Learning to Drive (and ignore sexist reviews)

Katha Pollitt is one of those writers that you simultaneously love (because she’s so damn good) and hate (because she’s so damn good).
Pollitt was the first feminist journalist that I ever read religiously, so I was super excited to get a review copy of Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories. The book is a collection of essays about Pollitt’s life–from cheating boyfriends and Google stalking to Marxist study groups and motherhood. There’s just something so amazing about getting an inside view of someone’s personal life–especially someone you know and respect as a writer. Many of us only know Pollitt as this witty political feminist, so to see her as an actual person with failings and worries…well, I just found it very refreshing and touching.
So I was more than a little irritated to see this review in The New York Times. As Jill says, Pollitt gets “the usual shit that feminists catch when we write about our own lives (or about pretty much anything).” Indeed.
Reviewer Toni Bentley calls Pollitt “shameless,” says she’s “giving up her dignity” and she’s (gasp!) angry:

Have you heard the latest? “Men are rats.� This directly from the desk of Katha Pollitt, a longtime feminist columnist at The Nation. It’s an absolute scandal. But with the recent surge of courageous investigative journalism from certain formidable women working around the clock at the front lines (which can involve detailed linen reconnaissance as they hunt down suspicious laundry), the news is finally seeping out. It still sounds a bit shrill, but I’m sure it will soon find its stride as the shock of it all wears off.
Groaning and moaning from clever, sassy women has become a genre unto itself, the righteous revenge of the liberal, pre-, during- or postmenopausal woman (anyone missing?) in the post-chick-lit age (it is over, isn’t it?). Perhaps this heralds the birth of fourth-wave feminism? (Or is it the fifth?) Or maybe it’s not something political, but just plain old biblical revenge: God knows women have centuries of wrongs to catch up on. An enraged, educated woman (Vagina dentata intellectualis) with her arsenal of experience, observation, self-deprecation and indignation is a force to be reckoned with, a kind of intellectual Mike Tyson — though, apparently, she is still not as likely to be seduced into bed as the bombshell bimbo, one reason she’s so irate.

Let’s see here: shrill, enraged, and Vagina dentata intellectualis(!). So sexist, so predictable. Sometimes it seems like women are criticized just for having the audacity to speak the truth about their own lives. I’m so over this kind of hackneyed, backlashy bullshit. It’s the easy way out: Don’t want to bother with writing a thoughtful review of something? Just go the “harping woman” route, it’s a winner!
Well take it from this vagina dentata blogger: Generally, the more sexist the review, the better the book. So go buy hers.
Related: Pollitt was also interviewed this Sunday in The New York Times Magazine.

Join the Conversation

  • http://thecurvature.com Anonymous

    But . . . but . . . she’s a WOMAN! Who let her write a book???? Thank god that the Times is on top of this one, or who knows what the world might come to.

  • http://thecurvature.com Anonymous

    Wow, I just read the interview, too, and talk about condescending. I have to give Pollitt credit for not walking out on questions like “What does all this girlish confession on your part say about the current state of feminism?”

  • sgzax

    The reviewer is the author of the most widely mocked book of the last decade. I think she might just be trying to get a little sweet revenge on people who manage to write memoirs and still seem like a person you’d be interested in talking to.

  • florafloraflora

    Vagina dentata, indeed. I couldn’t remember who Toni Bentley was, then I scrolled down and realized she had written that dumb book about taking it up the ass (no offense to women who like it like that, but the book sounded ridiculous). What was the Times doing, picking a no-talent reviewer who isn’t fit to scrub Katha Pollitt’s bloodstained underpants? Never mind, I don’t think I want to know.

  • florafloraflora

    Oh, and I think she handled the interview brilliantly, even the questions that were a little inane. I liked:
    “Just because you are part of a social-justice movement, which is how I think of feminism, that doesn’t mean you are some brick wall of impermeable stalwartness in every area. Feminism, for me, is not about presenting a facade of perfect strength to the world.”
    “To certain women out there, feminism seems to mean buying what you want instead of being what you want.”
    and what she says about Lindsay/Paris/Britney and Hillary.

  • UnBecoming

    I loved the little jab at the end. Clearly having a little more sex will shut up all the harping, enraged, shrill feminists. It’s only women who aren’t getting any that rage against the patriarchal machine. Why didn’t I see that before? Sometimes it’s so difficult to decide which stereotype to be today–whore, prude, screeching feminist sans a sense of humor or the ability to attract mates. What ever is a poor girl to do?

  • brozzle

    That jab at the end is an offensive and (worse?!) tacky assumption. Very very very lame.
    And I KNOW RIGHT?!!?? Like is this an actual REVIEW? This chick didn’t even TRY! In no way is this a legit book review. In no realm, dude!

  • http://righteousrevolution.blogspot.com Jen

    i can only hope that i, too, will one day have someone say that i fall under the category of “vagina dentata intellectualis.”
    i mean, you’ve gotta at least give her credit for the cleverness of that little attempt at an insult.

  • LauraB813

    Am I the only one who thought that “vaginia dentata intellectualis” actually sounded pretty frickin’ awesome?
    I actually read The Surrender. Turns out Toni Bentley likes taking it up the butt because her father didn’t love her enough. Now, there’s nothing wrong with taking it up the butt. But why not do it because you enjoy it?

  • Piranha

    Man, I’m annoyed just reading that review. (So!) (Many!) (Parentheticals!)

  • The Crab

    Jessica, let me throw out a provocative challenge to you:
    why must the good – Pollitt – also be “hated” for being the good? We hate George Bush for being a colossal theocratic and militarist train wreck; why not cheer her or celebrate her?
    One imagines Pollitt asking coyly in a perfume commercial: “Do you hate me because I am talented?”

  • Rock Star

    I like how she says “pre-, during and post-menopausal” like a woman’s entire existence centers around her cycle. Not to mention that “during” isn’t a fucking prefix.

  • http://bowleserised.blogspot.com Bowleserised

    Everyone beat me to it on the Toni Bentley thing. Don’t forget she also found God in her ass. I kid you not.
    She came across in that book as someone who didn’t particularly like either anal sex nor other women (especially if they had an ass bigger than her own).
    I’m really not surprised that she would write a review like this.

  • http://bowleserised.blogspot.com Bowleserised

    I seem to remember that Bentley’s dire book (yes, I have read it) got a rave review in the NYT.

  • Jessica

    Crab, I don’t actually hate Pollitt, I love her! I just meant it as a funny “ugh I wish I could write like that” hate.

  • Shadow32

    I can’t stand reviewers who think other people’s books are an excuse for the reviewer to show off their witty writing. Those two paragraphs you quoted were mind-numbingly empty of any substance, just an attempt at linguistic flash and a waste of space.

  • http://www.campusprogress.org/page/community/blog/Justin Justin

    I really have to disagree with the sexist label. I wrote about this here:

  • http://arxiv.org OppressedMinority

    Here’s someone from a site that attracts readers with brains and stuff:
    **** | September 25, 2007, 10:40am | #
    J, we get it – you’re not one of “those” women.
    Most women aren’t. However, I’m curious to know how Pollitt thinks that the way to improve the lot of women overall is to make men think that all women–or at least the intelligent, independent-minded ones–are needy, clingy, whining psychopaths who find nothing wrong with trying to invade their loved ones’ privacy to assuage their pathetic insecurities. With the addendum, of course, that all women are sisters who must Stick Together so if another woman dates a man you’ve not yet grown tired of it’s cool to fantasize about killing her.

  • Deborah

    Same old story. Had a man written the Pollitt book, it would be praised as insightful social commentary to be read by all. But if it’s written by woman, it’s automatically dismissed as being of interest to women only. In this case, the slam review by a fellow woman adds insult to injury.

  • http://badadvice.typepad.com Judy McGuire

    I can’t believe the same woman who breathlessly described saving a year’s worth of her butt-lover’s poopy condoms in a box is calling anyone “shameless” or lacking in “dignity.”

  • katie

    Rebecca Traister over at Salon took it on and did a wonderful job. It disgusts me that a feminist can’t admit to weaknesses. since when arent we human? If anything, i truly feel this will make alot of other feminists heave a sigh of relief that they are not the only ones who struggle with things like this. I personally think living life is doubly hard for feminists, bc we have this ideal of how we should act, and being human, fail to live up to it and then beat ourselves up continuously. Feminists throughout the ages have confessed to similar feelings and all it does is reaffirm the fact that I am a feminist and dont have to feel bad about not being a perfect one.
    And everyone is right, had a man wrote this book, it would never have made people wonder if exposing their weaknesses would make these people and their ideas obsolete.

  • bornskeptic

    “Vagina dentata intellectualis”
    Anyone else really want that on a T-shirt?