By Deborah Howell
Sunday, March 9, 2008
Thousands of women -- including this one -- were offended by an Outlook opinion piece last Sunday by writer Charlotte Allen. Complaints flooded my in-box, letters to the editor, the comment board linked to the article on washingtonpost.com, and the blogs. Outlook editors thought the piece was humorous and knew it might be controversial, but they were stunned at the outpouring of outrage.
Allen's piece opened by mentioning women screaming for Barack Obama at rallies -- and a few fainting. Then: "I can't help it, but reading about such episodes of screaming, gushing and swooning makes me wonder whether women -- I should say 'we women,' of course -- aren't the weaker sex after all. Or even the stupid sex, our brains permanently occluded by random emotions, psychosomatic flailings and distraction by the superficial. . . . What is it about us women? Why do we always fall for the hysterical, the superficial and the gooily sentimental? . . . Depressing as it is, several of the supposed misogynist myths about female inferiority have been proven true."
The end: "So I don't understand why more women don't relax . . . and revel in the things most important to life at which nearly all of us excel: tenderness toward children and men and the weak and the ability to make a house a home. . . . Then we could shriek and swoon and gossip and . . . not mind the fact that way down deep, we can be . . . kind of dim."
In between, Allen quoted studies she thought showed that women get into more car accidents, have trouble with navigation and spatial awareness, and have smaller brains. It was breathtaking. And insulting.
Of course, it's important for provocative opinion to be in the paper, especially in Outlook, which is all commentary. And this should have nothing to do with politics. Allen is a conservative, and Outlook should pay attention to conservative opinion.
But my umpteen years of experience have taught me to be wary of using humor, satire or irony about gender, race or religion. Humor can easily go awry or be misunderstood; it deserves extra care in editing and labeling. The Allen piece was offensive because it was a broadside against all women, despite her weasel words here and there. And the piece had the fatal flaw of not being funny. At all.
Readers come to the newspaper looking for news, facts, analysis, opinion and a little fun. They do not come to The Post to be insulted, and the paper should not deliberately print anything offensive unless it is a matter of great news significance.
Allen, 64, is a writer and has been a teacher; she told me she is getting her doctorate in medieval studies at Catholic University. She has written 28 other pieces for The Post since 1993 -- book reviews and Outlook and Magazine articles -- without controversy.
She pitched the piece to Outlook assignment editor Zofia Smardz, who had worked with Allen before. Smardz thought the piece was "funny, clearly tongue-in-cheek and hyperbolic but with a serious point that provided food for thought at a time when the Clinton candidacy and some women's reactions to the Obama candidacy have put the subject of women and women's roles front and center. I thought her piece held up a mirror to some foibles so many women, including me, can recognize in themselves, even as we seek absolute equality and expect to be taken seriously."
Smardz thought American women "have come far enough to be able to laugh at ourselves and not feel threatened by some satirical self-criticism and self-examination." She "didn't anticipate the fury of the Internet and the blogosphere, much of which seems to me to have either overlooked or missed the humor I saw." Most women read it online. The version in the paper was edited extensively, but not all of the editing appeared in the version most people read online.
Six other women, five at The Post, read the piece; five thought it was fine and one didn't, Smardz said. Outlook Editor John Pomfret, who has the last word, thought "it presented a different, albeit very non-PC take at a time when women and politics is a riveting topic in this country. I expected the piece to be controversial, but I did not expect the intensity of the reaction. It was a learning experience about the section, my job and our readership." Deputy Editor Warren Bass argued against it. "I wrote a fairly blunt e-mail arguing that it wasn't up to snuff and that the paper shouldn't run a glib, essentialist screed that insulted an entire gender."
Outlook editors sought rebuttals for washingtonpost.com and in print. Writer Katha Pollitt did one for the Web site. In it, she said, "Misogyny is the last acceptable prejudice, and nowhere more so than in our nation's clueless and overwhelmingly white-male-controlled media. . . . Maybe there's another thing women can do besides fluff up their husbands' pillows: Fill more important jobs at The Washington Post. We should be half the assigning editors, half the writers and half the regular columnists, too (current roster of op-ed columnists: 16 men, two women)."
Allen said half her mail was positive. Outlook got a few supportive letters; I got two. In a Wednesday online chat, Allen said, "Why can't women make fun of women? Are women such a sacrosanct subject nowadays that they're off-limits for anyone to write about them except in a reverent portrayal of them as victims of men? I don't buy that."
Jessica R. Nolen of St. Louis wrote that "there are some things that you don't 'joke' about . . . The Washington Post would never think of publishing an opinion piece, even as a joke or in an attempt to provoke, about how stupid African Americans or Hispanics are."
Right. The Post is a newspaper, not a comedy club. And Allen's article was a bad joke.
Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.