Quick Thanks for Rubbing My Eyes

Dear Millicent,

I wanted to write a quick thanks to Jessica Valenti, who announced today that she is leaving Feministing. Her fellow bloggers and people who actually know her have written a lot of grand things about it. I don’t know her, but have watched her build her public persona at a public distance.  Over the years she has become perhaps the most open public figure about building her career and path, and it has been a strikingly honest and inclusive conversation.

In 2006, I got a press pass to attend the NAPW Summit to Ensure the Health and Humanity of Pregnant and Birthing Women. I had just become a doula, and was happy to find a conference that was in driving distance. I wrote for a tiny local paper, and was happy to get accepted as press because it meant I could get in for free. Otherwise, I never would have  been able to afford it.  I had only written two freelance articles by this point, and had never actually been considered as press by anybody. The invitations to press breakfasts were entirely overwhelming.  I also had to wake up at four every day to get to the conference on time. I add this detail so you can have a picture of me, wrinkled, sleepy, poorly put together, with a notebook and pen and no idea what I was getting into.

As I walked up to the registration table on the first day, there was a glamorous woman with long brown hair, outstanding outfit, and smart laptop case checking in before me. It was Jessica Valenti. I didn’t know who she was, but I tagged her as fancy press. Fancy enough to have a computer that didn’t take 45 minutes to warm up. Fancy enough to need internet access at all times.  Somebody who knew what they were doing. I mumbled my own credentials after her and followed her in the ballroom where the conference had already started.  We both sat at a table in the back, where she seemed to know everybody.  Months later, I would realize I was sitting next to Samhita Mukhopadyay, and that when she asked me what I wrote about it and who for, there was a better answer than “I’m just covering this for a small local weekly,” and then grimacing my way out of further conversation.

But I was a blind baby bird, unaware, and underprepared.  I didn’t know that it was Amanda Marcotte that Valenti was talking to.  I had never heard of Feministing, or Pandagon, or Our Bodies Ourselves, The Guttmacher Institute, Sistersong, Exhale, Dorothy Roberts, Carol Joffe, or anybody or organization that was working on women’s rights. I didn’t get on fire about feminism until that conference, where within the first 30 minutes I realized everybody in the room knew oceans more about women’s rights than I did, and I admired them all wildly for it. I spent the entire four days underwater, hiding in the back and trying to absorb as much as possible. And I was alone at the conference, which is fine if you actually have something to say to other people, but I was so out of my league that I spent most breaks looking at brochures, and most meals trying to figure out how to have confidence and unabashed ignorance at the same time. I think it mostly came off as an unenticing nonchalance.

In short, I was a miserable failure. This was also when I had a very crappy day job, a very crappy wardrobe, and a grand sense of not having my shit together. The conference was completely invigorating, overwhelming, and exhausting. It cleaned me out, broke me down, gave me that whack on the head that there were other paths than the one I was on, and people were walking those paths very well.

I went home, looked up all the people I didn’t know. I found Feministing. It’s the first blog that showed me what a blog really was, and what the potential of blogging was. It also explained feminism in a manageable way to me, proving that feminism was just as much about offensive shirts at Walmart as it was about major policy reform. I got my toes wet, in the safety of my own home. I watched Valenti go on Colbert, publish books, build a career that is much bigger than I assumed possible.  She’s two years older than me, and I want to thank her for building something big, and proving that such things can be built. But what I really want to thank her for is for intimidating me. I felt like an asshat for not taking more advantage of who I met at the conference, but I also felt so new, and new in the bad way, like where you don’t even know how your  muscles work let alone use them well. Five years ago, watching her walk into that conference with her laptop scared the shit out of me. But it also woke me up.

So best wishes to Valenti as she moves on to her next projects, and keeps building.

Yours,

CF

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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

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.

Le Marriage et Le Travaille

Dearest Millicent,
I think you are wandering in a forest somewhere. Perhaps in the fog or at the buffet in a boat-shaped restaurant? Wherever you are, I hope you return to us soon. Our cozy tearoom is lonely when all I have to chat with is the embroidered floral chair across the way (it’s next to the picture of you on the camel (sepia tone, of course)).

I’m writing because of a convergence of blog posts and my own life. As you well know, Mr. Carla Fran and I have the same profession (if either of us can actually boldly claim “writing” as our profession, but it is on our tax forms, so…). Many are warned not to marry within the profession: too much jealousy, not enough money. And one of our great gripes is the balance between work. His work is part of his every day routine, and almost as much a priority in his life as a cup of coffee. My work (while I would say equally important) is not as daily as coffee, and I tend to eek and squish it into my schedule when nobody is looking. This means that I often witness his focus, and he rarely sees mine. It also means that he often changes plans around his work, while I often change my work for plans (thus the eeking and squishing). Neither of us is wrong in our behaviors, but it does make us (mainly me) a little, shall we say….itchy…every once in awhile. Today, I got itchy.

Yesterday, I read Courtney’s post at feministing about “The Pandora’s Box of Cohabitation” , about how one is caught in the vice of “to nag or not to nag.” She writes about a box her boyfriend won’t put away, and how she mainly aims to remain calm and not freak out over the box that is driving her crazy. He does eventually put it away for his own reasons, but for her, the worry blooms into a model of what shared responsibility might be in their future: her bending, trying to be patient, silently quite irked, while he does what he wants. She threads this into a reverie of what childrearing might look like, and the devastation such a model could plausibly create.

Today, there was a discussion on the Huffington Post and NY Times about the same thing, but now totally focused on the parenting aspect. Apparently there are many moms that feel like they do the majority of the managing of parenthood. It boiled down to moms doing all of the mental work (shoe sizes, valentines for class, friends) while dads popped in and drove the van every once in awhile.

When I first read Courtney’s post, I thought it was a little hyperbolic, but I think I understand the worry that she was simply brave enough to offer in its full articulation. In general, we do bend more, put more aside, hold our tongues and rearrange (some of this due to the fear of looking like the dreaded bitch/nag)? Or, maybe many a marriage crisis is based on both partners thinking they are doing all the bending. The NY Times article mentioned that no fathers gave their side. I’m sure a good reporter could find some dads that are rockstars at shared work, but would that be representative?

Mr. Carla Fran is a bit of a rockstar in considering my needs, but (and I might agree with him on this) when it comes down to our argument about rearrangement/itchiness/bending, the answer usually is that I am the one with the negative behavior; I am the one putting myself in the overextended situation that I am then mad at him for. Is this ultimately one more repetition of the model, or a possible me-shaped door that I can learn to open?

In short, everybody thinks they are working quite hard, but is there a way to navigate this common place without turning into Balky (yes, I am referencing “Perfect Strangers”) or Andy Capp (not the hot fries, the comic strip, where he is always on the run from his terrible hag wife)?

Yours,
CF

(For other posts on marriage and work, see “Beowulf and Marriage, Gifts and Work.”)