Friday, February 04, 2011

That Guy, That Girl

There was an Onion Magazine cover recently which struck me as both spot-on (as they always are) and... off: "The World's 10 Most Powerful Women: We Make Them Discuss Fashion And Lindsay Lohan." On the one hand, it's insulting to female politicians and CEOs to ask them what shade of pink they prefer. On the other, who are the world's most powerful women, and how did they make their names? Oprah Winfrey? Discussing one's feelings. Martha Stewart? Domesticity. The most frightening female onscreen boss in recent memory would have to be Meryl Streep's turn as a pseudo-Anna Wintour (the editor of American Vogue, which is a fashion magazine, for those who don't keep track of such frivolity) in "The Devil Wears Prada."


There's another installment in the age-old debate about why women still aren't writing for the serious magazines in great numbers. Meghan O'Rourke asks "whether what editors consider 'important' is itself affected by gender," and I would say the answer is, yes, although editors are maintaining a status quo that extends beyond magazines.

There are, I suspect, many more men than women who will confidently hold forth on what they make of, for example, the events in Egypt. (Imagine a deep voice saying, 'Well, you see, what all this means is...') And what comes of Egypt is a bigger question than who designs Kate Middleton's gown. End of story?

Are women not reading and closely interpreting the front page of newspapers? Women (not with the initials S.P.) are doing this, but there just aren't so many women who believe that their take is so important that gosh darn it everyone must hear it. Same as the That Guy in a college seminar hasn't done any more of the readings than his quieter classmates.

If we grant that some issues matter more than others, it's still not clear that this means if you want to discuss Important, you're looking for a male interlocutor. There are 'women's topics' that are Big Questions - contraception and abortion, childcare, food policy. And 'men's topics' that kind of aren't: lengthy discussions of who's going to win a minor Congressional race, say, or anything whatsoever to do with sports or picking up women. And of course, there are men interested in shoes and birth control, women named Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that there are far more men with thoughts they wish to write up about Egypt, and that one would find a few women interested in writing that story, but a whole lot prepared to write about, for example, women's window of romantic opportunity. (This does not strike me as a sexist assumption, given the role of socialization in all of this, and the extent to which boys, even not-all-that-bright ones, are rewarded for being know-it-alls, while know-it-all female Dreyfus Affair buffs are socialized into knowing things like which shades of nail polish are in this season.) Would we rather our serious magazines contain 10 articles mostly by men, on serious topics, of which two say something new and useful, or see a mix of the best serious articles and the best cultural commentary, where women and David Brookses could share the stage? Is the way to show that important topics are important to print exclusively on those topics, even if readers would (I suspect, given that this blog has some arguably serious people among its readers) prefer a mix?

(Alas, Flavia. Guilty.)

Obviously a magazine does not cease to be serious upon the inclusion of non-NYT-front-page material. There are ways of discussing relationships, fashion, etc. that go deeper than Clooney vs. Pitt, or than what we think of the future Mme Millepied's maternity wear. Take Jessica Grose's series in Slate on how newly-married couples split their expenses. It's girly - based on personal experience, complete with a cute photo of author and husband, an "overshare" if a not-so-racy one, and an invitation for the reader to speculate on the dynamics of her marriage, something female writers often enough face without in any way eliciting it - but gets at something that does affect people's lives, and that is difficult to discuss socially. I like that Grose didn't apologize for starting from (but moving beyond) personal experience, or for writing about a topic a man would probably not pick.

Point being, I don't believe it's necessary to wait for the Golden Age of there being an equal number of women as men wanting to write about international relations or Senate elections for these numbers to even out. I'm somewhat torn, because in ancient times when I edited a college paper's opinion section I was forever frustrated by the fact that the only other woman who wanted to contribute wished to write about what it was like to date a frat guy, but hey. She did, no harm done.


Miss Self-Important said...

I'm really tired of reading Jessica Grose's pre-pre, pre-, during-, and post-wedding thoughts. For someone so ambivalent about the institution of marriage, she's probably made more money off of it than most wedding planners.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'm sure she's made less than Chua has/will from her ambivalence about Chinese mothering, and that isn't even her day job.

But speaking of ambivalence... I'm torn on the women-writing-fluff issue. On the one hand, to speak personally about not speaking personally, I would not even think of pitching this kind of story, because even without offering such detail about my personal life, I find that if you're young(ish), female, and writing about any "soft" or gender-related topic, you get speculation, which is usually expressed in the form of confident statements from perfect strangers about your current life and past experiences. That, and as with my less than enthusiastic response to the frat-romance column, it seems imperative to me to avoid being a certain kind of Carrie Bradshaw-esque girl-writer.

On the other hand, even if Grose on weddings, whoever it was on frat boys, make women seem less serious as writers, I do think there should be a space for women - and men! - who aren't writing about Major Current Events, but whose writing is compelling, and who find ways to show that their topics are, in their way, important, and that this type of writing should also be classified as serious enough for serious magazines, and that the mistaken notion that any literate man's thoughts on Major Current Events are inherently more valuable than (to use an example you may find convincing) the best of Caitlin Flanagan keeps the numbers of women in these publications lower than it needs to be. Does this make me a self-hating female writer of fluff? Could be, although I don't quite hate most of the fluff that's out there, and certainly don't hate the individuals writing it.

With Grose's writing in particular (and I did not just go back and reread her marriage writings, but I know kind of what you're referring to, and, TV-less, have gotten back into those DoubleX podcasts), there's a bit of what Flavia gets at in her post about weddings - heterosexual women who don't like to think of themselves as being like everyone else, who imagine other 30-ish women as an Ugg-wearing horde of sheep, find themselves nevertheless in that near-universal situation of entering into (usually already having been in) a monogamous commitment with intention to stay together for life. I get that young upper-middle-class white women who think they're special are an easy target, I wouldn't make light of this - first-world-problem, fine, but it ishard for some young straight women to deal with the fact that their romantic relationships feel unique, but that there's this role of woman-who-has-boyfriend/fiance/husband, with an entire industry supporting the notion that all women are experiencing basically the same thing. Whereas yes, men get married in suits, but they're not presumed to be defining their identities via their fiancees or weddings. That, and their interest in women generally is assumed to be about the women, not about the desire for social status or jewelry - thus why so many straight women claim, half-jokingly, to have inner gay men.... So you get women who to others seem like everybody else in their milieus, even - especially! - in their desire to be different, whether this difference manifests itself as a quirky wedding, a lot of hand-wringing about the institution prior to the wedding, or both.

FLG said...


But what if "the entire industry supporting the notion that all women are experiencing basically the same thing" is a consequence, not a cause?

Running the risk of overgeneralizing, men, in general, don't care about what society thinks of their marriage, what it means beyond the direct effects on their and their potential spouses' lives. Maybe the extended family comes into the thought process, but what it means as some sort of societal statement or even what society expects of them is pretty far in the background.

This isn't to say they don't care, but there's no way an industry is going to pop up to cater to it. Nature, nurture, don't know why, but I still think women would be better off if they would care less what people and society thought of their actions.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'm aware of your women-should-care-less-what-others-think manifesto, and am not sure what to make of it in general - women may be more likely to care too much, but men are too socially inept more often than women (remember how many women with Aspergers, even, learned as girls to seem socially capable), which causes its own problems. So I'd settle for women should care less, men should care more.

But in this particular case, the women I'm referring to - the ones who detect a conflict between the expectation that they want the trappings of being in a publicly-acknowledged heterosexual relationship, and their reality of wanting the man (and, well, sex, given the fact that being in a relationship means more of it, plus the risks for women meeting lots of random men are greater than vice versa) more than the trappings - are in a bind precisely because their desires happen to match up so neatly, on the surface at least, with what society demands. What's frustrating to such women is the fact that the outward manifestations of what they want without caring what others think look identical to those of a woman who strives to meet social conventions. I mean, one might say, all true but women shouldn't care about seeming not to meet or seeming to meet social conventions. But when there's no parallel expectation of men, do we blame women for caring, or the expectation?

Granted, the wedding industry, and the find-a-partner industry, do not target men. But if men are expected not to want conventional trappings, they are expected to equate being single with a kind of promiscuous freedom - adventures, seeing the world, sleeping with a never-ending supply of beautiful young women - that would be out-of-reach to 99.99% of men who decide to opt for "freedom" over the woman they've been dating for three years when 30 rolls around.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, as we've discussed before, the problem with writing about personal topics is that it opens you to criticism from total strangers about your own decisions. This is more problematic for women since the personal stuff they tend towards involves their appearances, their relationships, and, apparently, their finances, whereas men's fluffy interests--sports, comics, computers, whatever--aren't so closely bound up with their bodies and domestic lives. Of course, there are exceptions--PUA-blogging, for instance, which opens men up to a world of personal scorn for their own sexual and romantic failures, most of which they richly deserve.

As for the general issue at stake here--I don't really know what you're aiming at. Is the problem that women who presently write on girly topics should switch to writing about international affairs? Or that other women should come in and balance out the international affairs writing while leaving the girly niche to Jessica Grose & Co.? Or that the distinction b/w serious and girly is artificial?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I agree, and remember that we've discussed, how personal topics invite personal speculation. But a general conversation - even a broadly anecdotal one - about dating, marriage, finances, fashion, need not be interpreted as autobiographical. Grose's marriage-writing is a different story, because she spells out that it is, at least in part, about her. Whereas when I write about something to do with gender or relationships, obviously being the age and gender I am inspire the topic, but it's not specifically about my personal experiences. It's more of a mish-mash of what I know anecdotally, what I've read about in articles, and what people write/call in to Dan Savage and Dear Prudence. So if Grose hadn't spelled out that she's a newlywed, offered a picture of herself with her new husband, etc., I think it would have been out of line for readers to assume she was a newlywed in this situation, or to Google her to confirm and then make a thing about it. Topics that might relate to someone's personal life should not be interpreted as overshares, nor should they be taboo. (Unless it's writing about one's children. This needs to stop.) I mean, what if a woman writes fiction about looks/relationships/finances? Do we also assume, in that case, that we're learning the author's own dress size/relationship anxieties/bank holdings?

The reason you don't know what I'm aiming at is that I'm not sure myself. On the one hand, it frustrates me that there are not more women writing on serious topics as those are usually defined. On the other, better a good cultural-criticism essay on Kids These Days than a mediocre analysis of a serious, non-FWP situation. But if I had to give an answer... I think long-term it would be to get more women feeling confident enough about their views on and knowledge of serious topics, but that in the mean time, even using the broad definition we already have of what goes into a serious magazine, we could cut some of the not-well-executed Serious Topic articles to make way for some compelling articles on not-so-serious topics.

PG said...

It's easy for women to write about personal (domestic/family) topics without mostly discussing themselves. You see it all the time in articles from the fields of Gender & Economics and Family & Law. I took courses in both and the individual arrangements of professors never, and those of students rarely, came up.

However, this requires some degree of empirical rigor. E.g., in an article arguing that name-change laws ought to be gender-neutral, the author looked at (if we're honest, had her student-researchers look at) statutes, case law and on-the-ground administration of the regulations around this issue. The on-the-ground was in one sense anecdotal because someone was calling up court clerks to ask about name changes pursuant to marriage, but the resulting conversations were recorded and the differences between the ones where a woman wanted to change, and a man wanted to, were well-documented. Having done that, the author could then write an intro that talked about the difference between her grandmother's, mother and her own generation on the issue, and even conclude the article declaring her own preference that marrying couples abandon both their last names and instead create a new amalgam. One sees this pattern in lots of academic literature; a friend started a tax law article talking about his gay landlords, but the article didn't rely on them to make the argument, only to give a kind of human touch. The only people who could get away with anecdote-as-analysis were some of the critical legal theorists, and that sort of thing is dying out. I edited a feminist law journal and even our staff was skeptical of such submissions.

As a non-investigative journalist rather than an academic, Grose was essentially documenting her process of thinking through a question. It seems similar to Dan Savage's book "The Commitment," which is not only the obvious political argument (legalize SSM), but also a personal story about what commitment means to his family and the significance of the forms of marriage. I'm too thin-skinned to take the personal criticism that such writing inevitably gets, but I think it's entirely worthwhile so long as the author's critical consideration of what to do seems to be genuinely examining various options and arguments for them. These things can also be written academically -- there's got to be a law or economics piece trying to take an empirical look at how married couples deal with money, and this being flawed because you probably can only get that data from divorce cases bitter enough to be litigated. Which is to say, on some issues empiricism may not have much more to offer than anecdata.

(Speaking of Savage, any thoughts on extent to which white male homosexuals DO dominate LGBT discussion thus has made SSM a Very Serious Topic? Despite all the jokes about lesbians' rushing to commit, I see vastly more discussion about SSM from the homosexuals' perspective being written by men than by women. On the anti- side, Maggie Gallagher is a one-woman affirmative action for female participation in the debate.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'm with you on most of this, but not the part about "empirical rigor" being necessary to discuss something "personal" without discussing one's own personal life. I mean, I agree that my posts about the window of opportunity, if I ever want to turn them into something longer/published, would need something beyond anecdata. But they're not about my own romantic life and commentary it has received, insofar as when I sum up what I see as the overall situation, I describe what I see as the general rule, even when, as it often does, it conflicts with what I myself have experienced. I'll accept, writing about such a topic, that general demographic categories impact my thoughts. But I don't see how a lack of survey data means all writing on such topics is about one's own love life.

Also, as defined by MSI, "personal" includes fashion, because it's about the body... and I don't believe fashion writing needs to be empirical to avoid bringing up the wallet and waist size of the writer.

As for white gay men and SSM, aren't there more gay men than lesbians, more men than women writing op-eds? They may still be less worked-up about SSM than other segments of the LGBT population, we just hear more from them whatever it is they're thinking. I mean, it's also from that demographic that we're hearing about how marriage is too bourgeois for interesting, artistic gays who can organize their romantic lives so much better than boring suburban breeders, right?