What Are Women Fighting About? Ask Emily Gould

Emily Gould should know about women writers and criticism. In the spring of 2008, the former editor at Gawker published an article in the prestigious New York Times Magazine about nastiness in the blogosphere—to a certain extent, it was her own nastiness towards Gawker’s victims that she was referencing. Plenty of other writers responded in kind, mostly critical, and some of the critics were women annoyed with both Gould’s gossip-blog past as well as her sexily-reclining-on-her-back cover photo, saying: Emily Gould does not represent us.

Recently in an article called “What Are Women Fighting About?” for More Intelligent Life, Gould tackles the issue of how “women are often the cruelest critics of other female writers” for not accurately portraying women’s lives. Gendered critiques of women writers are a problem that’s dragged on for a long time (Anna Clark wrote about their “ambition condition” for Bitch magazine over a year ago). But Gould’s analysis is at least refreshing because, by her essay’s end, she has pledged to be more aware of her overly-critical-towards-women ways. It all started with a discussion about a novel: Gould concurred with a fellow female book reviewer that she disliked The Fortunate Age, by Joanna Smith Rakoff, but, on further thought, realized she actually thought the book was pretty good. She further realized it was easy to dismiss The Fortunate Age because she found at least one of Rakoff’s characters unrealistic, obnoxious even. But summarily canning the book, Gould realized, made her “the kind of person I can’t bear: the female critic who despises any female writer who doesn’t project what she feels is the accurate or ideal vision of modern womanhood.” Quoted a male writer friend who theorized “boys compete with boys and girls compete with girls, like the Olympics,” Gould expressed concern that women writers gang up on each other over their differing points of view more than they support each other.

Gould concluded her essay with this call to arms:

“It is tempting to feel resentful when we don’t see ourselves or our stories or our ideals reflected in the prevailing narratives of femaleness. Luckily, there is an alternative: instead of simply criticising other women’s stories, we can take it upon ourselves to make sure that our own stories get told. Creating something takes a lot more effort than writing a bad review or a dismissive blog post. But if we don’t make that effort, if instead we keep insisting that a mere handful of female writers are qualified to speak for us, we’ll miss out on the larger truths that are to be found somewhere in the chorus.

The “you’re not representing me and/or all the women in the world accurately!” gripe taps into a bigger problem of feminism (one which some feminists admittedly contribute to, but also one which outsiders in society project on to feminists). That problem is this: thinking that women all want the same things. As if the question “What do women want?” is actually answerable. The reality is the answer to “What do women want?” changes based on political beliefs, marital status, race, income level, education status, health, children vs. no children, you name it. What women want is not a monolithic thing. Women are not a monolithic thing.

And so it goes that what women write—what women find to be their truth—is not a monolithic thing.

One of the great blessings of blogging for The Frisky is that I can say anything, no matter how unflattering or extreme, and if my fellow bloggers strongly don’t agree, their disagreement is nothing but kind and respectful. But outside the little bubble of the office … well, that’s a different story. Some of my most ego-bruising pain has come from other women who’ve trashed the opinions in my writing; I’m endlessly frustrated by how some older female writers metaphorically “eat their young” instead of providing mentorship.

Still, can you blame the knee-jerk reaction of women for wanting the so-called “best” and so-called “most representative” points of view to be ones that get the most attention? After all, the concept is not limited to only women—it’s a feeling I’ve often read espoused by people of color, especially if they are the only black person or the only Latino person in an all-white school or workplace.

Have you ever had the experience, whether in life or in your field of work, of being told you weren’t “accurately” representing women? [More Intelligent Life]