Musings of an Inappropriate Woman

Scroll to Info & Navigation

The problem with pop feminism: why Emily Gould is right

Last week, Emily Gould wrote an article for Slate that made a lot of my fellow feminist bloggers very unhappy. If you missed it, the main gist was that in contrast to their charter of providing an alternative media source for smart, politically aware women, these blogs actually appealed to some of our worst instincts: insecurity, ill-thought-out anger, and petty jealousy. She wrote:

These firestorms are great for page-view-pimping bloggy business. But they promote the exact opposite of progressive thought and rational discourse, and the comment wars they elicit almost inevitably devolve into didactic one-upsmanship and faux-feminist cliché. The vibe is less sisterhood-is-powerful than middle-school clique in-fight, with anyone who dares to step outside of chalk-drawn lines delimiting what’s “empowering” and “anti-feminist” inevitably getting flamed and shamed to bits.

Like I said, it didn’t go down very well (probably something to do with the “jealousy” diss). But while I agree that the story that prompted Gould’s analysis - Jezebel contributor Irin Carmon’s fairly innocuous post on The Daily Show - wasn’t the most outrageous example of the trend, that above paragraph? Had me thinking to myself, “Fuck yes!”

Now, I love Jezebel. I really do. It’s one of my favourite blogs, and it will get hands down the most glowing review of all the media I’ll be talking about in the presentation I’m delivering in Liverpool next week. But just the night before I read Gould’s article, I had a conversation with a friend over dinner on the site’s tendency not to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

(Two cases in point: Jezebel's article on the Korean “sex park”, Jeju Loveland, depicted it as a sexist's paradise, portraying women as “mindless parts manufactured simply to give men pleasure”. My friend’s research on the park found it to be ”a place for nervous couples to get to know one another”. Another post described an Australian celebrity blog’s “handwringing” and “outrage” over Miley Cyrus’s little sister, Noah’s alleged lingerie line. I know the writers of said blog quite well, and let me tell you, they’re not outraged by anything. Their default position is one of amused derision. Much like a Gawker blog, really.)

Perhaps more to my point - and to Gould’s - I find the righteous indignation that categorises portions of the popular femmesphere, whether online or in print, intellectually lazy. Not to mention boring. I’ve little interest in reading about why X sucks or why Y is a douchebag. I want to read articles that challenge my preconceptions about the world, that tell me something I don’t already know - something “OMG, this sucks!!!” feminism rarely does.

(To its credit, Jezebel publishes as many articles in this category than in the “OMG, this sucks” category. Which is why I like it.)

The feminism I’m interested in engaging with is feminism that connects with the substance of people’s lives - whether it’s in the form of direct service provision, articles for men and women who don’t usually engage with gender issues, or ideas that challenge those of us who are already engaged.

Tiger Beatdown’s Sady Doyle posted about the issue - to a far more supportive response - a couple of weeks ago. This tendency to use anger as a means to position ourselves as Right and those who don’t agree with us as Wrong, to rile up the base, to sell stories and to draw attention to ourselves as purveyors of stories.

Make no mistake: popular feminist commentary is not a fringe activity. It’s a fully fledged industry - one I’m passionate about and which I’m very happy to be a part of. But it is an industry, and we’re kidding ourselves when we pretend our indignation is always pure. Sometimes it’s just an easy way to win adulation; other times it’s a means to pay the rent. Doyle wrote:

[T]here are problems, I think, with the terms of the conversation I’ve set up here; there are problems with my own place within that conversation, the person I’ve agreed to be when I talk to you. That outraged, righteous, upright, know-it-all person who has compassion for all the right people and scorn for all the wrong ones, who’s on the right side (your side) of all the issues: I think she’s dangerous, and I think she’s at least partially false.

….

At some point, we learn what we’re rewarded for saying, how we’re rewarded for seeming, and then we say those things and seem that way, for the reward. It’s like any other set of social norms. But when feminism is used this way, not as a means to get into truth, but as a means to make truth easier or even to avoid it, it’s really not all that different from, say, reading a lot of Ayn Rand. Granted, the results of its clueless or selfish application will probably be better than what the Objectivists have managed thus far. But it’s still something you do for you, rather than for the sake of doing it; it’s a means of propping yourself up. Of self-glorification.

Maybe I’m not being entirely fair. After all, I feel angry about feministy things too, from time to time. There are days when things that would normally strike me as cliched, as “been there, done that”, crush down on me as something thoroughly terrible. When I momentarily can’t believe the extent to which men’s magazines objectify women, or how screwed up Z celebrity is. I certainly get a burst of energy from deep inside, that compells me to run my fingers over the keyboard and publish my thoughts as quickly as possible.

But most of the time, what really gives me the shits is what I see as lazy, predictable thinking - and the reification of such thinking simply because it’s Something We Roughly Agree With. And it’s funny how that works - how two writers like Sady Doyle and Emily Gould can write articles saying pretty much the same thing, and one can be applauded and the other trashed, not because of the content of what they have to say, but because one is clearly positioned as One Of Us, and the other is positioned as an outsider.

Related: We are all bad feminists, really.
Emily Gould, Keith Gessen and the ethics of snark.

Elsewhere: How feminist blogs like Jezebel gin up page views (Slate)
Dirty Girls and Bad Feminists: A Few Thoughts on ‘I Love Dick’ (Tiger Beatdown)

Emily Gould’s take on Gossip Girl is delicious for all manner of reasons (many of them GG-related), but here are two of my favourite excerpts:

Like a lot of childless unmarried adults my age I tend to think of myself on some semiconscious level as a perpetual teenager, but then when I’m confronted with actual teenagers I realize not only that I am an adult, I am also a member of a completely different generation and fitted with a completely different make and model of brain than today’s teenagers.

Hence our love of shows like The OC and Gossip Girl. I tend to see it the opposite way, though: that the characters on these shows are honorary adults, played by actors in their twenties and (school aside) living a lifestyle more akin to someone in that age group than a high school student.

Same with the Sweet Valley books: the 12-year-olds acted like 16-year-olds, the 16-year-olds like 19-year-olds, and the 18-year-olds like 25-year-olds.

Also:

It’s rare to watch a tv show’s writers basically confess that they’ve hit a wall. Imagine if, somewhere around the third season of Friends, Ross had sat Rachel down and said, “You know, we’ll never stay together, because there would really be nothing to hang the misunderstanding-based hijinx of this show on.” When Chuck told Blair that “the game” is “what we like,” he might as well have been staring into the camera and addressing the audience directly. ‘When we finally get together,’ he’s saying, ‘you’ll know that Gossip Girl’s writers have finally gotten that memo from CW headquarters that they’ve got another episode or two to wrap things up.’

But less cynically, or maybe more cynically: the audience basically never gets to watch the ever-after part of romances – it’s boring, we’re given to understand, all that moviegoing and hand-holding. Love affairs have three acts, we know from tv, and even, a little, from our own experience. There’s the thrilling beginning, fraught with obstacles and delicious suffering. And then there’s the middle, the happy normalcy phase that actually maybe doesn’t even exist and is just a slow slide into the mediocrity and boredom that signals the end. Maybe there are just two acts, then.

And it’s so true. If love is looked upon as narrative drama, the good, content bits will always disappoint. As Andy Warhol once remarked: “The most exciting thing is not doing it. If you fall in love with someone and never do it, it’s much more exciting.” This, I believe, is (one of many reasons) why it’s best to look for excitement (headlines! news! drama! amusing anecdotes! - stuff that, in many ways, I live for) in places other than one’s love life: contented relationships just don’t make for very good story fodder.

(via keepinganotebook)

Interesting blog post by Emily Gould, about backstabbing in the NYC media scene. I share some of Emily’s concerns about what we let slip out from our keyboards online, and undoubtedly would feel the same betrayal if I were in her shoes, but…

One of the reasons journalists technically aren’t supposed to write about people they know is because it’s thought to influence their coverage. In practice, this isn’t so easy, because if you spend long enough writing and thinking about any beat or scene, you’re going to get to know the people in it, but the principle remains the same: write the truth (whether it’s the fact of what happened, or the truth of your opinion), regardless of your personal feelings about the person involved. Hence this quote, and hence writing frequently involving betrayal.

Rachel Sklar’s job is to write about the media, good and bad. Jessica Coen and Chris Rovzar are employed to write about New York, good and bad. They can like Emily perfectly well and still not like everything she writes and does. She falls within their beat, and they’re obliged to write about it honestly.

Emily Gould’s job at Gawker was similar: to write about the New York media scene… mostly bad. She’s not ethically comfortable with that anymore, and that’s perfectly understandable. Probably noble, even. But her writing, just like anyone else’s, is still going to involve stepping on some toes (think how she characterised her relationship with Julia Allison in the NYT piece, for one) if it’s going to be honest, and if it’s going to be any good.