thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Fighting Clean: xoJane and Its Discontents

In reproductive health on October 30, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Sarah Todd

Fighting can be great. To me, a thoughtful debate between well-matched opponents is far more productive and engaging than a lecture by even the most knowledgeable of speakers. I’d rather hear Hamilton and Jefferson go head-to-head, and sort out what I think for myself in the process, than hear either one of them give a monologue. In this example, I guess I’m assuming that either I live in colonial America or time travel has been invented. I’ve been singing 1776 to myself a lot lately.

In a good fight, people have to reason their way through their positions, reflect on their assumptions, respond to the arguments of their opponents, and perhaps adjust their views to incorporate new information. It’s argumentative writing 101, as all the comp instructors out there can attest (holler!). Unfortunately, the internet hasn’t figured out how to fight too well just yet.

Of course, there are plenty of people who keep online conversations respectful and constructive, and far more exciting dialogues happening in various corners of the web than I’ll ever begin to know about. But I do think that the whiz-bang pace of the internet often seems to lend itself to snap judgments and low blows.

If someone writes a controversial article online, within seconds commentators will be weighing in. Within minutes or hours, other online journalists and bloggers will have filed responses. Any post that addresses a hot-button issue will have a rapid pile-on effect. And since tight deadlines don’t tend to correspond with a ton of time for introspection and reflection, the internet often ends up fighting dirty.

Which brings me to the matter of Cat Marnell, xoJane’s divisive beauty and health editor (health critic?). A couple weeks ago, Marnell published an article on birth control options called, “Get It Together, Girls: Every Pharmacy in New York is Out of Plan B! Every One!” I’m not going to delve too deeply into the article itself here, because I want to focus more on the discussion surrounding it. But basically, Marnell offers—in her trademark manic, conflicted, darkly flippant style—a rundown of the various birth control options available to women, admonishing herself for her own irresponsibility and dismissing many of the options without much substantial discussion. Sample quote:

2) Birth control pills. NO. They will make me fat; they will make me “spot” (another thing I squeamishly just DON’T LIKE TALKING ABOUT; don’t worry, though, everyone else who works here does); they will give me acne; and quite frankly, they will NOT prevent me from getting pregnant! I know this because IT HAPPENED TO ME™.
No, I didn’t take my pills right; I forget things like this unless they are FUN pills, or what I BELIEVE, delusionally, to be a “fun” pill at the time; anyway, the point is, unless a pill gets me speedy or doped up as all hell I will NOT remember to take it, and then I will get pregnant! I JUST WILL. (IHTM™.)

So: this article is not so much with the scientific, fact-based, helpful birth control information and advice. However, Marnell definitely doesn’t claim to be coming from an authoritative standpoint either. All of the reasons she lists for using or not using certain birth control methods are based on personal experience and preferences; there’s lots of trailing off whenever the article confronts apparent gaps in logic; she vouches to do a better job of using protection in the future and admonishes herself repeatedly:

Plan B is a pill you can take within 72 hours of having sex and stupidly letting your man ejaculate inside of you. Why are we still doing this? Maybe you’re not. But I AM. WHY, CAT, WHY? You are SO DUMB.

Immediately after Marnell wrote the post, the internet—or, more specifically, the corners of the internet particularly interested in talking about women’s issues and/or reproductive health and rights—exploded a bit. At last count, the post itself had 912 comments—some of them expressing appreciation for the post’s honesty, some condemning its irresponsibility. Numerous websites, including Feministe, The Frisky, The Gloss, The Scientific American blog, and more, responded to censure the post’s reckless portrait of birth control options. Some of these comments and blog posts were balanced and thoughtful and made great rebuttals to Marnell’s article. But too often, things got personal.

A running theme in online responses to the post has been that Marnell must be dumb, or stupid, or an idiot, or any related synonym, to write such an article. She was called, in various quarters, “stupid and dangerous to women,” “ignorant and irresponsible,” and “a reckless idiot” who “writes like a crazy, ditzy person who is still drunk from the night before.”

Marnell isn’t dumb, and diminishing her intelligence is clearly a low blow. But moreover, it’s not productive to call anyone dumb, and especially not when most of the people engaged in the debate identify as socially-conscious individuals who are invested in making sure that women’s voices get heard.

Calling Marnell stupid effectively attempts to silence and dismiss anything else she might ever write or say. It shuts down any real possibility of a good fight or dialogue, because if Marnell is stupid then nothing she has to say is worth hearing. Some of the people who objected to the piece might not have a big problem with never hearing from Marnell again. But a reasoned, point-by-point takedown of the information in the piece, versus calling her dumb, is far more useful to the world at large, and most likely to xojane and Marnell herself as well.

The other problematic trend in non-insane responses to Marnell’s post (I’m discounting the trolls) has been expressions of concern for her health and well-being. This concern may well be coming from a good place—there are many, many risks that go along with not practicing safe sex. But concern is a weird thing on the internet. Lots of confessional writers disclose information about their personal lives that could easily give people cause to worry for their health and happiness. But it’s also still writing, which isn’t the same thing as actually knowing the writer—even if it feels like we do. So even well-intentioned expressions of concern can seem misplaced or condescending. And the less well-intentioned offers of concern seem like just another way of trying to take away Marnell’s right to be heard by basically declaring her incapable of self-care.

As a widely-read publication with an unintended but nonetheless very much present teenage audience, xojane certainly ought to have a sense of responsibility to its readers. Even if the editors wanted to preserve Cat’s perspective, they could have added inserts disagreeing with key points or offering links to websites where readers could find helpful, factual information. (Jane Pratt has actually done this in other posts by Marnell, politely voicing her dissent from Marnell’s recommendations for, say, Botox for all. So it seems like including some editorial perspective would have been easy enough to accomplish, particularly for such an important issue as birth control.) But criticizing Marnell’s intelligence or disingenuously worrying about her physical and mental health only brings the level of debate down. Good online fights should be about the post–not the person.

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  1. […] wouldn’t be an easy fit. Her article on practicing unsafe sex was met (understandably) with protests throughout the feminist blogosphere. Another post on losing weight through a juice cleanse drew […]

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