Come for Me, Katie Roiphe

By

Like the reanimated corpse of a horror movie monster, Katie Roiphe and her backlash feminism is back. On January 9, news broke on Twitter that Harper’s would be publishing a story by Roiphe about the woman behind a list known as the “Shitty Men in Media” list.

The list itself was just a spreadsheet, created by an anonymous woman five days after the Weinstein story broke. As the spreadsheet was shared, other women added names. It went viral, men saw it, got outraged, and eventually the list disappeared. The last I saw it, the list had the names of over eighty men in media and literature who were known to be at worst abusive toward women and at the very least inappropriate in the workplace. Many men on the list were open secrets, who had previously been outed or were later outed in news stories. Others were whispered warnings—the kind of currency of security that women offer one another in bathrooms, elevators, DMs, and group texts. Don’t go out to lunch with him. Don’t stay too long at the bar.

Often ridiculed as gossip, our whispers are our protections against a culture hell-bent on destroying us. We know what happens when women speak out—they are harassed. They lose their jobs. Their shame becomes the top Google search result.

I added three names to the list. Two men who had personally harassed me, and one a man I’d seen harass another woman.

The list made our whispers real, too real. It was a reckoning, but it couldn’t last.

Not in this media cycle. Not in this culture.

In his Theory of a Revolution, Crane Briton notes that for every revolution there is a counter revolution, for every thesis an antithesis. Backlash isn’t new to our Internet culture, but with Twitter and hot takes it does come for us a little faster.

On January 9, the editor of n+1 Dayna Tortorici tweeted that a legacy magazine was going to write an article about the woman behind the list. Her tweet was soon confirmed. Katie Roiphe would be writing about the list for Harper’s. It’s hard to imagine a justification for an article like this, beyond the momentary bump in traffic and magazine sales, and the fleeting thrill of Roiphe once again achieving relevancy.

At worst, the article would dox a woman, opening her up to the horrific torment of online trolls and harassers, exposing her to death threats. At best, it would be characteristic writing from Roiphe, who has built a brand on criticism of women, take-downs, and call-outs.

Roiphe made a name for herself in the mid-90s when she took aim at the “Take Back the Night” movement and what she termed “date rape hysteria,” a phenomenon she believed was taking over college campuses, in The Morning After: Fear, Sex, and Feminism. The book was turned into a media sensation by the New York Times, which, as Jennifer Gonnerman notes in her 1994 article for The Baffler, was tautological concoction. “By making Katie Roiphe the new celebrity feminist, the Times aimed to create the illusion of being on the cutting edge of sexual politics,” Gonnerman writes. She continues:

Its discovery and single-handed championing of this latest variety of feminism may have ostensibly served to “further debate,” but it actually did little more than prop up the Times‘ long-standing opposition to feminism’s more radical strains. Coming out of the mouth of a young, self-proclaimed feminist, the idea that date rape is the product of young women’s hysteria had legitimacy.

Over twenty years later, Gonnerman’s article simmers with relevancy. Contrarian takes are still the easy way into being cutting edge. And in the intervening years, Roiphe has made a career out of cannibalizing the media cycle by writing hot takes on matters ranging from the use of the word “vagina” to emojis. Meghan Daum once described such pieces as “comment bait.” But the stories seem a little more insidious in light of this recent assignment, almost as if Roiphe has become the woman who gets an assignment every couple of years to yell at feminists when men think they are being too shrill.

Roiphe is free to write about whatever she wants, but the stakes of this particular contrarian take are much higher than panning humorous uses of “vagina.” This isn’t about censorship; it’s about putting real women’s lives at risk.

The doxxing of the women behind Gamergate sent many women into hiding. It doesn’t take much for a woman on the Internet to get threatened. I once had to delete my entire Twitter feed after a tweet about Bernie Sanders went viral. Another time, an article I wrote elicited an angry letter filled with Bible verses, sent to my home address.

And none of my writing targeted high-level men.

One of the men on the “Shitty Men in Media” list was a former employee of Harper’s who left the company because of his abusive behavior. But the publication seems to have learned nothing, and in the commissioning of this article Harper’s has demonstrated the necessity of whisper networks. Because women don’t feel safe telling their stories. Because there will be a reprisal and doxxing. In one assignment, Harper’s manages to legitimize a backlash that justifies the very movement its pushing back against.

[The Rumpus’s founder was also named on the list. We fully acknowledge that, and we hope it is clear that our mission is to fight against all predatory behavior. In fact, the “Shitty Men in Media” men list was a catalyst for our series ENOUGH. – Ed.]

 

There is another problem with backlash feminism: in possibly outing one woman, Harper’s not only justifies the necessity of whisper networks, but it makes one woman a sacrificial lamb, a stand-in for so many of us. As Jessica Valenti tweeted, “The list was created by contributions from dozens of women and disseminated by even more. I was one of them. If someone comes for the woman who started the list, they better be ready to come for us all.”

If you ask me in person, I will tell you the names and experiences that were on the list, as a warning. But I’ll never write them. I can’t prove what the list says is true. All I have is my shame, a memory, and a name. And, I don’t want my entire career to be about what that one man did to me once.

I wrote those names in the list, like so many other women did, in the spirit of the moment—an offering on an alms plate filled with pain. I still have a copy of the list. I share it with anyone who asks. I proactively offer. The list has enacted change and inspired criticism and debate.

This isn’t about a list. It’s about a culture that forces us to rely on lists because the shame, reprisal, doxxing, and physical harm that happens when we dare to speak out against the pervasive abuse that exists all around us.

Harper’s still has a chance to pull the article, which is rumored to be the cover story for their March issue.

The response to the news was swift and strong, with writers like Roxane Gay and Valenti tweeting at Harper’s, asking them not to publish the story. Women are calling Harper’s, too, and emailing. Nicole Cliffe, co-founder of The Toast and a contributing writer for Elle, has led the charge against the venerable magazine, offering to compensate any writer who pulled their story from the magazine in response to the news of Roiphe’s piece. Ecco, a major advertiser with Harper’s, pulled an ad.

Roiphe hasn’t publicly commented on the article, but in a message to a Facebook group (seen in the Tweet by Jason Bailey below) Roiphe said, “Hi everyone. Looking forward to talking about what is actually in my piece when it actually comes out. In the meantime, let’s rise above the Twitter hysteria.”

A myopic comment, especially considering that Roiphe once used that same term to describe campus date rape, and that “hysteria” is a loaded and sexist term that has been used throughout history to silence women. Additionally, as Gabrielle Moss, Features Editor for Bustle pointed out, in 1993 Roiphe even argued that if campus rape did exist there would be more… wait for it… whisper networks.

My deepest hope, barring pulling the article entirely, is that, as Cliffe tweeted,

…Harper’s will run a very scaled-down version of the piece, claim it had never named names, and then Roiphe will write a piece about how I am actually the enemy of sisterhood and it will run in The American Conservative and be called The New Prudery.

Not because I want Nicole to suffer that backlash, but because it would be a small victory in a news cycle where women are allowed so few.

If you come for the woman behind the list, you do need to come for us all. Me and Nicole, too.

***

Update, 1/10/18, 11:10 p.m. ET: On Wednesday night, Moira Donegan wrote this piece for The Cut, and we applaud her and stand with her.

***

Feature image via Creative Commons.


Lyz Lenz is Managing Editor at The Rumpus. Lyz's writing has been published in the New York Times Motherlode, Jezebel, Aeon, Pacific Standard, and others. Her book on midwestern churches is forthcoming from Indiana University Press. She has her MFA from Lesley and skulks about on Twitter @lyzl. More from this author →