Between the fetish-style cover, the title "The Fantasy Life Of Working Women" (apparently, we all get to share a singular fantasy life, and we can leave the reader to speculate as to what kind of "working girl" the cover actually evokes) and the Katie Roiphe byline on the piece, Newsweek last night dropped a stinkbomb in the War on Women and is gleefully counting the pageviews.
Many things could be said about the Roiphe piece, from the fact that it quotes a single original source to its singular disinterest in powerful men's fantasies of sexual submission to its tired retread of Roiphe's ultimate thesis that sexual equality and feminism are bad for lasting love and good sex. But it is, more often that not, pointless to engage critically with material that is intended to incite more than illuminate -- and that's where Village Voice Music Editor Maura Johnston's Trollgaze Index comes in.
As she wrote upon the Trollgaze Index's inauguration:
2011 has been the year of 'trollgaze,' a media-agnostic genre name for those pieces of pop culture as designed for maximum Internet attention as they are pieces of art that can stand (or at least wobble) on their own. The ways to get inducted into the trollgaze pantheon are as plentiful as self-congratulatory Lil B retweets; in music alone, they can involve dropping songs chock-full of easy ways to laugh at them (extra points if you're being dead serious about doing so), acting like an entitled punkass brat, complaining about people saying that you're acting like an e.p.b., or somewhat ineptly playing on the already-existent prejudices possessed by critical-mass online audiences, among other things.
The Trollgaze Index operates on a 50-point scale, with 35 points indicating that something exists entirely to piss people off. Think Roiphe can make it? Johnston was figuring on it.
Johnston told me: "Katie Roiphe is a bit of a trollgaze pioneer; her 1994 book The Morning After put the abhorrent 'she was asking for it' attitude into a palatable, quasi-feminist package, stoking attention and outrage all over the land. Since then she's been elevated -- if you want to call it that -- to a position where her opinions are 'controversial' by dint of being uttered by her. Which probably explains why she sounds so silly so often -- why bother thinking through an opinion when your reputation's burnished by you pulling arguments that somehow manage to be ridiculous and reheated out of your ass?"
And now, to the numbers!
THE ARTIST (5 points): Katie Roiphe. No one hires her to write things that settle comfortably into the public consciousness or even bring the debate to a new or interesting level. Recently, Slate paid her to whine that Gawker was mean to her four years ago. (5/5)
THE PIECE (5 points): Kinky sex! Feminists who supposedly hate it! Modern women who like it because it offers "an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality"! Rape fantasies are hot, consent is not! Feminists need not to hate sex so much! If there's some actual scholarship about what feminists supposedly hate when it comes to sex -- at least in the post-Dworkin, post-MacKinnon years when feminists got all "get your freak on, as long as it's consensual" -- Roiphe either hasn't read it or pretends she hasn't. But tie up Big Bad Feminism, working women, spankings, rape fantasies and women-who-want-what-feminist-supposedly-won't-let-them-have in a big fetish-y bow, and she knows you'll read it. (5/5)
THE ILLUSTRATION (5 points): Blindfolded naked lady? Check. Hyper-colorized bored-but-sexy-looking model dressed as a businesswoman next to a marble pussy? Check. But no actual nipples or whip-wielding male models, not that it's easy to think of the typical androgynous male model (a female fantasy not in keeping with Roiphe's thesis) convincingly wielding a whip. (2/5)
DIVISIVENESS (5 points): Other than 50 Shades of Grey author E.L. James and a bunch of bros who would like to think there are hundreds of virginal Anastasias out there looking to get spanked, the general consensus seems to be that the piece sucks. (1/5)
VIRALITY POTENTIAL (10 points): We've got sexy illustrations designed to titillate the male gaze, a woman writer bashing feminists for not accepting that some women would rather be spanked and satisfy rape fantasies than be bosses at the office and, wait, what was that about rape fantasies and women liking them again? (10/10)
"FUCK THE HATERS" QUOTIENT (10 points): Oh, hey, look, it's an Editor's Letter by Tina Brown: "The truth is, any discussion of a 'woman’s role' has become a cultural third rail," and, gosh, isn't Roiphe so brave for grabbing it? And then there's Roiphe's own poorly-disguised-in-the-third-person quote at the end: "It is perhaps inconvenient for feminism that the erotic imagination does not submit to politics, or even changing demographic realities; it doesn’t care about The End of Men or peruse feminist blogs in its spare time; it doesn’t remember the hard work and dedication of the suffragettes and assorted other picket-sign wavers." In other words: Katie Roiphe doesn't care about those things, not when there is the "incandescent fantasy of being dominated or overcome by a man." (9/10)
BACKLASH POTENTIAL (5 points): The thesis alone was designed to inspire backlash when Roiphe first lit upon it: feminism = bad sex. (Because sex was so good for women in the Leave It To Beaver days.) But add in all the fetish stuff, leave out any real supporting data and tie it to women's supposed feelings about finally having some workplace power -- and responsibilities -- and you know people are going to come out kicking against it.(5/5)
THAT EXTRA JE NE SAIS QUOI (5 points): "The Sexual Fantasy of the Working Women"? Though spanking and rape fantasies -- to use Roiphe's term, which the scientists she quoted actually objected to -- are already two rather different fantasies, the idea that women all have the same sexual fantasy, or even the same genre of fantasy is as reductive as the supposed feminist strictures Roiphe purports to decry. Plus, I and most feminists don't care if Roiphe or anyone else likes and asks to be spanked, or gets off on various models of submission -- including powerful men, who have long been known to enjoy the company of professional dominatrices. Safe (as defined by the participants) and consensual are the buzzwords nowadays, not "sweet, sensitive, respectful boyfriend in the new mold who asks her what she wants in bed," though that is another thing that -- thankfully -- women get to actually choose nowadays. Yes, choosing stuff, and asking for what you want, is harder than being told what you get, especially when women are still conditioned that being too sexual isn't ladylike, and being too pushy isn't sexy, and that sex is hotter when someone tells you what to do and that's what women want anyway (cough, Roiphe, cough). But just because something is easier doesn't make it better, and just because something is harder doesn't make it bad. Sometimes, the stuff you have to work for is better when you get it because you had to put some effort into it. (5/5)
TOTAL:42/50. Definite trollgaze. If you pretend she's not there, she might go away.
[Disclosure: Johnston is a close friend of the author.]
["Girl Dressed As A Troll For Halloween (Black Background)" on Shutterstock]