"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The feminist blogosphere erupted this week in a brief but intense conflagration over a New York Times story about BlogHer, the annual conference for female bloggers held this year in San Francisco. “Blogging’s Glass Ceiling” was written by Times staffer Kara Jesella and appeared in the Times’ Sunday Styles section, a week after the conclusion of BlogHer. In it, Jesella reported on the frustrations of some of the assembled writers about the lack of respect they receive in the Wild West of the Internet, a frontier that still whirs away on masculine energy, despite the fact that nearly as many women as men surf it every day.
According to some ticked critics of the Times, a lack of respect for female bloggers was etched into Jesella’s piece itself.
Among Feministe blogger PhysioProf’s complaints was that the story was published in the Styles section, the section of the paper reserved for trend pieces, drink recipes, society photos and wedding announcements. In other words, the girl part of the paper.
PhysioProf also called out Jesella for her clichéd lede (about BlogHer attendees taking over the men’s rooms in the conference hotel), her reportorial focus on details that were female (there were lactation and changing rooms), superficial (women applying blush and eye shadow) and ridiculous (self-helpy affirmations posted in the bathroom stalls like “You are perfect”). She was also angry about Jesella’s decision to draw attention to the emotional, sometimes weepy panels that took place during the gathering, and the piece’s description of how the conference had “moved on” from last year’s Kathy Sierra-inspired focus on how women are treated on the Internet, to discussions of how bloggers can increase their influence, reputation and profit.
Over at the popular feminist blog Jezebel, Megan Carpentier pointed out the disparity between the Times’ coverage of BlogHer and Netroots Nation, the gathering of political bloggers that was held, quite unfortunately, on the same weekend as BlogHer.
“Was a panel discussion on the use of profanity in political blogging [a Times story that ran about Netroots] of more pressing importance to Times readers than Michelle Obama’s first blog post or the aforementioned discussion of how to get taken seriously as a woman political blogger?” Carpentier wondered, in reference to two brief references in Jesella’s piece. “Or is the Times just trying to prove the point of the BlogHer founders and users — that women just don’t get taken quite as seriously as men?”
Well, perhaps not trying. But succeeding, even accidentally, in proving a series of crucial points about the state of gender and online discourse in 2008.
The white-hot fury over the placement of Jesella’s piece was a little overblown. As Carpentier rightly pointed out, the Styles section recently ran a long piece on a gaggle of young male D.C. political bloggers. Additionally, Jesella — who has cowritten a book about how Sassy, the feminist magazine of the 1990s, changed her life — is on staff at the Styles section. If she lobbied to cover the BlogHer convention then her work on it would, by dint of her position, go in Styles.
The problem is not simply with the placement of one story, but with a newspaper that does not take “women’s stories” — in this case one that could have also been about business, technology, politics or gender as a social, economic or professional impediment to success — seriously enough to give them other, more newsy space in its pages.
Like, yes, the space afforded for the Times’s ample coverage of the Netroots convention (formerly YearlyKos), a comparative equation that kicks off a series of circuit-frying chicken and egg back-and-forths:
A) Why shouldn’t Netroots receive more attention? Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi attended, along with legions of better-known journalists than those at BlogHer, making it imminently more worthy of coverage.
B) But why did Gore and Pelosi show up for Netroots and not BlogHer when BlogHer was a gathering of women with the power to communicate to millions? Michelle Obama recognized that, which is why she wrote her first blog entry to mark the gathering. So why was the power of the conference ignored by everyone but the prospective first lady, the most marginalized of any political actor? (And P.S. Why is she marginalized, anyway?)
A) There’s no reason for important politicians to show up at BlogHer when the Netroots impact is so much greater, especially when it comes to fundraising. And first ladies are marginalized because even when they have advanced degrees and important jobs, they still go on “The View” and talk about what they’re wearing.
B) But why shouldn’t BlogHer be as powerful as Netroots? Almost as many women read the Internet as men, and women give money and vote. First lady candidates talk about their outfits because if they talk about money and jobs and politics, they seem threateningly unfeminine and get caricatured on the cover of the New Yorker as Angela Davis.
Welcome to the never-ending circle of causation and blame and assimilation to expectations.
The tone of Jesella’s story — with its light descriptions of “flurries of discussion,” its tossed-off reference to sponsorship by General Motors and KY Jelly (har!) and casual reportage about the “tears” and “hooting” at some of the more “emotional” panels — was certainly constructed on the diminutive model of newspaper conference coverage. No one wrote about the guys at Netroots standing around urinals, or, for that matter, the women at Netroots applying their makeup, though they surely did that in Austin, too. And that’s without question because Netroots was not a gender-specific gathering, and therefore didn’t get automatic feminized journalistic treatment.
But in the tortured circular hell of who’s to blame for gendered imparity, it’s only fair to point out that the Netroots convention probably didn’t have the “You are perfect” notes hanging on the stalls. It’s crap like this that gives the extra-pink tint to the already gendered lens through which the media sees conferences like BlogHer.
It is not without irony, for instance, that one of the women Jesella interviewed about not being taken seriously online runs a blog called Lemonade Life. This isn’t a blog about lemonade; it’s a blog about living with diabetes, and a cursory read suggests that it’s a very good, smart one. Lemonade Life’s Allison Blass has written on her site that the name is in reference to making lemonade of the health lemons life has handed her. And that’s terrific. It makes sense.
But we can’t pretend that a title doesn’t affect how a blog is read and digested. And the fact is that the people over at Netroots are calling their blogs things like the Plank and the Page and First Read and Hotline, names that scream solidity and self-importance and power. A blog about personal experience and illness certainly needn’t be named with an eye to political urgency, but what about starting from a place of self-regard and personal authority and naming it after yourself, like Kos, or Drudge, or one of the women who does get taken seriously online, Arianna Huffington? Think about how much easier it would be to get the respect that some of the BlogHer women crave if they started taking themselves more seriously.
This is a tricky argument to make, since there is nothing intrinsically wrong with giving a blog a cute name or, for that matter, writing a blog about a feminized topic — be it motherhood or fashion or dating — that is destined for a niche audience. In an ideal world, of course, the experiences of parenthood and style and love wouldn’t even be marked as feminine, since they are all shared.
But this is not an ideal world.
Lest anyone think I’m encouraging female bloggers to change the names of their blogs, burn their onesies and start jousting Matt Drudge for the latest news about John Edwards’ coiffure, it’s also vital to remember that while there are only a handful of well-regarded female political bloggers (FireDogLake and Digby, to name two) there are lots of women out there raking it in and enjoying high profiles for writing about those things that are, unideally, stamped “chick.”
“Feminine” climes are where female writing voices are not simply heard but also remunerated and celebrated. Why shouldn’t writers pursue the success where they’re encouraged, rather than banging their heads until they bleed against the door that continues to bar them from mainstream, and therefore still male, modes of discourse about things like politics, technology, the economy, business or science?
It’s interesting that one of PhysioProf’s chief complaints about Jesella’s story concerns the shift in conversation away from how to survive the boys’ world. If the key to success lies with BlogHer’s closing speakers, dating blogger Stephanie Klein and mommy blogger Heather Armstrong, both of whom have become wealthy doing what they do, and if the terrifically screwed-up scheduling conflict between Netroots and BlogHer means anything, then perhaps it’s that in some quarters of the Internet, women have decided that all the wheel spinning in a blogosphere unwilling to offer them traction is a waste of their time. Maybe they’re ready to pack it in and head back to their own corner, to attend a conference, and create a blogosphere, of their own.
And if that’s the case, well, then that’s well worth an angry blog post or two.
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 Rebecca Traister.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)