Open Letter to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross

Dear Terry Gross,

I listen to you religiously by podcast from Berlin, Germany. I’m a 32 year old singer in a punk cabaret band and a performance artist/dancer. I’m a queer feminist activist and I frequently use my body explicitly in performance (for a variety of reasons which I often blog about about). I’ve always enjoyed your show and think you present a fairly wide range of very articulate and witty speakers. But I’m writing feeling pretty disappointed.

I’ve recognized for a long time that we might differ on some of our feminist politics, but I’ve always respected the fact that you present yourself as a vocal feminist and push feminist issues frequently into your interviews. But recently I’ve been hoping that you might develop a more nuanced and complicated interrogation of certain issues around women in the media and women and their bodies/portrayal of their image.

I started off feeling a bit disappointed with yesterday’s show (1/6/12) with Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen about their show “Portlandia,” when the very first clip you chose to play was about how rule-bound feminist bookstores are. (Sure, it might be just about that Portland bookstore, but the message communicated makes it seem widespread). It’s not that I was angry, just really disappointed that you chose to spend air time on that. Mostly because you do have a choice and it’s not like its anything new to make fun of feminists, lesbians or feminist bookstores. The stereotypes are rampant and pretty hard to escape.

I would even go so far as to say that it’s pretty widely accepted across the board from conservatives to leftists to make fun of feminists. And it’s terribly difficult for so many young women to count themselves as feminists, even when the issue of sexism is so clear in our world. So when a respected, vocal feminist such as yourself chooses to spend air time on a clip that further discourages people from stepping foot in a feminist bookstore, or tells us well-minded liberals that our doubts about feminist bookstores are basically okay, and even arms us listeners with a valid excuse not to step foot in one because “sometimes the things that claim to be the most inclusive have all these esoteric rules to follow in order to be part of that group — that it becomes so alienating or excluding.”

It may be true that “sometimes the things that claim to be the most inclusive have all these esoteric rules to follow,” but that’s never been my personal experience in any feminist bookstore I’ve been in. A feminist and women’s bookstore is a place that I finally feel really comfortable in. Its one that I am exposed to so much material that is basically impossible to find anywhere else. It is where underrepresented voices get published and put on the shelves.

Unfortunately, you’re just contributing to the fact that feminist, women’s and queer bookstores are struggling tooth and nail to stay alive in this country and all over the world. So many people, not least leftists, are so afraid to identify with queer or feminism and its really disheartening.

Furthermore, your guest Carrie Brownstein, admitted that she doesn’t really read feminist theory, which is absolutely fine, but then again, isn’t that pretty typical, even of leftists? Why not hear from a young woman who DOES read feminist theory, or a young man? I want to hear a voice of resistance and difference on your show. I want to hear someone on your show standing up for feminist bookstores, and if its not your interviewees, then at least it could be you.

I’m glad that the women in the real bookstore in Portland “have a sense of humor about it” but it fills me with so much sadness that so many women’s bookstores and queer bookstores are being shut down all over this country. I was just in a great one in Madison Wisconsin and we had an amazing reading from trans-persons and then had a vigil for all the trans-people who experience violence and harassment around the world. The bookstore is full of tons of literature besides feminist theory and if more people would visit them, they might see how feminism is a civil rights issue, not about just certain types of women or people.

But disappointment about feminist bookstores was still not enough to make me want to write this letter. I guess I’ve accepted that in mainstream language, it’s difficult to get away from the clichéd stereotypes that fuel so much of TV humor.

But what finally motivated me to write you was the second half of the interview in which you ask Carrie Brownstein about her take on what female performers wear onstage.

You say: When you’re onstage you’re really powerful but it’s not about “look how sexily I’m dressed.” And there’s so many female performers now who are basically in S&M Fetish garb onstage and they’re nearly naked, it’s totally sexual, and the power is supped to be totally sexual in a literally sexual way, and I just wonder what you make of that?

First of all, you talk about the “now” but you forget that female performers and male performers since the beginning of rock n roll history have been wearing sexy clothing and playing with sexuality onstage. It’s nothing “new” and not more trendy now than it ever was. Furthermore, you make an assumption about the power being about the sex, and that women are thinking the whole time, “look how sexy I am.” How do you know what a female performer feels in her power, where she gets her power, how she exploits that power without asking her? Making such an assumption just plays right into a typically anti-feminist view that female performers aren’t actually worth taking the time to talk to, let alone to go see live. It gives more fodder to the view that women basically “aren’t powerful” and have to use sexuality to be powerful.

You know that’s not true. I only listen to your voice, Terry, but I don’t care what you are wearing, I know that you are a powerful woman. How and why do you choose what you wear? Do you feel boxed in by the expectations of your career or being respected in your career and feel that it limits your clothing choices? If wearing a pencil skirt today helps make you feel more powerful and sexy, great. If you’re in your pajamas and it makes you feel powerful, great. If you’re in high heels, great. I don’t care, I know that your power doesn’t have anything to do with that.

Thank goodness that Carrie Brownstein at least tried to show you that in her somewhat flustered response. She says: “In some ways I just think, to each her own. That’s one version of performance and that’s one version of being watched … Sorry these kinds of questions are always hard. Because I don’t think it’s necessary to perform in those kinds of outfits … I think … oh that looks really uncomfortable. But at the same time it’s not for me to judge. But I think that the most amazing performance s and performers, it has nothing to do with what their wearing, they’re just givers onstage and I think that you don’t have to give your body onstage you kinda just have to give your soul, which is a lot scarier. So maybe these artists are just like, we don’t want to give our soul onstage, we will give our bodies. It’s a lot less scary.”

You answered her with a mere, “Okay.”

Where Brownstein fell short is that she implies to the listening public that when someone is overtly sexy or sexual they can’t give their souls or don’t want to. But that’s bologna, Terry. No one assumes that of David Bowie or Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop. They use sexuality just as much as any of these “female performers of today” (who ever they are) AND it looks like they give an awful lot of themselves. Giving one’s soul? Is that really for a viewer to judge? Giving one’s body? Does that really have to do with the cut or design of a piece of clothing? Who “gives one’s body?” Come on, Terry, you’re far more intelligent than that.

Let’s have a guest on Fresh Air that really shows how far feminism has come, how far queer and trans issues have evolved and changed. Let’s stop talking so much about whether women are called sweety or whether they wear high heels and start talking about power dynamics that are a lot more complicated than that. Lets talk about the places where women really are disempowered and what we can do about it. I don’t believe that all that change that needs to take place lies on the bodies of women, or hinges upon women en mass refusing to wear anything sexy onstage or off. Please, give us listeners a new and different view of this because too many leftists are afraid to call themselves feminists, when feminism is a civil rights issue like any other. Terry, don’t play into the hype. Please don’t present the public with the same tired clichés that ultimately do injustice to women.

All the best from an avid listener,

Kathryn Fischer

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