Feminists just want to have fun

Or do they?

Published September 29, 2006 11:21PM (EDT)

This week, the sardonic, voluble blogger Twisty at I Blame the Patriarchy laid into Bust magazine for being insufficiently feminist. Being both Bust and Twisty readers, we weren't sure how to feel. Did we have a provocative discussion on our hands, or a feminist pissing contest?

At first, it seemed more like the latter. Twisy contends that Bust is "written for what a wry blamer recently called 'fun feminists' -- that is, women who identify as sassy sexy young urban consumers of femininity. You know. The Grand Acquisitors. Or Carrie Bradshaw." Still, some of Twisty's criticism seems warranted; she quotes Bust editor-in-chief Debbie Stoller describing feminism as if it's the broccoli that precedes dessert: "Of course," Stoller writes, "we devote space in our pages to typical 'feminist issues' such as abortion and equal pay, but we're also determined to create a truly embraceable women's culture, so that reading BUST can help you feel good about being a girl."

But the critique of Bust's credentials gives way to a bigger, more ascetic critique of material indulgence and sexuality. Twisty lists the Bust topics she finds silly, including Marcia Brady hair, vibrators and beauty products, and concludes that "more precisely, [Bust] can make you feel good about fashion, fucking, and shopping." Pursuits that Twisty suggests are at odds with feminism's purpose: "In printing 'all kinds of great girly stuff' BUST may be entertaining, but calling it 'feminism' is quite the howler. Feminism isn't 'fun.' It's not about shopping for cheap campy crap at the 'Boobtique' or getting off. It's about political action on behalf of a class of people who are culturally, socially, politically, intellectually, physically, and violently oppressed, impoverished, abused, enslaved, objectified, raped and murdered."

Quite the battle cry, and a succinct summation of the movement's raison d'etre. But Bust does cover issues of inequality; the point of contention seems to be that the magazine also covers other, fluffier topics. The question is whether fashion, fucking and shopping disqualify one from the feminist movement. Or, put another way: Is fun antifeminist?

Some would say yes, that going within a thousand yards of traditional femininity helps shore up the status quo, and that if you're having fun with feminism you're not doing it right. But I think there's a difference between engaging critically with our culture as it currently exists and buying into traditional gender mores. The Bust approach may not hit all the right notes -- the promise that it'll help me "feel good about being a girl" does make me recoil a little -- but its genuinely pro-woman approach still makes it a smarter read than many major mags. Even the fashion and beauty features, which run without emaciated models, thousand-dollar shoes and plastic surgery advocacy, represent a small step in the right direction. And, like it or not, there are still women who are on the fence about feminism; Bust's light hand and inclusive stance may be a useful introduction to the great world of patriarchy blaming.

The bummer about debates like these is that they often end up with feminists taking aim at each other rather than taking aim at oppression and double standards. (This is particularly evident in the comments below Twisty's post.) I'm all for open-minded discussion of what a feminist is or whether pink is evil, but I wish we could reserve the heavy artillery for the political action itself.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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