41: Michelle Dean

photos by Remi Riordan

Michelle Dean talks pithiness, women on the internet, complicating sisterhood, confidence, historical consciousness, and feminism's new frontier. 

Michelle Dean is a journalist, critic, and the author of Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, forthcoming from Grove Atlantic on April 10, 2018. [Preorder here.] A contributing editor at the New Republic, she has written for the New YorkerNationNew York Times MagazineSlateNew York MagazineElleHarper’s, and BuzzFeed. She is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s 2016 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, and lives in Los Angeles.

Remi Riordan is an 18  year old photographer, writer, and editor-in-chief of Crybaby Zine based out of Los Angeles, CA.  She is currently studying journalism and photography at the University of Southern California.

This interview was conducted over Skype by Sophia Richards on February 24, 2018. Remi photographed Michelle in her Los Angeles home.

SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.


MICHELLE: I grew up in Canada, where the signature form of girlhood was found in the L.M. Montgomery books. You're really brought up on them there. I know people read Anne of Green Gables here, but it's not quite the same. My vision of what it is to be a girl was to have a best friend, or a bosom friend, as Anne used to say, and then get involved with all sorts of unsuitable boys.


SOPHIA: [laughs]


MICHELLE: But that wasn't my experience. I was a bookworm and a little bit of an outcast. This connects to the book, too, in that I’m drawn to outsiders, like a lot of people are. I guess middle school  is what I associate with girlhood, which was awful for me. It’s funny, because I was pretty femme at that age. I had pin-ups all over my walls and stuff like that. But my relationships to other girls in real time were really bad. 


SOPHIA: Are those negative relationships with other girls an interesting thing to pursue?


MICHELLE: I really politically agree with the resurfacing and revaluation of girlhood that’s been happening recently, and trying to give a lot of credence and weight to that experience. But sometimes I feel like it excises all the ways that girls can attack each other. That’s why I really responded to the Melanie Laurent movie, Breathe, about two girls who become obsessed with each other, and then turn on each other. It was about a girlhood that I recognized, which is a lot about clawing about each other, as much as it was about positive girl friendships.

SOPHIA: Pursuing this idea of outsiderness: in an interview you did with Legal Nomads a long time ago, you said, “legal education left my worldview pretty much undisturbed, just helped me to organize it a little better,” and your transition to writing as “an effort to monetize the fact that I don’t seem to think like everyone else, which usually gets me more trouble than money.” 

Women's oppositional thinking getting them into trouble is, in a lot of ways, the theme of [your forthcoming book] Sharp. The book is dedicated to “everyone who’s been told you’re too smart for your own good.” Could you speak about how you began to think critically about the problem of negotiating intelligence in women's lives, and why you felt like it was necessary to write a book on the subject?


MICHELLE: In law school, it felt like people enjoyed my oppositional viewpoint. I don't want to sound like I think there's no sexism in the legal field, because there is. But I never encountered anything like the sexism I experienced when I began writing professionally. I was shocked by how much men would sometimes seem to overreact to my pieces. 

As an example, I wrote a review of a movie called The Spectacular Now, in which Shailene Woodley played this doormat girlfriend type that I felt like I really recognized from my own experience, and the experience of my friends dating in high school. Like, they were dating these mercurial guys and sort of took on a mom role with them. I wrote about that, and said something about how the film didn’t seem to comment on that; it was focused on the male subjectivity and not the female subjectivity. 

There was one guy in the media who said I was calling the movie misogynist, which honestly is a word that I try not to use. I try not to use it because I try to be more specific than simply calling things misogynist and not misogynist, or feminist and not feminist. But he continued to attack me on social media for like, a year, every time I would publish something. 

Finally I just had to block him. It was a relatively well-respected person, which is why I won't name him. But it's interesting, because that particular guy just illustrated to me this thing that I didn't understand. I don't think I said anything so crazy about the movie. I feel like if anybody watched the movie, they could see what I was talking about, which was that the female subjectivity was sort of subjugated to what the young man was doing. And while that subjugation was sort of required by the plot, it left some questions open about why Shailene Woodley’s character was the way she was, and why she was doing the things that she was doing. Somehow this had become really controversial —as if I were saying “Get the fuck out of the way” to all male filmmakers with young male protagonists— which is not was I was trying to say.

I use that as an example of the many scenarios where it felt like I would elicit a great deal of male anger that often seemed disproportionate to the rhetoric that I used in the first place. As I started to read more women journalists, I noticed that the same thing happened to them. The quintessential example of that is Joan Didion writing a pretty big takedown of Woody Allen in Manhattan, and getting some man who wrote back throwing all this stuff at her, asking why she’s criticizing Woody Allen because she’s nowhere on his level, and she just replied something like, “Oh, wow.”


[both laugh]

We are not going to get to a point where we’re all going to have tea and braid each other’s hair.

SOPHIA: In your introduction, you make the point that basically none of these women were satisfied by working as activists; they were all oppositional spirits who tended to dislike being grouped together. You clearly feel like these women's lives and work were valuable, but you also kind of position them antagonistically to what first comes to mind when one thinks of “work for the moral good,” which is activism, or collectivity of some sort. In your afterword, you emphasize your use of the word “sharp,” noting that sharpness cuts, and puts things into disrepair. It seems like you're suggesting that there's a productive possibility in what many feminists would see as fracture. Could you talk about that?


MICHELLE: I find it frustrating that for some reason, when we bring in the qualifier of “feminism,” people seem to forget that solidarity is actual work. They think that it's sort of just an allegiance attained by signing on the dotted line, after which you owe everybody something. I'm reluctant to even say we should “engage each other productively,” because that makes it sound like I want every meeting to be civil and operate according to certain rules of politeness, when I don’t think that. I often think of the women in Sharp as accidental feminists, in that it turns out that you don't actually need coordination and group-allegiance in order to have a feminist effect on the culture, and to open up spaces for people to speak. It is true that sharpness cuts people, and can be a little bit destructive, but I think that those moments of insight are sort of necessary. If we're going to use the term “sisterhood,” we need to remember that sisters betray each other. Sisters fight. Sisters sometimes become permanently estranged. Those concepts don't seem to work into people's ideas of sisterhood sometimes, with the demands that they're trying to make on each other in the name of sisterhood. They don't contain the notion that you could both be aligned with someone and still disagree with them. That ultimately, you could believe that their rights need to be protected, and still disagree with them. We are not going to get to a point where we're all going to have tea and braid each other's hair, but we do need to be able to tell each other, “I think what you're saying is wrong.” Sometimes that's going to be harsh; there's no other way to do it. I think gets at a point women of color are trying to make. There’s no nice way to say, “This is racist.” Especially because white people tend to overreact when they hear that word. So when demands are made on women of color to be nice, they end up in this impossible position where they can't say anything at all. I'd rather be in the position where we all take our slings and arrows, but as part of what it means to be in solidarity with each other. That’s what happens when we listen to each other, even when it’s not a pleasant experience.


SOPHIA: It occurred to me upon reading your chapters on Dorothy Parker and Rebecca West especially, that pithiness, like Parker calling her father a “shabby Prospero,” or critiquing blathering upper-class women with poems depicting “Any Porch,” may not provide today’s woman with the same kind of clout that she could've attained in a pre-internet era. Do you feel like women's opportunities for making sharpness matter are different now than they were in the mid-twentieth-century?


MICHELLE: Yes, they are. It would be wrong to pretend that women weren't in a better rhetorical position now than they were in the mid-twentieth-century. On the other hand, the internet also surfaced a lot of guys who in previous eras would've been relegated to their mother's basement for pretty much the rest of their lives, whose protest would've been limited to yelling at the TV. They're here, too. There’s Lindy West, for example, who poignantly covered the experience of this one troll who impersonated her dead father online.


SOPHIA: Holy shit.


MICHELLE: People have a new way to weaponize their contempt for women. It seems like there's some advance; it's just not usually what it's estimated to be, and it's not linear. So I do think that pithiness can still work. I think a Dorothy Parker quote cuts through the noise in a way that can still get you heard. A kind of distant, ironic, and also very intelligent voice that, even when men hated it and reacted badly, ended up outlasting the men who hated it.

In general, feminism has no sense of historical consciousness.

SOPHIA: There’s a lot of interaction with suffrage and various other women’s movements in this book —women’s attempts to live the lives they wanted to live, in societies which weren’t really prepared to accommodate them. When I speak to older women, they tend to stress the importance of younger generations of women actively recalling the work that was necessary to achieve the freedoms we now have. In your acknowledgements section, you seem to note this in a way, writing “We're all stuck with each other and stuck with the history of those who have preceded us. You can make your own way, but you always do it in the streams and eddies forded by others.” Did writing and researching Sharp change the way you feel about the responsibility women carry, if any, to the history of women who came before them?


MICHELLE: It bothers me to no end that in general, feminism has no sense of historical consciousness. I came up on a modern rhetoric that stated that women’s voices have always been completely devalued. There were no women writing for important publications; you couldn’t get heard at all. So when I started researching, I was shocked that people would have ever claimed that women were not an influential part of these public writing traditions. And there is still a pervasive idea that we have nothing to learn from them. 

It's like all reality exists on Twitter for a lot of people who are public writers in the sense that I'm using here. So they write entire articles about Twitter even though we know that the majority of America isn't on it. On Twitter, there's not a lot of room for deep context; it’s just about like, getting off the one-liner. But I do think that sometimes, older women can be a little too confident that they understand everything about the modern milieu. 

This just came to a head in the #MeToo situation. I think what went on with Daphne Merkin and Katie Roiphe is that they don't engage with social media. When they go and read a tweet, they don't understand that a tweet is sometimes offered in the very strange and chaotic context that is Twitter; it doesn't mean what they think it means. Or acting like Twitter feminism is a coherent entity which has coherent positions on something. Anybody who actually uses Twitter knows that that can't be true. There’s this arrogance of, “I've lived a lot, which means I have nothing left to learn.” In all of these cases, I think we need to be more careful writers and more careful thinkers, and think about our limitations before we go forth.


SOPHIA: In your New Yorker article on the friendship between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, you wrote that their “‘love affair’—as their friends described it—was a union of ferocious minds, but it was hardly an unusual variant. Women talk about ideas among themselves all the time. It would be nice if the culture could catch up.” It’s common for women to argue for the need to create structures to accommodate alternative lifestyles (what’s alternative within the culture anyway), but here it seems like you're adopting a different approach —saying that women are already structurally enabled to talk about the ideas, and the culture needs to catch up. What does that “catching up” look like?


MICHELLE: First, the world has to accept that women don't only talk about the domestic sphere. One thing that’s happened as a result of recent feminist efforts is the resurfacing of the fact that there’s intellectual value in discussions about the experience of motherhood. I don’t have a problem with that, but sometimes it feels like a second reiteration of The Feminine Mystique

There are lots of women who are not mothers, and who will never be mothers. Or who have ambivalent relationships with their mothers, which definitely doesn't seem to be what people mean when they say, “I should get to write about the experience of motherhood.” It seems like they want permission to write about what it means to be a creative-class woman in a middle class suburb, who is feeling alienated from her work. I liked a lot of those books. But it seems like sometimes we retreat into subjects which are already agreed to be feminine or domestic. These are not the new frontiers. To me, the new frontier is like, women talking about science or alternative realities or hard politics. These spheres are still left to men, because women are so busy trying to value things that are already present in their lives. To me, this seems like the actual work of feminism, even as people claim that it adopts the realm of power, or a masculine mode of power. That's not really how I see it. What it is is just kind of planting a flag and saying, “We belong here, too. The end.”

SOPHIA: What do you believe that women need or can do for each other presently?


MICHELLE: I think that women mostly need confidence. There's this essay I really like called “Envy,” by Kathryn Chetkovich, about what it's like to be Jonathan Franzen's partner when he's coming up on The Corrections. He's about to become a figure of massive cultural authority. She's a playwright mostly, and the essay negotiates her own failure, and difficulties in getting her work performed and published. She says, “I wanted what women always want, which is permission.” I think it’s true that we're still looking for permission a lot of the time. We're getting better at it, but people are still always hoping that some institution of power is going to come down and bless them, and we all need to stop thinking that day will come. It's something that I've struggled with on a personal level for a long time. I wanted these male-driven literary institutions to recognize me. Or even out of a gendered context, all these Ivy League-trained writers who have all the right connections and came up through all the right internships, which I never did. I still want it.

Think about all these women political candidates who have come up at Hillary Clinton’s feet. What was stopping them before? One of these candidates was married to a high school friend of mine, so I've been watching her and thinking, she has obviously always wanted to do this. It is so obvious to me. Why did it take this defeat to do it? Those cultural triggers aren't going to come easily. I think we would all be better off if we stopped waiting for some great endorsement and just did things.

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