Image: 141/365 pillow talk, by glitter_feet
Willa’s response to the New York Times article on Japanese men in relationships with 2-D anime characters hit on the most interesting thing about this phenomenon: the sense of loneliness that underscores it.
Japan has for a while been the go-to country for oddball stories - especially those relating to isolation. That a staggering 25 percent of Japanese men and women have not had intercourse by their early thirties (or, presumably, in many cases an intimate relationship) speaks of this isolation.
But as The American Virgin points out, the Japanese aren’t the only ones having trouble negotiating the modern sex and relationships field.
Through my own research on young adults’ attitudes on sex and relationships, along with my work as a journalist, I’ve noticed a substantial - but usually invisible - minority of women and men in their mid-late twenties who are yet to experience an ongoing relationship. Most of them have had sex, but it’s less the Bacchanalian orgy portrayed in most media coverage of hook-up culture than something far more intermittent and episodic. As one long-term single 22-year-old explained, “The frequency of these encounters are quite low. The most promiscuous of my friends would have four in one year; others would have none.” Her remarks are typical.
None of the people I have spoken with have resorted to relations with a pillow or a doll. By all accounts and observation, they’re completely normal, but that’s the point: their experiences are normal. And they aren’t all bad, either. Largely, they’re linked the delayed age of marriage and our increased focus on self-actualisation before “settling down“.
Stories like the New York Times one have an obvious “freak” appeal, but it strikes me that it would be more useful - and just as interesting - to focus more on the issues that underlie them, and the way these issues play out closer to the middle of the bell curve.
If I was the kind of person who went on dates, and if I was single.
Let’s just say I’d meet up with someone in person if I thought they were cool (which I regularly do, and have been doing since 1999), and if I fell in love with them - probably after a while, because I’m slow like that - that’d be awesome. Because love is awesome.
2009 is a different place to 2006, and all that. (Although even then, my query was more “why is this still a taboo for me, when my online dating friend is clearly so much cooler than I am?”)
Now I need to go find some pretty picture to post to break up all that black text.
Okay, well not really, but this article is (note the Livejournal and MySpace references). I’ve been reading the online dating-heavy and excellent forthcoming book by Brigid Delaney, This Restless Life, which I’m reviewing for the SMH, and thought of it.
And no, three years later, I still haven’t picked up online.
It was a thoroughly twenty-first century moment.
Nearing the end of our Sunday afternoon coffee, my friend casually dropped the subject of her new boyfriend into the conversation. “You didn’t tell me you had a new boy! Where’d you meet him?” I cooed. She smiled and blushed, just the tiniest bit embarrassed. “Online.” There was a pause. “Livejournal or MySpace?” And there you have it: the uniquely twenty-first century question.
I know, I know, online dating is nothing revolutionary. People have been hooking up using the net since last century. But these days it seems like everyone I know is hooking up online, and not in that desperado way either.
When I was in ninth grade, my friends and I came up with a list of 37 essential criteria for prospective love interests. Older, taller, with a healthy appreciation of Pulp and the Smashing Pumpkins and a requisite disregard for the Spice Girls.
Since then, I’ve broken every one of my own “essential” criteria. My love interests have included guys who were 3 years younger than me, guys who lived in other states, guys who liked guys as well as girls, guys I worked with, guys who were an inch shorter than me in flats and, yes, guys who had girlfriends. And not a drop of guilt or remorse (except, perhaps, for the last). Because when it came down to it, most of my criteria were kinda meaningless.
In fact, the only dating prejudice I haven’t overcome in that time is meeting guys over the internet. Of course, that internet dating isn’t a total taboo anymore isn’t anything new. We’ve long moved on from the idea that, in the immortal words of Ryan Phillipe in Cruel Intentions, only “geeks and pedophiles” use the net to pick up. Shy people, people who spend too many hours behind their desks and even people who are serious about finding a person they like on the kind of holistic level that’s hard to find in noisy, smoke-filled bar use it too. And as even the hippest of the hipsters start to spend too much time behind their desks typing clandestine personal emails at work and googling their crushes, we know that normal, non-psycho, non-geeky (well, maybe geeky in a socially adept kind of way) people just like us and the people we hang out with are online.
And they’re using it to find dates. Not on actual dating sites, mind you. That would be too obvious. On “social networking” sites like Livejournal, Myspace or Facebook. Girl meets boy online, girl “friends” boy upon discovering mutual love of Pulp circa 1996 and the Kaiser Chiefs circa 2006, girl and boy read one another’s daily musing on life for a month or five, decide to meet up and kaboom – true love.
When you think about it, it makes sense. The daily rantings and ravings we post on social networking sites offer an almost unparalleled insight into the mind of the person who wrote them - and in the scheme of things, it’s considerably less likely that someone’s going to create a sustained imaginary persona for themselves on a self-created website that isn’t designed to attract a lover than they would in a personals ad. After reading about - and commenting on - the minutiae of someone’s life for months on end, it’s easy to feel as though you know them, and in many ways, you actually do. Then, if you happen to bump into each another at a gig or at the markets…
So I can’t help but wonder then why, if all around me smart, attractive and socially competent people are hooking up with folks they met online, does online dating remain the final taboo I refuse to break. I blog! I’ve met people over the net in person and not one of them has been a freak! (Okay, maybe one or two.)
Maybe it’s just that no one on my “friends list” has really tickled my fancy, or maybe it’s because amongst the portion of the population who don’tuse the internet frequently, hooking up with someone you met online is still a bit of an anomaly. I still have friends who think I’m weird for keeping a blog in the first place. And as my friend comments, “The best part is trying to explain how you met to people who don’t use the internet. Non internet users don’t really understand it.” She tells most people she met her boyfriend at a gig, or “just out and about.” I’m not the only one still suffering from online dating prejudice, it seems.
Still, I think if I came across someone I really liked, I’d give it a try. Don’t tell anyone though.
I have this memory of being in my late teens, sitting under the foliage at university reading an article in the then latest edition of Cosmo. It was about how to pick up guys at parties, and I planned to put it to use that Friday night.
I don’t remember much of what it said - something about circulating around the room to spot and catch the eye of your target? - but that’s not the point. In the confusing gender minefield that was my early adulthood, women’s magazines were my trusty guide.
These days, I find that laughable. Because, those articles? They’re not written by experts. They’re written by writers, like me, who at best weave together their intuition, some basic human psychology and some interviews, and at worst just bang out some reiteration of what’s been said in thousands of “relationship” articles before them. They make for good entertainment, and I still can’t resist reading them, but they’re not something anyone should be basing their dating strategies on.
Still, as I wrote on Twitter yesterday, if there’s one thing worse than a vapid women’s magazine article, it’s a self-righteous former women’s magazine staffer lamenting how terrible the things are. The ladies at Jezebel and Girl With A Satchel may have been pleased, but I found it hard to get excited about former UK Marie Claire editor, Liz Jones, who wrote in the Daily Mail earlier this week about why she’s “given up on the glossy”.
That’s not to say mags aren’t worth criticising. Let’s take a quick look at some of the most common critiques:
Women’s mags promote unrealistic beauty ideals. Guilty as charged, and particularly damaging for teenagers, who are just coming into their sense of who they are, how they look, and what is and isn’t attractive.
Women’s magazines promote a shallow, consumerist lifestyle. It’s true that, as Jones argues, the clothes mags feature are almost always out of the price range of their target audience, but fashion diffuses sufficiently these days that you can always pick up a cheap knock off at Supre, Asos or Forever 21. And I see plenty of articles about nourishing the inner aspect as well. I’ll cede this one though, too: essentially, magazines are part of the consumer machine.
Women’s magazines treat their readers like they are stupid. Also true in the case of some articles, but I think this is less a function of mags actually thinking their readers are stupid, and more about the quite underrated fourth criticism that most people fail to note…
Magazines, with some exceptions, are largely uncritical. Rather than exploring new angles and questioning received wisdom, a lot of magazine articles just repackage the same old ideas in the most obvious possible ways (headlines excepted - those are usually pretty clever). And that goes whether they’re playing that smart/ethical end of the market or the, er, traditional end.
The thing is, these critcisms have been circulating for a good 20 (maybe even 30?) years. The sudden rush to adopt them reminds me of a 15-year-old girl abandoning pop music upon discovering Triple J, Zach Braff and Frankie magazine - or as @barrysaunders wittily put it on Twitter, “like a new ex-smoker bitching at her old, still-smoking friends”.
Not to mention that, to some extent, the industry has responded to them. Since Mia Freedman launched Cosmo’s “Body Love” campaign in 1997, it’s been a rare Australian women’s magazine that’s dared to publish a diet (although, yes, they do appear sometimes in veiled form). Freedman also launched a campaign on the censorship of women’s genitals (leading to airbrushing and unrealistic expectations) during her tenure. Teen magazines now let their readers know when images are airbrushed. Then there’s YEN, and Frankie, and New!CLEO, and Bust, and Bitch, and Jane (now deceased, but succeeded online by Jezebel) and Peppermint. In Australia, at least, Marie Claire serves you a slice of news alongside your fashion (I seem to recall the US version being somewhat thinner). Vogue, meanwhile, publishes some beautifully written and thought-provoking features and essays that surpass most of what you’ll find in a “serious” newspaper.
None of these magazines are perfect, and if you’re after something really meaty, you’re probably better off buying The Economist or The New Yorker. But hating on them for being light entertainment is like hating on Britney Spears for not being Regina Spektor. And we all know we can’t have that.
Really though, what bugs most about Jones’s critique is that it comes from someone who has - or at least had - the power to do something about what she’s complaining about. Sure, magazines are at the behest of advertisers, and it’s true that the most interesting ones often fold for lack of advertiser support, but if you hate women’s mags so much, do something about it. Start something of your own, whether it’s a mag, a blog, or something else (and I know a lot of people are). If you’re a journalist, write the kinds of articles you wish you could read - that ethos sums up pretty much my entire collected submissions to Girlfriend over 2006-8.
Just don’t sit on your ass and complain about it. It doesn’t make you look cool or insightful. It just makes you look tired.
See also: Editrix turns on Lady Mags (Salon)
Three year old meditations on raunch culture, following on from yesterday’s post…
“I didn’t realise the boys were meant to come as pirates and the girls were meant to come as skanks,” my friend Davina said last night from underneath her pirate’s patch and bandana at her friends’ famed ‘pirates and skanks’ party.
No one could blame her, of course. It was cold enough to wear my London coat even indoors and still shiver, and the only reason I hadn’t come as a pirate myself was because I didn’t own anything remotely piratey and couldn’t be bothered going to Toys R Us to buy pirate wear. So instead I’d just donned the shortest skirt I owned, which wasn’t that short anyway (“I can’t believe that’s the skankiest outfit you own!” Davina said.)
So. Point. I found last night very interesting from an Ariel Levy type perspective, in its assumption that dressing like a “skank” makes women “hot”, and that without short skirts, fishnets and stripper gear, women are not attractive.
One of the main problems I have with the mainstream media hype of Levy’s book is that it assumes that if a woman dresses up like Paris Hilton for a night out, she suddenly embodies all those things we associate with Ms Hilton but which probably don’t have much to do with who she actually is. It doesn’t allow for theatre, role play or irony, for the possibility that someone might act “wild” for their own amusement without embracing it as an identity or doing it on an ongoing basis.
So, you know, I allow for a bit of sexual theatre here and there - certainly the [redacted] parties (Parliament of Whores, Santa Sutra, Who’s Your Daddy, etc) are an excellent example of that. But I still find it a tad disturbing the extent to which some women (including, to an extent, myself) equate stripper clothes and fishnets with attractiveness. Like Davina, who declared multiple times that she was wearing way too many clothes. Or like me, who declared several times how “hot” the most skanked up girls were. Attractive = hot = not much clothing on.
I’ll write more on this later this week.
1. I had a shoot with a very renowned photographer two years ago. His wife was assisting on the shoot, and before I went on set she sat me down. At the time, I weighed about 97lbs on my 5’7” frame. All my bones were sticking out. She gave me a carrot muffin (ew) and a glass of juice. She told me I wasn’t allowed to shoot until I had eaten the whole thing and drank the juice. I ate some of the muffin and then when she turned her back, I hid the rest in a garbage can at the makeup table. I did drink the juice. She came back and made me drink another glass of juice. Only then was I allowed to shoot.
2. Never underestimate the power of an anorexic to lie, manipulate, and trick. Those models— not all of them, but some of them to be sure— have been living and working with eating disorders for a long time. In the hectic mess backstage at a runway show, chances are no one is going to notice whether or not she has eaten. They will only inquire and dumbly believe.” —Boxcar Kyla, in response to my previous post.
For all my meditating on responding to criticism gracefully, it must be admitted: the first time a conservative blogger tore apart one of my articles, I cried. (It’s also entirely possible that I didn’t cry, just felt like it, and have developed the mythology that I did over the passing years simply because I thought it would be funny.)
My heart still beats a little faster and my stomach still curls up in a ball of anxiety, but I’ve learned to let it pass.
Oh, the perils of a would-be people pleaser.
On a somewhat related note, I wanted to introduce you to two quality media blogs by young Australian writers.
The first, Wordsmith Lane, is a new project by freelance journalist Sarah Ayoub. It’s full of useful writing-related stories and tips for both working and aspiring writers.
The second, by Brisbane-based music writer Andrew McMillen, does what I talked about doing in this post but may never get around to (due to having more writing projects than time to do them in, and if Andrew is doing it, there’s not much need for me to): gets inside the heads of fascinating, dynamic, high-achieving creative Australians (with a few internationals thrown in for good measure).
Both blogs take you along on the author’s creative journey, while adding a lot to your own in the process.
Add ‘em to your blogroll.
Image: still from Friends With Money (2006)
Jean Hannah Edelstein’s excellent post the other day on the way she feels when she gets a bad review reminded me of something I’ve been pondering lately: namely, the ethics of reviewing work by people you know and like.*
The official line is that you shouldn’t do it. That reviewing work by people you know (regardless of whether you like them or not) invariably results in bias. But I don’t think that’s realistic. If you spend enough time working or writing in an area, and you’re not completely anti-social, sooner or later you’re going to get to “know” - at least in some capacity - the other people working in it. Many of them, you will grow to like.
But liking someone doesn’t mean agreeing with everything they say, or thinking that everything they produce is The Most Amazing Thing Ever. And I’ve always seen (non-fiction, at least) reviewing as being less about saying “this book is fantastic, go out and buy it” (although I tend to do that in person, when I’m really blown away) - or vice versa - than about saying “these are the arguments this book makes, this is how it fits into the broader debates in this area, these are its strong points, these are its weak points, these are the people who will probably like it” and so on. A bit like reblogging or commenting on a blog post, if you will.
But to say that - or to say the critical bits, at least - about someone you like? It always feels a bit awkward, a guilt alleviated only by the fact that not saying them would be a dereliction of duty.
Ideally, we’d all be able to separate ourselves from our work enough that the criticisms wouldn’t hurt - and I think the internet has gone a long way towards making this a reality. On the internet you’re forced to face people who think you’re an idiot (or, more typically, wrong or boring or just “not all that” - although they don’t always phrase it so politely) all the time. That’s not to say it doesn’t hurt, but the daily batterings surely, hopefully make it easier to face the bigger ones.
Maybe the problem is in the delivery. My favourite sparring partners are less about sparring than they are about discussion - none of us go into a conversation thinking we’ve got all the answers, and similarly, no one is pilloried for not having them. Or perhaps it’s because, when it comes to larger projects like books (or films, or plays, or whatever Big Final Thing you can think of), we’d like to think we’ve invested sufficient time and effort to actually come up with the answers. A critical review is a sign that we didn’t - in one person’s view, at least.
But I do know that not being critical is not the answer. Not because I’m advocating tough love, but because it’s boring. Good books - or what I consider to be good books, at any rate - are conversation starters. Wishing to stifle the negative parts of that conversation is human and understandable, but it’s also counterproductive.
So what to do, then? If you’re the person administering the pain, be kind - whether you know and like the creator of what you’re reviewing or not. Play the ball and not the player.
And if you’re on the receiving end, try to be gracious about it. Wait for the initial emotional reaction to subside, talk to your literary lamaze partner, and try to treat it as just part of the discussion (unless they’re just being an asshole, in which case stick to the first two points). One of my friends invited a critical reviewer out for a drink, another would respond to blog posts slamming his book (I assume more diplomatically than Alain de Botton).
I hope that some day when I’m on the receiving end of such criticism, I can be that calm and collected.
* Knowing how writers tend to think, I feel the need to state explicitly here that this post is not inspired by the experience of reading and hating Jean’s book. My copy of Jean’s book is yet to arrive in the mail.
Image: Freelancing writing, by Sophie Dow.
The below is a transcript of a speech I gave on Monday night to the Sydney Freelance Journalists Group, on the future of freelancing.
Whenever I talk about freelance journalism, I’m always conscious of the huge variations in the type of work involved, the mediums used and the reasons people do it.
While I can think of freelancers who cover similar topics, or who write for some of the same publications as I do, I can’t think of anyone in Australia who does the same thing I do. And while I can think of a few people in the US who kind of do, the environment they work in and the publications available for them to contribute to are different again. Chances are, most of you in this room are in a similar situation.
This is a good thing - it means we have a niche. But it also means that what is true for me won’t always be true for you, that what works for you won’t necessarily work for the other people here tonight. And nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the large and often confounding question of the future of our industry.
To give you a little background on my work, what I do is probably best described as social analysis, my current niche being the more serious, analytical side of women’s magazines, with the occasional opinion piece, review or long essay for newspapers and more self-identified “serious” magazines.
This kind of writing, it almost goes without saying, has never been the most financially viable type, unless you’re at the very top end of the market. And while I did freelance fulltime for a couple of years, at the moment I earn most of my income through a staff role. I’m also doing a PhD.
So I have been fortunate so far not to have suffered too much from the cutbacks many publications have made post the GFC - my “problem” is more having more story ideas than I have time to pitch or write.
But in the longer term, we’re all going to be facing a lot of the same issues. Monetarily, the biggest issue I forsee is the possibility of the big mainstream media brands shutting down, at least in their print editions, and of those brands ceasing to pay contributors to their online editions - or to pay them a lot less than they would have received in print. News Ltd’s new venture The Punch is an early example of what I fear will become a trend.
I don’t think that the big media outlets will disappear entirely, or that all the writing they publish will be user-generated - that is, free. Their comparative advantage lies in providing content that is reliable, well researched and insightful, and while the correlation between these attributes and payment - or, indeed, between these attributes and big media outlets - is not absolute, the correlation between these things and time and effort, is. And getting people to put in the time and effort required to produced well researched, accurate and insightful content on a regular basis does require money.
Nonetheless, chances are that a lot of the venues we currently rely on for our incomes won’t exist in 10 years time - maybe even five, if the current US climate is any indication. That’s not to say that the work we do won’t, though.
I don’t often agree with Bernard Salt, but I thought he made a good point in the most recent issue of the Walkley Magazine. Salt wrote: “I have no doubt there will be thinkers, analysts and researchers in the future, but whether these skills come together in what we now describe as ‘serious journalism’ is not entirely certain.”
And this is what I think we need to be thinking about: not on preserving the occupation of the “freelance journalist” per se - or even of the “journalist”, in the traditional sense - but on the real meat and purpose of the work we do, and how we can keep our work relevant in an ever evolving media environment, both as an industry and as individual journalists.
Part of doing this means thinking about what motivates your work - the subjects and issues you write about, the mediums you choose to communicate though - and how best to distribute your work so that it both satisfies your motivations and earns you enough money to live off. We need to think about both what our jobs would become in a world where the media we currently contribute to no longer exist - at least not in their current form - and about what they can become, how we can improve what we do in the current era and environment.
This is going to mean different things for different people. It might mean becoming your own publisher and monetising your specialist knowledge and contacts through a blog or newsletter. It might mean using online media to develop a fan base of people who care about what you do, but making the bulk of your money selling books or podcasts. It might mean relying on corporate writing or editing work to pay your bills, and doing journalism the remaining days of the week.
For me, it’s a bit of a mix of the above. I’m motivated to write because I’m interested in the world around me, because my mind is constantly ticking and engaging with different subject matter, because I want to share my thoughts and ideas about it with other people. Aside from helping to pay the aforementioned bills, traditional media is a great platform through which to do this, not only because it reaches more people, but because knowing I’ll get paid for it and being given a deadline motivates me to produce the best work I can in a way that blogging, for now, does not.
Nonetheless, I’m also conscious that media audiences are fragmenting and whether I’m writing for CLEO, or Vogue, or The Age, not everyone who is interested in the issues I’m writing about is going to buy that magazine, or read the paper on that particular day. So even though the audience for my blog or my Twitter is far smaller than the number of people who read those publications, it’s also a vital means of building a relationship and conversation with people who are highly engaged with the things I write about. At the same, my credibility in these forums is hinged upon my presence in more mainstream media.
Ultimately, what I’m working towards at the moment is what I call an “Integrated Journalism” model, wherein each part of my work - freelancing, blogging, public speaking and in the longer term books and other information products - feeds into the others to produce a cohesive whole.
It’s constantly evolving, and just as no one can say what the media as a whole will look like in five years, I can’t tell you exactly what my work is going to look like in even one, but its foundations lie in my broader motivations and goals, and in the value that I can provide as a journalist.