Episode 58: Summer Bookstravaganza

Published September 5, 2016.

Aminatou: Welcome to Call Your Girlfriend.

Ann: A podcast for long-distance besties everywhere.

Aminatou: I'm Aminatou Sow.

Ann: And I'm Ann Friedman.

Aminatou: Today we're talking about books! Jessica Valenti has a book called Sex Object and the second person that I talked to is Jessica Bennett who has a really fun book coming out this fall called Feminist Fight Club.

Ann: A real quick note before we get started.

Aminatou: If you live in Los Angeles or you like visiting Los Angeles which that's everybody you should join us for a very special live show at the Ace Theater downtown on Thursday, August 18th. We'll have many, many, many special guests including Steph Beatriz, the genius behind the Instagram account OfficialSeanPenn, and our friends from Who? Weekly. And we'll keep announcing more guests as the show date gets closer. But see you in L.A. August 18th at the Ace Theater downtown. You can find information to buy your tickets at callyourgirlfriend.com.

[Theme Song]

Aminatou: Hello!

Ann: Oh my gosh. I am loving -- there is like a chill quality to your voice today. I feel like it's . . . I'm not going to call it LinkedIn voice but maybe PBS voice.

Aminatou: [Laughs]

Ann: You sound very like -- just very even right now.

(1:48)

Aminatou: Let me tell you I'm in a tiny studio and the air conditioning is just right. Ugh. That's really what it is.

Ann: Perfect air conditioning. Why is it so hard to find? It's like Goldilocks' porridge.

Aminatou: The air conditioning is just right. Yeah. And then I also had a full scrub, one of those Korean body scrubs.

Ann: Oh my god.

Aminatou: And for the first time I asked the woman, I was like "Can you do this harder?" and she was like "Are you sure?" And so my skin is raw but soft.

Ann: I picture you like the bodies exhibit, like you're just open muscles now, if you got a harder version of that scrub.

Aminatou: I know. I'm also wearing the tiniest heel that I'm happy with. I'm experimenting with wearing taller shoes. And I don't know, it's like everything is working for me today. I even got to the studio early. I've got time. I don't know, I'm having a great day. Perfect.

Ann: Oh my god. Well, what do I have in the positive column? A really good egg sandwich and I met a deadline this morning which is for me I'm at 100. [Laughs] That's like maybe I have low standards but . . .

Aminatou: No, that sounds delicious.

Ann: Yeah. What is in store today? What are we talking about?

Aminatou: Today we're talking about books. I'm heading out to Cape Cod for a couple days and literally my entire suitcase is two caftans and just all the books I'm going to catch up on.

Ann: I love aspirationally packing books. I don't understand people who can pack the one book they're probably going to read and pack 20. Like packing 20 is just part of who I am.

Aminatou: Yeah. I usually do not do this and I think I'm actually going to get through all of them so I'm excited.

Ann: Tell me what's on your agenda.

Aminatou: Well, here's the thing with me is that I don't really . . . my secret shame is that I don't read fiction. I just don't have the time or I guess the imagination also. And so everything I read is either . . . it's like non-fiction, like everything, right? Or a very solid magazine rotation. So this year I'm really challenging myself to read more fiction. And it's been really good but I'm also like oh, maybe I have too many librarian friends or librarian-adjacent friends. But people are always like "This book changed my life." And I'm like oh, these people all read fiction. Now I understand what's going on here. It's like overidentifying with characters. I'm like I'm not identifying with characters in management books. 

(4:08)

Ann: [Laughs] I feel like summer is fiction time. Summer is the perfect time to read a bunch of fiction. Good choices.

Aminatou: Yeah, it is. So I have this book on my list called Shelter that everybody has been praising so I'm excited to read this and I'm going to try a YA fantasy also.

Ann: Whoa.

Aminatou: I've read like one YA book -- thank you Britney Calendar (?) -- and that's it. So this one is called Rebel of the Sands and all the kids are telling me about it so I'm excited. And then I just finished reading this short story collection by Helen Oyeyemi called What is Not Yours is Not Yours and it's great.

Ann: Which is also supposed to be great. Yeah.

Aminatou: I like short stories. I was like this is the gateway for me is short stories.

Ann: I love that. Well, I've been reading two books by friends so I have . . . this is actually a great shine theory story. So here in L.A., two friends of mine who are novelists, Margaret Wappler and Jade Chang, have for a long time been writing partners which is not that they really write together but they're accountability partners where they would essentially go to the same bar or restaurant or coffee shop and sit across from each other and make sure that they were both writing. And what's really cool about it is their novels are coming out within months of each other, and I'm reading both of them now. Margaret's is called Neon Green. It's about a family in suburban Chicago in the '90s that have a UFO land in their backyard. It is for adults but when I'm reading it I kind of picture my preteen self loving it which I don't mean as an insult; it's actually delightful.

Aminatou: That's awesome.

(5:48)

Ann: And Jade's book is called The Wangs Versus the World which is set just after the 2008 financial crisis about a really wealthy family that loses all of their money and embarks on this big road trip and a lot of soul searching which is super-interesting because it's an immigrant narrative that I think is not often told, a family that's on top. So they're both really great and I just love the story about how they both achieved this goal with each other's help. So, I don't know, I'm reading both of those even though they're very, very different books.

Aminatou: That's awesome.

Ann: Yeah.

Aminatou: That's really cool. I'm also reading a lot of books by black women right now and my favorite book that I've read this year so far is called Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

Ann: Oh, this is on my list next.

Aminatou: Oh my god, it's so good. I'll send it to you if you haven't bought it yet. It's great.

Ann: I mean I bought it because you've got to support, but yes.

Aminatou: You do have to support. I'm just saying I have copies at my house. Because here's the thing, I got this hot tip from friend-of-the-podcast Nilofer Merchant who whenever she has a friend that has a book coming out she buys many copies and sends them to all her other friends. And that has been -- you know, I have been the beneficiary of that generosity and it's been fantastic and I've discovered so many books that way. And so I made a resolution to start doing the same this year. I was like if I like a book I will buy ten copies of it and I will send them to ten different people.

Ann: That's such an incredible way to support artists who you care about and also to show love to your friends. That's genius.

Aminatou: No, exactly, you know? And it is really important, especially in the -- I'm learning this about publishing. In the preorder phase and just drumming up support, it's like if you have friends who have books coming out and you can support them that way that's the way to do it. So Homegoing, it's this great, great, great novel. It's like just a sweeping account of two half-sisters in 18ith century Ghana and their generations of descendants in America and it's great. It's like if you like themes about family, history, and racism, it spans three centuries. It's -- I don't ever use this word a lot in constructions of things -- but it's very ambitious and she pulls it off really, really well.

(8:00)

Ann: I also love novels told from a woman's point-of-view that span decades in part because I feel like the history that we learn, that charts a really big arc over time, is frequently featuring men as protagonists or written from a really white male perspective. So that is a huge selling point for me that it's ambitious in that way, like the span of time.

Aminatou: It's great. I'm also reading, or I read a book called Another Brooklyn by Jacklyn Woodson. She I believe usually writes children's books. She was the woman -- you remember when the Lemony Snickets guy made a racist joke?

Ann: Yes.

Aminatou: Lemony Snickets is terrible and that guy is awful. And so he made a racist joke. Jacklyn Woodson was like -- that's her. If you don't know the story you should Google it yourself. But her book is out I believe in two weeks or something. I had a preview copy. But it's about just this young girl . . . so this is an adult novel as opposed to the children's books that she writes, but it's about a girl named August and these three really . . . the friendship between three girls in Brooklyn who these girls come from the south and it's really moving and it's really well-written. So again it's like teens, loss, friendship, race, religion. Like that's awesome. And then the other awesome black women book that I read this year is called Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. It's about three Jamaican women and they fight for their village when there's a new hotel expansion coming in but it deals with them having to deal with all these sins from the past from all of their lives. And so it's great. It's written really, really well. That was one book that I read where I was like I feel like I have gone somewhere else in the sense that reading can take you to a completely different place. Like this was the book that did that for me, so check them out.

(10:00)

Ann: Yeah. And I think that is actually one reason why I really like reading fiction. I mean summer, it's easy to sort of use as a shorthand for a period of time where you maybe have more free time or you're maybe doing more lounging about. I know it's not that way for everyone, but I think that there's maybe some sort of culturally-accepted . . . we all have a lower speed then, and I think reading those books that are immersive during that sort of time, either vacation or something like summer, is really just such a treat.

Aminatou: Yeah. It's like the big book that I'm really excited about that is coming out is called The Mothers by Brit Bennett.

Ann: Oh, I have a review copy of this.

Aminatou: Ugh, jealous.

Ann: Do you want me to send it? [Laughs]

Aminatou: Yes. When you're done.

Ann: I will.

Aminatou: I'm like I'm getting that preorder.

Ann: Got to support.

Aminatou: Yeah, no, she like . . . I love all of her other writing so I'm really, really, really excited to read this. Man, I feel like a new person reading fiction. This is like . . . you know, I feel like I'm in tenth grade English all over again.

Ann: I find it more calming than any meditation app I've ever tried, I will be honest. Yeah.

Aminatou: No, seriously, it's very calming. I was like I need to stop . . . whatever I was doing before I need to stop doing. I was telling a friend this -- she's a librarian -- and she looked at me like "Where have you been? What are you talking about?" [Laughs]  And I was like it's true. Since AP English and IB English I probably have not read novels. My big shame. And I'm back now.

Ann: Oh my god, Columbusing fiction.

Aminatou: I cannot believe you just accused me of that.

Ann: Ah! I was repeating Gina! Editing error. [Laughs]

Aminatou: I know, I heard it. I heard it.

Ann: Gina, at your mercy.

Aminatou: No way. I was like no way. Look into your heart, Gina.

Ann: I mean maybe this is cheesy but I love hearing also about what other people are reading, especially when it's not brand new books. I'm someone who's really bad about reading on trend a lot of the time and so remember that time period when everyone was reading The Gold Finch or whatever? I'm just like, you know . . .

Aminatou: I read that. [Laughs]

Ann: Yeah.

(12:03)

Aminatou: See, I'm a very trendy reader. That's true. But you know what it is too is we have a lot of friends in common who read a lot.

Ann: Totally.

Aminatou: Like our friend Phoebe is a machine. She reads one book a week, maybe more, and she has that awesome hashtag on Instagram that's like Books2016 and Books2015 for a year. And so I like reading based on friends' recommendations and so I think that's why I end up . . . you know, if something is big enough. I definitely had read all the Ferrante books before Ferrante fever came to America.

Ann: Well . . . [Laughs]

Aminatou: It's one of those, yeah, my dipping my toe into that world is very uneven but I really appreciate when friends give you really solid recommendations. And it's also such a good bonding point and a good, you know, we're reading the same book right now so we have a lot of stuff to talk about. That has been hugely awesome for my friendships.

Ann: Maybe we should do a CYG Books on Instagram or on Twitter if people want to talk about what they're reading this summer because I'm always very curious about what people are actually reading.

Aminatou: Yeah. Anybody who's listening to this, if you want to tweet at us, I think Instagram though is the place for this. Show us what you're reading and just hashtag it #CYGBooks. It'll be awesome.

Ann: I can't wait to build a massive, ambitious reading list that I'm sure not to complete as a result of this. [Laughs]

Aminatou: [Laughs] You know what? I am fully confident that I will complete my reading list before I die.

Ann: Oh my god, what?

Aminatou: Fully confident of that.

Ann: What?

Aminatou: Yeah, because you make room in time for it and I Marie Kondoed a lot of my books recently. [Laughs] I got a kindle and let me tell you people who are format fetishists, I'm like whatever. And I've even read studies that say reading on paper makes you retain more information or whatever. But the Kindle has truly transformed how I read and how much I can read.

(14:02)

Ann: I almost bought one on Prime Day and didn't so now you're making me regret.

Aminatou: [Sighs] Honestly, Ann, this is the first time that I'm talking about owning a Kindle. It's like I go out and I never pull it out on the train or whatever but I'll be at home and I'm just reading.

Ann: You'll read it in bed. [Laughs]

Aminatou: Yeah. I'm like if they could make a book cover that this thing could go into, it'd be fine. But you know what? It's great. It's great. And also it's awesome for reading at the beach because you don't get the glare and all that other stuff from the iPad. I'm happy. Yeah, I'm very happy. I can't believe this has turned into an Amazon promo but . . .

Ann: I can't believe it. I was just going to say this is not sponsored.

Aminatou: But this is how much I'm telling you. Like this is how strongly I believe in whatever gets you reading gets you reading, you know?

Ann: I endorse that as well.

Aminatou: Just whatever it takes. And this is me admitting my techno shame about the fact that I have a reading device.

Ann: Oh, I think there's no shame. I actually haven't gotten one in the past because I feel like I can't have any device that would allow me to not read. Like one of the things about holding a book is I put my phone in the other room so I can concentrate on it. I'm so tempted by the digital that I've been scared of a Kindle as even a gateway to that.

Aminatou: Brave new world. [Laughs]

[Music and Ads]

(18:30)

Aminatou: Well, you know, I'm going to take this away from fiction though but two books that are in the CYG friend family that are out and coming out are Jessica Bennett who has a really fun book coming out this fall called Feminist Fight Club where she basically lays out survival strategies for women in the workplace.

[Interview Starts]

Aminatou: Hello, Jess Bennett. Thanks for joining us on Call Your Girlfriend today.

Jessica: Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.

Aminatou: Can you tell us I guess who you are and what you do?

Jessica: I'm a journalist. I cover gender issues and culture and kind of the intersection of the two mostly for the New York Times. And I write a column on language, trends, and digital communication.

Aminatou: Look at you. So many jobs.

Jessica: I know, yeah. In freelance life I have about 17 jobs. And I also have a book coming out in September that we are here to talk about.

Aminatou: Yes! Feminist Fight Club, and the tagline is An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace. I'm very excited about reading this.

Jessica: Yeah, it's 21% more expensive for men to make up for the wage gap and it comes out in September and I'm excited.

Aminatou: This is really exciting. What gave you the idea to write this book? Because I remember when you talked to us, you were like "Hi, I'm writing a book about this." And I don't remember what email you sent. Literally every woman I know who was aware of it was like "Oh my god, yes. Just the office sexism, who doesn't know what that is?"

(20:10)

Jessica: Yeah. So, you know, I've been writing about these issues for a long time and I did some editing work for Sheryl Sandberg when Lean In came out helping her foundation come up with editorial projects with other magazines. And part of it was I just kept reading all of these studies. You at one point, Amina, told me that Harvard Business Review was your gospel.

Aminatou: Oh yeah, 100% feminist bible.

Jessica: Yeah, the feminist bible. So I read a lot of Harvard Business Review as well and there's these studies that come out all the time about how to deal with these various subtle issues that you face in the workplace. But they're hard to decipher, you know? Most people aren't sitting down and reading through academic studies, but there was so much really useful information in them that I kept thinking if there was a way to pull this out and make it punchy and fun and combine it with pop culture, there's actually a lot of really useful battle tactics and fight modes you could act out in the workplace to deal with some of these issues. And so that was sort of how the book originated.

Aminatou: What was the most persistent problem you think that you encountered?

Jessica: I mean the mantaruptor is a pretty common one. That's the guy who interrupts you in meetings. And so the way that the book is laid out is all of these different archetypes that you face in the workplace, some of them considered enemies -- the mantaruptor who interrupts you, the bropropriator who appropriates your ideas and gets credit for them, the himitator, that dude who repeats what you just said in different words.

Aminatou: My blood pressure is just rising because I'm seeing all . . . like I just . . .

Jessica: Yeah.

Aminatou: This is very visceral for a lot of us.

(21:45)

Jessica: And I think a lot of times these things are really hard to call out or even identify and it's easy to kind of turn in or be like am I the problem? Am I not speaking loud enough? Am I not saying it in an authoritative tone? So it looks at those different archetypes and then it looks at some of the ways that women hold themselves back or doubt themselves in the workplace, so like the imposter, the woman who feels like she's a fraud, or the office mom, the woman who naturally takes on more of the administrative duties and thus doesn't get to work on the high-level projects. And so for each of these I try to provide really actionable tools for how to combat them that are all rooted in research.

Aminatou: Oh my god, rooted in research. The magical words at Call Your Girlfriend. Thank you. What do you . . . I think that this book is obviously going to resonate a lot with women, especially our kind of crowd, because these are issues that we talk about all the time. And even the survival tactics are just tools of the trade that we share, right? We talk about them in the bathroom. We talk about them at happy hour.

Jessica: Exactly.

Aminatou: We talk about them in conferences when it's just us. What's in it for the dudes? Because they're the problem.

Jessica: Yeah, totally. I mean they're not the only problem and we need them on our side so part of what I've tried to do is use humor as a way to bring people in. Like I was at a friend's house for a barbecue with her family who are all Trump supporters and I brought them a copy of the book to show them and was expecting a crazy response, but they thought the 21% more expensive for men part was hilarious and suddenly they wanted to talk about it and they wanted to flip through it. And so it was actually interesting to watch that happen because I was hoping that the humor would allow it to feel accessible in some way. There is a section in the book that's specifically targeted at men. It's a P.S.A., a penile service announcement, and it's how to have a dick without being one. And it's just really useful and easy things that guys can do in the workplace to help their fellow women. And I think that most men and men of our generation in particular actually really do want to do the right thing but there's this thing called male privilege and they have all of these actions that are embedded in them that possibly causes them to interrupt or speak loudly or assume that something is coming their way or a project is theirs whereas I think women largely have the tendency to kind of stay in the background.

(24:10)

Aminatou: Not us for sure. Can you tell me about some of the women that you talked to for the book that stand out and maybe a tactic or two that they shared with you?

Jessica: Yeah. Yeah, well so the backstory to the book, it's all of these tools but there's also a narrative about my real-life feminist fight club which is a group of women that I began meeting with when I first moved to New York a decade ago and we were all sort of at the start of our careers. I was a junior reporter at Newsweek in a very male and white male-dominated environment. A lot of them were up-and-coming comics. Some of them were working in television. And we would get together once a month, sort of like a modern-day consciousness-raising group, and we would basically bitch about all of these issues we were facing at work and we would share tricks of the trade.

And so the backstory to the book is these women and how we've sort of all come up together and how we made this vow to help each other out throughout our career processes and to mentor other women and to sort of combat that idea of the queen bee and that women don't help each other much like you guys talk about with shine theory. And so they're full of different tricks. And I know that I actually interviewed you for one point at the book and you're in it.

Aminatou: Yes. [Laughs]

Jessica: And you have an amazing trick so I think we should share it. So the office mom, this is the woman who often the administrative tasks fall to her. Maybe she's volunteering for them more; maybe she's not volunteering but they just go to her. And all of the research proves that these types of tasks more frequently fall to women and as a result women don't take part in the high-level projects and they may not get credit for "more important" tasks at work. So how do you get out of that situation when you're being asked to take the notes in a meeting or to grab the coffee? So I know you have a really good story about how you don't . . .

(26:10)

Aminatou: Oh my god, I don't remember what I told you so I might make you tell it. What did I tell you?

Jessica: So you told me that if someone asks you to grab coffee you look at them and you say "You know, I'd be happy to do that but my mom never taught me how to make coffee so that I wouldn't have to get it in meetings."

Aminatou: It's true. I don't drink coffee. I don't make coffee. I don't know how to operate a machine. For me it's like the direct approach works the most, right?

Jessica: Yeah.

Aminatou: And I think that you need to play within whatever your personality is most comfortable.

Jessica: Yes, absolutely.

Aminatou: But I think being direct or asking very dumb questions, those are the two ways that I usually get out of tasks.

Jessica: Yeah, it's kind of funny because the advice that I want to give is to be very direct and to say fuck it to all of these things and just do what we should do which is being the badasses that we are. But a lot of the research actually advises to play into stereotypes in some way, like the playing dumb -- you don't know how to make coffee -- or for example when you're going in to ask for a raise it's been shown that if a woman smiles while she does so she's less likely to be viewed as pushy and more likely to get the raise.

Aminatou: Ugh.

Jessica: So it's difficult because it's like do you play into that shit? We don't want to play into it. But at the same time get that money.

Aminatou: Yeah.

Jessica: And then get that money and hire more women so these problems resolve. So it's sort of a double-edged sword in a way that it's like do you play within the system or do you fight against it?

Aminatou: Yeah, you know? And I think that that's why it's so important honestly for a lot of women who especially just work in the corporate world to just be on top of all of these management studies because for as much as we all want to be working in liberated workplaces or whatever you realize that everybody is playing a game and sometimes you have to play into it and you have to really understand what the politics and psychology of your industry are and how to rise above them. And it is really frustrating, right? Being told you have to smile more or you have to wear a little bit more makeup.

Jessica: Right, right.

(28:14)

Aminatou: And for me I'm like well, if this means I'm going to get paid more and then I'm going to be this person's boss one day . . .

Jessica: Right.

Aminatou: And I get to change that? I can do that temporarily.

Jessica: Yeah, exactly. I mean that's sort of my feeling as well. At the end of the day whatever's going to get more women into power and more women in power is going to help solve this problem and dismantle patriarchy. But we also have to support each other and lift other women up along the way. But I think this stuff doesn't just happen in really rigid corporate environments; it happens in super-progressive hippy-dippy environments where everyone talks about things being egalitarian and the tech world and all of these places that claim to be so progressive. There's really deep-rooted, entrenched issues of gender bias. And sometimes it's overt sexism but sometimes it's more subtle and it's just unconscious bias.

Aminatou: Yeah. You know, another feminist writer, Jill Filipovic, has written about this so much about how one of the big shocks for women when they leave college is college is a very . . . it's a fairly egalitarian system, right? It's like there's actually probably more women in your classes and people are less shy or whatever. And then you get into the workforce and it's 1956 in the workforce.

Jessica: Right, right.

Aminatou: And you can see the ceiling really quickly or whatever. She wrote about that specific to women's attitudes about Hillary Clinton but I thought it was such an important point.

Jessica: Yeah.

Aminatou: Like that's where the shock comes from. So I think a book like yours, I'm excited to give it to women who are coming straight into the workforce.

Jessica: Yeah.

(29:50)

Aminatou: Because I think that this is a thing that nobody prepares you . . . like college doesn't even prepare you for the basics of office life.

Jessica: Completely. They don't teach you how to negotiate.

Aminatou: Definitely not for the gender jiu-jitsu dojo that you're about to enter into.

Jessica: Right, right. Which is sadly what we have to do in a lot of cases. That was completely my experience as well. I grew up in Seattle, super liberal. My parents are feminists. They never even really talked about feminism because it was so implied that obviously men and women were equal. And I went to college, same deal, women outpacing men in getting degrees and getting advanced degrees and PhDs. So most of my classes were female-dominated. And then I started this job as a writer at Newsweek and yeah it was literally like the 1950s. But because I'd never really experienced it and hadn't taken women's studies courses in school and hadn't really grappled with the idea of feminism or even said out loud that I was a feminist I think I immediately turned inwards and started to think maybe the problem was me. Maybe my ideas weren't good enough.

Aminatou: Yeah.

Jessica: Maybe these guys had something that I didn't. And so it took a long time for me to figure out oh, actually, no, fuck that. The problem is systemic. And the way that I got there was in large part thanks to the support of this feminist fight club that I was part of because we were all experiencing the same thing. And it in some ways is like the second wave feminists discussed about the click moment. You have that click moment where you realize it's not actually you; the problem is collective. And I think you feel much stronger knowing that you have an army of women behind you.

Aminatou: That's a really great point and something that we stress so much, you know? It's like one day work will be fair and it'll be liberated or whatever but in the meantime find people who are your allies who help you. Because the thing about a lot of this stuff, I think that for me especially being in my 30s and my career is finally going, is I realize how much of it is such a distraction, you know? It's like every time I'm thinking did that guy just steal my idea? Am I being too pushy at work? Am I being too loud? I'm just like you know, I wonder if all of these men that I work with, this is the calculus that they think about all the time on top of doing their work, right?

Jessica: Yeah.

(32:10)

Aminatou: So it's such a distraction. It's such a waste of your time. And it really just saps your morale at any job that you're at.

Jessica: It's exhausting. And I think it's good to have the tools but it sucks that we have to think about the tools at all times and be trying to navigate and figuring out what the best way to respond to a certain situation is, or like you said, wonder if you're being too loud or if you're falling into some stereotype that people have in the workplace that falls to women and particularly women of color. So I think that, you know, it's good to have the battle tactics but all of these I hope are going towards the larger goal of getting more women in power and taking over shit.

Aminatou: This is so exciting. One day work will be okay but in the meantime you have Feminist Fight Club. It comes out in September and we're really excited to check it out. Thanks for much for joining us, Jess.

Jessica: Thanks for having me.

[Interview Ends]

[Music]

Aminatou: The second person that I talked to, Jessica Valenti, has a book called Sex Object that is out and is on the New York Times bestseller list and has made really big feminist waves recently. And I talked to her and she just gets into these very . . . I don't know, she has these really intimate conversations about things that women deal with all the time like namely being sexualized and being harassed and being assaulted and has basically decided that instead of being sarcastic as women on the Internet are that she was going to get real. And I think that's why the book has resonated with so many people.

Ann: Oh my god, double Jess action. I love this.

(34:00)

[Interview Starts]

Aminatou: Hi, Jessica Valenti. Thanks for joining us today on Call Your Girlfriend.

Jessica: Thank you for having me.

Aminatou: Ann and I have both known you for a long time, like both personally and professionally, and you have a new book out. You're actually a New York Times bestselling author -- no big deal, shoulder shrug. Can you tell us a little bit about what your book Sex Object is about?

Jessica: So Sex Object is a memoir. It's my first memoir. It is about sexual objectification, obviously sort of more generally the toll that sexism took in my life over the course of several years. The idea that I was trying to get at was what the cumulative impact of sexism is and what it means to grow up living in a world that has so much disdain for women. I think that we have a language around a lot of these issues and we have a language around what it is to go through specific instances of sexism, right? But we don't have a word or a language or necessarily a conversation going about that cumulative impact, about what that does to you, and also how it shapes who you are and who you've become.

Aminatou: You know, honestly reading your book, that was a thing . . . that was my first impression was just how overwhelming it is to be a woman in the world because you just chronologically lay out here is the first time someone in the subway did something inappropriate; here's the teacher who hugged me too hard. And in adult life here are all the traps you can fall into. And I think that that's something that so many of us can relate to. In fact I don't know that there's not a woman alive who one of those episodes will not resonate for her, right? At any age. But I think seeing it through the lens of somebody's life and realizing how young you were when you were exposed to a lot of these things and how just expected it was was something that was truly -- it was shocking and it was really heavy. But you know I really wonder how much having a daughter has impacted the way that you think about these issues and the kind of world that you think she is going to grow into.

(36:25)

Jessica: I mean that question is a big reason why I wrote the book and honestly why it is a little bit heavier. Before I was thinking about writing the book, and I wrote the first essay that would go on to become the essay that kicks off the book, Andrew my husband read it. And I was like "What do you think?" and he's like "It's really punishing." And I just said good. I was like good, I want it to be punishing.

I sort of have had this shift, and I think a lot of that is because of Layla, because of the fact that I'm raising a daughter, that I'm sort of tired of being jokey about it. I'm really tired of being sarcastic and having my blog voice on and having my Twitter voice on. And I just want to get down to brass tacks a little bit, like these issues have become a lot more urgent for me.

Aminatou: You're also someone who you've been in the trenches of writing online. You know, you distinctly are part of a group of women who essentially invented what the woman Internet voice is and was setting up Feministing and all of the work that you've been doing. I remember not paying attention in any of our classes because we were refreshing the Internet to read Feministing. This was when there were like four websites. It was like we would read Perez Hilton and we read Feministing. That was the counterbalance. In some ways things have gotten easier because the voice has become mainstream but in other ways just the trolling and the hate around women has gotten really intense. And you're somebody who is a columnist. You've been writing about your life. If you could tell us about how you think men specifically who react strongly to having women's voices online, like how that has changed or hasn't changed?

(38:05)

Jessica: It's changed a lot in that I think that they've always been there, right? Since a woman wrote a blog post there's been some man there to tell her how wrong she is or call her a name. But the speed at which this happens now, it's this unrelentingness of it. And I think the thing that's really changed with the way that misogynists troll is it feels like ten years ago when we were blogging trolling was something that you did and now with social media it's something that you are.

Aminatou: Yeah, you know, it's really . . . you know, I think that you're right when you talk about this. For a lot of us we just put on our thick skins and we joke about it and we laugh about it. But it really has really deep psychological impact on a lot of our lives. I can admit to the fact that writing online has given me more anxiety and there are days where I can't be on the Internet because there's terrible men saying things at you that are unconscionable. So I really appreciate that that's something that you're bringing to the table and I think the more of us that talk about it the more everyone else just realizes how relentless it is, right? It's not that we're these shrill feminists who we're trying to usher in weird revolutions. It's like no, we're literally just asking you to consider us equal humans and now you're calling us cunts and feminazis. I guess another question I had for you is who -- for our listeners particularly, especially the younger ones who care a lot about this stuff -- who are other writers or commentators that are on your radar that you think they should be paying attention to and expanding their listening and reading stable?

(39:55)

Jessica: Beyond sort of the more well-known folks I guess I would say obviously Roxane Gay and Lindy West I read and love. Samantha Irby is someone who I love. I just think she's hilarious and brilliant and I think she should just have millions and millions of readers. One of the awesome things about doing this work online, and this has been true for as long as I've been doing it, is that you sort of find someone new every day and it doesn't necessarily mean a woman who becomes an influencer to your work or to who you are. It doesn't necessarily have to be a writer or someone who puts out a book or someone who has a blog. Sometimes it is just like someone you follow on Twitter or on Instagram. And that's been really fun for me and provided a nice sort of antidote to all the horribleness that exists online is that I do still . . . I'm not willing to give up that space yet because I do still feel a sense of community and I do still feel a sense of discovery. 

There's like a teenager, I think she's in Florida, who has an account called Feminist Culture and she has hundreds of thousands of followers. It's very like kids these days I don't understand, but it's just amazing to watch, right?

Aminatou: I mean you mentioned Roxane Gay earlier who wrote Bad Feminist, right? Which essentially for a lot of us was a sigh of relief that somebody has finally given us the language to talk about all of these complicated politics that we have. And I think that that's part of the reason of the success of that book, frankly, right, is a lot of us who are in these feminist trenches every day, realizing that we're not saints and we have complicated feelings about things all day. So what are things that you think you're a bad feminist about?

(41:54)

Jessica: [Laughs] That's a scary question. You know, I wrote about this a little bit once in a column that The Guardian gave it the worst headline and we changed it but I still get harassed about the headline to this day and it was about being catcalled. I think their headline is like "Hmm, I'm sad that sexism makes me miss catcalling." And I'm like that's not at all what I wrote, but okay. But it was  like I do have a lot of weird feelings around it. You know, so much of my life was defined by men yelling stuff at me on the street, multiple times a day, every day, for so much of my life. And so to go from that to sort of relative silence is a really weird thing because in one way it's amazing and awesome and I do feel a sense of freedom walking around just in the last couple of years that I didn't feel before. I don't tense up in the same way that I used to when I'm walking by groups of men. But there's something that feels bad about it too, right? If you're told from the time that you're young that this is your value and this is what gives you power or this is what makes you visible in the world and then as toxic as it is if it's taken away from you that feels strange, right? And so I have a lot of complicated feelings and feel like a bad feminist about aging and starting to become less visible to men in a way that I hated growing up. So it's weird.

Aminatou: I appreciate that honest answer. Catcalling for me, it's not difficult. I always joke that I want to start a feminist terrorist group called Toxic Shock Syndrome where we just murder catcallers. It's like you say one thing and a tampon full of blood just takes you out. Like those are the bullets. It's the most . . . it's so awful. But I do think that conversation about aging, it's hard, and it's also very taboo to have because we're not supposed to ascribe to mainstream beauty ideals, you know? Which let's be real. [Laughs] That's a thing that's a part of our lives every day. So I hope that's the next project that you tackle. We're not getting any younger on the Internet.

Jessica: [Laughs]

(44:20)

Aminatou: But you know at the same time there's something liberating about it to me too that's just like you get older. The trash people on the street, you don't hold their gaze anymore, and there's something so wonderful about that. And I think that thing you said about not tensing up. I was like this is crazy how much of a physical reaction it is for us. It's like everything that is online to offline, it's physical and it's visceral and I think that your book really, really captures that for a lot of people and I hope that everybody buys the book and reads it and really has serious conversations with the other women in their lives about it. What's one thought that you want women who read your book to leave feeling?

Jessica: I think life is really messy and it's okay if you're messy too, right? And it took me sort of a long time to get there I think. And I think a lot of women do this. I have a lot of female friends who have done this. A strategy of dealing with the chaos of living in a misogynist society becomes trying to do everything right. Having everything in your life be black and white or a certain way so you can have something that makes sense, right? When nothing else does. And that can feel like a trap too. So for me sort of accepting the fact that I'm a really flawed and messy person. I may always be a flawed and messy person -- that's all right. It has been really wonderful for me.

Aminatou: Thanks so much for joining us New York Times bestselling author Jessica Vilenti. Sex Object is out now. You should read it.

[Interview Ends]

[Music]

Ann: All right. You can find us many places on the Internet, on our website callyourgirlfriend.com, you can download this podcast anywhere you like to listen to podcasts, or on iTunes where we would love it if you left us a review. You can tweet at us at callyrgf or email us at callyrgf@gmail.com. You can also find us on Facebook or on Instagram where we're also callyrgf. You can even leave us a short and sweet voicemail at 714-681-2943. That's 714-681-CYGF. This podcast is produced by Gina Delvac with special thanks to Maria Veillasenor and Argot Studios in New York City.

Aminatou: See you on the Internet.

Ann: See you on the Internet, boo.