After The Morning After: An interview with Katie Roiphe, author of the controversial best seller
By Jeffrey Seeman
The Empress is Naked
1994- Katie Roiphe demonstrates a special kind of bravery. After all, when Christina Sommers (author of Who Stole Feminism?) takes on the gender feminists, she comes to the battle armed with an arsenal of facts, figures, and statistics.
When Camille Paglia (author of Sexual Personae) takes them on, she enters the fray wielding an intimidating knowledge of art history and literary theory.
But when Roiphe engages feminists in battle, she comes essentially unarmed, with nothing to offer but herself and her own keen observations; her book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism (Little, Brown), is as much personal memoir as political thesis. And it is precisely this vulnerability, this willingness to reveal so much of herself in her writing, that makes Roiphe's bravery so remarkable. In essence, she's just a 26-year-old kid who has found the courage to raise her voice and point out that the emperor -- or, in this case, empress -- is naked.
From Empowerment to Fear and Victimization
Published in 1993, Roiphe's book details her experiences as a student on the Harvard, and later Princeton, campuses. What she found, to her dismay, was that feminism was no longer acting as a force to empower women, but was rather lodged in fear and victimization.
Specifically, she found academic feminists espousing a view of sexuality in which all men were seen as lustful demons and all women as virginal angels -- ironically, a throwback to the same stereotypical gender roles that feminism had once rejected. In page after page, Roiphe casts a critical eye on feminism's intolerance, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness, unflinchingly discussing such issues as sexual harassment, pornography, and date rape. Given Roiphe's deviation from the feminist party line, the book was sure to cause an uproar, which it did. And now, with the book's publication in paperback, Roiphe is ready to enter battle once again.
The night before our interview, she had appeared at the Boston Public Library alongside Christina Sommers. The overflowing crowd was filled with feminists from nearby college campuses. A member of Real Men, a radical feminist men's organization, handed out flyers citing the so-called "facts" about domestic violence. The air was charged with anger and resentment. In this context, Roiphe seemed overshadowed by the more combative Sommers, a woman who appears to like nothing more than locking horns with her unfortunate opponents.
But the following night, appearing at Waterstone's, the high-class bookstore on Boston's trendy Newbury Street, Roiphe is on her own. The crowd tonight is different as well -- more open-minded, more intellectual. Here, differences of opinion are expressed with a healthy air of mutual respect. In this atmosphere, Roiphe shines.
The Importance of Dissent
Despite having appeared on no less than four talk radio shows in the past twenty-four hours, all while still recovering from a bout with strep throat, Roiphe seems relaxed and at home in front of tonight's audience. She talks about the importance of dissent, how a society, if it is to be free, must allow unpopular viewpoints like hers to be heard. She suggests the political conformity of students on college campuses may have as much to do with an adolescent need to feel like one of the crowd as it does genuine ideology. And she laughingly relates the story of how a pro-feminist male once told her that she didn't know what it felt like to be a woman. In a typical moment of vulnerability, she even wonders aloud whether, given her controversial view, she'll be able to find a teaching position when she graduates from Princeton.
Later that night, exhausted from an overlong day, she still finds time for our interview. I ask her whether she thinks her ideas are gaining more acceptance since her book was first published.
"I think things have changed in the past year," she says. "When I first started writing on this subject, it was a little Op-Ed piece in The New York Times comparing date-rape pamphlets to Victorian guides of conduct and that was in November of 1991. And I've watched how things have changed since then and the truth is that the debate is opening up. And certain people are sacrificed. So I've been called 'the Clarence Thomas of women' in Newsweek. Newsweek has to say, 'here's this extremist, Katie Roiphe saying these crazy things,' so that they can (later) say, 'but sexual correctness has gone too far,' which they could not have said a year before.
"And a lot contributes to that. Part of it is Camille Paglia, part of it is me, part of it was just a general need in the media for somebody to question these things because people were starting to say, 'this is excessive.' If somebody came out right now with a book like my book, they would not have as hard a time. As I certain did not have as hard a time as Camille Paglia. ... In a way, this gets easier."
"Every time I go talk at a campus, there are always people who support me. I think there have been a lot of people who have written me letters saying, 'I would have written that book.' Really, I think that the book I wrote is all common sense.
"I hope you get raped!"
Common sense or not, Roiphe knew that her ideas would be attacked by the feminist establishment. What she did not expect was how many of the attacks would be personal. "I was surprised at the degree of personal fury. You know, the sort of intensity of 'I hate you.' ... At Princeton, ... people I knew wouldn't even speak to me. ... I was surprised at letters saying, 'I hope you get raped.' The amount of hatred of people walking into a party, hating me. And it's not my ideas -- it's me. ... I did not expect that entirely. I knew people would disagree with me but I didn't know it would be so vituperative and that it was going to be so personally directed.
"And some of the reviews ... I don't know if you read Katha Pollitt's review in The New Yorker, which was incredibly vicious and factually erroneous. Katha Pollitt -- I hate to use the word -- wrote a hysterical review. It's an example of this kind of unleashed fury. But it happens like 'Katie Roiphe, self-proclaimed bad girl and sexual revel, blah, blah, blah.' And it said, 'If I were friends with Katie Roiphe, I wouldn't tell her I was raped. She's such a cold person.' Suddenly, everything I'm saying -- it's me. And (I) get that shudder of rejection as if I'm a ten-year-old in the playground again. The problem, unfortunately, in feminism is that it's dangerous to respond that way. One could argue that ... I'm opening myself up to that by writing a personal book. But at the same time ... it was a book which had in it ideas which Katha Pollitt didn't want to look at. And that's what was really going on there."
But Pollitt is far from the only reviewer whose criticisms of Roiphe were less than professional. "In England, it's even worse in terms of personal (attacks). In England, it was all about, what kind of shoes am I wearing? Do I eat enough? Am I anorexic? Immensely personal. One of the dangers of feminism is if it becomes a sort of cult of personality. Why should Gloria Steinem be more glamorous than Betty Friedan? There are several reasons why it works that way and I would like to say it has to do with the media -- and it does -- but it also has to do with something about women and something about the way women talk about things.
"One of the specific things about feminism is that we are dealing with incredibly personal issues. Everybody's emotions get crossed. So that it lends itself to this kind of emotional/personal version of what should be rational, intellectual arguments."
Roiphe is the second famous feminist to come from her family; her mother, Anne Roiphe, had published the novel Up the Sandbox! back in the sixties. "I consider myself going back to her kind of feminism," says Roiphe. "Certainly, if I've learned my contrary streak from anywhere, it's from my mother."
And how does an old school feminist like Anne Roiphe feel when her daughter is labeled by some critics as a "neo-conservative"?
"Her original response was that she really didn't know what was going on. Some of this has to do with she lives in the Upper West Side of New York and doesn't see a huge amount of what goes on on campuses. So some of that was just a lack of information," says Roiphe. "Her response as a mother is, 'Who's attacking my child?' So she gets more upset when anybody attacks me than I do."
Roiphe also feels a sense of kinship with Camille Paglia and Christina Sommers. "I agree with both of them whole-heartedly," she says. "I have a very different personal style from Camille Paglia. She's a great performer; I'm not particularly. I'm writing from a younger perspective. The biggest difference between me and Christian Hoff Sommers comes down to discipline. She is thinking as a professor of philosophy and I am thinking as a student of English literature. So I'm talking about images and language and ideas; she's talking about truth and statistics and logic."
Naomi Wolf's Unrefined Intellectual Position
One feminist for whom Roiphe doesn't have many kind words is fellow media star Naomi Wolf, probably her most frequent sparring partner on radio and television talk shows. "Naomi Wolf is all over the map. Naomi Wolf talks about everything in every possible way. She's good at what she does, but she's certainly not one for refining her intellectual position. I mean, how is it possible that cosmetics are the tool of oppression and yet lipstick is okay? ... Why is this okay? There's a certain amount of intellectual irresponsibility.
"Some of what she does I really do admire," Roiphe continues, warming to her subject. "I think she's a great speaker, she's great at rallying the troops and she's, in a certain sense, probably a very good politician. Kind of the way Bill Clinton would be if he were a feminist. And she resorts to that cult of personality as a way of justifying her erratic contradictions. She can't say, 'Okay, I contradicted myself.' And that's hard to respect. I feel like if you say something crazy, you should stand by it and say, 'Okay, I said this thing and now I realize it's crazy.' But she won't. I also think she, in her melodramatic idiom -- 'every anorexic is in her own private Bergen-Belsen ...' This kind of rhetoric is completely out of the loop, as far as I'm concerned. To talk about serious issues, one has to have some kind of attachment to some kind of reality, which I just don't think she has."
Where did feminism go wrong? How did we as a society get from Anne Roiphe's humanistic feminism of the sixties to Naomi Wolf's "out of the loop" feminism of the nineties? Roiphe describes the phenomenon as "complicated."
"Part of it is politics, part of it had to do with power struggles within the movement and their relation to the media. Some of it ... has to do with sex. The conflicted sexual climate. Sex is always confusing but sex is more confusing now. There's sort of this need for rules and feminism is playing into that. Things have changed really quickly. Suddenly, women are in positions of power that they weren't in before. In a certain sense, there's a lack of acceptance of that power and we're reaching for an idea of what a man is and what a woman is (which is) reassuring precisely because it's not true anymore, precisely because things have changed so quickly. We ... look back and ... that idea of the man pushing and the woman resisting and that old-fashioned courtship scenario suddenly is confused with power.
"I also think it has to do with Reagan-Bush and a long stretch of conservatism which I believe this kind of feminism is a reflection of. What has become mainstream feminism is really a reflection of mainstream social culture. The reaction against the sexual revolution, which you see in a Ronald Reagan-like mentality, is mirrored in the feminist movement. I do think there's some connection between those two."
Transforming Sexist Stereotypes Into Feminist Orthodoxy
I note how ironic it is that feminism seems to have embraced the old gender stereotypes that it once so strongly opposed and how, when someone like Rush Limbaugh makes stereotypical statements about men and women, he's attacked as a sexist, yet when Carol Gilligan makes exactly the same generalizations, she's applauded as a feminist hero. "We definitely have this amazing ability to transform sexist statements into feminist orthodoxy," Roiphe concurs.
And what comes after The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism? Certainly not a sequel, Roiphe insists. In fact, once this book tour ends, she plans never to address the issue of feminism again, having said all she has to say on the subject. Her doctoral dissertation certainly has nothing to do with the topic; it's about the impact of Freud on American writers in the forties and fifties.
"I am fundamentally not very political," Roiphe concludes. "I consider myself a writer. I'm more interested in sentences and writing than I am in 'a cause.'"