Nineteen-year-old Julie Zeilinger has put out the book I wanted to write when I was her age and started identifying as a feminist. I wanted to call mine Why High School Sucks, But Doesn’t Have To. Hers, released in May 2012, is called A Little F’ed Up: Why Feminism Isn’t A Dirty Word. It’s Full Frontal Feminism for the high school set (Valenti even forewords it!), written in fluent high-school-hallway vernacular. Its down-to-earth tone mixes the sharp-tongued with the profound and factual.
The first chapter, “The Badasses Who Came Before Us: A Brief History of Feminism,” includes feminist insights on Hammurabi’s Code, Muhammed the prophet, the Enlightenment (“Not So Enlightened, Actually,” Zeilinger subtitles this part), and of course the three waves, with mention of significant figures like the Grimké sisters, Sojourner Truth, and Margaret Sanger. Later chapters go on to cover sexism in the media, in politics, and on the internet.
When I read about Julie this summer on Forbes.com and Huffington Post, I was exhilarated that this smart and savvy sophomore at Barnard would convert more high school-aged girls to the feminist project. I couldn’t help thinking back to my own high school experience, where in class I read books like The Awakening and Their Eyes Were Watching God, while in the halls I participated in the typical “Mean Girls” high school bullshit. The feelings that drove my 15-year-old self’s stereotypically “catty” behavior were flip sides of more vulnerable, real emotions: I competed with other girls because I felt inadequate; I spent all of my free time with boyfriends because I was intimidated by my female intellectual equals; I pushed away the advice of girlfriends in order to emulate the “rugged individualism” of some of my male friends. What I needed was Zeilinger’s book: a reminder that being strong and resilient are feminine traits– and they are traits best enacted in groups of like-minded, justice-oriented gals. I needed Zeilinger’s book, which spells out what sexism actually looks like for most young women today: not economic disenfranchisement (although there is, of course, still a pay gap), not femme covert, but pure and simple internalized inadequacy and devaluation that comes at us from all angles starting as soon as we can see a TV screen.
In her closing chapter, this young author writes about her “secret weapon for growing up,” and yours: feminism. She spells out the “teenage problems” that feminism has helped her to overcome, one of which being “girls with fangs.” Much to my delight, Zeilinger draws upon that 2001 love triangle that definitely made my personal headlines back in the seventh grade: pop star Aaron Carter’s two-timing with Lindsay Lohan and Hillary Duff. “The result?” writes Zeilinger. “Lindsay began badmouthing Hillary in the press, who in turn played the victim, portraying Lindsay as an evil and possessive bitch. Did we hear one peep about Aaron? No. We were too busy buying into the idea of Lindsay drawing blood from Hillary.”
Girl-on-girl crime, Julie goes on to say, may be unavoidable; young women live out this competitive, dog-eat-dog behavior because American culture sanctions it with its combination of “lenient morals with unrelenting ambition” (quite an insight). But unavoidable as it may be, it is not inevitable, she argues. “Ultimately, our female peers matter. It matters how we interact with them, and it matters how we feel about them.” Here’s the growing up part: true maturity, Zeilinger tells her young readership, is about reaching for fellowship with other young women as an antidote to that cut-throat culture, which in the end tears young girls down, devalues their minds and souls, and gives boys more reasons to look down on girls’ accomplishments, behaviors, and ethics.
Zeilinger is no bell hooks–but most 16-year-olds aren’t ready for that anyway. Julie is a voice within her generation of smart, stressed out, curious young women who need to hear from one of their own that there is more to gain from trusting each other than from “drawing blood.”
The young author also promotes feminism for “selfish” reasons. She advocates for it, she writes, because it has helped her feel better personally. In the Huffington Post this past May, she wrote about how feminism helps us survive double standards about sex:
Ever feel like crap about the fact that if you hook up, you’re a “slut,” but if you don’t, you’re a “prude”? Feminism sees this dichotomy as a double standard that needs to end. Feminists believe that girls should be able to express themselves sexually (or not!) without feeling shame.
She also sums up the body positivity movement without jargon: just plain and simple, why do we tolerate this stuff?
Feminists refuse to settle for a cultural norm in which women are plagued to the point of mental and physical illness to reach a ridiculous, unattainable standard of beauty, and fight for real beauty, in every shape and size.
Julie’s book will most certainly attract converts. It is pink, it uses the expression “f’d up” (a personal favorite), and it is straight-talking. I was Julie’s age when Courtney E. Martin and Miriam Perez of feministing.com came to visit my campus. A year out of high school, I was a bit more self-assured and felt supported in challenging classes, a whip-smart group of friends, and an awesome all-female a cappella group including older, wiser girls. Martin and Perez spoke on a panel about their blog’s goals– and about how feminism is, in fact, cool. Courtney said to us, “Feminism has to be appealing. If it looks fun, and smart, and cool, it is more likely to attract young, dynamic women to its cause. Because in the end it is fun, smart, and cool.” Though I don’t believe in “marketizing” every single aspect of life (here I go with feminist jargon!), we can agree that for a political movement with a lot to lose and even more to gain, feminism needs the voice and sass of folks like Julie Zeilinger. And Courtney was right: she and Miriam were so effing cool, I bought their books (on my meager college budget), Perfect Girls Starving Daughters, and Yes Means Yes!, both of which affirm a feminism that is, at its core, a foolproof survival strategy for a young woman in America.
Buy Julie Zeilinger’s book here.
And, for free, read her blog: www.thefbomb.org.
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