I was a late convert to Reductress, an Onion-like site for women that satirizes the faux-feminist magazines whose content claims to empower women. Though the site launched in early 2013 (forever ago in internet time), I didn’t start to pay attention until just a few months ago, when a New York City comedian was banned from the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy network after being accused of rape by multiple women. In response, the staff of Reductress devoted its entire landing page to humor articles about rape.
“I Anonymously Reported My Rape for the Anonymous Attention,” read one headline, poking fun at a common accusation lobbed at victims of rape. “Have You Considered Spending $300 On a Self-Defense Class?” read another, written from the point of view of a guy who felt called to address those women who had the gall to speak out against rape culture.
Can a rape joke be funny? Apparently so. But the only good ones I’ve ever seen have been on Reductress.
When How to Win at Feminism: The Definitive Guide to Having It All—and Then Some! was published, I was ready to count it among the new wave of essential feminist reads that have been coming out in recent years, among them Bad Feminist, Men Explain Things to Me, You Don’t Have to Like Me, and We Should All Be Feminists. But could the site’s writers sustain their combination of sharp insight and humor across the length of an entire book?
The web site is a parody of every women’s magazine that pretends glitter eyeshadow is empowering, yoga leggings can save the world, and firming cream is a vehicle of the body positivity movement. But How to Win at Feminism is laid out more like a self-help book—the kind that promises to transform every facet of you, from your look to your career to your love life. But in this book, the magic bullet that will revolutionize your life isn’t yoga or meditation or the power of positive thinking—it’s feminism. More specifically, it’s what We Were Feminists Once author Andi Zeisler refers to as “marketplace feminism.”
And the skewering starts out strong. From the very first page, the book’s authors acknowledge that feminism, as of late, has become “safe for the masses.” There are now “empowering pop songs, feminist music videos, inspiring advertising, and shows with the word ‘girls’ in the title.” Basically, we’ve won feminism, and anyone not already sashaying about while sporting a “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt should get the hell on board.
Following this rousing introduction, the authors go on to femsplain how to femsplain feminism to your friends (using words such as “feministify” and “gal-firmation”), how to determine whether something is or is not feminist (coconut milk: feminist; actual milk: not feminist), and how to use your privilege for good. This last includes such tips as telling lesbians that you find women attractive, telling people of color that you’re not racist, and telling people from marginalized populations that you can relate to their experiences. Because lesbians, people of color, and marginalized people love that shit.
From there, the book covers the primary areas of concern in every woman’s life: fashion/beauty, career, and sex.
To be sure, some of the nudge-nudge-wink-wink content resonates with me. For instance, in the section on “Women at Work,” the authors write that “[i]n this golden age of feminism, some women still fall into the easy trap of having just some of it. But women have been given special lady gifts that men do not have, and therefore it is our duty to use them, all of them, at the same time.” Passages like these made me snort-sob as I wrote notes in the margins, did five loads of laundry, and cooked dinner, all with a spit-soaked toddler attached to my leg. (Bonus points for the profile of “the woman who literally has it all.”) And a section on saving the world by first saving yourself—with plenty of nods toward the concept of self-care and the online practice of being offended by literally everything—made me cackle out loud.
But in the end—at a time when women and other marginalized populations are suddenly fearful of losing everything they’ve gained, and more—the pages upon pages of joke beauty brands and silly relationship tips suddenly felt too thin. I wanted them to punch up more.
In the “How to Love and Sex” section, for example, the only nods to rape culture were a passage on “How to Get Catcalled for Your Personality,” and an illustration of a made-up anti-rape multi-tool containing mace, pepper spray, brass knuckles, ChapStick, and other necessities. Wherefore art the digs at domestic violence? At reproductive rights? At online harassment? At all of the top feminist issues the Reductress site mocks so well?
Maybe this is a case of a good book coming at a bad time. Maybe my next-level cynicism won’t allow me to enjoy smart satire that nevertheless seems to be pulling its punches. Whatever it is, the book is a fun read, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the short-form brilliance appearing on the Reductress site every day.