend like an hour in the comments section with one dude who was like, “You’re a whore” and I was like, “Let’s talk about that…”

It was a really horrible idea and it was like me sitting at the computer for hours at a time and it was not productive at all. It comes a point where you have to be like, “Ok I’m not going to talk to walls, I’m not going to talk to someone who’s not there to engage.”

But I think that the comments section is one of the great things about the feminist blogosphere, it totally destabilizes the writer/reader relationship in ways we’ve never seen before. You’re not just talking at your readers; there’s a conversation going, there’s a discourse. So I think that having that is really incredible important and having that move in a quick way but also a progressive way is incredibly important. But it’s such a new medium that we’re all learning as we go.

Tags: shameless behaviour

« Little what?

Turn that “shoulder pad” feminism into a hat! »