Girls Don’t Cry: “Feminism” as a Silencer

Once upon a time, humans sat around a fire telling stories. That’s how we learned about the journey before us, by listening to the trials and tribulations of those who’d ventured forth long before us. Time passed and we with changed with it: we became “civilized.” We stopped sharing. What would our neighbors think? What would our friends say? We became isolated.

The great journey of life became ours alone because we no longer shared in the wisdom of those who came before us or walked beside us.

I see this changing. More and more, people are telling their stories the web over. It is as though we have exchanged the fire for the glowing screen of our laptops. We may be alone in our apartments miles apart, but once again, we have each other.

We have made a brave return to the great tradition of story-telling. I see this as a wonderful thing. But there are those who are not so relieved.

CONFESSIONAL JOURNALISM

“There is a new and very weird and, to my mind, very wrong genre of journalism that is becoming all too popular: female confessional journalism,” writes Hadley Freeman at The Guardian:

Here’s how it goes: a female journalist describes her obsession with her weight/breasts/ageing face/food or alcohol problems/inability to have a happy relationship. The article is illustrated by the journalist looking as miserable as possible. There are tales of daily woe. It concludes with the writer still sufficiently unhappy to be commissionable for another very similar piece.

This genre has nothing to do with journalists opening a window into what life is like for women today. It does women no favours at all. It is entirely about perpetuating an editor’s misogynistic image of what women are like (self-hating, self-obsessed) and making a semi-celebrity out of the writer in the belief that readers like to read journalists whose names and faces (and breasts) they recognise.

Perpetuating an editor’s misogynistic image of what women are like: self-hating and self-obsessed. Freeman completely ignores the feelings and trials of the women who inspired her column, labels their editor a misogynist and says that this form of writing is setting feminism back 50 years.

Who are these women?

TERRORISTS OF FEMINISM

Christa D’souza wrote about her three breast surgeries, the problems with encapsulated implants, breast cancer, and her final decision to have her implants completely removed.

Liz Jones has never loved food. Her need to be thin and have control of her life through food rationing has ruled her life since she was eleven. This summer, when her sister visited, she decided to eat normally for three weeks. Her journey of discovery is brutal, sad and heart-wrenching. She describes her change in mood—she’s happier, she feels better, she has more energy. Her skin is less dry. She is alive. But just the same, she knows that when her sister leaves, she will return to her regime. She is an anorexic. This is the truth she is facing within herself.

The story of the playwright Zoe Lewis was pointed out by Anna N in a post at Jezebel on what they’ve labeled “the business of self-hate.” Lewis is successful and independent, but she is questioning her choice of career over that of being a housewife.

NOT JOURNALISM

“Certainly, sometimes a bit of personal experience can add to an article,” writes Freeman. “A first-person piece about, say, drug addiction in the week the government is voting on downgrading the classification of certain drugs is journalistically justified. An extended piece pegged to absolutely nothing in which a ‘former anorexic’ journalist describes her hilarious horror at having to eat ‘normally’ for three weeks is not, and simply suggests that the journalist can think of nothing to write about but herself.”

But who said it was journalism? Is it really that surprising that, in an age where blogs are becoming more and more popular than print media, editors would seek to emulate their qualities in their publications’ lifestyles sections?

How about giving the finger to inverted pyramid style in a burst of first-person, politically irrelevant humanity?

“Many editors do love this genre of journalism,” Freeman adds. This sort of story drives page views. “But do readers [love it]? Well, speaking purely from personal experience, I have yet to encounter a single woman ever saying to me, ‘Hey, did you read that article by that woman in The Daily Mail about how she only eats 500 calories a day, and how she knows that all women are secretly as self-obsessed as her? Wow, I loved that!’”

Well, I’ll be the first, Hadley.

THINKING OF FOR YOU

“I have no doubt that the women who write these articles truly feel the emotions they describe,” Freeman says dismissively in her Guardian piece. “But these women need help; they do not need to be made to feel that their professional USP is to play up their misery. Yet I’m a lot less bothered about the effect these articles have on the journalists who write them than I am about the readers who read them.”

Why? Because we’re so suggestible that reading about a woman’s losing battle with anorexia or another’s miserable journey to find youth in implants will destroy our idea of what it means to be a woman?

Freeman’s verdict is final: “This kind of journalism sets feminism back by about 50 years, because not only does it perpetuate offensive stereotypes about women as needy, helpless, childlike narcissists, it suggests that the most interesting thing a woman can offer up to others is her own battered, starved, bloated, enhanced or reduced body. And that seems a lot sadder to me than any shocking revelation I ever read in a single piece of confessional journalism.”

What I see here is not the call of feminism, what I see is women trying to silence other women. I see women dismissing the realities of other women using words and phrases like, “dangerous,” “self-hating,” “self-obsessed,” “childlike narcissists,” “needy,” “fucked up by aesthetic and social strictures,” “twisted view of what it means to be a woman,” and “not normal.” And that is a lot more horrifying to me than anything I have read in a confessional piece.

It’s clear that the writers of the confessional pieces are not in a happy place within themselves. Should we silence them, then? Should we cut their experience away and lock it up somewhere lest they tarnish the notion that women are strong, are invincible, are women? Heaven forbid they influence other women, who obviously can’t think for themselves! How dare the press and blogosphere not do more to keep this sort of rubbish away from the masses?

Anna N makes a point for me when she concludes that no one who reads D’Souza’s piece is going to run to get implants. There is a lesson in her story, just as there is one in that of Jones and Lewis. The decision to get implants involves more than knowing what size breast you wish you had. The decision to limit your calorie intake has more consequences than physical ones. The choice to give up a relationship for your career is a big one.

They may not be happy stories, but look at fairy tales—before Disney had its way with them, that is.

“Stories are medicine,” writes Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her classic work Women Who Run With The Wolves. “They have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act anything—we need only listen. The remedies for repair or reclamation of any lost psychic drive are contained in stories.”

Sterilizing the media of the battles that women (or men, for that matter) face everyday is not going to make us stronger. What does make us stronger is not being alone in our struggles. And when we hear the stories of those who have lived what we are living, we are heartened.

PLEDGE

I’m a confessional columnist. I have made terrible and wonderful mistakes in my life. I have been hurt, I have hurt myself and I have hurt others. I have questioned myself, I have lost myself and I have found myself. And I have written it all. I will never stop.

I think of Muriel Rukeyser again as I write this, those immortal lines: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.”

In victory or defeat, we will not be silenced.

And if that’s a threat to feminism, then down with feminism.

07.5.09 • posted in: gender onlinejournalism