It’s been hard out there for unhappy white guys on the internet this week. Paul Ryan took some pictures and found himself instantly (hilariously) photoshopped onto the cover of Atlas Shrugged. Buzz Bissinger complained that he was “savaged” by fans and fellow journalists for endorsing Mitt Romney, and ended up throwing obscenities at Nation Institute Fellow Jamelle Bouie on Twitter and declaring, “Nobody comes close to what I write.” (Hey, sure, I shall begin icing that on a cookie immediately.) Men on reddit who take upskirt shots of—among other women in their general vicinity—the students in the high school classes they teach, are having their real identities outed.
Then there was the rather inside-baseball story of New York Times Magazine freelancer Andrew Goldman. Over the weekend, he published an interview in which he asked Tippi Hedren about her sexual harassment at the hands of Alfred Hitchcock, the subject of a new HBO movie: “The worst abuse happened after you rebuffed his advances. Actors have been known to sleep with less powerful directors for advancement in show business. Did you ever consider it?” The popular novelist Jennifer Weiner got annoyed, and tweeted, “Saturday am. Iced coffee. NYT mag. See which actress Andrew Goldman has accused of sleeping her way to the top. #traditionsicoulddowithout.”
I can’t say that Goldman’s question bothered me, particularly, as someone with a reputation for detecting sexism in every compost heap I come across. It’s a bit of a fine point; I’m not wild about characterizing these questions as great journalism, but I can’t say I want to forbid any reporter from asking about sex. But put that question in the mouth of an interviewer whose opening gambit on Hitchcock’s harassment is, “Why would he do these things?” (This is not one of the Great Mysteries of Our Time, as Hedren’s response acknowledges: “He was a misogynist.") Add in Goldman’s history of asking other women similar questions, and where he asks sexual questions of men, leaving out the subject of ladder-climbing altogether. Weiner’s point is suddenly clearer.
Anyway, for nothing else Goldman should be thanked for releasing us all from the dreary business of parsing this further by overreacting. His riposte: “@jenniferweiner sensing pattern. Little Freud in me thinks you would have liked at least to have had opportunity to sleep way to top.”
Leaving aside the question of the nature of anyone’s “Little Freud” (ew), the implication that Weiner’s problem lay chiefly in her attractiveness brought down swift condemnation from nearly every female journalist at hand. (Plus it didn’t much help his case that his question to Hedren was well-meaning.) The Times’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, got involved, and though she hadn’t the power to simply quit assigning work to Goldman, you got the impression she wished the magazine’s editor-in-chief would. “Can you believe we’re talking about this in 2012?” she asked.
I certainly can, and Sullivan can too, I’d wager. Sometimes rhetoric belies frustration. Spend any amount of time with a ruling class and you learn that they exist in a bubble. They say the most remarkably clueless things behind closed doors. It’s all very Upstairs Downstairs. Anyone who dares to come along and ruin the mood, let a little bit of reality in, is met with rending of clothing and wailing to wake the dead. (The Internet has a word for this too: the waaaahmbulance.)
One of the more annoying conventions in recent journalism is to philosophize on the way that social media is changing us—it’s making us lonely, it’s ruining literary culture—as though it would have an effect in only one direction, and we aren’t at least thirty years from gauging what it might be. But as tempests-in-teapots like these illustrate, Twitter does have a talent for getting pithy righteous criticism under the skin of the powerful.
Squirm uncomfortably they did, after all, this week. A certain variety of male journalist was terribly bothered by the prospect of having to think before you ask: several of them took to Twitter to express confusion and frustration. One even poured his heart out in a 2000+ word essay about all the reasons he and Goldman weren’t misogynists, although the cited evidence that he’d been called that on any real scale was dubious at best. And even he couldn’t muster a defense of the Goldman Tweet.
Though I speak only for myself, I don’t know if these men are “misogynists.” I certainly doubt they shriek and run at the sight of breasts per se. The problem is their fear of getting called out for doing anything that might be characterized as even vaguely sexist. That’s when they cut anchor and boot it, screaming the whole way about the injustice of it all. As Irin Carmon of Salon asked on (where else) Twitter: “The real question is, why are men so freaking sensitive?” What intelligent, not-sexist, not-misogynist, not-oversensitive adult people do when confronted with criticism is suck it up, consider it and reply with mature reflection. This is, apparently, too much to ask. For them, sexism is not a measure of disadvantage; it’s a personal character flaw. And one from which, by the by, they are more than happy to exempt themselves.