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Gender Bender


Newsweek’s Steve Levy said he wanted to generate discussion on the boy/girl blogger breakdown. Looks like he got his wish.
Lots of folks, from the Columbia Journalism Review to a colleague from Personal Democracy Forum have pointed readers here. Dave Winer is giving me a hard time for calling him stingy. And Jeff Jarvis is in some kind of smack-down with Juan Cole that I don’t have the time to really understand. On top of that, a lot of men keep calling me “him.” (For the record, I am not a man. Even though I live in San Francisco, I have no plans to become one). And, in keeping with what Levy intended, there’s a plan afoot to have a meeting of female on-line writers, probably this summer here on the West Coast.
Some good, some bad. All in all, a good day’s work. But let’s step back for a sec because some of this conversation is getting confused between the on-line and off-line worlds. Levy made his somewhat off-hand remarks against a background of on-line debate – mostly heatedly between me and Kevin Drum — and mean-spirited flame war that’s being conducted by LATImes editor Michael Kinsley and USC professor and pundit Susan Estrich. Levy couldn’t know, of course, that Maureen Dowd would focus on Kinsley and Estrich to write something similar to his column on the same day. That makes me less certain he should get all the credit for this discussion and some of its after-effects. But that’s a small point. We are where we are.

For my money, one of the smarter comments comes from The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum.

{Estrich has] launched a conversation that is seriously bad for female columnists and writers. None of the ones I know — and, yes, I conducted an informal survey — want to think of themselves as beans to be counted, or as “female journalists” with a special obligation to write about “women’s issues.” Most of them got where they are by having clear views, knowing their subjects, writing well and learning to ignore the ad hominem attacks that go with the job. But now, thanks to Estrich, every woman who gets her article accepted will have to wonder whether it was her knowledge of Irish politics, her willingness to court controversy or just her gender that won the editor over.

I don’t know about “seriously bad” although I agree with the rest of what Applebaum says. My criticism of Ann Marie Cox’s standing as “the” girl blogger was an attempt to make this point. When Cox, writing as Wonkette, is salacious she is cleverly mocking this stereotype. Too many times, particularly in politics, women get jobs because they are expected to write about topics that are of interest to those who share their gender. The assumption that gender trumps interest. That’s why so many women at the big political magazines end up writing about sex, nannies and infertility. It’s an extension of the idea – most recently made popular by Harvard President Larry Summers and deeply embedded in many of the comments men like Drum and Winer have made in reacting to criticism – that women’s demonstrated proficiency in some subjects is proof of superior skills and innate affinity. When it comes to anything besides giving birth, skill may just be the result of slightly less benign market forces.
Where I differ from Applebaum is that I don’t think this is necessarily the fault of the women who take these jobs. Newsrooms aren’t as dominated by white guys as when I started in the business – thank God – but men still make a lot of the hiring decisions at the big papers, particularly for the big column-writing jobs. And jobs, as anyone in the business knows, are scarce and getting scarcer all the time. That’s just a fact of life. To accommodate themselves to this reality, a lot of women take the types of writing gigs that they might – everything else being equal in a nonexistent utopian world – turn down otherwise. It could well be a response to a market, nothing more.
As I said, this is a small difference. But for the women working to organize this summer conference on women and on-line writing – one suggested name is BlogherCon, a simply terrible idea for a host of reasons – might want to bear in mind. Applebaum’s point about the ghettoization of women’s points of view makes everyone involved in the dialog feel better. But it has the longer-term effect of placating the very infrastructure so many women say they want to change. This all, of course, moves inexorably toward a faith in the viability of on-line writing and commentary, I know. And that’s kind of self-serving. But there’s a reason – many reasons – why I’m writing this here and you’re reading it there. And believe me, my gender, my attitudes, my point of view – and yours – have everything to do with it.
Bonus Link: LaShawn Barber weighs in — with a good solid smack — on one of her critics.
Big, big thanks to Christian Crumish for some (always) much-needed proofreading.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 11:40 AM | Permalink

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