Monday, July 27, 2015

We don't want people who will see

It was a bloop in IM from a colleague. “Oh god, I’m so sorry,” it read. “And screw Gawker.” It was an email a moment later, from my boss. “Just ignore it,” it read. “It’s not a big deal; they do this to everyone.” That’s when my heart lunged into my stomach. That was four years ago. That was the first time Gawker wrote about me.

The piece itself was relatively mild, on the Gawker spectrum. There were no intimate texts involved, there was no damning sex tape. I had simply been pronounced irksome because “She’s against domestic violence. She’s against harassing children. She’s against elder abuse” — and I apparently expressed this in ways insufficiently nuanced for the writer. I was, in summation, declared “a first class hack.”

I’ve been at this a very long time and been called worse by better, so it wasn’t the piece itself that really got to me. It was the picture. It was an image of me, pale and freckled, that had run in Salon seven months before, when I shared that I had just been diagnosed with malignant melanoma. A photo that had been taken just a few days prior, one of my last remaining images of myself before I learned I was sick. It never appeared anywhere else. And now it was being used to make fun of me.

Still, it was relatively easy to put the hit piece behind me. My father-in-law was busy dying of cancer himself, and his brother had died a few days before, so I had my own stuff going on. Then a few months later, I was rediagnosed, this time at Stage 4. My cancer had metastasized into my lung and soft tissue, and I entered a Phase 1 clinical trial in the hopes of staving off a disease one of my doctors would later describe as “rapidly fatal.” That fall, I wrote about the experience several times in Salon, along with my usual pop culture pieces. In December, I wrote multiple stories around the subject, including one about how my kids were facing the holidays after two deaths in the family and my own “full-blown late-stage melanoma.” When the same Gawker writer tweeted out that day, “I have a joke for you: ‘Why I Still Believe in Santa,’ by Mary Elizabeth Williams,” I braced myself. (I am not using the person’s name, because you know what? This is about the Gawker culture, and because I have it on very good authority that publicly shaming individuals is an ass move.)

On the penultimate day of the year, I appeared on a Gawker list of people who should quit the media in the coming new year. In it, the writer described my style by noting, “Be sure to throw in some irrelevant tidbits about your personal life designed to short-circuit any criticism of your work in advance…. We’re not being mean. We’re being honest.” The words appeared, again, next to the photo from my cancer story. This time, I cried. And you can laugh at me if you want, Gawker, but when you’re actively in the midst of a grueling medical experience and uncertain how much time on earth you have, a cruel reference to your imagined fate for the coming year pretty much sucks.

Fortunately, I got better. Just a few weeks later, I was declared cancer free and I have been ever since. Gawker, meanwhile, continued to sputter at me, damningly referring to me as “polite mom” and “America’s least necessary cultural critic,” and taking umbrage that, as they put it, I’d written that “It’s sad that MCA died.” Of cancer. At least they stopped using my picture. And it’s hard to take seriously an outlet that rages that your writing is “like sticking a needle full of SUPER SWEET SUGAR WATER in your veins.”

But I entered a period of constant low-level dread nonetheless. I knew what happens to figures who become their popular targets, how they are perpetual low hanging fruit for a slow news day. Each time I filed a story, I wondered if it would be the subject of another scathing takedown, and what the fallout might be. “This is just how they are,” my friends said, and some of them said it from experience. “It’s what they do.” In my world, it has long been understood that Gawker might today rip you to shreds. Just because. And this has been considered totally normal. So I avoided writing pieces critical of Gawker, for fear of retaliation. This went on for longer than I care to admit. For a company that claims to pride itself on freedom of expression, I wonder if they’ve ever considered the profoundly chilling effect their tactics have had on others. It’s been a while now, but I have never stopped looking over my shoulder, wondering how I might again incite the outrage of Gawker, and what form that might take. It’s a sickening feeling.

But they meanwhile apparently moved on to other imagined adversaries, because they stopped aiming at me. They went full fury over a friend who wrote a lighthearted Styles piece. They mocked another friend’s cheerful enterprise for women enduring a stressful life experience. All because we — females in our 40s — had committed the crime of failing to entertain our youthful male media watchers.

And I am among the lucky ones. I didn’t have my personal life dragged through the mud. When earlier this year, Jezebel — Jezebel! — used the Sony hack as an excuse to laughingly reveal Amy Pascal’s Amazon orders and her “cheap, crotch-intensive beauty regimen,” I cringed for the woman. She hadn’t even, like me, directly offended the Gawker gods. She’d just ordered personal products on the Internet. Think about that the next time you do the same.

Then last week, while facing a lawsuit from Hulk Hogan over a sex tape, Gawker achieved peak Gawker when it ran a piece on a married media executive’s attempt to procure a gay escort. The piece named the man, but not the escort, who had been rebuffed after attempting to get his potential client to exert political influence for him in a housing dispute. When the story was pulled the next day — with a note that still referenced the man by name, by the way — the staff expressed uniform anger over the deletion. And Monday, two top editors resigned, including Max Read, who’d previously defended the story by saying, “Given the chance gawker will always report on married c-suite executives of major media companies fucking around on their wives.”

I’ve never worn my sickness as Teflon. I’m accepting of criticism of my work — and I’ve received a whole lot of it in my time, believe me. I’ve also had death threats and rape threats and Bill O’Reilly and a popular pair of shock jocks go after me, and I’m still here. But I do think it takes a special kind of mind-set to see a photograph that literally says “my cancer diagnosis” above it and go, “Yup, let’s go with that one to trash her.” A special mind-set to go after someone for “irrelevant tidbits about your personal life designed to short-circuit any criticism” while she’s publicly writing about her inoperable disease and experimental treatment. A Gawker mind-set, if you will. I don’t necessarily believe it’s deliberately malicious. I think it’s something scarier. I think it’s just casually indifferent.

I know Gawker could easily target me again. They could find ex-lovers to reveal my kinks, former friends to share my greatest humiliations and darkest insecurities, classmates who know my most illicit and reckless deeds. I’ve got them all! And here’s the thing — they can do it to you too. Not because you’re Donald Trump or Antonin Scalia. I wasn’t. That media executive wasn’t. They can do it because they have the information and the inclination and blah blah blah truth. They can do it because they inflict pain without any sense that inflicting pain hurts people. And that’s why I do not say this lightly — I’ve been through serious disease twice and two full years of a drug trial, and Gawker is still one of the most toxic things that ever happened in my life. I’m not being mean. I’m being honest. 

(Mary Elizabeth Williams,, "I was slimed by Gawker")


Patrick McEvoy-Halston

According to the LA Times, Gawker is responsible for getting the attack on Cosby in motion. If true, might have been worth a mention. 

MEW needs the the world to reflect her preferred self-image. Gawker confronts this. 


Lauren Lipton

I hear you. In 2008, I wrote a piece about Jezebel for the New York Times. It was a fairly straightforward, not particularly damning Styles piece. Jezebel posted the link, and although the Jezebel writers were pretty balanced with their compliments and criticisms, some of the commenters went berserk. They piled on like rabid 13-year-old girls, mocking my name and questioning my journalism skills. I finally created a commenting account using my real name and went on there to very politely explain the reasons why I had reported the story as I had, and to basically tell them how journalism works. They ended up falling all over themselves to apologize, so it all worked out fine, but for a while it was a little terrifying. I thought, "OK, here we go; I'm now going to be a Gawker/Jezebel target." I thank the journalism gods that I emerged relatively unscathed.  

Patrick McEvoy-Halston

@Lauren Lipton MEW is heaping Gawker in with the comment sections in trash. We have an ever-enlarging category of opinion that well-mannered people of character need not concern themselves with.
I think when a society is going well, polite people who aim to tutor unruly children end up having a terrible time of it: these "children" can't help themselves but see their "parents" infractions, and call them on it. When it's going poorly, we get a kick when we know that those who still possess the fight and self-esteem to do so, have been effectively neutered of influence ... rhetorically captured, so that no penetrating truth they could show can possibly escape being mostly seen as further troll breath. It's called identification with the perpetrator.

— ——


Sorry, but a diagnosis of cancer doesn't automatically make one a noble human being and it certainly doesn't make one an interesting writer. There are plenty of people who deserve (richly) to be ridiculed or even slimed by the likes of Gawker, from full-of-themselves idiots (Justin Bieber) to influential dopes (Thomas Friedman) to moral monsters (Dick Cheney). Conversely, all too often Salon seems to exist for the sole purpose of creating a space for writers to embarrass themselves.


@KennyC. I think that's the crux of the current issue. Gawker should be aiming itself at the powerful, the elite, the hypocritical and the unaccountable. But it should do so in a way that is relevant to challenging their power. So if a person is gay and in the closet and is found out to have frequented an escort service/prostitute. That is not Gawker newsworthy unless that person is also being an outright hypocrite by pushing a family values agenda or a bigoted anti-gay position. So when Ted Haggard turned out to be frequenting a gay escort. That was newsworthy because he was pushing a hard-right Christian agenda that had social and political consequences. 
But outside of a relevant social hypocrisy, this is not news. This is a person struggling with their identity in a way that will have enormous personal consequences soon enough. Outing that person the way Gawker did is nothing more or less than cyberbullying. 

So I totally agree with your point. The powerful deserve Gawker's acerbic wit. But the everyday people - including journalists - don't deserve a junior-high takedown or hitpiece. What Gawker is learning is that there is a fine-line to standing up to a bully and becoming one yourself. Gawker has, over the years, become a bully. It's ironic, challenging voice is now a sneering putdown.  In other words, the old Gawker would have torn the new Gawker apart, mercilessly. 

Patrick McEvoy-Halston

@rs959903 @KennyC. But this person wasn't ordinary -- he was powerful, wasn't he? 
How sure are we that what we're up to now isn't figuring out a kind of rhetoric where we help keep the powerful, or the empowered, immune, somehow permanently fixed, while believing we aren't the ones who are regressing but those still pointing fingers are? Maybe we need to feel like we're just as eager to see the powerful and hypocritical exposed, but are effectively ensuring fewer of them are by enabling "sanctuaries" many of them can fit themselves into so they're immune to censure? Situate yourself so you seem an afflicted adult dealing with adult problems, and the people coming after you are vicious untempered children, and you become immune. Make those who deserve to be listened to those who resound of the repressed adult, and those who don't, of let-loose children, and you become immune: for then without knowing it you've effectively entered a conservative landscape where the point ends up being that you, like your ancestors, knew enough not to speak about such matters, and what all this'll do to kill your happiness. 

MEW has talked about the right of couples to be left to sort things out for themselves, and one felt the same sort of wickedness one felt in "Gone Girl" where all apt criticism could be pacified because the couple showed they were willing to play exactly according to the current temper. Show that you'll self-masticate enough to be whatever the public wants rather than what you'd prefer to stand up for, and in a regressing time you'll pass notice because there's no self, no real proud self-worth, there to irk spurned gods. 
It was either the Nation or Mother Jones that wrote they detected something conservative being enfranchised in our unity behind gay marriage. Somehow, that is, a conservative institution -- marriage -- was coming to seem unquestionably a pillar of society. With this now, so too the old idea that the public's duty is to bear wounds and suffer? Maybe what matters is that MEW is a Catholic while Gawker ain't...


@Patrick McEvoy-Halston @rs959903 @KennyC. He wasn't a public figure.  He was, however, an executive at a rival media company.  The hit piece was personal.

Lauren Lipton

@Patrick McEvoy-Halston @rs959903 @KennyC. People who go to journalism school learn that certain rules--some legal; some just ethical--govern when it's appropriate to invade someone's privacy and when it is not. It basically boils down to a combination of 1. Is the subject a public figure? and 2. Is the subject's behavior hypocritical, based on standards to which he holds others? In the case of the Conde Nast executive, he is neither a true public figure (being "powerful" does not necessarily make one a public figure), nor has he made a career out of chastizing others for their sexual or moral proclivities. The story Gawker printed was indefensible, and any journalist with appropriate training and experience would have known that.   

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Overnight

There’s been quite a lot of attention lately to the seemingly plausible occurrence that you could lose everything you’ve accrued for yourself in life over one casually made remark — you always have to be watchful. When we hear this complaint being made it’s usually people pointing fingers at a politically correct culture, and we’d be correct to assume that what the people complaining want foremost is actually a chance to flip things around so that the politically correct — i.e., progressives — are the ones under pressure. We’d also be correct to note that easily as fair a way of assessing our times is actually more of it as eliminating our ability to shame groups of people, and that it is really this, our successful activism against prejudice and stigmatization, that is a key source of many people’s anxiety: “you” feel bound up, it’s because we’ve taken away the arenas you were used to being able to piss into, so deal! But we must still note that there’s a sense that we’ve also made all of society as if it’s being “taught to the test” … that there is a specific sort of human being that we’re all supposed to be, and that we’re all expected to match each and every one of the expectations in order to qualify as relevant just the same way every student hoping to get into a decent college has to. Good people still do move on, but aberrancy, true oddness — doing something different that isn’t immediately appreciated as bold and new and A+-worthy but perhaps rather as wrong and badly astray — has no time to recover: you’re judged this way once and you’ll drop a few classes in people’s estimation, never to recover into societal relevancy, even if you were being faithful to instinct in a way that would eventually lead to generously new product. The point is, you are someone whose activation is unhinged from applause, and its tough to “like” someone and keep them in the public headlines when, however much they shine along today they can’t be counted on to not burrow up into some hole tomorrow that they’re too adrift to know has been designated for public obliteration — probably because it embarrasses us for its revealing something true about us. The point is, we’re going at our societal growth nervously, and keeping everyone’s reflecting one another "perfect" pose seems to make us feel that it can’t all be sundered from us. We forfeit ourselves a lot of originality, and shortchange some people the kind of feedback and allowance that could make them great, because moving as we are out into the wilds of a new social landscape, it just feels safer to be doing so in some glistening rocket ship that looks good all around rather than as some muddle of strengths but also unaccounted for weak spots, that might however speed like the ’Falcon. “American” aberrant genius goes by-by, when “Russian” constancy makes us feel braced, and more calms our nerves.

For me, this film begins to portray itself as a brave attempt to maybe offer a kind of safe zone for a couple that isn’t ever going to receive it. Specifically, Alex, who has the same-sized infinitesimal penis as an adult that barely looked promising when he was a child, hasn’t had anyone in his family or school circles who hasn’t implicitly communicated that his possession of it isn’t something best kept hid from the world — his parents told him it would surely grow when he hit puberty, rather than prepared him to consider just how much something one can do nothing about tells you about a person; his school mates were a chorus of endless taunting, just waiting to erupt if they ever learned his secret. And evolved society, however much it’s making some groups feel less subject to public shaming, still seems vested to still want to keep some things that resound too much of insecurities they share kept out of view, and further vested in subscribing a portion of our populace to some avenue of bland perfection — near replaceable, one for the other, but each one significantly ripped — fit-bit people, as if they had to be, like 1940s actors, prepared to head out instantly to serve as a wall of war muscle, hasn’t really gotten its act together sufficiently to spread the kind of cover all around that it is commendably offering some: it's got body issues too. The feminist, "evolved" take on the portrayal of Black Widow in the last Avengers film was that we shouldn't have had to wallow in her owning up to being sterilized, her owning it, but rather just be excited by her simply kicking ass: even a hero we really want to root for risks being forced into unfriendly categorization, disturbing our preferred sense of the degree of our unconditional loyalty to her, if her identity becomes partly based on something out of our own reminders we want to wrench ourselves away from rather than watch, and so what chance infant-dick Alex for a group hug? — would you ever count yourself House Greyjoy? But Kurt, the man who introduces himself to Alex and his wife and hopes to befriend them, represents someone who might just be able to provide a conceivable enclave where Alex might let his guard down and have his difficulties addressed ... be rehabilitated, for there are pockets of space out there in the world that we can imagine as being adrift from what all else is concerning people in the world, and Kurt is majestically in possession of one of them. 

Kurt's got one of those grand estates in LA that is in absolute defiance of "decent" restraint and has never had to care. He's linked to that part of our conception of LA as it as absurdly afloat in its own dreaming ways, but that has as little to be concerned of what you might have to think about it as would the French of a bland American who has strayed into Paris, hoping to hoist attitude. You go at him, you're going at Hollywood, California, the self-made man and the really potent money-maker, and even democracy — the country itself! — and so goes into the dumpster all your presumptions to situate him for ready judgment and targeting. And when he apparently inadvertently stages a scene where Alex's body issues would come to the fore, but does so in a way informed with therapeutic acuity — he doesn't insist that Alex join him in the pool "au natural” but rather is willing to let it go, but later also doesn't shrink from ultimately confronting Alex about his hesitancy — there's a sense of real therapeutic gain for Alex in his deciding to talk about how ashamed he has for long been made to feel. 

Unfortunately, the film cuts itself off there as being some kind of "Midnight in Paris" adventure where someone who has always felt all out of sorts and despaired of ever finding someone who could provide feedback he could trust, finally finds "it," and becomes more sort of a thriller where you wonder whether in the end the disoriented, guileless couple will realize that in agreeing to an overnight they've consented to being flies caught in the spider's web. We are motioned to consider Alex's new actually liking his dick as actually a plot device that functions to get a trepidatious, cautious couple — meant now to be a proxy for any one of us — further into being willing to venture into unaccounted territory, and as something that begins to loosen a tight husband-and-wife bond — Alex's wife Emily was never successful in abating her husband's dis-ease but this forming homosocial bond with Kurt was — so that the possibility that reticence won't actually conquer the evening and that they might actually “swing," and perhaps, effectively, discombobulate, is kept alive.

Further, we are made to feel that it really isn't Alex's truly brave reveal that is something to succour through proxy, but rather his finally at the end stopping his being passive, forever moved along and shaped by his host for his own purposes, and taking command. He barks at Kurt and orders him into a position where his wife would ostensibly succumb to him in sex, and it reads as of Alice finally shattering the beleaguering Wonderland that has refused her any chance here-to to gain her bearing. In response to this, his hosts "shrink": we are encouraged to see them as more bereft than Alex and Emily, vastly more troubled, for while Alex's especially small penis may mean he and his wife are forever subscribed to humiliating, less-than-perfect sexual experiences, the fact that as a married couple with a child they're still having sex puts them way ahead of Kurt and his wife Charlotte, who have essentially been trying to function as a neutered, sexless "friendship" relationship for over ten years, and its not cutting it. Alex and his wife are in need of friends, Kurt and his are profoundly desperate — the swinging we see unfold briefly at the end, reads almost as Alex and Emily's charity. 

Both both couples inadvertently meet, perhaps a month’s hence, and Kurt and Charlotte are the ones that have to beg as to why the clear distancing — they're the ones who have to behave as if the evening tested them and one couple made it through okayish while the other came out worn. The message we take away from the film is that it can feel good to lend yourself into some grand adventure where in a densely-packed, short period of time you'll have to encounter a lot of the strangeness you might normally have to accustom yourself with over a long while — undergo a risky overnight — because you'll feel like you've got your full bearings instantly. It's the kind of message that appeals to people who don't want to know that letting down your guard only to become instantly more lordish, is just bravado — non-growth.  Anxieties are momentarily quit, and you feel temporarily inflated and proven —that's all. 

If the film had not explored an overnight but a swinging collection of couples in an adventure of such prolonged, ongoing self-discovery that it reminded one of the languid 1970s rather than of our own urgent need to feel everywhere well patched up, we'd have seen an existence so untethered from the day-to-day self-adaptations we are all making with one another through our social networks that when they "emerged," it's difficult to convince ourselves they wouldn't just come out, permanent cast-offs — people who are simply non constituent of the societal narrative we're all making for ourselves, and thus, some species of human ostensible fair attendance to reality requires we pass by unseen. But that remains the movie I wish I saw, from start to finish, because it’s just right that we stop, listen, and discover, and encourage good people their chance to blossom.  

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