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.



The Package

Dearest M.,

I spent the last few minutes trying to think of other arcs that parallel Susan Boyle’s:  the boldy unpackaged (though I do agree with a previous commenter that “packaging” may be very much at work here) real person that wallops the world with his or her sheer and undeniable talent.  What’s frustrating is, even though I think Boyle’s sudden recognition is the stuff of formula, I can’t actually think of any examples of that formula.   

In movies, the closest I’ve come is Billy Elliott and Funny Girl, but both seem negated because of their reliance on youth and a fair amount of good looks. 

In real life, we’ve got Barbra Streisand, too.  Like Boyle, her voice instantly seperates her from any crowd of wannabes, and she is often critiqued for her looks.  Yet, Streisand also started young, and marketed her looks as part of the package that made her brand more unique, and more irresistible.  Barbra is also famous for her aggressive focus on her career, and her early drive to be somebody in the world. 

I also think of Danny DeVito, who apparently got his break on Taxi by insisting that the producers audition him, and then getting the part through the shock and awe of his acting ability. 

Otherwise, I’m out.  I can’t think of anybody else in our culture that, through sheer talent that did not rely on suped up presentation, made it into the big time.  Boyle might be one of the first that  made everybody stand up and notice that talent has very little to do with looks, and that real talent is quite soul stirring: that art is a big deal for performer AND audience. 

The phrase “talent will out” has always comforted me.  It suggests that, like true love, things find their way and end up very happy indeed.  But, this little reverie has worried me.  Boyle is one case out of bajillions.  Every other form of talent I can think of is usually delivered by a good looking person wearing modern-ish clothes.  Even Clay Aiken had some ferocious highlights.  Perhaps Boyle is not a revelation as much as a cultural dodo bird (or maybe a coelacanth would be better. Dodo suggests dowdy, which isn’t the point)?  

What examples can you think of? Where has talent outed? Do you think the rules are different for writing? Radio? Film production?  I also put forward Jon Stewart as his own fable here, not because of his looks, but because his control of the format and his intelligence were so unexpected, and are now such an exquisite part of our culture.