Friday, September 28, 2012

Pictures of perfection

" you know," said Jane Austen, "make me sick and wicked", and I suspect that Holly Hilgenberg would agree with her. I've been thinking an awful lot lately about the recent article she wrote for Bitch magazine, entitled "Better homes and bloggers" (As well, of course, as all the comments). And a lot of those thoughts have been, I have to admit, kinda bitchy.

Disclaimer: Not everything I say here refers to Holly's article. This is a response to many, many articles and discussions of the same kind, many of which were much less balanced than hers. This one just happened to be around when I finally snapped.*

The thing is, I have a bit of a problem with criticism. And while Hilgenberg's article is directed at "lifestyle blogs", not "art blogs with occasional road signs and plants that look like illegal drugs", my problem with criticism is more all-encompassing than that.  What I mean is that I don't dislike only criticism directed at me, but any criticism. I get all antsy and defensive, like Leave Britney Alone Guy, of people I don't know, of people I don't even like.

OK, let me qualify that. Please, go ahead and criticise governments, court decisions, laws, politicians. Oh, right, politicians. They illustrate my point beautifully. Here it is: Criticise Julius Malema for his blatant opportunism and lack of any principles or sense of loyalty. For crying out loud stop going on about that woodwork thing. All that proves is that he's no Jesus, and we already knew that.  And criticise Sarah Palin for being so bloody Republican, but please leave her dress sense, family and face alone. See what I mean?** That's it, it's personal criticism that I hate. And talking about Sarah Palin's face, why is it always women we attack more often, and more personally? And by we, I mean other women. Liberal women. (Wasn't liberalism once meant to involve tolerance?) Feminist women.

That's the basic point of Hilgenberg's article: that women who write sweet, whimsical lifestyle blogs are anti-feminist. Why? Because they portray "pictures of perfection" - an old-timey, rustic type of "perfection" - that other women compare themselves to and, inevitably, come up short. Her argument, or the parts of it I took in through my defensiveness-glasses, boils down to two main points:
- Bloggers present idealised and edited versions of their lives. This makes other women feel bad about themselves.
- These bloggers are too rich, white, straight and middle-class, and they spend too much time doing crafty things at home and too little making money in offices. This promotes patriarchy as well as racism, sexism, homophobia and... classism, I suppose?

I'll come back to the first point later, but the second point is the one that bugs me, because while I agree with it on a societal level (it would be wonderful to see more blogs from people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and blogs that showcase a variety of lifestyles), it becomes problematic on an individual level. What is Jo, or Elsie or Abbey or Anja, to do about it? I once saw an astonishingly honest reply by a black (female) writer to a white (female) writer who had asked her what she, personally, could do about the fact that her voice (white, female) was overrepresented. Stop writing, said the black writer, and instead work to support writers of colour. Harsh, hurtful, honest as hell, it was her opinion and she had the courage to state it.

However, hardly any of the writers of this sort of article would be able to say the same thing, because it would make them massively hypocritical, since mostly (in line with the whole overrepresentation thing they're critiquing) they themselves are as white (straight, cis, etc) as the women they're criticising. Pointing fingers at other white (etc) women is their way of atoning for their own whiteness (etc); allowing their own voices to be valid while calling for other white (etc) voices to be silenced.

Because that's really what you're doing, when you say to anyone, however privileged and sugary, "There are too many of you, there should be fewer of you": You should either change, shut up or go away. Some things we can change - I'll get back to the charge of apparent perfection. But some we can't: I could sit in the sun every day and I wouldn't become any less white - I'd just die of skin cancer. (OK, this is where the criticism really hits home.) And that's where my mind goes when someone says there are too many of me: They want me to die. Silly, of course. Overdramatic, of course.

No one really wants me to go away, or even keep quiet for ever; they just want me to go around all day meditating on my sins privileges. But would the world really be made that much better if Jane Aldridge and Ree Drummond swapped their "lifestyle" blogging for feminist critiques of everything? Surely it's better for people to write about what they know, what they like, what they do best? Surely if someone is as incredibly privileged (and I mean that strictly descriptively, not perjoratively) as these women, it's good for them to turn that into a bit of entertainment, a bit of pleasure, for others? I'll be honest: I really enjoy reading these blogs. And I think there are other people who do too. I like looking at pretty pictures, and I don't think there can ever be too many "Instagram shots of early-morning trips to the flower market".

Ah, I think I see it! The weird subconscious reason why this particular article bothers me. It's the "Instagram", the "quirky", the "authentic", the "sewing machine tattoos" and most of all the article's illustration - she's invoking the bogey of the hipster! In almost exactly the same way as white women criticise white women for being white women, hipsters criticise hipsters for being hipsters. And the word gets ever closer to being meaningless. (I'll save that rant for another time!)

All right. Let's get back to the original point: the "pictures of perfection". Now, I don't personally have any problem with people who want to showcase only the pretty parts of their lives. I don't feel inferior when I read those blogs, and I don't resent their good fortune - mine is good enough, and we all know that no one can be untouched by tragedy; some people just choose not to blog about it. In fact it's comforting to me, when stuff isn't all that great, to retreat into the candy-floss world of bloggers who don't write about the bad things. But it seems that some people don't feel that way. They want "real", they want vicarious tragedy, they want angst. Do they really want all that with their daily dose of whimsical outfit posts? Oh well. It's easy for me: there's no way I'm going to post about my own personal issues because I'm not the only person in my life, because the innocent need to be protected. But maybe I'll have a rant now and again. Just to keep it real.

* Snooping around doing "research" for this post, I found Holly's own blogs. She has lots of serious stuff, but also clothes. And her writing is really good. And the subheader of one of her blogs is:
" independent. vintage. resale. thrifted. fashion writing ". One of us! One of us! "Hipsters", I mean. And whimsical she-bloggers.

** The exception is Hitler. You're allowed to do anything to Hitler's face and I won't bat an eyelid.