That Popular Pill: DailyCandy and Bayer on Board

Dear DailyCandy and Bayer,

Thank you for your email today, alerting me to your campaign “50 Years of the Pill.”

Things you take for granted: morning coffee, the Internet, nonfat frozen yogurt. (How is it so delicious?)

And, of course, The Pill.

Well, here’s your chance to show some appreciation. Bayer® is teaming up with DailyCandy to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill by assembling a time line of choice milestones in women’s history over the past half century.

The series of personal profiles, trivia, and videos — which will roll out during the next few weeks — covers everything from the historically significant (way to go, Sally Ride) to the presently impressive (congrats, Kathryn Bigelow) and everything in between (thank you, Spanx).

I also looked at your time line, and all of it left me itchy.

1.) DailyCandy: I originally subscribed to your emails to find out about products that I would miss.  I have sometimes relied on your website to find good gift ideas…but am ALSO sometimes horrified by the breezy generalizations and errors in your daily copy.  I sometimes think they are written by 18-year-old interns who are looking to Sex in the City episodes that aired when they were 10 to find some kind of “voice.”

2.) But this is not about that.  Today I just want you to know that I don’t take the Pill for granted. And I never think about nonfat Frozen Yogurt.

3.) How does me going to Bayer’s website show my appreciation for the history of the Pill?  Are you trying to trick me into a faux commercial feminism?  Are you trying to tell me I am powerful shouting women are grrreat and then telling me to think about low calorie yogurt? Are you suggesting that Spanx (which I do appreciate, but do not honor as a great stride of bold empowerment) has anything to do with the history of contraception?

4.) The tagline for this promotion is “The Chance For You To Carry The Torch.” The torch of what? Empowerment? Great—but it’s not Bayer’s or DailyCandy’s to pass.  Of not having babies? Still not their torch.

5.) And, powerful women did amazing things before the Pill.  The timeline here suggests that the Pill was the genesis of all strides in equality and achievements of women.  This all smells of your marketing department catching on that women’s issues are trending right now, and that it’d be goodwill strategy to smack up a quick website.  The Bigelow deserves  kudos, absolutely, but please don’t try to take women’s greatest hits, dazzle them with pink graphics and cliche’ motivational phrases, and tell me that this is how I can show my appreciation to anything.

I know. You try to do something nice for a gal, and all she does is bitch.You started it, mixing up the intricacies of the Pill and empowerment with yogurt and underwear.

I will be a lady, and read lady blogs and buy lady things.  I especially like fringe and big sunglasses.  But none of this makes me an idiot.

CF

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Riding in Airplanes #2: On With the Story (And Full of Hot Air)

Dear CF,

I had intended to do at least two Riding in Airplanes posts in this little series. The second installment was going to be about the intimate conversations we have on planes with total strangers. Some coincidences have, well, incided that plan. So I’ve lazily decided to organize this post according to coincidence, which the OED defines as “the notable concurrence of events or circumstances having no apparent causal connexion” or, alternately, “Falling together.”

Coincidence the First: I saw the movie Up, which has lots to say about fears and flying both, though not in connection with each other. It also deals pretty eloquently with the problem of what makes us happy. Moreover, it does in miniature (and in 3D) what the “What Makes Us Happy” article does in The Atlantic: show you (albeit in dumbshow, and in sunnily idealized form) the trajectory of a life in its entirety with its attendant emotions, and asks what one has to ask after watching a story end: Now What?

If Star Trek’s plot is driven by dead women, so is Up‘s. But the latter has that rare and ineffable thing: respect for story and for audience. It’s not perfect: the movie retreats a bit from the near-Chekhovian territory of its real-life premise.  In deference to young viewers it refrains from pushing through the really grim questions—for example, where Frederickson will live and die, a problem which hovers like, well, a big blimp in the background and seasons the whole escapist adventure with poignancy—but it rather beautifully lets Frederickson let go of all those dreams deferred. (This isn’t About Schmidt.) Still, it gives two really deserving protagonists a way to channel, fulfill and (maybe most importantly) attenuate their visions so they don’t explode. The Spirit of Adventure gets deflated, but there’s remarkable beauty and power in balloons. If only Nero had had a chubby young scout stowaway aboard his ship!

(It’s also—and this is fodder for another day—an interesting counterpoint to the way in which excellence, mediocrity, godgiven talent and work are treated in The Incredibles.)

One last thing: an important maternal character in the bird is misnamed Kevin by the kid. I like this little acknowledgment of Pixar’s tendency (and maybe young boys’ tendency) to see an initially unsexed character as male not through malice but because that’s the unmarked choice.

Coincidence the Second: I read a short story by John Barth called “On With the Story.” It will not be clear why this is a coincidence until I tell you my plan.

Read more of this post

The Art of The Comment

Dear Millicent,

I have been thinking of your profile of Jezebel and its evolutions, and agree with the tensions you noted between taking things to task and supporting everybody. It is a problem when every viewpoint is humanized (though, isn’t that an accomplishment of empathy, or just a distracting use of pathos?), and echoed in pop critiques of women’s studies (whininess, black holes of offense and correction, righteousness that insists on the merits of heart and humanity but which cannot offer the same to  the uninitiated).

I hear those critiques most often from people who have never gotten near women’s studies (full disclosure: I have never gotten near women’s studies).  But the field, like feminism, is more vital than its critics give credit for: it’s not the grumpy wall flower as much as the exuberant and just misfit (for imagery here, I am thinking either of Ricki and Delia in My So Called Life at the World Happiness dance, or of Babs in The Way We Were, soused and dancing all night even though she was supposed to be working the refreshment table).

I also like your description of the commenting culture on Jez, and Gawker.  I have to admit that I rarely read the comments, and often wonder why commenting is such an inherent part of blogging.  The idea is sound–a large extended conversation, full of challenges and calls and answers–and I am giddy to read any comments we have here on this site.  However, in general (and again, please do comment here, I am just a grump), comments seem to be a barage of self applause: commenters either offering inane agreeance, witty snarks, or complaints about their workplace.  It seems that Facebook and Twitter have capitolized on this need for constant narration, and I want all comments to really just set up shop over there.  There are times when I have read comments that have taken the conversation in other directions, or that have called shenanigans when appropriate, but I rarely consider commenters part of site.  When reading Jezebel, I read their content alone, and consider the commenters in their own club, with queen bees who can type up a quick response and be instantly applauded.  But then again, maybe I am just jealous because I am not one of them, and we all like applause.

Feministing has a community site as part of their blog, where commenters can post full blog entries.  I like this model more than general comments, and often the editors post one of the community posts to the mainpage.  One of the last comment sections I read diverged into a long scolding of a commenter for using the word “lame” to describe something they didn’t like.  In the following 20 comments, there was an agressive defense and shuddering of the use of the word.  It seemed both irritatingly petty (the old trials of PC language), and wildy effective.  Though it annoyed me that one couldn’t relax about anything, even a slang adjective, while reading a blog, it was also the right fight.  At its base, the word is inappropriate, and disrespectful.  This reminded me of your discussion of the small choices where it is tempting to inclusively let all answers stand as correct (taking a husband’s last name, etc.), and the assertion that the choice (the answer, not just the right to choose) actually matters very much.

And, in a sweep back to the other side, my training as a doula totally disagrees, which makes things interesting.  Doulas are supposed to support a woman’s choices in labor, and bring in no personal opinion besides offering information.  The idea is that doulas are not there to make their version of an ideal birth, but to assist the mother in experiencing her ideal birth.  I consider my work as a doula the most directly feminist thing I do.  I help women have more power, voice and control at a vulnerable moment, and I get to see direct outcomes.  This would suggest the original version– –that we are all snowflakes, and power comes from not denying anybody their snowflakehood.  But, when it comes down to brass tacks, I only like this model when all the snowflakes are snowing for their own good as defined by, well, let’s be honest here, me.

So maybe the great work is not in defending the right to all viewpoints, but digging to the harder, more uncomfortable area of conversation that addresses responsibility?  A hard task for Jezebel, because responsibility is never an effervescent topic.  It makes me think of those horrid serious talks that parents only have with their kids while driving. And maybe that is where commenters come in.  How much more palatable would a lecture on unloading the dishwasher have been if there was a chorus of wits making fun of the DJ on the radio, the claustrophobia of the seatbelt,while making sure that I did indeed absorb that the dishwasher needed to be unloaded by me, or else no ride to the mall.

Yours,

CF

Judging Jezebel

Dear CF,

What a delicious problem you’ve brought to our picnic table. Of course feminism shouldn’t be divisive. It should be like being pro-human, or pro-kid. BUT. By the time I finished this post I realized I was defending divisiveness and having a problem, not with feminism, but with how it gets tacitly defined (or rather undefined) on sites like Jezebel. Maybe you can help me work this out.

I like your explanation of XX in 3)–that it’s a shined and softened 2.0 version of something a bit more raw and funkified.

You know, it’s funny—I remember being irritated by the XX blog on Slate when it first came out, and am irritated still. I was irked by Jezebel when it started too. That said, I’m pleased by the juggernaut Jezebel has become. It’s a vigorous animal, though the accusations of “echo-chamberhood” might have some merit.

I enjoy Jez. I look at it daily. I like its size and its breadth and the ways in which it’s slowly expanded to include the merely frivolous as well as the concerns and injustices of third world women. It offers a much-needed vehicle for smart-girl niggles and nostalgia (oh, Fine Lines!!). And yet sometimes it reminds me of a much younger version of the woman I idolized but never quite wanted to be.

To get back to your question, though: why are all these women shying away from feminism? I’m as irritated by this as you are. (I’m apparently a grumpy gus today.) I’m surprised at Sarah Haskins.

Let’s take seriously the case against feminism for a second. Many critics of (let’s call it “XX”-wave) feminism claim the “movement” has become about the right to choose in the most frivolous way possible. In the Jez comments a consensus frequently emerges that everything a woman does can potentially fit under the feminist umbrella. Except judging another woman.

(Isn’t it ironic that as we as a nation are talking about the merits of having another female Supreme Court Justice, judging has become a bad word?)

The ladyblogs frequently try to root their mission in a set of ethical principles–“no bodysnarking” has become a mantra on Jez. But the results, which amount to prepublication censorship, can be, well, a bit Animal Farmish. It’s been interesting to watch this happen. The discourse community Jez generated was too big for the site to develop the fearful and snarky commenting culture Gawker achieved in its heyday (when there were executions, and when a commenting account was difficult to come by). Instead, Jez is regulated (quite capably) by hortense. And while it would be a mistake to call Jez humorless—it’s hilarious—it’s also true that the humor is carefully circumscribed and that the editors have no sense of humor about themselves. For all Linda Hirshman and company might claim otherwise, this is no longer a blog based on transgression. God forbid someone should criticize Tracie—who suffered plenty at the hands of Gawker commenters and has developed a coping mechanism called Napoleonic petulance.

I wonder if the issue with Jez in particular (I don’t know Feministing very well) isn’t—and I may be projecting here, because I see this is in myself—that Jez’s driving principle isn’t action but reaction. Maybe reaction is the only kind of action possible on a site like this? Action is impossible because it demands initiative, an agenda and a mandate?

The blog seems to be struggling constantly with two ideological extremes:

  • one, frequently articulated by the commenters: everyone is different.  How dare anyone reduce women as a class to anything? We are all snowflakes. This comes up in response to scientific studies or behavioral pieces.
  • The other extreme, where Wrong and Right have a small but well-regulated kingdom: Jez has become a blog for women with a very specific, if obvious, take on women’s issues and condemns people along fairly nondebatable lines: rape is bad. Children being forced to marry is bad. Domestic violence is bad. Photoshop is bad. I agree with you that Jez did something new. It used to be much more polemical than this —more along the lines of Bitch Ph.D—but as posts have gotten shorter and more frequent and the commenting culture hardened, I feel the editors have smoothed and polished the provocative edge that the XX Factor takes to task. (Frankly, that article, beyond its more obvious problems, is a hopelessly outdated analysis of Jezebel.)

It seems to me that this tension produces a culture of feminism where a two-tier system of choice is established, and only the “choices” that don’t really matter—whether or not to take a husband’s last name, for instance—benefit from the snowflake treatment. Being a feminist means I have the right to choose! To judge another woman is girl-on-girl crime!

The problem, of course—and Jez struggles with this too—is that those choices do matter. To create a hierarchy of choice is to suggest that certain things matter more than others. Should taking a husband’s last name be a political issue or merely a question of aesthetic taste?

These conversations happen in the comments. You said, by the way, dear CF, that you exclude the commenters in your analysis. As you can tell I’m incapable of doing that; I think the commenters are critical to Jezebel and what it’s become. The XX blog is a very different animal, I think, precisely because it doesn’t allow for that direct engagement between poster and postee.

I’m not sure Jez the blog is conscious of that tension, which is potentially a paralyzing one. I occasionally read AskMen to see what the menfolk or talking about. It’s instructive. There is no pretence that men are snowflakes; the site’s whole project is about subordinating your individualism to the demands of sex and money.

Jezebel wants to have it both ways, and that’s what makes it interesting and frustrating. Mainly, I think, because of the issue of “girl-on-girl crime”? Feminism was never about the absence of judgment. When I watch Bea Arthur as Dorothy (and I have been, lately, a lot), it’s her judgment that I admire. She is a judgmental character. Deeply flawed, but, like Judge Judy, sure of the moral and political codes that guide her decisions.

The chaotic kind of “right to choose” feminism seems to be emerging on Jez—a goodhearted, communal approach whose philosophical confusion derives, I think, from its unique mix of social life with political discussion. Politics and social worlds have never mixed well, as Emily Post and Miss Manners can tell you. Anytime an opinion is expressed about porn or sex work, someone crops up who works in the industry and the issue gets humanized, which is both interesting and problematic in a blog that’s as much about social identities as about ideas. The consensus to withhold judgment has the unintended effect, I think, of exploding any kind of generative code, be it moral, political, or otherwise.

Underlying the whole project is the terrible possibility of rejection. We are women, we are friends.  Even though we’re all unique and have different views. This is all well and good. It’s the tacit conclusion—let’s all be on the same side—that gets sketchy.

This gets back, I guess, to my objection to the title and concept of Slate’s ladyblog. Genetics is the least interesting and least intelligent selection principle for an ideological forum. What meaning does a club offer when the only criteria for membership is the possession of two matching chromosomes?

Fondly,

Millicent

Ladytalk: Slate’s XX Factor Can Suck It

Dear Millicent,

As I bet you know, Slate revealed XX Factor yesterday, its lady blog, with the tag line “What Women Really Think.”   The tag line irks me.  It reminds me of some scotch ad from the sixties, where a sultry woman has an eyebrow raised at a man in an ascot holding up his drink.  It suggests that one needs an answer to that messy mystery of “broads.”  And then it alienates–either men are the audience for the blog b/c they desperately (or at least, when their partner is mad at them) want to know the answer–or the thinking women are showing all the other women what Women are thinking.  They shout for the whole crowd.   Am I overthinking it?  I should check the blog and find out.  It also reminds me of YM, but with YM, I would have read it like the bible and thought “oh, so this is what we are thinking!”

There has also been critiques of the site on Feministing, Broadsheet (who interestingly makes all the ladyblogs into a big neighborhood where certain houses (Jezebel) get TPed),  and Jezebel which is where I first heard about the site.   They call particular attention to a string of ‘Feminism is dead” stories that the site launched with, meanwhile promoting goo-gah essays about the importance of Betty Friedan.  XX Factor wrote a response to the critiques, Jessica Valenti pulled this quote:

Susannah Breslin writes:

Apparently, if you launch a website for women in 2009, the most important question is whether or not it’s feminist. At least, that’s what you’d think, judging by today’s launch of the women-oriented website you’re reading. Only, the funny thing is, I thought feminism was dead. I mean, didn’t we kill it already?

She then goes on to hope that the XX Factor is bigger than this.  This interests me because:

  1. It seems as if three to five years ago there were a handful of sites that came forward and decided to offer content that was for women but not about mascara or models.  They built their readership based on unique formulas of gathering news about women’s issues that weren’t fully presented in all media outlets, and displaying a strong likeability by putting the real girl in the narrative (ambiguous, disgusting, vulnerable, tenacious, full of work and worry, and fucking smart).
  2. These sites (for me, I found Feministing first, and then Jezebel, and a little Bitch PhD), built a loyal readership who snarked and said “hey, she’s just like me.”  They have challenged the need for tabloids and fashion mags.  They sometimes do a better job of both, and for free.  They also don’t insult us (I’m leaving the commenters out of this).
  3. Other, larger sites realized they were missing something (I could be wrong, but one could argue that Feministing is the grand honcha of this blogging style), and wanted in.  Like any heightened element of culture, the idea was shined and softened and presented to a larger audience.  Broadsheet and XX Factor seem like this part of the cycle to me.
  4. And, now, an editor thinks it dumb that the feminism identity matters.  Perhaps they want to bring on the audience that is afraid of feminism, but likes smart conversation.  The audience that thinks feminism is only for the irate and itchy.  This seems adolescent and poorly thought out to me.
  5. A pet peeve of mine is when a celebrity that kicks ass is asked whether or not they identify as a feminist, and they say something like, “well, I’m all for women, and humans, but I’m not a feminist.” Even my beloved Kate Winslet, and It girl Sarah Haskins have done this.  Why can’t one of them say “Yes. I am a feminist, and if you know somebody with a uterus, you should be one too.” Which is what I honestly want from all my blogs, and magazines, and friends, and family.  I want the New Yorker to say, of course we are feminist.
  6. And what I mean by this is–feminism isn’t divisive.  Would Kate Winslet say she was a humanist? Probably? Would she publicly support civil rights? Probably? It is a label that shouldn’t need the pause.
  7. Why do so many of the smart sites for mature ladies insist on using pink and purple so much? Is it to announce that is is for ladies and by ladies? Kudos to Broadsheet for going light on the pink, and to Jezebel for going whole hog with hot pink.
  8. This all boils down to the fact that I think XX Factor has made a mistake.  Their font is pink.  They are shirking feminism like it’s something only the needy or angry would cling to (just like the solo kid in highschool that proclaims all couples as stupid), and they are trying to seem likeable by talking about Kate Gosselin’s hair.  They are trying too hard in all the wrong ways.

And, brava to  Feministing and the other blogs that were out there trailblazing all this so well that we now get to argue about these things, and watch as the cool thing that everybody wants to mimic and sell isn’t pokemon or tight pants, but a forum for engaged and real discussion about women’s issues.