Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Fluff 'n stuff

Does the market value of frivolity make life easier for female than male journalists or, more broadly (sorry) women than men? Is lady-journalism best understood as fluff, or as a form no less worthy than current-controversy op-eds?

There seem to be two things operating at once. One, as Elizabeth is right to point out (via Amber), being a woman makes it easier to fail, because women have more options in terms of opting out of the workforce, but also because when a woman is inept, it can be seen as neutral or even add to her charm, whereas few men advertise their inadequacies of any kind. (Are there 25-year-old American men who still don't know how to drive? No doubt, but they would be less likely to be open about it.)

(But are women weaker, or is weakness not condemned as strongly in women? It's like the question of whether women are more social, or whether there's just so much pressure on women to be friendly and people-people that even girls with Aspergers find their way in the world of cliques.)

The other is that 'failure' is defined as feminine behavior. Staying home to raise kids, fussing about shoes and makeup, interest in social and domestic (as in, abortion and the US, not dinner parties and Windex) issues over foreign and economic policy, willingness to admit one might be wrong in a blogospheric argument (starting sentences with 'I think' and ending them with 'but I don't know really', as opposed to the 'you're wrong, you idiot' approach taken by oh, one or two male blog commenters, or blog-commenters presenting themselves as such)... all of these things are defined as negative in part, at least, because they are associated with the ladies. Even moving beyond obvious examples of fluff (like the amusing one Elizabeth gives: "5 Ways to Get Beach Hair"), the female and the silly are often defined as one and the same.

It's not clear to me (to use a female sentence-starter) how to get around this. One could say buying one's children binders is just as important and worthy as rocket science, that shoe-bloggery as crucial to our society as bloggy analysis of constitutional law. It's clear enough where the drawbacks there lie. Another possibility: women could decide to live without men. The problems with that, too, are self-evident.

Some ways out of this puzzle:

-We could remember that time wasted is time wasted. Looking for just the right new pair of shoes or watching the game, these are both time-wasters. Sure, great shoes can help further a career (but a couple pairs would do), and watching sports can mean socializing and thus networking (but can also mean beers and sitting on the couch alone). The point need not be that female time-wasters are actually productive activities, just that girly-nonsense is no more nonsensical than the male equivalent.

-There is excellent writing on fluff, and dreadful writing on Serious Issues. Think Proust on disappointment in love versus an American college sophomore's op-ed in the school paper about how to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all. The comment Amber links to about how brilliant law students write about law, whereas lesser minds deal with "clothes, recipes and literature," is so off, I don't know where to begin. Clearly a link to Zappos is not Supreme Court-level analysis of the US Constitution, but I can't say I understand throwing out there as though it's established fact the notion that writing about literature is what one does when one is too dense to write about law. In fact, I bet I could round up some folks who'd argue the opposite. The law student writing exclusively about something other than law should be held guilty only of having chosen the wrong field.

-Sometimes fluff is just fluff. But other times, an undertaking thought silly when done by women comes to be considered Important when men take an interest, or vice versa. Food beyond haute cuisine, for instance, was thought fluff (not to be confused with Fluff, mmm) until men entered the picture. Or the humanities, once a serious endeavor, now the object of mockery, now that women are over-represented among those whose job is to read a book and write a paper about it. No doubt there are male and female ways of writing about literature, food, or anything else. We seem to equate 'serious' with 'male,' allowing that some men will write fluff and some women seriousness, but that these will be the exceptions.

17 comments:

Petey said...

"There is excellent writing on fluff, and dreadful writing on Serious Issues. Think Proust on disappointment in love versus an American college sophomore's op-ed in the school paper about how to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all."

Love is far more Serious an issue than solving the I/P conflict.

Only a woman would think otherwise.

JMR said...

Are there 25-year-old American men who still don't know how to drive? No doubt, but they would be less likely to be open about it.

I read The Road More Traveled on my flight to New York on Sunday, and the very first sentence in the book reminded me of the driving posts here:

No matter how different they are, no matter which clique they belong to, teenagers have one thing in common - they cannot wait to get their driver's license.

J. Otto Pohl said...

I am a 38 year old American man who never learned to drive. Sometime about ten years ago I pretty much decided to forget about ever driving. At that time it did not look like I would ever have enough money to be able to use the skill. This may in fact still be true, but now I just do not have the desire to ever drive.

Andrew Stevens said...

I also am a male well beyond 25 who doesn't know how to drive. My wife does all the driving for our household. She's tried teaching me, but I just can't get the hang of a stick shift. Next car, we're picking up an automatic and I'll learn then. I am quite open about this in real life and can't say that I view it as an "inadequacy." Indeed, I think my wife views it as a charming eccentricity. I don't even have the excuse of living in New York City. I'm the only person I know both where I live now and where I grew up who doesn't drive regularly.

By the by, what I have always loved are the people who give me nightmare scenarios ("What would you do if your wife had a seizure while driving?") as if she wouldn't be better off with me in the car than driving alone, which almost nobody hesitates to do.

Phoebe said...

JOP and AS,

You're either exceptions to the rule, or what has been shown is that the male urge to declare someone Wrong On The Internet overpowers the male urge to be discreet re: ineptitude.

Petey said...

"You're either exceptions to the rule, or what has been shown is that the male urge to declare someone Wrong On The Internet overpowers the male urge to be discreet re: ineptitude."

Hmmm...

First, I'll note that "internet behavior" tends to follow profoundly different rules than meatspace behavior.

Second, I'll note that the Someone Is Wrong On The Internet behavior is indeed stereotypically male, much as compulsive ranking of things to find The Best is stereotypically male behavior in the meatspace world.

Third, I'll note that all of Phoebe's posts on stuff like this elide a crucial distinction between average behavior and universal behavior.

It's the last point I think is most important. For example, are Jews bankers? Well, Jews are probably over-represented in banking compared to their share of the population, but most Jews aren't bankers. Clarifying the difference between averages and types and universals in her terminology (admittedly not an easy thing to do) would make Phoebe's posts a bit more meaningful.

For another example, I learned how to drive at 15 and 3/4 so I could get my license at 16. But at the same time, I find it to be a highly winning conversational tactic in meatspace to note various of my inadequacies almost immediately upon making a new acquaintance. Is this non-male behavior? Well, I'm a hetero male who is probably a bit girly - I am into the arts and humanities, after all. So it's probably not stereotypically male behavior. But at the same time, there are hordes of males who approach the topic of gender identity much in the same way that I do.

So what does mean for notions of maleness and femaleness? (Other than giving Phoebe an attraction/repulsion complex towards hipsters, of course...)

Andrew Stevens said...

Well, there's a reason why I pointed out how open I am "in real life." In fact, I do believe this is only the second time I've ever mentioned it on the Internet. (It happened to come up on a Doctor Who message board, of all things, once before, but I don't recall how it came up.) But everybody who knows me in reality knows it. I'm not sure how it would be possible for me to hide it from my coworkers, for instance, even if I were inclined to.

I suspect, however, that you are right and we are exceptions. Not in admitting it, so much as I think women are more likely to not bother to learn how to drive. My grandmother didn't know how to drive until she was 50 (when my grandfather had a health problem which forced her to learn). As for "ineptitude," have you seen some of these people who are allowed to drive? I don't think it's ever crossed anybody's mind to think that I don't drive because I'm incapable of learning. They just take it as another example of my eccentricity (along with my not owning a cell phone or a camera).

I've also never missed out on much by not driving. My wife loves to drive (she was once a professional driver) and hates to fly so cross-country road trips have been a regular summer occurrence in my adult life. I navigate since I'm better at reading maps and planning detours around major cities so we don't get stuck in traffic. Since, were I to get a license, she would still do virtually all of the driving (it is my firm opinion that driving should be done by the better driver), there's really no pressure on me to learn.

Andrew Stevens said...

Second, I'll note that the Someone Is Wrong On The Internet behavior is indeed stereotypically male.

Hey, it's not me who has a blog devoted to linking to articles on the Internet and explaining why they're wrong. That would be our female host. But, your distinction between average behavior and universal behavior is well taken.

Anonymous said...

"By the by, what I have always loved are the people who give me nightmare scenarios ("What would you do if your wife had a seizure while driving?") as if she wouldn't be better off with me in the car than driving alone, which almost nobody hesitates to do."

People eat alone, too, but there's still such a thing as a Heimlich Maneuver.

Andrew Stevens said...

The Heimlich Maneuver can be self-administered using the back of a chair or other fixed object. Nobody ever asks me about CPR certification though (I am, unlike more than 80% of drivers) which seems more pertinent if safety really is your concern. For that matter, if people were really concerned about safety, they'd want fewer drivers, not more.

Anonymous said...

Look, if you're driving and start to seize or have a stroke, you're in trouble. In a situation like that, it would be undeniably useful to have a passenger in the front seat who could shove you out of the way and take over the mechanics of driving. The CPR skills are great if there's a third person on board who can drive while you do the resuscitation.

Andrew Stevens said...

Even I am not so incompetent that I couldn't bring the car to a stop and pull over to the shoulder. Even on a stick shift, stopping the car was never my problem.

Anonymous said...

I think, then, that you are an impostor of a non-driver. A genuine non-driver would not know how to stop or start a car and probably wouldn't know there was such a thing as a shoulder.

Andrew Stevens said...

And I think you're a bit nutty. I mentioned earlier in the thread that my wife has tried teaching me how to drive. You don't get very far if you don't learn how to start and stop the car. (I'm not actually very confident of my ability to start the car, though, since I always forget to depress the clutch.) And not know what a shoulder is? What planet do you live on? One where non-drivers live in caves? I've got a learner's permit and everything - have for years. I just don't know how to actually drive a car.

I actually do most of the automotive maintenance for my wife as well. Not knowing how to drive doesn't make me an idiot and I never said I was.

Phoebe said...

Let's try to keep the tone civil here. "What planet do you live on" was uncalled for. I, for one, don't know what a "shoulder" is, but will probably have to learn soon...

Anonymous said...

Andrew, I live on the planet Manhattan, I seriously am not sure how to start or stop a car, and I have never asked a cab driver to pull up at the "shoulder". I did not say you were an idiot. My point is just that there are true absolute non-drivers out there, so knowing how to drive even a little puts you into entirely another category.

Andrew Stevens said...

I do apologize. After posting, I realized I was probably intemperate. To briefly defend my intemperance, when I first read the comment, I thought you were calling me a liar with the word "impostor." But, in fact, you probably only meant that I am not your Platonic ideal of a non-driver. And on that, you are, of course, certainly correct. (I'm not the Platonic ideal of anything.) It would help, by the by, were the comments made pseudonymously rather than anonymously. I'm not saying everybody should use their real names as I do and our host does, but it's easier to get a handle on a pseudonym.

In any event, please do accept my apology and we'll call a truce.

I have, I am sure, sufficiently proven my non-driver credentials by this time though. My exasperation with people who give me nightmare scenarios to try to demonstrate why you must learn to drive right now is very real. To be fair, with the modern ubiquity of cell phones, I don't hear the argument very much anymore and I was actually quite surprised when Anonymous rose up to defend it.