Note: This post has been revised and links to material made reference to have been added. It has generated some controversy, including response from Jessica Valenti at Feministing, who declined to be interviewed for this piece. We urge you to read the comments to this post and to click through to the links discussed, and we look forward to your comments as well."
One of the hottest sites on the internet is now one of the most contested. Nearly everyday, it is updated with risqué and often sexually implicative content. Its logo is the silhouette of a sexy woman showing off her curves. Last month, the website's founder was accused of exploiting her femininity by her peers in the industry in a picture taken at a networking luncheon where some feel she flaunts her curves. The catch? This internet hot spot is Feministing.com, the most highly trafficked website for progressive women on the web.
Feminsting.com was founded by a pack of perky, educated (and cute) young women, with Jessica Valenti, a twenty-eight year old with a master's degree in women's and gender studies from Rutgers University, as its executive editor. Today, it claims fifteen to twenty thousand visitors a day who come to read content ranging from (most recently) rhinestoned pepper spray canisters, to beauty pageants for drug mules, to washing machines-turned-sex toys ("The Orgasmatron 3000").
The controversy peaked in September after Valenti was invited to a luncheon for political bloggers by none other than former President Bill Clinton. In the post-lunch group photo-op, Valenti is positioned in front of Bill Clinton, smiling, and according to detractors, showing off her assets. (See below.)
Political blogger and University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor Ann Althouse is one of those detractors. After seeing the picture from the Clinton luncheon, she wrote a blog entry on September 13th discussing the "random arraying" of the bloggers. The comments on the blog opened up discussion of "the intern in front of President Clinton," the excessive pinkish flushing on President Clinton's cheeks, and the notion of feminism. The hundreds of comments (including one from Valenti herself, noting the anti-progressive nature of picking apart the appearance of the one young woman in the group) prompted Althouse to write another post on the subject, posted on September 15th, 2006.
Althouse writes: "Making this colloquy into this new blog post, I actually click over to Jessica's blog, and what the hell? The banner displays silhouettes of women with big breasts (the kind that Thelma and Louise get pissed off at when they're seen on truck mudflaps). She's got an ad in the sidebar for one of her own products, which is a tank top with the same breasty silhouette, stretched over the breasts of a model. And one of the top posts is a big close-up on breasts... Then, when she goes to meet Clinton, she wears a tight knit top that draws attention to her breasts and stands right in front of him and positions herself to make her breasts as obvious as possible? Well, I'm going to assume Jessica's contributions to my comments are an attempt at a comic performance, as was her attendance at the luncheon dressed in the guise of Monica Lewinsky."
Valenti quips back in a post on her blog: "I found a couple of... posts like it--talking about the way I looked--and it was really upsetting on a personal (and political) level. But this thread in particular turned kind of nasty. You know, I was psyched to be invited to this lunch and was feeling pretty honored. But then things like this remind me that no matter what I do or accomplish, because I'm a young woman all I'm good for is fodder for tacky intern jokes and comments that I don't 'represent feminist values' because of the way I posed in a picture."
Valenti does make a case for the condescending nature of the professional workforce towards young (and frankly, attractive) women, but the first person to comment on her post is a "fetish model" who can relate because people rag on her for participating in "soft core artistic nudity and wearing latex."
That helps Valenti's case. A lot.
While Valenti "respectfully declined comment," Althouse had a mouthful and a half to spill. Althouse coins the unique term 'breastblog' to describe the web-site: "A number of women bloggers feature breast imagery [on their sites], something that I believe is done to attract visitors... My brief look at Feministing made me think that it was 'apparently' one of those blogs that do that. Now, I think you can do that and still be a feminist, but I have some questions when you go to lunch with Bill Clinton and stand directly in front of him in clothing and in a pose that seem intended to call attention to your figure. I don't have a problem with women dressing in a way that shows off their figure, but the combination of all of those things created an occasion for poking fun and asking some serious questions about why women who claim to be feminists."
Okay, so Valenti's Myspace page headline (which she uses to promote Feministing) is "these boobs are made for blogging," but is Feministing a breastblog?
Althouse certainly thinks so. "I wanted to explore the meaning of a person who claims to be a feminist, yet has imagery like that on her blog and is quite pleased to pose with a man (Clinton) who severely undercut the progress that feminists had made in getting sexual harassment taken seriously. The question for me at that point was not what is 'professional,' but what is feminist."
Althouse is right... to a point. Valenti is not in a suit, as her peers were. She is wearing a figure-hugging cable-knit sweater. But she's not in a little blue dress, either. Hence, this is where Althouse's interesting insight stops. She argues that "the title to the blog is a combination of 'Feminist' and 'fisting'--a very graphic sexual image."
Um, thanks for that insight, that's definitely what the gals had in mind when they came up with "Feministing" as their blog's title.
Erin Matson, the co-chair of that National Organization for Women Young Feminist Task Force, presents a more moderate viewpoint: "This controversy is a rehashing of a very old debate within the feminist community: is public sexuality empowering or harmful to women? It's a complex issue and it's good to keep the discussion going... some feminists may disagree with the stance taken by many of Feministing's writers, but let's reserve the word 'anti-feminist' for our real enemies. To slap the same label on Jessica Valenti and Anne Coulter is completely ridiculous."
The criticisms of the sexuality of Feministing omit a critical part of Feministing's context: feminists are obsessed with sex. Some of the major feminist issues, from reproductive rights, to stopping sexual violence, to promoting positive images of women in media almost always pertain to sex. Matson explains, "I imagine Feministing talks about sex frequently because sex is a big issue for young people in general and young women building feminist lifestyles in specific."
If Feministing is in fact using sex to attract readers, they aren't alone. From female celebrities sporting minidresses on the cover of Cosmopolitan, to risqué perfume ads, to commercials for tampons, many media outlets geared towards women (and many of which are intended to empower women) use women's sexuality to attract women readers. Sex sells... and women buy it.
Sex is almost always needed to market to younger people. While Feministing doesn't seem to be outwardly marketing to high school-aged or college aged-feminists (given that they lack content or correspondents for that demographic), the sex on the web-site may be a draw for younger readers. Everything else Generation Y consumes is drenched in sex from music, to fashion, to Ivy League schools (Yale's "Sex Week" is a campus event that draws the ire of the Campus Republicans, but titillates everyone else), so perhaps the reason why "standard feminism" hasn't yet appealed to Gen Y-ers (and why Feministing does) is its strange relationship with sex. As young feminist interest seems to be dwindling in traditional women's organizations, Feministing lures readers with politics and social commentary-made palatable. Putting the term "subverting the dominant paradigm" as a blog post title would not draw Gen Y readers; "'Cause calling girls slut is always funny" relates the same message of gender equality, with more sparkle.
(The Feministing post was about male chauvinist takes on Paris Hilton's promiscuity).
There is little question that Jessica Valenti opposes the sexual exploitation of women. She co-founded "the REAL Hot 100," a "contest" mocking Maxim's Hot 100 that adjudicates women not on their sex appeal, but on their contributions to the women's movement. Feministing.com consistently posts articles that deride the commoditization of women and educate women on current political issues regarding reproductive rights or women in the workplace (in a cute, bubbly way, of course). While some of Valenti's blogger peers at Feministing adhere to the "do what empowers you" thought school that many feminists feel condones the sexual exploitation of women, Valenti seems to have a grip on the needs of today's older twenty-something/younger thirty-something feminists. Her book on feminism geared towards twenty-something women, Full Frontal Feminism is due to be released this April by Seal Press, where she extols the place of feminism in this era.
When we hear Paris Hilton say, "Feminism: that's hot," we'll know feminists are in trouble. In the meantime, it's probably safe with Feministing.