There is no slogan more misunderstood, or more widely abused, than “the personal is political.” This phrase was one of the most transformative ideas to emerge from second-wave feminism, or from the 20th century. It’s the underpinning assumption of all my own work. What it means is this: You take the most intimate, difficult, unseemly moments from your own life. You look to see if anyone else has experienced anything like them. You look for what you have in common with those people — your gender, your socioeconomic status, your career, your race. And then, you speak about what that means for the world.
“The personal is political” is how the unspeakable, “private” issues of women—the men in the radical protest group who made rape jokes, the arrogant dismissals at the mostly-boy punk rock shows, the boss who made weird sexual comments, the date who raped you, the husband who beat you—became political concerns. It’s how “my problem” becomes “our problem.” It’s the catalyst for bringing marginalized experiences to light, and for finally understanding that it’s not happening because of who you are; it’s happening because of what you are, and that is something else entirely. Something which all of the people in your “what” have a vested interest in changing.
“The personal is political” is also, I eventually came to realize, the essential factor in all of the essays I remembered from 2011. The pieces I’ve chosen are all about personal matters, in one way or another, and they all address huge social problems by focusing on one woman’s specific experience. They all raise questions without easy answers: About the identity of the reporter, and how that plays a role in what he or she reports; about whether personal responses to trauma can be evaluated in political terms; about how our identities come into conflict, and how to create a workable solidarity; about who we are, who we think we are, and who we would like others to think we are, and what the distance between those three things might be. In every case, I was struck by the author’s candor, bravery, and willingness to say some very uncomfortable things in public. And in every case, these pieces—and the reactions to them—taught me something new about how to see the world.
Kirsten Ostrenga was a lonely, home-schooled fourteen-year-old who started a MySpace page to connect with people. Four years later, she was receiving daily messages calling her things along the lines of “rape-enjoying pathetic bitch,” she was receiving other messages from middle-aged men who wanted to fuck her, she was being impersonated online by dozens of people, she had her house vandalized, she had her cat disappear shortly after someone threatened to kill it, she had been punched in the face by a “fan” posing for a picture with her, she had been raped, and she had been publicly called a “murderer” in connection with the death of her rapist, who tripped and fell while fleeing the police who were there to arrest him for raping Kirsten. That rapist also happened to be her first boyfriend. They’d met through MySpace.
Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s piece about all this is harrowing and astonishingly empathetic; the month it came out, I read it about ten or fifteen times. It’s not only about “Internet bullying,” or sexual violence, or even Kirsten Ostrenga; it’s also about the difficult-to-measure, often profound distance between Internet persona and person, and what we hope to find by making our lives public. Read it, and see if your voice doesn’t sound a little quieter the next time you go to write a snippy blog post about some public figure—if you don’t find yourself pulling certain punches, or asking whether you really know, or can ever know, what they’re actually going through at the moment. There are a lot of big magazine articles about Young People And The Internet. This year, no one did it better than Sabrina Rubin Erdely.
I always think of these two pieces as connected to each other, so that’s how I recommend you read them. They’re both about violence, and the ways that violence can change you. They’re both painful to read. And they’re both notable for being comprised of about ten separate things that female journalists, or feminists, are never supposed to say in public. Whitefield-Madrano writes about visiting the emergency room, after her boyfriend beat her up, with blood streaming down her face. “The only words that make sense are the ones that spill out of my mouth over and over again,” she says, “the only words that will let the receptionist and the nurses and my friends and my parents know that this isn’t what it looks like, that I’m not one of those women, those women in abusive relationships, those women who can’t help themselves enough to get out: I went to college, I went to college, I went to college.” Meanwhile, McClelland leads with “It was my research editor who told me it was completely nuts to willingly get fucked at gunpoint,” and goes on from there.
Whitefield-Madrano was a feminist who organized Take Back the Night marches, published op-eds criticizing “the notion that a woman’s greatest personal threat lay outside the home,” and stayed in her relationship after her boyfriend started to hit her. McClelland was a human rights journalist whose job was to faithfully witness the pain of others; after being threatened with rape in Haiti, and witnessing the aftermath of severe sexual violence, she contracted post-traumatic stress disorder and needed her ex-boyfriend to simulate a rape with her as part of her recovery. Both women focus, to a large degree, on the internal aftereffects of the trauma. McClelland gagged and vomited, cried constantly, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop drinking. Whitefield-Madrano missed work, forgot her own phone number, moved in a permanent daze: “I’d been depressed before, and this was different. This was a fog of having no idea who I was, where I’d gone, or if I might return.”
And they both produced astonishingly skilled, un-self-indulgent pieces of writing out of those experiences. (This was particularly easy to miss in the backlash to McClelland’s piece, which ranged from legitimate concerns—her representation of Haiti, her treatment of sources—to publishing her ex-boyfriend’s full name and place of employment, calling her a “geisha,” and claiming that she was somehow faking her PTSD to get attention and/or a book deal.) The experiences of trauma, abuse and post-traumatic stress are often literally impossible to describe. The very nature of what they call an “acute stress response”—“a feeling of detachment, disorientation, inability to concentrate or respond sensibly;” “the mind ‘going blank’;” “the person appears to be out of contact with others but is not unconscious;” these are symptoms, which sound fairly mild until you realize (as I once did, in my own experience of traumatic shock) that the strange hollow object by the metal basin is a cup, and is intended to hold water, which is why it is by the sink, and that you have been figuring this out for twenty minutes, ever since you set the cup down there—induces a fundamental disconnect from language. McClelland and Whitefield-Madrano plunge us into that experience with their nightmarish descriptions, but they also analyze it in lucid detail. It’s a remarkable achievement: Two clear, rational, coherent accounts of what it’s like to lose coherence, clarity, and reason.
For about a month this fall, every single professional journalist who cared about social justice or protest in any way whatsoever was busy writing or filing their Pieces On Occupy Wall Street. None of us wrote a better piece than Manissa McCleave Maharawal, who initially posted this on her personal, semi-private Facebook page.
Covering protests is tricky. You don’t want to undermine or demonize them by reporting the wrong scenes or speaking to the wrong people. You don’t want to gloss over their problems by ignoring the less flattering facts on the ground. You don’t always know, frankly, whether you are there to report or support, and depending on what happens to you—as in the case of the writers who went to Occupy Wall Street to protest, and wound up filing pieces about getting arrested; or, the other writers who went to report, and wound up being victimized by the police like any other protester—that role can change within the space of an hour.
And I will be even more frank with you: In the early weeks of Occupy Wall Street, I sometimes felt that I was seeing a lot of supporting, and not always enough reporting. It was communal, it was wonderful, it was revolutionary, absolutely no-one was smoking any pot whatsoever because that was a right-wing lie, everyone was so equal, etc. It was usually only on the smaller blogs that you could find stories like McCleave Maharawal’s: Men “dancing up on” women at drum circles without consent, radical activists responding to education about gender pronouns with outright bafflement, people of color being told to direct their concerns to someone’s email inbox rather than bringing them up at General Assembly, a man including a line about there being “one race, the human race, formerly divided by race, class,” etc., in the promotional materials, and responding to objections (namely that we were hardly “formerly” divided on those fronts) with “[it’s] scientifically true.” McCleave Maharawal was not “just” writing a personal essay; she was performing a public service, by giving people a genuinely nuanced view of the occupation. But this is not an anti-Occupy piece. It is not an attack piece. And it is not an example of undermining. Precisely because she was willing to cover the gritty and sometimes unflattering details of how solidarity was actually being worked out among “the 99%” at Occupy Wall Street, McCleave Maharawal actually wrote a far more convincing and meaningful argument for it than I had yet read. It’s a model for anyone who wants to advocate—for a cause, for a community, for a protest, for an idea—without slipping into boosterism; for anyone who wants to speak about the facts on the ground, without losing sight of what those facts really mean.
2011 was, in many ways, the Year Of Unpleasant Conversations About Odd Future. The group just brings up a lot of sticky subjects: The relationship between art and artist, the relationship between creation and social responsibility for what one has created, the white fear of black masculinity, men’s disregard for violence against women. And, you know what? Those conversations were just as unpleasant for me as they were for you. I don’t exactly look forward to having any of them again.
But, if I ever teach that long-imagined seminar on Journalism, Pop Culture, and Gender, I think our final assignment is going to consist of a 10-page paper on the difference between two short passages in two reviews of the exact same show: Amos Barshad’s “Odd Future Live Show Surpasses the Hype,” for Rolling Stone, and Emma Carmichael’s “With the Ladies In The Back at an Odd Future Show," for The Awl. In fact, let’s just do that now. Better one?
At one point, a fresh-faced blond girl roughly the same age as Tyler landed on the stage and accosted him for a kiss; he complied, wondered aloud if he might now have herpes and then tossed her off, too.
Or better two?
[Just] after two in the morning, a blonde girl surfed her way onstage and kissed Tyler, who announced, “I might legit have herpes.” The crowd laughed and started a “show your titties” chant, and she refused, looking bashful. “Then get the fuck off the stage!” Tyler yelled.
Class: Which of these passages was written by a man? How can you tell? Which writer made note of whether the girl in question was attractive (“fresh-faced”), and how do you think cultural norms around gender, presentation and gaze affected this choice? What is the difference between “accosted [Tyler]” and “kissed Tyler;” who is portrayed as an aggressor in each of these passages, how does it differ between passages, and what does that mean? Why did both writers choose to describe the girl as “blonde,” and which cultural narratives are supported by that choice? Would your answer be different if the writers substituted “white” for “blonde?” How? Do you think Amos Barshad joined in the “show us your titties” chant? If not, why didn’t he tell us that it happened? Are you really angry right now? At whom, and why, and what does that tell you? Please remember to demonstrate in your response that the personal is political. Papers due whenever you think you know what all of this means, and can say it. I might never turn mine in.
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.