An apology

By Felix Salmon
February 19, 2013

I wrote something stupid on Friday. I was putting together a follow-up post about Maria Popova and her blog, Brain Pickings, covering a bunch of points I’d failed to make in my original post on the subject. And it turns out that there were a lot of those points: the follow-up post ran to more than 2,400 words, on top of the 1,000-word original.

The second post was written disjointedly, on trains and on strange couches and while sitting in a lecture hall at Yale Law School, half-listening to panel discussions about impact investing in emerging markets. As such, it wasn’t one of those posts where you have something to say, and then you write it down, and then you press “publish”; instead, it was one of those posts where you write a bit, and then you do a podcast, which gives you another idea, which you squeeze in somewhere, and so on. The perfect blog post is exactly one idea long; in that respect, this post was far from perfect. I just didn’t want to spend all week writing about Maria Popova, so I tried to get everything covered in one fell swoop.

As a result, halfway through the post, I made an ill-advised detour into gender politics. (Not that I had any advisers telling me this was a good idea: it was entirely my own mistake.) Here’s what I wrote:

The consistently positive and upbeat tone to Popova’s blog might generate healthy Amazon income as a side-effect, but it’s also genuine: she’s one of those bloggers — Gina Trapani is another very successful example — who have no time for snark and who naturally look for things to celebrate rather than things to tear down. (Just listen to that O’Reilly talk: she dishes out huge amounts of praise to virtually everybody she cites.)

To a certain extent, this is a female thing: positive happy bloggers tend to be female, as do their readers. And when someone like Anne-Marie Slaughter supports Maria Popova to the tune of $300 per year, there’s definitely an element there of supporting the sisterhood. Which is a good thing!

But to many male observers, there’s something a bit off there.

This did not go down well, and I soon ran into a firestorm of criticism on Twitter, accusing me of saying that women are simple and happy. How could I be so sexist? How could I generalize about women, or about women bloggers, in that way?

My first reaction was indignation: I hadn’t generalized about women, or women bloggers. If I say that “brain surgeons tend to be men”, you really haven’t learned anything about men, or about male surgeons. Men don’t tend to be brain surgeons, and neither do male surgeons.

But on reflection, including that passage was pretty obviously stupid. For one thing, my language (“female thing”, “male observers”) naturally and unnecessarily raised a lot of hackles: there’s a line between being plainspoken and being needlessly provocative, and I crossed it. In doing so, I made it far too easy for my readers to miss the precise meaning of “most positive happy bloggers are female”, and to read it instead as “most female bloggers are positive and happy”, or even “most females are positive and happy”.

And then there’s the bigger question of why on earth I thought it was a good idea to bring sex into the blog post at all. It really wasn’t a particularly important part of what I was saying, but it created a situation akin to a long play with a nude scene in the middle: once it’s over, all that anybody remembers is the nude scene. By including this passage, I was effectively doing my best to ensure that people would completely ignore the other 2,300 words of the post.

Finally, and most importantly, I was wrong on the substance of what I said, as well. This one took me longer to work out; I’m indebted to Salon’s Irin Carmon, who spelled things out in an email to me, for explaining something which can’t really be encapsulated in 140 characters:

You seem completely ignorant to the fact that if many women behave in a “positive” fashion, it’s partially because the social costs of being anything else are much, much higher than they are for men. Women who are critical, opinionated etc are still “crazy” or “bitchy” or whatever. Meanwhile, women have socialized to not make too much noise, be nice, make other people feel better about themselves — to enormous professional cost, I would argue, even if they are inherent goods for society. The successful women you write about are clearly threading that needle, and it’s working for them — but the way you described them clearly implied that it made them unserious (“to many male observers”, etc).

In a similar vein, women are often disqualified from serious discourse for writing about things that are become serious when men do them. See: Andrew Sullivan writing about his personal life. Women who do it are navelgazers.

When I talked about “male observers”, I didn’t mean the word “male” as a compliment. Far from it. But Irin’s point is well taken: there’s a societal pressure on women to be pleasant, and the many wonderful snarky female bloggers out there generally face much nastier and much more personal pushback than do those of us who are men. So it’s fine to praise a male blogger for being positive and happy, just as it’s fine to praise a white man for being calm and slow to anger. But talking about positive and happy female bloggers is a bit like talking about calm and controlled black men — it’s something which is incredibly fraught, and which you certainly don’t want to do in passing.

Katha Pollitt, in 1991, coined what she called the “Smurfette Principle” of children’s books:

The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.

My “female thing” was a prime example of the Smurfette Principle in action. Snarky and political male bloggers are the norm; happy and positive female bloggers are the peripheral exception. That is pretty offensive, and also untrue. Blogging is a broad and vibrant church, and singling out some random subset of it as being particularly female is very unlikely to be helpful. So: apologies to everybody who was offended by this wholly unnecessary passage. There was no good reason for publishing it, and doing so was entirely my fault.

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