First Girl Problems

25 May

Kath Kenny has written an op-ed for Fairfax about the “first person industrial complex”, which she suggests should be retitled the “first person traumatic complex”, bemoaning that first person pieces are essentially calculated grabs for attention in a world that fundamentally misunderstands the feminist mantra “the personal is political”.

Despite a kernel of rhetorical promise, Kenny’s piece fundamentally misunderstands the nature of first person writing, all while sacrificing a bunch of women in her prayer for better writing and feminism. It’s not the first time we’ve watched a professional Cassandra enter the competitive feminist arena, nor will it be the last, but we’ve seen the cycles so often it’s less novel than an editor might think.

Feminism developed consciousness raising as a means for women to explore how they were oppressed in their lives through story telling. Not only did the storyteller derive meaning from this monologue, but so did the other participants who could find a different perspective, representation and affinity.

Men have done it since time immemorial – Herodotus’ Histories could well be retitled “crazy tales I heard in bars” and ancient Rome and Greece were drowning in apologias or confessions (as the first person tract was originally known). Feminism simply politicised what was the artistic and commercial norm for men and called it consciousness raising.

So why do women have to justify the same right as men to share their stories? The first English language autobiographies were written by women like the Book of Margery Kempe, even if she didn’t get the same attention as Augustine or Rousseau. Perhaps we interpret men as telling large stories of accomplishment, while women’s stories are considered small and domestic, insignificant in their contribution to public thought.

Which – again – underscores how incredibly important consciousness raising was and remains a feminist act. No matter how “small” the life or the trauma, there is power in sharing the story to give critical mass to representation and to the issues involved. It also recognises transformation is possible: from trauma to story, for storyteller and audience.

Take sexual assault as an example, given Kenny thoughtlessly linked to philosopher Na’ama Carlin’s memoir in Meanjin. Carlin’s piece examines the notion of victimhood from a religious, philosophical and, yes how dare she, personal viewpoint. This is a relatively common technique in some philosophical essays designed to give easy non-theoretical access to readers. Damon Young shows a similar style with his work (most notably with the Art of Reading) but is not tarred with the same brush.

Gina Rushton, an experienced journalist covering breaking news for Buzzfeed, had her Meanjin essay on the balance of mental illness and suicide reduced by Kenny to a calculated attention grab about eating disorders. That’s Kenny’s interpretation, a woman calling for better writing but not better reading comprehension.

Sophia Hewson’s video installation “Are You Ok, Bob?” about rape is classified by Kenny as a “canny marketing strategy” and “an artwork that speaks of a culture where performing terrible stories has practically become the default speaking mode for young women in the public eye”. We may have to wait some time for Kenny to catch up on art history showing Hewson as part of an incredibly long history of female performance artists using brutal imagery and performances to question society’s brutality and inaction (read her artist declaration via the above link for more).

Kenny opines “We’ve created an attention economy that tells people, particularly young and female people, that the most interesting and valuable thing about you is the worst thing that has ever happened to you”. There’s a kernel in there, but again, the point is missed with nothing to show except collateral damage.

The attention economy Kenny so fears isn’t telling women their only marketable asset is their trauma, it’s telling them it has a credible place. If economics works on supply and demand, the attention economy for trauma is meeting the market because there is so much trauma that goes unreported.

Kenny argues that, in her bid to get “first person traumatic complex” happening (not unlike fetch), we are baring too much in a calculated effort to be seen. What Kenny fails to realise is that writers don’t want to be seen, they want trauma to be seen for what it is: something that can occur in grand sweeping empires to the four walls of our homes.

Trauma such as sexual assault, which has incredibly erratic coverage in the media and where victims are either hidden (as per Carlin’s piece) or presented as downcast (Hewson). Trauma such as mental illness coverage where access to fiercely intelligent representation is denied and the sufferers either silenced or presented as victims (Rushton or Nakkiah Lui’s recent piece). Trauma such as silencing discussion around disability and sexuality (like Jax Jacki Brown over at Daily Life).

Brown’s first person piece spoke more of her actions than feelings, which at first glance might validate Kenny’s belief that “the difference between Steinem’s feminism and the kind of feminism now played out in the media and cultural industries is that where once telling a tragic personal story was just a starting point to building a movement, now it has become the whole point and the way to build a personal brand”.

But it’s a hollow argument that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

There is no single trajectory with feminist acts – there are multiple, which was why the second and third wave had so many different techniques. Consciousness raising was one. Legislative lobbying was another. Charitable works, building support services and jumping into academia are others. The list goes on but the main point is this – if you think there is only one entry point to feminist activism and one path to follow, you’re reducing women to a herd following a path you’ve denied them forming for themselves.

The feminist theory of intersectionality demands representation, amply shown by these writers who span race, sexuality, ability and activism. They aren’t building a brand – they’re demanding representation for their life experiences and activism.

It’s worthwhile revisiting intersectionality and expanding the definition. Intersectionality posits that intersections of identity oppression (race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.) can heighten the oppression one person experiences. Therefore, the oppression and trauma one woman feels isn’t the same as another. That’s why we share stories – so we can understand how it impacts others.

First person stories not only tie into feminist consciousness raising and its promise of personal enlightenment, it also creates access to representation (if properly managed by editors) and gives readers a broader understanding of lived experience outside their own daily lives – thus putting intersectional awareness into action. First person stories are crucial to this greater and diverse understanding, tying into what is known as the “identifiable victim effect” – by reading the experiences of others, they can empathise and understand the experience more intimately. Reporting doesn’t always work, we need stories.

First person stories aren’t gilded, and there are plenty of bad examples that can be found to buttress a sagging argument. There are clumsy or cynical writers in every genre within literature and journalism just as there are clumsy or cynical editors who commission and publish these pieces. But Kenny did not link to those.

In light of this, it’s more instructive to look at what Kenny does in her op-ed rather than what she says. The attention economy is actually the op-ed economy, a world where ill-informed views are hastily cobbled together with facile research and understanding but presented as concrete theories. One might even argue this can be seen in Kenny’s piece, which castigates others for their alleged superficiality, while refusing to admit the same.

Like all writing genres, there is potential for greatness, for expertise and resonance. Potential to move forward in both artistic expression and activism.

This isn’t it.


Edited to add an update: Kath Kenny spoke briefly on Twitter about the piece, most notably that “#relaxitsjustanoped”, that op ed doesn’t allow for nuance and that the reaction is part of the generational divide. So far, so facile. 

More notably is that the references to Gina Rushton and Na’ama Carlin have been removed from the article. There was no note to identify this correction, which is a standard practice in journalism. 

This panicked reaction, however, does not elevate her argument at all and simply shows that Kenny doesn’t understand either Opinion Editorial or First Person pieces.

If you’d like a more “nuanced” look at the first person op-ed economy, here’s a piece I did for Overland: the Bustle Hustle (thanks to Sonia Nair for reminding me I wrote the damn thing).



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