At first, I wasn’t able to fully articulate why I so disliked Wolf’s book, both as a reader and a feminist. But after finishing the book, I reexamined it using a rhetorician’s lens, and found it to be very sloppy, disjointed, and indulgent. Further, I researched and read excerpts of Wolf’s other publications, and discovered they were written in the same style and manner I found so distasteful. Relying of false facts, pathetic appeals, and a misunderstanding of her audience, Wolf’s work left me disappointed and cheated. In the end, Wolf fails to persuade with The Beauty Myth, relying too much on pathos and failing to effectively harness her ethos as an author. Written over twenty years ago, The Beauty Myth perfectly displays a trend present in many of the feminist writings today, and highlights the failings of those types of writings that perpetuate their ineffectiveness and lack of credibility.
I must admit that for her intended audience, Wolf uses pathos very effectively. She clearly defines the problem to her female readers, using inclusive language to convey the fact that all women readers have an understanding of living by this beauty myth. She engages in evincing fear, hope, anger, outrage, and camaraderie to supplement her message, and highlights the injustices women face daily as a result of this beauty myth. Her pathos is so effective, she depends on it to compensate for what the substance of her book fails to do.
In terms of ethos, Wolf fails miserably. Her premise is undermined by her melodramatic writing style and narrative of self-pity peppered throughout each chapter. Wolf takes on a tone of personal victimization, and characterizes herself as a casualty in the war against the beauty myth. In reality, Wolf proves her thesis that beauty is unjustly rewarded in women; she cannot fully understand being overlooked and evaluated as a woman: she is a former Rhodes scholar, Yale graduate, celebrated author, and political consultant—highly successful and continuing her ascent. Far from practicing what she preaches, Wolf harnesses her beauty (did you see her book photo, or website?) for professional gains. Likewise, her suffering is out of proportion not only to the feminists who preceded her, but to less fortunate women in the workplace who remain unrewarded for their work. Her exaggeration and hyperbole do nothing for her desire for credibility. Desperate to be recognized as a peer among feminists, Wolf amplifies her own experiences with over-the-top stories that isolate her and are perceived as ultimately insincere. In her writing, she reaches toward personal development of women rather than collective action of feminists, and her writing seems more like a gripe session than a call to arms.
This is not an unfamiliar pattern among third-wave feminist authors. Feminist texts have taken on a more personal, pseudo-memoir tone than some of the impersonal (but impassioned) or data-driven texts of the past. Even the personal speeches of the first- and second-wave relied on balance between the modes of persuasion to remain effective. A further symptom of this modern feminism is a lack of credibility stemming from personal stories that are perceived more as oversimplifications, a dispersal of knowledge, and a lack of a unifying identity among the current feminist collective. Feminism has been re-appropriated in this self-obsessed time for personal examination rather than change, and Naomi Wolf—like many of her peers–while passionate, fails to take her movement forward.