REWRITING THE RULES OF GAME
SAMHITA MUKHOPADHYAY on Sexism in the Self-Help Section
By Meaghan Coffey
With a purple logo of a woman’s curvaceous silhouette—her raised middle finger is the most prominent feature—Feministing and its writers do not mess around. As executive editor, Samhita Mukhopadhyay is the dealer of what’s known as the gateway drug to feminism—a blog that profiles what’s wrong, why it’s wrong, to the point, no nonsense, and no games. Anything but games. In a world that features romantic reality T.V. shows entitled How to Get Lucky and The Marriage Ref, and dating instructions called The Rules of the Game, the last thing women need are more social situations with a clear winner and loser, a right way to play, and a surefire way to cast yourself out of the running. And what’s worse? Most of these ‘rules’ seem to feature a cocktail of direct manipulation of women and pressure to align with specific appearances and ideals, topped with a blend of played-up gender stereotypes.
Mukhopadhyay released Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life as an explanation as to why the self-help section featuring dating advice is every woman’s nightmare. And instead of offering another set of rules to follow, Mukhopadhyay suggests something radical: burning the rule book, because relationships, social interactions, self-confidence, love–they were never meant to be games at all. And after all, isn’t feminism all about breaking rules that were meant to be broken?
Meaghan Coffey: When did you start identifying as or considering yourself a feminist? Not that I’m assuming a light bulb went off and you suddenly developed an affinity for gender equality, but when did you realize it would be important to your career?
Samhita Mukhopadhyay: I’ve thought about this a lot because so many people have had this light bulb moment. For me, it was in my early teens. I was really young, twelve or thirteen. I was just curious about gender dynamics, period. I was really interested in why all moms dressed a certain way or had to do a certain thing and everyone was expected to get married. I was sensitive to all these gender dynamics and sensitive to how my brother was treated versus how I was treated. I got really angry about it. I knew there was something unfair but I didn’t have a language for it until early high school I got into riot girl culture and got the language of feminism through that. I was on the debate team and I would read all this feminist stuff, so that’s how I got the language for it. But I didn’t make a career out of it until I was twenty.
MC: It’s remarkable to me how many people feel we live in a post-feminist world, which I’m sure is something you deal with a lot. You know, people who feel there is very little left to do and that things are good enough as it is. Do you think we’ve come nearly as far as most people seem to think we have? Or that we’re anywhere near true gender equality?
SM: Well, the complicated thing about gender equality is that it’s no one thing. It’s such a variety of things. I do not think we’ve reached gender equality at this point. And I don’t know if that’s where we need to go. What we need to do is address disparity anywhere it is, whether that’s in gender or race or ability or sexuality. Part of why people are so attached to the idea of a post-feminist world is because what we understood as feminism of the past addressed a lot of the issues that they were dealing with. So pay equity is still something that is a problem today, but it’s better than it was forty years ago. And sex discrimination is now illegal, so even though it’s something that happens, you have more legal routes to face some of these day-to-day obstacles because sexism has changed now. Yeah, it’s true; things have gotten better for us since forty years ago, a hundred years ago. Exponentially better. But as a result, sexism has changed. It’s much more about pieces of legislation that are being passed throughout the country that are anti-women, like rights to birth control, but women still are getting paid less or there is still this double burden of mothering and working. Or the pressure to be incredibly hot, which is unique to our generation. It’s difficult to say, ‘Oh, we needed feminism because women need access to a board room!’ Well, women obviously have access to some of the largest positions in the land. The secretary of state is a woman. It’s easy to see these symbolic gains, but overall, as a community, are women living the best lives that they could? And no, they’re not.
MC: What audience are you trying to reach at Feministing? The closeted feminists, the diehards, the undecided, the middle ground?
SM: We went into this not necessarily knowing who we were trying to reach. We just knew there had been not enough talk about young feminists. Older feminists were saying that we didn’t exist and that we were complacent and we didn’t care. Young feminists—we knew that was not true, that we did exist and we did care. So we wanted to create a space where we could have those conversations. What ended up happening, because of all our personalities, we ended up being one of the more accessible feminist blogs. I think part of that is, all of us are very much considering broadening who considers themselves a feminist. I think each one of our voices appeals to a different audience as well. I do feel like we have something for everyone in terms of, if you want your super hard-core angry feminist analysis, you can get it here. Or if you want your much more pop-culture focus or body issues, you can also get that at Feministing. You can cover the gamut of issues. I will say people have called us the “gateway drug” to feminism. There’s enough variety that most people can get a sense of which writers they prefer. I think that contributed to why we’re so popular.
MC: What about the guilt that sometimes comes along with making lifestyle choices while trying to ally yourself with feminist ideals? From the larger decisions of having a family to the day-to-day choice to put on makeup or wear high heels.
SM: I think that when we get too focused on individual choices, we’re missing the bigger picture. As a movement, it’s not about whether you wear makeup or not. It’s about questioning the pressure that society puts on you to make you feel like you have to put makeup on every day. For one person to tell another person, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t want that, or do that, or think that.’ It’s disguised victim-blaming, it’s basically putting your anger and your anxiety in the wrong vessel. You don’t know what my relationship to makeup is. It could be that I feel that’s the best way to express myself and I feel completely empowered and confident in doing it. I’m super into make up, and it’s not because I have blemishes to cover up; it makes me feel awesome, so I wear it. It’s definitely a part of my feminist self-identification. When individual choices start to get policed, you’re missing the big picture of feminism. It’s about questing this dominant narrative that all women need to be thin, wear makeup, have babies. It’s a matter of separating that from your authentic self. Well what do I want for myself? It’s very difficult to do that. I’ll never know the point at which I know this is what I want for myself, and this is what society wants for me. It’s better to navigate that difference and come to an understanding. “This is what makes me happy, this is what I want for myself.” But I don’t think it’s fair that every woman feels like she needs to get married and have children.
MC: Even in the most progressive environments where they push feminist ideals, it’s still a challenge to find what you personally want. There’s no right answer.
SM: There isn’t a right answer. A lot of this stuff is personal decisions. That’s why it frustrates me when other people judge personal decisions. Sarah Palin claims to be a feminist. She says, “Hey, I choose this. I want to oppress other women. This is a choice I’m making.” Well, you know what? Sarah Palin is opposed to feminism. She is not a feminist. As a social movement, we have to have a shared set of ideals, and what she represents and the kind of policies she wants to pass are going to harm women. There’s no getting around that. I don’t care if she’s a woman running for a public office. Having a vagina does not make her have an impact on women as a community. It’s a slippery slope. I can see why people are so critical of women wearing makeup or wearing miniskirts. We don’t want the Sarah Palins to be able to say they’re feminist because they’re not!
MC: So what inspired you to write book focused on dating and love?
SM: Blogging lead to the book deal through that exposure. The book came out last year and a lot of things inspired me to write the book. It’s interesting, if you look at my older writing, I didn’t write about lifestyle stuff, dating or relationships or anything like that. I think I was going through a break up four years ago and I decided to go to the self-help section of the bookstore. And it was full of garbage. I had never stopped to read something like that before. I was more of a fiction reader or read about politics. So I had never read self-help before and I could not believe that in 2008, the overwhelming majority of self-help advice geared towards women were pedaling the most played-out ideas about gender and sexuality. Literally, I was shocked and I pulled out book after book after book. I bought all these books. Such a mixed bag of feelings, because I’m reading this and going through a breakup, and I’m like ‘This is such bullshit!’ At the time Seattle Press contacted me and said ‘We would really be interested in you writing about something, international feminism, maybe?’ You know, there are a lot of people who would write a better book about that. So I went back and said, ‘What do you think about a book that would call bullshit on all problematic ideas that come out of dating books.’
MC: I read a page from the middle of the book The Rules of the Game by Neil Strauss. It was horrifying. It went on about how the more interested a girl seems, the longer a guy can wait to call. Obviously, there are worse parts of it, but I just stopped there. Fundamentally, there’s something so wrong with that mentality.
SM: That book is horrible. It’s called The Game. If we’re playing games, we’re not having authentic relationships. I think it’s fine to play games, but the ones that The Game perpetuates are based on a problematic idea of women’s sexuality, that men should control and manipulate as they see fit. Waiting a week to call because she likes you is manipulating her. And men’s dating books say, ‘Hold your feelings back, don’t call too often, don’t do this stuff. The ones that are geared to the women say, ‘If you don’t hear from him in 48 hours, he’s not into you, so move on.’ It’s a contradiction. I don’t know who they’re teaching to date because it’s not each other.
MC: I warned the friend of mine that was reading it to burn it when he’s done, because if I ever found that on a boyfriend’s shelf, I would not be too pleased.
SM: Yeah, and you might want to call the police. There’s an entire chapter in it that basically explains how to rape a woman. They call saying ‘no’ ‘last minute resistance’.
A lot of the message boards are so much worse than the books. There’s some really violent stuff that comes out of it. That’s not the majority though; the majority is geared towards nerdy guys who have bad luck with women. There was this one blog–and there’s a chapter in the book about this–about an Israeli pickup artist and he details how he date rapes this woman. And all these people are cheering him on. He was like, ‘I blasted last-minute resistance by ripping her underwear off!’ What? This book is teaching men to do that? One of the pieces of advice is ‘Make sure you get her separated from all her friends!’ Scary.
MC: Did you mean for the book to rescue women who have been reading other self-help books?
SM: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. It’s one of the things I don’t have in this book—I don’t have advice. It’s not an advice book. That’s kind of the point; I’m calling bullshit on all these advice books and I’m trying to offer solutions to how to navigate what all the difficulties that arise when you’re trying to date while you’re aware of all these things that are happening. We don’t live in some perfect feminist state. Even the most enlightened women are going to end up dating an asshole. It’s a matter of mitigating what the worst consequences would be by maybe teaching an entire generation that their worth is not measured by the amount of male attention they get, right? So your boyfriend is not being cool to you and you don’t want to break up with him because you’re afraid of being alone. Being alone is okay. Maybe if there were more models of being single. Being single is such a fear for women. So much of your success in life is based on the quality of your romantic relationships. But I think that’s changing. I talk to a lot of young women that are graduation high school, going to college, they say, ‘Everyone knows you don’t get married right now!’ That’s exciting. That means it’s changing. But I’m sitting on the other end of it—I’m 34 and I’m single. Right now, I’m a bigger threat to the United States than Al Qaeda! Being single woman in your thirties in New York City is like, ‘Oh, the evil powerful single woman!’ There’s still a tremendous amount of pressure put on women to be in relationships. Whether they make you happy or not–doesn’t matter.
Samhita Mukhopadhyay is a writer, speaker, and technologist residing in Brooklyn, NY.
Samhita Mukhopadyay interviewed by Meaghan Coffey
Written and Edited by Meaghan Coffey
Photography by Jonathan Grassi
Design by Marie Havens
Samhita Mukhopadhyay at Panna II Garden Indian Restaurant, New York City, February 5, 2012, Photography by Jonathan Grassi
Samhita Mukhopadhyay at St. Marks Church, New York City, February 5, 2012, Photography by Jonathan Grassi