When White Feminists Get 'Honest,' They Also Need Empathy

Jennifer Weiner’s reaction to Oprah’s Book Club announcement wasn’t good for her or the movement.
Walter McBride via Getty Images

Jennifer Weiner, the author of novels including Good in Bed and In Her Shoes, has seen immense success over the course of her writing career. In Her Shoes was adapted into a popular film starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine. Her books hit the best-seller lists like clockwork. She has over 100,000 Twitter followers, and she routinely pens essays about feminism in the literary world for outlets like The New York Times.

One might be forgiven for thinking that Weiner has found not just enough success for one author’s lifetime, but a pretty enviable amount. Still, there can always be more.

Last week, Oprah Winfrey announced that her October Book Club selection would be a memoir about the emotional journey of a wife and mother: Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior. The book details Glennon’s struggle with alcoholism and bulimia, as well as the upheaval she fought through after discovering her husband’s infidelity.

Weiner, whose own memoir Hungry Heart will be published in October, had thought her book might be the pick ― though she had been publicly critical of Oprah in the past. She took to Facebook to vent her disappointment that another woman’s memoir of marriage and motherhood had been selected, and later deleted her initial post, which apparently contained dismissive sentiments toward Melton.

She then posted a more measured post detailing her reaction, writing:

I am not going to lie and tell you that I haven’t been really sad about this....or that there isn’t a voice in my head (a small, sad voice) that sees a slim, blond, traditionally attractive woman getting something great and thinks, Oh, well, of course. Of course that’s why. Nobody wants someone who looks like you in their magazine or on their TV show. It’s crazy and untrue and I’d never let a friend talk to herself that way...but there it is.

Some readers took umbrage with Weiner’s very public airing of her disappointment, especially since she worked through her feelings of self-described jealousy by undermining the accomplishments of another female writer.

A feminist consciousness isn’t a fair standard to hold to every woman writer, but Weiner has made a name for herself beyond her fiction as an advocate for women’s equality in the literary world. She’s gotten in debates with man’s man authors like Jonathan Franzen, whose anointing as the Great American Literary Hope with the 2010 publication of Freedom struck her as unfair, and mused on the lack of respect given to so-called “chick lit” in columns and interviews with a number of outlets. Recently she was named an advisory board member for VIDA, an organization that keeps track of women’s representation in literary journals.

And yet, even her second, apologetic post carelessly uses Melton as a convenient scapegoat for Weiner’s own admitted insecurities, implying that the other woman was tapped by Oprah because of her looks rather than because of the value of her work. Whereas Weiner was only overlooked because “Nobody wants someone who looks like you in their magazine or on their TV show.” She adds, “It’s crazy and untrue,” but apparently only because she’s being too hard on herself. She continues, “I’d never let a friend talk to herself that way.”

The website Jezebel published an article on the Facebook confession headlined “Jennifer Weiner Is Wigging Out Over Oprah’s Newest Book Club Pick,” summarizing the fracas and suggesting that the author had overshared a bit. Weiner fired back with another Facebook post arguing that Jezebel’s critique of her as “wigging out” fell in line with sexist tropes of emotional women as “crazy,” and threatened her comfort (and the comfort of other women) with being vulnerable and honest.

In fact, she argued, Jezebel’s framing pretty much directly reinforced the patriarchal oppression of women’s freedom:

I’m sorry the Jezebel writer – or whoever wrote her headline – seems to have confused “honest and unhappy” for “crazy.” Because that’s the kind of nonsense that makes it okay for men – be they dudes on the street or the head of the RNC – to complain when women don’t smile. It’s what makes women with post-partum depression post pretty pictures of their babies in the afternoon and kill themselves at night.

Weiner isn’t exactly blasting open a corridor to uncharted female territory here. In 2014, the author Ayelet Waldman tweeted a series of wounded statements about her novel Love and Treasure not being selected as a New York Times Notable Book. “It’s just so fucking demoralizing,” she tweeted. “You pour your heart into your work, you get awesome reviews, and then someone decides it’s not ‘notable.’”

In 2016, it’s hard to see what good is really being done by exorcising the petty demons of professional jealousy in public in such unfiltered, self-serving ways. Would we accept, from a white male author, such a co-opting of a rival’s moment of professional glory, such a centering of his own feelings and their expression at the expense of all other considerations?

We encourage self-expression in traditionally silenced groups, like women, not because a woman’s every feeling needs centering at all times, but because people in those groups have struggled to find space for their feelings and platforms to share their stories honestly. For women ― particularly white women ― that has started to change, thanks in part to authors like Weiner and Melton, who both prioritize the revelation of truth in service of healing. We can also thank generations of groundbreaking literary women, all the way up to the recent flood of confessional white women novelists and essayists like Sheila Heti, Meghan Daum, Leslie Jamison, Sarah Hepola, and many more.

But these authors aren’t just taking every moment and making it about them; they’re digging deep, doing the hard work to make that self-revelation broadly meaningful and yet pointed in its specificity. There are so many white women speaking honestly and writing confessionally that just doing it no longer can be called revolutionary.

So when can we step back and ask the question: Is raw honesty in the name of female empowerment no longer its own justification? When will audiences hold white women accountable for acting with privileged thoughtlessness toward the less powerful in the process of expressing themselves?

Jealousy, of course, isn’t the only subject where this query applies. Lena Dunham recently weathered backlash for a chatty interview she published with Amy Schumer in Lenny Letter; readers were outraged by a passage in which Dunham speculated that NFL player Odell Beckham, Jr., who was seated next to her at the Met Gala, didn’t speak to her because he didn’t find her sexy enough. Dunham initially responded to the outcry on Twitter by claiming that she was simply joking about her own self-doubt, not attempting to criticize Beckham, Jr.

The response left many frustrated at her apparent obliviousness to how she’d cast a shadow on the Giants star by projecting her own insecurities onto him. (Dunham later apologized directly for involving Beckham, Jr. in her personal issues and unwittingly invoking age-old stereotypes of black male sexual aggressiveness.)

Put that next to Weiner’s Facebook post, and certain similarities jump out: Weiner, too, emphasizes her own insecurities and positions her words as born from them. In her post responding to Jezebel, she wrote, “I was vulnerable about my insecurities. And maybe saying ‘this freaking sucks’ made it easier for someone else out there to be honest about her own envy, or sadness, or her insecurities or her shame, whatever un-lovely thing she was feeling.”

Maybe it’s all about her own insecurities, but even Weiner’s apology post and her tweets after taking down the initial Facebook screed held mocking and belittling notes toward Melton. “I’m proud of where I am,” Weiner writes, “and proud that I got here not because some big-deal critic told the world to read my books, or some talk-show host anointed me, but because my books connected with readers.”

Aside from a brief apology for misbehaving, there’s little empathy in her words for how Melton might feel at hearing her career highlight slyly denigrated in this way ― let alone other authors, who’ve found critical acclaim rather than commercial success like her own. As HuffPost’s Zeba Blay wrote about Dunham, the lack of awareness of how others are dragged down by her self-soothing strategies suggests an attitude that “her truth was more relevant and valid than anyone else’s.”

It hardly feels like a feminist battle-cry, to say the least.

As this latest episode hints, though, Weiner’s brand of feminism sometimes lets slip a glimpse of convenience. When male writers are getting more recognition than she is, she just wants representation for all women. When it’s another female writer, writing a similar style of book, she still feels resentful that it wasn’t her because thin, blond women are the truly privileged. When she’s called out for tearing down another woman, it’s her honesty that is the ultimate feminist virtue.

It’s hard to continue to argue that your platform is being used for the benefit of all women when you use it to make snide comments about a woman who was awarded an honor you wanted. For Weiner, it starts to look like it’s all about her. With privilege comes responsibility, and whether Weiner wants to admit it or not, she is very, very privileged. She’s white, she’s wildly successful, she has legions of adoring fans. There isn’t much of a machine for her to rage against ― in more ways than not, she is part of it.

Weiner once called me out for attacking her after I wrote a response piece to her 2015 Guardian article about the value of literary criticism, using my disagreement with her column as an example of her alma mater’s snobbish rejection of her work. (We both graduated from Princeton.) But her column about perceived Ivy League rejection was in The New York Times; I’m just a 20-something writer who’s never published a book or a print column in her life, let alone optioned a movie. Only one of us has been profiled by the alumni magazine, and, well, it wasn’t me. When does the acknowledgement come that she might be, in certain situations, the more successful, more powerful person? The person with the power to hurt? The person whose words and actions can crush?

She can continue to write Facebook notes expressing that despite being a woman with a rich career as a novelist, friendships with other famous authors and hundreds of thousands of loyal fans, she doesn’t feel cool enough to belong ― but in many ways, she does belong. That doesn’t mean she can’t be a feminist, or have hurt feelings, but it means she has reason to act with particular care, just as she’s long exhorted men like Jonathan Franzen to do. Wrapping herself in feminism at the slightest whiff of failure or controversy isn’t a responsible deployment of the movement she’s associated herself with. It doesn’t advance the cause for the other women she’s been at pains, in the past, to say she hopes to lift up.

Feminism isn’t about making sure Lena Dunham or Jennifer Weiner or Taylor Swift or other women who’ve reached the pinnacle of their careers never need to act with empathy or acknowledge their own forms of privilege and power. Using it that way is a distraction from issues that really matter, a distraction (in this case) from a huge career moment for another woman author, and a deflection from real opportunities for growth. Using it as a deflection from a powerful woman’s self-involved, thoughtless behavior circumvents conversations that need to happen to make feminism and social justice movements more inclusive, more evolved, and more kind.

Being publicly criticized after sharing your hurt must be painful. Becoming defensive is understandable. Jennifer Weiner isn’t a bad person, and neither, I’m sure, is Lena Dunham or Ayelet Waldman. But the way good people become better is by taking their honesty and growing from it, not by using it as a cudgel. The way White Feminism becomes true feminism is by embracing critique of the privilege and power enjoyed by white women who’ve become accustomed to speaking for the whole. Once the label is used simply to defend powerful white women’s self-involved, thoughtless behavior, it may cease to have any true meaning at all.

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