Fifteen years ago, my first book, Shutterbabe (not my title), a memoir of my years as a war photographer, was published to either acclaim or vitriol, nothing in between. The witch-hunty tone of some reviews—which was for the most part criticism of its author, not the work itself—came in two flavors: Either the critic cheered the woman who was both war photographer and unapologetic lover while pillorying the fact that she sold out, embraced monogamy, and had babies; or the critic wagged her finger at the loose woman and her “war voyeurism,” and was relieved when she settled down to become a sensible, married mother.
A mother. Not the author of what would become a bestselling book, but a mother.
I’m about to turn 50 now and am comfortable in my sagging skin. I’m also about to publish my fifth book, The ABC’s of Adulthood. You’d think by now I’d be blasé during the lead up to publication, since I could care less about what anyone says about me or my work—one of the true gifts of aging. And yet despite the fact that I know that this gentle, feel-good book, done in collaboration with an artist friend, cannot possibly enrage anyone the way Shutterbabe did—it’s an alphabet of simple advice for young adults, which I’d originally started writing for my now 20-year-old son when he left for college—I still enter every pre-publication period with a lingering sense of post-Shutterbabe PTSD and dread.
Out of curiosity, and because much of what was written about Shutterbabe is only in analog form, not digital, I recently pulled out my scrapbook from those long-ago days and flipped through its contents: reviews, profiles, kind letters from readers, rejection letters from agents, an award, scribbled notes, the book party invite. The sight of one profile in particular made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, so I stopped to read it.
It was a profile in Tina Brown’s former magazine, Talk, and I remember at the time being upset by it while everyone around me, friends and family alike, kept saying things like, “Eh, it’s okay. It’s not really nice, but it’s good publicity for the book.”
But nice wasn’t the issue. Mean I can deal with. Mean is fine. Scream at me, trip me on the subway, tell me my book’s a piece of trash, that I can take. What I cannot take, in any form, is sexism. Underhanded, overhanded, overt, hidden: all of it sucks and chips away at a woman’s sense of humanity, purpose, pride, and self. This profile—which I was told would be a quick sidebar Q&A to accompany the excerpt that Talk decided, at the last minute, neither to pay me for nor run, thus triggering the cancellation of a much longer profile in Vogue—contained sentence after sentence of either passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive sexist rhetoric which left me, even reading it fifteen years later, breathless.
So today, in this brave new era of feminist hashtags such as #everydaysexism, #rapecultureiswhen, and #freethenipple; of online publications such as Lenny, Jezebel, Bitch, Bust, Rookie, Feministe, Feministing; of smart feminist role models such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Beyoncé, Cheryl Strayed, Taylor Swift, Roxane Gay, Jill Soloway, Sheryl Sandberg, Shonda Rhimes, Jennifer Lawrence, Eva Longoria, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, Emma Watson, Meg Wolitzer, Katie Roiphe, Rachel Sklar, Ayelet Waldman, Nell Scovell, Liza Featherstone, and Angelina Jolie—just to name a few!—all of whom are out there, in one way or another, speaking the formerly unspeakable, I present, from its analog vault, this ancient artifact of anti-feminist rhetoric, to remind us all that, just fifteen years ago today, it was okay, in a mainstream publication, to blame a woman for her rape and call her a slut.
Herewith, my six easy steps for writing an anti-feminist profile:
1) Undermine, in the first sentence, your subject’s authority
“For years, whenever Deborah Copaken Kogan regaled Manhattan dinner party guests with tales of her misadventures in the world of photojournalism, enthralled listeners would say, ‘You should write a book!’—much in the way tall boys are encouraged to play basketball.”
2) Identify her as “a mom” instead of by her profession
“Fast forward ten years. Deborah Kogan is now 34 years old, a mom on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, long retired from photojournalism…”
3) Take her to task
in the same sentence, for choosing to work after having children…
…for hiring a babysitter, and for sexual promiscuity while simultaneously minimizing—“trying to make it”—the fact that she’d achieved what she set out to do by 22:
While casting about for something to do, something that would justify leaving her children in the care of others, it hit her—why not write about those wild years when she was fresh out of Harvard, 22, living in Paris, trying to make it in the macho world of wartime photojournalists in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and, not incidentally, sleeping with whomever she wanted whenever she wanted?
4) Blame her for getting raped
“…she moves to Cambridge, where she breaks a few hearts, gets date raped after she shows what a guidance counselor might call ‘poor judgment’…”
5) Judge her by her appearance and height
“After reading Shutterbabe…I’m expecting a mixture of Marilyn Monroe and Martha Gelhorn to walk in the door of the coffee shop on upper Broadway where Kogan and I are to meet, but instead I find a tiny five-foot-two-inch woman, more handsome than pretty…”
6) Call her, indirectly, a slut
“I ask if she’s worried that her frankness will get her labeled a slut.”
Sexist profiles like this one affect not only book sales—and therefore the author’s bottom line and her ability to keep writing new books—but also her readers’ perceptions, coloring their idea of both the author and her words before they ever read the first sentence.
I’m still proud of this book, fifteen years later. I still receive emails and messages of gratitude from readers, male and female, young and old. The older ones tell me it triggered their own explorations of the world or their careers in international journalism. The younger ones say it has made them rethink their life plans. The men write to thank me for helping them understand sexism from a woman’s point of view. Some even ask if I could sign books for their daughters. The women send thanks for normalizing discussions about periods, rape, sexual harassment, violence, the absurdities of American working motherhood, war journalism, and female desire.
That’s the true gift of writing: touching readers. It’s all I cared about when I sat down to write it, and it’s all I care about today, sending my fifth baby out into the universe, a short manual on adulthood I wish someone had handed me as I took my first tentative steps out into a world that would continually try to break me for being a woman. “Write the book that you’d want to read,” we’re told. That’s exactly what this short, ugly, masculine, rape-inducing slut of an absent mom who can’t write keeps doing.