I don’t mean to be personal
Not so long ago, the ABC’s Q&A turned the tables for a bit of self-examination: why, the show’s producers asked, don’t we have more women on the panel? Trying to understand the show’s gender trouble, series producer Amanda Collinge cited women’s reluctance to put themselves forward compared to men’s self-promotion, the trolling and online harassment of women who do join the show, and the fact that the show reflects the relatively blokey composition of our parliaments – a key source of guests.
This ongoing absence of women from the public sphere in numbers approaching anything like gender parity is not just Q&A’s problem. The Global Media Monitoring Project, which maps representation of women and men in news media worldwide, found women make up less than a quarter (24 percent) of subjects interviewed or reported on, while only 37 percent of stories in newspapers, television and radio are reported by women. When they are reported on, women are more likely than men to be portrayed as victims or eyewitnesses, and much less likely than men to be sought out as expert commentators.
While women are still notably absent from the authoritative, expert voice of the public sphere, there’s another sphere where we women excel: women have no trouble speaking out in blogs, websites and magazines that are aimed at women readers, and that feature highly intimate and personal, sometimes joyful, but oftentimes sad and painful real life stories. It’s as if we’ve said to men: “Move over guys, we women have got this whole first-person business covered.”
In an opinion piece I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age last month I raised some questions about our appetite for telling, and hearing about, women’s personal stories. Particularly women’s stories about traumatic events. I said we’d created an attention economy that tells people, particularly young and female people, the most interesting thing about them is the worst thing that has ever happened to them.
And I suggested we shouldn’t forget the lesson of second wave feminism: that telling personal stories was the starting point for building social movements. My piece struck a chord with some people, including many writers and authors and editors who contacted me to say they’d been thinking some of the same things. The piece also deeply offended many other people.
I linked to some stories I’d recently read that I thought illustrated certain aspects of a cultural pressure, particularly on young women, to reveal all. The authors – not entirely unfairly – took exception to my article’s suggestion that traumatic personal stories were now being used by artists and writers to meet a market for certain kinds of narratives and to build their profiles. Some people have called this phenomenon the ‘first person industrial complex’. I suggested we needed to rename it the ‘first person traumatic complex’.
I didn’t choose the stories I linked to for any particular reason other than that they were just the most recent examples I’ve read of the types of stories I was starting to notice everywhere. And yet: people were hurt or offended to varying degrees, and so I asked Fairfax’s opinion editor to remove the links and references to particular stories in my piece. The idea we’re now editing by Twitter is a worrying development, but I never intended to offend or hurt anyone, nor single out any particular writers for particular criticism, either. If I’d thought through the implications of linking to specific stories more completely, I don’t think I would have included those links in the first place.
Anyway. The rest of this essay is an attempt to clarify what I said that has been misrepresented, and to add a couple of things I would have liked to have said, were the opinion piece format a 2,000-word format. The following are observations I’ve made about aspects our media, arts and literary culture that sometimes concern me. And no one – absolutely no one – should take them as a specific reference to them.
I think there was a lot of value in the second wave feminist’s tradition of telling personal stories, and I certainly see the consciousness raising tradition being carried on in the way many women still talk about their personal lives publicly. But one of the strengths of second wave feminism – which I think we can sometimes lose sight of – is the way their personal stories were always used to connect to a broader social theory, and a broader movement to change the world.
Of course, not all personal stories have to be attached to a social movement or a theory of how to change the world: sometimes there is simply consolation, revelation and value in telling personal stories that explain what it feels like to be in the world. It can be empowering for the author and enlightening for the reader. But sometimes (and I say sometimes, not all the time) what happens with the personal story – if it’s not done with an eye on broader social issues and theories – is all that’s left for the author to change is herself.
Recently, in an excellent piece in Meanjin, Eleanor Robertson wrote about – much more thoroughly and articulately than I can or will here – many things I (and many others) think about the way contemporary feminism is often expressed as an overly individualised form of politics, without an eye to systemic change and collective forms of organisation. (While I think Robertson at times overstates second wave feminism’s essentialism – second wavers also frequently argued gender was socially constructed – I agree with her essay’s fundamental argument).
In my opinion piece, I was also pointing to a culture where the expectation that we will reveal our most innermost lives is almost taken-for-granted. We see it everywhere: in reality TV shows, in newspapers and magazines and in social media – social media is, really, the sine qua non of this selfie phenomenon. We see it in Ted Talks, where speakers are encouraged to document their personal ‘journey’, and in the way celebrity life is conducted.
When my piece was published writers contacted me and tweeted to admit they recognised this self-revealing phenomenon with a kind of cringing recognition. One friend, a fiction author, told me she resented the expectation when she marketed her books that she should reveal her own personal stories – particularly the more traumatic ones (she’s a fiction author). In an astute piece in the Saturday Paper Brigid Delaney wrote that the ultimate privilege, one now reserved for the über wealthy, is the right to complete privacy, to power obliterate your presence online.
It’s illuminating to read critiques by theorists who’ve done some deep theoretical thinking about contemporary capitalism, and its tendency to turn everything into a commodity. Even our selves are becoming commodities, claim some theorists. And if you work in the creative industries, our personalities and lives and creativity can be turned into goods to be parcelled up and sold.
It’s nothing new to say it’s a system that turns us all, to a greater or lesser extent, into brands. There’s barely any escape from this system. I’ve also frequently written about my own life, and continue to do so. But a feminist critique has to note how unequal this process is: it’s women whose personal lives are most often exposed and written about.
I certainly don’t want to argue that women who do freely choose to talk about themselves and their personal lives should stop doing so posthaste. Or that if they do so, they have no agency. While first person accounts of all experiences, including traumatic experiences, are absolutely necessary and valid, I think we need to think through how they are told in a context where women’s personal lives tend to be held up to excessive scrutiny, and in a context where we almost seem to expect to hear women’s voices speaking from a more personal and confessional position (just look at the righthand side of any news site. Or just speak to Julia Gillard).
We women dominate the personal essay market. And I think there’s a troubling intersection of issues here: women’s right to tell stories, and an attention economy that seems to expect women to tell personal stories. I don’t have all the answers, but I do think we need to ask questions about how this process plays out. Helen Razer, in an article prompted by my opinion piece and the response to it, suggested that the function of the personal essay is now to provide diversion and entertainment. It’s a suggestion I think we need to consider (and her essay is well worth reading).
When I wrote in my article* that young women keen to break into the literary magazine scene would “be advised” to write about topics such as eating disorders or sexual abuse, I certainly didn’t mean that the specific women whose articles I referred to were being manipulated by some kind of cunning and exploitative editor. I was thinking of the advice I might give to media students I’ve been teaching lately if I threw out all the usual instructions about the inverted pyramid, about news values and objectivity, about keeping themselves out of the story. If I was honest and said: “You know what, there is this huge market for personal stories about your suffering”.
It’s a new development, you could say, of the “if it bleeds it leads” rule. I’ve worked as both a journalist and an editor, I’m keenly aware of the calculation that goes on, about what stories are sold and told. We need to be able to talk openly about this.
Young writers and students really don’t need any particular encouragement to go down this personal path. Speak to any university creative or non-fiction writing teacher and they will tell you their students’ first instinct is often to explore their most traumatic experiences. The trick is to help “steer them towards the bigger point” they might be trying to make in their story, as one teaching friend put it to me recently.
If my students feel inclined to explore the personal essay, that’s for them to decide to do. But I do think we have a duty of care to those who are willing to expose their personal life in the public sphere. A personal story can come to define you. It can take you down career and creative cul-de-sacs, not to mention political cul-de-sacs. And continually writing about your own life can be both exhausting and exhaustive.
Editors and websites waiting for their inbox to ping with the latest explicit or sorrowful tale are the modern day miners, turning these raw resources of someone’s life into the fuel of content. But writers offering up their own life – often for $50 a pop, or sometimes, simply for “the exposure” – are selling a finite resource. Digging it up may be cathartic and liberating, there’s no doubt. But it can also be depleting, a move that leaves one with no energy left.
If, knowing all this, young women do consciously choose to go down this path, then all power to them. They may have suffered, but if they can craft a narrative and release it into the world I see them as strong and in control of their life (as much as any of us are). But if they choose to enter this system, they also need to expect people to ask questions about their works, just like critics do of any other text.
Questions like “what sort of cultural environment produces certain kinds of genres and modes of speaking?” Or: “Do these stories work as art or literature and, if so, how?” Or: “Why do we seem more interested in hearing women’s very personal stories than men’s? And is this unbalanced interest always helpful to the project of equality?”
And if texts or artworks claim to speak in the tradition of a movement such as, say, feminism, then they are inevitably going to be judged by how their stories work as texts within that tradition. Not to ask these questions, to seal off such stories from such discussion, is patronising. It is treating the authors not as strong, but as on-going victims.
There’s one point I didn’t make in my opinion piece (because it seems like a somewhat longish bow to draw) but let’s try it out: could our interest in hearing harrowing and traumatic individual stories be a proxy way of (not) reckoning with the harrowing future we are handing to the younger generation. It seems to me we are happy to hear the distress of individuals. But we’re not so up for dealing with the distressing inheritance, economically and environmentally, that we are passing on to a generation. I’d like to hear an all-women Q&A panel debate that.
- Before I asked for it to be edited