I have run out of jokes about how long this week or month or year has been, not least because this is the fourth time I’ve rewritten a piece I started on Tuesday.
At first it was about Katie Roiphe and the news that she planned to expose the creator of the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet in Harper’s March issue. But then Roiphe told The New York Times that her piece didn’t name a creator of the list:
In a later interview, Ms. Roiphe said that she herself did not know the identity of the person who started the list and added, “I would never put in the creator of the list if they didn’t want to be named.”
Yet, in an email to the woman who created the list — now publicly known to be writer and former New Republic editor Moira Donegan — a Harper’s fact checker had written: “Katie identifies you as a woman widely believed to be one of the creators of the Shitty Men in Media List. Were you involved in creating the list? If not, how would you respond to this allegation?”
This is strange, given that Roiphe’s sole contact with Donegan was a single email in December asking if she had any interest in speaking about the “feminist moment” for a Harper’s piece. Donegan declined, having no idea that Roiphe suspected her of creating the list or had any intention of exposing her as having done so.
It’s not uncommon for fact checkers to assist in the reporting process, as researchers. Still, Roiphe’s approach comes off as duplicitous, even cowardly. Was Katie Roiphe, a woman who has long delighted in publishing contrarian takedowns of feminism — who has for more than two decades been praised, sometimes begrudgingly, for seeming impervious to and even relishing the anger she brought out in other women — afraid to be honest with Donegan? Why would she leave the hard questions to her fact checker, lie to The New York Times, mislead Donegan, and not dare to email her more than once?
I can’t tell you the answer to that for sure, because I emailed Roiphe to ask and she hasn’t written back. I also emailed New York University’s journalism program, where Roiphe is a professor and a director, and got no response. I contacted Harper’s editor James Marcus, who politely directed me to their publicist, Giulia Melucci, who replied: “We can talk about the piece when the piece is published.”
Roiphe did take to Twitter to defend herself, a bit, employing language so classically Roiphean, I almost laughed:
People who criticize Roiphe are “confused.” They lack “perspective.” In the Times piece about the backlash against her, she characterized it as “hysteria.”
It’s stunning to watch Roiphe use the language of gaslighting with such ease. But of course she did: she’s been doing it for a quarter century, ever since she made her name in the early ’90s by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that men were the true victims of date rape. She’s dined out on the attention ever since, recycling that position: the Woody Allen of cultural criticism.
She has long seemed to see herself as the enfant terrible of the feminist movement, even when the movement itself saw her largely as a privileged dilettante with rich parents, one of whom helped facilitate her ability to be made into a cultural icon. Jennifer Gonnerman wrote well about this in her 1994 piece for The Baffler, “The Selling of Katie Roiphe.” In her piece, Roiphe isn’t a powerful supervillain, she’s a mouthpiece manufactured by The New York Times to shut down a movement that didn’t serve its purposes:
By making Katie Roiphe the new celebrity feminist, the Times aimed to create the illusion of being on the cutting edge of sexual politics. Its discovery and single-handed championing of this latest variety of feminism may have ostensibly served to “further debate,” but it actually did little more than prop up the Times‘ long-standing opposition to feminism’s more radical strains. Coming out of the mouth of a young, self-proclaimed feminist, the idea that date rape is the product of young women’s hysteria had legitimacy.
In that initial Times piece — which she later strung out from an already-long 600 words into a 200-page tome that some misguided Gender Studies programs still inflict on college students — she decided that it can’t possibly be true that one in four women on college campuses are victims of rape, because she hasn’t heard about it. Is it any wonder that her peers did not think it was a good idea to confide in Roiphe, a woman who wrote about them with condescension so lacking in empathy that it comes off almost pathological?
Enter Moira Donegan, the creator of the fabled Shitty Media Men list. Donegan “outed herself,” so to speak, in a magnificent essay published Wednesday night by The Cut:
We spent hours teasing out how these men, many of whom we knew to be intelligent and capable of real kindness, could behave so crudely and cruelly toward us. And this is another toll that sexual harassment can take on women: It can make you spend hours dissecting the psychology of the kind of men who do not think about your interiority much at all.
I could quote endlessly from it, but you should read it yourself, because it is a masterpiece — and thank heavens. It feels so cynical to say that at first I could only whisper it to select friends, but: can you imagine if Donegan was even one percent less talented as a writer? Can you imagine if this piece was even slightly imperfect? Donegan was up against impossible stakes and cleared them with air to spare. She writes honestly and bravely, with grace and clarity, perfectly articulating concepts and feelings that so many of us have been grasping at for months without ever quite gripping.
I have known Donegan was the creator of the list since I first saw it, back in October, because I am a reporter and that is a thing I cannot turn off: I figured it out, found her private Twitter, and requested to follow her. She accepted and followed me back, and after she took the list down, I sent her a message.
“I’m sorry you had to take it down, but thank you for making it. It was the only thing that made me feel not full of despair this week,” I told her.
She thanked me back, and told me she took it down because she was afraid she was putting the women who added names and allegations in danger. “It’s so fucked up that the consequences for speaking out about this stuff are so much greater than the consequences for doing it,” she said. “I hope one day the world deserves all of these amazing women.”
In the months that followed, she became a source of comfort for me. When I was frustrated by some of the backlash, I went to her, and she understood. I could see why she was a nexus in this whisper network, why people trusted her, her ability to make people feel seen and heard and understood. She is, in a way, the anti-Roiphe.
I say that being a reporter is a thing I can’t turn off, but the truth is, before the list, that instinct in me felt snuffed out. After the first Harvey Weinstein broke, I felt suffocated for days, like I was being buried alive. I didn’t know why. I should’ve felt exhilarated, no? Women were getting justice, and it was all thanks to journalism, the great love of my life. Why couldn’t I see this as a the good thing it was? Why did I instead feel like I was dying? I cancelled plans, burrowed under the covers, and sobbed tears that felt like they both were and weren’t my own.
And then someone shared the list with me. I still acutely remember the feeling of watching it change and grow in front of my eyes. At first I thought the feeling was exhilaration, but then I realized it was relief. It was the feeling of having an extremely heavy burden lifted from you. Do you know that feeling? A magical sort of lightness. As I told Donegan at one point, it felt meaningful, even powerful, amid so much powerlessness.
Jodi Kantor mentioned in an interview with The Cut that she couldn’t have done the Weinstein stories without her reporting partner Megan Twohey (though many media outlets seem determined to give Kantor sole credit). She and Twohey needed each other, not just because it was a monumental reporting lift, but because they needed someone to share the burden of their experience. She said:
One of the saving graces of this process has been the partnership with Megan because this was a responsibility that we each needed to share with another person. We barely knew each other when we teamed up on this story. Not only were we in constant communication with each other and not only did we compare notes, check judgment, and plot strategy on those matters great and small, but the weight of this reporting is such that you just need somebody to share it with. A lot of the stories we heard are incredibly disturbing, and you don’t want to carry those alone.
That kind of support is vital, and not easy to come by. For decades, women have feared speaking out in part because of what a solitary and often isolating experience it was. The internet has been a gamechanger in this regard, and there’s a certain irony in Harper’s — a legacy publication so resistant to the World of Online — not understanding that. The list’s accessibility online connected us to one another, even anonymously. The #MeToo movement on Twitter — which Roiphe no doubt will take issue with as well — did that too. These things made us safer, they made us bolder, and most importantly, they allowed us to support one another in a way we never could before.
That’s what was happening that night as I watched the list grow and tracked the number of people logged into the document. Twenty, then 40, then 70. Even before some of the men on the list were investigated and resigned or fired, seeing all these women put down on paper the things we all knew and burned with the knowledge of felt like the most immense relief. We’d been sharing them among ourselves, whispering them without names or details, partly because we were so sure nothing would ever change, and partly because we were terrified of being branded problematic or troublesome by the older generations whose approval we needed to succeed in this industry and craved after watching them pave the way before us.
In those fluttery, self-conscious whispers lay so much self-doubt and self-blame. This happened; does it sound as bad as it felt? Do you think I’m overreacting? Am I weak? Seeing the charges in words on a page, for someone for whom words on a page are the greatest things imaginable, felt like we were finally throwing out all that harmful self-criticism and holding our heads up and really finally saying, this isn’t how it’s going to be anymore.
It is no wonder that some women reached the conclusion that to be strong and fierce, one must be unbothered.
A foundational premise of Roiphe’s initial argument back in the ’90s was that to speak your mistreatment aloud is to be a victim. This is the truth in which many of us were raised — and it was the truth for a long time, because of the repercussions when women did speak up. Death threats, rape threats, job loss, public humiliation, and worse. Some believed this because it was what they saw with their own clear eyes; others, like Roiphe, out of some calculus that to be women who were not problematic to men was the way forward.
But it is not the truth in which we will thrive. To paraphrase Roiphe’s own words from her coming-out column in 1993, that assertion is not fact. It is advertising a mood. And — unfortunately for Roiphe and for Harper’s, both of whom, it seems, would prefer things stay ever-the-same — the mood has changed.
The women speaking out these past few months, Donegan among them, have changed this math. To speak up is not weakness, it is courage. After Donegan’s piece was published, I watched so many people, men and women, herald her bravery, and it struck me that the momentum of this moment may now be unstoppable. What a rush that is. What a rush, and what an enormous relief.