Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Internet | Sports

April 18, 2012

Cracking the Celebrity Profile Code

Gawker's managing editor Emma Carmichael shares her take on gender-byline bias.

Michael Gluckstadt

Perceptive readers of GQ may have noticed a theme among the magazine's recent celebrity profiles. Over the past year, three female writers—Jessica Pressler, Edith Zimmerman and Claire Hoffman—were assigned to interview three young male subjects—Channing Tatum, Chris Evans, and Drake, respectively—and each reported back on a blurry, possibly sexually-charged night spent with the star. Gawker managing editor Emma Carmichael picked up on the common thread, and carried it through to decades of celebrity profiles in which male writers had made "did they or didn't they?" a central thrust of their pieces.

Emma Carmichael
"Lots of women want to sleep under the stars with a bottle of tequila and an action star, or at least read about someone who did."

Emma Carmichael

But celebrity profiles are hardly the only place where you'll encounter byline bias. Much has been made recently of the complete shut-out of women writers in this year's major ASME award categories, as well as VIDA's gender breakdown of bylines at major magazines. "I think it's important for women who write to embrace what their perspective brings to writing," Carmichael tells Gelf. As a former writer for Deadspin, she's familiar with the challenge of writing for a mostly male audience.

In the following interview, which was conducted over email and has been edited for clarity, Carmichael tells Gelf about her new role at Gawker, why she's hopeful about young women writing online, and that the internet needs to take a time-out on talking about Girls.

Gelf Magazine: You recently wrote about the different approaches male and female writers take when conducting celebrity interviews. Is there an elemental divide between the way men and women approach the task, or is everyone just fulfilling the expectations of their intended audiences?

Emma Carmichael: Well, one thing that female writers can't necessarily predict or anticipate is how a subject will respond to her presence, and I think that's probably where any difference lies. When I was working on that post I spoke to Lisa DePaulo, a writer who used to report in Philadelphia and who wrote a very memorable profile of Philly mayor Ed Rendell in 1994. She thinks subjects, male or female, have lower expectations for female reporters—almost like they don't expect the tough questions or analysis to come from women. So maybe they let down their guard a little bit more.

Celebrities are different, though. I've never profiled someone, so my thoughts are only that of a reader/consumer of those stories. But as a reader, I have pretty low expectations for celebrity profiles, because I know there's so much careful coordination that goes into it. The celeb is required to project a very particular personality for the writer, and the writer either has to bow down to that projection, or try to get around it. Jessica Pressler, who profiled Channing Tatum for GQ a year ago, suggested that Edith Zimmerman's piece on Chris Evans was the "perfect sendup" of that formula, and in the sense that it shattered and maybe rearranged everyone's expectations of a celebrity profile, I think she's right.

Gelf Magazine: In writing the piece, did you find a reason why GQ has recently run three of these types of profiles? Have they hit upon a formula?

Emma Carmichael:That's hard to say. I think it'd be irresponsible and unfair to assume that it's an explicit assignment because that takes away from the respective writers' work—and all of those GQ profiles were obviously really entertaining, memorable pieces. If it's a formula, it certainly works for the magazine. But everyone I talked to who had connections to GQ suggested that any similarity in that trio of stories was totally incidental.

Gelf Magazine: Could you envision similar pieces running in a women's magazine?

Emma Carmichael: You'd think so, right? Lots of women want to sleep under the stars with a bottle of tequila and an action star, or at least read about someone who did.
But as Mother Jones has dutifully pointed out over the past year, women's magazines aren't necessarily driven by narrative journalism, in the same way that Esquire and GQ are. There's a sense that women won't consume it, I guess. It's funny to me, coming from a sportswriting angle, where female readers are understood to be more interested in longer, in-depth pieces—the "human" pieces, I guess—than the nuts-and-bolts stats and analysis that come with so much sports coverage.

Gelf Magazine: There's been a spate of gender-byline bias stories of late concerning the magazine industry. And yet, on Gawker and other similar online destinations, women seem to be represented quite well. What might account for the difference?

Emma Carmichael: Most of Gawker's writers, though, are men—and that's true across the other sites in the company, with the exception of io9 and Jezebel. I guess the fact that we have consistent female bylines paired with quality work helps the perception a bit. To speculate, though, I think GOOD's analysis of the "millennial" blogs is smart because there are so many more young women writing on the internet right now (Rookie Mag makes me very happy for that reason). They don't necessarily have magazine features in their clips yet, but that might take some time—and then they can win awards for it, or not, and blog about it, and that will fix everything.

Gelf Magazine: At Deadspin, you've written about the challenges female journalists face in the sports world, saying Ines Sainz made you want to stop trying to be a sportswriter. Do you find those issues carry into the other spheres you're covering now as well? What's different about them?

Emma Carmichael: As a writer, I'll always be hyper-aware of my gender, and I think that writing about sports for a predominantly male audience has a lot to do with that. Deadspin was my first full-time writing job, and I cringe when I go back and read some of that stuff I wrote when I started there. I was couching everything I wrote in this very protective, careful tone. I was so afraid of getting called out on my shit. (The emails calling me a "cunt" or "bitch" and asking if I was on my period didn't really help.) My editor, Tommy Craggs, told me many times during my first few months at Deadspin that my writing was too hesitant. It's taken me some time to own authority in my writing, but Deadspin was kind of the perfect training for that.
I also think it's important for women who write to embrace what their perspective brings to writing, especially when it comes to criticism. Lots of men who love Drake are writing about Drake on the internet, and it often all sounds the same.

Gelf Magazine: How has working at Gawker been different than what you were doing at Deadspin?

Emma Carmichael: I'm editing now, and not writing nearly as much, so my day has a different pace. Also at Deadspin, I knew exactly where to look for items each day, and I knew, to a certain extent, what my beat was. Gawker has an unlimited scope. I'm still trying to figure out how to be on top of it all.
I am also approximately 158 percent more aware of Kim Kardashian's lifestyle now.

Gelf Magazine: What's your impression of the commentariat there? Are they taking news of the new system well?

Emma Carmichael: This is generalizing, but the Gawker commentariat feel that they have a deserved ownership over the site. They announce their "retirements" from reading/commenting, and a few have even informed A.J. that he should listen to their needs because they "pay his salary." I admire their dedication, but it's frustrating to deal with when you're trying to bring the site in a different, and hopefully exciting, direction.
Comments were off on the site today, and for as much as they can sometimes bring to our posts, it was definitely calming. It was kind of like leaving the city for the first time in a while and hearing crickets again.

Gelf Magazine: Do you have a desire to go back to sportswriting?

Emma Carmichael: Yeah, I do. I'm not a very experienced reporter, and I'd like to do more of that, since people tend to be more interesting than screens. I'll try to do some stuff for Deadspin when the NBA playoffs are underway.

Gelf Magazine: Did you watch Girls? What'd you think?

Emma Carmichael: I watched the premiere. I was kind of underwhelmed, but I hope it gets weird and self-aware in a way that doesn't involve name-checking Sex and the City and Clueless. And I think the internet should put itself on a Girls timeout for a little while, starting now.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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