Sexism, Misogyny, and the Web's Political-Correctness Machine

"Can you believe we're talking about this in 2012?" asks New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan in a piece regarding a recent inflammatory situation involving best-selling novelist Jennifer Weiner and New York Times Magazine contributor Andrew Goldman. She's talking about the way we talk about sexism.

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"Can you believe we're talking about this in 2012?" asks New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan in a piece on a recent inflammatory situation involving best-selling novelist Jennifer Weiner and New York Times Magazine contributor Andrew Goldman. A better question might be, "Can you believe we're talking about this the way we do, the way we still are, in 2012?" Because something about it seems wrongheaded. But let me backtrack.

Andrew Goldman [disclosure: I worked very tangentially with Goldman while at Radar magazine. I have also had conversations with Jennifer Weiner in working on stories for The Atlantic Wire. I personally appreciate the work of and like both of these people] interviewed actress Tippi Hedren for last weekend's "Talk" feature in The New York Times Magazine. The interview led to accusations of sexism from Weiner, followed by a back-and-forth on Twitter, involving truly unfortunate tweets from Goldman, then an apology from Goldman, which Weiner accepted. Goldman has since deleted his Twitter account and Weiner was, as of this morning, taking a "twit-cation."

Sullivan weighed in in an article posted Wednesday night. She writes:

The interview was with Tippi Hedren, the actress who starred in The Birds and is the subject of a new HBO movie that takes up her relationship with the director Alfred Hitchcock. Mr. Goldman, a freelancer who regularly writes the “Talk” feature, asked Ms. Hedren if she had ever been tempted to help her career along by having sex with directors.

Ms. Weiner was appalled – especially because she recalled an earlier instance in which Mr. Goldman had asked a female celebrity, though jokingly, if she had used her body to boost her career.

Here is the question and answer that Weiner was referring to:

The worst abuse happened after you rebuffed [Hitchcock's] advances. Actors have been known to sleep with less powerful directors for advancement in show business. Did you ever consider it? 
I have a strong Lutheran background, and my parents instilled in me strong morals. This was something I could never have done. I was not interested in him that way at all. I was fortunate enough to work with him, and as far as I was concerned, he ruined everything.

Much of the interview deals with this topic. In a follow-up question, Goldman asks Hedren about a scene in HBO's new movie The Girl (the occasion for the interview) and the Donald Spoto book it’s based on "in which Hitchcock informs you that you are to be sexually available to him any time, any place." She answers, "I said, I’ve got to get out of the contract. He said, I’ll ruin your career. And he did. He wouldn’t let me out of the contract. I’d be a really big star if he hadn’t stopped my career. There were so many people who wanted me for their films. All he said was, 'She isn’t available.' That’s a mean, mean man." Later in the interview, Hedren tells Goldman "you don't get it"—she's conveying that she can consider Hitchcock repellent, morally and physically, at the same time that she respects and admires his work, and even him as a man. Human relationships, after all, are always more complicated than thecategorical moral statements we often use to define them. Those complications are sometimes hard to convey in 800-word pieces, far more so in 140-character missives.

In any case, Weiner responded to the interview with the claim, echoed by others (including the writer of a blog post Sullivan links to), that Goldman had subjected other women, including Whitney Cummings and Terry Gross, to some improper questions in previous interviews:

@jenniferweiner: Saturday am. Iced coffee. NYT mag. See which actress Andrew Goldman has accused of sleeping her way to the top. #traditionsicoulddowithout

Mr Goldman responded on Twitter (his account has since been deactivated):
@jenniferweiner sensing pattern. Little Freud in me thinks you would have liked at least to have had opportunity to sleep way to top

Things got uglier. Other writers and folks on social media got involved. I think we can all admit that this didn't go to a good place, and that Goldman was mistaken in tweeting what he did, that his apology, which he gave on Monday, was due. But should a journalist be condemned in the first place for asking a question that relates to a history and known reality? Should a journalist be condemned for asking a difficult, even possibly inflammatory, question? Should a journalist be condemned, even, for asking an offensive question? There's something empowering and great about how social media allows us to connect and interact and call out offenses when we see them—but what do we lose from its ongoing role as the Internet's political-correctness forum?

"Can you believe we're talking about this in 2012?" asks Sullivan. But of course we're talking about sexism—accusations of it, perceptions of it, reactions to it, even the way we talk about it—in 2012. It's what we talk about daily, even when we're not explicit about it. And of course we're doing it in this very of-the-moment Internet way, which means, rather than stopping to consider or looking at shades of grey and digging into intent-versus-appearance, often we simply put our energies into getting very, very angry, very, very quickly, laying blame and demanding apologies, which are given, and then slowly but surely returning to where we were, albeit with another layer of hate and mistrust on everything—and also with heightened expectations for more of the same. In some ways, we're just gearing up to do it again, to call out sexism where we see it, to extract an apology, to make someone pay. There's a weird kind of pleasure to this, I think we should admit, and part of that has to do with the fact of how things play on the Internet: Black and white are usually more successful than grey. We want to feel things, and it's far easier to feel when we're given an outright, definitive opinion than it is when we're asked to delve into spongey questions of maybe-right and possibly-wrong. It's meanwhile much harder to imagine what a writer intended, to put ourselves in the place of others.

Sullivan—who, whether you like what she says or not, does us the service of thoughtfully examining the issue further—asks two important questions in her piece:

1. Is it ever acceptable for a journalist to ask a successful woman if she has slept her way to the top?

2. If he does, and a female reader criticizes him for it, is it a forgivable offense for him to suggest that she is complaining only because she wishes that she, too, could have had that opportunity?

I think the answer to No. 1 is that if we prevent journalists from asking women, successful or otherwise—or, frankly, people of any gender—whatever questions they want to ask them, we're doing a disservice to journalism and in fact to women. Women can handle these questions—ask us anything. If we don't want to answer, we don't have to. If your question assumes something that's untrue or sexist, all the better; you've given us the opportunity to point that out in our response. (Personally, I feel that Goldman's questions are being interpreted as misogynistic because they delve into these tricky and very sensitive questions of sex and women that we happen to be paying a lot of attention to right now; I'm not sure they are inherently misogynistic.) But even if they are, should they not be asked?

The fear and censoring of a question—sexist or misogynistic or not—the desire to quash any questions, seems something archaic, from another era. Oh dear, that can't hit our pretty little ears. If women and men are to be treated equally—in so much as we're also aware that we have some inherent differences but, yes, we are all humans, we are all people, we are all intelligent, thinking beings—you can't censor the questions that journalists ask. You can, as a paper or an editor, decide not to print them. You can also decide not to employ someone who asks questions you don't like, who delivers work that you do not approve of. And you can, as Sullivan did, take the debate to another level by writing about it.

In response to No. 2., I worry about this phrase "forgivable offense." Goldman's response in this case was wrong, but he's guilty of something we all do. It is far too easy on Twitter to respond in an off-the-cuff way, angrily, cuttingly, with intent to do harm (Goldman, for his part, says that with his tweets he was trying to embody the misogynistic stereotype he was being accused of; as a joke, that fell horribly flat). But, goodness, for our Twitter mistakes to be unforgivable: Is that really what we want in the pursuit of achieving good journalism or less sexism and misogyny? I can't count how many times people have said rude, sexist, or nasty things to me, whether on Twitter or just generally online. Sometimes I respond, sometimes I am angry, sometimes I say something I regret. The human-by-way-of-Internet response to criticism is to lash out in return. This is behavior we should work on because, beyond the ugliness of name-calling and the bad feelings on either side that ensue, it doesn't aid the conversation that I'd argue most men and women, including the players in this story, are keen on and engaged inhaving. Perhaps I'm naive but I think that the intents here, on both sides, were ultimately good—for Weiner to call out what she saw as wrong; for Goldman to write a good, thought-provoking piece that addressed real questions in the Times. Should Weiner, perhaps, have emailed Goldman directly, to ask him why, in her opinion, he continues to do what she considers sexist or misogynistic? I'm not blaming her, but perhaps this would have meant that the discourse wouldn't have turned ugly so quickly. Journalists are often on the defense about criticism, just as we are on the offensive about perceived sexism and gender inequalities. At the same time, Weiner has every right to tweet whatever she likes—just as, I think, Goldman does—with the knowledge that there may be consequences.

Still, there are some historical facts we can't get away from, no matter how we try. Women and men have not always been treated in the same way, and this continues—which is likely why there's so much rote anger and pent-up aggression about these assumed and real affronts. We still don't know how to talk about men and women in society in a truly equal way, because we are not the same. Men and women are not the same, you guys: Men and women are NOT THE SAME. The histories of men and women are not the same. But before we condemn a mention of casting couches, per se, as being offensive to women, let's dig deeper. Not only did and does this reality exist: Why shouldn't women have every right to sleep their way to the top if they want to? Why shouldn't men? And why should any journalist be afraid to ask about it? This discussion feels in some ways like a journalistic parallel to the idea of the comedian making a rape joke. Let's not kill the freedom to make the point the artist wants to make in our insistence on a "right" and "wrong" way to do things.

Sullivan asked Hugo Lindgren, the editor of the Times Magazine, about the incident, and he responded that he had no issue with the questions Goldman put forth in the interview, but he agreed there was a problem with the tweets. "I thought Andrew was needlessly rude and insulting, and I told him that. He apologized to Jennifer Weiner, and she accepted it," says Lingren, continuing, "My feeling is that he had an unfortunate outburst, and that he will learn from it." Which gets back to that question of whether this is a "forgivable offense." I certainly hope that the missteps we make on Twitter are forgivable, because we're all going to make them. With hope, we will all learn from them.

To assume in 2012 that we should be beyond this discussion, though, is too hopeful. This is exactly when we should be talking about it: a time in which the Internet and all its rage-y promise, but also its PC promise, has converged with a next stage of feminism in which we can, I hope, acknowledge that men and women are, in fact, different—and can embrace those differences for what they are. On a broader backdrop, we're in a time when the word "slut" still gets thrown around to demean women and there's talk of "legitimate rape" and Lady Gaga being "fat"—but we speak up and say that is wrong, just as we measure the bylines of women against those of men when awards are given, or when tables of contents are read. But these reactions, while also well-intended, while often necessary, don't get at the heart of what we're struggling with: We want to be equal, we're not equal; but we don't even know what equality is, exactly. Equality isn't the same numbers of male and female bylines in a paper. It's not PC-policing. It's something weneed to have before we ever get to these metrics, something that makes us stop needing to count the numbers or yell about perceived and real indignities.

I appreciate Sullivan writing her piece, even as parts of it seem accusatory and perhaps overly punishing to Goldman, because these discussions are how we move forward. At least we're talking about it, right? But if we ignore the past completely, devolve into name-calling and then punishments, trials by Internet fire—or worse, if we create an inherent fear in writers of trying to ask hard questions or approach thetruth, even if maybe it draws ire—we've taken steps back yet again, not as women or men but as people. In order for there to be equality, I think, we need to get past the stumbling ground of bean-counting and parsing out this one and that one and you did this wrong, how dare you, you misogynist, you misandrist. We need to step back and consider intent as well as the words that were tweeted. It's fair to call people out on the Internet and in life for doing the wrong thing. I just hope we can breathe and think and makesure we're doing it for good and not simply for the brief pleasure of engaging in yet another Internet battle, or, possibly worse, in a quest for page views based on a "strong opinion"—because, you know, rage is great for page views, for accruing Twitter followers, for amassing armies. That may be, but page views are fleeting, and what we have to do ultimately is learn not to fight but how to live with each other. The strongest opinions take into account more than simply what we read on any particular page.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.