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Welcome to the age of ambivalent feminism
Self-identifying feminists now feel safe to air their doubts and contradictions — and that's a good thing
 
In her new book, Lena Dunham will contemplate her many missteps as a girl "with a keen interest in having it all."
In her new book, Lena Dunham will contemplate her many missteps as a girl "with a keen interest in having it all." (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

In a recent discussion on the website Medium about Susan Faludi's 1994 feminist classic Backlash, writer Rebecca Traister talked about the vast improvements in the coverage of women's issues over the past two decades. "You have no idea how much better it is right now than it was in the early '90s, you don't remember what it was like when there was no feminist internet," she imagines telling young women.

It's true.

Every generation discovers anew the ongoing injustices and double standards working against women. Still, I think the recent success of feminism is starting to seep in. The proof lies in the ambivalence.

We have found ourselves in a moment when self-identifying feminists feel safe to air their doubts and contradictions, confusion and frustrations about how they fit into the movement.

Roxane Gay does it in her new book, Bad Feminist, and Jenny Lewis does it on her new album, The Voyager. It looks like Lena Dunham in her upcoming new book, Not That Kind of Girl, in which she will contemplate her many missteps as a girl "with a keen interest in having it all," will do it, too. They join the rising number of ladies tackling the complexities and contradictions of womanhood, including stars like Mindy Kaling and Lorde and a sea of writers facing their own feminist demons (present company included).

The beauty of this ambivalent feminism is that it's in no way a disavowal of the struggle for equality. Unlike the stirrings of backlash we've seen lately — and really, what better proof that a movement is growing strong than a backlash? — ambivalent feminism isn't a sign of resistance so much as reflection of what happens when real women try to live political and social ideals.

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function," F. Scott Fitzgerald said back in 1936. Well, these women are able to hold three or four.

Back in the '60s, the feminist slogan "the personal is the political" pushed women to see how their individual grievances were cause for social change. Today's ambivalent feminists are inverting this, searching within themselves to see what happens when they internalize their political principles. I'm talking about that gap between our public hopes and our private instincts, those many cravings and longings that sometimes compliment and sometimes compete with our desire to carry on the fight against sexism.

"I am failing as a woman. I am failing as a feminist … I am a mess of contradictions," Gay writes in Bad Feminist. What follows is an exploration of those contradictions, from her love of exploitative pop music and reality TV shows to her issues with the way sexual violence is reported in the news and why women still crush on Chris Brown. No matter how broad the topic, Gay regularly returns to herself, her experiences, her instincts, even her irrational biases. Bad Feminist's success lies not in the way it takes on "good" feminism, but in the way it shows us how feminism is strong enough to bear Gay's contradictions — and ours too.

Then there's Jenny Lewis's new single, "Just One of the Guys," which has already confounded a few feminist writers. In it she sings about her inability to think and feel like a dude, even if on the outside her life isn't much different.

She sings:

No matter how hard I try to be just one of the guys

There's a little something inside that won't let me

No matter how hard I try to have an open mind

There's a little clock inside that keeps tickin'

There's only one difference between you and me

When I look at myself, all I can see:

I'm just another lady without a baby

The song has turned into a Rorschach test for feminist commenters around the web. Some see it as another example of gender essentialism, others a satire, and others as a sincere and personal look at Lewis' life today. I say it is all of the above. There is a fine line between tragedy and farce, and the most successful in each genre always have a trace of the other.

In the video Lewis smiles a little when she drops the line "I'm just another lady without a baby." Who is she smiling at? The man who maybe once implied this about her? The many trend pieces in national magazines who made her feel this way? Or herself, for not being able to shake this feeling, and maybe not being sure she wants to? I imagine the meaning could be different each time she sings it. To be an ambivalent feminist is to dwell in such doubt and confusion now and then, unsure about why you want what you want.

As the structural hindrances to female achievement continue to break down, more and more of the feminist battles we fight will be in our own minds, where things are bound to get messy. I see the fact that women like Gay and Lewis have the confidence to do this in public as a feminist victory and an invitation for all of us to move beyond the "are-we-or-aren't-we-feminist" question and start thinking hard about what it means for us to be women today. Ambivalence is to be expected.

 

Elissa Strauss writes about gender and culture for TheWeek.com.

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