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Is Fourth-Wave Feminism All About Boobs and Beauty?

Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty

“Sexy feminism,” according to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Heather Wood Rudulph, “owns the oft-maligned word feminist and aims to show young women how fun, empowering and, yes, sexy it is to fight for women’s rights. We want to help other women find their feminism."

This is an unarguably laudable aim. It is, however, rather difficult for a woman to find her feminism if she is too embarrassed to be seen reading the guidebook in public.

A woman should never be assessed on her appearances, of course; a book, judged by its cover, never. But it is hard not to feel that a feminist tome that uses as a close-up, quasi-pornographic photo of a pair of parting lips on its cover, paired with the subtitle “A Girl’s Guide to Love, Success and Style” is perhaps a little confused in both its message and its packaging. One can’t blame the authors of Sexy Feminism if the publisher’s designers decided to focus on the first word in the title as opposed to the second. One can, however, query the phrasing of their subtitle: “Girls”? Sisters, please.

This illustrates some of the problems with Sexy Feminism, which—incidentally—is not a bad book. It’s not this generation’s The Feminine Mystique, sure, but it does not intend to be and it is not nearly as stupid as the cover suggests. But, all too often, Armstrong and Rudulph bog down their more interesting points in sappy women’s magazine–speak. They make frequent recourse to quotes from anonymous pals (“A friend of ours in Los Angeles…”, “One guy we know tells us, ‘Almost every woman I’ve slept with likes to be tied up occasionally’”), and they gratingly insist that all women are, apparently, the same with their all too frequent use of the first person plural: “We’re tantalized by media imagery that sexualizes food”—are we? All of us? The overall effect is less of reading a book and more of reading a really long article in Elle while waiting for the dentist.

Which is a pity because Armstrong and Rudulph have some decent points to make. Feminism is in the beginning of its fourth wave which, Armstrong and Rudulph rightly say, is defined by “greater media awareness, cultural and sexual diversity.” It is also, I would say, defined by the use of humour (see websites such as Jezebel and books such as Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman) and an aversion to the kind of proscriptive policies that put some women off feminism in past decades when certain leading lights seemed actively hostile to everything from marriage to make up.

Feminism today is—in many regards—a more tolerant beast, but it is still charged with internal debates, some healthier than others. Female journalists and bloggers argue keenly amongst themselves about, for example, whether female celebrities should be criticised for stripping down in magazines, or whether such criticism is actually slut-shaming. Or whether women should be criticized for leaving the workforce, when they claim their decisions are in their own best interest.

The shadow of these debates seems to hang over this book. Armstrong and Rudulph, whose book began as a blog, are well aware of the kind of buzz that feminism feuds can spark on the web. But they seem to want it both ways: to join the fray but also keep cool, arbiter status. In their eagerness to appeal to as many readers as possible and to avoid sparking online ire, they tangle themselves up in all manner of knots: “We realize that in this book, it might seem like we’re telling you what to do, but in fact we’re telling you—for the most part—how to stop doing all the stuff you’ve been told to do. If you want to stop,” they write. It’s not exactly a clarion call to arms. (And you should see the mess they get themselves into when justifying why they talk more about heterosexual relationships than homosexual ones.) Moreover, their anxiously tolerant stance leads to contradictions. In one chapter, Woods writes at length about why she gets regular Brazilian waxes, including just days before she gave birth. (“Grooming a vagina still recovering from birth trauma is not fun,” she writes in a sentence heavily pregnant with euphemisms.) “I learned that personal grooming is personal, and if I liked it, it was my choice,” she writes, with a palpable fist waggle in the air.

How this then squares with the book’s frequent sneers at the “vajazzling” trend is somewhat lost on me. Is ripping out nearly all of one’s public hair somehow more feminist than decorating one’s pubic area with crystal appliqués? Aren’t they both “personal grooming” and “personal choices?” Similarly, their strident words against plastic surgery—why are women “brainwashed to want to look like pretend-perfect twentysomething,” they ask—could just as easily be applied to those who get Brazilian waxes, except, in the latter case, the woman is going for a prepubescent look.

But then, this is the problem with giving people the freedom of choice: Some will use it in a way that doesn’t meet your approval, and for the authors to argue that women should have the freedom of choice to do things they like (enjoy fashion, get Brazilians) but not things they don’t (take pole dancing lessons, get vajazzled) is hypocritical and unhelpful.

There won’t ever be a definitive book about feminism that pleases everyone because women are not a homogenous group. Different feminist writers and readers have different personal preferences, different personal needs. Thus, a theory such as “women should have the right to do whatever they want” only works if it is then carried through to an entirely libertarian conclusion. More commonly, this theory muffles down actual personal argument. The best quotes in Sexy Feminism come from other books, such as Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs and Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary?, two books which definitely weren’t afraid to take a stand, namely, that it is not feminist for women to “acknowledge your inner slut,” as Dowd put it. Whether the reader agreed with the stance or not, at least it was a viewpoint.

There is always a need for books that encourage young women to embrace feminism and, in this regard, Sexy Feminism is a decent primer, reassuring young folk out there that they can enjoy fashion, have sex, and go on a diet without having their feminist membership card cut in two. But ultimately, it’s a book for girls, not women.

Hadley Freeman is a columnist for The Guardian.