04/03/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sisters Of 2010 -- A Conversation With The Founder Of The Feminist Road Trip Chronicle, "Girl Drive"

Girl Drive, a project where two young college grads, friends, get in a car and travel around America taking the temperature of contemporary feminism. The book came out in October of 2008. I read about it in my meandering through the world of creative women. I wanted to learn more about these two girls whose mothers were second-wave feminists. What motivated their desire to follow up on their mothers quest? What exactly has become of feminism in the post millennial world of 'girl power' and the downplaying of gender polemics? Do we need feminism? What is it? Everyone disagrees. (Even Nona and I on some counts as you'll see from our lively good vs. evil debate on porn!)

Me: Are you available to talk? I know you were in Brazil. I just got back from Switzerland myself.

Nona Aronowitz: Sure! As a matter of fact.

Me: Okay lets do it. I'm going to make a cup of coffee first.

Nona: No prob, I will be here.

Me: Okay, I'm back. So this is what I know - you drove around the country interviewing women who are doing amazing, great, or interesting things. Your mother was a known feminist. That's about it!

Nona: haha, ok, well the description of the project is here. Emma was my co-author. The book came out in October.

Me: It sounds like it should be a documentary. Is it / will it be?

Nona: As a matter of fact, I'm trying! We have about a week and a half's worth of footage but in order for it to be a real documentary, I think the story would have to change a bit since Emma's not around. I'm kind of bummed that we never got a chance to make it into a film from the beginning but I also think that would have changed some women's answers, or their willingness to participate.

(Emma died at the end of 2008. She committed suicide. I didn't know this. It took me aback and I asked as few questions as I could and then *read more about Emma who seemed to be extremely intelligent, inquisitive, and full of life. A terrible unexpected aspect of the Girl-Drive story).

Me: I saw that you wrote your thesis on seventies porn and since porn is so prevalent these days my first thought is to ask what thought of Ariel Levy's book from a few years back, "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture."

Nona: I do agree with Levy's point that Girls Gone Wild and phenomena like that is often false consciousness, that women who do that don't have the self-reflection to realize why they are having fun or why that might be empowerment BUT I think she takes some agency away from women, who in my opinion might be doing that (showing their breasts at Mardi Gras, etc) in reaction to a puritanical, virgin/whore culture and just don't have the space to create their own sexual reality without indulging men's fantasies. Young women aren't taught that they're allowed to discover what turns THEM on.

Women know they want to be sexual but the models of sexuality are completely polarized and I don't think Levy makes that clear enough. She sort of blames women and condescends a little bit, rather than realizing that these women are at the hands of these black-and-white depictions of sexuality.

Me: So girls are using what's available to express their sexuality but since they are young, are not yet self-aware and can't really protect themselves?

Nona: yeah, I mean if you weren't raised in a city or family that was open and creative and nuanced about sexuality, of course you're going to fall into the slut or prude dichotomy. It's not about experience, it's about the stuff that's been drilled into us since birth as Americans.

Me: Do you think it's unique to America? I live in Europe and teen girls / college age girls here are as flagrant, show their body in a way that is imitative of the traditional image of a prostitute or stripper, just like they do in America. Just like they do on MTV. America has had a huge influence on European teens. In this generation, it seems they are no different.

Nona: Right, but there it's imitative, it's a culture that was spawned here. It's a thing that can only spring from sexual repression. It's a reaction.

Me: What was your general thesis about porn in your college paper? What about the porn industry?

Nona: Feminist porn is like any other porn, it just shows women enjoying themselves.

Me: Do you think porn is okay? if so, why? What is feminist porn?

Nona: I have no problem with porn, per se, but most porn doesn't show women having a good time. (She names a few feminist porn filmmakers and pornographers: Tristan Taormino, Nina Hartley, Susie Bright, feminist porn site "nofauxx".)

Me: Right, I've heard of Susie Bright. But how may women, other than people in gender studies courses know about her?

Nona: Violet Blue is another feminist pornographer, Rachel Kramer Bussel writes feminist erotica...

Me: I just think it's more art than mass turn on.

Nona: Well first of all, Nina Hartley, Tristan Taormino, and Violet Blue are very mainstream. We interviewed a woman on our trip who makes a case for feminist porn. Her mom runs a porn production company and her blog is called, Porn Perspectives. My thesis paper was more a social history. It wasn't really about feminist porn.

Me: I guess I'm just interested to know your stance on porn because you wrote about it, even if you didn't write about feminist porn. For an instant here, I just want to play devils advocate: I find that the difference between popular culture and scholarly exploration are far apart. I mean, how many people know about Susie Bright compared to Vivid Video or whats-that-channel with all the porn?

Nona: Bad porn is only a by-product of our culture's fucked up views about sexuality and the misogyny we see in porn is only a result of this virgin-whore dichotomy. Porn can be great if the woman seems to be having a good time not distressed or bored or completely degraded.

Me: okay

Nona: I do think its dangerous to start criticizing porn and say that it all degrades women. I think it's possible for porn to be positive both economically and narratively.

Me: You know that woman that stands around New York screaming bloody murder about porn? she used to scare the shit out of me.

Nona: haha

Me: She stands at a table with these huge mounted photographs of mutilated women in front of her. The photographs are harrowing. The pictures themselves seem like a violence on the passers-by and she yells at you if you ask her a question. Do you know who I mean? I don't know if she's around anymore.

Nona: Well a lot of feminists back in the seventies and eighties were staunchly anti-porn. During Girl Drive, Rebecca from California had this to say about it. Also, we interviewed a plus-size burlesque troupe, and a woman who worked at a hustler club.

Me: I just looked at what Rebecca said. She said: The industry has a potentially positive space for women stars and CEOs. I compare Jenna Jameson to Oprah and Martha Stewart all the time. She's created an empire, and now she doesn't even have to be in movies. Sigh. It's hard to be journalistic here. I think this comment is ludicrous. Like having a media empire in and of itself is a good thing. Sometimes I think American ideas of success are becoming increasingly more warped. The longer I'm gone, the more I see it.

Nona: I agree that economic empowerment is part of breaking down sexism that's one of the hardest elements of feminism to argue with but obviously it's not the whole picture of porn or feminism or anything else.

Me: What did you learn from your trip across the country that you did not know before? Any preconceptions that were debunked?

Nona: I think I was more dogmatic about feminism and what it could encompass. I was a sheltered New York girl. I had no sense of subtlety or contradiction. I didn't get for instance that one could be really conflicted about how their religion fits into their feminism. I also didn't think I'd be able to relate to women who didn't think like me - conservative women - but I could. It was startling to realize how much nuance we lose in not talking to people face to face where we can really delving into these issues rather than typecast people.

Me: Tell me about the conservative women and their viewpoints, what you experienced there.

Nona: Sure. There was one woman in particular who was training to be a midwife. We had no idea of her politics at all. We were just asking her about her work and why she does it. She said she wanted to bring power back to the woman in the birthing process, and that it was important to trust women and believe in the strength of their bodies. She showed us the trailer for "The Business of Being Born" which I think of as a very feminist movie. Then we asked her what her number one issue was, and she said she was pro-life and very religious and a 23-year-old virgin who was waiting until marriage - and she worked at a crisis pregnancy center! I was sitting here totally nodding along, and then she drops that bomb! It was a turning point for me. Here was a woman who completely didn't agree with my politics, and I was relating to her.

Me: Did you talk to her about being pro-choice?

Nona: Yes, we talked about the separation between church and state, and discussed when it become alright for men to govern women's bodies. From her viewpoint, they can make decisions about abortion but not about the birthing process. Essentially, I would have never even met this person if it wasn't for Girldrive. It made me realize that although she represented some things that made my blood boil, she also clearly cared about women. Girldrive really highlighted the contradictions that can arise when you're talking about gender issues.

Me: I think its always hard to come face to face with views different from our own, especially ones near and dear to us that we consider to be so morally clear to us, and still respect the other person. Did any of your views change as a result of your time on the road?

Nona: Not my politics, no

Me: I guess the main question I have left is what you see as the difference between second and third wave feminism. I went to a screening of the Sisters of 77. Have you ever seen that?

Nona: nope

Me: It was a documentary of the one and only government funded women's rights conventions.

Nona: Never seen it

Me: The conference took place in Houston in 1977. In the documentary you can really see how Latina women, lesbian women, black women, white women, all of the various agendas and issues, they were all really different. There couldn't just be one movement. I went to see the screening of the documentary in Miami in 2005 and the audience was dotted with women who had actually attended. I wrote an essay on my experience of the screening, and the audience reaction, the different generations all together in one room, for a Vanity Fair contest that I didn't win but it was a very emotional essay for me because it was at the moment when I started to (literally) apologize for my earlier disdain for the ideas of feminism that my mom espoused which just seemed really angry and one dimensional to me at the time.

Nona: Well I've definitely heard of the conference. My mom wrote a really good piece about it for Rolling Stone back in the day.

Me: I used to think it was naive and pointless to wave your fist around and instead we should just get to the task of making things happen. Start our own companies. Set our own precedent. But now I realize how crucial second wave feminism was.

What do you think has happened between now and then to make women reluctant to call themselves feminists.

Nona: There are a few different reasons why young women don't relate to feminism. One is the stereotypes crafted by right-wingers; That you're man hating, ugly, humorless, a lesbian, etc. Another big reason we heard was that feminism is a rich white academic thing--almost every person of color, or women who were otherwise marginalized, said that. The third reason why young women don't relate to feminism is that our generation is terrified of labels--and I think this can be rectified by seeing feminism less as an identity (with rules and definitions) and more as a sensibility, and a lens.

Me: Regarding your second reason, that's what I meant by saying that I'm not sure how the Susie Bright aesthetic (or ethic) would be an argument for porn because it seems to belong to that rich white academic thing; it isn't really porn porn. Porn is a mammoth industry and most of it is comprised of drug addicted young women without much if any support system. (After this interview I found a few articles including this one on the Oprah site that talks about the changing tide of porn due to its growing female audience.)

Nona: I don't think Susie Bright is going to reach mainstream porn but once ideas about sexuality changes, porn will change - hopefully. It changed in the 1970s to fit changing cultural mores.

Me: What I'm afraid of is that kids are raised on porn. They see it online very young and they then they just think that this is what sex is. Sex becomes this really false performance; It's an MTV video meets hardcore penetration and theatrical screaming without any real intimacy what so ever. I am afraid that is our cultural convention. You say the media created Girls Gone Wild but I think they also capitalized on something that was going on, this phenomenon of seeing sex as 'no big deal' and engaging in sexual acts very young and without much feeling (or trying to not have much feeling) as though sex was a fun stunt of some kind and I think the cost of that is huge. Do you agree or disagree, if you disagree, how do you see it? What did you see on your road trip that contradicts or supports that.

Nona: I agree that hypersexualization of our culture is a huge problem and that both men and women shouldn't learn about sex from boring, desensitizing porn. But I don't think the answer is to guard our sexuality like some sort of gatekeeper--and for that matter, why does the conversation center around women? Why can't we talk to young guys about sexuality and porn? I resent that the burden is all placed on young women when in reality young women could really benefit from being accountable and joining the conversation.

Me: Absolutely I think women should be accountable and join the conversation and that the idea of sex on film is not inherently bad. I do not however think that the porn industry promoting "boring" sex is the main problem. I do think young guys should be in on the conversation on porn. The BBC did a piece on boys addicted to Internet porn. I watched a few minutes of it and found it stomach-turning and depressing. Porn is not a woman's issue. It's a social issue for everyone. And something that should be discussed and is being discussed. I just want to make sure we separate the idea of sex on film from the porn industry. This conversation (the one that we're having) is about women and empowerment and it's important to talk about the images women see of themselves, especially young girls who are shaping their adult identity. All of what you said I think is important stuff to bring into debate.

I'm interested now in learning about a three women that inspire you from various fields.

Nona: I love Frida Kahlo--both her art and fiery personality. Women like Barbara Walters and Oriana Fallaci--who were/are tough journalists in a male-dominated field--are inspirations to me. And ever since I read a biography of Margaret Mead, I find myself looking for inspiration from her. Like, what would Margaret say?

Me: very cool. Other than writing and gender, what are some of your interests? What do you do for fun? What are some other creative goals you have?

Nona: I've always been obsessed with movies--both watching them and wanting to make them. I try to see as many as possible. I also really want to be able to incorporate video into my work in the future. I think films and documentaries can drive emotions and spur action in ways that non-fiction writing can't, and I want to be able to take advantage of that. I also love traveling and probably spend half my paycheck going places. I like bike riding and going to Chicago's outdoor music festivals in the summer, but in the winter I mostly write and hibernate. Oh, and eat! Cooking elaborate meals and going out to dinner with my partner Aaron are two of my favorite things to do--I'm kind of a wannabe foodie.

Me: I'm 36 and you are 25. Do you see any difference between women between the ages of 18 - 25 and those of us from the decade above?

Nona: That's a huge question, but the main difference I see is the kinds of opportunities your generation had right out of school. You guys came of age in the late nineties when the economy was relatively intact, before 9/11, before mass media and so many other industries started to go bankrupt. Being a teenager and in my early twenties in the Bush era was quite disheartening, and in a sense paralyzing--I think we feel like the world is a bit more cataclysmic. Not sure if that's specific to women, but all those factors influence feminism and activism.

Me: Oh I'd really love to hear more on this. When we got out of school in 1995 / 1996, there was a recession and jobs were scarce but I never thought about what it would be like to have Bush as president as a teenager. We had the other Bush but his stupidity was not as amplified. Anyway, you've done a great and original thing there with Girldrive. I'll be sure to pick it up ASAP. Thank you for talking to me!

Nona: Thank you!

*an amazing article. I encourage you to read it.