Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


September 21, 2009

Peggy Olson's Heiress

Jessica Grose of Slate's Double X would like to see assumed gender roles in journalism go the way of the three-martini lunch.

Michael Gluckstadt

Part of the allure of AMC's Mad Men—if not all of it —is that it convincingly whisks us into another era that is wholly different from our own, yet inextricably tied to it. There is a thrill in watching Peggy Olson ask her boss if he knows about "this new law" that mandates equal pay for men and women in the same job, and it stems from seeing the gradual gains that brought women's rights to the place they are today.

But seeing those gains is also a reminder of the challenges that remain. While women have flourished in parts of advertising, there are certain roles in journalism where their contributions are limited—something Jessica Grose would like to see change. "In media specifically, I'd like to see more women writing about 'hard news' like science, business, technology and politics," she tells Gelf. "Certainly there are women who write brilliantly on these things, but they are in the minority."

Jessica Grose
"Seeing what things used to be like should make all of us grateful to live in the current era. At least there's not condoned groping in the workplace anymore."

Jessica Grose

Grose, 27, is the managing editor of Slate's Double X, a women's site launched last November. Prior to that she blogged forJezebel, and she has contributed to a range of other publications. In the following interview, which was conducted via email and has been edited for clarity, Grose tells Gelf about writing for an extremely responsive audience, take a looks back at the election, and channels her inner "wise Latina."

Gelf Magazine: The XX Factor was one of Slate's first blogs, and remains among its most active. Have you been surprised by its success?

Jessica Grose: I'm not at all surprised. I think there is a dearth of intelligent conversation aimed at women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, and so there was a significant market for the musings of Slate women in particular. They are a hugely smart, educated, impressive bunch.

Gelf Magazine: Why did the people at Slate feel there was a need for this kind of voice, as opposed to, say, a men's blog?

Jessica Grose: The majority of writers on certain topics—particularly politics, technology, and media—are men. I think having a particular place where women could talk on these subjects as well as others, like family and gender, creates a different alchemy. Even when we're talking about the same subjects as Slate proper, a space run by and for women will always have a different voice.
When people wonder about the need for women's publications lately, it has made me think of Sonia Sotomayor and the response to her "wise Latina" comment. Obviously, she's going to be coming at issues from a different perspective based on her collection of experiences. Not to compare ourselves to the dazzling Justice, but a space that is run by and for women will always be different from a space run for a general audience.

Gelf Magazine: XX really came alive during the election season, covering Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Tina Fey, and others. Looking back from almost a year later, what are the real gains that were made for women and women's issues in the last election?

Jessica Grose: I think it's too early to tell if women and women's issues made palpable gains. Hillary Clinton and yes, even Sarah Palin, being taken seriously as Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates is good news for the next generation: Young girls seeing these women in the limelight could really encourage more of them to get into politics. More people were talking about feminism and sexism as a result of Clinton's and Palin's candidacies—that's always a good thing. However, so much ugliness was churned up that it revealed how much more work there is to be done.

Gelf Magazine: How has writing for Slate differed than working at Jezebel?

Jessica Grose: Writing for Slate/Double X is different because I get far more time to sit and think and make an argument. Each piece I write goes through several drafts and a pretty intense editorial process before it goes up on the site. I still get to blog, though, so if I have an immediate reaction to something, I can post about it. At Jezebel I was posting eight to ten times a day so there wasn't as much time for reflection. That was definitely fun while it lasted, and it cured me of writer's block forever. You don't have time to complain you can't write; you just have to do it. But I was really burnt out and exhausted after doing it for 14 to 15 months.

Gelf Magazine: Do you miss the rush of feedback following every post?

Jessica Grose: Part of me does miss the rush of feedback provided by the ever-vocal Jezebel commenters. But the downside to such an intense community is also very real. They made me very self-conscious, because there was always this cacophony of responses at the end of every sentence I churned out. In some ways this was good: I learned to get a thicker skin about criticism (and one can never underestimate the importance of taking constructive criticism well). Mostly it made me less interested in writing anything about my personal life. Jury's still out on whether that's a plus or a minus.

Gelf Magazine: In what way are the Slate responses different?

Jessica Grose: The audience at Slate/DoubleX is generally a bit older than the audience at Jezebel, so the point of view of the average commenter is from that perspective. Also, the way our blog is structured, the editors and writers directly respond to each other on the site, so there's a lot of internal back and forth, which is great. At Jezebel people generally had their own beats, so the response from my colleagues here—whether positive or negative—has been really beneficial. I've learned a lot from them. It's really helpful when you know your intellectual opponents, because you're more sympathetic to them. Whenever we have an especially controversial article, we always allow the opposing side to respond.

Gelf Magazine: You have live Twitter updates during Mad Men for Double X. Does real-time communication put the thrill back in watching live TV?

Jessica Grose: It's a different TV-watching experience, certainly. I like that I'm having a virtual conversation with our readers and the other DoubleX editors while watching the show. They make me laugh and think about issues related to Mad Men and the time period I otherwise would not register. But sometimes I need to go back and watch the episodes again because it's more difficult to catch the small details while you're focused on another screen.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of the different representations of women of that era, as depicted through Betty Draper, Peggy Olson, and Joan Holloway?

Jessica Grose: It's good for people of my generation to see these reasonably realistic depictions of women in the '60s. I think some—obviously not all—of my contemporaries take for granted the work of '60s- and '70s-era feminists in opening up a world of opportunities for us. Seeing what things used to be like should make all of us grateful to live in the current era. Which is not to say that the work of feminism is completely done, but still: At least there's not condoned groping in the workplace anymore.

Gelf Magazine: No groping in the workplace is by all accounts a good thing, but keeping in line with the theme of this week's Media Circus, what are some of the overlooked issues facing women today, specifically in media?

Jessica Grose: The recent New York Times Magazine special issue devoted to international women was such an eye-opener. The problems and struggles of women in developing countries is certainly something that deserves a great deal more attention. I think Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are feminist heroes. In media more specifically, I'd like to see more women writing about "hard news" like science, business, technology, and politics. Certainly there are women who write brilliantly on these things, but they are in the minority. I'm part of the problem, in some ways. I've always been most interested in writing about culture, trends, and the arts—things that are stereotypically female beats. I don't know whether it's the chicken or the egg: Am I drawn to these things because it is part of my personality or because I've been conditioned away from tackling the harder subjects? That's something I can't answer. Being at Jezebel and DoubleX have allowed me to start writing more about politics, which is a minor interest of mine, and I'm really grateful for that. I hope to keep developing that muscle.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think those issues are going to change anytime soon?

Jessica Grose: Hard to say whether these issues will change anytime soon. The egalitarian nature of blogs has certainly helped some women break into writing about subjects that are more male-dominated, but the types of articles that are assigned to young women are still a lot of personal essay and fluff. Which is not to denigrate these things. I love the personal essay, and have published many of them. But if it's the only thing young women are really encouraged to write, then it's problematic.

Gelf Magazine: One thing I've noticed in journalism classes I've taken, and at journalism schools in general, is that women appear to be a solid majority of students. Do you think that bodes well for the number of female contributors in media, or are they just on their way to becoming publicists?

Jessica Grose: Most of the working journalists I know did not go to journalism school. I'd like to see some statistics on working journalists, rather than attendees of journalism schools. I would guess that the majority of reporters are still men. I guess it's a wait-and-see sort of thing, and it would be great if the number of women at J-school did result in more writers, reporters. and news editors. But I'm not convinced that the number of women in journalism school accurately reflects the percentage of working women journalists.

Gelf Magazine: What do you make of that discrepancy?

Jessica Grose: Well, the discrepancy is anecdotal—like I said, I haven't seen stats on the number of women in J-school vs. the number of women working as journalists. Frankly, I'm not entirely sure what to make of the discrepancy. Maybe it's that women are not pursuing the hardcore reporting jobs in the way men do—the international, war-zone, or inner-city jobs. Those jobs are not exactly well-suited for work-life balance, which is often more of a concern for women. Again, this is all speculation, so I'm not really comfortable making too many sweeping generalizations (though I just did make a few based on total conjecture).

Gelf Magazine: I also want to go back to the Mad Men question, as it's something I often think about while watching the show. You answered about the show's general view of women of that era. I'd like to know how you specifically feel about Betty Draper, Peggy Olson, and Joan Halloway, three women who balance proto-feminist urges with the reality and expectations of their era, and what each of them might represent.

Jessica Grose: I don't really think Betty Draper has proto-feminist urges. She is still a little girl in so many ways. I would be surprised if she really goes in for the Betty Friedan schtick: It's too threatening to her. Sure, she's miserable, but I don't really see her joining a consciousness-raising circle any time soon. Peggy is a different animal. She is really going after what she wants, and is really willing to transcend expectations of women at the time. Joan Holloway—oh, Joanie. I wish I could hang out with Joanie; she seems like a lot of fun. I think her character has already, in some ways, lived a more progressive lifestyle. She didn't marry young; she had her kicks in New York. Now all she needs to do is ditch that awful, abusive, doctor fiancé and she'll be the next Helen Gurley Brown in no time.

Related in Gelf: Jessica Grose on the panel discussion "Overlooked: Women in Media."

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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