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The Third-Wave-Feminist Mystique

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“A photograph published yesterday with an article about the court-martial of a guard at Abu Ghraib prison showed a book cover that contained an obscenity. The obscenity went unnoticed during editing and should not have been published. Publication of the photo violates The Sun‘s guidelines. The Sun apologizes for the oversight.” — Apology published in The Baltimore Sun, 3/15/06.

U.S. Army Specialist Jennifer Scala was in the courtroom that day to testify in the trial of fellow Abu Ghraib guard Sgt. Michael J. Smith, who was accused of torturing prisoners using dogs. Speaking to one of Smith’s less violent but more perverse practices, Scala admitted his dogs had licked peanut butter off her bare breasts in front of a video camera, on a dare by another soldier. Ultimately, Sgt. Smith, the tenth soldier convicted of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, was sentenced to six months in jail.

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   Into the courtroom Scala carried a copy of Inga Muscio’s Cunt: A Declaration of Independence (2002). The book has an introduction by masturbation icon Betty Dodson and a blurb by rock star Joan Jett. It encourages women to think of themselves as “cunts,” in what the author describes as the original, empowering sense of the word. She cites dubious etymology: “‘Cunt’ is related to words from India, China, Ireland, Rome and Egypt. Such words were either titles of respect for women, priestesses and witches or derivatives of the names of various goddesses.” But Muscio is unconcerned with the facts according to “historians,” a term she puts in quotes. Acknowledging that it may in fact be a word with modern, possibly negative, roots, she writes, “venerable history or not, it’s ours to do with what we want.”
   The Baltimore Sun image of Scala greatly confused commentators, for good reason. What are we to make of a soldier carrying a book with such an incendiary title? On The Huffington Post, sex writer Susie Bright wrote, “So is Jennifer Scala coming to her senses, and ready to stick it to the man? Or does she just like pissing people off whenever the occasion comes up?” Her headline: “I Can’t Wrap My Vulva Around This.”
   In the weeks that followed, the photo was reprinted in the local alternative weekly, but the question was never convincingly answered: Why did Scala have that book with her in the courtroom?
   Despite repeated attempts, we were unable to reach Spc. Scala for comment. But Cunt‘s author weighed in on the webzine Gelf, and reprinted the item on her website, ingalagringa.com. Of the Baltimore Sun image, she said, "When I first saw that photo, I laughed my ass off. The smile on her [Scala's] face is just SO perfect. She looks like a devious sprite, having a rollicking good time in what most would consider a nerve-wracking situation.”
   That smile. Why does Scala seem so happy with Cunt? Does Cunt seem potentially happy with Scala? The answer to that last question is yes.

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Edmund
Spc. Jennifer Scala at the court martial of Sgt. Michael J. Smith.


   Cunt‘s greatest enemy is the “containment of woman’s sexuality” by patrifocal societies. By contrast, the gold standard for good is a “cunt-lovin’ babe.” According to Cunt, the Judeo-Christian tradition is evil; goddess worship is good. Television is evil; only independent media can be trusted. Male doctors (especially male gynecologists) and western medicine (i.e., medicine based on science) are bad; charting your reproductive cycle using the cervical mucus method and a moon calendar is good. Muscio describes her three abortions, claiming the two suction aspirations were bad; the one coaxed with massage and herbs was good. (When the result of the third procedure, at eight or nine weeks, “plopped onto the bathroom floor,” wrote Muscio, “It was clear but felt like one of them unshiny superballs. It was the neatest thing I ever did see.”)
   Muscio suggests all women are soldiers by virtue of the fact that they are always potential victims of rape. “If indeed, my home sometimes seems to be a fortress that deters enemy soldiers — then aren’t I kind of like a soldier, and isn’t my life kind of like a war?” She encourages women to think of themselves as predators, to fill their pockets with rocks when they go out alone at night and to fiercely battle agents of oppression — that is, men who suppress women’s ability to practice “cunt-love,” a term that throughout the book is left conveniently vague: “Every girl and lady who is strong and fighting and powerful, who thrives in this world in a way that serves her, is a rockin’, cuntlovin’ babe doing her part to goad the post-patriarchal age into fruition.”

   Vigilante justice is Muscio’s ideal punishment for rapists. She suggests women gather into groups and burn huge severed-penis effigies on a rapist’s front lawn, pack his car full of rotten fish heads and pelt him with bloody tampons. She offers no “innocent until proven guilty” caveat and admits no grey areas. Instead, there is this almost erotic description of torture:
   “Wouldn’t you just hate like the devil to be pilloried, smeared with dogshit, forced to kneel in front of a high-powered microphone on a raised platform and apologize to the ten thousand women who solemnly marched by you?” Muscio writes. “Boy, that would be an unpleasant day that you might not forget right away, huh.” She calls this practice “Cuntlovin’ Public Retaliation,” and it is one of the extra-important terms the book renders in bold.
   In the afterword to Cunt, Muscio recounts being asked what the book is fundamentally about. The word she uses is, ironically, the same as President Bush’s: “Freedom.”
   Some who have read Cunt characterize it as an example of Third Wave Feminism. Rebecca Walker coined the term “Third Wave” in Ms. magazine in 1992 to distinguish it from the suffragettes (First Wave) and the bra burners (Second Wave).
   The online magazine Bookslut panned Cunt eloquently (“Muscio is selling non-answers packaged as answers, New Age pop psychology packaged as sociology”), but concluded that the book epitomized Third Wave feminism, “a movement that preaches all men are potential rapists.” Wikipedia describes Muscio as a Third Wave feminist.
   I would like to explain what I understand Third Wave feminism to be, and to show how Cunt is not that.

        

  

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   In 1992, at the age of sixteen, I discovered a Bikini Kill fanzine. This was before gender-inclusive language became a joke, before the Riot Grrrls boomed, before Fugazi’s Ian Mackaye produced the fanzine creators’ EP and Kathleen Hanna became a punk avatar — recording the anthem “Rebel Girl,” the solo album Julie Ruin, and the Le Tigre canon on Universal. At this time, there was nothing like this zine.
   In the early ’90s, those few dark years before widespread internet access, zines were the vehicle by which creative, angst-filled teenage and twenty-something people talked to each other. Ideas were disseminated via

I carried my zines around proudly, much as Scala brandished her copy of Cunt.

Xeroxed paper tucked into CD covers, stapled and mailed, left in stacks on strategic bookstore floors. In retrospect, it was very Colonial-era, very Poor Richard’s Almanac. But it also worked.
   “Revolution Girl Style Now” was what the choppy, half-scrawled, half-typed, cut-and-paste Bikini Kill zine promised. It attempted to explain what it meant, on a cosmic level, when guys catcalled you; what date rape was; how to handle not being taken seriously because you were a girl and young and angry.
   I immediately photocopied it for all my friends. That fanzine and those that followed it spread like a neo-feminist virus through New York and, judging by how Kathleen Hanna turned up in Newsweek and stores like Hot Topic started stocking T-shirts with Revolution Girl-Style slogans, the rest of the country. I carried my zines around proudly, much as Scala brandished her copy of Cunt.
   A year later, I got an internship at Esquire magazine, and there Tad Friend’s 1994 article touted a new crop of activists, who, he claimed, epitomized “Do-Me Feminism.” Katie Roiphe, bell hooks and Naomi Woolf were photographed looking dewy and inviting. I read their books, and Susan Faludi’s Backlash, but what stuck with me was the fanzines’ plea for an internal revolution, a kind of self-audit. What was revolutionary in 1992 was to be a teenage girl told by other teenage girls, “Be a dork, tell your friends you love them.” Or “Don’t allow the world to make you into a bitter abusive asshole.” I believe those zines and bands were symptomatic of, and fuel for, a generation with a fundamentally different take on relationships between men and women.
   In an effort to pin down exactly how we’re different, I’ve looked at books like Third Wave Agenda, Her Way, Catching a Wave, Manifesta, No Turning Back and The Fire This Time. Barbara Ehrenreich has said the Third Wave is characterized by anger; Gloria Steinem says it’s a “generation of translation and backlash.” Third Wave Foundation co-founder Amy Richards said this new generation of feminists sought to “bring to light otherwise subliminal messages that are concealed within a culture that pretends to be ignorant of them.” According to Third Wave Agenda, “Third Wave feminists must remain aware of the complex ways that power, oppression and resistance work in a media-saturated global economy.”

We became well educated about date rape but sensible enough to laugh at the absurd rigidity of the Antioch Rules.

   There’s a lot about identity politics in many of these books, about how the personal is political. Indeed, the mid-’90s saw many of us whipped up into a froth of liberal righteousness. In 1995, at my first college, I was as anti-consumerist as Inga Muscio. I became a vegetarian, used a Keeper (what Muscio and others recommend instead of tampons) and feared the Pill (which was okay because I was too angry at the gross abuses of the patriarchy to have a lot of sex). I interrupted a class I had on Christian church history to praise the (in retrospect, pretty loony) radical feminist theologian Mary Daly.
   But I became less sanctimonious with time, and I feel that the Third Wave’s pendulum, too, quickly swung back to a genuinely progressive middle ground, and that out of all that, a generation of inherently decent, fundamentally feminist adults has emerged.
   Nerve has a national readership of about a million highly educated twenty- and thirty-somethings, of whom about half are male, half female and very smart about politics and sex. I think growing up post-AIDS, we who were born in or around the ’70s had to be more honest and upfront with each other about sex; it made us more equitable, curious and fair. We became well educated about date rape but sensible enough to laugh at the absurd rigidity of the Antioch Rules.
   Third Wave women, as I know them, are financially independent. They’re happy alone, or they’re looking to create families with partners rather than providers. They are politically active, voting, signing petitions, contacting their representatives and being conscious consumers and respectful employers and employees. They enjoy sex, especially thanks to the enthusiastic presence of feminist porn companies, anthologies like Gynomite, sex-toy stores like Good Vibrations and Babeland. They are represented in the media by reasonable, funny feminist writers like Jennifer Baumgardner, Rebecca Traister and Lynn Harris; on TV by Tina Fey and Samantha Bee. Third Wave women are women from all over who have an innate sense of their own value and potential. Through Nerve’s blog, Scanner, I hear from dozens of women a week from every state in the country who exemplify this spirit. They are self-aware, adventurous and live supportive lives with men and with each other.

  

        

  

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   Unfortunately, on a broad cultural level, the Third Wave is considered a vehicle for humorless political correctness or radical man-hating. Or it’s invisible. A few months ago, I wrote a piece for the New York Times Book Review; in it, I suggested that an author was mistaken when she said modern feminism hadn’t addressed issues of desire. I got a nasty email from a reader who wanted to know what I was talking about. I looked around at ten years’ worth of sexually adventurous books and CDs, ten years’ worth of Nerve personal essays, and thought, how has this gone unnoticed? Meanwhile, there’s Cunt, clutched in Jennifer Scala’s hand.
   In the abstract universe of a freshman women’s-studies class, Cunt might be exciting, just like Valerie Solanas’s infamous Scum Manifesto. But in the real world, the one in which Muscio has received copious requests for her home-abortion method, it is not at all quaint. It is a bad book, stupid and sociopathic. It preaches hate with the same disregard for logic and humanity exhibited by Jerry Falwell or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
   On her website, Muscio explains where her deep anger and rage at men comes from: she grew up in “a socially blighted backass racist town” and her mother was raped by two men as a child. These are tragedies, and psychically damaging, but they do not make anything Muscio says noble or valid. She is now preaching the same disregard for the rule of law that she grew up with.
   Confirming Muscio’s extremist position is her latest book, Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil: My Life and Times in a Racist, Imperialist Society. In this book, really more of a muddled, stream-of-consciousness rant about slavery, Native Americans and foreign policy, Muscio calls history as it’s taught in the schools “lightly veiled white male supremacist racist propaganda.” She calls the U.S. “the United States of Amerikkka,” yammers on about Hugo Chavez and offers insights such as, “Fuck Columbus Day.” She shows herself to be a run-of-the-mill crackpot. Gone is the blurb from Joan Jett.
   On reflection, it makes sense that Jennifer Scala would have had Cunt with her in the courtroom that day, and that she would have had a smile on her face. The book encourages women to take pleasure in harm done to men, particularly harm done to men who are part of the “patrifocal problem.” Muscio singles out Islam several times in Cunt, referring at one point to a quote from the Koran as an example of “chicken-shittedness.”
   But the U.S. government could just as easily have been the implied object of cunt-lovin’ rage. An article in the New York Times claimed, “Among all the abuse cases that have reached military courts, the trial of the dog handler, Sgt. Michael J. Smith, had appeared to hold the greatest potential to assign accountability to high-ranking military and perhaps even civilian officials in Washington.” But that didn’t happen. According to CNN, Smith did not show remorse for his actions. He did say he wished he’d gotten written permission from his superiors first.
   Scala’s testimony helped convict Smith of an indecent act. It did nothing to bring down the patriarchal system. The feminism I know may have proved more helpful to her. It’s built on the premise that men and women should work together to make a better world. It is built on a sense of fairness and justice and decency. What does Cunt offer? Let’s just say if I were a woman who had participated in or witnessed the torture of men, I would find it a comfort.
 

  

        

©2006 Ada Calhoun and Nerve.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nerve consulting editor and Babble editor-in-chief Ada Calhoun has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, a contributing editor and theater critic at New York magazine, and her softball team’s MVP.