I wish that Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object were a better book. I’m very interested in contemporary feminist writing, and not just theoretical aspects but closer-to-the-ground writing that might help me understand my twenty year-old daughter’s thinking about feminism as opposed to my own pre-historic concepts that were shaped in a radically different world. And so I thought that Valenti’s memoir might be a good place to start, even though I’m not familiar (being said superannuated person who has spent most of her life pre-Internet) with her blog Feministing (for which she no longer writes). I really wanted to like this book, but sadly, I didn’t.
Valenti begins with a powerful premise: that women have been degraded by objectification that perpetually humiliates us and takes away our humanity. This objectification is virtually embedded in narratives that women do not own, narratives that are used to denigrate and also annihilate our sense of selfhood. She writes, “A high school teacher once told me that identity is half what we tell ourselves and half what we tell other people about ourselves. But the missing piece he didn’t mention–the piece that holds so much weight, especially in the minds of young women and girls–is the stories that other people tell about ourselves.” In the Endnotes, Valenti reprints some of the thousands of derogatory and obscene emails she received in her blog, all narratives that others for whom propriety and social behavior have gone out the window with the unfettered anonymity of the Internet, have inflicted on her. These are nasty and upsetting as of course they were meant to be.
And similarly, Valenti ends equally powerfully, with the story of the challenges her extremely premature daughter now faces, and how, ironically as the daughter of a woman whose voice in the world is strong and unrelenting, she suffers from selective mutism and is unable to speak up for herself.
But it’s everything in the middle that is such a mess in this book. Valenti trods over the same well-worn clichéd path so many misery memoir writers have traveled down before, but by doing so here, she subtly subverts her own message: men are perverts, men objectify me, I’m not doing anything wrong but I’m still blamed for being a woman, the world is out to get me. Yes, I totally agree that the negative attention that women get–the catcalls, the whistling, the crowded-subway-groper/flasher situation–is horrific and troubling, but giving in to this kind of deviance, letting it define her sense of self as a degraded object, is completely the wrong message to send.
And what further troubles me is how poorly this memoir is written. There is no continuous story arc or narrative thread that pulls all these episodic memories together, and there is a complete lack of organization or explanation of how Valenti went from point A to point B. She brings up stories that have no seeming relevance to anything and then drops in huge issues that come with no preparation–her PTSD, for one, or how her decade of heavy drug use might have been a factor in the choices she made in her thirties. It really feels as if this book was rushed into publication without the steady hand of a competent editor whose pruning and restructuring would not have been seen as an attempt to silence Valenti as much as an effort to make her coherent. And it’s possible that since Valenti has made her reputation as a short-form blogger, she wasn’t capable of the kind of focus and structure a long-form memoir takes, but all the more reason to have had more editorial guidance, since many women will no doubt be flocking to read this book, mostly for all it salaciousness. All’s the pity, then, that they will not get the same level of literary experience as with reading Germaine Greer or even Gloria Steinem (two from my own past).
But I did have an excellent conversation about all this with my daughter before she left for college, and she gave me some good recommendations for what to read in my pursuit of more contemporary ideas about feminism: Luce Irigary, Hélène Cixous, Janet Mock, and, of course, being twenty, Lena Dunham.
So I cannot recommend this book. Save your time and your eyesight. Read something better.