March 13, 2012

Unedited Bitch

Last fall, a lovely Minneapolis-based writer, Holly Hilgenberg, interviewed me via email for a piece she was working on, for Bitch magazine. It just came out. (Here it is.)

From her emails to me, and from her interview questions, I had a sense of her intentions for the article, which is about lifestyle blogging reifying traditional female domesticity. In typical fashion, I had a lot of thoughts about things and went off on a few tangents. Basically, 1% of what I said was useful. 

But her questions provided me the chance to think about the potential critiques of what happens in spaces like these. I remain interested in her questions about consumerism, the benefits of blogging for women, and the idea of unrealistic expectations. So, for your reading pleasure, I will now copy and paste below the entire interview (with no "read more" break because I don't know how to do that and refuse to look it up at 1am.)


So here it goes:
First, the basics:
How and when did your blog start?
My foray into blogging started in 2008 when Michael (now husband, then boyfriend) and I moved from San Diego to Minneapolis. At first, we were just writing to family and friends about this life change. It was redesigned as Loveship with a focus on clothing in 2009. At that time, I felt I had no one to share my interests with, and wanted to reach out to others to discuss ideas about dress and clothing.
What is your purpose of blogging? Has this purpose changed over the life of the blog? If so, how?
In the beginning, it was simply a way to connect with people who share this “special interest,” a fixation on clothing. But from the start I always imagined that any such interest, be it skiing or video games or bicycles or quilting, could be discussed in a way that brings out its implications, effects, formations, and values not just for individuals but for societies and environments. 
Some change came with finding an audience. I wasn’t sure if my essay-like, heavy posts were alienating or attracting people. Like, are they here for the pictures or the words? This made me question my voice. I hesitated for a bit, but I now try to write in a way that aligns with my intellectual pursuits, my driving questions.
To directly respond to your question, though, the purpose is a fuzzy thing for me. Instead, I think about a set of central topics or themes that I’m dealing with. Often what I’m doing on the blog becomes more clear to me after the fact, when posts are published and I re-read them. It has as much purpose as any essay or essay collection – it’s about navigating the worlds we occupy and trying to be aware of the values that inhere in everyday thoughts and decisions.
What sort of feedback/response have you gotten from readers about what you post? How have readers responded to your more critical posts?
For a long time my more thoughtful posts would receive the least comments and feedback. Just recently, though, one such post received many more comments than usual, and they were overwhelmingly supportive. While a few people have been put off by my critical posts, most seem to respond well to a bit of critical inquiry.
What benefits has running your blog led to? What drawbacks?
It has brought me into conversation with a number of smart and talented people (like you!), most of whom are young women. I have made the strongest connections with other bloggers in distant parts of the world. These are people I feel I know well enough to meet in person, if we were ever in the same city. There is the open possibility of collaboration, or at least of having a meaningful conversation with someone I would have otherwise never met.
It is also a way to figure out how I want to write, what I want to write about, and what I want my public voice to sound like. But it’s low key and personal, so I can have fun with it, much moreso than my academic writing.
I may be missing something, but I can only think of two potential drawbacks at this point. One, I’ve essentially given myself another “job.” It’s my hobby and leisure activity, but it takes time. I sometimes wonder if it’s distracting from “real,” read: socially-determined-as-more-important, work. Which leads to two: I think it could undermine my academic ambitions, since fashion and blogging and especially fashion blogging is probably not considered a CV booster for most university hiring committees. That said, this isn’t really my concern right now. I’m writing about how I live and sharing my thoughts, as informed by the things I read and my philosophical alignments. I even use footnotes sometimes! How many people will likely read my dissertation anyhow?

On lifestyle blogs in general:
What sort of function do you see lifestyle blogs having (for the bloggers, readers, possibly larger society)?
We want to see blogging as a new, different, special thing that might hold some new possibilities for social change. At least this is what the internet democracy rhetoric would have us think. But I’m not a technological determinist. I think the function is a pubic space. People by and large seem to use it just as they have other public spaces. For many lifestyle blogs, this function becomes self-aggrandizement and the open pursuit of desire for aesthetically pleasing objects, which is reproduced in many impressionable readers.
As for society, this is the perfect space for more fully realizing the dream of consumer society: branded identities. By making a set aesthetic – J. Crew mom, goth weirdo, vegan bike messenger, whatever – many bloggers are primed for the idea of a purchased lifestyle. This isn’t just a “good” or “bad” thing. I think there are interesting possibilities for blogs, brands, businesses. Some bloggers might be happy to take a paycheck from a large corporate interest. But others may choose to align themselves in ways that traditional media couldn’t facilitate. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I think blogs have become increasingly static and mainstream, but that goes for the whole of the internet.
This question is hard because it really gets to the effects of social media and new technology, which I’m no expert in.
Over the years, what sort of trends have you seen emerge as lifestyle blogs have become more popular?
Well aside from fashion blogs driving actual fashion trends (rather than trends being determined by visionary designers or Conde Nast magazines), there are the broader trends of: more young people presenting themselves online and trying to figure out their “identity” in this public sphere that is bigger than a hometown/high school social circle, bloggers becoming public figures within traditional media, and blogging becoming for a very few a real source of income. These things seemed unexpected at first, but as soon as there are a few “blogging celebrities” of course many more are going to try to emulate that idea of success. It has created a new, pretty strange, way to be successful. Basically more people can be like Martha Stewart and turn a lifestyle into an income.
Do you feel as though there has been a homogenization of this media type over the years? Why or why not (and if so, how has it become homogenized)?
Absolutely. As some gained fame and income from blogging, many more than ever before wanted to get in on it. Everyone thinks their life could be an interesting story, or that they have something to contribute. On almost every major fashion blog with and FAQ section, there is a response to some version of the question, “How do I become a successful blogger?” The fact that this is such an overwhelmingly common question shows that people want a formula, a set of things they can do or say that will result in some semblance of fame.
This media is also homogenized by the recycling of the same images via things like tumblr, pinterest, and polyvore. And it’s homogenized by corporate money, which wants a just-slightly risky investment, meaning, something that’s already proven. I don’t see it as some alternate reality. A lot of what you see online is like a self-ethnography of society: genres and sub-cultures and in-groups form, and the familiar dynamics emerge. At the same time I could entertain the argument that blogging shows how fragmented culture is becoming.
Do you think lifestyle blogs promote unrealistic expectations for women? Why or why not?
Yes, most popular bloggers are conventionally attractive. Yes, most popular bloggers seem to hail from the top income brackets on a worldwide scale of wealth versus poverty. And there is certainly a cult of individualism that needs to be challenged, when the goal becomes b-list internet celebrity status and free goods and services. But how women define their goals is bigger than the work of individual bloggers.
So, no, I don’t think unrealistic expectation are promoted by lifestyle blogs. I mean an honest answer would be, “perhaps,” but I think people need to own up to their own expectations of themselves, bloggers included. People need greater media literacy and critical thinking skills to make sense of what they are seeing. I think unrealistic expectations are promoted by parents, teachers, magazines, TV, movies, etc. But my version of unrealistic can be very different than yours, and what is this “unrealistic” anyhow?
I highly valued the escapism offered by media when I was growing up, because I needed something unrealistic when realism was harmful. I needed something to look forward to in a shitty situation, be it the possibility of one day having a tranquility-inducing interior design or a neatly organized wardrobe or simply feeling beautiful. I think that the negative value implied by the phrase “unrealistic expectations” is better mitigated by encouraging young women and girls to figure out what they really value about themselves and their life situations, and highlighting those positive aspects of their being. And many blogs actually show women doing just this.
How do you see consumerism fitting into lifestyle blogs?
I see consumerism fitting into lifestyle blogs the same way I see it fitting into the culture out of which lifestyle blogs emerged: it is everywhere. And we need better tools for thinking about what it means, why and how it matters, and how it can be changed to bring about less suffering.
Framed as an “-ism,” there is a lot of baggage that comes with this term, which I want to challenge. This is a big part of what I write about, because we all consume clothes. So, let’s talk about it. Beyond the basic fact of an exchange, not all sales of clothing are profitable, and certainly not all are profitable for the same people in the same ways. But what else is transferred in these exchanges, what other values are being dealt with beyond monetary ones? Can we change the way we consider purchases to include the non-monetary values in play? Some bloggers started openly talking about and dealing with the questions of consumerism, especially because of the recession, and commenters bring it up as well. So in some cases, blogging has brought about a discussion of things that in the past, if you had “class,” it was taboo to talk about.
How does the role of privilege play into the creation and success of lifestyle blogs?
Privilege is always a great help in getting ahead in life, and blogging is no different. It’s easy to notice that most successful bloggers are very privileged people. But, how is success defined? If success is that thing that privileged people already have easy access to in the first place, of course success by this measurement is easier for the privileged in blogging. This links to the homogenized and corporate aspects of blogging – monetary success is no different online. The things that drive profits haven’t been radically altered because some people self-publish their thoughts and pictures.
Is blogging still a way for new creative types to promote themselves? Why or why not?
Sure, it is another tool. Since much of American education has been so deprived of creativity, I think there is still potential for people to use blogging as a resource to showcase work and connect with others.
What benefits do you see lifestyle blogs having for women?
I think there are many. Women are overwhelmingly supportive of one another in blogging, even if this appears superficial (ie comments like “I love this!” or “You look great!”). And negativity, trolling, and rude or harmful comments are generally shunned by the community that forms around a particular blog. Where else in life can numerous people tell you that you are awesome every day as a woman, especially for sharing your thoughts and appearing confident? The comments I’ve received online have been much better for my self-confidence and comfort in my womanhood that those I’ve received walking down public streets.
And to go back to the “unrealistic expectations” question, many of the blogs I read are authored by women who have features, looks, ideas, and ways of being, that are not widely represented in the media. And when communities form around such women, there is the chance that viewers redefine their norms and standards just a bit.
Women can find their voice through blogging, many of whom would not have been recognized as particularly talented at, well, anything. For many this is the first public thing they’ve done, and it won’t be the last. Lifestyle blogs might be one of the biggest shared and open-ended public spheres that women have made for themselves. Not that “we’re all in this together” per se, but there is a sense that women can use this media and turn to this media to have control over how “women’s issues” are framed.
Women really seem to dominate this media category. What I would really like to see at this point is more investigation of the thoughts, motives, and possibilities for young men regarding masculinity. For a while my husband blogged with me, and he was interested in raising questions about his own masculinity. Blogging inspired these conversations we may have otherwise never had, about everyday acts of homophobia and power plays among men. I would love to see this openly addressed on men’s blogs, but perhaps it isn’t precisely because men don’t want to lose the power that inheres in upholding masculinity without talking about it or naming its effects.
What are possible drawbacks to lifestyle blogs being utilized to promote female bloggers and their work? 
I’m really drawing a blank on these “drawbacks” questions! I’m clearly biased toward blogging, and don’t want to think about it having negative implications for my own work. So I’m going to just naively respond that I think sharing your work is a good thing. Of course, I think we all have to exercise discretion about what we share and why, which is going to depend a lot on your field and your current work situation. But in general I’m for greater openness. People say there is too much already: too much information, too much personal opinion, too many people sharing their thoughts and feelings. Sure, this can be true. But there isn’t enough openness to new possibilities and ways out of nefarious old habits and traditions, both personal and social. So presenting work that challenges the status quo, including the status quo of self-centered over-sharing and mindlessness, is welcome.
And finally, are there any lifestyle blogs you would recommend checking out for the purpose of this article? If so, you can also let me know what your thoughts are about them....

One Sleepless Night – this is by Stephanie from Toronto. She’s awesome and smart, just finished undergrad, studies film, writes about gender pretty often. She is someone I’ve developed a connection with her through blogging.

The Luxe Chronicles – I just found this woman recently, because of a critical post and exchange about her post that happened on twitter. She was talking about the co-optation of bloggers by brands, and I link to her in my similar post. I am not in personal contact with her, but follow her. And she seems to be a very wealthy woman with traditional luxury taste. But she regularly posts about the disconnect between the growing luxury market and increasing poverty, privacy issues online, and seems to have an interest in the relationship between wealth and consumerism and global inequality.

Other than those two, nothing is presently coming to mind. I don’t actually follow that many blogs I would consider “lifestyle” blogs, or many other fashion blogs in general. I have a limited amount of time for perusing the internet, actually.

Do you consider your writing to be from a feminist perspective?



Claudette said...

Dooood, I read everything! And that's no small feat considering my dwarfed attention span for Internet reading. 

Two things, one, "I loved this" and "you look great!" two, your sense of reflection is insane. You understand and put things in context much like a historian. And without the luxury of time and retrospection. I love that you aren't negative in your responses (unlike some people I know *points a finger in the mirror*:-/ ) You're critical but you're an optimist. Is there such a thing as a lyrical realist? If there is then you're it.

ana said...

wow, this is an amazing and insightful and thought-provoking read.

Corinna said...

I looooove this! J/K I do love this, but, you know.

I'm glad you pointed out that there's less trolling on female-oriented blogs. Stereotypes aside, I think there's far fewer female trolls. I get a lot of male creeps on my blog, but not so much in the way of female trollers.

eri said...

well said.

i've only skimmed the Bitch article (currently at work) but it does come off as a little too negative for me.

like Claudette, i appreciate your restraint in not pointing fingers. critical but optimistic is a good place to be.

Syed said...

Thanks for posting this, really really enjoyed reading it. I totally agree with you that many blogs have gone mainstream, they seem to have melded into the fashion industry and lost the 'voice' that made them unique in the first place. I've always thought that blogging was a way to make fashion less scary and esoteric, to be outside that very closed sphere where people are scared to criticise or question. However in the mixing of blogging and business, in terms of the business that is fashion, I fear blogs risk turning into the very thing they were set up to provide an alternative to.

I agree with you on the popular bloggers, so many have become a platform to simply show off the latest freebie or with posts dedicated to a single 'it' item the blogger is wearing that results in rather depressing comments reading - "[x designer] is my hero, those [shoes/bag/dress] looks SO good on you. Follow my blog!".