We’ll admit it: Jennifer Baumgardner is a bit of a longtime feminist crush of ours. The Manifesta co-author (with Amy Richards) and Third Wave activist offers up a collection of essays on current feminist topics, from motherhood to Lady Gaga, in her new book, F ‘em. We chatted with her about the changing state of the movement, the feminist merits of Eminem and Louis CK, and abstinence worship.
How has feminism changed since you wrote Manifesta?
I guess the obvious things are the things that we didn’t anticipate at all like the Internet and social media and the ways that feminists have popularized the idea that gender might be on a continuum as opposed to just sexuality. That means there’s a lot more room for men.
How have your own feelings about feminism changed since then?
I used to be a little bit more bumper-sticker-slogan. And in some ways I’m more radical. Before I didn’t really trust that I had to figure out these things for myself. At 41 I’m a little bit better at figuring it out. For example, my assumptions about what abortion was like that were based on talking to people who were in the business of lobbying. I’ve realized that those political institutions didn’t have to be my focus.
Speaking of being older, talk about feminism and motherhood.
Right when I got pregnant, and Amy already had a little baby, and we were traveling around the country together, I felt like it was a very powerful time. For the most part we could demonstrate that you can have your life and be a feminist. You don’t have to retire to yyour boudoir when you become a mom. I have two sons and certainly we talk about gender in inclusive ways, and they’ve been exposed to words like abortion and rape from a very young age. But I don’t have them wear pink or anything like that.
Lady Gaga is so much a part of our current culture that she made your subtitle and your first piece in your book. So, Gaga: feminist or not?
I definitely think she is. I think she’s extremely talented. She’s a better singer than we often see in that genre, but I think what she does around gender is amazing. I love the fact that she’s such a fully realized identity. It’s so not for men, what she does. Her butt is exposed but it doesn’t matter. Her videos are really sexual but not in a way that’s clichéd.
Is there someone else in pop culture right now whom you see as a strong feminist role model?
Probably [comedian] Louis CK. I think he’s been really brilliant in talking about single parenthood and divorce, as well as sex and relationships. I always appreciate this about Eminem, too. I remember feeling that way about The Eminem Show. I felt like he did such a good job of framing things. He was painting a portrait of society.
You include in your book a piece about purity balls. Are phenomena like this a backlash against the sexual empowerment we’ve gained through feminism?
Yes. But additionally I think there were real limits to what feminists put forward. A book that’s really good on this is Joyce McFadden’s Your Daughter’s Bedroom. She talks about talking in an honest way about sex. Many women internalize a lot of shame from their mothers. Lately I’ve become really micro in my feminism. Macro bothers me. That’s why I’m a bad feminist in a Second Wave sense. The Second Wave feminists were so clear-cut because they were reacting to something so clearly bad.
And that brings us to the issue of Fourth Wave feminism. Is there such a thing happening, and does it matter?
The waves don’t matter in that they’re a very simplistic way of understanding feminist history. But they’re a useful benchmark. My instinct is that more and more people are going to identify as Fourth Wave. I’m interested in that. I’m interested in what’s different.