On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Jia Tolentino, a staff writer at the New Yorker. Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss the Shitty Media Men list and the environment for women in media, differences in perspectives between different generations of feminists, and why the backlash to the #MeToo movement threatens to infantilize women.
You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: When did you start writing about politics and culture and other things, and where?
Jia Tolentino: I sort of ended up in media by accident. I was in grad school getting my MFA, and I started writing for the Hairpin, which tragically just announced it’s shutting down. That was around 2013, and then in 2014, I moved to New York and started working as a features editor at Jezebel.
What was that experience like?
It was great. The Hairpin and Jezebel were different in a lot of ways. The Hairpin was run by two people. It was just me and Emma Carmichael, who brought me to Jezebel with her. The economics of online publishing hadn’t contracted to quite the incredibly punishing point that they have in recent years, so two people could run a blog that would stay financially afloat, and people would read it, and you could not stay tied to the news cycle, and you could publish stuff on 14th-century curiosities and weird music. It was a really unconstrained environment, and I loved it.
And Jezebel, it was interesting because Gawker (R.I.P.)—there was almost no hierarchy at the organization whatsoever. It was completely horizontal. I felt conscious, while I was working there the whole time, that this was the last opportunity. This was a unique opportunity to be able to do whatever you wanted with an audience like that. It was an interesting high-wire act to figure out how to use it.
How do you think that horizontal nature manifested itself in the stuff you were writing?
There was a directness about it. This was the source of the mistakes that Gawker made, the mistakes that I made as an editor, and also the source of the good things about that company too. Only three people had to look at anything before it went up. You had an extremely direct relationship to your audience, the subject. You didn’t have to adapt in any way. You were very exposed and bare about what you thought and how you approached it.
So I think it kind of inculcated a directness and a sense that I was ultimately going to be held responsible for anything I had my hands on there. No one would be held responsible but me for my stuff. I think that was a useful way to get into journalism, knowing that that was always going to be true there.
There was a conversation on Slate that a bunch of the women who were involved in DoubleX were having about what roles sites like Jezebel and DoubleX played. I think one conclusion was that it was both incredibly helpful and freeing, and also constraining in certain ways.
How did they say it was constraining? I bet I understand, but I’m curious.
I am paraphrasing, but there became certain opinions that were “OK” and certain opinions that weren’t. So it led to a version of groupthink about certain issues, but at the same time, it really opened up the conversation in other ways that just hadn’t been there.
One thing that happened at Jezebel while I was there under Emma: The readership became 50-50 male-female. The Hairpin also. It was a women’s blog, but it did not have a vast majority female readership. DoubleX and early Jezebel, absolutely, I think they were a huge part of the … I mean, media is so much more feminist. It’s so much more egalitarian in its values now than it was 10 years ago, and those blogs had a ton to do with that.
What I got frustrated with was this idea that there were “women’s issues,” which I think we were quietly working to discursively break down in whatever way we could. I did feel pretty proud of the fact that we did mostly write about women at Jezebel, but the readership became 50-50 because women’s issues aren’t an isolated silo.
When women’s issues are put in a corner, there is an environment of scarcity. I think you’re seeing it in, right now, this idea that if women don’t react in the exact same way to all the stories they’re hearing right now, then the idea that we can push back on sexual misconduct is in peril, and that drives me nuts. It always drove me nuts that there was a thing at Jezebel where someone would be like, “Well, I don’t agree with that decision to publish that.” And I was like, “That makes perfect sense to me.” If you agreed with all of the things that I do, you would be living a life that was exactly like mine, and you shouldn’t be.
But there is sort of a historically entrenched, completely reasonable—when you take in the context of how little time women have had to speak and write independently—sense of scarcity that leads to a need for agreement. We’re slowly still trying to argue against that. Or I am, I guess.
I think with “women’s issues,” similarly with racial issues, is that you want to say a woman’s issue is a human rights issue or it’s an American issue or it’s a world issue rather than it’s just a “woman’s issue.” You want to universalize it to make it clear that this is something that should concern everyone, but at the same time, you don’t want to get into an “all lives matter” argument. You do want to point out the ways in which these issues are specifically about women or specifically about a minority group or something like that.
Yeah. I guess it’s always confused me, the idea that for people to be invested in something, they have to have a personal stake in it. That’s always baffled me.
Like fathers who have daughters finally understand that women shouldn’t get harassed.
Right. It’s like, why does that make any difference to you?
But just to go back to what you said earlier about publishing things. You said, essentially, that “People don’t have my experiences. They’re going to be different from me.” In some sense, it’s true that our experiences make up who we are. But at the same time, it seems like it should not be defining your values, even if it does, to some extent.
Yeah. Lately, over the past year, I’ve been at the bar, and I’ll be depressed because of some DACA thing, and I’m not an undocumented immigrant. Actually, OK, so I was at Baby’s All Right when Doug Jones won. The whole bar was just screaming with happiness, and I was so happy, and I was talking to this guy, and I was like, “Aren’t you just so happy?” And he was like, “Well, you know, it’s not as personal for me because I’m a cis white guy.” And I was like, “No, no, no. My investment in Doug Jones winning is not because I am a woman of color.” I was like, “I live in Fort Greene. I have this incredibly protected life. It’s not personal.”
The fact that we have specific experiences based in identity in America can be very easily separated from the fact that everyone’s issues are everyone’s issues.
You wrote something in your recent column where you said, “The internet makes things more confusing. The world of sexual misconduct and confusion stands in front of us, exposed and quasi-litigated in new tweets and posts and essays every day. I wonder if we’re overestimating how much we can affect stories and situations that we have nothing to do with.” What do you mean by that?
I think this is a problem of the internet in general. The internet makes it possible for us to know about an infinite number of things. I think our world, at the same time, is contracting so that there’s less and less we can do about things.
At the very least, the number of things that we can really have an impact on is pretty static. It’s pretty limited to our physical worlds and our situations and our communities and our offices.
But the internet puts the whole world of trouble at our laps, and I think there’s this cognitive dissonance that comes in there, where we feel like we’re responsible for everything, but we can’t actually be. And I wonder if it distorts our sense of how much we can actually affect in the circles that we actually interact with.
I’ve noticed that about Trump stuff generally, which is when the health care debate or the tax debate was going on, people would say, “They’re trying to sneak this in without press.” But it was also this idea of, “If we don’t tweet about this, then this bill is going to pass.” Of course, activism can have some effect, but I think sites and apps likes Twitter really make us think that we’re more active participants and we have more power than we actually do.
Right. And in writing this column, I don’t want to be categorical about it, because it’s true, especially the difference between speech and action. The line is blurring. I don’t think it’s always a clear delineation. There’s definitely a false imperative to have an assessment of all of these situations involving all of these people who will never meet, especially as it comes to sexual misconduct. I’m just not sure that what I think about Aziz Ansari matters that much. I’m not sure that the precision of my take on any specific scenario that I will never have any physical overlap with really matters, and I say this even as a professional writer.
I think that we feel responsible for litigating and understanding and policing and curbing the way we talk about all this stuff right now, and I don’t think we need to. It’s fine if someone speaks up in a way that we don’t think is good. What does our trying to police it really do? Maybe I’m feeling fatalistic, but I’m trying to just keep these things in mind right now.
I just interviewed Katha Pollitt, who’s a feminist writer for the Nation and other places. The one critique of the #MeToo movement she had, which you offhandedly alluded to by mentioning Aziz Ansari, was that she’s worried that it’s become too focused on individuals.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. With sexual assault generally—and I’ve been working on a print piece about this, which is why my head’s sort of all over the place—we think of it in terms of punishment and adjudication. For me, personally, after the Weinstein story broke, all these stories came up and people were really interested in what was going to happen to each particular man who was getting exposed as having done all this stuff.
I don’t care what happens to so-and-so person that I’ve never heard of. I don’t care exactly how his workplace is going to punish him. What I care about is what’s going to change about that workplace to keep it from happening again. I think the focus on the individual is inevitable because these stories come out, and they are gripping and horrible, and we want to talk about the specifics because we’re still not sure how to understand this paradigm. The real issue is how we reorganize our institutions so that there’s just more equity. That doesn’t have a ton to do with the specific investigation and adjudication of men that have already done this.
The other case, which Masha Gessen made in your magazine, is that the reason that what happens in these situations is important is because too much policing of male-female relations, and too harsh of punishments for people who commit bad behavior, leads to a kind of “sex panic.” And that that really could have negative societal consequences going forward.
I’m not sympathetic to that argument at all. But that’s an argument that’s made in good faith, mostly. It’s not a perspective that I agree with at all. I think it’s about power; it’s not about sex. Women, especially my age, don’t really see this as sex having anything to do with it. It’s not like flirting is going to be taken off the table. I think the fear of women being infantilized by this movement is also a little bit infantilizing. But at the same time, there are arguments against the movement that are made in good faith, and you can tell that. I think that’s one. I just happen to not agree with it.
You mentioned your generation. How old are you? Can I ask that?
You, in your piece and elsewhere, have mentioned that some female writers of an older generation have a different take on this than people who are millennials, for lack of a better word. There must be a better word.
It’s stuck, though. We’re stuck with it.
How do you see that difference, broadly speaking? Is there anything you have made of it?
I tried something for a year at Gawker: I would try to write pieces that had strong arguments and no conclusions, and nobody noticed. I thought that was really good. I was like, “Oh, good. You can write a strong piece without needing to be sure of anything.” And that taught me a lot, and I’m trying to cleave back to that, because I think this grasp for certainty in the middle of something that is so young and we have no idea how our world is changing—it can just be so psychologically punishing to need to be sure right now. So I’m not sure of anything.
One thing about the generational differences: One thing I’ve noticed that I do think is unnecessarily bad is that you see a subconscious or a conscious need for women who processed this dynamic of sexual inequality and abusive power in different ways for them to say that because they handled it in a certain way, that there must have been something good about that way. That way must be vindicated. We can’t ignore it. We have to remember that at one point, what you would do was … whack them on the knee with a newspaper.
We don’t even have newspapers anymore.
There are ways that I’ve handled this dynamic in my life that I think are good and fine but that I would never say are categorically good. I can’t imagine myself 20 years from now being like, “Well, this is how I handled it. Why don’t we make room for these experiences anymore?” It can be OK to have lived through something and not need to be exemplary in any way and not need to vindicate your experience to anybody. It’s completely natural that all these different generations and microgenerations of people would have experienced sexual inequality at the workplace and processed it and dealt with it in different ways.
The Shitty Media Men list has been an issue. Could you talk about your experience in the media and whether you think anything involving male misbehavior has changed? And also what you thought about the list when it was published and how you feel about it now.
When I saw that list, I felt a lot of complicated ways. I felt afraid for the people that wrote on it, for the women that created it. I felt frustrated by how much of the conversation would go to, “What if we’re lumping all this male misbehavior together?” versus “Look at all these people at major publications who are accused of really serious things.” The people that I know on that list, nearly all of it corresponded to things that I had heard in real life from multiple people. The list was obviously easily tampered with. I happen to think it was. And that frustrated me, too, because I knew we’d be talking about that.
But that list had some people on it that I’ve stopped talking to over the last couple of years because of the way they are with women. The list has introduced this thing where it’s like, “We have these edge cases where the allegations against them are unspecified, or they’re lesser. We don’t know them, so what if something went wrong? What if the system has turned on people that really are innocent?” I think the thing that came out recently with Garrison Keillor … we were like, “He was fired for touching someone’s back.” And it came out that there was a lot more to it than that.
It’s shocking how almost nobody seems to be a one-time offender. If you’re someone who’s going to misbehave with women, you’re not just going to do it once in your life.
Yeah. There are absolutely many gradations of male misbehavior, and obviously not everything on that list was necessarily something that was within the bounds of HR. However, I do think the people that were on that list. … They’re on that list for a reason, and I think we’re finding in a lot of the cases where we don’t know a lot, it might be just that stuff isn’t public. I do think that where there’s smoke, there tends to be fire.
There’s a line that you hear people in the ACLU or a liberal-left place like that say, which is that we would rather live in a society where 10 guilty people go free than one innocent person is punished.
It’s like that train-track problem, right? Are you going to pull the switch and save the car of whatever … you know?
The trolley problem. I guess what I would say is that I completely agree with you around where the focus needs to be, which is how we change these environments. But I do worry sometimes about the idea that inherently thinking that focusing on innocent people who may get caught up in something is somehow reactionary. The people who were making this point tend to be reactionary in this particular case. But I do think it’s an important—
No, I don’t disagree with you at all. I actually wrote something in that piece that got me a lot of pushback from women. And I’ve written about anonymous accusations before. I think they’re complicated and risky. I wrote about them in Jezebel in 2014 or 2015. The literary organization Vida published a list of anonymous accusations against a poet, who got pushed out of Iowa. I wrote about that, arguing against the medium, and I got some pushback from that. Just because I think anonymous accusations tend to be true doesn’t mean that I have a completely clear … And I have never argued for “who cares if there’s one false?” I actually don’t even think that …
There was the case of a newspaper editor that was trying to find a woman that would write the op-ed that was like, “If one innocent man gets punished, it’s worth it to finally … ” I don’t think that many people actually think that. I don’t think that many people have flipped from the liberal-left argument. There was something on that list I didn’t think was true, and I said that. And I think that that person’s career has not ended for a reason. And I said, “Now that we have these accusations, there is an obvious, immediate obligation we have to triangulate it against real life and find out when the things aren’t true, and find out when they are.” I think both men and women could be less scared at the fact that any of them could be false. Of course anything on that list could be false. It doesn’t mean you can’t check it out.
In the time that you’ve been writing about all these issues, would you say that anything fundamental about your worldview has changed?
What feels different and feels great, actually, is that I started off writing, blogging on what basically felt like a personal blog, and then worked at a big website, and now work at the New Yorker. I’ve been writing the same stuff the whole time. And it feels really nice. I really think there is less of a siloing of perspective. This isn’t my worldview. I don’t think my worldview’s changed at all. But I think it’s pretty nice that this year wouldn’t have happened if feminist egalitarian thought weren’t welcome everywhere now and not named as such. That doesn’t feel like a shift in worldview, but it feels like a shift in something that I feel glad to have come into media at this time.
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