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Blogger, Walk With Me: BOB and Internet Feminism

I am always happy when there is a new post from Emily Magazine in my reader. It is a wonderful little gift! So this post – about women of her generation, and feminism, and inter-lady internet shaming – was exciting to find. It’s really interesting! And you should read all of it!

I don’t quite agree with all of it, however. This bit, for example:

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!”

Well. Huh. First of all: Rebecca Traister and Linda Hirshman in the same sentence? Really? Second: As far as I can tell, most people who write about feminism, or Women, are not actually writing for the benefit of men, or Bob. (Reducing this culture’s complex, ambivalent relationship with gender, feminism, and misogyny to one imaginary dude who needs to “make up his mind” about raping women is, yeah, a weird thing, and maybe an explicit attempt to trivialize feminism itself: but whatever, let us roll with it.) That would sort of be missing the point, wouldn’t it? There are a lot of Bobs out there – dudes who never really think about gender or women’s issues because their privilege ensures that they never really have to – and the odds that they’ll be persuaded to care by a post on a ladyblog such as DoubleX or Broadsheet are, well, slim. No, when you are writing feminism, you are writing counter to Bob’s interests, because: Bob doesn’t care about these things! Bob just wants you to tell him which new records to download! Bob wants to hear that Bob is a good person because Bob voted for Obama! The question that Bob asks, when perusing any given news story, is: what about Bob?

It’s not that Bob is against women, per se. No, Bob – along with his non-fence-sitting, openly misogynist cousin, Steve (you may recognize Steve as the guy who likes to log into the Guardian website and leave long, angry comments on all of my articles) – is perfectly comfortable with women, so long as they fit his comfortable little stereotypes of what women ought to be.

Which is where it gets really sticky. I get what Gould is saying here – that telling certain women they ought not to do what they are doing, because it reinforces stereotypes of women, or whatever, is overly judgmental and hurtful. However, I don’t think that objecting to another woman’s writing, or behavior, is always wrong.

It comes down to the difference between Traister and Hirshman, I suppose. Traister wrote an article which was critical of Gould, and which also argued that certain women (young, pretty, prone to confessional writing) are marketed in a highly sexualized way that focuses on their youth, their prettiness, and their personas, rather than on their writing. She also said that giving women who fit this archetype lots of media exposure, and not giving the same kind of exposure to women with different styles and subjects, promotes a limited view of women and of women’s writing. Hirshman, on the other hand, wrote that piece about how if you don’t report your rape you are a rapist. You could argue that these are two examples of the same thing – women criticizing other women. I would argue that they’re not. The difference lies in where you draw the line: when you say that something is too cruel or too personal. According to every standard of reasonable and compassionate behavior, Hirshman’s piece crossed that line. Traister’s did not. There’s also the fact that Traister’s piece was written in response to a particular, reoccurring phenomenon having to do with gender – something feminism is meant to do. Hirshman’s piece, despite its pretense of relevance, was about throwing a shit fit because someone (Megan Carpentier, to be precise) had criticized her work.

Traister actually made a pretty important point in that piece: that the answer is not silencing certain women, but giving more exposure to more women, so that the full diversity of who we are can be accurately represented. Unfortunately, diversity means disagreement. The question is whether you think that having many women’s voices and many female points of view available to the public is more or less important than not being criticized by another woman.

It’s tough to disagree with another woman in public – especially when you like that woman’s work – not least because you just know it will always get spun into some sort of “catfight.” If there’s one thing Bob and/or Steve love, it’s news that women are raw bitches who tear each other down at every opportunity. Yet men have always had the privilege of disagreeing with each other, and of sorting out questions through debate. (Well – this is particularly true of men who are white and/or straight and/or of a certain class. However.) Insisting that any criticism of a fellow woman and/or feminist is a betrayal of women and/or feminism just takes us to the icky terrain so well-covered by that one Onion story.

Is it feminism’s fault that women write critical pieces about each other? Um, yeah, kind of. It’s feminism’s fault that so many of us are writing, I guess. It’s feminism’s fault that so many women feel confident enough in their own opinions to voice them. So maybe it is feminism’s fault that people will speak up and tell you when they think you’re wrong. It can get loud, and it can get ugly, and I still prefer it to silence – or what happens in a lot of mainstream, non-feminist writing, where no-one is trying to convince men of anything, because they’re all busy telling men what they want to hear. The question of who those pieces are written for has a fairly obvious answer.


  1. emily wrote:

    Sady, thanks for reading me — but you misread me! I’m not saying that those pieces by Linda Hirshman and Rebecca Traister are similar because they “criticize women.” I think they are similiar because they both contain the same kind of *feigned concern* for women whose overt sexuality they think gives other “good” women a bad name, or takes precedence over “good” women’s voices. I’m not trivializing feminism, because that isn’t feminism. It’s player-hating. And they should all — we should all — be more focused on hating the game.

    Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 5:00 am | Permalink
  2. Amanda wrote:

    This is awesome. I get a lot of comments from people on my site (male and female) and I’d say the vast majority of them fall into one of two categories: (a) I agree / I’m glad someone finally said this / I’ve known this all along; and (b) I disagree / you’re a fucking idiot / Jamie Foxx is awesome how dare you. Rarely do I get a (c) I didn’t care in any way about this before, but after careful consideration of your story I have decided that I do care / agree with you. (Though I have gotten people who did not care before but took the time to tell me that they now care because they disagree with me so much).

    It’s interesting to look at the difference between a place like this (Tiger Beatdown) and other places you write (Comment is Free). Here, people always get it, which is great. There, well, most people don’t get it. Which I usually take as some sort of justification for why this work is important.

    Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 5:53 am | Permalink
  3. Sady wrote:

    @Emily: Yeah, that’s totally fair. And, to be honest, I woke up this morning with the feeling that I’d missed something, and thanks for calling me out. I guess I didn’t see quite so much of that in the Traister piece, because that’s normally not how she rolls, and I think she was trying to ask, reasonably enough, why women who write are often marketed in a more sexualized (or more overtly sexualized) way than men. But you’re right, some of it did come across as “why are you so sexual? Men will look down on you! Know better!” Which, that does read as condescending. Anyway, I do agree with your point, and sorry I missed it. So, again. Thanks for calling me out.

    Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 7:50 am | Permalink