The perils of being a female blogger
When you Google the phrase "Where are all the women?" the top articles proffered deal with the disparity of women in high-paying career and entertainment industries. Right off the bat, Google links to evidence of low female representation in tech and science careers, Supreme Court clerkships, and Formula 1 race-car driving.
The blogosphere is one arena where women exist in accord with their actual numbers. From mommydom and relationships to food and shopping, women are out in virtual droves, blogging and commenting with zeal. However, it's in the professional blogging sphere that the "where are all the women?" question continues to pop up. In a Law.com article from October 2008 titled "Where Are All the Female Law Bloggers?" C.C. Holland offers three theories positing the dearth of lady law bloggers. Two theories blame the gap on the general invisibility of women in the media, but it's Holland's third theory – "women are more prone to professional or personal attack, so they avoid blogging" – that inspired Rebecca Fox, managing editor of MediaBistro.com, to propose a Core Conversation to mediate at this year's South by Southwest Interactive Festival. Fox and former Huffington Post media columnist Rachel Sklar, who currently writes for The Daily Beast and works for media strategy/consulting firm Abrams Research Network, will lead a town-hall-style debate concerning women lampooned in the blogosphere, asking festivalgoers the question, "Why is professional blogging blood sport for women?"
"Over the past several years, I've observed many of my professional peers – ambitious, accomplished women – getting criticized in an increasingly aggressive way for what they write online," Fox explains via e-mail. "These women would often get taken down for things having little to do with what they'd originally blogged about. There would be potshots about their physical appearances; there would be criticism of things they did in their personal, or offline, lives."
Fox, who's been a working journalist for more than 10 years, admits to having had her own brushes with adversity and criticism due to her gender. None to the point, however, where she has been coerced into resigning a blogging position – not like Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan.
In 2007, Marcotte and McEwan were hired to blog for John Edwards' presidential campaign after being recognized for their successful personal blogs, Pandagon and Shakespeare's Sister, respectively. Instantly, both women were bombarded with vitriolic comments on their professional and personal blogs. The attack crusade, which eventually led Marcotte and McEwan to quit their jobs, was helmed by the Catholic League's Bill Donohue, who condemned the bloggers for alleged Catholic bigotry, largely taking posts out of context. In a Salon piece written by Marcotte (who lives in Austin), she claims it was her and McEwan's overt feminism and gender that primarily invoked the attacks and threats from Donohue and others; many e-mails addressed their gender and informed them how to become more pleasant women – by shutting the hell up. And eventually, they did – at least, in a professional capacity for Edwards' campaign.
"With respect to women," says Fox, "keeping your mouth shut has long been tantamount to being 'good,' and the virgin/whore complex is alive and well both online and off."
Another writer whose personal blogging brought down her professional blogging career is Emily Gould, whose story has been hyped far beyond the blogosphere. After one year, Gould resigned from her editor position at Gawker due to constant, overwhelmingly negative feedback on her Gawker blog posts. Similar to Marcotte and McEwan, once Gould had a more public presence online, the bashing commenters slammed her not only for her Gawker posts but also – more so, even – for the intimate personal details she revealed on her personal blogs. In May 2008, Gould detailed the saga in a lengthy New York Times Magazine cover story. The piece elicited more than a thousand vitriolic comments on the Times' website, many dealing not with the substance of Gould's article but on her cover image, on her youth, on her gender.
"It bothered me that evaluating these professionals on the basis of their personal lives was increasingly considered fair game," Fox says. "I started to think of it as being dangerous to be a female blogger with a strong voice if you weren't braced for attacks of this nature. ... I noticed that male bloggers who wrote provocatively and emphatically, and who flouted boundaries with their online writing, appeared to attract less flak for it."
Sklar herself has criticized Gould's Times cover story on The Huffington Post for its insignificance, but she acknowledges that much of Gould's criticism was gender-based.
"Women are girlified way more than men, but to be fair, Emily was young when that article came out – 25 – and it openly portrayed her vulnerability as a neophyte in a new situation," Sklar writes via e-mail. "A similar article was released – Josh Stein wrote the he-said version of that story for the New York Post. ... The difference in the reaction was extraordinary."
The stud/slut dichotomy of men and women that exists throughout all threads of media thrives on the Web. There are endless examples of female bloggers coming under the knife for being bitches or media whores, while male bloggers' gender is either ignored or heralded.
"When he was at Gawker, blogger Alex Balk wrote in the character of 'My Cock' for more than a year and still blogs about his affinity for blow jobs, yet he's like the Teflon man when it comes to how the blogosphere collectively regards his writing," Fox says.
Fox invited Sklar to co-mediate the Core Conversation, in part due to Sklar's experience as a media critic who frequently addresses issues of gender portrayal and perception in her writing but also due to Sklar's personal experience of gender-based online criticism. Sklar has herself received ample backlash (i.e., gender-based slurs) for her writings on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and the sexism involved within.
At SXSW, Fox and Sklar intend to discuss the adversity professional female bloggers face, but they also plan to touch on the origin of online backlash: personal blogging.
"Putting yourself out there about personal moments, especially controversial – making the decision to have an abortion, documenting a bruising experience in a relationship – when you put these kinds of internal monologues online, they become dialogues, and often people think they have the right to say whatever they want about it," Sklar says. "And hey, you put it online, so they pretty much do. But it's the responses to these discussions that are interesting. Experiences that are particular to women are usually marginalized as such, and there's an implicit dismissal of that from the larger conversation."
Everything I Needed to Know About the Web I Learned From Feminism
Saturday, March 14, 3:30-4:30pm, Room 9
That's Not My Name: Beating Down Online Misogyny
Sunday, March 15, 10-11am, Room 8
Are Women Taken More Seriously on the Web?
Monday, March 16, 11:30am-12:30pm, Room C