In The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, Emily Bazelon writes about opposing feminist views of rape culture. Understanding the difference between “dominance feminists” such as Catherine MacKinnon and “pro-sex feminists,” led in “The Sex Wars” by Janet Halley, is crucial to realizing that there is no single ideology for analyzing and overcoming gender oppression. This understanding can be applied to the sex wars raging in rock’n’roll; Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett could use a little help from feminists such as Halley, while Jackie Fox is setting herself up as pop’s answer to the late Andrea Dworkin. The figure and voice missing from Bazelon’s article is the late Ellen Willis, whose measured, thoughtful critiques of both porn protesters and S&M advocates I’ve been rereading, and missing. If any tabloid tool tries to mansplain feminism to you, hand them this Times piece, and a copy of The Essential Ellen Willis. Then tell him to get a sex change, live as a woman, and get back to you in 50 years.
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Twenty-three years ago The Village Voice published an article called “The Feminine Critique: The Secret History of Women and Rock Journalism.” It was the detailed result of more than a year’s worth of research I conducted, looking for my predecessors and my peers, interviewing such incredible critics as Ellen Willis, Danyel Smith, Ann Powers, Carola Dibbell, Karen Schoemer, Patricia Kennealy-Morrison, etc. The article became the basis for my first book, Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap, coedited by the inestimable Powers. That book is suddenly in the spotlight, thanks to Pitchfork editor Jessica Hopper’s generous namecheck of it in the dedication to her pointedly titled anthology The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Anwen Crawford also mentions our book in her New Yorker piece today, and even manages to include my name, unlike another recent lame article I won’t deign to mention. (You don’t say my name, I won’t say yours.) Crawford’s article goes over so much of the same terrain as “The Feminine Critique,” I wanted to laugh and cry. Finally, this issue is getting the mainstream spotlight it deserves. Sadly, it remains an issue.
I took a lot of shit when my article came out. The (male) rock crit establishment didn’t appreciate it. I was blacklisted by at least one major music magazine. Critics whose work I deeply admired made belittling comments. I felt like a whistleblower. On the one hand, “The Feminist Critique” led to my book-publishing career. On the other, to this day, I think I was forever cast as the Feminist Troublemaker, my career tainted as I was just getting out of the gate. Something writer Leslie Berman told me back then still haunts me: “The only reason that those of us who stopped doing criticism may feel bitter or uncomfortable about it has something to do with the fact that men had a different way of stopping. They were able to stop and recognize it as a choice, as a career move.”
I hope and pray that Crawford and Hopper don’t have to go through what Berman and I did. I’m glad they’re acknowledging the women who came before them. I write a lot about women pioneers, because I feel they are too often under-appreciated. I must be getting old, because I feel like one of them now. I’m glad to see the incredible settlements our progeny are building. And yet, I feel a little sad, looking out from my dusty door frame, just grateful when they remember to say my name.
Oh, and about that title: Willis and Ellen Sander both had collections of their writing published during their lifetimes, though Willis’s included the important political journalism she did after she grew out of rock criticism. Patricia has self-published her work; I highly recommend you check it out.
This week the online archive Rock’s Backpages features me and a few of my writings on Ronnie Spector, Riot Grrrl, and Ellen Willis.
It’s been more than two decades since The Village Voice published my article “The Feminine Critique,” the not-so-secret history of women rock writers. It is still one of the most important things I have ever done. Writer Margit Ditweiler just penned a lovely piece about how the photos for it hung on her wall as inspiration for years, in the blog Tue/Night:
Ellen Willis still inspires and intimidates me. I first encountered her personally when I was a young copy editor and aspiring music critic at The Village Voice, and she was the vaunted feminist and veteran music critic in house. Researching my 1992 Voice story “The Feminine Critique,” I was amazed by her reviews I found in old issues of The New Yorker, and very nervous when I interviewed her. Two decades later, those essays floored me all over again when I read them in the new anthology Out of the Vinyl Deeps, which I reviewed for the New York Times Book Review.