When I was in high school, I used to keep a list of “heroes” in my homework planner. Most of them weren’t all that deep or “intellectual”: there was a TV comedian I thought was funny, a filmmaker who’d directed a movie I liked, an actress who’d interviewed particularly well in Rolling Stone. But for me, they stood as symbols of what I believed in and the person I would someday like to be.
As I grew older, most of my teenage heroes fell by the wayside, whether due to poor film choices, racist or sexist comments, or recurrent drug addictions. New ones would crop up in their place – journalists, academics, student politicians – but they too were inevitably discarded for one reason or another.
Naomi Wolf, funnily enough, was one of the few that stuck around. Reading her most famous book, The Beauty Myth, as a 19-year-old ridden with insecurities and body image issues, it seemed she had put everything I was feeling into words - and explained its social and cultural origins to boot. As a fellow writer of the feminist persuasion, I saw her as someone who espoused the kind of feminism I could get behind; who was about expanding the terms of debate rather than just repeating what everyone – on our particular “team”, at least – already knew and agreed upon.
It’s ironic, really. That the very traits that drew me and so many others to her work, were ultimately the same ones that led us not to like it so much after all.
No one could accuse Wolf of following the “feminist party line” on the sexual assault allegations against Julian Assange. She came out swinging, with jokes about Interpol as the “world’s dating police”, followed by statements that the allegations in question didn’t look like she’d ever seen before from a rape victim. Followed by the assertions that naming accusers would be a good thing.
Needless to say, she pissed a lot of people off, myself included. But for me, it wasn’t the fact that she was wrong that led to my disappointment (although I think she was wrong), so much as the fact that she couldn’t admit she might not be 100% right.
That she never, as far as I’m aware, directly acknowledged how silly and flippant and offensive that first Huffington Post article was. That she didn’t respond the uproar she created amongst her community (and the people who cracked the shits were her community!). I’m not saying she had to do a complete 180. But a smart PR operator - and, I would argue, a good modern public intellectual - might have, say, written a guest post for Feministing saying, “Hey, here’s where I got it wrong, and here’s where I still think I’m right.”
I wish she had.
Older journalists seemed to be less surprised than I was. “Well, she always was a bit silly,” was the general mood on Twitter. And I probably should have seen the signs.
There was that debate she moderated in New York last November where she revealed she didn’t know what “cisgender” meant (for the uninitiated, it’s a word to describe people who’s biological identity matches their gender identity, and a pretty major part of contemporary feminist/gender studies debate). Then there was the speech she gave at Oxford later that month where she turned an event advertised as “an open consensus-based discussion” into one where literally shouted down her audience. And there’s a good chance that if I’d first read her books now rather than as a teenager, they wouldn’t have seemed so fresh and exciting. (That’s what the older writerly types I know tell me, at any rate.)
Maybe idols are just one of those things you have to give up in order to grow up. Certainly, what at 18 seems genius can seem facile, boring or just plain ignorant when you’re 28, but it’s more than that. It’s easiest to idolise people when you don’t know too much about them, and growing older often means seeing people as they are, rather than as you’d like them to be. And real people rarely live up to the standards we set for our heroes.
Then again, they don’t all fail to meet them as spectacularly as Naomi Wolf did, either.