This IS What a Feminist Looks Like

May 5th, 2014

Sometimes things come together in your life in a way you didn’t anticipate. I’ve always been obsessed with Jane Austen and then I read an article about how some doctors think she probably died of Addison’s Disease, which my daughter had just been diagnosed with right before I read the article, and I stared at it and started sobbing because it felt like that connection had always been there for me.

And then there’s this: a photo of my daughter and her friends protesting at the Beverly Hills Hotel, because it’s Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 5.41.07 PMowned by the Sultan of Brunei, and his country has just retreated to the middle ages, making it legal to stone women for adultery or gay people for falling in love. The wonderful, activist mother of one of Annie’s friends drove a group of girls to the hotel so they could protest. And she gave them t-shirts to wear. And in case this photo is hard to see, I can tell you what the t-shirts say: “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like.”

These t-shirts have a special resonance for me. Quite a few years ago now, I wrote my first YA novel, Epic Fail. On just the fifth page of the book, I describe my heroine Elise’s clothing: she’s wearing old jeans and a “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt. I put her in that t-shirt because I wanted to make it clear that this was a girl who didn’t care about designer clothing or impressing other people, but she did care about whether or not women get equal pay for equal work. A girl after my own heart, admittedly.

I put that in and didn’t think about it again . . . until the book was reviewed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. I have published ten books during my writing career, and Epic Fail is the only one to rate a NY Times review, which seems like a good thing, except it was reviewed by a woman named Caitlin Flanagan, who really hated that I had a loving dedication to my daughter in the novel and really REALLY hated that my heroine wore a “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt. But don’t take my word for it. This is what Caitlin said:

“Epic Fail” was written by a mother, which we know from its sweetly smothering dedication (“For Annie, My little girl with the big brown eyes is now tall and beautiful, but she’s still who she’s always been, and that’s the kindest person I know.”) We also sense a maternal aspect to the enterprise from the Mom-ish values on display. The story here — family of four daughters moves from sensible New England to godless Los Angeles, daughters encounter wealth and celebrity, endure texting mishaps and angry break-ups but finally connect with the right boys — centers on Elise Benton. As an expression of what LaZebnik considers the ideal teenage girl, I suspect Elise is matchless: she attends her first day at a fancy Los Angeles prep school wearing a “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt, she resolves to be more supportive of her mom, and she likes to do crossword puzzles with her dad.

You can practically feel the snark, can’t you?

It’s okay. I’m at peace with this because Epic Fail went on to become probably my best selling novel. (It’s possible this review even helped make that true). And even if Flanagan repeated it to mock it, I’m kind of glad a bunch more people got to see my dedication to my daughter, because I meant every word of it. I happen to like my daughter. Sue me. (Also–who reviews dedications? Is that a thing?) Anyway, I’m fine with how this all went down.

But talk about gratifying . . . seeing my daughter and her wonderful friends proudly wearing these t-shirts while they protest injustice in the world . . . It’s an amazing thing.

Yeah, I want girls to be feminists. I want them to lay claim to equal rights, equal pay, control of their own bodies, control of the world . . . I don’t know what that reviewer’s problem was with a teenage girl wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed her desire to be treated fairly, and frankly I don’t give a damn: my daughter knows that it’s a good thing to be a feminist, and that’s all that matters.

And if you want to buy your own t-shirt . . . Do it. And wear it proudly.

  • Korby Siamis says:

    Love this! Love your attitude and response, Claire – a model of how to handle life’s criticisms. Flanagan’s eternal punishment is being her. As Atticus told Scout, we have to feel sorry for those people.

    • Claire says:

      Thanks, Korby, for your kind words! And your reference couldn’t be more a propos–my son is currently writing a paper on what makes Atticus such a good father!

  • Korby Siamis says:

    Love this! Love your attitude and response, Claire – a model of how to handle life’s criticisms. Flanagan’s eternal punishment is being her. As Atticus told Scout, we have to feel sorry for those people.

    • Claire says:

      Thanks, Korby, for your kind words! And your reference couldn’t be more a propos–my son is currently writing a paper on what makes Atticus such a good father!

  • Tamy says:

    i think that the protest was a good idea, you are showing support for girls everywhere, especially in asia.

    i live in india, and i am sure that you have heard about girl child discrimination, female infanticide, low girl population and more boys(due to female infanticide), the rape cases(there are atleast 1 in the newspaper every week, it is sad and heartbreaking) and also the new law passed that having a relationship with a member of the same gender is now illegal.

    • Claire says:

      So horrifying and upsetting, Tamy. Women have to band together internationally to fight the injustices.

  • Tamy says:

    i think that the protest was a good idea, you are showing support for girls everywhere, especially in asia.

    i live in india, and i am sure that you have heard about girl child discrimination, female infanticide, low girl population and more boys(due to female infanticide), the rape cases(there are atleast 1 in the newspaper every week, it is sad and heartbreaking) and also the new law passed that having a relationship with a member of the same gender is now illegal.

    • Claire says:

      So horrifying and upsetting, Tamy. Women have to band together internationally to fight the injustices.

  • Deb Z. says:

    Who exactly are you supposed to dedicate your books to? Loved Epic Fail and just ordered your new one (I’m a little late, I know but it will complete my collection). I am raising my third feminist and proud of it. Great t-shirts and an even better cause.

    • Claire says:

      I’m still confounded by the hatred for my dedication. I really didn’t think that was up for literary criticism, but I guess I was wrong!

  • Deb Z. says:

    Who exactly are you supposed to dedicate your books to? Loved Epic Fail and just ordered your new one (I’m a little late, I know but it will complete my collection). I am raising my third feminist and proud of it. Great t-shirts and an even better cause.

    • Claire says:

      I’m still confounded by the hatred for my dedication. I really didn’t think that was up for literary criticism, but I guess I was wrong!

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