Sometime in the next couple of days I have to sit down and write two paragraphs about my generation of women in preparation for a panel at the 92nd Street Y on June 8. The other people on the panel (Patricia Bosworth, Judith Warner, Sheila Weller, and Joanna Smith Rakoff) are also writing two paragraphs about their respective generations of women, to be shared at the outset of the panel. What is my generation of women all about? I’m sure plenty of people will agree with me that I’m not qualified to say. But I have been thinking a lot, lately, about women. Specifically I have been thinking about the ways that women publicly and privately police other women’s speech and actions in the supposed service of the greater good, or something they call “feminism.”
A manufactured mini-scandal arose recently because Slate needed to attract attention to the launch of their new women’s-interest blog. So they published a linkbait blog post by author Linda Hirshman, who had axes to grind against various past and present editors of the Gawker Media women’s-interest blog, Jezebel. Hirshman’s tone was provocatively dismissive and snide — I think the old folk call it “snarky”?* — and she pushed a major button when she accused some Jezebel writers of “incoherence” because they decried sexism but did not report being sexually assaulted as teenagers. She misrepresented and glossed over basic facts to try to prove that Jezebel and ‘Jezebel feminism’ have led “women” astray.
The blog’s editors’ plan worked, of course: many blogs and even one British newspaper weighed in on the manufactured controversy. I read some of these responses — Tracie Egan’s response, Anna Holmes’ response, the Feministe response — with a mingled sense of satisfaction — yes! they’re right! — and frustration. I was frustrated because I knew that the whole thing was only a stunt to boost a fledgling site’s pageviews. I was frustrated because I knew that the whole thing, while only a stunt, had almost accidentally scratched the surface of issues that are vitally important to every woman – not to every pundit, not to every female writer, not to the relatively rarified group of women who are able to avail themselves of the luxury of paying attention to blog squabbles — but to every woman. And also I was frustrated because I knew that, to anyone not tangentially involved in the invented squabble**, the whole thing would be dismissed as a “catfight.” “This is what a smackdown looks like,” noted women’s rights proponent Nick Denton wrote, on his Twitter. Everyone had missed the point, again, entirely. This kind of thing keeps happening, and all of us keep missing the point.
When a woman presents herself to the public eye as a multi-dimensional being — like my friend Moe Tkacik [UPDATE: Moe's response to Hirshman's column] who is capable of writing incisive and compulsively readable dispatches both from the frontlines of both a political campaign and from her own bedroom — she will often be accused by other women of exploiting herself. If she is attractive — if she even betrays any sign of wanting to be perceived as attractive — the criticism multiplies. You cannot be pretty and be taken seriously, still. You cannot be honest about your own experiences and be taken seriously, even if your own experiences are the best examples at your disposal of social and cultural phenomena that affect us all, even if your experiences are ones that you know or suspect that hundreds and thousands of other women share. Other women’s voices aren’t being heard, you’re told, because you are hogging the spotlight with your salacious sexual stories. You are only getting attention because you’re pretty, or slutty, and how dare you steal that attention from someone who deserves it more, because there is only room in everyone’s minds for one iconic thing called Woman. Maybe I should just let Rebecca Traister say it in her own words: “In a media landscape in which there are a severely limited number of spaces for women’s writing voices, the ones that get tapped become necessarily, and deeply inaccurately, emblematic — of their gender, their generation, their profession. More annoying — and twisted — is that those meager spots for women are consistently filled by those willing to expose themselves, visually and emotionally.”
While it’s true that the mastheads and bylines of the magazines that used to represent this country’s cultural elite are still predominantly male, I have never thought of there being a “severely limited number of spaces for women’s writing voices.” When I was younger and found I had no outlet for my “writing voice,” I spent ten bucks on a domain name and fifteen bucks on hosting and then, bingo, I had one. And as for voices that “get tapped” being “innacurately emblematic of their gender,” I feel like Rebecca Traister and Linda Hirshman and their ilk imagine a hypothetical audience member — male, I guess, so let’s call him Bob — who is constantly trying to make his mind up, about Women. Bob is on the fence, and everything he hears and reads might sway him. Should women be paid as much as men, should women have the same opportunities as men, can they be trusted to run our corporations, our media, our country? Should they be raped, or not? Rebecca and Linda don’t give Bob much credit for being able to parse ambiguities. They would like everyone’s message to be as crystal clear as possible, so that Bob doesn’t get confused and start raping people. “No, no!” they keep trying to tell him. “Those aren’t women, we are! And we don’t like those women!”
Sometimes these women say they feel “sorry” for the women they are writing against. They feel “sorry” for women like Meghan McCain who, they say, undermine themselves and whatever socially and politically relevant messages they might have — simply by confessing that they are human beings. The apologetic women aren’t really sorry, though — they are angry. These stupid little bitches are fucking it up for all of us, they seem to be saying, and they should be punished. Bob won’t do it — he does not, after all, exist — so they are going to have to do it for him.
The most upbeat thing I can think to say about all this is that I am genuinely, wholeheartedly shocked (though progressively less so) every time this kind of internecine ugliness among women bubbles to the surface. And I think that shock speaks to something interesting about, you know, My Generation. I was lucky to be raised by a mother who worked and whose work was important to her, and who always made sure I knew that I could grow up to be anything I wanted to be. She and her generation paved the way for me and my generation to take so many fundamental freedoms for granted! We slip up, though, when we imagine that we have transcended the old cultural interdictions against being honest and outspoken. All we have transcended, it seems, is the idea that the patriarchy is the authority that enforces these interdictions.
In the face of these attacks, the women of my generation — who have more outlets than ever for making their voices heard– need to make sure that we are judging our words carefully, that we aren’t saying anything we don’t actually believe, and that we are accurately representing ourselves. This is what I am trying, and sometimes failing, to do. This is all we can do. It’s not anyone’s individual job to represent femininity as a whole — not Linda Hirshman’s, not Meghan McCain’s, not Rebecca Traister’s, and certainly not mine.
** like I was. Linda Hirshman lumped me in with the Jezebels — an unearned honor, since I wrote a scant handful of posts for them about a year ago. Per Linda, “Emily Gould published a story in the New York Times Magazine about chronicling her relationships and sex life online for a year; the cover photo was a shot of her in her bed.” The blog had to post a correction that eliminated the phrase “for a year.” I think Linda’s inclusion of that phrase revealed that she had not actually read the article, but had assimilated all she thought she needed to know from the pictures.