Free Minds & Free Markets

The Melodramatic Strain In Feminist Politics

Students suffer as social-justice signaling demands increasingly hyperbolic vulnerability.

margaretkilljoy/Flickrmargaretkilljoy/FlickrI just came across this great February piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the current "melodramatic" strain in mainstream feminist politics. In it Laura Kipnis, a cultural critic and film professor, writes of a "sexual paranoia" that pervades academia, turning once typical behavior suspect and infantlizing students (especially young women) in the process. 

Kipnis, 58, has seen a few cycles of feminist thought and activism since her time as an undergraduate, now witnessing millennial politics firsthand from Northwestern University. The author of books such as Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America and The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability, she's very much a feminist herself. In a review of Kipnes' latest book of essays—covered and praised widely by major media—Salon book critic Laura Miller called her a "worldly, ambiguity-friendly thinker." This is all to say that Kipnis is no Phyllis Schlafly, or even Caitlin Flanagan. Her liberal-feminist credentials are solid, and she has no need to be provocative just to be provocative. 

Still, she's provoked many in the progressive community (including students at her own campus) with her Chronicle essay, which opens with a consideration of student/professor relationships:

When I was in college, hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum. Admittedly, I went to an art school, and mine was the lucky generation that came of age in that too-brief interregnum after the sexual revolution and before AIDS turned sex into a crime scene replete with perpetrators and victims—back when sex, even when not so great or when people got their feelings hurt, fell under the category of life experience. It’s not that I didn’t make my share of mistakes, or act stupidly and inchoately, but it was embarrassing, not traumatizing.

As Jane Gallop recalls in Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (1997), her own generational cri de coeur, sleeping with professors made her feel cocky, not taken advantage of. She admits to seducing more than one of them as a grad student—she wanted to see them naked, she says, as like other men. Lots of smart, ambitious women were doing the same thing, according to her, because it was a way to experience your own power.

But somehow power seemed a lot less powerful back then. The gulf between students and faculty wasn’t a shark-filled moat; a misstep wasn’t fatal. We partied together, drank and got high together, slept together. The teachers may have been older and more accomplished, but you didn’t feel they could take advantage of you because of it. How would they?

For this, Kipnis has been accused of "victim blaming," lack of empathy, and being delusional.  

I was in college from 2000-2004, and while I didn't know any undergraduate students sleeping with professors, graduate students dated and slept with undergraduates, and professors dated and slept with graduate students. [Like Kipnis I should add caveats, I suppose: My frame of reference is mostly theater and film students and faculty, in a small Appalachian college town known for poverty and hippies.] Did some of these power-imbalanced relationships turn messy? Of course, though never in ways that seemed especially foreign from other interdepartmental or dorm romances gone sour. Occasionally someone crossed a line, and these incidents were passed around as departmental folklore, examples of how not to behave, or the possible perils of playing with fire in this way.

Hanging out and drinking with grad-students and sometimes faculty let us glimpse our elders as ordinary people, which is no small feat for 19- and 20-year-olds. We learned that their lives were messy sometimes, they didn't always drink responsibly, and they didn't have all the answers. We did some of that necessary growing-up thing where you kill your idols, question authority, and let up on the teenage narcissism that defines adults beyond age 25 as categorically dreadful. And, like Gallop, some of us "seduced" our superiors, or at least gleefully gave in to their seductions. 

That female students might feel thrilled, rather than victimized, by sex with someone older and more powerful is not a popular idea these days. The blame can't be placed solely at feminists' feet. The whole culture has gone a bit mad about teens and young adults, who just a few decades ago were routinely having babies and buying houses and dying in wars at the ages we now view as basically no different than children. But mainstream feminists specifically have popularized a vision of women as categorically stripped of agency when sex and social pressure are mixed. Under all but the right circumstances our consent is considered meaningless, and those who sleep with us outside of these circumstances as de facto predatory.  

"I think young women are shrewder and tougher than many older individuals give them credit for, generally, and then many older feminists specifically credit them with right now," writes Kipnis. "This, in turn, is creating expectations in young folks for how they should feel about these things."

Many of the most contentious campus rape stories to be popularized by the media involve students who didn't initially see themselves as victims. Only after talking with friends, professors, or others do they "come to view" the experience as sexual assault. This certainly isn't always lamentable—young, inexperienced women may be genuinely unsure about what's abusive or atypical sexual behavior. But it's clear that in at least some cases, young women are being steered into more sinister interpretations than may be warranted.  

"If this is feminism," writes Kipnis, "it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama. The melodramatic imagination’s obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators is what’s shaping the conversation of the moment, to the detriment of those whose interests are supposedly being protected, namely students. The result? Students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing." 

Kipnis is far from the only one to suggest that by treating students as "trauma cases waiting to happen," we're creating exquisitely fragile monsters, to students' own detriment—stunting their emotional growth and distorting their interpersonal expectations. 

In December, Megan McArdle excoriated the view that because young women tend to be uncomfortable saying "no" to sexual suitors, we need a new framework for sorting out sexual consent. "It is not the word 'no' that women are struggling with; it is the concept of utter refusal," wrote McArdle. "That is what has to change, not the words to describe it. ... Unfortunately, no one else can bear the burden of deciding who we want to have sex with, and then articulating it forcefully." And a feminism that tries to compensate for this, rather than teach young women to be firm about their own sexual wishes, is counterproductive. 

The same goes for protecting students from pyschological "triggers," which they will certainly encounter in the real world. If someone is so traumatized by certain subjects or language that they can't cope upon exposure, it speaks to deeper psychological issues that should be addressed, not sidestepped and saved for a later day.

"Generalized trigger warnings aren't so much about helping people with PTSD as they are about a certain kind of performative feminism," wrote longtime feminist writer Jill Filipovic at The Guardian last year. "They're a low-stakes way to use the right language to identify yourself as conscious of social justice issues." But in singling out certain kinds of suffering—mostly that experienced by women and minorities—as especially deserving of trigger warnings, activists "imply that our experiences are so unusual the pages detailing our lives can only be turned while wearing kid gloves," Filipovic continued. "There's a reinforcement of the toxic messages young women have gotten our entire lives: that we're inherently vulnerable." 

It's not just young women who suffer. As social-justice signaling demands increasingly hyperbolic vulnerability, social justice causes come to appear absurd outside of rarefied circles. When offensive words are "violence" and an unwanted advance is "rape," people don't suddenly care more about offensive words and unwanted advances; they care less about inclusive language and rape. 

It also sets up vulnerability and victimhood as the only emotionally permissible parameters. It's all or nothing. If you talk in the language of trauma, people will listen. If you express more mundane feelings, tough luck. In the modern media narrative, you're either a victim, an ally, or a perpetrator. There's no room to discuss a sexual encounter you find ethically suspect without calling it a criminal violation. There's no room to suggest something makes you uncomfortable without someone else being willfully at fault. Is it any wonder, when given these options, that students seem increasingly comfortable casting themselves in the victim role?  

Photo Credit: margaretkilljoy/Flickr

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  • kinnath||

    There are no liberals. Only various, overlapping grievance groups.


    Very good, Neo.

  • bsutansalt||

    Scratch a liberal leftist and you'll find a fascist.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    It's hard not to think that this is part of the plan: make people believe that they are vulnerable and helpless and hence in need of "protection" and "guidance" which their "progressive" betters will generously provide.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    It is all about control and may actually be a good sign. As long as control was easy to justify and grab, there was no need for melodrama. But as information and power decentralize, the easy pickings diminish, and the control freaks have to reach for more tenuous outrages.

    I am more and more optimistic that crap like this is the dying spasms of overreach.

  • ||

    "Arm Feminists"

    What's stopping them from arming themselves?

  • ||

    Man Finally Put In Charge Of Struggling Feminist Movement

    "All the feminist movement needed to do was bring on someone who had the balls to do something about this glass ceiling business," said McGowan, who quickly closed the 23.5 percent gender wage gap by "making a few calls to the big boys upstairs." "In the world of gender identity and empowered female sexuality, it's all about who you know."

  • Pro Libertate||

    The patriarchy, dumbass.

  • Almanian!||

    What ProL said.

    Sheesh. I think the government should provide women with armed guards for teh safeteez. At KOCHPORASHUNZ and ONE PERCENTERZ expense, Of course.

    Cause - fair

  • kinnath||

    The patriarchy that loves guns and won't let us ban them won't let us give guns to women.

  • Almanian!||

    trigger, please

  • searchingmind||

    Bull puckeys! Both shooters' associations and the gun industry have been reaching out to women for decades. Smith and Wesson is issuing another line of pistols designed for women, and the issue of the American Rifleman I am currently reading has a full-page, aggressively feminist ad. It's from a company that manufactures laser pistol sights, and features the silhouette of a woman aiming a laser-sighted pistol from a defensive posture, a closeup of a determined-looking young woman's face, and the text, "HE THOUGHT I WOULDN'T BE PREPARED. THE DOT ON HIS CHEST PROVED HIM WRONG."

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Feminists can't even arm themselves with birth control without government intervention. What makes you think they can arm themselves with weapons without the same?


  • Col. R C Dean||

    What's stopping them from arming themselves?

    Unless somebody buys it for them, their right to be armed is being denied.

    See, also, birth control.

  • searchingmind||

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...infantlizing students (especially young women) in the process.

    That's called empowerment, lady.


    "it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama. The melodramatic imagination’s obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators is what’s shaping the conversation of the moment, to the detriment of those whose interests are supposedly being protected, namely students. The result? Students’ sense active exaggeration of their collective vulnerability is skyrocketing"


    in the past, feminism was about "personal empowerment".

    Now, its about "collective empowerment through vulnerability"

    Now, instead of using feminism to 'free them' from the past restrictions of traditionally gendered behavior, they use feminism to collectively-herd-themselves into a power-bloc that uses the state to bludgeon *everyone else* into conformity with their political demands.

    Basically, its no longer about 'individuals', and entirely about using gender as a political weapon.

  • Invisible Finger||

    There has to be an accident-of-brith card for upper middle class white women to play when they're unhappy, the race card and the poverty card won't work. Gender is all they have left.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Summed up nicely.

    Victimhood is the unassailable argumentative position in today's political society.

  • JWatts||

    " This is all to say that Kipnis no Phyllis Schlafly, or even Caitlin Flanagan. Her liberal-feminist credentials are solid, and she has no need to be provocative just to be provocative. "

    This need to prove the person's credentials instead of judging her actual comments on their own merit is a mental crutch. I'm not saying that ENB is to blame, but she is assuming that her audience is infantile and will assume that anybody outside of a narrowly defined circle isn't capable of honest critiques.

  • Invisible Finger||

    That is how liberal arts programs teach people to write. It's a kind of social signaling because those programs no longer teach honest critique.

  • SugarFree||

    You have to write down when your opponents aren't very bright so it's harder for them to misunderstand.

    Koko ball. Koko kitten. Koko love kitten.

  • BiMonSciFiCon||

    She's not saying it for the HnR crowd.

  • ||

    I think young women are shrewder and tougher than many older individuals give them credit for

    This has always been true, yet for some reason, there is a never-ending impulse in so many older people of either gender to infantilize them. Just constantly. And I think that in a way, this new "victim/vulnerability feminism" is just another weird attempt (with both genders participating, as always) to scale back the gains that have been made in viewing young women as, you know, actual, functional people. I think it scares the shit out of some people to have young women be capable, sexual, even aggressive (either sexually or otherwise), and that those people can be of either (any? am I being a cis shitlord?) gender.

  • Invisible Finger||

    No, it scares the shit out of some people that they have to actually WORK to get ahead instead of just have shit handed to them because of some victimhood program.

  • Longtorso, Johnny||

    IBM Watson analysis of epi
    You are a bit inconsiderate, somewhat critical and excitable.

    You are melancholy: you think quite often about the things you are unhappy about. You are hedonistic: you feel your desires strongly and are easily tempted by them. And you are intermittent: you have a hard time sticking with difficult tasks for a long period of time.

    Your choices are driven by a desire for prestige.

    You consider both independence and helping others to guide a large part of what you do. You like to set your own goals to decide how to best achieve them. And you think it is important to take care of the people around you.

    *Compared to most people who participated in our surveys.

  • PM||

    The Melodramatic Strain In Feminist Politics

    I guess that would be analogous to the Christian strain of Catholicism?


    Can you elaborate?

    from my limited perspective, most of what is commonly called "Christian" would reject any genealogy back to "Catholicism", as their origins would trace back to the reformation schism which openly rejected the latter.

  • SugarFree||

    I believe he's saying that "Melodramatic" is a redundant descriptor for "Feminist."

  • PM||

    This. IOW, Christianity is to Catholicism as melodramatic is to feminism. It was a joke, and now you've ruined it with overanalysis.

    Also, Catholicism is by far the largest and most widely practiced denomination of Christianity. 1.1 billion to Protestantism's combined 800 million. And both groups generally (though not always) consider the adherents of the other to be "Christian" in the broad sense.

  • SugarFree||

    I am... The Ruiner!

  • PM||

    Well technically I meant that Gilmore had ruined it with overanalysis, but I didn't break it up into separate posts to maintain threading, because fuck your rules.

    On the bright side, at least neither of you are the worst, like Nicole.


    My bad.

    When i went to college in the south, i got lectured by a number of Southern Baptists that i shouldn't consider myself "christian", being a 'lay-catholic urban-elitist yankee liberal fast-talking jew-lawyer-type'. i always thought they had a decent point.

  • searchingmind||

    When I was a kid in late 1940's Virginia, two Baptist buddies got in a fistfight over "dunkin'" versus
    "sprinklin'". As the only Jew there, I joined the only Cat'lick in sitting it out.

  • ||

    by treating students as "trauma cases waiting to happen," we're creating exquisitely fragile monsters

    Do you want another good way to create fragile monsters? Start calling women who had someone grope them at a party "survivors" and convince them it will necessarily destroy the rest of their lives. You survive that which carries an actual risk of death. You move on from boorish behavior.

  • Invisible Finger||

    by treating students as "trauma cases waiting to happen," we're creating exquisitely fragile monsters

    This shit starts with the self-esteem movement in grammar school where grades are inflated, shitty work is not critiqued honestly, and everyone gets a trophy.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    "If this is feminism," writes Kipnis, "it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama."

    Yeah...feminism has always been about melodrama, even from the patron saints of American feminism, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

    American women of wealth, education, virtue and refinement, if you do not wish the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish, with their low ideas of womanhood, to make laws for you and your daughters … awake to the danger of your present position and demand that woman, too, shall be represented in the government!”

    -Elizabeth Cady Stanton

    “What words can express her [the white woman’s] humiliation when, at the close of this long conflict, the government which she had served so faithfully held her unworthy of a voice in its councils, while it recognized as the political superiors of all the noble women of the nation the negro men just emerged from slavery, and not only totally illiterate, but also densely ignorant of every public question.”

    -Susan B. Anthony

    Of course feminists are turning women into "exquisitely fragile monsters" because that is the ideal feminist: acutely sensitive to any criticism, insult, or offense given to her sex, regardless of justification. Feminism has never been about "equality"; it is about asserting the supremacy of women (specifically "American women of wealth, education, virtue and refinement") over men they deem to be beneath them.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Indeed. It is interesting to read the rhetoric of those who opposed women's suffrage (many of whom were women) and to compare it to the rhetoric of the suffragettes (male and female). One is almost always uninformed, untrue in its particulars, and highly polemical (melodramatic, even), and the other often reasonable (though sometimes overbearing and traditional). I leave it as a surprise to the reader of history to determine which fits these descriptions best, but suffice it to say feminism has never lacked for a paranoid style in politics or sister-shaming. Its few correct positions have less to do with how reasonable feminism as a movement has been, and more to do with the unreasonably vestigial nature of some of the arrangements fastened on women in a post-industrial world.

  • Ebriosa||

    I also went to a small, liberal college around the same time as ENB. In fact, I went to a woman's college where I learned to stop saying I wasn't a feminist (preferred the term "equalist", but now I just don't care). I briefly dated a teacher for a lot of the same reasons anyone would - he was good looking and I wanted to mess with the power dynamic, albeit AFTER I knew I wouldn't be affecting my grade. I hung out and got drunk with professors. This was the sort of college with small class sizes that really promoted that sort of mutual experience. We had a particularly memorable symposium one year on prostitution that really emphasized that feminists could hold all kinds of positions, though I came away pro-legalization in a big way.
    I used to think of things like micro-aggression and trigger warnings as useful tools, much in the same way it can be useful to sort through labels like poly-, pan-, bi- sexual/romantic for some people. They're tools for understanding your own experience. But people use them for a bludgeon. Saying something triggered you is a useful way of quickly explaining why something hit you out of the blue, it doesn't mean that everything like that WILL and MUST trigger you, or else you are a fake. It doesn't mean you need a warning for everything or should never confront the thing. It's an explanation. It's not an accusation. It better damn not be a way to shut others up.

  • Ebriosa||


    It's depressing how much this parallels how people tend to think of children as things that must be protected from everything. Children are more resilient than we give them credit for. But just like when a kid falls harmlessly and only when someone comes over to them and starts fussing they begin to cry, we're teaching grown women to cry. The dichotomy between victim/perpetrator means as soon as you attain victimhood status, you can no longer be the evildoer. And with all the "check your privilege" going on, the cheap way out to not feel bad about your privilege is to group yourself in with the victims. So they create a melodramatic story. People want to believe it, because then they in turn get to be the "good guy" who believes the victim and fights on their behalf.
    I just want to yell at some of the liberal feminists I know that they should go watch soap operas like their grandmas did if they want this kind of drama and stop trying to turn real life into their "stories".
    Of course no one will listen to me after I laughed at them getting upset at old, white, male Republicans wanting to take away mandatory insurance coverage for birth control, as I pointed out that the only members of the Fed gov who had even talked about making birth control OTC were old, white, male Republicans. Fuck all the so-called feminists in government.
    /strong feelings no proof reading H&R lurking broken again

  • ||

    It's astonishing how much guilt affects some people, especially guilt over being born with any kind of advantage. Guilt is such an amazingly useless emotion, but some people absolutely revel in it. It's a very weird phenomenon that I don't really understand, but man, it is out there and it is a factor for a lot of people.

  • ColonelEngineer||

    I lived in Athens for a little over a year - same Athens where ENB went to OU. It was during that stint that I was introduced to the militant left, SJWs, and the like. Never before had I met people so quick to play the victim card. "Don't say that word - it oppresses me." Really? A word? No guns. No lynch mobs. No secret police raids. No shipment off to death camps. Nope. A minor inconvenience from a certain arrangement of letters caused these people grief. Feminism may have done some great things in the past but today, it is literally the Oppression Olympics. And I emphasize the word "Olympics" because you have to pull off some amazing mental acrobatics to rationalize their bullshit talking points.

  • ||

    For all sorts of reasons, I think it ought to be campus policy that professors cannot date undergrads, or even grad students in their department. (grad students in other departments are probably ok). It shouldn't be called rape, obviously, but it's much too easy for grades to be manipulated or used to control by one side or the other. It's completely unethical, imo.
    Maybe it was commonplace in your school, but we've progressed some since then, and not having professors banging undergrads is probably progress in the right direction.

  • Harold Falcon||

    Why? If that's the kind of school you want to go to you should be allowed to do so. Not sure why it's my business.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Hazel is that lady on Don't Starve with the glasses... bright but creaky.

  • aywadaframsoh||

    My last pay check was $9500 working 12 hours a week online. My sisters friend has been averaging 15k for months now and she works about 20 hours a week. I can't believe how easy it was once I tried it out. This is what I do

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Victimosis is when people think their bungee cord will always break so they never get dirty on the bridge.

    Infants wearing mother and dada's shield turns into big people wearing shields which turns into old people wearing shields which turns into a goddamn corpse which hasn't experienced jack fucking shit before it expired.

  • John C. Randolph||

    "social justice" is an oxymoron. All justice is individual.


  • searchingmind||

    Convince people that sex is rape, and they will come to believe that rape is sex.


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