Blame Edward Bok. When he acquired Ladies’ Home Journal in 1889, it was a modest little rag of household tips and advice to the lovelorn. Bok smartened things up by publishing Jane Addams on Hull House, Bernard Baruch on wartime thrift, and the first celebrity profiles of the day: playing tennis with Sarah Bernhardt, say, or dinner at Herbert and Lou Hoover’s house. Bok got the better class of readers (and, more important, advertisers) he was aiming for, and in 1903, Ladies’ Home Journal became the first magazine to have more than a million subscribers.
Bok was a man of ambition, but his ambition was not literary. LHJ’s more serious pieces were never a patch on the Atlantic or McClure’s—both of which, let it be said, published women writers. The magazine’s literary style was patronizing, so much so that real women of letters wouldn’t touch it. Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger, after whom the women’s history library at Harvard is named, registered her contempt in the New Republic: “That they [women’s magazines] are popular no one can deny, and therefore one’s surprise is all the greater at the triviality of their contents.” Mary Ritter Beard, accomplished wife of Charles A., summarized the content of women’s magazines thus: “Fashion plates, fashion articles, society gossip, tepid fiction, bloodless sentimentality, Cinderellas, Fairy Princes, directions for the use of cosmetics.”
As for politics, Bok’s were progressive, certainly, but in the most tedious way—see his campaign against the use of heron feathers in ladies’ hats. When he wrote articles on sex (“Seven years ago, the idea of sex education was a tabooed subject . . .”), he wasn’t even trying to peddle transgression. For him, it was just one more household tip.
By the time Bok retired from LHJ, the women’s magazine had come to stand for suburban boosterism, bourgeois sentimentalism, and the middlebrow sensibilities of women who were smart enough to want opinions but not smart enough to have ideas.
Women’s websites have replaced women’s magazines, but, otherwise, not much has changed.
* * *
When Salon started a “cheeky new women’s blog” in October 2005, it promised that “Broadsheet will be taking the ladies seriously.” Slate’s XX Factor blog, launched two years later, spawned the grander women’s site DoubleX (since reduced to a mere section of Slate), which likewise claimed to have “an approach that’s unabashedly intellectual.”
Well, maybe. Each of the two sites publishes good work on occasion, but, for the most part, these fem-blogs are by turns chatty, unserious, hysterical, and saccharine—all the stereotypes about women writers that, in a perfect world, they’d be trying to undermine. To give two examples from the summer of 2009, consider first this Broadsheet post by Kate Harding about food guru Michael Pollan and Julia Child:
Child, argues Pollan, demonstrated that “cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent woman’s attention. (A man’s, too.)” And even Simone de Beauvoir said whipping up pastries could involve “revelation and creation”—a statement Pollan characterizes as “a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.” Oh, those thoughtless feminists! I wasn’t around in the ’60s, but I’m guessing they made ridiculous, man-hating arguments like, “Dude, Julia Child gets paid to cook.” . . . And in most homes, housewives weren’t mastering the sensual, meditative art of French cooking but making the same few starchy, fatty, labor-intensive dishes over and over for no pay, to the exclusion of being able to consider whether they might prefer some other form of fulfillment befitting an intelligent woman.
It’s all there in this short excerpt—the cheap sarcasm (“Oh, those thoughtless feminists!”), the adolescent vocabulary (“Dude, Julia Child gets paid to cook”), the intellectual laziness (cooking is repetitive, not very stimulating, and only an outlet for creativity if you make it one—like most jobs). The headline for the post was a cheap shot, too: “Michael Pollan Wants You Back in the Kitchen.”
On the more sentimental side, there’s this post from XX Factor’s Bonnie Goldstein on naming her late-in-life baby:
I told my husband that we should split this decision: he could choose his son’s first name, provided I could choose the last—mine. He looked so crestfallen I immediately took it back. Our son became Nathan Howard Grady and I can’t imagine him being called anything else. It turns out how we arrive at what we call ourselves, has a lot to do with who we are.
As one final piece of evidence, here is a list of the two blogs’ posts on a single day this summer, July 30. Broadsheet’s five posts were about polyamory, feminist porn, celebrity look-alike sperm donors, a Facebook-style site for female writers called SheWrites, and a study showing that women are more likely than men to die of complications from heart surgery. XX Factor looked at “fat acceptance,” misogyny in sports journalism, a T-shirt with lesbian moms on it, shoe-throwing protesters, and why texting is okay when you’re driving alone but not when your kids are in the car. The shoe-throwing, at least, was news.
Where is the “unabashedly intellectual” approach here? Is this what Broadsheet means by “taking the ladies seriously?”
* * *
These lists, and the two representative posts, are all good for a laugh—polyamory, feminist porn, and fat acceptance in a single day?—but they don’t capture the real problem with women’s blogging as a genre. It’s possible to write interestingly about body image, sperm donation, or your foibles as a mother. Caitlin Flanagan and Virginia Postrel have done it, and one of these days Sandra Tsing-Loh might.
Indeed, the chance to offer a fresh take on these topics is probably what an author has in mind when she joins a women’s blog in the first place. Men have written great prose about fast cars. They have turned boxing, which is pretty dumb, into a metaphor for the human condition. It’s a stretch to take baseball as seriously as some writers do, and yet Bart Giamatti pulled it off beautifully. Why shouldn’t we give the same credit to women’s more mindless pursuits—even fashion and celebrity gossip?
No reason at all, yet women’s blogs never seem to pull it off. There are women who blog well—Megan McArdle, Ann Althouse, and, oddly enough, Edward Bok’s great-granddaughter, Hilary Bok—but something about women’s group blogs makes them inevitably become Ladies’ Home Journal with a liberal dash of feminist outrage. Why do they always end up looking like amateur hour in an amateur’s medium?
Not because women can’t write. However, some women can’t write, and women’s blogs certainly do have contributors who probably couldn’t hack it in the blogosphere without a leg-up from their gender and the automatic insight it is thought to lend examinations of the female condition. While that’s a plausible belief, the inevitable result is a forum that focuses—nay, obsesses over—“women’s issues” as articulated by rather pedestrian women writers. If a woman is smart enough to make it as a writer outside the women’s blog ghetto, she very often does, particularly if she can write well about topics of interest to a general audience—as McArdle, Althouse, and Bok all have.
Still, even if some of these women are affirmative-action hires, most of them aren’t. Hanna Rosin is a serious journalist. Meghan O’Rourke, founding editor of DoubleX, is also poetry co-editor of the Paris Review. Kerry Howley is a contributing editor at Reason.
But even smart women sound stupid when they don’t know what they’re doing, and that’s the real problem: The women who write for these blogs don’t have a clear idea of what the mission of a women’s blog ought to be.
Is it supposed to be about writing in a feminine style, providing a safe space for writers to employ all the distinctive quirks that male editors, in their ignorance, won’t let women writers get away with? That quickly turns into an excuse for sloppy and unprofessional writing. To name one bad habit, women’s blogs are full of chatty parentheticals like “double standard much?” and “misogyny alert!” There’s also quite a bit of “I think” and “I feel,” and not enough old-fashioned declarative statements.
Is it about highlighting topics important to women but not men? That seems to have resulted in rehashing the same tired subjects over and over—an eternal lament about body image, breastfeeding, and birth control. When general interest magazines like the Atlantic take up these topics, as they frequently do, they usually insist that their writers have something original or provocative to say about them. Women’s bloggers, on the other hand, rarely do anything more than affirm conventional wisdom, perhaps because they think that, simply by talking about women’s issues, by “raising awareness,” they’ve fulfilled their mission statements. A recent XX Factor post, for example, decries the great “human rights” violation afflicting Third World women who lack access to tampons and sanitary pads. Isn’t it self-evidently terrible that our sisters in poor countries have to undergo the inconvenience of menstruation when a simple innovation could liberate them?
Is it the role of women’s blogs to offer a feminine perspective on the news of the day? It’s not clear that this is their intention, either. For one thing, liberal feminists like Kerry Howley, Amanda Marcotte, and Tracy Clark-Flory are gender skeptics who don’t believe that a “feminine perspective” exists. (Which raises the question: If their brand of feminism is right and gender differences are really as superficial as eye color, why have a gendered blog?) Even for those who believe in a feminine perspective on at least some things, it’s hardly obvious that the public sphere is not a co-ed space. If anything is politically important, it will, by definition, be important to both sexes. Abortion is the classic “women’s issue” for politicians mining votes, but men have demonstrated no lack of interest in the controversy.
For another thing, the women on these sites who do believe in a female perspective on the news seem to have a very limited understanding of what that means. When Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize for literature, Hanna Rosin gave the story a feminine twist by observing that Müller looks like Louise Black from Project Runway. When Jessica Grose wrote for DoubleX about Cheerful Money, the new memoir of New Yorker writer Tad Friend, she reduced a wide-ranging meditation on class and WASP-hood in America to a study of “the loneliness in the space between parents and children.” Does she think that the only way to get women to read a book is to assure them it’s really all about parenting? Here is one of the omnipresent pitfalls of women’s journalism—the tendency to domesticate big questions that could easily be subjects of serious debate by turning them instead into tame advice: how to raise children, negotiate with one’s husband, and, in Mary Beard’s words, “apply cosmetics.”
A women’s blog has to be more than a blog that happens to have a stable of female writers, but neither Broadsheet nor DoubleX seems to have a clear idea of what that is. Until these sites figure out what’s supposed to be feminine about women’s blogs, they will never be more than Redbook in pixels. (Indeed, DoubleX has already found the identity conflict too much to handle and “returned to the womb” of Slate’s main site, where the presence of a male readership may at least keep them serious.) There’s nothing wrong with middlebrow sites—chattiness, cheap sentimentalism, and predictability are not moral offenses—but why establish a connection between femininity and ordinariness? Sadly, that’s what happens when all women’s blogs, no matter their aspirations, end up settling into a comfy middlebrow rut.
DoubleX had a symposium on “Feminism’s Dilemmas” earlier this summer. They put together a formidable roster, including Linda Hirshman, Virginia Postrel, Stephanie Coontz, and Katha Pollitt. Alas, even those essays that made provocative points about the present state of feminism were frustratingly vague about its future. “It’s time to stop talking about feminism and start doing it.” “Why should my flourishing be incompatible with my equality?” “More than anything, more than any book in the canon or slogan on a T-shirt, modern feminism is a state of mind.” Those sentences could mean almost anything, so I’ll make my own suggestion concrete: To save feminism, get rid of the lady blogs.
Helen Rittelmeyer is a writer living in Washington, DC.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire