A Conversation With Katie Roiphe

On Shitty Media Men, Twitter feminism, and the whole Harper’s affair.

Katie Roiphe.
Katie Roiphe. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Deborah Copaken Kogan.

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Katie Roiphe, the journalist and author of several books, including The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism and The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End. Roiphe is also the director of the Cultural Reporting & Criticism Program at NYU’s journalism school. Her latest piece, in Harper’s Magazine, is called “The Other Whisper Network: How Twitter Feminism Is Bad for Women.” Its publication followed a controversy: Once word got out that Roiphe was planning to publish the essay—which a number of writers feared would “out” the creator of the “Shitty Media Men” list—Roiphe and Harper’s faced a huge backlash, and Roiphe herself was harassed and insulted online. The creator of the list, Moira Donegan, ended up outing herself in an essay for New York magazine’s the Cut. Roiphe’s piece, which was published last weekend, described what she thinks is a climate of fear, especially online, that chills the airing of ideas that depart from doctrinaire feminism in the age of #MeToo.

Below is an edited transcript of the show. In it, we discuss where Roiphe thinks the #MeToo movement is going too far, her account of the firestorm surrounding the publication of her essay, and whether critics of feminism are really being “silenced.”

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: Tell me how long you have been writing about women’s issues, for people who don’t know your work.

Katie Roiphe: It’s been a long time, although I haven’t written about these issues solidly. When I was about 23, I was a graduate student in literature, and I wrote a piece comparing the date-rape pamphlets given out on college campuses to Victorian guides to conduct given to young ladies. I was just kind of analyzing the language—I was a graduate student in literature—and sort of talking about how I thought both were infantilizing to women, and against the goals of feminism. That piece turned into my first book, which came out in 1993.

We are now, 25 years later, at maybe a hinge moment for feminism with the #MeToo movement. What did you make of #MeToo when it started, and what do you make of where we are right now?

I think that things have changed a lot because of social media. Some of the things that disturbed me in the early ’90s, which had to do with a kind of intolerance of dissent, and a sort of thought-policing of anybody who strayed even the tiniest bit from the official party line of feminism, has gotten more intense and immediate now because of Twitter. There is a kind of vicious hatred aimed at anyone who kind of dares to deviate from the basic feminist position.

In terms of #MeToo, like everyone else, I was very exhilarated by this moment and the kind of hopefulness of bringing powerful men who abuse their power to account. But I was also a little bit uneasy at the weird energy in the movement, and that’s something that I talk a little bit about in my piece in Harper’s. I noticed that the things people were saying to me secretly, or the things they were saying to me in private, were very different than what they were willing to say out loud publicly. It was that atmosphere, that kind of feeling, that I began to write this piece from, and it’s kind of a defense of ambivalence or ambiguity or nuance. I see this piece as a kind of need to think more deeply about the feminism we are embracing right now.

What sorts of things are you specifically talking about?

There are a couple of things. One is that I feel some of the ideas put forward in this feminism are a little bit condescending towards women—and this is something I wrote about in the ’90s. Embedded in this language and some of these scenarios is the idea that women are not sexual beings who have their own desires and their own agency, and that I find unnerving.

I also do feel concerned at the collapsing of behavior. There was a line I quote in the piece, where Rebecca Traister said that in some ways we are as angry at a man looking down our shirt as we are at Harvey Weinstein. And I guess it’s that collapsing of a man looking down your shirt becom[ing] as bad as Harvey Weinstein, which our anger right now is getting aimed at all men or a whole series of behaviors. To me, that’s sort of depressing, along with what I see as a lack of interest in due process. To me, it would seem important that any man who’s accused of something has a fair hearing, and that we give them the benefit of our American judicial system, which does presume innocence. There is a little bit of impatience with that due process, which also makes me nervous.

Just to be clear, the thing you are quoting from Rebecca Traister, she follows that up in the same sentence with “even if we can acknowledge that there’s something nuts about that, a weird overreaction.” So she is also acknowledging it.

Yeah, she totally acknowledges it as a weird overreaction. It’s just that I kind of feel that that weird overreaction is very prevalent. She might be one of the few people who can say “this is an overreaction, or this is a weird overreaction.” I think there are people who get lost in that anger right now.

In your piece, you quote a writer at the New Republic, and say she has the “tone of a low-level secret policeman in a totalitarian state.” The word Maoism appears. I think we can acknowledge that there is a lot of crazy stuff said on Twitter on all sides, and that you yourself got a lot of abuse on Twitter, which you should certainly talk about. A lot of it was pretty disgusting. But is there a way in which you think we too often conflate crazy people or angry people saying things on Twitter with real-world effects about people losing their jobs?

It’s not just Twitter people are afraid of. You probably saw that Saturday Night Live skit about Aziz Ansari where the lights come on and they are starting to have a conversation at a dinner about whether Aziz Ansari did something wrong, and everybody freaks out and can’t speak and is totally stressed out about expressing even the slightest opinion. And I think some of it is that people are worried about Twitter, but I also talk to a lot of people who are afraid for their jobs. And to be totally honest with you, Isaac, if I didn’t have tenure at NYU, I don’t know if I would have written this piece. I am lucky to have a certain amount of job security people don’t have. And there are definitely people calling NYU trying to get me fired every day. There were people making these calls and tweets, and people were threatening me on Twitter: “Your job is over; your career is over.” And if you are a writer or a freelance writer or a novelist, you don’t necessarily feel you can brook that kind of threat. I have certainly talked to a lot of people who say, “I can’t write this because I am scared for my livelihood.”

I feel like after the Aziz Ansari piece dropped, almost every website I went to ran a critical piece. I can just say, not being afraid to say this, that I thought the Aziz Ansari piece was very poorly done, I did not think it was good journalism, and I thought a lot of the stuff did not appear in its proper context. And I thought the point-of-view I just expressed was all over websites, the New York Times.

Oh, you are totally right. I think that was a turning point actually. I think the Aziz Ansari thing sort of opened it up where it suddenly became OK to look at that question. When she is saying that he didn’t offer me the right kind of wine, I think people look at that, and there was a lot to deconstruct, and much more public debate, authentic public debate about that. But as I was writing the piece in November, December, there was definitely a different mood about this stuff. One of the things about a cultural climate like this is that it is moving very quickly, but I agree that the Aziz Ansari thing opened it up a little bit.

I have noticed people saying, “You are able to speak out.” I don’t want to underestimate that it was very hard for me to write this piece. I was waking up at 5 a.m. and thinking, “Should I be doing this?” It was not that easy for me to write this piece, and in the kind of craziness and hysteria that followed this piece, and in what you pointed out was this Twitter frenzy where people were suddenly—strangers were calling me “human scum” and a “ghoul” and “suck my dick, Katie Roiphe”—that fury was case-in-point, it was Exhibit A for what I was trying to write about. The reason people are scared is that they are worried about a tiny bit of that hatred. And maybe it’s not even on Twitter. It could be in your office. To feel that fury aimed at you: No one in their right mind would want to do it. I don’t even know why I would want to do it.

Yes, to be clear, I do not want to defend people saying, “suck my dick, Katie Roiphe” on Twitter. That is not acceptable, and those people should be banned from Twitter, etc. And as someone who writes about politics, I occasionally write articles about something like the Trump administration or the Democratic primary, where people would send me mean Facebook messages and so on. I am not trying to defend those people. But I never experienced that as “silencing.”

Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times wrote a response to you, where she wrote, in part, “Faced with thousands of incensed Twitter users, you might feel it’s dangerous to say that #MeToo has gone overboard, but in the real world the men who still run things will congratulate you for your courage. Left-wing Twitter mobs are a great gift to the right, since they make defending the status quo seem transgressive and brave.” She adds: “Social media is a grotesque netherworld of bad faith and cruelty. But as ugly as the intellectual environment is online, if people are truly whispering their discomfort with #MeToo, why are they so easy to hear?” And I think she is referring to the fact that you wrote a piece about this in Harper’s, a pretty left-wing magazine, you went on CBS, the New York Times has had numerous op-eds criticizing the movement, writers in places like the Atlantic. If people are being “silenced,” which I think is a word you used, why are they so easy to hear?

I don’t think they are that easy to hear. There has definitely been some great work. I particularly admire Masha Gessen, who, in order to write her first pieces, said “I was a rape victim. I am a lesbian.” She had to say a lot of things to position herself to be able to say, “Is this a moral panic? Is this a sex panic?” I also admire Andrew Sullivan. I admire a bunch of people who have started to write about this. There definitely have been voices criticizing this moment, but the issue is, I guess, and this is what I have been noticing, is that a very large number of people who aren’t contrarians, there are some professional contrarians—I guess I would be one of them—who often enter into political debates and for whatever reason, because they are insane, don’t mind having a lot of hatred on the level that other people do. But there are also a lot of writers, novelists, journalists, real estate agents, architects, doctors, other people that I spoke to, who are not in that argument-making class and I think that’s why that Saturday Night Live skit was so funny and effective.

I have gotten letters from people appreciating my piece, and saying things like, “Totally anonymously, I think this piece is brilliant,” or “You can understand I am writing on my private email, not my office email. I just wanted to say I appreciated your piece.”

I’m not trying to be glib, I’m curious: Do you think those people are worried that if they said on an office email that they liked a Katie Roiphe piece, that they could get fired, that they would lose friends? Anyone who works in a liberal environment knows there is a certain aspect of groupthink, as there are in other environments. And groupthink is almost always stifling and not pleasant and not nice. But beyond that, what are people scared of?

I think a very large range of things. A lot of people are writing to me about being in an office meeting and being told, “You don’t have a right to express an opinion on this.” I have people writing to me from all sorts of angles about their own personal experience with this feeling of being muffled. And I think people are worried about losing their jobs. I also hear men being worried about something that happened five years ago. And if they tell you this story it’s like the most boring story in the world. But they are worried that this really low-level, awkward moment is going to turn into something that gets them fired. People are worried about this stuff. Or not gets them fired: But if they are a freelance writer they are worried that they are not going to be able to get assignments, etc. People are worried about professional repercussions, and I will tell you I understand why. If you just look at—even before I wrote this piece, the kind of threats coming at me, and they weren’t threats from people that can follow through with me against my career, but it does feel pretty upsetting when you are in the center of it.

There was a case you wrote about involving Lorin Stein, who was at the Paris Review and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (FSG) and who later resigned from the Paris Review under a cloud of inappropriate behavior, which he apologized for. You write in this piece about hearing rumors of “sealed settlements” from his FSG time. You then add: “The next morning, I related the troubling new fact of the FSG settlements to a journalist friend. Could it be true? She checked it very thoroughly and called that evening to tell me she could find no truth at all to the settlement rumors. I was disgusted with myself for repeating what was probably a lie about someone I liked and had nothing against. What was wrong with me?” Why did you have a friend report this, and [trust] the friend coming to conclusion after an afternoon of reporting, when settlement rumors are a very hard thing to report?

This person was very close to FSG, she wasn’t doing my reporting for me, she just happened to be able to get to the bottom of it because of who she was.

The idea was that I had this disgust at myself for being so caught up in it, but I also understand why people get so caught up in it. In that paragraph I write about how you do start thinking about every bad thing every man ever did to you, every person who has behaved badly, and it all kind of blurs into this weird energy, and I was really more interested in delving into that. And my point about Lorin Stein, and with that anecdote and section, is that I talk about how we have to hold two things in our minds at once. On one hand, Lorin was a great editor to some women writers, and also created this fertile, fruitful place for a lot of women writers. And on the other hand, there is this other bad stuff and it’s complicated. My plea in that last section of the piece is just that rather than trying to simplify everything into this political narrative of what happened, the truth of what happens is usually a lot more complex.

I don’t want to compare Lorin Stein to Harvey Weinstein, but Weinstein made a lot of movies with female protagonists with a lot of roles. I am not sure that has any bearing on his personal behavior. It shouldn’t be forgotten. It shouldn’t be wiped from the record, that he made these movies. I don’t want those movies banned from cable television. But I don’t see how it complicates or has anything to do with his off-screen behavior.

One, comparing Lorin Stein to Harvey Weinstein is sort of part of the problem.

I was not comparing them.

As you know, very little publicly came out about Lorin and what happened at the Paris Review, and no one is making the argument he is a Harvey Weinstein figure. I think one of the things that happens in this moment, that I do find disturbing, is just the idea that we leap to judge what we think is happening in a situation without all the facts and details. So the idea that somebody is accused suddenly means that they are guilty. That is the part of it I find unnerving. We start to think about what a man in power does, and it doesn’t even matter what the specific man is, or what he actually did…

I write about the Shitty Men in Media list, and much has been made, and people have pointed out, they are putting things like “leering” or “creepy DMs” along with much more serious charges and much more serious behaviors. These are intelligent women, and they know the difference between these things, and I am not suggesting they think they are the same thing. But rather that this idea that putting these things on the continuum tells you something about this way of thinking. There is somewhere in here a suspicion, and this idea, that women are innocent or childish and are being assaulted by these lurking male sexual threats. One of the things on the Media Men list is “leering.” I just try to imagine—I have a lot of graduate students and they go to work at places like this—trying to warn one of my students that I have to warn you about this guy. He is going to “leer at you.” I just think to myself how condescending that sounds, and I would never want to say that to an adult because it would seem like she is incapable of managing the world.

I think there are ways in which that could be condescending and ways in which it could be reasonable, depending on what exactly “leering” means. But let me just say that I thought one of the weakest parts of the list, or one of its most glaring flaws, was that by putting all these things together it did conflate very, very, very serious things like rape with things like sending creepy direct messages on Twitter, which I don’t want to defend, but I see the value in separating in a list. And I feel like many people who wrote about the list made that point.

You also say in your piece that, “We are alarmed at the rampant and slippery Trumpian tendency to blame ‘all immigrants’ or ‘all Muslims,’ and blaming all men seems to me only a little less ominous.” Just going back to the Michelle Goldberg critique, it seems like we are conflating two power dynamics here, one being the president of the United States blaming all Muslims or immigrants, versus women anonymously circulating a list, which as far as I know no one who didn’t commit bad behavior has lost a job for.  

There are 70 men on that list and I have definitely talked to some who have experienced really strong negative repercussions in their actual lives. I just want to read a tweet that Dayna Tortorici, who is connected to or friends with the creator of that list, who says, “I get the queasiness of no due process. But…losing your job isn’t death or prison.” And to me that tweet kind of encapsulated the attitude, or what I found upsetting about the list, which was putting those charges anonymously and then just saying, “if people lose their jobs…” One magazine said “a few false positives were worth it.” To me that idea, that kind of shadowy accusation, does remind me of the Hollywood blacklist, does remind me of the most hysterical or we could say shameful moments in American history, where we are sort of abandoning our principles. Even if it’s not death or prison, it’s just losing their job, obviously for many people that’s a pretty terrifying prospect. So I think there are some things about the list that are legitimately creepy.

And just to go back to your point about “all men,” the reason I say “almost” is that it’s acknowledging what you are saying, it’s not the same as Trump tweeting that. But when I tweet about Trump supporters saying, “lock her up, lock her up,” and then I think about Twitter feminists saying to me, “suck my dick, Katie Roiphe,” or “human scum” or whatever they are saying, or making Halloween masks out of my face—there is a white male Esquire editor who thought that was a good way to express his political views. So those people who are hurling abuse at other women: Are they really that different than the Trump supporters shouting, “lock her up” at Hillary Clinton? I don’t think they are, to be honest. And I don’t think it’s any better.

My answer to that would be people hurling abuse to you on Twitter are no better than Trump supporters screaming, “lock her up.” The reason I am less worried about the former is that they don’t have the power of a crazy person as president behind them…

You are saying they don’t have power, but I think they do have power. I guess that is what I am trying to point out in my piece.

I think that is the crux of our disagreement.

I think we should discuss this. What I tried to do in my piece was connect the dots between Twitter feminists, somebody like Dayna Tortorici, who is the editor of n+1, somebody you quoted when you mentioned the new totalitarian state, who is writing for the New Republic, these people are writing in New York magazine for the Cut. There is a line to be drawn between the thinking of all of these people and they are setting the terms of the conversation, and they are policing—and this is a kind of Orwellian “thought police”—they are policing what people can and cannot say. I don’t think these people are so powerless, that they are sort of fringe figures.

You are making it seem like they are people who are just on Twitter. But when I tell you that it was an Esquire editor who made a Halloween mask of my face: That person goes to his job and acts normal during the day. Some of these people are editors at the New Yorker. This is not people who aren’t setting the conversation. These people are setting the conversation. I work in a university and I see that there too. There are a very large number of people who are setting the conversation who really think, and they do believe, that someone like me who should be reviled from humanity and cast out, shouldn’t be allowed to write for a magazine. The mere mention of my name means I should be boycotted or fired. There is a Stalinist element to that, I have to say. It’s a lack of belief in freedom of expression.

OK, if you are fired for this, that would be different. New York magazine also has Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Chait, who are two of the most prominent writers in America, and two of the biggest opponents of political correctness. You mentioned Masha Gessen at the New Yorker. I don’t want to defend Dayna Tortorici’s tweet about people’s jobs not being prison, so it’s OK if they lose their jobs wrongly. But the reason this all started is that you were working on a piece for Harper’s. There was a story in the New York Times that essentially said you were going to out the creator of the list.

That’s not exactly what happened, actually.

OK, please tell.

The New York Times did not say that I was about to out her. The fury started before the New York Times wrote anything at all.

What I said to the New York Times was at that point that people were going bananas on Twitter, I did not know for certain that Moira Donegan was the creator of the Shitty Men in Media List, which I did not at that time know. People thought I was sitting around thinking a lot about Moira Donegan, and how I could ruin her life, and that was the general fantasy. The fact that she created the list was so unimportant to my piece, and really not anything I was at all focused on. Because it just didn’t matter to me. What I was really interested in Moira Donegan was about her Twitter, and about the tenor of her Twitter, and sort of bloodlust and out-of-control rage. I quote a line where she talks about breaking a glass, this penis-shaped shot glass, don’t even ask, and she said “It felt good to destroy something a white man loved.” Something like that—I am paraphrasing.

It was sort of the bloodlust in her tweets I was interested in, not the fact that she was creating the list. I actually reached out to her because somebody at Harper’s said, “Why are you quoting this random person on Twitter?” I had heard the rumor that she created the list, and I first tried to reach out to her and she wouldn’t talk to me, so then I asked a fact-checker to reach out to her.

And the fact-checker may have written a bit aggressively. She also wrote to the journalist friend you were quoting earlier, telling her that I was “naming” her in the piece. She used the word “naming.” And the journalist friend, who was anonymous in the piece, was a little taken aback also, even though I wasn’t at all naming at her. It was a little overzealous on the fact-checker’s part. I thought that when the fact-checker reached out to Moira—I had many reasons to believe that Moira might want to claim responsibility for the list. There were signs and signals from the universe that it felt to me like Moira might even be comfortable with saying, “I’m not the creator of the list. I am not going to say whether I am the creator. But I am OK with you saying I am widely rumored to be the creator of the list.” There were a whole range of ways she [could have answered] that fact-checker. And I actually hadn’t heard back from the fact-checker when the whole fury erupted.

Just to get that on the record: The email that the fact-checker sent to Moira reads, “Katie identifies you as a woman widely believed to be one of the creators of the Shitty Men in Media List. Were you involved in creating the list? If not, how would you respond to this allegation?” That’s not accurate?

Well no, it’s just—I would have written something different if I were the fact-checker. I would have said, first of all, “Are you the creator of the list, and are you comfortable with this language?” I wasn’t planning to name her or out her. I was trying to see if she would take responsibility for the list. Some people had offered the idea to me that the alt-right might go after her if she were connected to the list. I obviously didn’t even know if she was the creator of the list. I did not think it was likely that someone from the alt-right would care about the Media Men, but I also wouldn’t have taken that risk. That just seemed to me that if there was even the slightest chance that someone from the alt-right would go burn down her house, I would not have gotten involved in that obviously. But I did feel, and I guess there were a bunch of reasons why, that she did want to claim responsibility for the list, and certain people around her were kind of hinting that she was the creator of the list, in a way that made me think she might have been about to claim responsibility for the list. It was really a testing the waters thing, not a “I was going to name her.”

I’m just a little confused. So depending how she responded, the piece would take on a different tone? If she denied it, you weren’t going to name her?

Obviously if she said, “I am not the creator of the list,” I would never have put it in the piece. If she said, “I’m not comfortable with being called the creator of the list,” I would not have put it in the piece. The only way I was going to put it in the piece was if she said, “I am the creator of the list,” or, “I am OK with the language” which wasn’t that she was the creator of the list, it just said “widely believed to be.” As I say, I hadn’t heard back. To be honest with you, I wasn’t interested in Moira—it wasn’t important to me that Moira was the creator of the list. It was one of a thousand million tiny things. And it made no difference to the piece at all that she be identified that way. It wasn’t something that I would have pursued.

You talked about the reaction this piece elicited before it came out, which was people saying maybe other people shouldn’t write for Harper’s and so on. I saw your CBS interview, and you said that this was people not being able to handle differing opinions about things anymore. Is that a fair summary?

Somebody offered to pay people to withdraw their articles. Then people said the fact that you would even have a piece by Katie Roiphe is a sign that we need to boycott Harper’s Magazine. Just sort of a whisper of my name. And you probably saw—this isn’t about reading my piece or everyone has to agree with my ideas. I am not a big believer in Kumbaya sisterhood, let’s hold hands. What shocked me was the suggestion, the hint of a suggestion, that there should be a list of people where we are forbidden from hearing anything that they say. This has historically been true of me. Gawker ran a piece called “Shut Up Katie Roiphe.” Don’t even speak, we don’t want to hear what you have to say.

I don’t think it was all about outing Moira. I think it was also about my name being attached to it, and people have associations with my work and what it is going to be. It is really a combination of those things. That desire to have me not speak, which I felt very strongly and viscerally, and it really was like having a mob outside your house with torches. It felt like that. I am sure you have felt a little of that with political stuff. And because it is increasingly part of our political language—both on the left and the right—the way that feminists are behaving, I can’t help thinking we should be better than Trump supporters, and more tolerant of different points of view. And these are really complicated questions: Things like sexual harassment, what constitutes an abuse of power, and there are just going to be disagreements between honorable and right-thinking people.

A lot of the critiques of your article before it came out were that it would out Moira Donegan, not that you were saying things people disagree with.

I don’t believe that’s all that fury was about. I think there were a lot of elements to it and that was the excuse. If we think about the Dreyfus Affair, or something, there is always, like, an excuse, a little thing that the anger is hinging on. But I think the anger was bigger than that.

Maybe we have hit the nub of our disagreement by comparing this to the Dreyfus Affair. It feels like the stakes are lower, but to follow-up on what you said, clearly people should be open to differing viewpoints, and people on the left should be better than Trump supporters.

You say clearly, but that is not clear to a lot of people.