Our insatiable appetite for women’s tragic stories
First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 2016
There’s a scene from an early episode of Girls where the editor of Hannah’s e-book presses her to write about her most personal, shocking and sexual stories to make her book more compelling. “Did your hymen grow back?” her editor complains after reading a draft of Hannah’s too-tame exploits.
I thought about this scene again recently while reading about a new artwork, Are you ok Bob?, a three-minute video installation that shows artist Sophia Hewson’s face while she is “raped” by a stranger in her apartment. Hewson describes the work as a “self-orchestrated rape representation”: to make the artwork she invited a stranger, whom we only see by his arms, to come to her home and “rape” her. The 31-year-old claims the work is a “militant feminist” piece she hopes will “dismantle male power”.
If a measure of an artwork’s success is whether viewers can’t avert their eyes from a work, then Hewson’s piece seems to be working on all counts. But it’s also hard not to think this piece was as much a product of “militant feminism” than it is of a thought bubble that asked “what can I do for my next art project that will get the most attention?”.
We live in an age that has an insatiable appetite for the salacious, the scandalous, or simply the unbearably sad: last year Slate’s Laura Bennett coined the term the “first-person industrial complex” to describe the rise of online sites such as Jezebel, which publish harrowing and dramatic tales, most dramatically illustrated by Natasha Chenier’s essay about sleeping with her biological father.
I think we should re-name this phenomenon the “first-person traumatic complex”. These days a reality TV contestant can’t sing her first note or slice an onion without first doing a piece to camera revealing a decades-long battle with depression, or the loss of a parent to cancer. And if you’re an aspiring writer looking to break into the newspaper market, a tell-all story about your life as a sex worker is a guaranteed way to secure a byline.
The same arithmetic applies to literary magazine scene, where young women would be advised to explore battles with eating disorders or anxiety. Or if you’re a former reality TV star with a new show to plug, talking about your sex addiction or fake six-year online relationship is almost compulsory.
In this era of baring all, to gain attention one must disclose tales that are either titillating, traumatising or some messed up mix of both. We’ve created an attention economy that tells people, particularly young and female people, that the most interesting and valuable thing about you is the worst thing that has ever happened to you. It’s no surprise then we were all willing to go along with the tragic story of “wellness blogger” Belle Gibson, whose false claims of terminal brain cancer fooled not just her thousands of followers, but the tech giant Apple and publisher Penguin. The only surprise is that there aren’t more Gibsons fooling us.
This was on my mind as Gloria Steinem spoke to a full house as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Steinem is one of the most prominent leaders of second wave feminism, the movement that gave us the slogan the “personal is political”, and naturally people are curious about Steinem the woman. And she politely answered Jennifer Byrne’s questions about her personal life – what influence did your father have on you? Tell us about the time you were sitting between Saul Bellow and Gay Talese and Talese dismissed you as a pretty girl. But while Steinem good-naturedly offered up each anecdote, she also valiantly kept trying to bring the conversation back to everyone else in the room: a movement, or the world, is not about individuals, but relationships and connections between people who are “linked, not ranked”, she reminded us.
Steinem told the audience she was more interested in listening to other people’s stories than in answering questions about herself, and she asked the audience to make a new friend before leaving. She invited activists to come up to the mike to make announcements.The difference between Steinem’s feminism and the kind of feminism now played out in the media and cultural industries is that where once telling a tragic personal story was just a starting point to building a movement, now it has become the whole point and the way to build a personal brand.
What’s most interesting about Hewson’s “rape representation” video is not that it’s a “militant feminist” piece challenging “patriarchy”. It’s that it is an artwork that speaks of a culture where performing terrible stories has practically become the default speaking mode for young women in the public eye. Turning the cameras onto yourself and your suffering may momentarily subvert the male gaze, perhaps putting it through some kind of feminist correction filter. But sometimes, turning the cameras on yourself simply just creates a harrowing house of mirrors. One that looks like nothing much more than a canny marketing strategy.