The Myth of Serious and Silly Women


Yesterday on New York Magazine’s The Cut, Kat Stoeffel tackled the decades-old problem of fashion magazines. Are they sexist fluff? Is it sexist to call them sexist fluff? Are they good or bad for feminism? What does it mean when Michelle Obama appears on the cover of Vogue and Jill Abramson gives a lengthy interview to Cosmopolitan about her firing from the New York Times? “Finally, Serious Women are Standing Up for Fashion Magazines,” the title concluded.

That phrase—“serious women”—is a problem. Powerful women? Famous women? High-achieving women? Sure. Obama, Abramson, and Hillary Clinton, who Stoeffel later addresses, fall under those category. But serious? Are the people at Vogue not absolutely as serious about Fashion Week as Obama is about tackling childhood obesity? Doesn’t setting aside a small group of women as “serious” imply that there are vast reservoirs of silly women they are different than? It seems to play into the very problematic notion that Stoeffel is dismantling, that fashion and relationships, despite being as much a part of our lives as politics or literature or art, are less weighty topics because they have traditionally been written about and for women.

I don’t mean to pick on Stoeffel for her title here. Those decisions are often ones made by editors, not by writers, and Stoeffel goes on to actually address the problem I have with it later in the article, “the gendered boundary between the frivolous and the serious.” Much of her argument, I actually agree with: Magazines like Glamour and Marie Claire “offer other women a map for navigating style and other sexist minefields.” And more than that, fashion magazines often offer a stepping stone for young female journalists in a media culture that is still difficult to crack into.

“Serious” has become a code word, a distinguishing mark that allows certain women into a club that most are excluded from. It questions the intent of someone’s pursuits, deems some virtuous and some merely frippery. It has come to mean “better.” It is shorthand for what you are supposed to treat thoughtfully, and what you can dismiss. It sets apart a select few from a presumed crowd of fanciful ladies with heads full of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and concerns about crop tops. It is a particularly insidious, slippery form of sexism, one that hides under the guise of good taste and the rubric of authenticity. And it’s a false distinction. You can be equally as serious about fashion or pop culture or the vagaries of VH1 shows as you can be about economics. You can be deeply invested in both Knausgaard and Katy Perry. That is not a conflict of interest, nor does it render you sillier or less worthy of consideration. We contain multitudes, bro.

Jennifer Weiner, who frequently criticizes highbrow publications like New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books for their failure to review commercial fiction, frequently has the phrase “not serious” leveled at her books, which are marketed to and written about women. “At this point, I cringe whenever I see the word ‘serious,’” Weiner told me when I interviewed her about her new book. “I feel like that girl in Legally Blonde. What, I’m not serious? If you’re putting the work of writing a 400-page novel you are committed, literary fiction or not. What am I, kidding? There’s something so incredibly dismissive and condescending and wrong about that.”

It can be difficult to tease out why people turn up their noses at something—is it because Taylor Swift is a woman or because her brand of pop makes your eyes water involuntarily? Filters are necessary to sift through the vast amount of content, the ongoing landslide of stuff that is coming our way. But it’s good to be conscious about what those filters are constructed of, the logic by which they operate. The algebra of taste is complicated, but there’s no doubt that gender is a variable. There are distinctions to be made between between Michelle Obama and Blake Lively, between The Fault in Our Stars and The Good Lord Bird. But seriousness of intent? That’s not one of them. All of us are human, and our choices have weight. All women are serious women. None of us are kidding about it.

Follow Margaret Eby on twitter @margareteby

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