X Close

The vanity of young feminism Cancelling dead white men doesn't stop them influencing you

Girls won't save the world if they are blind to history. Credit: Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty

Girls won't save the world if they are blind to history. Credit: Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty


June 30, 2021   6 mins

Not long after graduating from Cambridge with a bare pass and spending a few months mooching about doing not very much, the 21-year-old William Wordsworth travelled to France to escape the demands of his guardians that he get a proper job.

It was 1791, two years after the storming of the Bastille. In his autobiographical work, The Prelude, Wordsworth describes pocketing a stone from the fortress rubble, and thrilling at the world born anew in the white heat of revolution:

Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive!
But to be young was very heaven.

For a moment, the slate of human failings seemed to have been wiped clean. He imagined “France standing on the top of golden hours,/And human nature seeming born again”.

The Terror, though, horrified the young poet. The implosion of this astonishing, thrilling moment of Reason, renewal and revolutionary promise into brutal violence and political repression drove him to re-evaluate his early political passions.

But something of that longing to sweep the slate clean does survive in Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, written, along with The Prelude, in 1798. In it, he reflects, from the grand old age of 28, on the wild passions of his revolutionary youth and how much he’s changed. He describes the power of a beautiful landscape to convey profound insight: “that serene and blessed mood” in which

…with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy
We see into the life of things.

It’s a fairly safe bet that LAMBDA Literary Award and Triangle Publishing Award finalist Melissa Febos would scorn Wordsworth as one of her literary forerunners. The bibliography of Girlhood, her recent collection of semi-autobiographical essays on growing up female in America, cites Kimberlé Crenshaw, Jaques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Judith Butler and is noticeably light on such crusty old classics from the traditional literary canon as the Romantic poets.

Nonetheless, in both style and content Girlhood echoes the Wordsworthian revolutionary dream of “human nature born again”, the Romantic rejection of nearly all overt reference to history, tradition or culture, and the longing to “see into the life of things” via self-reflection and the natural world.

Like Wordsworth’s Prelude, it’s also that very Romantic thing, a Bildungsroman. She begins with the experience of reaching puberty at the age of 11 and finding herself abruptly the focus of adult male sexual attention; it takes us through her adolescence, sexual promiscuity, drug addiction and work as a professional dominatrix to falling in love as an adult and finally reaching a measure of emotional comfort and embodiment as a successful writer in her thirties.

In the course of its chapters, via often raw vignettes from her life, she tackles a range of familiar liberal pop-feminist themes such as “slut-shaming”, the “male gaze”, voyeurism, sexual consent and embodiment. She weaves her history with interviews, references to (usually contemporary or near-contemporary) writers of critical theory, and a sprinkling of social science data.

She depicts girlhood as a kind of coercive scripting by the overwhelming force of patriarchal culture. “Before I learned about beauty,” she writes, “I delighted in my body. I was a passionate child with callused feet and lots of words.” But having hit puberty early, at 11, faced with an onslaught of sexual attention, “I came to better understand the lessons about my female body, the ones that tell us punishment is a reward, that disempowerment is power.”

She becomes increasingly dissociated from herself: “I let the persistent older boy dig under my clothes and between my legs. My once-strong body became a passive thing, tossed and splintered, its corners rounded from use.”

Radical literature has a long history of rejecting canonical content and form. Wordsworth drew on a radical tradition of blank verse instituted by John Milton, Puritan author of Paradise Lost (and sometimes propagandist for Cromwell’s Protectorate), who saw escape from poetic formalism as a metaphor for real-world liberation from religious and cultural tradition, and a return to the “ancient liberty” of Saxon England from the Catholic Norman yoke.

Wordsworth, in turn, imagined a new politics where stuffy tradition might be swept away by the light of Reason, while the overly-ornate Augustan poets and their formalism might likewise be swept away by muscular Miltonic blank verse.

Two centuries further on again, this permanent revolution continues to devour its children. Wordsworth himself has received the same treatment from more modern feminist critics as the Augustans did at the hands of Wordsworth and his Romantic contemporaries. But even after dynamiting the literary canon, including its Romantic poets, the anti-traditionalism, self-exploration and rejection of canonical authority Wordsworth helped to inaugurate lives on in writers such as Melissa Febos.

Febos paints her life as a Romantic tale of self-fashioning: a rejection of the stifling formalism of patriarchal ideology into (as Milton might have put it, were he not such a ghastly misogynist) “ancient liberty” of unchained female embodiment. Like training the body to athletics, Febos writes, it’s possible to re-shape the mind and its desires away from its patriarchal conditioning: “Like any process of conditioning, it is tedious, minute, and demands rigorous attention.”

The book itself was an instant bestseller. The Oprah Daily website recounts breathlessly that it’s “so definitive, so necessary” the article author wishes she could go back in time and tell her younger self to read it. I found much in her story that echoes my own often unhappy experiences of growing up. But Girlhood also left me feeling suffocated.

Like Tintern Abbey, Febos dials back every frame of reference save self-reflection, the phenomenal world and the supposedly universal one. Her account of lying on damp pine needles in a forest and emoting herself into a state of communion with the sublime plugs her straight into Wordsworthian tradition:

“I would read or think or feel myself into a brimming state—not joy or sorrow, but some apex of their intersection, the raw matter from which each was made—then lie with my back to the ground, body vibrating, heart thudding, mind foaming, thrilled and afraid that I might combust, might simply die of feeling too much.”

Girlhood is an account of someone who began in this rich, passionate wildness and experienced growing up as a series of traumatic constrictions, before finally making peace with her body and finding a place in the world. Her retelling implies that we may draw conclusions from her experiences, about the condition of women more generally.

But unlike the Romantic writers from which her self-exploratory style is descended, Febos seems profoundly ignorant of the mass of shared cultural and historical material Wordsworth knew well, but set aside. Where she encounters such material, she treats it as the enemy: a delivery mechanism for a hostile ideology. And yet her own biography shows how rejecting our own shaping by history, culture and tradition doesn’t prevent these things operating upon us.

She writes on several occasions, for example, about her abandonment as a baby by her biological father, then the repeated absences of her adopted seafarer father and his eventual separation from her mother. Studies have shown that girls with absent fathers often reach puberty early, and are at greater risk of early sexual activity and abuse.

But nowhere does Febos draw a link between these elements of her biography and patterns in wider social life. Nor does she have much to offer in the way of reflection on why we have those cultural phenomena we have concerning sex and love. For that would require a reflective examination of the wider contours of our shared culture: a move that necessitates thinking historically.

Instead, her suffering is the fault of something nebulous called “patriarchy”, which is “the house in which we all live”, which “possesses all of Western culture and industry and has for centuries”.

Febos is a vivid writer. But having pushed the Romantic mode of self-exploration to its extreme, she has produced as a source of human (or at least female) universals a book of the most stifling imaginable solipsism. In this world, there is no shared cultural or historical terrain between the absolutely subjective individual, and the crushing force of oppressive ideology. At best we can hope for a sprinkling of critical theory, movie references and the odd snatch of poetry.

And there are wider political ramifications to writing like this and calling it “feminism”. For, if selfhood is the sole legitimate ground for thinking, and all of canonical culture is a hostile vector for patriarchy, then we have no shared and cumulative life in common – at least none with any moral legitimacy. And once we treat who we were as infinitely plastic and subject to remodelling, the political project of who we are and can become is radically up for grabs.

This state of liquefaction thrilled Wordsworth in 1792. But in practice, the more uncertain we become of our past, the easier it becomes for anyone with a political interest in doing so to rewrite it in the interests of shaping such futures as are open to us. And these may be less enticing: the 1789 sweeping-away of the past that so thrilled Wordsworth didn’t take long to become 1793’s Terror.

Those writers, such as Febos, who remain not just blind to history but hostile to it as a delivery mechanism for oppression leave us not just navel-gazing in an airless world stripped of cultural riches, but disturbingly adrift. All common life and heritage has been repudiated, leaving us unable to refashion anything except ourselves.

And while doing so may have felt to Febos like liberation, as a programme for the greater good it’s not just myopic and profoundly defeatist. It’s Ground Zero for an authoritarian nightmare.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

moveincircles

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

31 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

I’m glad other people read these books so I don’t have to.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I was going to say this but its more effective to give you an uptick.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

What Chris Wheatley said.

Al M
AP
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Ditto

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

You do to the dentist even though you really do not want to. Reading this angry, self obsessed, victimized (as the writer says), Solipsistic twaddle is the duty of everyone living in this insane, self loathing, society loathing, nation loathing age. How else are you going to fully understand how the new zeitgeist is very much akin to the Wordsworth love of the tearing down of what was great, (because had not yet seen the fallowing terror which always comes after the destruction of the stable.)

This all reminds me of the H*t ler youth, the youth ‘Pioneers’ of Stalin, the indoctrinating of so much self hate in the young that they will destroy all, even themselves, to wreck that which is their benefactor, but they think is their oppressor.

Yea, but you are right, I cannot think of even a dental procedure which would be more unpleasant than reading this book, and thank Mary for undergoing it for me.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I had a root canal last week and I think I would enjoy this book less.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

And after Opra has double thumbs upped it there will also be a real cost to buy it.

Peter LR
PL
Peter LR
2 years ago

Being besotted with yourself sounds not only unhealthy but positively dangerous: no wonder everything that goes wrong is someone’s else’s fault.
I have to confess that I’ve heard so much lecturing on things like patriarchy or being congenitally racist that I no longer take any notice.

Last edited 2 years ago by Peter LR
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Daily mail showed a T-shirt which lists the warming signs that you may becoming a White Supremacist:

“1. Full time employment, 2. Literacy, 3. Professional or technical degree, 4. Regular church/temple attendance, 5. Auto insurance, 6. Good credit rating, 7. No criminal record.”

It was a re-tweet, and the unanimous response to the re-tweet is massed tweeting that posting this list is the best, true, sign you Are a ‘White Supremacist’. The guy who re-tweeted it is likely done for professionally.

You need to take notice because once branded with the crime of nu-cultural Apostasy, there is no recovering.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago

The morning after the referendum result, 23rd June 2016, the Guardian was in meltdown – both above and below the line.
It veered wildly between the bedwetting catastrophism of some Remainers and the absolutely unhinged, poisonous vitriol of others.
My first foray into the comments section that day was in response to a snarlingly unpleasant piece naming and shaming those writers and public figures that were “to blame” for “brainwashing” the country with their “Lies” – the writer of this screed was particularly incensed by Toby Young, of the Spectator and elsewhere.
In response, on that glorious morning, I corrupted the same Wordsworth quote you used.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!
But Toby Young was very heaven.
The comment stayed up for several hours – before the Guardian’s moderation Stasi ‘disappeared’ it – and I can honestly say that in all the many years of almost daily posting on the Guardian (under the name LastOfThePelicans), no comment of mine has engendered more hateful invective than that one.
It’s several months since I last read cif over at the G, and I am much the better for it. The decline of Blairism, then the financial crash, then Brexit, then Trump, then Boris, then Covid, not to mention the rise of identity politics and the culture war, have quite demented the Guardian, both its writing staff and its readership. They have, over the last 10 years, entirely slipped their moorings. They’ve become a left-wing tabloid – albeit one with delusions of moral superiority – far nastier and more intolerant than any of the Right wing tabloids they demonise.
No doubt they will hail Girlhood as an important tract and damn any who dare disagree.
You could hardly describe the current incarnation of The Guardian better than “navel-gazing in an airless world stripped of cultural riches, but disturbingly adrift.” ….. “myopic and profoundly defeatist.”

Last edited 2 years ago by Paddy Taylor
George Wells
George Wells
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Lovely pun.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago

“…a book of the most stifling imaginable solipsism. In this world, there is no shared cultural or historical terrain between the absolutely subjective individual, and the crushing force of oppressive ideology”
Descriptive of any writing basing itself around critical theory, then. Crenshaw et al. are solipsists of Olympic standing and don’t get me started on the pederast Focault. Bankrupt of any human value, collectively they personify a neurotic attempt to separate us from ourselves and rebuild us as – what? They don’t have much to say about that. Plenty to say about what we shouldn’t be though.
I’d like to think this will all just fizzle out but somehow I sense these people won’t be happy until we all have equality of misery in the rubble of all our forbears bequeathed us. The Theorists will be the poorer for it too, having nothing even obliquely original to contribute, but lack the wit and self awareness to see that. Paradoxical, in that “self” is that of which they seem most aware.

Rasmus Fogh
RF
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

Why the insults? Surely Foucaults sex life, however reprehensible, is rather unimportant compared to his influence on modern culture?

ADDED LATER:
Actually, I think Foucault’s influence on modern culture has been wholly malign, even disastrous. But why insult him for his sex life when there is plenty to insult in his – much more consequential – philosophical work?

Last edited 2 years ago by Rasmus Fogh
michael stanwick
MS
michael stanwick
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Might it have something to do with his notion of ‘dominance’ and how that determines the status of ‘power’ in any given situation? The claimed pederasty might be seen as a function of Foucault’s dominance in terms of strength and age and maturation such that the ‘power dynamic’ in a relationship was in Foucault’s favour.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Focault’s influence on modern culture? Res ipsa loquitur. Even allowing that the interpretation of his work may not be what he would have intended (which is pure inference), it’s a fair rule of thumb that you usually get the audience you deserve.
Still, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, that I will concede. His peccadilloes are a sideshow to the juvenilia he successfully palmed off as philosophy. In the final analysis I consider it to have the vapidity of a mere jeu d’esprit and our current societal obsession with it speaks volumes. Unfortunately.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

Just out of interest, I was reading a book about extremes of religions last week. It seems that most (extreme) religious leaders have made a point to trying to make people feel bad and miserable about themselves. Over hundreds of years (extreme) religious views have been about absolution, forgiveness through atonement, etc.
Now we read about extreme ‘-isms’ where people seem have have made their own religions out of being miserable, focussing on bad things, mental problems, etc, to make everyone else feel guilty about being normal.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

To be honest I don’t understand what the term “The Patriarchy” actually means. Can some kind person explain it to me?

Andrew D
AD
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

I was going to ask the same question. And a supplementary one – if it exists, why is it a bad thing?

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

I believe that in these strange times, you are required to ‘educate yourself’ about such matters!

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Patriarchy describes a society in which men hold all the power, and occupy every position of influence, whilst women are culturally (and forcibly) excluded from it.
One has to ask radical feminists if this is the patriarchal, male-dominated society they wish to overthrow?
Our Head of State is a woman – Queen Elizabeth II
The Prime Minister – until relatively recently was a woman – Theresa May
First Minister & Head of the Scottish National Party – Nicola Sturgeon
Head of the Democratic Unionist Party until a few weeks ago – Arlene Foster
Head of Sinn Féin – Mary Lou McDonald
Head of Plaid Cymru until recently – Leanne Wood
Head of the Green Party – Sian Berry with Caroline Lucas and Natalie Bennett before her
Head of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland – Naomi Long. With Geraldine Mulveena its President
President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom – Until very recently Baroness Hale of Richmond
Director General of the Confederation of British Industry – Carolyn Fairbairn
General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress – Frances O’Grady
Chief Medical Advisor to the UK government – until recently Professor Dame Sally Davies – She now sits as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge
Chief Executive Officer of the Charity Commission for England and Wales- Paula Sussex – with Helen Stephenson before her.
Chief Inspector of Schools – Amanda Spielman

As for teaching the next generation (in this male-dominated society) … well, the Teaching profession is almost entirely female driven, 80% of teachers are women
The gender gap among students IN FAVOUR OF WOMEN is the highest ever: Over the last few years on average approx. 100,000 more women apply for University places than men.

If feminists chose to highlight the cause across the globe then I could understand it a bit better. There are undoubtedly patriarchal societies around the world, where women are treated as 2nd class citizens, but the UK in 2021 isn’t Saudi Arabia.
Yet every day, particularly on BBC Radio’s “Women’s Hour”, they manage to dig up another cast of unreconstructed feminist activists who keep banging the drum and railing against injustices that mostly haven’t existed in this country for 30 years or more.

Last edited 2 years ago by Paddy Taylor
Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

I suspect the UK and certain other Western countries are on course to demonstrate, over the next generation or so, why pretty much all successful civilizations in history were “patriarchies”

Diane Tasker
DT
Diane Tasker
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

and then there’s Cressida!

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Thanks for that. It was certainly heartening to read about all those women in important roles in public service. It’s odd how under represented they are on the boards of the top 100 companies, which is where the really big money is. Any ideas?

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

It does usually come prefixed by the adjective ‘white’. Not sure where this leaves, among very many others, the Zulus…

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Smith
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

Lovely article, Not just description or even context, but actual understanding

Ian Barton
IB
Ian Barton
2 years ago

I’m sure this article will make sense – as Mary’s stuff usually does – but is the analysis of historical feminist thinking really of much use/interest these days ?
Maybe it’s time to aim all this effort towards other neglected “causes”.
(just don’t do what Stonewall have done)

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Women hold up half the sky, as Mao said, and have a different perspective. Surely worth tracking what comes from that direction?

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
2 years ago

The one passage cited is cringingly awful as a piece of ‘literary’ writing. Give me Milton, Worsworth plus Austen and Woolf any time!

Tobias Langley
Tobias Langley
2 years ago

The most important thing about Wordsworth is that he was the first poet to realize not what designs he could have on nature but what designs nature had had on him.

Phil Simmons
Phil Simmons
2 years ago

Very cogent article. Not having read Febos’s book I’m in no position to comment on it specifically, but the general argument against ‘Year Zero’ philosophising is well articulated. Dare I point out, though, amid the general deprecation of all things Critical Theory, that the presiding (evil) genius of that (pseudo-) discipline, Jacques Derrida, would have been absolutely in agreement with the contention that it’s impossible to escape the dead hand of historic textuality simply by opposing oneself to it, no matter how loudly?

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago

Another thought-provoking and beautifully written piece by Ms Harrington.