Tags: Q&A

Talking With Ruby Karp, the Upright Teen Feminist Citizen

Our parenting columnist sits down with the 17-year-old author of 'Earth Hates Me' and learns why some girls recoil at the word "feminist" while still embracing its principles.
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At 17, Ruby Karp has a résumé more impressive than most folks twice her age. She’s done a TEDx talk, appeared with Amy Poehler on her video series “Smart Girls at the Party,” and had her byline appear in publications like Refinery29, Mashable, and Hello Giggles. She hosts a monthly standup show at the Upright Citizens Brigade, whose website notes that she’s been performing there “since she was a fetus.” And now she’s an author—her book, Earth Hates Me, was published this month by Running Press, with an introduction by Broad City’s Ilana Glazer.

She’s also a teenager, a class of humanity often derided or diminished by adult society, but one that has increasingly come into its own as a cultural and political force (note how Teen Vogue became a must-read in the past year). Still, it’s not easy growing up, no matter how well-connected or otherwise fortunate a teen may be. For Karp, navigating adolescence in today’s America is equal parts hilarious and terrifying, proving that as always, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

DAME spoke with Karp by phone from somewhere in New York City.

 

You write about the negative aspects of social media, which are pretty well known, but you’re also an advocate of social media: You talk a lot about the creative aspects, the communal aspects, the way it can bring people together. How do you personally find that balance, navigating between the negative sides of social media with the positive?

Obviously there are a lot of negatives that come with being on social media: the whole FOMO [fear of missing out], the constantly being on your phone and not living in the moment. But I feel like social media has a lot more power than we think it does. I think a lot of what makes social media so great is the fact that if we want to activate for all these different things that are happening in the world, like spread the word about a different hurricane happening, and let people know what’s happening in the world and do something about it, we do it through social media. And I think that people underestimate how powerful that is. 

I think we all know it’s powerful, but what do you think people did before social media? Do you think people were less connected, or did they connect in different ways?

I think people maybe had stronger connections as people, but at the same time, the internet is what has helped me meet girls who live all the way across the country or even across the world. The internet really does connect us to everything outside of our bedrooms. I live in New York City, but there are girls who live in the middle of nowhere whose only access to things outside of their small towns is what they see on the internet. 

Do you get the feeling that being a teenager today is different in big, essential ways than it was for previous generations?

A lot of adults think that being a teenager nowadays is like this crazy new experience because we have all this social media and stuff, but it’s really not that different. What makes it different is the way things are happening, but we’re still teenagers: We’re still girls gossiping about boys, and going to parties that are weird, and freaking out over colleges and test grades, and getting annoyed with our parents. This all still happens. 

Another thing you talk about in the book is feminism. What are the conversations like among people your age about what feminism means? We know that there are young women out there who don’t identify as feminist. Are you trying to convince people to take on that label?

Oh, yes, definitely. I got in a huge fight with one of my friends freshman year. We were having a conversation about feminism, and she goes, “Well I’m not a feminist.” And I was like, “Why?” And she said, “Because I don’t think it’s attractive, I just don’t think I am. I support equal rights for men and women, I just don’t like calling myself a feminist.” And the way I explain it to my friends—the fact that you believe boys and girls are of equal value, that’s really it, that’s feminism. Obviously now we have a million extended definitions of feminism but when it comes down to it, feminism is the advocacy of rights for all genders.

What do you think makes people your age reject that label?

I think a lot of people are inclined to reject that label because they’re afraid of being seen as aggressive or as hating boys. A lot of what being a teenager comes down to is a fear of boys not liking you, or girls for that matter.

One thing I found fascinating in the book is when you write about how terrifying it is to talk to your parents about sex. As a parent I know that we parents are terrified to talk about our kids about sex. What do you think parents could do to help their teenagers come to them, talk to them, but also navigate their sexual lives in a way that isn’t too intrusive?

It’s hard. It really depends on what your relationship is with your kid. I’m really close to my mom, so having open discussion about sex was really never a huge, hard thing for us to do. At no point do you want your kid to feel like you’re judging them or to feel like they can’t talk to you. If you want your kid to be having safe sex—I know most parents don’t want their kids to have sex at all!—but if you really want your kid to be safe, the only way to make that happen is to make them feel comfortable asking you any questions.

I don’t know if you’ve read Peggy Orenstein’s work where she talks about teenage girls growing up in a culture where they think they have to have sex just to make the boys happy, they don’t learn anything about their own pleasure. Do you think there’s a way for parents, maybe especially mothers of girls, to talk to their kids about having sex in a way that’s about pleasure, not pressure?

Exactly! And [they should] also encourage consent, in that you’re teaching your kids like, okay, if you want to have sex you need to make sure you know that you’re doing it because you want to, and if at any point you want to stop you say so. You need to be checking in with each other at every step of the way. At this age, sex is really a touchy (pun intended!) subject. It’s like, when it’s happening it’s very scary for both people.

I like how you’re approaching the subject with this blend of humor and an open acknowledgement that it’s terrifying. Is that sort of your way of navigating teenage life?

Yeah. It really is. The thing is, being a teenager is about understanding that it’s all ironic. All of this is so dumb. Literally in the first chapter of this book I say, please, I know I’m privileged and I know I’m annoying and I know none of my problems matter, but they feel like they do right now, so just live with me through it. 

You write a lot about your mom and your relationship with her. You say straight up she’s your best friend. I think that’s much more common in your generation than it was in mine. It never would have occurred to me to be best friends with my mom! I think a lot of us Gen-Xers grew up feeling like at a certain point we had to rebel against our parents, like that was part of growing up. I’m wondering, how do you grow up if you don’t rebel?

I don’t know. I feel like rebeling is so specific to where you grow up or who you parents are. Everyone has their own way of rebeling. For me, the turning point was when I started always closing the door to my room, and it was like you need to ask me if you can come in.

Boundaries.

Boundaries, yeah.

How did your mom handle that?

She was offended, but we got through it. Every teenager will rebel in their own way. Even if you raise the nicest child ever your kid’s going to have a moment where they’re like, "I hate the world, the world hates me," because that’s what being a teenager is. This goes back to the idea of privilege. Like, obviously I’m privileged and none of my problems are real, but when you’re a teenager your emotions are so heightened that you honestly believe you’re the only person having problems in the world. And there is no way that you can live through being a teenager without going through that.

That’s interesting, there’s this internal teen angst, but you also talk about turning your gaze outward a little bit and being interested in politics and what’s happening in the world. You’re a year away from being able to vote, right? Are you looking forward to joining the world of voting public?

Oh my god, yes. 

Are you worried that people your age are turned off by politics?

I actually think it’s the opposite. People my age are really into politics.

What are the issues that you’re the most passionate about, that you think are defining for people your age, as you come of age?

Well, obviously Trump, and how we continue as a society, because we are going backwards in time in terms of our rights. One of the biggest overarching problems is that he’s allowing a part of this country to believe that it’s okay for them to solve problems with hate and violence, and that it’s okay to go back to hating women, Black people, Jewish people, Muslims—discrimination against anyone who isn’t a straight white male. 

What do you think the solution is?

Education. We need to raise our kids to be less violent, to use their words. We need to start health education, and rape and consent lessons, earlier. And start teaching our kids, literally from a young age, that they are equal to everyone else, you are not superior, you are not below anyone, you are equal.

Toward the very end of the book you write, “Most of what I talk about in this book will not matter to me in ten years.” Where do you see yourself in ten years? What do you want your life to be like?

I don’t even know what I’m having for breakfast tomorrow! I know what I want, where I want to be: In a dream world, [I’d be] rich, on SNL, pursuing my dreams successfully without any problems, in love, not being attacked … But, you know, that might not happen.

President of the National Book Critics Circle, Kate Tuttle writes about books for the Boston Globe. Her reviews have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, the Washington Post, and Newsday. Her essays on raising children, race and politics, and coming to terms with her own 1970s childhood, have appeared in Dame, The Rumpus, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. Follow her @katekilla
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Kate Tuttle