n the years surrounding 900 c.e., Mayan civilizations in Central America “entered a kind of Dark Ages,” notes the journalist Charles C. Mann in his 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. He describes a stunning cultural collapse: “Many of the greatest cities emptied, as did much of the countryside around them. Incredibly, some of the last inscriptions are gibberish, as if scribes had lost the knowledge of writing and were reduced to meaningless imitation of their ancestors.”
Could there be a better metaphor for modern feminism? Where suffragettes once marched for the right to vote, we now have topless “Slut Walks,” cheery Teen Vogue abortion how-to guides, crayon-laden campus safe spaces, and wildly expensive runway sweaters embroidered with female reproductive parts. I almost feel as if I should apologize to the ancient Mayans for the comparison.
In her new book, Why I Am Not a Feminist, Jessa Crispin shares this sense of disdain. She pummels the more ridiculous elements of today’s hapless brand of “empowerment” with acid prose, “a sneer,” and an arsenal of F-bombs. But Crispin’s rejection runs far beyond modern feminism’s usual goofy lineup of trigger warnings, lockstep groupthink, and general sense of hysteria. Why, deep down, is Crispin not a feminist? Because, she writes, any feminism not devoted to toppling an inherently oppressive “system” is a laughable waste of time.
Feminism, in Crispin’s view, has gone soft; it’s been romanced and corrupted and co-opted by the very patriarchy it should be plotting to destroy. Casual “lifestyle feminism,” she argues, celebrates worldly success and is therefore a joke. Are you a woman who has managed to scrap your way to the top in this madcap man’s world? Congratulations: You’re probably just a partner in patriarchal oppression.
“Radical change is scary,” Crispin writes. “It’s terrifying, actually. And the feminism I support is a full-on revolution. . . It is a cleansing fire. Asking for a system that was built for the express purpose of oppression to ‘um, please stop oppressing me?’ is nonsense work. The only task worth doing is fully dismantling and replacing the system.”
“The system” serves as a leading and troubled character in Crispin’s book, dodging bullets, evading wild spurts of molten lava, and enduring endless withering looks. Alas, it remains an undeveloped villain. Alert readers will discern that “the system” includes capitalism, a vague assortment of male politicians and CEOs, the troubling origins of “cheap grocery-store rotisserie chicken,” and a global free-market economy that, according to estimates, has helpfully lifted approximately 1 billion people out of extreme poverty over the past 20 years.
So when it comes to “the system,” what should we do after, as Crispin delicately puts it, we “rip the f***er apart”? The book doesn’t say, because Crispin has no idea. When pressed for concrete proposals by a reporter from the Guardian, Crispin advised all women to divorce their husbands and to transfer their money into small, local credit unions.
“The only people who tell you what to do are gurus and con men,” Crispin told the Huffington Post. “That is not my job. It’s not my job to tell you how to live your life. It is my job sometimes to point out that maybe you are in destructive thought patterns; maybe you are participating in a patriarchal system. What you do with that information is your job; it’s not my job.” This would be fine if Crispin had not in fact just written an entire book telling women what to do, with the number one action item being Burn It All Down.
Given all this, I’m surprised to also report that Why I Am Not a Feminist frequently veers into sensible and valuable territory. Amid the book’s flotsam and jetsam, Crispin offers several important and trenchant critiques of modern feminism—critiques that, if offered by a conservative commentator, would be sure to set a copious amount of hair on fire.
Today’s feminism is “a method of shaming and silencing anyone who disagrees with you, inspired by a naive belief that disagreement or conflict is abuse,” Crispin writes. It is “a protective system utilizing trigger warnings, politically correct language, mob rule, and straw-man arguments to prevent a person from ever feeling uncomfortable or challenged.” She goes on to rip feminism for lying to women about how they can “have it all,” for blindly supporting questionable public figures just because they’re women, for “the casual demonization of straight white men,” for pretending that abortion is “no big deal,” for insisting that women never, ever lie—“some women are terrible,” she writes—and for feminism’s dangerous embrace of female-victimhood culture.
In the end, the book struggles with a fairly simple question: Are men and women different? On one hand, Crispin likes to talk about “feminine” values like community and empathy. “I realize that using words like ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in this way can get you into trouble these days,” she told the Guardian. On the other hand, she insists that “most women are not fundamentally better than most men.”
Perhaps in the long-term struggle for justice, Crispin suggests mid-book, gender divisions are becoming outdated: We “have to consider what we lose by insisting women are distinctly different from men,” she argues, and “how that myth both serves us and hurts us.”
When it comes to this supposed “myth,” today’s pop feminism is certainly flummoxed. We are told, for instance, that women are exactly the same as men concerning, say, interest in programming and technology. (One can now be fired from Google in a spectacular fashion for suggesting otherwise.) But we are also told rather insistently that the unique qualities of women in power—in corner offices, the presidency, and beyond—are essential for a better world.
Gender is everything. Gender is nothing. Gender is an obsession. It’s all so confusing, isn’t it? “I have more questions than answers,” Crispin admits. You’re telling me.