Another pretty face of a generation

The question isn't why a blogger like Emily Gould has the spotlight -- it's why other women don't.

Topics: The New York Times, Memoirs, Sex and the City,

Another pretty face of a generation

It’s been a nasty couple of weeks for New York’s writing women, both real and imaginary.

First came an anticipatory backlash to the big-screen debut of Carrie Bradshaw, the fictional and expensively shod sex columnist heroine of “Sex and the City.” In the years since HBO created its hit show based on Candace Bushnell’s New York Observer column, Carrie and her over-sexed girlfriends have — to the dismay of many women who live in their city or toil in their professions — become tutu’d cartoons, representing the assumptions people make about what single, professional straight women must be like: They are materialistic, horny squealers, hungry for brunch and husbands. Apparently, lots of women who don’t feel in the slightest bit represented by the “SATC” ladies are not thrilled to see them back again, this time plastered all over their multiplexes. Time Out New York even ran a story whose cover featured the show’s stars in evening wear, with duct tape over their mouths.

Over at the popular women’s blog Jezebel, managing editor Anna Holmes reasonably queried, “What, pray tell, was so damn groundbreaking about a group of narcissistic rich white women with a love of shopping and gossiping about their sex lives?” Last week, Holmes handed the task of watching all six seasons of the series to blogger Emily Gould, a former Gawker editor who prides herself on having coined the term “Scary Sadshaw” in derisive reference to the show, its adherents and, in her words, “all the thirtysomething ladies who desperately need TV role models to justify their one night stands, shoe-splurges, and bloggy confessions about same.” Gould’s early posts from the “SATC” front lines were comically dismissive of the show, illustrated with an image of Parker as Bradshaw, lying in a rumpled bed, wearing a tank top, and pointing her finger to her head like a gun.

How appropriate. In the same week that Gould was covering this “SATC”-critical terrain, she graced the cover of the New York Times Magazine — tank-topped, tattooed and lounging upside down in mussed bed sheets. The cheesecakey cover shot advertised Gould’s first-person story, an 8,000-word exploration of what Gould “gained — and lost” by divulging details of her romantic and sexual life on the Internet. The very readable piece had the voyeuristic feel of a precocious, neurotic teen’s diaristic musings; it was all crushy and naive, with ample reference to breakup sex and therapy and panic attacks.



Response to Gould’s story was even chillier than Gould’s regard for Bradshaw and her buddies. The typically staid Times comments section roiled with readers who were practically apoplectic in their loathing for Gould. “This article was nothing more than the ramblings of a moronic juvenile who calls herself a writer,” wrote Joseph from Manhattan, while a woman named Beatrice complained about the “total narcissism, self-involvement, and ego-mania” she believed the article revealed. And a woman claiming to be Gould’s age wrote, “Please stop embarrassing our generation with mindless prattle.”

In the days surrounding the publication of the piece, Gould’s “SATC” critique turned increasingly self-referential. Her history of ragging on “Scary Sadshaw” was quickly becoming ironic. Gould hated Carrie and her ilk for being shallow, self-absorbed, exhibitionistic, moony over men; now readers hated Gould for all the same reasons!

What provokes such fury, over Carrie Bradshaw, and — for a flash — over Gould (barring a book deal and TV show that will turn her meanderings into cultural furniture) is that in a media landscape in which there are a severely limited number of spaces for women’s writing voices, the ones that get tapped become necessarily, and deeply inaccurately, emblematic — of their gender, their generation, their profession. More annoying — and twisted — is that those meager spots for women are consistently filled by those willing to expose themselves, visually and emotionally. And not accidentally, by those willing to expose themselves in a way that is comfortable, and often alluring, to many of the men who control the media, and to many of the women who consume it. There is a storied history of bright women writers (many of whom are mentioned in a New York Observer article this week), from generational confessionalists like Joyce Maynard and Elizabeth Wurtzel to cultural critics like Katie Roiphe to novelists like Lucinda Rosenfeld and Marisha Pessl, who have been raised up as media darlings, photographed in appealing poses or in titillating features, and then ripped apart by critics (including, on more than one occasion, me).

When we are fed — and gobble up — stories by or about single urban working women, those exotic and potentially threatening creatures presented to us are often doing things like confessing their self-doubt, discussing their sex lives, lying on rumpled sheets looking pretty.

Any suggestion that this is anything other than a double standard is false. When magazines feature stories about writers like those smart young men over at N+1 (as the Times magazine did a few years ago) those men are not typically photographed blogging in their beds; when, as the Observer suggested, we read a first-person confessional by Philip Weiss (who wrote recently for New York about his extramarital sexual yearnings) we are not treated to a bare-limbed image of him, or any image of him at all.

We are mired in a repetitious pattern of hate, jealousy and resentment toward those who are plucked by media powers and come to stand — however inefficiently — for the rest of us in the cultural imagination, securing the top spots, the best exposure, the prime media real estate in exchange for openings veins of feminine vulnerability.

Just as Gould is infuriated by all those “Scary Sadshaws,” wandering around in search of baubles and boys, I find it maddening to think of grandparents around the country picking up their Times magazine, getting a load of Gould, and thinking, “So that’s what that single professional city life is about! Boyfriends and blogging about them!” Maddening to think of doddering new media critics having their worst suspicions about the self-obsessed downfall of journalism confirmed by Gould’s me-tastic assertion that while writing for Gawker, she found that “injecting a personal aside into a post that wasn’t otherwise about me … kept things interesting for me.” Maddening to have to wonder — Carrie Bradshaw-style — if Gould’s story would have run had she not been beautiful, and maddening to then hate oneself for having had to wonder that at all.

But perhaps most maddening is the way the buildup of critical attention to a piece like Gould’s — or to a cultural phenomenon like “SATC” — only affirms that certain kinds of women, and only those kinds of women, are worth elevating to begin with, in part because of the delight people take in tearing them down.

Look no further than the Times’ own Q&A session, in which Gould answered questions from readers. It was unclear whether these questions were selected by the paper, or cherry-picked by Gould in some kind of martyred, self-immolating frenzy; either way, the writer, who might otherwise have been celebrating her success, got bloodied. “Has this been a wakeup call for you that nobody cares about any of this? I certainly don’t. I couldn’t even bear to finish reading your blog (yes, it is a blog, not an article)” went one “question.” Another reader “asked”: “Like you, Joni Mitchell was extremely self-referential. Many people liked this at first, but they eventually grew tired of it. When she finally stopped writing about herself and turned her attention elsewhere, most people had already lost interest and moved on. Do you worry that the same thing will happen to you?”

No matter how angry you felt about Gould’s piece, it was almost impossible to read the comments and not feel terrible: for her, about her, and about yourself for having even peeked. The process is exhausting, and not good for anyone, especially women who get stuck with some lame avatar they feel does not represent them, but whom they do not particularly feel like burning at the stake just for having been clever, lucky or talented enough to wind up drawing a spotlight.

We have to remember: There is nothing wrong with women writing about themselves, their youth, their indiscretions, their habits and values and personal development. Men have been writing about this stuff for thousands of years; they call it the canon.

And like their male contemporaries, a lot of this writing disappoints. When it does, there is nothing wrong with criticizing it. The thing that is wrong — really wrong — is when we forget that these kinds of stories are not the only ones that women have to tell.

So rather than being troubled by the fact that Gould — or Bushnell, or Bradshaw, or whoever — has the spotlight, why not question why so few other versions of femininity are allowed to share it?

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>