AUGUST 10, 2017
JILL FILIPOVIC’S The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness joins a recent influx of feminist publications — from Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist (2014) to Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not a Feminist: a Feminist Manifesto (2017) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions (2017) — but also promises something different. Filipovic, a former editor for the blog Feministe and a columnist for Cosmopolitan and the Guardian, argues for a feminism that moves beyond simple equality toward the more radical ideals of happiness and pleasure. By happiness and pleasure, Filipovic does not mean yoga, or politically conscious chocolate bars, the sorts of experiences she bunches under the label of “expensive quests of personal self-betterment.” Rather, she is speaking of a political kind of pleasure that might serve as a resource for reorganizing life for utopian ends. “What would the world look like,” Filipovic asks in The H-Spot, “if our laws and policies prioritized feeling good?” While other recent feminists engage with the political, they have tended either to address personal manifestations of larger ideals (Adichie), or to identify problems rather than to propose solutions (Crispin). Outside of this binary, Filipovic sees herself as developing a blueprint for political action. Though she does not use the term utopia, what she proposes is effectively a utopian life for American women with a pragmatic edge, since The H-Spot argues that this ideal life organized around “feeling good” can be realized through specific policy changes.
The difficulty is that, while purporting to do something new and different, The H-Spot actually covers well-trodden ground. The book opens with the commonplace observation that the Declaration of Independence’s Lockean promise of “the pursuit of happiness” leaves out everyone except for land-owning white men. Filipovic then summarizes the history of American women’s unhappiness without departing significantly from any standard account of women’s history, organizing her chapters around predictable sources of feminist critique: the gender pay gap, limited access to health care and child care, and the media’s negative effect on female body image. After spending whole chapters enumerating all these well-known problems, the book ends with a comparatively short conclusion that claims to offer a new pathway to happiness. Yet, those proposals look a lot like what we might find in any feminist or liberal agenda: vague policies ticked out in non-parallel structure: “fostering relationships,” “promoting sexual pleasure,” making “time for pleasure” and “mak[ing] food feminist.” Even Filipovic acknowledges that this is “quite the laundry list,” but it’s more than that: it’s a tired, empty refrain with which many feminists are all too familiar.
We should, of course, be incensed by the fact that the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any developed country; that the proliferation of hypersexualized images of women continue to have serious cultural, social, and psychological impacts on both girls and boys; that the Harvard Business School’s Howard/Heidi study shows that students favor the male venture capitalist over his female counterpart; that over 20 million American women have eating disorders. All these inequities are deeply troubling and deserve to be recognized and rectified. They bear repeating because they don’t seem to have sunk in. After all, the president of the United States is a man accused of so many sexual assaults that an entire Wikipedia page has been devoted to them. Adding predictable insult to injury, his administration is threatening women’s rights on multiple fronts, not the least of which is their right to sovereignty over their bodies. Yet, if American feminists are Filipovic’s likely audience, we’ve heard these statistics and read these studies more times than we can count. While too many Americans are ignorant of gender-based injustices, Filipovic’s readers are likely not among them.
So what are feminists to learn from The H-Spot? The book is at its best when it recounts the stories of the women Filipovic interviewed as part of her research. Each chapter intersperses predictable arguments, such as how the United States lacks adequate child care, parental leave, and recognition of non-traditional families, with stories told by the real-life women who supposedly illuminate them. We learn about Jennifer, who is experimenting in communal living, and Merle, a health care advocate and provider, who, after an abortion at 32, decided to adopt a daughter at 58. Filipovic also shares stories of her own, about her most pleasurable meal, her time as an attorney in New York, and her mother’s and grandmother’s career trajectories. These personal stories, some fresher than others, concretize the statistics, and they go beyond the pro-woman/anti-woman binary that The H-Spot traffics in elsewhere: Filipovic is a feminist who also struggles with body image, some of the women she interviews tell stories in which sexual coercion and abuse coexist with happy sex lives. Because they offer nuanced and complex portrayals of real women’s lives, these individual stories are memorable and enjoyable in a way that the rest of the book is not. Their rhetorical power suggests that narrative might be better equipped to persuade us than even the most convincing facts.
Thus, Filipovic’s book is perhaps original not because it presents a new way of thinking about policy but because it reveals narrative’s power as a powerful political tool. The power of narrative to make the case for feminist action is apparent in a wide range of women’s writing beyond recent feminist manifestos. The H-Spot is primarily concerned with contemporary politics and American women’s lived experiences, not literary ideas. To this end, Filipovic’s touchstones are not critics who draw from art to articulate their ideas in the style of Judith Butler, but rather critics and writers, like Betty Friedan and Jessica Valenti, whose personal experiences became their politics. Filipovic didn’t need critical theory to enrich her argument but, given the utopian strain in her work, she might have looked to the centuries-long canon of utopian and dystopian fiction written by and about women that contains a wide-ranging history of thinking about happiness and unhappiness.
While Thomas More and other early modern utopian writers like Francis Bacon marginalized women in their fictional ideal worlds, rendering them either subordinate to men or entirely omitting them, this didn’t stop their female contemporaries from creating their own utopian visions. Women’s literary utopias were, in fact, integral to rise of early feminism. Unlike the standard, unattainable notion of utopia — More coined the term in the 16th century, joining the Greek “ou” (no) and “topas” (place); “utopia” was thus a play on the idea of an ideal “place that is nowhere” — feminist utopias sought to give a real-world place to the “place that is nowhere” by representing the sort of supportive female communities that women saw or hoped to see in the world. Utopian (and dystopian) fiction allowed women to consider the same question that preoccupies Filipovic: What does it mean to be a woman? Yet, in distinction from the abstract gendered injustices cataloged in The H-Spot, utopian narrative fiction from the 16th century actually imagined and mapped out how a new world might be organized in concrete terms. Far from turning away from the real, feminist utopian fiction actively engages in political life, critiquing women’s present circumstances and imagining a better future in ways that undertake a feminist pursuit of happiness more vividly and positively than The H-Spot and its ilk.
Women’s thinking about happiness produced some of the most innovative writing in both the modern and early modern world. In 1666, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, used the genre of utopia to write what is often called the first woman’s sci-fi novel, The Blazing World. In her novel, Cavendish recounts a woman’s journey to a new world, where she encounters a variety of hybrid creatures (bird-men, bear-men, worm-men, and fish-men) with whom she discusses scientific and philosophical topics, such as the use of microscopes and the workings of nature, that were hot topics at the recently founded English Royal Society. Beloved by these hybrid men and by the emperor, the protagonist becomes empress of this new world and uses its powers to make her native country its ruling state. In this fantastic tale, Cavendish uses fiction to explore what it would be like for a woman to wield military and political power. This fiction thus performs, in more fantastical and compelling ways, the kind of utopian work to which Filipovic aspires.
Women’s utopian writing was not reserved for the realm of fantasy, but also provided blueprints for the future. For instance, Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall (1762) describes two men who encounter a group of upper-class women living together in a Christian community. Removed from patriarchal culture, this all-female space offers an idyllic place for gentlewomen to avoid marriage and instead to work for the poor and disabled and devote their lives to self-education. Scott’s vision of a same-sex female community devoted to pursuits of the mind anticipated the foundation of women’s colleges across Britain and the United States in the 19th century, supporting Naomi Alderman’s recent observation in the Guardian that “[f]eminist science fiction [has] a way of finding resonances in the modern world.”
Utopian fiction’s importance as a feminist political tool of social critique is evinced by the fact that Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a leading figure in the women’s movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wrote the utopian novella Herland (1915) alongside her public lectures and essays. In Gilman’s tale, three male explorers encounter an isolated land populated solely by parthogenically reproducing women. Gilman uses speculative fiction to criticize the relegation of women to domestic life and to imagine a world in which women are engaged in intellectual and political pursuits. While Filipovic suggests that the United States would be better off if policy-makers took women’s happiness into account, Gilman goes a lot further to suggest that the world would be better if women ran it. This thinking clearly still resonates today with audiences today, as in Wonder Woman’s Themyscira, an island society capably ruled by Amazonian warriors.
Early women’s utopian writing often depicts worlds in which men are either entirely excluded or ruled over by women. As literature progressed into and through the 20th century, however, women writers’ utopian worlds increasingly benefited both sexes, anticipating Filipovic’s argument that prioritizing women’s happiness will make men’s lives better too. Most famously, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) follows the story of Genly Ai, a man who travels to the planet Gethen, a society of hermaphrodites in which male privilege and sex distinction have been eliminated. Le Guin’s novel implies that challenging gender norms can benefit men as well as women, an idea that has recently been taken up in popular feminist discourse. Getting rid of limitations for women’s identities, such discourse argues, would also liberate men to move outside of rigid masculine roles. Recent studies have even suggested that gender equality is good for the economy, for sex, and, in yet another anticipation of Filipovic’s argument, for a country’s overall happiness.
On the flip side, women’s dystopian fiction explores how a future of gender inequality will negatively affect men as well as women. The most famous example of this genre, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), has seen a 200 percent rise in sales since the presidential election last November and has recently been adapted into a Hulu series slated to run for several seasons. If Atwood’s dystopian world memorably subjugates women, it also shows how this subjugation limits men. Like the female lead Offred, the male characters also find themselves restrained by the gendered codes of behavior enforced by Gilead’s totalitarian regime. Atwood’s novel and other women’s dystopian fiction achieve what Filipovic’s book does not: they show how society denies women pleasure as part of the scheme of social and cultural change. The political power of literature like Atwood’s dystopian novel is manifest in its citation in signs at this year’s Women’s March. By setting women’s unhappiness within a narrative framework, The Handmaid’s Tale produces something that touches more readers than a mere summary of often reiterated facts.
Given the current political climate in which the GOP is planning to defund Planned Parenthood, cut taxes for the rich, and slash healthcare and other benefits for many, the brief policy proposals with which Filipovic closes The H-Spot — a higher minimum wage, paid parental leave with time off for both parents and legal recognition of relationships beyond spouse to legitimize women’s friendships — seem increasingly unattainable. For a book that purports to be about centering pleasure, I found myself reading the final pages with despair. How can feminists find hope at a moment in which the world around us seems to be regressing rather than moving forward? While statistics are convincing and well-thought-out policies are vital, nonfiction is limited in its ability to imagine something that does not yet exist and that, moreover, cannot exist within present-day circumstances.
Unlike the prescriptions of a policy plan, utopian and dystopian fiction do not offer us a series of “right” or easy answers. In fact, utopian worlds are not always entirely ideal — Cavendish’s empress verges on becoming tyrannical and Gilman’s Herland envisions a troubling racial homogeneity. Likewise, dystopian writing is not always fully dispiriting. Octavia Butler’s dystopian short story “Speech Sounds” imagines a world in which chaos counterintuitively allows a woman to find connection with others. Instead of proposing a singular answer, utopian and dystopian writing by women acts as a prism through which we can consider many possible alternatives for women’s happiness. Like utopian theorist Ernst Bloch’s notion of the “Not Yet Consciousness,” a utopian awareness that is latent within us as an anticipation of a world yet to be articulated, narrative offers us glimpses of futures as yet unimagined, a point that Filipovic’s interviews with everyday women come closer to enacting than her reams of statistics and policy proposals do. Now, more than ever, we need to preserve a place for the kind of thinking that literature is uniquely poised to foment.