If every era gets the sadist it deserves—wait, what does that mean?—then it makes sense we got Tina Brown, the wicked, high-spirited and slightly out-of-it editor of Newsweek and the Daily Beast. That's our Tina: She's made dupes of her readers—as well as of the highly suggestible writer Katie Roiphe—once again. This time, Tina's whips and chains can be found on the new cover of Newsweek: "The Fantasy Life of Working Women." Or as the cover story's headline puts it, more directly, "Spanking Goes Mainstream."
The bruises can be found on the brains of anyone masochistic enough to read the article.
Tina, my onetime boss, from whom in the late 1990s I learned the dark arts of buzz production, loves to seduce and betray female writers. And she's got skills. As she once proudly told the editorial team at her short-lived magazine Talk, she likes to ask lady writers to deliver humiliating "personal histories" that feature self-loathing and lurid intimate disclosures, on the promise that they can publish anonymously.
Once the droning, predictable, scandalous articles are done—Daphne Merkin likes to be spanked!!!!!—Tina appeals to the writer's vanity. The article is terse and fearless and elegant! You're Joan Didion! (always Joan Didion). You must put your name on this!
Disgrace. You want to know about gender politics during this trumped-up "war on women"? That's one way power is wielded between women—the alpha girl feigns sympathy to get her henchwoman to confess or act out and then sits back and sneers—and it's no joke. Did anyone read Merkin's 1996 tale of her "unlikely obsession" with finding men to whack her and conclude she needed a Nobel Prize for savage honesty and lapidary prose? Not as I remember it. The take-away was, Something is wrong with Daphne Merkin.
This time, something seems to be wrong with Katie Roiphe. In dismissing the all-fours crawling and the relentless smacking of "Fifty Shades of Grey" as a "watered-down, skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism," Roiphe suggests she's thrown back way too many S&M espresso shots to be trustworthy on the subject.
At the same time she's impugning her dignity and authority (a hallmark of pieces women write to please Tina), Roiphe strikes the comfortable world-weary pose of gimlet-eyed female critics. These fake Parisiennes review seemingly sexy things—here it's the best-seller "Fifty Shades of Grey," but people did it in 1992 with Madonna's sex book and in 1986 with "9 1/2 Weeks"—only to claim that they're not sexy at all. That anal beads (?) are child's play to anyone familiar with real sadism.
Exhale black smoke—that's the next rhetorical move. Sneer, then, at the "older, suburban, possibly Midwestern woman" (as Roiphe dubs her) who is in theory titillated by such trifles. And that's where Roiphe enacts on the reader what's been done to her. Tina has forced Roiphe into this uncomfortable pose, and in public (does any woman really want to boast, "I'm more twisted and accustomed to sexual violence than anyone!"), and Roiphe comparably trusses up Newsweek readers. Over a series of bad-faith and gibberish paragraphs, she sets up the reader as a hayseed who is turned on by lite porn because she's never seen how they do it in Berlin or whatever; or—worse still—so unsuccessfully feminine and so outside of the charmed circle of female literary power that she's satisfied by regular guys who don't hit her. Thanks.
Giving another person false and heavily proscribed choices (would you rather be bruised or battered?) is a rhetorical trick used by polemicists all the time. It allows them to propose a third way—their own archcuriosity and cynicism, usually—and then force surrender. "Spanking Goes Mainstream" is quick-and-dirty propaganda, done on deadline at the behest of a harried and opportunistic editor. We're not talking Goebbels here. When done this sloppily, this kind of rhetoric usually inspires defiance. Sure enough, Twitter is alive today with tweets like this one: "Women don't want to be spanked. They just want to spank Katie Roiphe into hushed obscurity."
Best way to stop the S&M cycle of feminine sophistry and showboating? Just don't read the article. It illuminates nothing; it humiliates its writer. And given this article's clichés and dopey mind-control tricks, we're still no closer to getting another Joan Didion.
Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo News.
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