The XX Factor

Is the New York Times Profile of Randi Zuckerberg Sexist?

Randi Zuckerberg, former marketing director of Facebook, addresses the audience during a conference in Germany
Randi Zuckerberg, former marketing director of Facebook, addresses the audience during a conference in Germany

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The New York Times ran a piece yesterday profiling Randi Zuckerberg—older sister of Facebook-founding little brother Mark—which has some readers crying foul due to its vaguely hostile tone.

Writer Laura M. Holson launches her ostensibly business-related profile on its odd stumble through the Fashion & Style section with a jarring quote from Zuckerberg: “Who wants a tequila shot?” Following this questionable introduction is a lengthy description of what Zuckerberg calls her personal “launch party,” complete with smells of “stale beer and soy sauce,” “belting” of Whitney Houston and descriptors like “buoyant” and “beaming.” To top it all off, the art department inexplicably chose a picture featuring the karaoke-singing subject’s backside instead of the traditional (if admittedly less fun) shot of a dignified professional at her desk.

Now, I’m all for profiles containing the requisite amount of “color,” but doesn’t this particular framing choice smack of sexism? To be fair, the piece goes on to detail Zuckerberg’s relatively impressive professional history. After completing her education at Harvard (unlike her brother), she moved on to a good career in advertising and media; then, when Facebook received its first infusion of investment cash, her younger brother convinced her to join the marketing team, where she eventually became the “informal conduit for reporters” seeking an audience with him. Now, after six years at Facebook, Zuckerberg has broken with her brother to start a new social media consulting company and possibly even a “live online show.”

Even while detailing these fine (if perhaps not terribly newsworthy) accomplishments, however, Holson can’t help but include other tidbits about Zuckerberg’s party-girl persona, such as an unfortunately leaked YouTube clip of the subject “shimmying poolside in a curve-hugging white bathing suit and tiara” at her own bachelorette party. Does this kind of thing really belong in a profile about a budding businesswoman? And would a similarly extroverted man also be treated in such a patronizing way?

My gut says that it doesn’t and he wouldn’t—but maybe I and other readers who feel uncomfortable with this piece are participating in a little sexism of our own. There’s an interesting moment where Zuckerberg acknowledges and even celebrates her apparently bombastic personal style:

Older women who are mentors, Ms. Zuckerberg said, have warned her that she must tone down her flamboyant persona, but she refuses to take heed. “This is a new world we live in, and it should be possible for a woman to be taken seriously and still do what she loves,” she said.

In other words, Zuckerberg believes she should be able to party all night and still be respected during the workday. And really, why shouldn’t she?

Maybe the discomfort with this piece is actually not about the piece at all. Maybe we’re just bothered by the fact that Zuckerberg chooses to live her life in a way that grates against more conservative notions of feminism. Like those older mentors, maybe we want her to be quieter and more respectable while trying to make another crack in the glass ceiling. And maybe that censorious impulse is actually kind of messed up.

In Zuckerberg’s chosen field, big personalities are required for success. One can certainly quibble with Holson’s particular means of conveying her subject’s qualifications for the job (which do border on the sensational), but presenting a vivacious, forceful, shot-taking woman as herself is not automatically sexist. Demanding that she conform to a certain version of professional femininty, however, definitely is.