I am bluer than blue today, a feeling without meaning or need for adjustment. The characters in Beckett’s plays blurt things. Enough disconnected blurts and a world forms. Here we are: intimate, anonymous, clumped, estranged, tender, alien, suffering, in love with each other, deadened. The erotic jolt of certain words still startles me.
Yesterday I ate two kinds of cake. At the dump, I asked the attendant lifting out my bags, “Do you need help?” He said, “Not unless you’re a shrink.” A friend on Facebook reminded me it was Yom Kippur and that he was fasting. He wanted to know what kinds of cake I’d eaten. I said, “Sara Lee frozen cheesecake by hacking out chunks with a knife and a frozen lemon layer cake made by Pepperidge Farm.” His interest stirred my cold, dark heart.
People don’t really give away power. They may feel a moral obligation to do it and grudgingly try. But more and more I think change happens when people who have power in any framework become bored with themselves and what they thought the power could give them. It’s like falling out of love. They just don’t care anymore about being the thing they thought they were supposed to be, the thing they were raised to be. Suddenly other kinds of people look interesting, look creative, look important, or at least new.
I think part of the success of Black Lives Matter is that white people are bored with being white. I don’t mean white supremacists. I’m talking about white people who have enjoyed the world of whiteness without thinking of themselves as white supremacists. Maybe they were and maybe they weren’t. But the magical, transformative moment happens when you really couldn’t care less about continuing as you were.
It’s hot again. A golden rudbeckia is poking up over the railing of the deck. The tomatoes are beginning to pack it in, the smell of their leaves fading. We drove to Hudson to pick up test strips for Richard and on the way back passed a chair on the road. I thought it might by the kind of lawn chair I am always looking for, made of bent metal. It took everything in Richard to turn the car around for a discard. The chair was white and made of plastic with a mesh seat, and at first I thought, no, too ugly. Then I pictured it in the backyard, covered with colorful cushions, and loaded it into the car.
At home it looked like a broken tooth in a tidy mouth. I placed it near the stone patio. No, awful. I placed it on a hill and tried sitting in it. It was low to the ground, a chair you would be placed in during an interrogation.
I went inside to prepare dinner, and what was staring back at me through the window? The chair was more starkly white than before, a glowing, poisonous white against the grass, electrified from hours of rain. Never did the backyard’s fanciful bird bath and flower-stand stumps stand out in more touching relief than against the grotesque chair. I moved it to the back of the house, that was desperately untended. Nothing had been planted. You could see the cinderblock foundation, and still it was degraded by the chair.
I grabbed it up and carried it to the road. Richard made a sign that said “FREE.” Poor chair. No sooner rescued than again abandoned.
I am observing the conviction, in the wake of RBG’s death, that we will lose our right to abortion. It has a ring of fatalism, like the wish on the part of some people to gallop to apocalypse rather than allow it to overtake them. I wish they would stop it. Just fucking stop it. I can count on the fingers of one hand the men I have known over the many years I have been observing the world’s distaste for women, the number of men who have fought shoulder to shoulder with women to secure women’s right to abort unwanted pregnancies. The left-wing men I have known have fought for the rights of gay people and trans people. Included in these categories are male humans. Men. That’s not so hard. But to sign up for the rights of women and girls, for a category that includes no men—for the vast purposes of this argument!—to sign up in effect to fight on the girls’ team and thus feel something slippery in the gut, unselved and fishy, not required, not in my backyard. How many men now, reading these words (ha!), can say they have stood on a picket line or protested specifically for the right of a woman to have an abortion? What’s your plan, men, if this prediction of doom proves correct? Will it still be our problem?
Last night I was awakened by the smell of skunk. I smelled skunk in my dream and in the room when I opened my eyes. I whispered in Richard’s ear, “Are you awake?” He said, “I am now.” I said, “I smell skunk.” He said, “I don’t smell it.” He went downstairs. When he came back, I said, “Did you think it might be on the porch?” He said, “Or in the house. No skunk.” I said, “Do you smell it now?” He said, “No.” We went back to sleep, and when we got up, the smell was gone. Richard said, “You dreamed the smell.” I said, “Can a dream smell linger when you’re not dreaming?” He said, “Apparently.” He opened his closet and said, “It smells funny in here.” I went in. It didn’t smell any funnier than usual. I said, “If there was a skunk in the closet, you’d know it.” He said, “A wasp is crawling down the window. Do you think it’s inside or outside?”
I once admired a pair of ankle boots worn by Melania but was afraid to mention it. Warhol was nearly right. These days, everyone’s fame will consist of fifteen minutes when they are savagely denounced on social media. Were people always so worried about being right, or is it now because the stakes of being wrong are so high?
I find myself more interested in the natural world than in things with minds. Squirrels have invaded the bird feeders. I don’t care. They are squirrels doing squirrel things. A tomato has two hundred seeds, any one of which will make a tomato plant that will yield a hundred tomatoes. That’s not the thing. It’s the absence of scheme, motive, justification, blame, judgment, and categorical thinking I have grown to loath. Today in contrarian opinion: The unexamined life is worth living.
No one I know says Melania is beautiful because they hate her. They mention her awful clothes that must give her enormous pleasure or else how could she? She wears a terrified, frozen expression in most photographs, but she’s beautiful, and I’m always surprised by her slanting eyes and wide cheekbones. Many very ugly people, Donald Trump among them, wear their inner decay on the outside. With Melania, there is a disconnect between what she looks like and what she is. Inconsistency is her contribution to us.
Amid the slim pickings of TV shows we haven’t already streamed, we have taken to watching Away (Netflix), about a female astronaut, starring Hilary Swank, who has a toothy smile and no sex appeal. Sorry, it’s true. Josh Charles plays her husband. Josh Charles played Will Gardner on The Good Wife. He is a sexy man who is not terribly good looking, with his jutting beak of a nose, and he’s not as slender as he once was. None of that matters.
Hilary leaves her teenaged daughter and husband to fly to the moon and then to Mars, a trip lasting three years, in the company of a Russian actor, who was snarly and aggressive in Homeland and is snarly and aggressive here. You can tell he misses playing opposite Mandy Patinkin, the same way Josh Charles misses playing opposite Juliana Margulies and Archie Panjabi. How did Hilary get the part? I don’t think she looks that great in a space helmet, which is a little like a face filling a TV screen.
At one point before the blast off to Mars, Hilary learns Josh Charles has had a stroke as a consequence of a congenital illness, and Hilary’s daughter pleads with her to come back and ditch being the commander of the Mars mission, and mom says she will, and then the female chief of NASA pleads with Hilary to continue the mission or she’ll set back the liberation of women by decades, and Hilary snaps, “Don’t give me any of your feminist bullshit.,” and you think this is meant to show us that deep down Hilary is the kind of girl you can look up at in the sky and believe is risking her life for a calling higher than the truth of complete personal pleasure.
I keep imagining how great it would be to leave earth, which has become like a single body we’re tied to. You can’t go anywhere on the planet and forget the reality of Trump. The people who love him want a world that is ruined because it was always ruined to them. There is a scene in the Mars show when one of the astronauts removes a sock and a piece of his heel comes away from his foot and floats up to his face, and he looks at it with horror—the way we look at our lives in the Before.
I am thinking of two books that are great concerning the subject of suffering: Jacobo Timerman’s Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without a Number (1981), a memoir of his imprisonment and torture as a journalist in Argentina; and Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face (2003), a memoir of facial deformity as a consequence of Ewing’s sarcoma of the jaw. In both books the narrators do not say their experiences hurt. They describe them in such sharp detail the reader feels the pain and the conditions pain arouses, both social and psychological. They do not think suffering is a school with information an individual needs to get through life. Suffering teaches nothing in their view and mine.
I have been noticing a false note about suffering on social media that’s probably a thing elsewhere and maybe not a new thing, but I don’t go to elsewhere much these days. So many people are suffering, and they want their suffering to mean something, and the thing I have noticed is a tendency to convert suffering into an opportunity for growth or something like that. A tendency to say the terrible thing that is happening to them is teaching them something that is enlarging their lives. To set themselves up as a model for others to follow? To believe nothing bad is all bad? I have no idea, and I don’t mean to hurt the feelings of anyone portraying their suffering this way. It feels like another formula for how to rightfeel and rightreact and rightinstruct. If I were undergoing one of these ordeals, I would not believe a word of it.
Right now I am not suffering one of these ordeals. I am suffering in a different way about the social and political reality directing our lives. It’s a commonplace suffering, and I have nothing novel or insightful to add at the moment. The one thing I do find consoling is telling the truth, the raggedy, beautiful, horrific, funny, weird, treacherous, exhausting, fruitless, terrifying, repetitious truth of our lives.
I miss the dead. Even the dead I did not miss when they were alive. The light is beautiful fading into trees that soar seventy feet into the air. People wave as they pass on bikes and on foot. Even drivers wave from cars. I wave back. We’re saying, “I see you,” the way each day the Boy in Waiting for Godot assures Gogo and Didi they exist.
Stanley Crouch, the author of Notes of a Hanging Judge and The All-American Skin Game, among many other books, died the other day. We hadn’t been in touch much the past few years. I’d heard he was sick. I don’t know from what. I felt sad and shocked. Sad. I always liked him. We got along. People like you, and you think, Okay, I like you too. The biggest smile when we crossed paths at the Village Voice. He liked me and Paul Berman in some special way. He liked that we were Jews. He thought there was such a thing as a Jewish writer. I didn’t, but it made me smile the way he thought this, and he could have explained and maybe he tried to on more than one occasion before I said, “What are you talking about?” I think what he liked about me and Paul was the shape of our sentences. Their smell, their roundness. Paul wrote great sentences from the heart. I was always learning. Stanley had so much confidence. Paul knew a lot. I had feminism, the logic of this analysis that was sharp and unassailable. I think Stanley got that, or maybe he just liked the look of me seeing his face. Stanley, I’m so sad you have died.
I don’t know why something goes right or wrong in the garden. I have adjusted to failing and succeeding in the dark. It will be absurd to pot and maintain as many plants as I will try to save over the winter, but I will pot them and become their slave. On the phone a friend asked if there was a future, and I said there was a future with a narrative that has been broken. In the narrative that has been broken, people ignored the way profits in capitalism require the suffering of others. Now, it’s harder to ignore this, and everyone is suffering in one way or other. We’re on a train with fogged windows.
I miss drinking in a bar. I feel I know you, although I’ve never met you. The wind is rustling.
Laurie Stone is a regular contributor to the Women’s Review of Books. She is author most recently of Everything is Personal, Notes on Now, which features several essays that originally appeared in the WRB. In a New Yorker review, Masha Gessen noted the book’s reframing of “the personal is political” to describe “our current predicament—everything that is not personal has vanished” and praised how Stone “suggests a way of thinking sharply, imaginatively, beautifully, from right here.”
After New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin accidentally exposed his penis on a Zoom meeting with office colleagues, lots of women I know fumed against him on social media. They saw him as a bad man and his actions bad for women. Apparently, while in the meeting with colleagues, Toobin was masturbating to images on another screen and thought he had switched himself out of the office meeting. His colleagues saw his penis for a few seconds, and he was mortified. It was an accident. He was not trying to flash them or masturbate in front of them as a turn-on.
The women on social media—some men, too (but I don’t care what the men said)—saw a chain of incidents in Toobin’s life that led to this moment and affirmed his badness. He was masturbating when he should have been doing something else. He had conducted an affair with a younger woman while married. The woman had gotten pregnant. Toobin had made it clear he didn’t want parental responsibility for the child and offered to pay for an abortion. The woman had the child anyway then sued him for child support. It was rumored through so and so he was a predator and in one online account followed a woman into a public bathroom and said he wanted to “fist” her. He had not supported Hillary Clinton and instead had dogged her for using a private email server for official correspondence while Secretary of State.
Women like me who were interested in the categories of outrage against Toobin were called defenders of his actions and called this because, as women, we had been trained to give a woman-pass to misbehaving bros, while we would give no such support, it was claimed, to our sister hooligans. Many women hated Toobin because, they said, if a woman had exposed her genitals during a meeting, more hell than could be imagined would rain down on her plus no one would come to her defense. The same women also declared no woman would ever be caught in such a situation because they had better control over their carnal impulses than men or because they had more respect for their colleagues than Toobin did. They had more respect for their colleagues because they were more high-minded, more considerate, more concerned not to lose their jobs, just better humans, owing either to their individual betterness or to being female, which endowed them in some unstated way with betterness. Rather than wishing no one to be punished for showing their genitals by accident (or on purpose) to other people—showing their genitals, a part of the human body, not rubbing them on unsuspecting passersby!!—rather than encouraging this freedom, a thing feminists would gain from in that their bodies are forever managed and reviled, the women who hated Toobin wanted him to be fired and to lose credibility as a journalist.
I’ve never met Toobin. I might not like him if our paths crossed. I might get one of those vibes you get with people—yes, this is a thing we experience—that repelled me. I think he’s a shit for not supporting Hillary. And this has nothing to do with thinking about his actions in the Zoom meeting. Again, he didn't mean to masturbate in public. Masturbating is not a sign you are now or are going to fail as a colleague or partner. Having sex outside marriage does not mean you are a bad person. (Marriage probably isn't a good idea. I think it's a terrible idea, actually.) If you have the child of a man who has made it clear he does not want to be the father of that child, you do not hold the moral high ground when you sue the man for child support. Saying a woman caught accidentally masturbating during a work meeting on Zoom would arouse harder social fire than a man, while probably true, is very different from saying a woman ipso facto would not find herself in such a position, which cannot categorically be true and suggests that women are less prone to carnal appetites than men, which is false. Women as a group may be more careful about getting caught, owing again to the double standard, not to their moral superiority. Trying to parse the acts of men under moral fire because you want to understand the categories of reproach heaped on them—to see if there is anything more to them than personal repugnance—does not mean you are giving a woman-pass to a man because he’s a man.
We have just lived through four years of a political party devising social policy according to its rotted-brain belief in its sense of goodness, a sense of goodness that aims above all to punish, vilify, and deprive others. That’s what this party lives for. If, as women, we don't think with reason about sex, desire, mistakes, freedom, and the harms men do to women because as men they can get away with it, we duplicate the muddy thinking that justifies keeping us down.
Bodies and their parts, let’s think for a moment about these things. The female body in public space. Who decides where it may move? If it can move at all unescorted in the world. The queer body. The swish body. The trans body. Who will allow these bodies to exist without harm? We have fought and fought and fought for this beautiful right. How can it even be a right? A mollusk, a horse. Bodies in the world as they are.
The sexual body in public space. There is no such thing as a body that is not also a sexual body. The nude body covered in order to go outside. Topless men okay on the street. Topless women not okay. Because they’re women. Because they’re women, the emptiness of the phrase that set the women’s movement in motion.
Sex and physical freedom that are not assaultive, not violent, not aggressive—let’s focus on these things now. Aggression and coercion exist in categories separate from sex and nudity. If they don’t in your mind, why not? We must always think this through, if for no other reason than to protect the right of the female body to move freely in public space. There is no way to control the male body without endangering the right of women to move in the world without permission.
To review, a man who may be a dick for reasons publicly known and unknown, accidentally shows his penis to a group of professional colleagues, is not a dick because he showed his penis accidentally. He is not a dick because he was masturbating. Everyone masturbates or they are wasting their lives. He is not a dick because he was thinking about sex while thinking about other things as well. This is known as ordinary existence. The penis unwrapped is not ipso facto a thing that needs to be escorted off the premises. It’s a body part, a tube of flesh that can look beautiful or like a small turtle head pulled back into its shell. The incident is funny. Mistakes are funny. If you want to see this guy punished, what is his offense?
—Laurie Stone is a frequent contributor to the Women’s Review of Books.
Audre Lorde, of course, was the legendary feminist who so pointedly reminded us that “the masters’ tools will never dismantle the masters’ house.” In her/their manifesto, Glitch Feminism, writer, curator, and artist Legacy Russell invites us to consider that, while Lorde’s statement remains valid, there is always the possibility of intentionally breaking the masters’ tools, pushing them to the point of failure.
This is the nature of the glitch, the moment or place where a technology fails to function, most typically due to a crisis caused by some sort of unaccounted-for variation. Technologies are innately limited by the literal and figurative structures they use to function; the built environment, as disability theory has taught us so pertinently, is limited both by the builders’ imaginations and the materials used. Escalators are great until they are encountered by someone who uses wheels rather than legs to move around, at which point we have a glitch, an inability of the technology of the escalator to do what it is supposed to do. The human being, in this situation, is not the thing that has failed. This technology created to raise and lower bodies through space has failed. It has glitched, or has been glitched, stymied by a human user whose reality exceeds the assumptions that were factored into the design of the technology.
In the digital world, whose integration into our day-to-day lives is Russell’s point of entry to considering the political and social potential of the glitch, glitches are not only the mundane incidents of machine failure, like the moments we spend staring at the spinning rainbow beachball on our screens hoping we saved our work recently enough. They are also the ways in which our realities and imaginations are vaster than the digital media through which we attempt to process them. The digital world cannot keep up. It glitches.
Exhibit A, in this manifesto, is gender. People experiment with ungendering, regendering, and exponentially expanding the possibilities of gender as both a fixed and an unfixed category, which in turn renders the “male” and “female” tickyboxes of database-driven questionnaires less able to function. Consequently, algorithms that depend on binary gender may also fail to function. Those algorithms, whether literal and digital or conceptual and cultural, support the culture of our worlds both online and AFK (“away from keyboard,” Russell’s phrase of choice for describing the less or non-digitally engaged portions of our lives). They are connected to the labor and production expectations of capitalism, the social expectations of patriarchy, and the hierarchies of racism, ableism, misogyny. To “glitch” gender digitally, Glitch Feminism argues, has the potential to glitch social and cultural technologies. The same, Russell contends, is true of glitching race, sexual orientation, and so on. In the chapter titled “Glitch Survives,” she writes: “We recognize the contributions of blackness toward liberatory queerness, and the contributions of queerness toward liberatory blackness. We fail to function for a machine that was not built for us. We refuse the rhetoric of “inclusion” and will not wait for this world to love us, to understand us, to make space for us. We will take up space, and break this world, making new ones.”
If these technologies can be glitched—if they can be broken or caused to fail by the introduction of many insistent variables—then they become less useful. Particularly in the second half of the book, Russell does some suggestive conjuring with the dichotomy of usefulness and uselessness. The individual person’s willingness to become a glitch, to take the Whitmanesque notion of “containing multitudes” and insistently introduce it to systems that cannot accommodate those multitudes, represents a mode of refusing to play the game of being usable by those systems. Rendering one’s self (or selves) useless to the technologies that regulate our lives is a radical notion, and, insofar as most of us are also dependent on these technologies to some extent for our survival, a utopian one. This being a manifesto, and for that matter one steeped in the values of conceptual art, the pragmatics are left as an exercise for the reader. Nevertheless, it is a point well taken that as feminists we must consider the ways in which we make ourselves useful and usable by systems and technologies that do not necessarily benefit us and consider the merits of intentional uselessness as a politically resonant alternative.
As with a number of "cyberfeminist" theorists before them, Russell is a champion of the imagination and, although they do not use the word much, of play. As Russell accurately notes, our digital lives have become thoroughly colonized by white supremacist heteropatriarchal ableist capitalism. The radical epistemological freedoms that white cyberfeminists once thought they glimpsed in the vast twinkling reaches of the digital have never truly existed. (Russell’s looking at you, Sherry Turkle and Donna Haraway.) The Internet began its life as a military communications project, after all, and problems ranging from technological accessibility to the political economy of race in digital development have since become widely acknowledged. But the artists Russell discusses nevertheless find digital spaces for forms of imaginative, multiplicative, constantly shifting aesthetic and conceptual play that both births and celebrates glitches. The glitch, as Russell embraces it, is a gleefully expansive contrarian aesthetic that supports a mode of performance both inquisitive and destructive.
Make no mistake, Glitch Feminism is a work of theory, and radical theory at that. The glitch, and its generative potential, make a grand intellectual chew toy. Indeed, the intellectual, aesthetic, and symbolic are the realms in which the glitches Russell discusses seem to make themselves most felt. As Russell argues compellingly from her own experience of digital life, the separation between the digital world and the analog one is increasingly fictive, particularly when it comes to how we experience the space they occupy in our lives. “On the Internet,” Russell reminds us, “we go to the bank, we pay our student loans, we speak to our friends, we read news and learn about the world.”
Still, as a reader I found myself constantly tempted to consider how glitch feminism might materialize. The digital world offers us the potential to disrupt and explode expansively, to resist and refuse being concretized in all the various binarizing and polarizing ways that the technologies of our culture systematically do. Over time, certainly, digital experience has the potential to create cultural change that shapes our analog lives: meeting and developing connections with potential romantic partners online is now so commonplace that there are TV ads for Match.com, for example, whereas when I was an Internet newbie merely meeting up with someone you knew from online for a meatspace cup of coffee was considered bizarre and possibly dangerous. (In Internet years, I am slightly older than Julian Dibble’s 1993 “A Rape in Cyberspace.”) But the transition from digital reality to the analog realm, particularly with regard to things that glitch accustomed systems, suffers from significant lag. It is slow, and inevitably much is lost in translation, simplified, dumbed down to fit the limitations of the known. Is glitch feminism, then, limited to the digital? What does it mean for its feminist relevance if it is, given everything we know about the limitations of sex, gender, race, class, etc. on digital participation?
Russell does not tell us. The constant transformation of ongoing glitching is where she sets her sights, a sense of the self as cosmically unbounded and thus repudiating as oppressive the limitations of all technological structure. If I, or any other reader of Glitch Feminism, want the bread of a less fantastical praxis, we will be disappointed: Russell is serving roses. But they are wild, shape-shifting roses, outrageously lush and wondrous, and it is certainly worth taking a moment to find out what yet-unimagined visions we might have if we stop for a moment to smell them.
Hanne Blank is the author of numerous books including Fat (Bloomsbury, 2020) and Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (Beacon Press, 2014). She is on the faculty of Denison University.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this review was titled "Basic Glitch," a pun on "basic bitch." My gratitude to Legacy Russell for the critical context she quickly offered on the misogyny of the term, which caricatures straight cis white women as tacky, shallow consumers. To riff on that sexist phrase in a discussion of the work of a queer Black woman was particularly off-key.
Nothing has influenced my relationship with God more than my relationships with women. I became a Christian at the age of twelve of my own volition, but I was raised in the church where my maternal grandmother is still an usher, class leader, deaconess, missionary, and probably other titles I don’t know about. It is the same church my mother and her siblings attended and where they accepted Christ as their personal savior. In her adult years, after she left the family church, my late aunt was a preacher, a praiser, a prayer warrior, and among the church mothers who sat in a place of honor beside the pastor.
As much as I love these closest of blood kin and as long as I’ve known them, I do not know what they were like “B.C.” or Before Church. This is the term a character in Deesha Philyaw’s story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, uses to reference her mother’s pivot point. I do not know the fears most of the women in my family have whispered to themselves at 3:00 a.m., the questions that pull them from their beds and compel them to search the scriptures, the longings, frustrations, and needs that drive them to their knees. My ignorance saddens me because, though I believe everyone has a right to their privacy and their secrets, I also believe it can be dangerous for girl children and women not to know what they don’t know.
Jesus, break generational curses. It is a prayer I’ve heard too many times from or on behalf of Black women. It is churchy code for I was abused. Addiction runs in my family. I’m on the path to diabetes and heart disease, just like my mother and aunties, and I don’t know how to reach a different outcome. I’m working all the time, I’m tithing, I’m living right, but I can’t get out of poverty. I’ve never seen a romantic relationship that didn’t also have violence or divorce. I don’t know why I should expect anything good out of life when I’ve never seen it happen for anyone else. In my life, women weary with secrets have let out snippets of these truths in their questions during Sunday School lessons, in small group prayer settings, in phone calls with the closest of their Christian sisters, and—if they are lucky—in intergenerational conversations, more likely with an auntie who lets them misbehave than with their mothers.
It is the stories behind these veiled prayers for healing and change that Philyaw reveals empathetically and tenderly, using church-speak only when it’s true to the character. In the story “Jael,” the titular fourteen-year-old character is raised in the 1980s by her great-grandmother who was born in the 1920s. The matriarch ponders coming from a “family full of women” who had children before the age of twenty and “had the worst time with men”—indeed, Jael’s mother was killed by Jael’s father when she was a toddler. Pondering the teenager's vacant stare, the great-grandmother sees the eyes of her deceased daughter, who also died young, and wonders not about the trauma they both experienced but if it's true that "bad seeds skip a generation.” Jael doesn’t understand her trauma either, and she lacks her great-grandmother’s belief that prayer can solve her problems. She has her own means of disrupting the legacy of encounters with misogyny, and they are as dramatic as a fourteen-year-old could make them, yet, as revealed at the end of the story, planned with a touch of the divine.
Throughout The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Philyaw plays with the sacred and secular, taking them from competitors to complements for her characters’ lives, a strategy that I hope prompts church-lady readers to reconsider what curse they are suffering from. For the second-person narrator in “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” the obstacle to finding satisfying love isn’t having a body with fat and rolls but “your mother and the small version of God she clings to,” the God who, according to her, insists you come to church with your thighs, butt, and belly bound in a girdle, or you don’t come at all. Freedom is in loving the body God made, and a therapist lays the roadmap for learning to love it. A churchgoing mother’s bitterness goes unexplained and unhealed in “Peach Cobbler,” and “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands” hints that a desire for the unavailable remained unresolved. “Not Daniel,” a tightly wound but fully layered story, suggests Black women under the pressures of being the family’s “dutiful daughter, ... chief shit-handler, bail bondsman, maid, chauffeur, therapist, career advisor, ATM” may need not “garbage theology about God’s will disguised as comfort,” but the ministry of relief and sexual release.
The taboos of Christian sex and sexuality are prominent themes in Philyaw’s collection. Most of the stories deal with heterosexuality, but “Jael,” “Snowfall,” and, “Eula” approach same-sex relationships with nuance and without judgment. Jael’s great-grandmother sees her budding homosexuality as an abomination but also a confounding source of security; it keeps Jael away from boys. (The great-grandmother is a cliché of her generation, save that the scriptures she quotes are not from the Holy Bible’s King James Version.) Lee Lee and Rhonda, a Black lesbian couple, have left their beloved South for a wintry home where they can love each other freely, but their Southern roots won’t die. Philyaw’s portrayal of Southern conservatism may be unoriginal, but her ode to black female Southern culture sings from the page.
Wisely, in my view, Philyaw begins the collection with “Eula.” The story centers around a particularly poignant and complex same-sex relationship between Eula and Carolletta, her friend and church homie since childhood. Eula is “waiting for her Boaz.” This is a real expression that single, Black, Christian women use, alluding to the Old Testament story of Ruth, an impoverished widow whose selflessness and familial loyalty catch the attention of the godly landowner Boaz, who eventually marries her. Women who are waiting for their Boaz are quietly productive and non-sexual. As I wrote in 2017 on my blog Redbone Afropuff, the Ruth-Boaz archetype “is the embedded theology we Black women carry with us as we pay for books and singles conferences that tell us how to wait, pray, take control of our desires with pure thoughts, and wait some more.”
In contrast, “Eula” invites readers into the heart-wrenching moment when waiting past their twenties and thirties breaks the Black women to whom this myth has been sold. And yet the sex between Eula and Carolletta is not the result of or an indicator of brokenness. Philyaw writes the lovers’ scenes in tasteful metaphor, erotic in its subtlety. She kicks you in the gut by rendering Eula’s heartache in raw terms and Carolletta’s questions about God, sex, longing, and touch bluntly. They are questions that cut across sexuality or sexual preference, for they are some of the questions I, as a heterosexual woman, have wanted to ask my more conservative Christian sister-friends—the ones whose joy and peace led me closer to God in college, the ones who wore purity rings then and infected me with a religious zeal I eventually abandoned for freedom. Eula and Carolletta are entering their forties as the world enters the year 2000, and Carolletta is calling for a new theology in this new century, one that meets her and Eula where they are as single, grown women who desire love and physical intimacy, one that can handle the depths and variations of their friendship and their love.
Philyaw closes her collection with “When Eddie Levert Comes,” a story about "Daughter,” the unnamed child and caretaker of "Mama.” The mother is a woman who, at around Eula’s age but with a different kind of heartache, turns to Jesus and the church and “[throws] herself into everything—children’s church, Girl Scouts, Sunday School.” This story complements “Eula” by giving readers a picture of who Eula could become, even without children. Daughter observes,
Despite her devotion to the church and chaste living, Mama had never had that peace that surpasses understanding that was supposed to be yours when you invited Jesus into your heart. Nor did she have that joy . . . promised in the scriptures. What Mama had was the love of Jesus ... [a lover who] demanded everything.
What happens when Black women give the church their everything? What happens to those of us who don’t, who find more secular ways to cope with life, who find God without losing ourselves? What secrets are we not sharing with each other and with ourselves that could move us a little closer to freedom? It is these questions Philyaw coaxes us to ask, and this little book on a Sunday afternoon is possibly the most comfortable way in the world to get the conversation started.
Mariam I. Williams is a writer, dancer, and educator based in Philadelphia, born in Kentucky. She’s writing a memoir about the influences of church and family on her understanding of Black womanhood and sex.
As soon as the #MeToo movement began, so too the backlash. The accused parties were predictably defensive, the stories and tropes familiar: a series of powerful men and conservative pundits, beginning with Woody Allen, invoked the “witch hunt” metaphor; during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Trump declared it a “very scary time for young men in America.” But the backlash is not just partisan, nor is it purely patriarchal. Some second-wave feminists have decried a growing generation gap in the larger movement. In 2018, critics like Masha Gessen and Daphne Merkin lamented the “misplaced scale” and “victimology paradigm” of increasingly sex-negative activism that labels every awkward encounter “predatory.” Meanwhile, the feminist party line arguably remains that #MeToo has not gone far enough, as second-wave lawyer Catharine MacKinnon puts it, to shift “gender hierarchy’s tectonic plates.” A fear of retrogression means that attempts to differentiate the severity of various instances of sexual misconduct, or the credibility of allegations, are often maligned as defenses of a persistent rape culture, and many feminists continue to champion harsh punishment of abusers both inside and outside of the legal system.
Into this contentious terrain wades legal scholar and former public defender Aya Gruber, a self-described “feminist, woman of color, defense attorney, and survivor,” to draw our attention to a social justice issue that, while incredibly timely, is widely overlooked in a popular commentary so focused on the reputations of privileged and high-profile men: the relationship between sexual violence activism and mass incarceration. The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration asks how, in this epoch defined by both #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, do we square the punitive streak in contemporary feminist discourse with the emerging liberal consensus against mass incarceration? How do we explain the paradoxical reality that, “today, those most vocal about prison reform are also often the most punitive about gendered offenses, even minor ones?” To answer this question, Gruber excavates more than 150 years of feminism’s internal contradictions as related to American jurisprudence, tracing the ways in which the dominant wings of movements against gendered violence have allied with existing structures of punishment, in the process helping to strengthen those structures which disproportionately punish the economically and racially marginalized. Her study shows us that punitive feminism is not endemic to the current generation, that Millennials and #MeToo are inheritors of a long, contradictory, and often implicitly (or explicitly) racist history of attitudes toward sex, violence, and criminal justice.
Gruber’s historical narrative progresses chronologically and begins with first-wave efforts to fight rape and domestic violence in the later nineteenth century. Despite a socialist-feminist streak in first-wave thought, “Middle-class Christian sensibilities rose to the top,” and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union became the preeminent feminist activist organization by the end of the century, a group “committed to eradicating the vices of sex and alcohol” through “criminal regulation of drunkenness and lust.” Many social historians have convincingly situated first-wave feminism within the larger context of reform movements aimed at bourgeois social control of laboring and ethnic bodies. And acknowledgement of the racist rhetoric and strategies of prominent first-wave figures has become an important part of feminist soul-searching in recent years. In this vein, Gruber shows how first-wave legislative victories disproportionately punished poor and Black men. Prohibition, which middle-class white feminists argued was a prophylactic against domestic abuse, targeted the ethnic working classes. Age-of-consent legislation and anti-prostitution measures such as the Mann Act and the feminist movement against “white slavery” intersected with the Reconstruction-era discourse of Black men as a threat to white female purity—used in the South to justify epidemic levels of lynching and racial retrenchment. Thus, laws undertaken to address rape and exploitation became a legal tool for the targeting of Black men. In 1812, for instance, the Black boxer Jack Johnson was prosecuted under the Mann Act for transporting his own white fiancée across state lines.
More surprising is the symbiotic relationship that Gruber discerns between second-wave feminism and the War on Crime. Little feminist action took place in the criminal arena between the Progressive Era and the antirape and battered women’s movements that emerged in the early 1970s. These latter movements were originally antiauthoritarian and non-carceral in nature, trading in the anti-police, anti-violence, anti-state discourse of the Vietnam era. Even as Nixon and the Silent Majority went hard on crime, the discourse of the early second wave included the voices of ad hoc shelter organizers, feminists of color who advocated social welfare programs over punitive legislation, and liberal antipatriarchy feminists who pushed for socioeconomic reform as well as liberation from oppressive domestic norms. But these sub-movements, Gruber argues, were soon eclipsed by the ultimately triumphant “legal feminist” wing: civil rights lawyers and victims’ advocates who saw domestic violence as a failure of criminal law.
Indeed, at the time, most domestic violence complaints did not lead to arrest or prosecution. Legal feminists attributed this non-punitive approach to the inherent sexism of law enforcement and to a legal system that tolerated wife-beating as a patriarchal norm. They saw this status quo as a continuous jurisprudential line going all the way back to the early-modern principle of “chastisement”: a husband’s right to correct his wife through force. Gruber demonstrates that the history of domestic violence legislation and attitudes in the US is actually much more complex; states have often advocated harsh punishments for perpetrators, thought to be “unmanly drunkards.” Southern states have a particularly pronounced history of instituting corporal punishment for domestic violence, often labeled a “negro crime.” In the 1970s, the logic favoring non-arrest of domestic abusers was complex. As both sociologists and law enforcement attest, more often than not, victims do not want their partners arrested or prosecuted, either because of affection, fear of retribution, financial dependence, or some combination of all three. But legal feminists in the 1970s and 1980s framed their efforts towards arrest and prosecution as an overturning of a patriarchal system designed to protect dangerous male criminals. In their narrative, according to Gruber, “violent male police officers using violent arrest to control violent men was not a pathology of a ‘fascist’ state. It was feminist.”
A great deal of recent scholarship and political discourse—on both sides of the aisle—has reevaluated the American turn towards crime control over social welfare in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, a paradigm shift which is now almost universally acknowledged to be the origin of this country’s current carceral crisis. Gruber points out that feminist movements against gendered violence are implicated in this shift. In the era of the Moynihan Report and mandatory minimum sentencing, legal feminists fought for—and won—mandatory arrest and no-drop prosecution of domestic violence offenders, often ignoring sociological evidence that criminal intervention inflames violent dynamics within families, targets marginal groups, and leaves women economically vulnerable. In so doing, feminists “shored up the coercive arrest model of policing,” and “the battered women’s movement’s carceral turn influenced the larger American carceral turn, even as it was influenced by it.”
Gruber argues that, in the eighties and nineties, feminism’s dominant carceral streak then intersected with the victim’s rights movement, an outgrowth of the War on Crime that advocated “swift and aggressive prosecution and easily obtained convictions unobstructed by procedural protections for defendants.” Legal feminists aligned with this movement to reform state laws that recognized rape only if accompanied by evidence of violent struggle and to ban the practice of entering a victim’s previous sexual history into evidence. At the same time, they worked to expand the definition of rape. In a post-sexual-revolution world, women could freely engage in sex outside of marriage, which made them vulnerable in new ways. While sex-positive feminists saw liberated sexuality as a source of power, others like Catharine MacKinnon warned that sexuality continued to be “the primary social sphere of male power” and called on the fist of the state to “topple male sexual dominion.” By the 1980s and ’90s, activists had successfully expanded the definition of “coercion” to include any act outside of the framework of enthusiastic consent. Thus, although women remain vulnerable to sexual violence, although rape culture and attitudes of “victim blaming” surely persist, both the criteria and punishment for rape were significantly expanded under the law.
The consequent prosecutorial reforms have meant that, “since the 1980s, the population of sex offenders in prison has exploded,” Gruber writes, even as the number of reported rapes has declined. Some feminists might tout this development as a victory, but it is one increasingly at odds with liberal and progressive priorities. Furthermore, in order to toe the line, Gruber argues that feminists—not just prosecutors, but activists in general—are forced to paint all assault victims as morally pure and irrevocably traumatized, and to support black-and-white arguments. “No always means no” and “victims should always be believed,” regardless of context or nuance, is the kind of rigid, punitive logic that #MeToo’s detractors bemoan.
Catharine MacKinnon, feminist legal scholar, activist, and author.
That latter phenomenon has often been explained, understandably, as an outpouring of long-suppressed female rage. We think of this as an unprecedented moment, a necessary corrective. And in a world where the stakes of feminist consciousness-raising feel so high, where Kavanaugh was confirmed, where the president brags about grabbing women by the pussy and his challenger has faced allegations of sexual assault, where, according to the Office for National Statistics, the majority of victims still don’t report their assaults, this kind of feminist self-criticism can feel risky, even repressive. When Gruber makes statements like “‘no’ ... sometimes means ‘yes’” (as evidenced by college students who self-report engaging in “token resistance”), it’s hard not to feel angry. For those of us who have said no and meant no and had our no’s overridden, and often not even reported it, this book sometimes seems to engage in a kind of fallacy of misplaced concreteness; it tries to quantify what can’t be quantified: trauma, desire, violation.
And yet, this is the beautiful and often perplexing tension inherent perhaps in all feminisms: how do we draw connections between seeking justice in our interior and intimate lives with seeking justice in the world at large? Gruber makes a compelling case for #MeToo as a movement continuous with earlier, influential feminisms which have participated in and contributed to racial disparity and incarceration. She does so not as a screed against feminists, but as a way of showing us how we “can do better.” She concludes the book by outlining a “neofeminist” approach that views sexual misconduct and battering as “pressing social problems that reflect and reinforce women’s subordination,” while also approaching criminal law as a last resort.
The release of this book in the summer of 2020 was almost preternaturally timely. As I marched in the streets of Brooklyn calling for the defunding of NYPD, I thought often about the future of punitive feminism, what it would mean to live as a (white) woman in a world without a professional police force. We are certainly now at a cultural crossroads at which we can and must reckon with the carceral history of feminism, and Gruber advances that reckoning substantially.
I don’t think this is a perfect book. At times it seems to conflate anti-domestic violence and anti-rape activism in ways that weaken and confuse the narrative. I think it overstates the causative influence of legal feminism on the War on Crime, which was already overdetermined by the time feminism leaned punitive. It argues against a linear-progressive understanding of societal intolerance of gendered violence, while failing to fully account for the ways in which shifting social dynamics like urbanization, secularization, and sexual liberation have required new forms of sexual regulation. But this is overall a subtle and well-researched work of legal and feminist scholarship. It acknowledges that feminism—indeed all ideologies, all women, all intimate relationships—contain contradictions. We often fear these contradictions, and understandably so: patriarchy is always eager to use them against us. But to acknowledge them can be a sign not of retrogression but of ideological strength, and, right now, we need to be strong.
Charis Caputo is an editorial assistant for Women’s Review of Books and an MFA candidate in Fiction at NYU. She holds an MA in History from Loyola University Chicago.