Sadly, the “Women’s Story” Isn’t Going Anywhere

At Salon, Anna North is calling for an end to “women’s stories.” What she means by that is that she wants an end to the sex-on-campus, middle-class white women type of story that the Times ran this weekend. (I only skimmed.) Sure, okay, fine. These stories tend to take up all the space traditional outlets are willing to give to the lives of “women,” and I don’t know of anyone who loves it except those from the Planet Plum Sykes. But it squares oddly with the picture of Girls that Salon chose to accompany the article — it seems to suggest that Girls is not quite the revolution some suggest it to be. And North herself has written before on the quest to take a “girly” narrative seriously in pop culture — and then implicitly defined the “girly” narrative with cultural artifacts that are only about middle-class white women.

The tangle of these points is no accident. In fact, it encapsulates the larger reason why women’s stories won’t go away: the wisdom in publishing says “women’s stories” sell. And if we were to take Girls’ popularity as evidence — and many cultural critics do — that wisdom is, actually, true. This is why, I think, you hear stories like this one, at Vela Mag, about male editors who kept trying to turn young women journalists’ ideas for reporting into ideas for memoirs. Part of it is what the writer diagnoses: a sense that women are more consistently “personal” than men. But the other half is that the editors believe themselves to have their eyes on the cold, hard, cash of it all.

Are they even wrong? Girls has always been a strange example, because its audience is, actually, perilously small in the world of popular culture. Ten times the number of people who watched Girls watched Under the Dome, the new Stephen King network miniseries, last night. But then there is the Eat, Pray, Love global phenomenon to consider, too. Surveys conducted by the book industry put women as a majority of readers of most kinds of books. Women’s magazines, on the whole, are a morass of some serious literary journalism coupled with several risible articles about the latest thing that’s wrong with you. (Inevitably, that you are fat.) And yet even someone like me, who knows that, ends up picking one up when she has to travel, because it’s what we do, and after all, where else am I going to read by or about a woman amid today’s abysmal byline counts?

To an extent the behavior of women in this kind of cultural market is not unlike that of starving people deposited in the midst of a bunch of rotten fruit. All the reader surveys prove is that women like to read, and read they will, even if what’s available is not optimal. And writers often make compromises to get published, or filmmakers to be produced. Every woman journalist I know has been approached and pressured to formulate an article along these lines, by male and female editors alike. The key to implementing North’s suggestion has a lot more to do with gatekeepers, with the people sitting atop journalism and publishing and production budgets. A lot of those people, in short, need to be replaced. Their preferences, which are actually quite limited and alien to most of the population, aren’t driving the culture anymore. But then I suppose you could never expect the Times, king of the ON IT story, to get that.