Taking Advantage of Girl Power

This weekend, journalist Jessica Grose (you’ve read her on Slate/XX Factor, the New York Times, and Fast Company’s Co.Create) published a brief, sassy piece in the Times about her girly voice.

Without perhaps meaning to, her column captures one of the central dilemmas for women of her generation: How to be yourself, a woman, in an industry where womanly qualities are grounds for not taking you seriously.

She talks about how she talks. Like many young women, Jessica discovered that upspeak – that sometimes annoying way of turning a comment into a question – could turn debates into dialogues, inviting others to share their opinions even if they disagreed. It’s a very feminine way of engaging people in a media culture that typically asks commentators to stake out their ideological territory and defend it.

Jessica went to a speech coach to try to fix her problem, but in the end, she decided to keep the way of speaking that had worked for her so far, perhaps precisely because she was underestimated:

Though [upspeak] doesn’t sound authoritative, it may sound egalitarian and accepting. In an interview situation, that may cause a source to open up to me.

Many women in my binder have said the same thing. I think they, and Jessica Grose, have the right approach. Instead of going to coaches who teach us how to be more like men, we should walk through the doors that womanhood – and even being underestimated – open for us. Eventually, we will become the norm.

We, The Bloodthirsty

Read this now. It’s a brilliant, powerful, shocking piece by Italian freelance journalist Francesca Borri under the somewhat misleading title, “Woman’s Work.” She briefly addresses her gender head-on, but it’s the media establishment at large that is truly damned.

See, it’s not just Aleppo that’s “all gunpowder and testosterone.” It’s the newsrooms.

Earlier this year, I strongly considered going into journalism. I already spent a year in Afghanistan and speak one local language fluently, the other enough to break the ice. I thought perhaps I could use that to build connections and bring their stories to the world. When I started pitching story ideas to traditional outlets, I realized that my background was more interesting only if I were willing to throw my former employer under the bus or use my skills to uncover some sort of scandal. Apparently, where people put themselves at risk to do good, there’s no “story.”

I admire those who put their lives at risk, as Borri does, regularly, for almost no pay. But for every much-lauded story of a journalist (male, almost always) who grows a beard and embeds with an Afghan National Army unit or dresses up like the Taliban or rides a motorcycle across the desert, there are dozens of positive stories that are intentionally overlooked by newsrooms consumed by bloodlust, like the editor who asked Borri to live-Tweet her captivity. We need to make space for thoughtful young Afghan men and women telling their own stories. We need to make space for other truths.

My Afghan friends are frustrated by the stories foreign journalists empower. Those stories feed back into the local media and influence the way people think. If the Taliban are just going to win anyway, why should any Afghan stick around? If the only stories you read are of terror and failure, then it is hard to picture any other reality. In describing only suffering, we in fact perpetuate it.

That is not to knock what Borri and others do. Millions of people are huddled there, in that “dark, rancid corner,” begging the world to do something. Here’s one thing we can do: Instead of empowering only narratives of death and destruction, we can hold hands with a Syrian refugee, buy soccer balls from a Pakistani child, choose to read stories about people making a difference.

We can dare to live and love and speak our truth, even in a world that is “no place for a woman.”


Wooing Meg Whitman

HP SuitorsReally, New York Times?

Good writers create atmosphere with word choice. Did the character dash, sprint, or scurry to the next appointment? Sunlight pierces a stabbing victim’s eyes; for a politician about to be exposed by the media, it glares. The best writers do this subtly, so that, without telling you that the character feels a sense of loneliness, you know it because she describes the furniture as solitary, the floor-to-ceiling windows that she once hoped would erase her inner walls as riot shields.

Usually this is an unconscious choice. But Michael J. de la Merced and the editors at the Times most definitely knew what they were doing when they described potential buyers for two HP units as “suitors.” Did Meg Whitman put her Electronic Data Systems on display and maybe jiggle them a little when investors came over to check them out? I would guess not. But you had better believe that no one would have used the word “suitors” if previous CEO Leo Apotheker had been the one to put HP’s goods on the market.

Another day, another stupid media portrayal of a successful woman. Onward.