Last weekend, I went to my friend Jenn Marie Nunes’ book release party. Feminist press Switchback Books had awarded her poetry manuscript, And/Or, its inaugural Queer Voices prize. Jenn read her funny, weird, enigmatic poems at the event, which was hosted by a community print shop. Plates of cheese and cookies and a cash bar were wedged between printing presses with greasy black teeth. A lot of awesome people I hadn’t seen in a long time were there, as well as some whose names I’d heard before but whose acquaintances I’d never made.
One was an English professor. A friend introduced me to her as editor of a monthly fashion section.
“Oh, I read that from time to time,” she said. “It’s my guilty pleasure.”
She smiled brightly. I didn’t detect any malice in her words. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said.
I’m truly flattered when anyone reads my writing. But I wondered — would she describe Jenn’s book of poetry as a guilty pleasure? I kind of doubt it. Hovering over a platter of deviled eggs, I thought, What makes Jenn’s literary mode of production valid and mine not? I’m defining valid here as acceptable public reading material for an academic. I’ve been holding the professor’s words up to the light, examining them, and though there are plenty of things to unpack from her statement, I’m not sure compliment is among them.
To back up a little: I work at an alt-weekly covering primarily fashion, beauty and interior decor — in other words, women’s sections. My beat falls under what the OpEd Project defines as “pink topics.”
‘Pink’ topics are the topical spheres that compose what some media critics refer to as the ‘pink ghetto’ because women have historically been confined within them. We’ve defined a Pink Topic as: 1.) anything that falls into what was once known as “the four F’s”: food, family, furniture, and fashion, 2.) women-focused subject matter, e.g. woman-specific health or culture, 3.) gender / women’s issues, or 4.) a profile of a woman or her work in which her gender is a significant issue of the piece.
The OpEd Project goes on to clarify, “We don’t consider ‘pink’ topics any less important than general topics.” And as much as I want to agree with that statement, deep down inside, I’m not sure I do. I don’t cover political scandals or civil wars in distant countries. I sometimes describe my work to others, self-deprecatingly, as “fluff.” I feel, you could say, “guilty,” for working in the pink ghetto, devoting so much time to tracking bridal gown trends and sunless tanning methods. It’s similar to the breed of guilt that makes me want to hide my astrology and self-help books behind the literary theory books I haven’t cracked open since my graduate proseminar.
When I dropped out of LSU’s comparative literature program in 2008, I did so because I wanted my words to be read by as many people as possible. (Typical writers’ hubris.) I didn’t see that happening in academia. I saw myself spending years to write a dissertation that would probably only be read by my committee and a few really good friends. Then I’d pen scholarly articles that would be locked behind JSTOR’s paywall. So I changed course. Now I write about fashion, and I write dark fantasy novels for teenage girls. And I guess both of those things could be considered guilty pleasures. Why? Because they are commercial endeavors aimed at mass audiences? Because they are feminine pleasures? Men don’t consider sports or hunting guilty pleasures. These traditionally masculine pursuits are simply pleasures.
I can’t help but think these “guilty pleasures” are linked toward shame of being a woman, or shame of belonging to a social class with less emphasis on/access to higher education. And neither of those are bad things. Everyone at that book launch would most likely denounce the sexist and classist rhetoric that says otherwise.
So I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a surprise to confront shame’s greasy specter adrift in a room of women writers celebrating a feminist poetry collection. Almost as much as a surprise as it was to find I harbor it myself.
I think you really get to the heart off the conversation on the second to last paragraph. Men are not shamed for their interests. Here, I am also reminded of sites dedicated to girls who love super heroes AND tutus.
You wrote that you don’t cover politics; are you not allowed to cover anything relating to reproductive rights or follow female politicians?
It’s not that I’m not allowed to per se. But generally our editor in chief and staff writers cover politics and news relating to reproductive rights (e.g., the new Planned Parenthood location). I’d be infringing on their beats, while diverting my time from the assignments that already keep my hands more than full, if I were to start covering these topics.
That being said, I have made sex worker rights (aka just plain human rights) my unofficial beat, because it’s a topic that’s important to me and because I see very few news outlets actually interviewing strippers and escorts about their work conditions.
Good point about men not getting shamed for their “guilty pleasures.” The only time they do is if they’re indulging in something “girly” like a glass of champagne or putting an effort into their appearance.
DUDE, so true.
I’ve always had a problem with the whole notion of “guilty pleasures,” period. Frankly, if it’s pleasurable, and it doesn’t hurt another living thing, then you SHOULDN’T FEEL GUILTY ABOUT IT.
Calling something a guilty pleasure seems more like a subconscious tactic people use because they are worried about other people judging them. Just stop it, and like what you like. Many of the things I love most fall into someone else’s “guilty pleasure” list and I don’t give a fuck. Drag queens, disco music, Broadway musicals… there is no reason to feel guilty about something that brings you joy. The only thing that should legit be a guilty pleasure is something that you probably shouldn’t be doing in the first place like pedophilia or something. In which case you’d have bigger issues…
“there is no reason to feel guilty about something that brings you joy.”
SO WELL SAID.
C.M. Hackett says
I agree that there seems to be a sort of “female ghetto” not just in literature, but in most of pop culture. At movies, the ones marketed to women are all generic love stories, because heaven forbid a lady be interested in movies about kaiju stomping on Tokyo, or a a gentleman think that Hugh Grant getting the girl is actually kind of nice. And that “Rebelle” Nerf gun is exactly the same as a regular Nerf, only pink. Because, apparently, girls are only allowed to like pink things.
I also like your point that just because something has mass appeal doesn’t mean it lacks any kind of deeper meaning or academic value. I suppose it’s uncouth to bring The Bard into this, but I’m pretty sure A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It were not written for the purposes of middle-aged greybeards spending hours upon hours dissecting them for journal articles. Since I am hoping to one day pursue a graduate degree (having wasted the past decade of my life as a professional student), I must ask – does embracing academia necessitate the sacrifice of fun?
I apologize for my verbosity, but I really like your blog and really like what you have to say. Keep it up. 🙂
I have spent a long time not replying to your comment, C.M., because it is so wise and thoughtful and I don’t have much else to add to it except to say, AMEN and THANK YOU for your encouragement. Please never apologize for your verbosity! It’s a gift to us all.