To be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism

TO BE REAL: TELLING THE TRUTH AND CHANGING THE FACE OF FEMINISM Edited and with an Introduction by Rebecca Walker Foreword by Gloria Steinem; afterword by Angela Davis [Anchor Books, $12.95] 

Alice Walker’s daughter (a.k.a.—but almost never—Mel Leventhal’s daughter) edits this book of 23 essays, most by feminists in their twenties. With titles such as “Born to Dyke,” “Sexism and the Art of Feminist Hip-Hop Maintenance,” and “Testimony of a Naked Woman” (an extraordinary, developmentally honest essay by Jocelyn Taylor, one of the founders of the Clit Club), these young feminists intend to show that their world is indeed different from the world of us old, cane-swinging feminists.

Deriding Second Wave feminism (“party-pooping rigidity”) as well as Power Feminism (“white Superwomen who have children at home being cared for by West Indian nannies”), one essayist, Danzy Senna, is fairly representative of this book’s cohort: “Being the daughter of a white socialist mother and a black intellectual father, it seemed that everyone and everything had come together for my conception, only to break apart in time for my birth. I was left with only questions. To Be or Not to Be: black, Negro, African- American, feminist, femme, mulatto, quadroon, lesbian, straight, bisexual, lipstick, butch bottom, femme top, vegetarian, carnivore?”

Several essayists describe the agonies of being raised by feminist mothers (if you are a feminist mother, don’t get defensive; these insights are a gift). Explains Jeannine Delombard, “I understood, listening to ‘William Wants a Doll’ on my Free to Be You and Me record, that for a boy to plead for a baby doll was daring and original, while for a girl to do so would be old fashioned and unimaginative.”

Naomi Wolf, in “Brideland,” adds to the generational divide. “As brides, unlike with our boyfriends at the beach, we are hard to unbutton, to get at, to even feel through the whale boning. We are made into treasures again, and jewels adorn our breasts. In white, we retrieve our virginity, which means metaphorically, the original specialness of sexual access to us. In Brideland,” she writes approvingly, “men worship the goddess of female sexuality once again. How barren the world is for women,” she laments, “when female sexuality is stripped of its aura.”

Jason Schultz (one of three male essayists in the book) deconstructs—in high jargon and with much self-congratulation— a feminist bachelor party he once painstakingly hosted. Strippers jumping out of cakes was verboten, explains Schultz, so he was challenged to find socially redeeming alternative programming. His solution is to facilitate honest, deep male conversation at the party (“different from typical sexist male dialogues”), ranging from discussions about “the many uses of cock rings to the issue of consent within S/M and B&D acts to methods of achieving multiple male orgasms.” I don’t know what a cock ring is (and I don’t want to know, actually). Still, my heart goes out (nebbech) to Jason Schultz.

Finally, a brilliant feminist angle on cybersex (by Mocha Jean Herrup) posits that “the anxiety of gender bending on-line is not simply about the fear of deception, it is also about the fear of chaos and ambiguity.” Herrup argues positively for cyberspace sex as putting forth a feminist “politics of ambiguity” that “requires that the fronts of activism be rethought to broaden the definition of social change.” A lesbian, Herrup describes how, nevertheless, she wants to stretch her experience by enjoying gay male sex, and so she logs on to her simulated environment as “Jamie, a helpless boy, donning leather, chains and a dog collar, being led around by an older, stronger, demanding master.” Writes Herrup, “I enjoy being a helpless boy. The sex is about blow-jobs, erections, anal stimulation—none of which have ever been a part of my sex life. In cyberspace,” Herrup concludes challengingly, “I really feel like a gay man: the desire is ‘instinctual,’ the performance ‘natural.'”

If you’re a feminist over 40, this book is definitely worth reading—both for the many essays that are dazzling (see Elizabeth Mitchell’s on dolls) as well as for those that broadcast many young adults’ frantic, groping search for “self”—often acted out through the fetishization of sex. This book will remind the older empathic reader that being young, especially in this cold glaring post-modern world, can be really hard. My bet is that by the time Rebecca Walker hits 30, she’ll have lost interest in much of this material.