How Pop Culture Tells Women to Shut Up, Cont'd

Britney Spears performing at the MTV Video Awards in New York in 2000. (Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Readers have written in with some thoughtful responses to my (semi!)-recent story, “How Pop Culture Tells Women to Shut Up”—a review of Sady Doyle’s fantastic debut book, Trainwreck. We experimented with closing the comments section on that story and instead plugged, in order to solicit feedback from you via email and thus raise the bar of discourse a bit.

Here’s reader Sabrina Alfin, who both had thoughts about my story and wonderfully intuited why we thought email might make a better medium for commenting on it:

So interesting that you had to shut down the comment thread for this story, which, not coincidentally, proves your point. When the trolls come out in force to spew their sexist bile, it effectively stops the public discourse on the issue, as well as keeps women from commenting in the first place. Who has the stomach for being on the receiving end of such hate? Better not to make oneself a target and stay off the boards. The scolds win.

While the Internet isn’t the only place where women are “kept in line,” it does provide the most cover for the scolds. Anonymity is their friend, and I think it has to be done away with. If you’re going to comment, you need to tell us who you are. Some say that will make life more dangerous for the outspoken, but frankly, no more so than any other day in a woman’s life. We are surrounded by harassers, verbal abusers, domestic abusers, subway gropers, and any number of other guys who use their privilege to stay high in the pecking order and who use “he said, she said” as a plausibly deniable defense.

Next is a reader who was less swayed by my story’s argument—which is also to say, not swayed at all. With the probably-obvious caveat that I disagree, I’m glad he engaged with the book review in such detail, and I’ll let him have the last word (unless you have your own thoughts to add!):

How Pop Culture Tells Women to Shut Up” reads very well, but it provides almost no support for its thesis and relies almost entirely on pronouncements accepted as facts.

First, you posit that modern females who struggle with the mental illnesses that David Wallace or Hunter Thompson did would now be “written off as sanitarium-worthy.” The Internet happens to be full of female stars open about their struggles with mental illness, such as Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Halle Barry, and Catherine Zeta Jones. None seem to be restricted in their success, ability to get work, or avoid institutionalization, as the author posits.

Second, you equate media coverage of Britney Spears’ “meltdown” to the modern manifestation of horrendous historical persecution of women where their mouths and faces were locked in a vice. Jack Nicholson in 1994 actually did something similar to Britney, which the American media was happy to cover even though he was male. [Ed. note: That ’94 incident got a reenactment of sorts in the Entourage scene embedded above (“The lunatic went Jack Nicholson on some poor guy’s car”).] You do not address this countervailing evidence nor explain what response—from the media or the public (other than silence)—would have been appropriate for Britney’s vandalism.

Third, you use the example of “all those ‘Rihanna deserved it’ t-shirts” to symbolize pop culture’s gaping double standard against women. As a huge pop music fan, I had never heard of this t-shirt before. Upon Googling it, I found one Jezebel page about it surrounded by URL links to Rihanna’s fashion awards. My search alone lends credence to the t-shirt being one shirt-maker’s attempt at shock value rather than a pervasive cultural phenomenon that restricts female speech.

Lastly, you provide no evidence (not a website nor an instance caught in the media) for Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky being blamed for President Clinton’s infidelity. I’d never heard this claim before, but I do know President Clinton was impeached, while Hillary’s political career continues to soar, and Lewinsky got a reality show and is now a prominent anti-bullying advocate.

Rather than building an argument for modern pop culture’s silencing of women, your article proves exactly the opposite, which you (to your credit) mention in the last paragraph, admitting that our current culture is one “in which women are celebrated for speaking, rather than punished for it.”

I want The Atlantic to assert a voice that can sway non-believers, rather than preach into an echo chamber of like-minded readers. We all look at pop music and see women everywhere, speaking their mind unencumbered. This reality demands ample support from anyone positing the opposite view, and this article fails to do that.