Long post on Jezebel, body image, and passive aggressive tweeting
Having been the victim of not one, but two of the absolute most passive-aggressive tweets I have read in many moons (though not, apparently, the most of Emily Gould’s day!), I thought I would politely decline Emily’s suggestion to subject myself to more of this in private and at greater length than 140 characters, and instead address the actual issue at hand—her annoying concern trolling of Jezebel . Her argument is, well, let’s start with what she’s really saying and then go with the concern troll gloss. Her main argument is, “Feminists are just jealous that they aren’t hot like Olivia Munn, and they pretend that’s sexism.” Which is, of course, Rush Limbaugh’s definition of feminism, reworked into a less clever formation. But she’s polished up that ancient turd with some concern troll shine. See, she’s just worried that it’s bad for women that Jezebel has a lot of posts talking about the relentless stream of impossible-to-achieve beauty standards. Of course, the only real problem that she seems to have with said impossible-to-achieve beauty standards is that they make other women act like jealous bitches.
Instead of mimicking the old directly anxiety-making model—for example, by posting weight-loss tips and photos of impossibly thin models like a traditional women’s magazine—Jezebel and the Slate and Salon “lady-blogs” post a critique of a rail-thin model’s physique, explaining how her attractiveness hurts women.
This, of course, is a straight-up mischaracterization of Jezebel’s commenting and blogging policies, as Michelle Dean explains.
Gould’s giving a pretty vague gloss on what it is that those blogs do, in my experience—Jezebel’s anti-”bodysnarking” rule is Internet-famous, and just yesterday they had a post explaining why Crystal Renn oughtn’t to be criticized for losing weight. Also, in general I think it’s important to be skeptical of grand theses based on sampling of Internet comments. Internet commenters (and I’ve been one! Still am!) are assholes; on this I think we can all agree.
Indeed, the original post that’s inspiring Emily is the one (sing it with me now) about “The Daily Show”, something I doubt Irin realized was going to be such a massive shit-starter when she wrote it. Let’s see how Irin supposedly slagged on Olivia Munn and said that Munn is somehow a bad person and bad for women because she’s got such stellar physical measurements.
According to Nielsen, the Daily Show’s audience does lean male—about 60 percent. That’s who producers seemed to have in mind when they hired Olivia Munn. Though it’s far to early to assess Munn’s performance based on her few seconds onscreen so far, her previous career path has led some to criticize The Daily Show for hiring someone better known for suggestively putting things in her mouth on a video game show (seen here) and being on the covers of Playboy and Maxim than for her comedic chops.
Munn was hired after an exhaustive search for a female correspondent that included many professional comedians. (Kristen Schaal is already an occasional contributor, but not a regular correspondent.) Executive producer Rory Albanese told the Daily Beast that producers were previously unaware of Olivia’s drooling fanboy base: “We’re stuck in a hard news cycle and we’re nerdy. If she was on the cover of The Economist, we would have been like, ‘Yes! Of course!'” It’s hard not to conclude that looks mattered more for women than for men. Silverman jokes of Munn’s hiring, “I just hope it encourages Wyatt Cenac to take his top off more often.”
One female comedian who has auditioned multiple times for the show says, “Looking back, it was ridiculous of me to even prepare! Should I have gone to the gym more? Done Playboy? It’s such a joke.”
I don’t know if this is fair or not, honestly. I have no idea who Olivia Munn is, none. Not that I’d expect to, since “The Daily Show” is obviously a job that unknowns take on the way to becoming knowns. But I watched the video provided, and it was that brand of “humor” that involves laughing about how fun it is to see a hot woman make references to sexual acts the audience imagines they’d like to perform on her. It was a little embarrassing. But hey, maybe she’s really talented and trying to get away from that. But it also makes the “Y’all Are Just Jealous” attack, as Michelle calls it, all the more stupid. I doubt very much that Irin is jealous that Munn had a job where dudes dangled hot dogs in front of her face and laughed as she ate them after protests. In the real world, this sort of thing makes evil feminist flinch and feel sorry for the target. As does the story Munn tells about her Playboy shoot. In general, feminists feel women are in a double bind. Being hot means having access to jobs and social activities that might be shut off to you otherwise, but often the price you pay is men treat you like a sex object. You really can’t win that game.
It’s also kind of strange to focus on this issue, when Gould seems to be complaining about the larger trend on Jezebel of critiquing mostly still images that are presented to women as some kind of beauty ideal to aspire to, even though it’s impossible. You’d think there’d be way better examples of this—for instance, Jezebel’s got an ongoing thing with plus size models and photoshop horrors. The hook doesn’t really match the critique. Nor am I impressed by the fact that I filled out my anti-feminist bingo card while reading Gould’s article. (Checked off: the “victim mentality”, “silly and overemotional”, “feminist echo chamber”, and “spend your time on more important causes” along with the “feminists are just ugly, bitter women” slot.) I don’t think that the sole reason that women get angsty when we’re bombarded with images of impossible beauty is that we’re a bunch of jealous, carping bitches. I think there’s a legitimate reason to suggest that women’s self-esteem is being eroded in dramatic ways, and that the prevalence of fad diets and eating disorders, as well as the just endless waste of human potential worrying about cellulite, is the result. I didn’t even think this was particularly controversial. Except for the invariable pro-anorexia trolls that scream about how feminists can’t care about eating disorders while fat women are still permitted to exist, most people actually find the way women are encouraged to beat themselves up frustrating. Even conservatives have been known to agree that a culture that makes average women feel like trolls who can’t come out in the daylight is a fucked up culture. It’s right up there with, “Roman Polanski shouldn’t get away with raping a child” in terms of popular feminist arguments.
Gould’s charge that Jezebel is deliberately stoking reader anxieties like a traditional woman’s magazine, and then only pretending that they want to help is one of the most breath-takingly ungenerous things I’ve read in at least a week. There’s not a whiff of evidence to suggest that Jezebel’s staff is a bunch of schemers that are out to exploit women while pretending that it’s feminism. But Emily paints a picture of Jezebel writers wringing their hands and saying, “How can we best suck in these idiots who are just bitter that they’re not blessed with enough offers of cock?”
I’ll offer another theory: Jezebel’s writers address these issues a lot because they perceive audience demand, yes, but also because they really do think it’s a public service to give their relatively young audience examples of engaging with these images critically instead of just looking at them and self-flagellating.
Now, you can assume good intentions while still criticizing bad results. (See: critiques of the gender balance in the writing room on “The Daily Show”.) I was so annoyed with Gould’s viciousness and ill-founded assumptions of bad faith that I simply just made fun of her argument on Twitter (though did not, contrary to her claims, accuse her of removing any clothing), and Lindsay had the level-headedness to suggest that under all the mean-spiritedness, Emily had a point about how it’s not so great to have a ton of formulaic body image posts. Obviously, Emily’s accusation that Jezebel (and Double X—which does almost no body image posting at all, by the way—and Broadsheet) deliberately set out to make women feel bad about themselves is simply wrong. But maybe they do it by accident? Maybe dwelling over images of impossibly perfect women, even while critiquing them (the images and the pressure they exert, not the women themselves), is just creating mental habits that are toxic and counterproductive?
Maybe. I’ve always been wary of this problem, which is why I avoid posting on body image issues most of the time, and usually only in service of talking about something else. I worry about the potential of talking about the issue to create space where people who should be allies to each other starting to be jealous of each other or sniping. I worry that I’m too fat or too thin or too old or too young to be an authoritative voice on the subject. Above all, I think that the problem is kind of intractable. After all, the main solution feminists have come up with is an individual one—encouraging women to develop the mental training necessary not to obsess, while accepting some amount of obsessing is almost impossible to avoid, since the internal battle with beauty standards reflects an outside reality that thin and pretty women do better professionally, socially, and romantically in ways that are way beyond what men experience or may even be able to imagine. I’m not a real fan of individual solutions. I feel like some people excel at them, some people fail, and most fall in between, and so you end up getting the same results on average as if you’d done nothing at all. So….I just don’t see the point in dwelling.
But I often liked that Jezebel met audience demands, and did so with a rule against body snarking against anyone for any reason. I thought maybe it’s good that women who often feel like they can’t even talk about this stuff felt they had a space to relieve some tension. But is it possible that it’s counterproductive, and instead of releasing built-up anger and resentment, they’re just reinforcing it? Maybe. But one thing I know for sure is that the accusation that Jezebel is exploiting its readers and being meanie-bears to the hot girls just cuz they’re jealous bitches is not even close to right.