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The crime of being an unapologetic woman

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 by Marianne Elliott

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I found this post this morning in my ‘drafts’. I wrote it in 2012 and when I read it I wondered why I had never finished or published it. Because I am as convinced now as I was then that a woman who dares make herself central to her creative work, and does so without shame or apology, is a woman who will threaten many and attract the fury of some. Here’s what I wrote then…

—–

“There is a certain amount of hostility that gets shot at a woman who makes herself central to her work. … People like women in the spotlight either to be perfect or to be embarrassed not to be perfect.”

That’s Deborah Treismann, speaking in conversation with David Sedaris, and in reference to this gobsmackingly hostile response to Lena Dunham’s memoir proposal. The hostile response in question was a post by James Cook on Gawker, which I read with my mouth open. Where, I wondered, had this hatred and anger come from?

One answer was proposed by a commentator on the New Yorker magazine piece, who argued that while hatred was being misdirected at Dunham, the anger was legitimate:

Most of the anger stems from the fact that another nepotistic blah media product got shoved down our throats as someone we’re supposed to deeply relate to and speak for us ‘as the voice of a generation.’ Sure she speaks to some. But that some is already heavily represented in the endless echo chamber that is the media industry. Lena and Girls is just another reminder that a female in their 20s who isn’t white and doesn’t fall into the easily identifiable tropes of glamour girl, manic pixie dream girl, or schlubby underachiever hipster doesn’t deserve representation.”

And I get that.

But I’m not convinced it was a concern about over-representation in the mainstream of certain types of young women (and conversely the under-representation of others) that fueled Cook’s comments. Let me give you an example.

In her proposal, Dunham wrote “When I was about nine I developed a terrible fear of being anorexic.”

Cook wrote:

The quoted sentence is indicative of Dunham’s self-dramatizing narcissism inasmuch as it presents what is obviously a desire for an attention-grabbing condition as a fear of developing said condition. It is also indicative of a nauseating and cloying precociousness that permeates the entire proposal.

I wrote three different versions of a paragraph trying to respond rationally to this diatribe. And then I gave up, because there is no rational response to a man who accuses a 24 year old woman, describing her 9 year old self, of presenting her ‘desire for an attention-grabbing condition’ as a fear. I could write an entire page about this, or I could simply repeat what Deborah Treismann said:

There is a certain amount of hostility that gets shot at a woman who makes herself central to her work. … People like women in the spotlight either to be perfect or to be embarrassed not to be perfect.”

And women are not only expected to be ashamed of their imperfection. We are also to be at best modest, and at worst embarrassed, about our achievements. The nastiest review (so far) of my memoir Zen Under Fire was this one:

I looked forward to reading this account of the author’s experiences working for the UN… but after encountering this in it’s second paragraph, “my job with the New Zealand Human Rights Commission had been a professional triumph” … and this two pages later, “I was in my mid-30s and near the top of my professional game” … I realised I had reached my annual smugness tolerance limit and was forced to put it aside, defeated.”

—-
That’s as far as I got in 2012. Perhaps placing my own experience as a memoirist at the centre of this piece still felt a little too risky. In 2012 I was in the thick of the vulnerable, exhilarating, terrifying experience of sending a book out into the world that revealed more of my story than I’d ever shared with even my family. And I was learning that the ‘pale stale male’ critics (as my friend calls them) could forgive me my weaknesses, but they were less willing to forgive any sign of pride, even pride in a job well done.

I was feeling raw, a little bruised, and perhaps not quite ready to wade into the debate about Lena Durham’s narcissism, privilege or talent.

But I went back, just now, to that Gawker piece to check that the link still worked, and discovered the post has been updated in response to a request from Dunham’s lawyers to remove the extracts of her proposal that were published on the site. In response to that request, Gawkers lawyers apparently advised that extracts could remain if they were accompanied by literary criticism or commentary. So that’s what Cook did, he added more commentary.

About this Dunham quote:

I went to my first Women’s Action Coalition meeting at age three.

Cook wrote:

The quoted sentence is indicative of a nauseating and cloying posture of precociousness that permeates the entire proposal.

About this quote:

At 24 I felt like an old maid….

He wrote:

The quoted sentence demonstrates an oblivious cluelessness about time and its passage.

And of this:

Once at poetry camp I saw my friend Joana in a bikini…..

He wrote:

Come on. Poetry camp?

I’ve never personally been a huge fan of Lena Dunham’s work, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. She grew up in an urban, highly educated family in New York, while I grew up in a born again Christian, farming family in rural New Zealand. And while I’m actually only two decades older than Dunham, when my family traveled to the US in the 1980s to visit my father’s former classmates from the missionary school he attended in Nigeria, we discovered that we’d been living in a very different version of the 80s in Putaruru. I don’t love Dunham’s writing at least partly because I don’t really get it, and that’s okay.

What I do appreciate about Dunham’s work – even when it makes me cringe – is her willingness to present herself, flaws and all, without shame or apology. I recently heard her on a podcast about ‘spinsterhood’. She was as unapologetically straightforward about both her strengths and her weaknesses, as I’ve found her to be in her writing. And I still – at nearly 45 years of age – find that both challenging and refreshing.

And though I still agree that there is a very real, and important, conversation to have about representation and privilege in relation to publishing and broadcasting, I maintain that the anger and mean spiritedness that infuses those Gawker comments does not comes from a concern for the under-representation of other women’s voices. I maintain this partly because the author of that piece is a white man and partly because the thing he seems to find most offensive about Dunham’s writing is that it is “attention-grabbing”.

Women are asked to be grateful and gracious when they receive uninvited and unwanted attention from men. But if they dare call attention to themselves, especially to the parts of themselves that are unacceptable or unattractive to men, they are, in Cook’s words, ‘self-dramatizing’, ‘narcissistic’, ‘nauseating’ and ‘desperate for validation’.

I could write more – but I’m going to stop here and leave you with this, from Cynthia Ozick.

If we had to say what writing is, we would describe it essentially as an act of courage.”

All the more so for women, even women of relative privilege. So let’s keep doing it, yeah?

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