Media Mean Girls?

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
Meanjin /
Summer, 2017 /

Click here to view original /

‘When skinny bitches attack’ had been my working title for an article about the June furore. For the unscathed, the story goes that in releasing her podcast interview with bestselling author Roxane Gay, publisher Mia Freedman issued accompanying copy that included the line ‘I’m searching for the right word to use here. I don’t want to say fat so I’m going to use the official medical term: super morbidly obese.’

Cue chaos. ‘When skinny bitches attack’ felt like it got to the heart of my grievances. It painted a schoolgirls-gossip/side-eye/slum-tourism aesthetic where Freedman sauntered in and deigned to interview a woman who wasn’t magazine-cover ready and who’d never fit the Mamamia milieu. (A milieu, apparently, where New York Times bestsellers still don’t make you pretty. Or slim.)

And yet I clicked ‘publish’ with a tinkered title. The good feminist, after all, doesn’t call another woman a bitch, certainly not a skinny one. In a world where ‘-shaming’ has become the suffix du jour, making a point about body-shaming while engaging in my own skinny-bitch-shaming seemed paradoxical. Paradox, though, is at the heart of this story. Freedman is no stranger to being accused of doing her feminism badly, incorrectly, inflammatorily. It’s an accusation that’s stalked her throughout her professional career. Bad Feminist is a label Gay knows too; she used it to title her 2014 anthology delving into her guilty pleasures of reading Vogue and all things pink. Bad feminism has equally haunted me throughout my academic career.

If ever I’m asked for my thoughts on sisterhood, I tell a story that, a little over a decade on, has become more amusing anecdote than the sucker punch it once was. As a postgraduate student, I did my feminism with a little too much red lipstick and perhaps a tad too much fervour for cock. Certainly so for the likes of my supervisor. When the palaver ended, I was invited to speak at a radical feminism conference. I was 25 years old, a freshly minted PhD, standing behind one of my first lecterns. I hadn’t even opened my mouth when a woman in the audience turned to the woman seated next to her and speculated, ‘So they give PhDs to fucking 15-year-olds now?’

That afternoon I learnt a lesson that my ‘sisters’ would teach me time and time again: I was never going to be enough for them, and I was going to be altogether too much for them. All at once.

• • •

A decade on and I’m behind lecterns regularly, teaching undergraduates about gender, about sexuality. And each semester there’ll be a small smattering of students who’ve decided, six seconds after googling me, that I’m not enough for them. That there’s too little melanin in my skin or too many dollars in my salary to ever truly get intersectionality. And, because being merely inadequate is never enough, I’ll also be too much for them too. Too facetious, too fast a talker, too heterosexual, too disinclined to spend each lecture reassuring the most insecure of them that every one of their identity exertions is a wonder to behold.

I’m not sure perpetual dissatisfaction is a modern malady, and yet I’m completely sure—for reasons unironically gendered—that these burdens are more pronounced for women, for feminists, to whom displeasing people and cavorting to meet an ever-moving target is our millstone. All women, and certainly Gay, Freedman and I know about disappointing people. Because criteria we never consented to—that are ever-changing, are often competing, if not outright clashing—are used to judge our words, our warmth, our waistlines and, notably, our politics.

The Gay debacle serves as a catalyst for a discussion about women’s media, about sites such as Mamamia and publishers like Freedman, whose courting of controversy is no mere accident but epitomises the way the game today is played. Feminism, in all its fractured glory, is engaged in some feverish frottage with celebrity culture and reality-television bitchiness. In turn, stories like the Gay one are gift-wrapped to summon controversy and ever more copy.

The Gay debacle is also reflective of modern feminism, more specifically the conundrum of doing politics in the world of social media, amid call-out culture and where an impossible burden exists in writing and teaching in a Zeitgeist of hyper—and at times even aggressiveindividualism.

The label of everything, of nothing

Each time a new semester begins I open up a discussion about definitions. What’s a feminist? What’s meant by this oft-bandied word? I’ll stoke the conversation by showing a few ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ video clips where celebrities don T-shirts proudly emblazoning their politics across their chest and parroting words like ‘powerful’ or, God forbid, ‘beautiful’, while not-so-subtly suggesting that attachment to the F-word doesn’t have to be career suicide.

Benedict Cumberbatch or Eddie Redmayne in out-and-proud shirts do of course give the word a sexy, modern patina. Such an endorsement helps distinguish today’s equality struggle from those bib-and-braces, sensible-shoe images of yore. And then what? What else is achieved beyond that blurry notion of ‘branding’? What role do such images play in formulating a feminist agenda? What exactly were all those knitted pink hats for?

In the second decade of the twenty-first century there’s almost nothing feminists agree on. I recently penned an article contending that feminists have an obligation to support sex workers. The tangiest correspondence I received—the nastiest slights on social media—were from other feminists. We might all speak of equality, but we’re definitely not all in agreement about what it looks like or how we’ll get there. Each cause that second-wavers once rallied around—dominion over our bodies, for example, or the scourge of sexualisation—today are up for debate. The postmodernists have won, there’s no single truth and International Women’s Day is now commemorated with a Kim Kardashian naked selfie. #Empowerment. The collective action, the sisterhood that radical feminists imagined in the 1960s and 1970s, is unthinkable in a world where what makes us special and individual—and, equally, passionate and often outraged—has become so much more important that the things that once linked us.

Under the Trump reign of terror, feminism has become an even more vague concept. It’s being used by women like Ivanka, whose brand and bank account have become bloated off the backs of other women. It’s a word that’s been adopted by anyone who takes even the slightest umbrage at the alpha penis-brandishing of the alt-right with complete disregard for the political obligations. For true gender equality, a thorough overhaul of power is needed. Those with power—men and white women and those with money—need to give up some of it. Of course, most people using the F-word aren’t talking about redistributing resources, nor are they acknowledging that the equality project is just a tad more complicated than Taylor Swift’s eventual epiphany that there’s a motza to be made from girl power. Feminism involves toil, often of the unfun kind.

So if we’re all just cobbling together a politics that flatters us and feels activist without too much of the mess and the marching, does it really matter if Freedman calls herself a feminist while cupped-hand-whispering to her audience that there was conjecture about whether Gay could fit into the lift? If we’re all just singing from our own hand-fashioned hymn book, is there not a feminism that could justify a weight jibe as a little light motivation in this self-help, self-improvement, seeing-my-therapist-in-my-activewear culture?

From sisterhood to catfightin’

In a world where male A-listers are lauded for wearing the T-shirt and someone like Meryl Streep is condemned for calling herself a ‘humanist’, it’s as good a time as any to be a feminist. And yet, while a Beyoncé-esque politics might be going gangbusters, so too is the production—and notably the consumption—of a junk culture. Think tele-vision shows such as The Bachelor and Yummy Mummies. Women pitted against each other for the affections of a dispiritingly ordinary man; women judged on their ability to look luxe after labour. Think school careers counsellors having to advise students with life goals of becoming Insta-celebs and YouTube videos consisting solely of clothing being taken out of store bags and eyeshadows swatched on wrists. And sure, if I squint my eyes enough, if I engage in that academic reading-against-the-grain tango, I probably could pull on the ends of feminism and stretch it out just enough to encompass all the vacuousness, catfights and contouring. But as a social scientist, I really expect a little more punch in my politics.

Mamamia—and, of course, it’s absolutely not just Mamamia; think also about sites like Refinery29, Jezebel, xoJane, PopSugar—are publishing at the crossroads of mainstream feminism, makeshift feminism and a catfights-and-consumerism trash culture. It’s why the very same publication that will report on pay inequality will also help you to determine your perfect lipstick shade by colour-matching with your labia.

It is this convergence that led to the Mamamia packaging of the Gay story: Gay was interviewed because she’s a bestselling feminist author and because her memoir Hunger was about her struggles with weight. Women, after all, are nothing without our ceaseless body chatter. Gay’s confidence, however, was betrayed in this tale because Freedman knows the market for bitchy tidbits. This was not her first rodeo; Freedman honed her craft at the coalface of the liberation–objectification collision: women’s magazines. To expect Mamamia to be anything more than Cosmo for those pre-Women’s Weekly mummies is to blithely disregard the backstory.

Women’s magazines: The original bitch stomping ground

There’s a scene in The Handmaid’s Tale where the Commander gives Offred a fashion magazine of the old and banned kind. ‘You miss this?’ he asks her in episode five of the TV adaptation. ‘Lists of made-up problems. No woman was ever rich enough, young enough, pretty enough, good enough.’

There’s no single take-away for audiences. Offred is drawn, moth-like, to the magazine: it’s a relic of a bygone era where she had the luxury of relishing or completely rejecting such a publication. In the new world, she’s unable to do any reading, let alone of dog-eared copies of Beautify. The Commander, however, appears convinced that he’s liberated Offred from the tyranny of such publications. Ironic, in the context of the narrative, and yet audiences also have an inkling that he’s got a wee point. Cosmopolitan’s sex-and-the-single-girl emancipation narrative happens through the very same publication that hammers home lessons on how to be feminine, to be desirable and on the all-importance of earning validation from men. This isn’t a new contradiction. Since the late 1960s, women’s magazines have been doing doubt duty: selling home and hearth, heels and headjobs, but softening the blow of prescriptive womanhood with stories of the struggle for pay equality, female genital mutilation and domestic violence.

That Gay feels any skerrick of political compunction reading Vogue only makes sense when viewed in the context of a long history of feminist critique. Decades prior to feminists getting our mitts on other aspects of popular culture it was magazines in the crosshairs. More than half a century ago Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique shone a light on the noose of domestic femininity peddled in the pages of Redbook and Ladies’ Home Journal. In some of the earliest women’s liberation marches, women threw bras and other trappings they deemed as the metonyms of oppression—including false eyelashes and women’s magazines—into ‘freedom trash cans’. In the years since, there’s been an understanding of magazines as not merely presenting a young/thin/white/beautiful/fuckable aesthetic as the gold standard of ladyhood, but also—more insidiously—that the advertising inside acts as an abrasive grease: sure, you’re fat and frumpy and frigid and far removed from the photoshopped perfection portrayed within, but we have paints, perfumes and potions available for purchase. Now you can play at being pretty.

This is the world in which Mia Freedman cut her teeth: ‘how to look better naked’ articles sandwiched between ads for eye cream. This is Freedman’s CV. In lieu of an academic background in gender studies or political science, she worked in fashion magazines. That, I hasten to add, is no ivory-tower, from-on-high dig. It’s a cautionary note that offering up a kind of feminism that looks academic, or feels nuanced, or, God forbid, intersectional, isn’t in her bailiwick. Expecting her to understand—or care about—the heinousness of her Gay commentary disregards the Freedman project. Women’s magazines are escapist fantasy with a dash of pseudo-psychology. Pretending they’re anything more is just testimony to our need to intellectualise our guilty pleasures rather than just embracing the lure of the lurid.

Freedman knows magazines, just as xoJane’s Jane Pratt—who edited titles like Sassy in the 1990s—knows magazines. Online, Freedman and Pratt have simply found a new distribution method for the women’s magazine project. And they’re doing this in a congested celebrity, culture, news-lite mediascape where their sites fight for attention, to achieve cut-through, to maintain relevance. Fortunately for Freedman, if she’s good at anything it’s igniting a blaze and pretending to stumble into it.

The contrived media spectacle

When Freedman issued her apology for yet another act of naivety/stupidity/attention-getting—this time a flaunt-your-wedding-rings to support the same-sex marriage campaign—I posted her apology on Facebook, captioned with a question about whether she writes the apologies at the same time as she crafts the ‘stuff-up’. I was only partly joking. Freedman uses these blunders as part of her branding: I don’t imagine her memoir title, Mia Culpa, was a mere play on words. Equally, I don’t imagine that every profile piece in which she has divulged parenting fiascos or battles with anxiety is just subconscious babble. She’s doing the every-woman shtick and selling the idea that she gets the modern woman: an imagined reader who’s cobbling together an identity, a politics, all the while making mistakes, watching crap TV, wiping chunder from the faces of her children and wrestling with that ASOS box.

Freedman is no babe in the woods. So every time she does something that will result in an apology, my bullshit radar pings. She knows this space. She knows what gets her name in the press. She knows that being spoken about is better than being garaged with that dusty pile of Cleos. Equally, she knows that in our time of teeny tiny attention spans, the damage to her brand will only ever be fleeting.

With this in mind, I do not—not for half a second—think Freedman was unaware of what she was doing when she hit ‘publish’ on the Gay guff. No-one in women’s media is oblivious to how conscious we’ve become about bodies, about the shaming of bodies. To assume, however, that Freedman knows not to participate in such demonising or the onus on her shoulders to be a little more empathetic, exposes some of the overestimations we often make of women.

The folly of lady empathy

Freedman knows what it’s like to be body-shamed. She too, apparently, has felt the sting of not being perfect in this vacuous culture of artifice. Should she not therefore be able to empathise with how a woman—who’s never benefited from Freedman’s own slim privilege—might feel being packaged up as an elephantine caricature?

Culturally we divvy up the rational and reasoning qualities to men and associate all the emotionality and empathy with the ladies. We might critique these sex stereo-types as archaic and yet we still expect women to be good in this soft space. Women, with all the crying and the bleeding and the boobs, are supposed to know this stuff. And in my experience, by and large women are better with the emotional stuff than men. If I want an audience for my woes—if I want to indulge in all the wretchedness rather than be offered a ten-point solution plan—then I go to the women.

Yet expecting women to feel loyalty to one another—to extend such loyalty to those outside our circles of intimacy—based purely on the similarity of our reproductive organs, is part of the delusion of sisterhood. Feminism’s public battering over the past half-century is only partly driven by the hairy-legged stereotype. A bigger concern is every single woman’s personal laundry list of times her sisters have thrown her under the bus or stabbed her in the back/front/jugular. I was on campus recently when a female colleague complimented me on an opinion piece I’d written. After I’d thanked her, she added, ‘I wish I had as much time as you do to write non-academic guff.’ I’m trying not to be a hoarder and yet I have veritable binders of these stories. I do have ‘sisters’. We’ve just needed a little more than the exchange of menstrual miseries to bond us.

Freedman didn’t consider Gay a sister—Gay’s life and weight and struggles were a story so foreign to her it may as well have been fiction—rather, Freedman’s loyalty was to her readers: that audience who cares about Freedman’s struggles, who clicks on her links and voraciously defends her through her every staged stagger. If you’ve ever had to worry about whether or not a chair is stable enough to hold you, Mamamia likely never included you. You’re not a lost reader Freedman needs to worry about.

I started my academic career researching sexism in advertising. Whenever I give a talk about it I’m asked why—given more women are working in this field than ever before—the sexualisation and objectification of women continue. Because, I answer, women grow up in the same world as men. Women who work in advertising know, just as well as men, what works, what sells, what gets eyeballed. This explanation extends to why women’s magazines and women’s media sites—invariably edited by women and produced for women—are often just as problematic as other kinds of material, despite all the feminist bunting. Women’s magazines and women’s websites are about readers and ad revenue. And online, determining what readers want is as effortless as counting the clicks. Women often say we want greater diversity and less celebrity drivel in our media content, and yet many of us keep clicking on stories about why we shouldn’t put glitter into our vaginas. Why? Because if we wanted politics, if we truly wanted pithy social commentary, we’d never have scrolled Refinery29.

Freedman’s ‘super morbidly obese’ quote undoubtedly survived every edit. She knew there’d be a brouhaha, she knew commentators like me would jump on it, and she knew that a Mamamia podcast that’d otherwise fade into the background would instead glide into the mainstream aided by the effective lubricant of outrage. The Mamamia brand benefited from a deluge of subsequent media commentary, and her site suddenly became relevant and worth talking about. And once again, Freedman received positive reinforcement for bad behaviour.

The digital stacks-on 

The internet might have levelled the playing field to allow publication to anyone with WiFi but, alas, it allows publication to anyone with WiFi. Cue the trolls and the thought police and the grammar Nazis. The very technology that has given Freedman the ability to forge a new career away from the floundering world of print is also the terrain where she’s held accountable—immediately and often viciously—when she stuffs up. It’s for this reason that her apologies are usually issued only an hour or so after the initial debacle: an hour is all that’s needed for commentators to swoop in and savage her.

Social media makes it effortless for people with a genuine beef, or even just those with a dash too much time on their hands, to air their grievances and to find an audience. The lag-time between someone being deified and then rapidly pilloried is becoming ever shorter. Hello Ken Bone.

In such a culture there’s a tendency for figures like Freedman to emerge as a victim. As a hapless, well-intentioned woman who just can’t do a goddamn thing right is this culture of viciousness. Part of the attacks on Freedman lies in the uniquely hostile place the internet is for women, compounded with the very Australian pastime of cutting-down-to-size anybody who has done well, who’s made it. We’re also in a culture where if anyone elects to criticise a woman—particularly if it’s another woman—the catfight frame is used: all that oestrogen makes us so vile and venomous and the very ones to blame for holding ourselves back from equality. If a feminist dares censure Freedman or Beyoncé or Taylor Swift or Jennifer Lawrence, any genuine criticism is quickly dismissed as bitchiness, as a tear-down, as hair-pulling. This is partly because women aren’t allowed to engage in civilised disagreement because the image of us wrestling it out in a vat of custard is too potent. And part of it is symptomatic of the toxicity of call-out culture.

Canning the call-out

Apparently I have lashings of time on my hands so I write commentary guff. And often I call out bullshit, just as I called out Freedman’s packaging of Gay’s podcast. So my next sentence is going to appear a tad hypocritical. But I do have a problem with call-out culture. Sure, my white, able-bodied, middle-class heterosexuality gives me a bit of a buffer: I’m rarely wounded by words. But working as a lecturer gives me a unique perspective. In the nearly 20 years I’ve spent on university campuses—17 of which I’ve been an employee—I’ve seen a sharp change in student culture. If I’m to date it, it’s unfolded over the last three or four years. Students have started to feel perfectly okay about calling out lecturers; feeling comfortable about cornering them after a class to articulate the ways they’ve been personally failed. To then air such grievances online.

Amid the swathe of excellent, engaged and genuinely deep-thinking students I’ve had, I’m finding an increasing number who apparently just want me to stroke their hair and tell them that they’re likeable, that their life choices are all superbly valid. I’m all for greater tolerance and inclusivity. There is, however, irony in being interrupted mid-sentence to be reminded that in my quip about the tyranny of the cock I’ve neglected to note that some women have penises too. In that interruption, suddenly everything comes back to that one individual who hadn’t listened to my whole sentence and just wanted to wear a cape for a second. And every other person in that theatre is now held hostage to an unsolicited diatribe. Try teaching a Politics of Sex class and having to cushion every use of the word woman. It’s a lark and it’s a landmine.

Those of us who actually care about these issues—who teach and research and write about them—bear a unique kind of brunt, expected to be politically perfect and to carry the can for every tangential cause, while being pounced upon whenever we fall short. Which we always will. Because we’re human and we’re fallible. The whole thing only confuses me until I remember the behaviour of a former colleague. A hardline feminist, she had an uncanny abundance of tolerance for a dapper old-school sexist who used to float around my department saying the most scurrilous things. It always struck me as fascinating that she’d publicly disparage me—in staff meetings she’d muse aloud, ‘Why isn’t anyone else here doing any feminist research?’—yet she always gave the chauvinist in a necktie a pass. ‘She expects better from you, Lauren,’ I’d been told. Of course. Because I could have been a contender: I’d written the serious feminist PhD; there’d been hope for me. And then, apparently, I squandered it all. She never expected anything from that sexist professor. I, however, was the disappointment. I epitomised not just wasted potential but was also a turncoat, a traitor.

Call-out culture can be explained by a multiplicity of factors. I’d like to think part of it lies in an increased political awareness and the rise of identity politics. Problematically, however, one-upmanship also plays a role: who can be the most savvy, who can crow loudest about even the slightest chink in an argument. The consequence of this is the impossible burden placed on anyone who’s saying anything in the public arena. Not a day passes without my social media feed advising me that an artist, a designer, a department store is ‘under fire’ for slighting something, someone. I picture highly professional monkeys generating clickbaity outrage pieces about people/films/advertisements that haven’t managed to be everything to everyone.

The rise of identity politics, our heightened awareness of, and sensitivity about, gender fluidity, race, class and ability, means that the idea of ‘women’s media’—of readers being segmented based on assumed anatomy—is being put under greater scrutiny. There’s now a cottage industry of folks putting sites such as Mamamia under the microscope. And it’s happening not just because of misogyny but also because women such as Freedman have dared to call themselves feminists and this comes at a cost. Aligning yourself with an ideology means that the self-appointed gatekeepers are gonna get ya for something. Because your misstep is inevitable and 400 words of copy are just waiting to blow it out of all possible proportion.

The snag in the broad church

Lena Dunham has made a career doing her version of female empowerment. As the mastermind behind Girls, as one of the publishers behind Lenny, Dunham has worked for many years as a professional feminist. Partly because she dares to do her politics publicly, partly because feminist women are frequently destroyed for sport online, and partly because she’s successful and people are often jealous, Dunham is regularly accused online of being a racist, a child abuser, ugly, a slob, a cunt.

This isn’t a Dunham-specific story: pick the high-profile woman who’s attached herself to the F-word and she’s going to be hounded by criticism that she isn’t enough. That she’s not consistent enough, loud enough, using her pulpit enough, getting involved in enough causes. Alternatively, that she’s just too much. Too much of an attention-seeker, too much of a bleeding heart, too fat, too unfuckable, too self-aggrandising. And, of course, the discussion returns to Mia Freedman.

She knows you can’t please everyone, she knows she’s a divisive figure, but she also knows that being divisive and not pleasing everyone has never really harmed her. That feminists of the ilk that were appalled at her treatment of Gay were never the audience for her magazines or for her website, and are near the top of the insatiables list. Her apologies need to be issued because they close the loop on each of her scandals, but realistically Freedman’s audience is already firmed up by women who enjoy her wares and who might casually use the F-word but aren’t freedom trash-canning a bra for it. These are women who might joke that with every episode they watch of Say Yes to the Dress, Baby Jesus/Shulamith Firestone cries, but they don’t believe it enough to actually stop.

I clicked ‘publish’ on my Freedman–Gay article and very quickly felt the warm creep of anxiety that always chases such pieces. That I bit, that I bought into the brouhaha. That any criticism of Freedman frames me as a bitch. That Gay doesn’t need my defence. That defending her is perhaps patronising, is drawing even more attention to a farce she’d likely rather forget. With the internalised Greek chorus reminding me that I’m not good enough/too much, anxiety has become every bit as vital a part of my craft as my stash of red fineliners.

I clicked ‘publish’ because, ultimately, something can be both orchestrated and cynical and still thoroughly horrendous. And I’ll click ‘send’ on this essay because feminism might be fractured, and it might be elastic, it might involve ratting on each other, and it might even be a hard sell in an age of individualism and identity politics, but there are some things that it’s absolutely not. And it’s not about disrespecting other women for recreation, for clicks, for copy. And it’s not about pandering to the bitchy inclinations of some of our sisters while tossing others to the wolves. Feminism is messy, is hypocritical, is evolving with every trend and technology curve ball. But it’ll never ever stretch to accommodate anything that follows from the words ‘I don’t want to say fat …’ •

© Lauren Rosewarne 2017