Female Friendships and Online Literary Sexism


I read Kim Brooks’s recent essay in New York Magazine“I’m Having A Friendship Affair,” describing her despair at the death of one of her female friendships, just days after one of my closest friends, let’s call her Hannah, stopped speaking to me. After three years of very close friendship, then a sudden two months of unexplained icy silence, when I pressed Hannah on what she was feeling, she flatly informed me that she was ending our friendship. Her exact words were, “I have a need for friendship, but I can get that need met elsewhere,” which I remember specifically because it seemed to me a bizarre and barely-human way to say it, cut off from our norm of easy communication and warmth.

Brooks’s piece, subtitled, “Intensely obsessive, deeply meaningful, occasionally undermining, marriage-threatening, slightly pathological platonic intimacy that can happen between women,” circulated among hundreds of female friend circles throughout the country—I received it from several different clusters of women. She touched on something alive, beating, though little-discussed and explored, and women quickly forwarded it to their friends, mothers, sisters, daughters, as they related to the descriptions of the intensity of female friendships and the devastation of their demise.

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I wanted to write a response piece, to prod and untangle my own feelings surrounding my first experience of friendship sudden death, and try to explore, anthropologically, what is at work when intelligent, emotionally literate women form close partner-like friendships, and what happens when they end.

Then I read the comments:

Cry me a river…Now put on you big girl panties and look after those kids you just had to have.

Borderline personality disorder.

well that answered my question, “what would lena dunham be like if no one cared about what she had to say?”

The writer is deranged, as is her “friend.” This is mental illness.

Sounds like rich white lady worries/problems.  Get a grip and start acting like an adult.  Your husband must be a saint.

@7Mary4 I’m sure he has a girl on the side.

Some of the comments offered support, constructive criticism, and helpful feedback, but a larger percentage were like the above—mean, cutting, breaking the cardinal rule of writing workshops everywhere: critique the piece, not the writer. I know the Internet is not a workshop. And I know people use comment sections of articles and videos to air the most hateful, bigoted material they can. But the comments illuminated glaringly what so many women writers already know: that women are often viciously insulted and shamed for writing about their personal lives, much more than their male counterparts; it’s part of the sexism that lingers in the literary world as it does in the world at large.

The message is: Stay in your place. We’ll decide what’s important or not, what’s whiny or valid. In the female-dominated industry of the personal essay, the ferocity of the attacks, by both women and men, are an attempt to police what women say, to silence or scare or shame women who want to write and share their stories.

Latoya Peterson, Fusion’s Editor-at-Large, told the Guardian,

Men write these kinds of pieces all the time. They just aren’t seen in the same, marginalizing light. A man writing about his drug addiction or squandered nights in sweaty sheets is just considered normal. Interesting. Literary. Tom Chiarella wrote about being sexually abused by a teacher for Esquire—but the piece wasn’t framed as a gross-out confessional piece. It was given the consideration it deserved. For some reason, the lives of men are inherently more serious affairs than the lives of women.

In the same Guardian piece, which interviewed several editors at publications that publish personal essays, Emily McCombs, former Executive Editor of xoJane, said,

I can’t tell you how often I have encountered the attitude that because these stories are about women’s lives, they are somehow superficial, silly, or unimportant. Women’s lives—our stories—are not unimportant. They often reflect the feminist maxim that the personal is political… The whole language of “oversharing”, “TMI”, and “confessional blogging” is condescending and dismissive. Nobody uses that kind of language when men write memoir.

Consider Angela’s Ashes, This Boy’s Life, Another Bullshit Night in Suck CityRunning with Scissors—these memoirs weren’t disregarded as trifling and navel-gazing the way analogous women-authored memoirs are. Plumbing emotional depths has long been considered women’s work. But psychoanalysis, the granddaddy of this type of introspection, started with Freud and was primarily practiced, until very recently, by men. So why is first-person writing deemed as feminine, and therefore quaint and trifling, as knitting and embroidery?

image (2)BuzzFeed’s Ideas Editor, Doree Shafrir, feels it’s a misconception to say that first-person essays are mostly written by women, which she attributes to “the Internet’s democratization of voices—allowing writers, particularly women and writers of color, access to platforms and audiences previously unavailable to them, and the ability to tell their own stories—has led to anxiety among some gatekeepers of culture.” In other words, men and women write the same amount of personal material, we’re just seeing more of it from women because it’s being published now that online outlets have started leveling the playing field.

Last year Jessa Crispin’s piece, “How Not to be Elizabeth Gilbert,” published in The Boston Review, got a lot of airtime. In it, she goes after Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed for falling back on familiar female tropes of introspection rather than focusing on outward adventures. She considers their work “not so much transgressive as regressive,” and writes, “We still look to men to tell us about what they do and to women to tell us how they feel.” The piece is somewhat baseless because it attacked these women for not being what she considers to be good travel writers, when their books are memoirs, place-based, sure, but memoirs at their core; their point was to explore how they felt—their surroundings only bolstered their inner journeys. Also, there are countless men who introspect and myriad women who write about things other than the self and relationships.

Crispin concludes, “Our gender can become a quick marketing hook, a way to move our work away from the towering male influence. But it also sequesters us. If I couldn’t be Chatwin or Gilbert, who could I be?” This seems like a gratuitous question based on a false dichotomy. When she posits, “Any travel writer who deviates from gender-defined roles risks being overlooked,” perhaps it’s naïve, but I want to answer, Write a book so good it can’t be ignored, so universally true its genderless. The same goes for female personal essayists; if we examine ourselves and our work adequately, we’ll teach our readers something about themselves, what it means to be human in this world, and people will want to read it, whether authored by a man or a woman or a non-gender-conforming person.

As an essayist who often writes from personal experience and who’s working on a memoir, I believe deeply it is a feminist act for women to tell their stories. But I, too, am guilty of rolling my eyes or skipping the page when I see a female-authored story about an eating disorder, one’s relationship to her body and beauty, or abortion, decidedly feminine topics. Yes, these topics are written about all the time, but so are love, betrayal, jealousy, family, and I don’t glaze over at these. Why? Sexism or realism? Misogyny or objectivity? Propriety or prisoning?

I divide my professional writing time between personal essays and journalism, and, when working on a personal essay, I ask myself constantly if what I’m writing about merits the energy and time I put into it. Compared with the Syrian refugee crisis, climate change, continuing famine and genocide, the issues I face in my personal life pale in significance and severity. I often abandon personal pieces in order to report on people who and projects that are working to make the world a more just and kind place to live. But am I valuing the more typically male domain of outside world and influence over the more typically female one of interiority and self-reflection? On one hand, human suffering is universal, whether inflicted by drought, famine, or divorce.

On the other hand, please.

My life is among the .2% most comfortable on the planet. I’m white and educated, raised in a loving middle/upper-class family. As a woman and a Jew I know a tiny bit about what it feels like to be marginalized, but not much. I am incredibly grateful for the privilege I have, and I try everyday to use it to help people who haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had. I do not believe that being privileged means that what I think and feel don’t matter, or that I have no right to explore the things that are important to me. I can already anticipate the comments this piece might get about how privileged and navel-gazing and unnecessary it is. I’m sure some of them will make valid points. That’s fair. But so are self-expression and self-exploration, as long as they don’t preclude other work.

My hope is that we can each do the work we are called to do without disparaging others or feeling the need to gender it. It’s infuriating when female comics and actors are asked, for the hundredth time, “Are women funny?” or “Is it a good time to be a woman in Hollywood?” instead of substantive questions about their craft and practice. No one asks men if it’s a good time to be male in Hollywood, or a male writer, or comic, or CEO, or astronaut, because it’s assumed they’re already in their rightful place.

I was disappointed that, despite campaigns like Ask Her More, the women on the red carpet at this year’s Golden Globe Awards were still asked who designed their dresses and jewelry while their male co-stars were asked questions about their thoughts and careers. Men were congratulated on roles, women for being beautiful.

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I had a good image for my erstwhile essay about female friendship. There was a plant in my living room that was old and unwieldy, and during the months Hannah stopped speaking to me circles of white mold bloomed on its leaves and traveled down its stem. Soon the leaves browned and shriveled. Day by day, as Hannah maintained her withholding silence, leaves fell to the floor, and day by day I threw them into the front yard. Eventually, the plant was little more than a thick moldy stem. I was relieved when it died. Like our friendship, it had gotten too big for the pot it was planted in, and would have taken more time and energy than either of us were prepared to invest to restore its health.

The day Hannah told me she was no longer my friend, I took the big ceramic pot out of the house and dumped its contents in my backyard. It was a good metaphor, and it could have been a good essay. I would have liked to discover more about what I thought and felt and knew about Hannah, and me, and intimate female friendship. But like the actors in Hollywood who have to defend their place on the carpet for the fiftieth time, I wrote this instead.


Image credits: image 1, image 2, image 3.

Gila Lyons' work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, Ploughshares, Tablet, The Forward, and other publications. She lives in Boston, where she teaches writing and is at work on a memoir. Links to her work can be found at gilalyons.com More from this author →