Thursday, July 31, 2008

On Femininity, Felines, and Frivolity

So yesterday Rebecca Traister at Salon's Broadsheet wrote a piece that basically suggested Kittywampus might throw a lot more weight around if we didn't have a frivolous name and address too much feminine stuff like parenting and cats and - well, maybe also feminism:
It is not without irony, for instance, that one of the women Jesella [NYT staffer Kara Jesella, writing on the recent BlogHer conference] interviewed about not being taken seriously online runs a blog called Lemonade Life. This isn't a blog about lemonade; it's a blog about living with diabetes, and a cursory read suggests that it's a very good, smart one. Lemonade Life's Allison Blass has written on her site that the name is in reference to making lemonade of the health lemons life has handed her. And that's terrific. It makes sense.

But we can't pretend that a title doesn't affect how a blog is read and digested. And the fact is that the people over at Netroots are calling their blogs things like the Plank and the Page and First Read and Hotline, names that scream solidity and self-importance and power. A blog about personal experience and illness certainly needn't be named with an eye to political urgency, but what about starting from a place of self-regard and personal authority and naming it after yourself, like Kos, or Drudge, or one of the women who does get taken seriously online, Arianna Huffington? Think about how much easier it would be to get the respect that some of the BlogHer women crave if they started taking themselves more seriously.

This is a tricky argument to make, since there is nothing intrinsically wrong with giving a blog a cute name or, for that matter, writing a blog about a feminized topic -- be it motherhood or fashion or dating -- that is destined for a niche audience. In an ideal world, of course, the experiences of parenthood and style and love wouldn't even be marked as feminine, since they are all shared.

But this is not an ideal world.
Now, I don't have any ambition to become the next Arianna Huffington. If I did, I'd have to spend a bunch of time talking to Larry King. I don't need that kind of annoyance. I'm perfectly happy having a few loyal readers.

But I do want to think about whether it's a good idea to act oh-so-serious - to join in the Drudgery, so to speak. If women do that - if we help devalue those things "marked as feminine" - aren't we condemned to second-class status forever? Aren't we then abandoning feminist causes instead of furthering them?

As Traister ought to know from Salon's own in-house blog on women's and gender issues - Broadsheet, where her analysis appeared - issues involving women and gender still tend to be trivialized and marginalized, even in left-leaning publications. Broadsheet's comment section attracts way more trolls than the rest of the site. Where Salon used to have a whole department dedicated to gender ("Mothers Who Think) and a whole 'nother section devoted to sex, neither of these have survived multiple reorganizations. More's the pity.

We see similar marginalization in the way the Democratic Party has begun to see abortion rights as optional. We see it in the way issues like equal pay or maternity/paternity leave are painted as the concerns of "special interests." We see women voters being trivialized as "soccer moms."

In other words, it's not just femininity that's marginalized and trivialized. The same thing happens to feminism, too. I'm not going to defend every aspect of conventional femininity. I think high heels are just a torture device, for instance. Still, if we devalue "the feminine" in a knee-jerk way, we shouldn't expect feminism to be taken seriously, either.

So I think some of us are needed for the skirmishes in a different register: redefining what topics matter in the first place. For me, parenting is absolutely as important as politics. In fact, parenting is political, on a micro-level, and that's one of the things I'm exploring both here and in my academic work. I could say something similar about sex, which - although men are supposed to love it way more than women - is an intensely feminized topic.

While I'm grateful that there are at least a few prominent political bloggers who also happen to be women (I adore Jane Hamsher, to name just one), I think that - perhaps unlike the conventional media - the blogging world is vast enough that we need to work on both levels. We need women writing on macro-level electoral politics and on micro-level parental politics. We need women writing on the economy and on sex. And then there's the thorny question of how these different levels intersect.

To my mind, anyone writing on any of these issues is a "political blogger."

I also think that it's really okay to not always be deadly earnest. I'd like to believe I don't blow my credibility if I pillory fat cats sometimes, while other days, when I'm sapped from the summer heat, I just want to be tickled by ... an actual fat cat. I know that most readers are more than smart enough to tell the difference. I trust that my serious writing speaks for itself. And honestly, I think that a sprinkling of silly posts keeps me from waxing too pedantic.

As for the name of my blog: I picked it because it's a great, quirky word that I associate with my North Dakota upbringing. It's a word my parents use occasionally. And of course, it gives me an excuse to feature a kitty here and again. I suppose it goes without saying that felines are regarded as both feminine and frivolous (mostly by people who don't know cats!). But I won't be renaming it anytime soon.

What do you think? Do femininity and/or feminism automatically detract from a writer's credibility? Does occasional silliness undermine a writer's more serious posts? And what's with all those girly flower pictures, anyway?

(This daylily was blooming in my garden the day I flew to Berlin. Yes, it's a flower; it's pink; it should put you in mind of sex. And the problem with all that is ... what exactly?)


Smirking Cat said...

So if all women change the names of their blogs to something bland and CNN-ish, all women will be taken seriously and problem solved!

I am of course being contrary, but I think the argument is weak at best. Women are marginalized, women are not taken seriously, and until that changes, it doesn't amount to a hell of a lot of anything what I christen my blog.

Laura said...

Hey Sungold,
Your blog has been great lately btw. I haven't chimed in because I didn't have anything sufficiently contrarian to say. ;-) It sounds like you're having a great summer.

On your post, I believe that it also goes back to a fallacy I source to second wave: equal opportunity = sameness

Take for example, women in the workplace. In the 80s, to be taken seriously as a careerwoman, we needed the suit with the shoulder pads and short hair. We had to man up. Flashforward to present: we can look like *gasp* women, with form fitting apparel and long hair. This, I would argue, is progress. Women effectively redefined respectable appearance to include within its scope femininity.

So why the disconnect? Women in the workplace no longer have to man up, so why would blogs have to do so? Perhaps - present company excluded - it's a byproduct of favorable selection. Who ARE BlogHer bloggers? Maybe they need to raise the bar? Just putting it out there.

ps the name of your blog and the occasional levity do NOT compromise your blog, which I regard as provocative. On the contrary, the levity rounds out your persona and compliments the subject matter, as it should...

Sungold said...

Ha, I seem to be preaching to the choir. Thanks, guys (gals).

Smirking Cat, you have the *best* feline inspired name. And if you tried to be bland, all you'd have left is the hockey schedule (not the games, just the dates!). Luckily I don't think you're in any danger of that, even if you do wax poetic about your developing garden.

Laura, nice of you to say you're enjoying my sun-baked ramblings. I *am* having a mostly good summer but I've been so overheated half the time that all I've got in me is a silly animal picture.

I agree that the equality versus difference debate is being dredged up again. European feminists have tended to see this in a more nuanced way, even as they've tended to emphasize gender differences as a positive thing.

I think we need a middle position - or rather, we need to move between those two poles in ways that tactically make sense.

And oh boy, do I remember the 1980s power suits. I've actually seen the return of leggings this summer in Berlin. Can those shoulder pads be far behind?