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n+1’s “So Many Feelings” and the Way We Talk About Feminism on the Internet

The Hairpin

A FEW WEEKS AGO, the n+1 Review of Books published an essay by Molly Fischer titled "So Many Feelings," about the genesis of, and problems with, "ladyblogs" like the Hairpin and Jezebel. Did you read it? (Did you read it and then forget about it?) Hang on, go back, I'll wait.

Okay. Let's get the easy stuff out of the way: The writing is straight-up bad. The tenses are weird; the tone is all misplaced holier-than-thou; there are anonymous blog comments used as supporting quotations for an argument whose thrust doesn't really become clear until the last paragraph. Plus there's also the part where Fischer decides not to pay any attention to the facts of what she's talking about, and instead writes an entire essay based on a series of condescending, inaccurate generalizations. The place where things really start to fall apart, though, is also the crux of her argument: that these blogs, which could be fostering serious feminist discussion, are instead turning the internet into "the world's biggest slumber party." This whole thing is predicated on the idea that these websites don't "concern themselves with the harder to articulate, more insidious expectations about women's behaviour"—instead they're cutesy, eager-to-please "general-interest outlets" masquerading as feminist websites. Digital Cosmo for a savvier generation.

Here I feel like I should say that, while I read the Hairpin on a daily basis, I've got only a passing familiarity with Jezebel, Rookie and XOJane, the other websites the essay mentions. But anyone who's seen even one of these sites can spot the most obvious flaw in Fischer's argument from a mile away. The Hairpin's tone and content, she says, is "cute that [is] also a joke about being cute, with hyperbole or alcohol or icky things thrown in to make sure everyone [gets] the joke." The website, according to her, is heavy on eco-friendly cat bonnets and light on serious, meaningful content.

But here's the thing: The same "Ask a Lady" advice columns that Fischer dismisses out-of-hand have also dealt with questions about the various repercussions of severe abuse. The same woman (Jane Marie) whom Fischer writes off as a glorified beauty editor also wrote an article about What It's Like To Get A Biopsy. Fischer isn't wrong when she says the Hairpin publishes things about makeup and cats, but to suggest that a site that featured "Ask an Abortion Provider" (pts. 1 & 2), or The Evolution of Ape-Face Johnson (Carolita Johnson's memoir of dealing with body image issues and insecurity in the modeling industry), or Women Laughing Alone With Salad or an essay on dealing with a stillbirth (just to name a few) doesn't concern itself with the harder-to-articulate aspects of being a woman is disingenuous at best. It's hard to take anything else in her essay seriously when it's clear Fischer needs to disregard a large portion of the site's actual content in order to make her argument. What's she's saying would be true, if what she's talking about were entirely different.   

Factual inaccuracies aside, one of the most frustrating things about "So Many Feelings" is that there are a whole host of questions about these types of blogs that are actually worth addressing, but they're complicated, and in the end it's easier to accuse these sites en masse of Not Doing Feminism Right instead of actually trying to address some of their inherent complexities.

In her introduction, Fischer mentions how larger "blog empires" sort and direct their readers by advertising demographic: with Gawker Media, "one might be interested in sports, and read Deadspin. One might be interested in gadgets, and read Gizmodo. Or one might be interested in being a woman, and read Jezebel." The Awl does this too, in its own small way—there's Splitsider (comedy), Wirecutter (tech) and the Hairpin (4 the ladiez). The fact that we have "ladyblogs" the same way we have blogs about sports or technology is built on some pretty questionable assumptions. The reason a website like Deadspin is able to showcase a broad range of writers, styles, perspectives, etc. on one particular topic is that there's a lot of stuff to talk and argue about, but there are also a lot of clear, definite rules at the core of things, rules you can always go back to and check your opinions against.

But being a lady (much as it may sometimes feel like it) is not sports. There's a difference here at a molecular level—there aren't a whole lot of identifiable Basic Rules for Being A Woman (which is what makes magazines like Cosmo so laughable in the first place).* The editors of ladyblogs don't simply manage a bunch of content around a particular topic. They're also, in some sense, attempting to define that topic as they go along—one that's, by its very nature, impossible to completely pin down.** There's a valid question here: whether or not, by setting these blogs up in the first place, "empires" like Gawker Media are attempting to commodify female experience by oversimplifying it to the point where issues of gender are given the same weight as issues of what Mark Sanchez is up to on Twitter.

But that's not what "So Many Feelings" is about. According to Fischer, sites like the Hairpin don't constitute an attempt to navigate this difficult territory; instead, because they (apparently) don't contain an "explicit political project" and are instead "helpful, agreeable, relatable, and above all likable," they are, inherently, unfeminist.*** This means that the Hairpin's decision to publish "Ask an Abortion Provider" alongside "Ask a Clean Person," for example, doesn't constitute an attempt at complicating the relationship between pop culture and feminism; it merely makes the Hairpin a toothless, people-pleasing outlet for inane slumber-party banter.****

ALL OF THIS seems fair enough, but thinking about it this much leads us to the inevitable (somewhat depressing) question:

Who cares?

I mean, really. Chances are Fischer's isn't the only poorly written, factually iffy article you've read in the past month—or week, or day, for that matter. Plus it was published over three weeks ago, which in Online Years means it's already died, degraded back into the e-soil whence it came and sprouted a brand-new forest of low-hanging fruit trees. It's a shitty article, yes, but there's no point in pulling apart and enumerating the faults of every shitty article ever published—even those from good, well-respected magazines like n+1—because doing that will make you (and everyone who has to listen to you) completely insane. This is so obvious it seems dumb to even say it. "So Many Feelings" may have been bad, but in the grand scheme of things, it appeared on the radars of those who might care about it, induced some brief moments of hackle-raisage and then, for all intents and purposes, disappeared.

So why can't I stop having feelings about it?

When the essay was first posted, I shared a link to it on Facebook. One of my friends immediately responded that "writing about feminist writing on the internet is like human centipede meets ouro bouros."***** Near-immediately, four "likes" appeared—one, reflexively, my own. ("Unlike this.") There is a particular kind of anxious frustration that starts to build with this stuff; it's like you're trapped in a small room that's only ever going to get smaller. No matter how much potential there is for fostering dialogue and exposing new perspectives in our online discussions of feminist theory and practice, there is, at the moment, an overwhelming feeling that, in this conversation, we're not just treading water but swallowing it. There are, of course, people addressing these types of issues in a more intelligent, straightforward way elsewhere on the internet (another friend linked to this Maura Johnston piece, which, like most things she writes, is pretty spot-on), but in general, the whole thing is beginning to feel a bit like a pile-on and less like a productive discussion.

And that's for those of us who are already concerned with participating. Never mind the people who don't see themselves as being included or represented in contemporary discussions of feminism in popular culture. I know a stupid-huge number of brilliant young women who are reluctant (or who flat-out refuse) to identify themselves as feminists—not because they're not, but because when they look at the totality of the current public discourse about this stuff, they don't see anything useful or reflective of their own experience. Instead, they see this enormous pile of recursive, self-reflexive, critical bullshit; useless to them, useless to anyone and ultimately best to steer clear of entirely.

This is the real problem with Fischer's article—not just what it shows us about her worldview, but what it shows us about the overall quality of the dialogue we're engaging in right now, and what happens to that dialogue when we remove it from the realm of our own lived experience.

ALL GOOD BULLIES know that the best way to break someone is to figure out what makes them different from "everyone else," and then to make that difference shameful. Similarly, one of the most subtle and insidious forms of contemporary sexism is the trope of the "humourless feminist." The idea that one's politics necessarily preclude them from being "in on the joke"—that women are a "special interest" group, or that feminist issues aren't also everyone's issues—is not only pervasive; it's an idea that allows people to dismiss women with stunning ease, in everything from politics to entertainment. When Fischer criticizes a blog like the Hairpin for being apolitical in its tone and content, what she's really doing is contributing to the cultural myth that being a woman, or being a feminist, is a different thing from simply being a person.

To section off the mundane bits of time-waste and chatter that comprise the everyday practice of being a person in the world—to say that by talking about this stuff, or by enjoying ourselves while talking about it, we are sidestepping the "harder to articulate" issues that comprise our lived experiences as women—isn't just inaccurate, it's damaging. One of the most consistently difficult things about life qua life is that you cannot separate out the Big Things, the grand gestures and traumas and issues and questions, from the boring interstitial bits. The serious issues Fischer wishes these blogs dealt with directly aren't only there when we're naming them or pointing them out—which sites like the Hairpin do, all the damn time—they're everywhere. In fact, the "harder to articulate" aspects of female experience tend to occur, more often than not, in these smaller moments; in the ways we negotiate our relationships and speak to one another, when we're watching TV and purchasing clothes and cooking meals and reading books and browsing the internet.

Including discussions of these things on a "ladyblog" in some sense tags them as essential components of female experience, but that doesn't mean the potential for serious communal discussion is "curdling into BFF-ship" before our eyes. In fact, it's a building-out of that very discussion; an acknowledgement of the fact that the experience of being a woman is inextricable from the need to waste time at work, or look at things that make you laugh, or find a community whose sensibilities and interests and tastes are familiar to you—whose existence makes you feel, in some small way, less alone. By taking it as a given that women might be interested in imaginary Beyoncé-inspired thesis titles, close readings of text messages, and a female escape artist's experience of getting a uterine tumour removed all in equal measure, the Hairpin is in fact making a pretty bold and explicitly feminist statement.

"So Many Feelings" decries the lack of "sisterhood" on these websites. But what good is solidarity if it's at an arm's-length remove from your current lived experience? What kind of a shitty best friend only takes your calls when she feels you've got something important to say? Fischer wants these blogs to create a supportive community that's based on the recognition and discussion of shared experience, but the thing is, that's what they already do. Just not the way she wants.

*Actually, Jane Marie's recurring beauty column on the Hairpin is tagged "How To Be A Girl," which rubs a lot of people the wrong way, but which I've always felt is a more tongue-in-cheek reappropriation of a pretty common colloquial thing. But that's another conversation for another day.   

**Sorry.

***(As though an eagerness to anger or offend their core demographic would somehow make them more so, instead of just really bad at marketing.)

****Actually, what Fischer says about the sites and their contributors is that they "bake pies with low-hanging fruit," effectively demonstrating in a single sentence the dire consequences of removing one's sense of humour or self-awareness from this type of discussion.

*****(Oops.)

Image via "Things I Could Have Said to Connie Britton When She Came Into My Coffee Shop the Other Day," from the Hairpin.

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