Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


April 18, 2012

A Single Sex with Manifold Voices

Writer Julieanne Smolinski rejects the notion that women can be steroetyped either as writers or as an audience.

Max Lakin

Julieanne Smolinksi is very busy. Perhaps you know her official distillations of the bonhomie of Hoda and Kathie Lee during the Today Show's rolicking, Zinfindel-tinged Fourth Hour, or her employ in GQ sex-things column "Don't Be The Worst." Perhaps you recall her lexicographic shoot-out with crossword-hocker Will Shortz on the appropriate usage of early hip-hop colloquialism (Five letters: Dope, or otherwise agreeable).

Julieanne Smolinski
"When a woman does something, we tend to think of her as some kind of fallopian emissary for the entire gender."

Julieanne Smolinski

Maybe still, the name rings from her alternatingly hilarious and cutting stream of female consciousness at xoJane where she writes about things that make you question, especially if you're a bro, if you're actually allowed to read them, or if you didn't accidentally achieve some impossible acrobatics through a testosterone-tripped laser array and into the Third Eye of Gloria Steinem.

In what follows, Smolinski shares her thoughts about working among a He-Man woman hater's club, the tricky politics of feminine content, and the always-reliable perils of the self-perpetuating media sensationalism machine. Gelf considered conducting this interview on an overnight jaunt under a starless Gowanus sky on the banks of the Superfund, but decided instead to speak by email. These are highlights, edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: What do you make of the gender gap (now with empirical evidence!) in major magazine bylines, about which we are all up in arms?

Julieanne Smolinski: The gap is still there, and based on the number of women journalism majors and the percentage of women in the workforce, it's just this baffling, egregious gap. I think the most frustrating thing is the lack of answers—is this Tina Brown only using women for these buzzy sex and dating pieces, or are women journalists self-ghettoizing into what Maura Egan called "inner life" pieces because the new generation of women writers are navel gazers who don't want to do research? Obviously neither is strictly the case, but it's maddening that the answers aren't there. When you ask editors, male and female, why it is that the byline percentage is so lopsided, you hear the phrase "for whatever reason" a lot. Uh, for what reason? What is the reason? You're the editor, explain your inbox. I think the industry people who were trying to explain the ASMEs would have you think that the world is divided into like, Nicholas Kristof Man Types, Kate Bolick Lady Types, and then maybe Amy Harmon. I think that's absurd. There is no reason why the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker should have fewer than a quarter female bylines. So the thing becomes looking at the editors and at what women are pitching and where they're trying to work. If you're editing Harper's or the Atlantic you can say, "Gee, that's sad, I wonder why that is" and "We'll do better," but I think it's important that we actually say why that is. Even if it's because you're subconsciously assigning long-form Deep Thought, Big Impact Think Pieces to men, or accepting more pitches from men, or getting more pitches from men, have an answer at least. These things aren't writing and publishing themselves. I'd investigate myself but I'm busy writing about TV and handjobs.

Gelf Magazine: Have you felt it yourself? As we've established, you are Everywhere. Have you ever sensed you've been shut out of an antiquated patriarchy?

Julieanne Smolinski: That's tough to say. I have kind of a niche thing—I write about entertainment and sex in a very goofy way. I'm not writing the same kinds of pieces that Samhita Mukhopadhyay or Irin Carmon are—and even when I do do something political, humor can afford you all kinds of distance from gender where you can be a little apolitical. I get to be just a little bit cowardly that way.
That said, I always write with a sense of awareness of being female, whatever that means. When I write about sex, I don't write about MY sex life per se, because I feel like that's a trap editors lay to get women in for pageviews. On xoJane, the posts that get the most pageviews are ones like, "I Do Drugs in Front of Kids All the Damn Time" or "What My Vagina Looks Like," so yeah, I would say I've felt that particular aspect of the gap myself, but I'm not trying to write for the Atlantic, either.

Gelf Magazine: We see a lot of smart, women-specific web destinations now, not only xoJane, but also Jezebel, Slate's XX Factor—sites that aren't explicitly populated with superficial service pieces in the "The 10 Things that Make Your Man Go Berserk (With the Lights ON)" way—but still read as women talking exclusively to women. What sets this niche apart, do you think, aside from being a natural vertical in a web property's portfolio?

Julieanne Smolinski: I think women think of these places as these locker room-clubhouse sanctuaries, especially this demographic that thinks of themselves as a sort of pro forma community, because that's how we've raised them and advertised to them. Your Jezebels and your Slates have this newsier edge, but pretty much everybody is going to do marriage trend pieces.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think having a "women's site" as an almost requisite channel at this point, could be further marginalizing? You don't really see this with male writers, who seem to enjoy the latitude to speak freely in all forums.

Julieanne Smolinski: It really depends. From an interaction standpoint, a lot of gender-neutral sites are just wildly hostile to women. And so many of these sites are about a comment section or putting out pieces where women go: "Yes, I identify with this." But I do think that because so many of them focus on celebrities and fashion or cute things to bake that you run the risk of creating an umbrella association: "This is what women read." Obviously women are reading The Awl and The Atlantic and Newsweek and USA Today, but this is the portion that you're seeing, and a lot of them try to aggregate parts of "gender-neutral" publications, as if to say: "Here, this is relevant to you." And then of course, that's what "becomes" relevant to women. Theoretically. I don't think that anybody goes on to Hairpin and sees a story from the Daily Mail about a new diet where women exclusively eat by injecting corn oil into their feet and thinks, "This is women's news."
I don't necessarily think that young men feel compelled to get together and talk about the "young male experience" on the internet (if they do, it's usually in borderline antisocial ways like those websites where they tell each other where to buy Mexican steroids and talk about how ugly a model is). I think that's why women get so upset when there's a Katie Roiphe or a Lena Dunham—when a woman does something, we tend to think of her as some kind of fallopian emissary for the entire gender. An individual guy can write a dumb article in a way that a woman can't. I think women do think of themselves as a community where there are these spaces that are catering to that community, but not always to their advantage.
The danger is when we (we being women's websites) are viewed as monolithic. Feministing is very different from a HelloGiggles or Slate or a Jane or a Hairpin. This is why even though it makes me tear my hair out that a huge percentage of editorial content is these women's sites carping at or checking one another, it's something I'm generally resigned to. The thing is that sometimes I see something on an outlet where I work and think, "That's a stupid post," but then another site will say, "What a stupid web site" and then the internet at large goes, "Women are stupid."

Gelf Magazine: Between the web destinations, the raft of TV shows by women creators featuring female leads and with feminine conceits ("peak vagina"), and half of government trying to pretend lady parts can be wished away if they squint real hard—are we approaching a new-wave feminism? Or is it, as Ann Friedman suspects, "still astoundingly easy to conflate mere parity with female domination?"

Julieanne Smolinski: Well, media coverage does not equal parity OR domination. The fact that we see a hundred articles about a female show runner and television writer does not mean that the majority of television writers' rooms aren't male dominated. They are.
The sad fact is that even though I don't think that the War on Women is a mainstream media conceit, one can totally make the case for pretty much anything being a mainstream media conceit. I think what's new is how voguish and easy it is to concoct scandal over a magazine article or a blog post. It's unbelievable. Sometimes I try to imagine the news cycle as it is now and put it in an OG analog journo format. Imagine getting three magazines in 1988 and seeing the same cover story on all three, all discussing an article in another magazine. People would go nuts.
Also, we forget that the population of women who are reading Jezebel and xoJane and the Hairpin are not representative of all women, and they tend to employ the same wafer-thin demographic sliver. So you're looking at Girls or The Frisky to be your cultural barometers, and it's just not an accurate way to gauge whether or not the revolution is being fomented or what it means to be female in the world.

Gelf Magazine: Is trying to pin down a representation of modern femininity at all possible—or even necessary?

Julieanne Smolinski: I don't think it's possible, but you're always going to have people who want to make empirical statements about a population of people. It doesn't matter if it's a scholar writing about how millennials are lazy and entitled or Steve Harvey writing about how women need to act more like women. You feel compelled to write back: "That's not how we act, that's not who we are," but then you're implying that there is a "we" at all.
I'm guilty here—I tend to want to defend women of my generation and profession, but all that does is imply that we have some kind of universal experience that can be reduced to an RFP for advertisers running selling 150-calorie snack packs.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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