Our Girl Friday: Female Confessional Journalism

Posted at 10:30 AM Jul 03, 2009

By Geoff George

Thumbnail image for 200px-ProzacNationBook.jpg

Trying to read Prozac Nation in college, I remember my attempt dragging about three-quarters of the way through. It was too much. Not too much emotion, but too much confession, the same feelings repeated over and over, a pattern of "I was doing fine, and then the bottom fell out, and then I was feeling okay, and then the bottom really fell out, and then I was holding on by a thread, and then the bottom truly fell out." It's a sad story, yes, but at the same time there's something about the book that feels a little exhibitionist, and therefore sad in another way altogether.

Hadley Freeman of The Guardian wrote an article this week on an emerging media genre that she calls "female confessional journalism," and she provided a description a lot of people can probably recognize:

"Here's how it goes: a female journalist describes her obsession with her weight/breasts/ageing face/food or alcohol problems/inability to have a happy relationship. The article is illustrated by the journalist looking as miserable as possible. There are tales of daily woe. It concludes with the writer still sufficiently unhappy to be commissionable for another very similar piece."

She mentions a few particularly bummer-inducing reads, one by Christa D'Souza detailing the pain and grief she went through while undergoing three separate breast implant surgeries, and another by Liz Jones, a confessed anorexic who underwent a three-week period of eating "normally." Freeman argues these narratives do more harm than good, to both writer and reader, perpetuating an image of women as self-loathing and image-obsessed in passages like this from the Jones article:  

"Being this way made me not just socially awkward, but unlovable: I've always hated being touched, hugged, naked, half-dressed on holiday, in case I'm found wanting, in case someone felt or saw an extra ounce of flesh. Being this thin meant I never got pregnant; I have menstruated perhaps half-a-dozen times in my life."

Most mind-boggling and saddest of all is the way these stories are packaged, with taglines at the top of the screen such as "Fatten me up! What happened when former anorexic Liz Jones had to eat normally for three weeks," and pictures of the writers first-and-foremost at the top of the article, baring the offending portions of their bodies. Which means that some photographer and editor sifted through dozens of pictures to figure out how best to put the writers on display, very possibly while only pretending to care.

Amanda Fortini weighs in from Salon.com, saying that confessional writing's been around for a long time, written by both women and men, and that it's a perfectly acceptable, valuable form.  She's not wrong, and maybe Prozac Nation's worth revisiting, but these new stories seem different.  With the kooky taglines and poses before a camera, they seem more like products.  "Step right up and observe some female hardship," they say.  On a level, it encourages placing the writers under a microscope rather than empathizing with their pain, which in turn encourages further examination of ourselves under the microscope, and we all know how much fun that can be.

Freeman suggests editors pump out these pieces because they attract attention, which is probably true. Good or bad, a reaction's a reaction in a business that relies on readership for revenue. Yay, capitalism.  But people would still read newspapers and news sites that stick to stories with relevance, right?  I doubt people would be clamoring for random, emotionally cheapened reports of personal woe if they suddenly went away.  That's all I'm sayin' ...

[via Jezebel]

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