Sheesh, There's a Reason Women Are 'Totally Crushing It' at the Confessional Essay 


It’s not a good reason, either!

Today—and I apologize for the content of this sentence—reliable media rabble-rouser and former Gawker features editor Leah Finnegan put up a post on Genius, in which she reprinted the pitch email sent out by former New York Observer editor Aaron Gell about his new pop-up blog at New York Magazine, a six-week project called Beta Male. Gell describes Beta Male as “something like The Cut”—NYMag’s successful women’s site—“but for men,” and his description…

Think of a typical men’s site, then imagine if it were truly comfortable in its own skin; if it dropped all the incessant backslapping, quit performing maleness and instead gently probed and interrogated it; if it dared to acknowledge that “what it means to be a man” is actually a wide-open question with a range of answers; if it quit overcompensating. In short, if it grew a pair.

…evokes, to me, something fairly close to what my colleagues at Deadspin have been doing with their own successful subsite, Adequate Man. There’s a large market for this! Vulnerable masculinity is in. Esquire slideshows about whiskey stones are out. Or something.

Gell is looking for “personal essays, oddball profiles, trend pieces, reported features, rants, quick counterintuitive takes, stunt pieces, and left-field stories you never thought an editor would actually hire you to write.” Emphasis on that first category, and emphasis in this quote mine:

One further note: Among the many areas in which women are just totally crushing it lately (sheesh, women!) is the confessional essay. We would like to demonstrate that men can be introspective and self-aware, too. So by all means, whatever you pitch me, try to include a personal essay idea or two. These can be about sex and relationships, family, work, friendships, race, art, beauty, obsession, the body, war, childhood celebrity crushes, parenthood, butt play and/or shoes.

Well, sheesh, women! When it comes to gut-wrenching confessions of a deeply personal nature, you have this shit locked down!

There is an obvious reason for this that has nothing to do with whether or not there are outlets available for men to confess things about their personal lives online. At the end of 2014, I wrote about the “women’s essay,” which has been a daily focus of mine in my last three years as an editor for women’s sites; the genre, to me—a method of directly commodifying personal experience—has always seemed like an attempt to spin gold out of shit and straw.

By shit and straw, I mean the material conditions that have surrounded women’s publications, which are rarely able to fund the type of reporting or coddle the voicey analytical thinkers that define both men’s publications and ostensibly gender-neutral mainstream ones. (The first things I ever wrote on the internet were personal essays, because I was broke and the financial barrier to entry was nonexistent, and because I was a totally inexperienced writer who was willing to write for free.)

And I also mean the material conditions that have determined women’s lives—in which your gender was expected for almost all of history to shut up and get penetrated and have babies and stay at home, in which all of the other factors that give people something interesting to write about (because, unless you are a genius, you can’t write a personal essay about basic comfort or stasis and expect anyone to read it) are compounded, and the problems auto-delivered to you by your gender are multiplied by other factors of economics and orientation and race.

So the online confessional personal essay remains one of the only counterexamples to the truism that a Men’s Thing is just a Thing. This thing, the personal essay, is a women’s thing by default; personal writing is dominated by women because, as I wrote in 2014, women were confined to this situation, and so women’s writing will be the business of inward meditation as long as it’s still risky for women to walk around alone. This particular online personal essay explains it. And as we are now in a cultural moment where people are—thankfully—interested in learning about social structures and what life is like for people who have suffered greater hardships, we have, to mixed effect, progressed on the personal essay front from “A Room of One’s Own” into sort of “A Room of One’s Own, Wallpapered With Identity and the Particular Difficult Things It Brings.”

And identity does bring things of particular, fascinating, important difficulty. I edit a lot of these essays and think they can be wonderful, when the perspective is rare and the writing has craft: take this recent one by Melissa Valentine, a black writer who lost a brother to gun violence, for one example among a hundred.

But the fact that identity and hardship are the foundation of the online personal essay genre works both for better and for worse. And the better the tie between that identity and material privilege, the worse the idea of hardship tends to fit. And when that hardship is seen as trivial (XOJane’s infamous “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina”) or distasteful to people (take our essay by Natasha Rose Chenier about a brief, incestuous relationship she had with her father), people will click—maybe—and they’ll also hate it. That makes it a risky proposition to simply say, “Let’s get a lot of writing out there about the hard issues that come with particular identities—by men!”

What is emerging as a particular (white) male hardship stemming from identity, however, is the hardship of privilege, via the encroachment of political correctness, itself. And let me say, I have remained a loyal participant in the online personal essay genre because I believe in it. I am glad Aaron Gell wants to engage in this particular quest; some of my favorite first-person writers are, and I’m not being sarcastic, men. But on the internet in particular, the personal essay waters are treacherous, as is the process of trying to do something like, Hey, we noticed you built some great-looking houses in this crap-ass neighborhood we put you in, and we’d like to start building those kinds of houses in our own, historically nicer neighborhood, too. The perspective of the 2016 (usually white, usually straight) “beta male” is only so appealing on an internet that has made much of its living off of identity politics. Be careful, or you’ll end up either with Chris Jones wanting women to fuck better, or else a surfeit of wokeness: “I Feel Bad About My Dick.

Image via Getty

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