A favorite buzzword of the moment, along with “intersectional” and “gaslighting,” is “badass.” It’s peculiar to observe young women applying the label to themselves (though it would seem to be one of those honorifics, such as “intellectual,” and “hero,” that can be bestowed only by others) even as they publicly disintegrate at the slightest perceived transgression. Can you really be a “badass” if you profess also to be traumatized by a bad date, or by a man telling you he thought you attractive, or by being interrupted by a man at a meeting? Very often the self-styled badass woman will tell us that some quotidian male infraction rendered her short of breath, or bereft of speech, or nauseated in the tummy, or unable to work. Why do today’s “strong, confident” women so often make very public displays of weakness and an inability to cope?
Because, as George Will eloquently put it, victimhood confers privileges. To put it another way, thin skin is now weaponized. Chris Matthews said two flirty things to a woman at a workplace; this “undermined my ability to do my job well,” the woman reported as though she’d been assaulted or brainwashed; and MSNBC brass were, in the current burn-the-warlocks atmosphere, obliged to take her at her ridiculous word that this was a shattering event. Wacky old Chris got the sack. Was firing him really the only suitable remedy? Not apology, not suspension — only ritual electronic seppuku would suffice? For issuing compliments in the third degree? (Oh, let’s not forget — he also made fun of Hillary Clinton a few times and questioned Elizabeth Warren with mild skepticism. A three-count indictment!)
As a young adult strolling the streets of Manhattan in the early 1990s, writer Meghan Daum would attract unwelcome sexual commentary from construction workers. Her response would be to flip a nonchalant middle finger and continue on her way. Being able to laugh off or ignore crass behavior is a sign of strength that younger women are recasting as “internalized patriarchy.” Daum refuses to see men as a collective threat. Those who misbehaved were “embarrassments to themselves,” she writes. “Their aggressions were neither personal nor political. They were just moronic.”
Daum, a feminist born and bred who participated in marches on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment and Roe v. Wade and has never in her life voted for a Republican, is now in her late 40s. In The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars, she advises today’s trembling and triggered young feminists, “Grow up.” Being a woman carries with it certain costs, she agrees, but also a great many counterbalancing benefits. Toxic femininity exists as surely as does the masculine variety. Negotiating awkward or unpleasant sexual situations is something grownups must learn to do, she holds, and it’s hardly the case that only women emerge from such situations with regrets. Why couldn’t the woman who wrote a 3,000-word piece of revenge porn about her bad date with Aziz Ansari instead have simply cut off the unpleasant encounter while it was happening? Why couldn’t she “stand up on [her] two legs and walk out his door,” as Bari Weiss of the New York Times memorably put it? It’s not very badass to be silent and passive for a sexual encounter and then be ragingly nasty afterwards. “You Are Not a Badass” was the original title of Daum’s book.
Daum surveys the landscape of feminist outrage in disbelief: Can America really be one of the ten worst countries on earth for women? So claimed a 2018 Thomson Reuters survey of “experts in women’s issues,” i.e., professional feminists. Weren’t the pussy hats of the 2017 Women’s March a little cringey? Were Harvard students really made “unsafe” by the presence of a dean and lawyer they chased away for participating in Harvey Weinstein’s legal defense? Are “manspreading” and “mansplaining” really worth getting angry about? Daum wonders whether “feminism itself is a moral panic,” a performative victimhood that does nobody any good. Recalling a woman friend who faced a (disgusting) situation involving male sexual misbehavior in the workplace in the 1990s, she repeats a useful piece of advice: “Switch chairs and move on.”
From the stability of middle age, Daum looks back on her mid-20s self with a wise perspective on sexual dynamics. She used to have lunches with an older man (she doesn’t supply his name) who she thought might be able to advance her career. Lunches turned into dinners and dinners turned into something resembling dates. Things never turned sexual, but the possibility hung in the air and at one point he invited her to his house for a weekend. She declined, and he apologized for asking. Daum today understands she was leveraging her sexual power, teasing the older man, to aid her career prospects. If there was an imbalance of power here, it’s not obvious who held the advantage. She cites the “countless ways that women frequently have power over men: in the use of sex as a tool for manipulation, in parenting dynamics, in the ability nowadays to shut down a conversation by citing male privilege. . . . Power dynamics shift among all kinds of people all the time.” The feminist vision of male conquerors and female vassals forced to do their bidding or endure their abuse is not even close to the truth. Funny how gaslighting is, these days, a supposed masculine specialty. “In my lived experience,” Daum writes, “women’s gaslighting skills generally far exceed those of most men.” Hear, hear.
Daum cops to a certain fascination with a group of contrarians that she calls “Free Speech YouTube” and others call “the Intellectual Dark Web.” Mainly these are thinkers and podcasters who question the Left from within the citadel — Bret Weinstein, John McWhorter, Joe Rogan, and Sam Harris — though a few are conservatives such as Jordan Peterson. It’s not that she agrees with everything they say; she just enjoys the ranginess of the conversation. Alas, so much has been ruled out of bounds that, on the left, it is nearly an act of rebellion to maintain one’s intellectual poise, to acknowledge that things aren’t that bad and that we’ll mostly muddle through. She writes sadly, “So enthralled with our outrage at the extremes, we’ve forgotten that most of the world exists in the mostly unobjectionable middle.”
How strange it must feel to not change one’s beliefs at all and yet be treated like an apostate. Writes Daum, “Woke me when it’s over.”