How To Make It As A Female Op-Ed Star

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Female participation in the mainstream media is currently receiving sustained attention and, unsurprisingly, the statistics are not cause for complacency among aspiring women writers.

A recent Women in the Media study of opinion pieces published in the mainstream media in one week found, for instance, that:

  • women wrote approximately one third of opinion pieces and commentary;
  • men wrote almost three quarters of the op-eds on politics; and
  • the only fields in which women wrote more than 50 per cent of pieces were relationships/parenting and specifically gender focussed articles.

A New Matilda article featuring female journalists, editors, activists and academics’ perspectives on this data quoted writer Stephanie Convery, who argued:

"that the majority of political commentary published in the mainstream media is written by men matters, as does the fact that women dominate only in the fields of gender studies, child-rearing and relationships…both perpetuate and reiterate conscious and unconscious biases about what constitutes a “male” or “female” social role."

These biases give women some advantages within the world of op-ed writing – if they are prepared to lay bare their personal lives and restrict themselves to particular topics. Women can dominate in these fields, and within areas such as fashion or lifestyle magazines, but as Convery notes, such dominance has pernicious consequences.

These opportunities also come with inbuilt limitations. English writer and activist Laurie Penny noted in a 2012 interview that the “first two articles I ever had commissioned by a major newspaper were about my experience of anorexia as a teenager and my brief stint as a burlesque dancer”. These pieces had followed on the heels of unsuccessful pitches of “any number of serious political pieces which didn't have anything to do with me or my arse”.

Penny explained that “[y]oung women in particular have to work very hard to get into this industry, and it's often a toss-up…between getting work and being taken seriously”.

Some embrace the opportunities offered by a clickbait-hungry media and a prurient public. A recent xoJane piece on “building your personal brand” by Deputy Editor Mandy Stadt noted that the “media likes Manufactured Trend and Zeitgeist and Feelgood and Thinkpiece with a splash of Manufactured Outrage”.

Depressingly, this was not a criticism or a lament, but advice. Stadt continued: “if you are savvy and know how to make a reporter's or a TV booker's job more interesting, oh my God will they love you and scoop you up in an instant”.

In this formulation, the quality of the “product” seems irrelevant: do what you can to get scooped up, and reap the rewards. Even better: make yourself the product.  

It is of course not only female writers who are encouraged to commodify themselves. Margaret Atwood’s statement at the 2013 Perth Writers Festival that she saw writing as a “vocation” scrapes up hard against the omnipresent notion that all authors must market themselves like so many brands of laundry powder.

As Alison Croggon noted recently in Overland, “[t]he internet has seen an explosion of advice for aspiring writers on how to develop an ‘author platform’, or…focus your ‘brand’”.

A few months back, in an article wonderfully entitled “Journalism is not narcissism”, Gawker editor Hamilton Nolan criticised the prevalent notion that aspiring journalists need to “exploit every last tawdry twist and turn of their own lives for profit”, arguing: “Writing about yourself can be part of a balanced journalism diet, but it sure ain't a whole f*cking meal”.

Jessica Mitford’s governess used to tell her young charge that she was “the least important person in the room and don’t forget it” prior to social occasions; Joan Didion famously copied the phrase into her notebook “because it is only recently that I have been able to enter a room without hearing some such phrase in my inner ear”.

How old-fashioned these words sound now: the room has become a great deal louder and more crowded and it seems we must all profess our individual importance as noisily as possible.

The convenient answer to arguments like Nolan’s is that the personal is political. This is true, of course, as far as it goes – but in the end this may not be very far, political not necessarily being synonymous with important or informative.

This is not to say that there is no place for the personal in serious commentary. Such pieces are a key part of our public conversation and can illuminate experiences which are often unknown or misunderstood, raise consciousness of injustice and promote empathy. Narratives of asylum seekers’ journeys, for instance, illustrate the problems they face and the vacuousness and cruelty of “solutions” proffered by our political leaders. More broadly, our ability to learn from and be inspired by ordinary human stories should not be dismissed.

It is important, though, to look at the way personal narratives are deployed, potential consequences of their ubiquity, and some reasons behind their use. 

The insight that the personal is political comes from the left, was instrumental in the second-wave feminist movement, and has contributed greatly to analyses of oppression. The increasing personalisation of the op-ed pages might, then, be seen as something of a victory for progressives; a trend about which only rusted-on conservatives might complain.

This seeming triumph has however come at a cost, reinforcing shifts within left-wing politics which, Guy Rundle charged recently, have rendered it “a cultural activity, defining identity for an information-era elite class, rather than a real form of challenge to power”. A focus on the personal to the exclusion of the structural or ideological might be deemed leftism-lite – sellable, partially satisfying, but not particularly effective.

There are also rather obvious and usually unstated motives for writers to produce, and media outlets to publish, op-eds drawing heavily on the personal. Monetising opinion writing is challenging, and such pieces are inexpensive, requiring little or no research, and will with the right eye-catching headline attract attention, clicks and revenue. They are, perhaps, the print equivalent of reality television.

Owing to the longstanding western tradition which views men as belonging to the public and women as dwelling in the private sphere, female writers may be more likely to fall into the predicament of which Nolan warns: of simultaneously eating lunch while painstakingly documenting the experience of eating that lunch.

This, however, is a smaller aspect of a wider problem: seeking to be published within a market capitalist system in which the Fourth Estate is of course a business like any other.

One’s personal brand need not be that personal – some outlets seek stories about cougars and sexting; others will reward columns which are skew either to the left or, more commonly, the right. It would therefore be unhelpful to view the difficulties faced by female writers in isolation from the twists and turns all scribblers take to make a dollar – or, indeed, from the market’s colonisation of our lives more generally. Where even century-old political parties are distilled to no more than “brands”, what becomes of notions like vocation or integrity?

The conversation about women’s participation in the mainstream media is well worth having. It is important, though, to keep the broader context squarely in focus: a “marketplace of ideas” in which the first word seems increasingly apt while the third becomes ever more dubious.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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