Talking About Yourself Isn’t Narcissistic, The Personal Is Political


It is difficult to write a published book. It is difficult to get tenure in the astrophysics department at Berkeley. It is difficult to win the Heisman Trophy. But it is easy to get married.
-Elizabeth Wurtzel, New York Times, September 2014

This September, bad-girl writer Elizabeth Wurtzel got engaged, just over a year after she wrote an article on “Her One-Night Stand of a Life” in New York Magazine. The latter article received its fair share of media criticism while the article quoted above received, as far as I can tell, none. I won’t waste time explaining the disparate treatment of the articles because it is painfully obvious.

Elizabeth was 46 when she wrote the first article. She discussed how she neither had nor desired a husband or children. She said that her primary achievement in the realm of growing up is that she no longer bumps cocaine before she goes running. What resonated with me in particular was the following: “Meanwhile, most people who think they are practicing law are actually making binders, and my guess is that most people who think they are doing whatever important thing they are doing are making binders.” I live in Washington, D.C., a town where everyone thinks that what they’re doing is important. Also I’m a lawyer, and I don’t make binders, but I do make case files, which are like binders but even smaller. My coworker who inexplicably graduated from a top ten law school introduced me at a party at her house as her “colleague.” I’m sure that she thinks what she does is very important.

Slate’s Amanda Marcotte called the article a “narcissistic…word dump,” contending that she disagreed with its premise “violently.”

Jezebel’s Tracie Egan Morrissey says Wurtzel “pours her heart out onto the page” and “makes a fucking mess.” Morrissey says that it takes Wurtzel “5,500 words” to explain something “that is perfectly encapsulated in four letters: YOLO.” Mmmmkay. I’m sure Marcotte and Morrissey think that what they are doing is very important.

I’m not sure why Wurtzel went to law school, and neither does she: she’s a “free spirit” and went on a “lark.” I went to law school because it was expected of me, because it prolonged my entry into the real world, because it allowed me to continue wearing leggings and playing beer pong and critiquing oppressive systems in plush classrooms like I was in college. But one year ago I became a lawyer and the idea that this career is who I am makes me want kill myself.

Don’t worry, I’m not suicidal; I love myself way too much to kill myself for real. I’m prone to hyperbole. And I have terrible FOMO. How could I kill myself when it would mean missing out on Emily’s birthday party and the next Kanye album? I am not a free spirit, although my tousled blonde hair which perpetually looks as though I’ve just gone surfing may suggest otherwise. I like that Wurtzel acts as though she’s a total stunner, writing that men she dated in her 20s (“more than one of them”) have turned up after marriages “so sure” that “they were wrong to let [her] go.” She wrote in Harper’s Bazaar in 2012 that feminists need to try harder to look hot: “I want everyone to try as hard as I do to please be gorgeous, because it’s not that hard, girls.” But a Google image search reveals that the woman isn’t exactly Gwyneth Paltrow. I like it because writing is all about fantasy. I don’t really look like a surfer.

Marcotte mused, smugly, whether Hamilton Nolan paid Elizabeth Wurtzel to make a point for him: that Journalism Is Not Narcissism, that journalism schools should be training the next generation to report the world around them rather than teaching memoir-esque confessional writing. I’m personally looking forward to more confessional writing. Twitter took the personality out of journalism. People used to read for a new perspective, for an idea, for a new way to think; now, it’s about snippets of facts. 87 people hurt in Calif. Earthquake; 3 in critical condition, including 1 child. ISIS siege cuts off small Iraqi town from food, water. Chris Brown’s VMA party turns violent; gunshots wound 3. (These are all actual CNN tweets from 8/24/2014.) These tweets give me information, technically, but I don’t feel like I’m learning anything.

Wurtzel is the exact type of woman that society loves to hate, that basic bitches who write for Jezebel and Slate love to dismiss. She is very smart – Harvard undergrad, Yale law school “on a lark” – and she does what she wants. She isn’t agreeable. She doesn’t cater to men, but men still want to have sex with her. They think about her when they have sex with their agreeable wives.

People hate Elizabeth Wurtzel the way they hate Lena Dunham. (The New Yorker suggested that Dunham’s Girls’ character, Hannah Horvath, would have “devoured” the article.) Although I don’t suspect that anyone is thinking about Lena Dunham when they have sex, both Dunham and Wurtzel publicly occupy spaces historically prohibited to women. Wurtzel, 44, thin, blond, Yale Law School “on a lark,” is unmarried by choice. Lena Dunham flaunts a curvy figure and puts her writing career over everything and everyone in her life. The media called her Girls’ character a Monster when her sole reaction to her editors’ death included wondering what would happen to her book. I didn’t find anything monstrous about the reaction; I probably would have had the same one. But for a woman to put her career before her feelings, people react badly.

We laugh at Larry David’s lack of feelings on Curb Your Enthusiam. We laugh when his wife calls him from a plummeting airplane and Larry David can only talk about how the TiVo guy is late. We laugh at men’s ability to detach from their emotions. We laugh at their untactful moments and their sexual exploits. But for a woman to occupy this space, she is a Monster.

In Joan Didion’s famous late 1960’s essay, The White Album, in which she writes about Black Panther Party meetings, a Doors recording session, and several prison meetings with a witness to the Sharon Tate murders, she includes a psychiatric report: “The patient to whom this psychiatric report refers to is me.” It refers to her as “fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive,” concluding that “Emotionally, patient has alienated herself almost entirely from the world of other human beings.” It was the summer of 1968, Didion had suffered an “attack of vertigo and nausea,” which put her in the psychiatric clinic of St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, “shortly before I was named a Los Angeles Times ‘Woman of the Year.’”

“The personal is political,” I once heard Dunham say in an interview about her recent book, Not That Kind of Girl. I thought this was a pretty brilliant way of diffusing attacks of being self-absorbed, one that I started using myself. But when I just Googled the phrase, I realized that it not in fact something Dunham invented. It has its own Wikipedia page. “The phrase was popularized by the publication of a 1969 essay by feminist Carol Hanisch under the title ‘The Personal is Political’ in 1970, but she disavows authorship of the phrase.” Apparently Gloria Steinem has “likened claiming authorship of the phrase to claiming authorship of World War II.” So it appears women using themselves to as a platform to explore the world around them has a strong history in both journalism and second wave feminism.

Yet, today, in 2014, I just continue to hear women calling other women narcissistic for writing about themselves, where men do it without abandon and are met with praise. But I would argue it’s even more important for women to write about themselves rather than simply, as Hamilton Nolan desires, report the world around us. Why? Because the world around us doesn’t contain our stories. So let’s keep up the “narcissistic word dumps”… ya dig?