Who gets to be a “woman writer”?

I have to admit I was pretty irritated by the cover story of the New York Times Magazine this past week. Not that they featured a young woman blogger, of course, but that the article by former Gawker blogger Emily Gould – which was more of a juicy diary of sex, lies and blogging – that gave a pretty inaccurate portrait of what it means to be a female writer.
And why is that when women writers get attention in the mainstream media, they can only be portrayed in this sexualized and pleasing way in tousled bed sheets? (The NY Time Magazine cover picture to the right is only one of a few.)
Rebecca Traister had a great analysis of the piece yesterday, where she addresses the way that the media – largely controlled by men – not only allows a limited number of women writers to get their 15 minutes of fame, but the only time we’re given it is when we’re willing to expose something:

“When we are fed — and gobble up — stories by or about single urban working women, those exotic and potentially threatening creatures presented to us are often doing things like confessing their self-doubt, discussing their sex lives, lying on rumpled sheets looking pretty.”

But being personal is not what necessarily should be condemned:

We have to remember: There is nothing wrong with women writing about themselves, their youth, their indiscretions, their habits and values and personal development. Men have been writing about this stuff for thousands of years; they call it the canon.
And like their male contemporaries, a lot of this writing disappoints. When it does, there is nothing wrong with criticizing it. The thing that is wrong — really wrong — is when we forget that these kinds of stories are not the only ones that women have to tell. (Emphasis mine.)

The comments section of the article had to be shut down because of the severity of abusive responses towards Gould for writing about her experiences. Would she have received this kind of backlash if she was a man? Likely not.
What do others think?

Join the Conversation

  • Nancy in NYC

    Wow. Gould is young, conventionally pretty, white, straight, and middle-to upper-middle class. Way to break the mold, NYT.

  • http://www.radicalnegative.blogspot.com Blake Emerson

    I think reducing “the canon” to men “writing about themselves, their youth, their indiscretions, their habits and values and personal development,” is not terribly insightful or accurate. It also makes the claim that women can write about something besides their personal lives nearly nonsensical.
    If the whole western canon is nothing more than men talking about their personal lives, then why should we think that women are able to talk about anything besides their personal lives? In other words, if the very best of western thought is nothing more than the personal reflections of males, how is it possible that women are capable of writing anything other than personal reflection? Is the implication that, whereas men are only capable of personal reflection, even at their best, women are capable of something greater?
    What annoyed me here was the underhanded attack on the canon as the works of a bunch of silly narcissistic men, combined with the plea for the breadth women’s writing to be taken more seriously. If the western canon can be summed up as men talking about their personal development, then why does contemporary female writing deserve any better treatment?

  • kid bitzer

    or “tousled”?

  • http://writeslikeshetalks.com Jill Zimon

    Well, I have to tell you – if the exact same kind of article about the blogging experience featured a beefcakey image of a guy and all the pronouns were switched, I confess – I STILL would be railing on the NYT. Why? Because again – the article itself feeds into stereotypes of what the blogs are about and who write them.
    You have a point about the female/woman aspect – maybe that’s made it harsher.
    But still – the NYT was lazy, lazy, lazy. There are SO MANY things not highlighted by the MSM re: the blogs. The NYT has simply reinforced the most negative possible ideas that non-blog reading or writing folks find shocking or impermissible. That’s why I objected to and object to the story. Even if it had been male (and I have railed on same old same old when it’s been all male too – like the NYT did one about all the D.C. guys who live together and blog politics – and it was all dingy and pizza and nerdy etc. – how many times do they go to that narrative rather than find the new ones in the 110 million blogs out here).
    Thanks for asking.

  • Vanessa

    Thanks kid, made the change

  • http://bethaniqua.blogspot.com Bethany

    Blake, I agree that one or both of those arguments is overstated, but I think we can also agree that a lot of that kind of writing IS in the cannon (much of it in iambic pentameter, but still…) and we should value it from persons of both genders, in addition to other kinds of writing.
    I enjoyed the Times piece, because I’m fascinated with 1) confessional writing 2) public/private problems in new media and this explored both in an emotionally intimate way. In the end I wish she would have provided less story and more analysis, and I was offended by the photos, but they were less prominent in the online version I read.
    Thanks for bringing up the general patterns of whose stories get told in these prominent features. Since it’s often people like me, I don’t always notice.

  • kid bitzer

    you make more important changes than that everyday, just by what you do at this site.
    which is to say: yer welcome.

  • shaun

    I had a consciousness-raising moment when reading through the article. There was a point where the article is cut-off and continues later in the magazine. So, as I was right in the middle of reading the piece and turned the page, there was a photograph of of a young man in a hospital bed suffering from major injuries due to combat.
    After seeing that picture, I realized how unimportant, petty, silly, and lame the whole blogger story actually was within a larger context. Blogging and gossip, such a pathetic, milquetoast, white, middle-class problem. Really, who the hell cares?

  • orchid

    I read that NYT Magazine article last week online in a preview of that Sunday’s features and did not see the reaction via commenters.
    But what intrigued me most about the article was not her writing about her personal life (I thought that was the definition of personal blogs) but the balancing act of a blogger’s right to freedom to write what they want and anyone else’s right to privacy who the blogger chooses to write about.
    I’ve had a few conversations with bloggers and they are very divided, some think the practice of writing about others is unethical while others think that the blogger’s right to write trumps the people’s rights s/he writes about. Confused? lol
    Speaking for myself, I’d go to great lengths to make the person as anonymous as possible, since I am sensitive to the right to privacy issue, and attempt to make whatever point I was trying to make without violating their privacy.
    This whole other thing about Gould’s depth, or lack of, as a writer blew right past me.

  • http://speakeristic.blogspot.com J. K. Gayle

    I love your suggestions that we get over these binaries of private/public, male writing/female writing, the canon/the marginal.
    I also love how Nancy Mairs addressed a critic who zeroed in on her being a woman. Mairs: “I am not a ‘real writer.’ I am a writer.”
    Nobody talks about this stuff better than Mairs:

  • theotterkid

    Well, I mean, this is hardly Portnoy’s Complaint. I’d feel more outraged on her behalf if she had any redeeming qualities as a writer.

  • Matt

    I actually thought that the article was quite good, touched on many important themes, and I even think that the pictures were appropriate given the subject matter. The article struck me as a fairly intelligent exploration of how people – particularly young people – are struggling to redefine the appropriate borders between their public and private lives, are remaking the whole notion of celebrity, and are recasting the very morality of communication in the internet age. I don’t agree with everything the author said and did, but I thought she made an important contribution.
    As for her gender, I actually thought it was pretty incidental to the piece. I just skimmed it at the beginning, and so didn’t even realize the author was female until some ways into it. Whether or not publications like the Times should give women writers who write about other subjects more space on the page is to me a separate (though very important) question. This article was an insightful exploration of changing cultural norms. It belonged there.
    As for the pictures, yes, they are a bit sexualized, or perhaps the better word would be “exposing,” as the vibe I got from them was one of an entree into a part of a person’s world that has traditionally been kept hidden from public view. It made sense given the content and tone of the piece.
    The comments were indeed extraordinarily vitriolic – they actually upset me because they were so dismissive of an article that I thought was very much worth writing and reading – and they might have been a bit more civil if the author was male, but that, again, strikes me as incidental to the value of the piece and the way in which it was presented.

  • mec

    I think Traister was making the point that the vast majority of canonical texts are biographical, and even if they aren’t overtly or tacitly biographical, they’re still colored by the author’s own experiences and viewpoints.
    This isn’t an attack on the canon. Vanessa and Traister both make the point that personal writing isn’t the problem. The trivial topics, fostered in women’s writing by patriarchy, that lack real introspection or social commentary are the problem.
    Female and male writers often write about themselves, but the writing has to be gossipy and superficial in a lot of women’s writing if it’s going to get into the mainstream.

  • Maggie

    “When we are fed — and gobble up — stories by or about single urban working women…” (emphasis mine)
    I think this is an important observation because, when it comes down to it, the mainstream media as it exists in the United States is a business. The reason stories like the ones this article talks about are so prevalent is the same reason that supermarket tabloids and less-than-feminist fashion magazines are: people buy them. Or they go online and read them, selling ad space. Can we criticize the media for being patronizing and sexist in its dealings with women? Absolutely. Ultimately, though, the way to change what they’re feeding us is not to eat it.
    Media executives are not, largely, activists. Their job is not to change society, it’s to make money, and the worst way to make money is to try to change society. But if we show that society is changing in spite of them, that nonexploitative articles, books, movies, music, etc. by, for, and about (for example) women and POC are lucrative, you’ll see more of those things. Which will give issues of equality more exposure, which will make them more lucrative.

  • exelizabeth

    I agree with Matt’s comment above. I read this article with no context (I know who Emily Gould is, vaguely, because of Jezebel), and I thought it was very interesting because I have struggled a lot about what it means to blog and to blog personally.
    I think the internet has given us a means of communication that unique in the entire history of human existence, and our generation is the first to really engage in it. So only only is the topic extremely relevant and interesting, more deserves to be written about it. And if you don’t think so, DON’T READ IT.
    As for the war story being “more important…” frankly, men have been making war since the beginning of time. They choose war. And sure, there are lots of socio-economic factors about who goes to war and why, but I doubt that was what the piece was about (to be fair, I haven’t read it).

  • FrumiousB

    that gave a pretty inaccurate portrait of what it means to be a female writer.
    I don’t know about inaccurate – it was an accurate portrait of Gould’s experience as a female writer in a particular medium. “Limited” might be a better word.

  • http://rtred.livejournal.com/ rtred

    It’s always easier to get publicity if you’re photogenic and sexy. The latter is doubly so if you’re a woman.
    Don’t blame the NYT for pandering to its audience. Print is a dying, competitive medium, so they do whatever they can to sell papers.

  • http://norbizness.com norbizness

    Maybe she’s narcoleptic.

  • lyra27

    “More annoying — and twisted — is that those meager spots for women are consistently filled by those willing to expose themselves, visually and emotionally. And not accidentally, by those willing to expose themselves in a way that is comfortable, and often alluring, to many of the men who control the media, and to many of the women who consume it.”
    I totally agree with this — it made me think immediately of Diablo Cody, the now Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Juno.” Now, I love “Juno” and the way she wrote that character — but Cody’s personal story of white middle-class hipster turned stripper/memoirist/blogger seems to feed right into what Traister is talking about here — self-exposure as self-promotion. Why else did Cody’s screenplay in particular get picked up by Hollywood instead of dozens of others penned by talented, young women writers?

  • Ninapendamaishi

    “Don’t blame the NYT for pandering to its audience. Print is a dying, competitive medium, so they do whatever they can to sell papers.”
    Then who is to be held responsible for objectification of women, eh? I think anyone (and any organization) is culpable.

  • http://bethaniqua.blogspot.com Bethany

    J. K.: thanks for making my comment seem coherent.

  • HardCandy

    Please, Please, Please do not call bloggers writers, they are bloggers. I am a writer I studied journalism in college I have a degree, bloggers have opinions and know how to complete sentences.
    With that said why is it such a large percentage of female bloggers (feel the need) write about their sex lives/love lives? Why are they not writing about politics, human rights issues, etc.? That is the real question here.
    There are fewer male sex blogs than female sex blogs. Are there more male political blogs than female political blogs? If so, why?

  • Matt

    HardCandy – I blog. I don’t have a degree in Journalism or English Literature. I consider myself a writer thank you very much, as, I imagine, do many of the people here. Some of history’s best writers worked without post-secondary training. Hemingway comes to mind. I don’t mean to denigrate what I’m sure are your considerable talents and years of hard work, but to suggest that someone needs to posess a set of formal credentials in order to call themselves a writer, or that the legitimacy of blogging as a form of communication is somehow questionable, is likely to insult a lot of people, and so I would humbly suggest that you support your contention with more than two flippant sentences.

  • Lucy

    I’ve always been appalled about the fact that we must show something to get noticed. Better yet, we can’t get a job without looking “pretty” with pounds of make-up on. It’s just so damn degrading.
    This actually aggravates me sooo much, that I even made shirts. They read “I am NOT a sex symbol” and have the feminist fist next to it. People who’ve bought some from me like them. I’m proud of myself…I think there will be more to come…