Marissa Skudlarek brings us Part II of her article about the internet and its discontents.
In my last column, I wrote about the anxiety that “the endless stream of information on Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet in general” makes me feel. In this column, I want to focus on one particularly prevalent form of Internet writing, which I have come to think of as the “You’re Doing It Wrong” essay.
According to KnowYourMeme.com, “You’re Doing It Wrong” became a catchphrase circa 2007-2008, and has remained popular ever since. It was originally just a fun, slightly snarky photo-meme (“Running: You’re Doing It Wrong” above a photo of Italian race-walkers; “Governing: You’re Doing It Wrong” above a photo of George W. Bush), but it has become the guiding principle of a slew of online writings. The Internet is crawling with self-styled experts who just love to tell you what’s the matter with the pop culture you’re consuming and the sociocultural habits you’re unconsciously falling into.
That’s right: if my previous column was a 600-word piece freaking out about the sheer amount of stuff published online each day, this column is about how writers of You’re Doing It Wrong columns are, indeed, doing it wrong. I get the irony, OK?
Because condemnation and hyperbole generate more pageviews than praise or subtlety, a You’re Doing It Wrong essay frames its thesis as contentiously as possible – and thus goes viral. More reasonable voices, which point out nuances, or observe without condemning, get drowned out by louder, shriller voices. In this overheated Internet climate, it feels refreshing to read celebrations of people who are Doing It Right, rather than criticisms of people who are Doing It Wrong. Consider this a public plea to my editor, Stuart Bousel, to publish his crowd-sourced list of male playwrights who write good roles for women.
Of course, even if you do write a paean to someone you think is Doing It Right, be prepared for the backlash: someone will come along the next day and write a piece about how that person is Doing It Wrong after all. If Stuart publishes the list of male playwrights who write good female characters, I fully expect that it will generate a lively debate in the comments section. I also expect that someone will write a response saying that we shouldn’t celebrate male playwrights who write good female roles, because that simply reinforces the patriarchal structure of society, keeps women out of the spotlight, etc. It feels like we’re getting to the point where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t; where no matter what choice you make, someone will tell you that it exemplifies everything that’s wrong with modern society.
I keep bringing up gender because it’s something I think about a lot and feel qualified to discuss. But, in addition, our culture’s overwhelming anxiety about feminism and gender roles means that many You’re Doing It Wrong pieces are targeted toward women. There was another meme going around Twitter yesterday – the #EdgyHeadlines hashtag, which generated humor and social commentary by flipping the gender of magazine-type headlines. I recall examples like “Men, Do You Dress Too Provocatively at Work?” and “Do Male CEOs Spend Too Little Time With their Babies?” Of course, the point of #EdgyHeadlines is that we never actually see headlines like these. It’s women who get told they dress wrong for the office, women who are told to fret about work-life balance. Women bear the brunt of You’re Doing It Wrong attacks, and suffer the most anxiety from them.
I’ve witnessed this happening in our own community. A couple of months ago, local theater director/producer Melissa Hillman wrote a “You’re Doing it Wrong” blog post directed at young female playwrights, whom she claims are writing too many passive protagonists and focusing too much on heterosexual romantic relationships. Her stated intent was to encourage women to “own” their own stories and thereby write better, stronger plays. But I spoke to several women who said that this essay gave them anxiety and made them want to throw in the towel, instead of making them want to write more and better.
Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure that my play Pleiades is one of the plays that prompted Hillman to write her blog post. I’d submitted Pleiades to Impact Theatre last year, and received a kind but firm rejection from Hillman only a few days before she published her piece. And I’d always thought of Pleiades as a play that might be too feminist for mainstream American theaters – it has eight roles for women, after all – yet, evidently, it wasn’t feminist enough for Hillman. This made me feel a little bit trapped and discouraged, rather than empowered. I know very well that you can’t please everybody, but read enough “You’re Doing It Wrong” essays and you’ll start to feel like you can never please anybody.
At the same time, though, I felt kind of flattered that Hillman might’ve been thinking of one of my plays as she wrote her blog post. If so, it’s the first time anyone has written about my work in a serious, critical way, and it did prompt me to think harder about what messages I’m sending in the plays that I write. These days (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), perhaps the only thing worse than being criticized is not being criticized. The Internet is an endless cycle of creation, reaction, backlash, and outrage. It can make your head dizzy — but don’t you want to go for a spin?
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. So, come on, then, have at her in the comments section. She also welcomes additional criticisms on her blog at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.
I have Stuart’s list as a Word .doc.
And if there were only one way to do things, that’d be the only way they were done.
Stuart here: thanks for the shout out, Marissa. Generally speaking, I like to highlight what I think is being done right, rather than trying to call people out on what I think they’re doing wrong. When I do that, I always try to caveat those statements with as many “in my opinion” and “from my perspective” and smiley brackets as possible, because I recognize that even my strongest opinions are usually, still, opinions, not facts. That said, I know I have, more than once, fallen into the trap of imparting my “wisdom” as if it was the truth. Maintaining our convictions while still allowing for the disparity of experience and perspective of others is always a balancing act and even the best of us will fall off the log sometimes. Equitably important is to balance a “you’re doing it right!” mentality with a “you’re doing it wrong” mentality, because we do need both- otherwise, we might not ever ask the very important question, “Do we need to, and how can we, improve?”
That said- you CAN absolutely please SOMEBODY, but you can never please EVERYBODY, and the most important person in the end is to please YOURSELF. Long ago, I discovered that my artistic vision was probably never going to be terribly commercial or mainstream or even comprehensible to some people. This really worried me for a while (still worries me), but then I read an article where one of my artistic idols, Hal Hartley, talked about the time he turned down the chance to make more mainstream films so he could pursue his vision and I realized how there is always a sacrifice for moving to the beat of your own drummer, whether that is in regards to creating art, or voicing opinions, etc. But there is also always a reward: Hartley has made stunning, unusual, uncompromised films that may have small fan bases- but that fan base is incredibly loyal and for all the right reasons. As a character in a play I wrote about rock music says to her agent when he confronts her about how she’s “playing to half-empty houses”: “We’re playing to half-full houses of people who genuinely love what we do.” In the end, I think that’s better than filled to the brim houses of people who are just there to see the latest fad or don’t particularly think about or love what they see.
You’re always going to piss somebody off, or alienate someone, or burn a bridge, even when you try to be a nice guy about it. It’s human nature. We can’t really be “ourselves” except by being ourselves, which entails a certain degree of pushing against and away from others. But in the end, you have to do whatever it is you can’t NOT do. As you said to me, recently, Fifteen-year-old you would love who you are now, and be duly impressed- and that matters far more than if everyone- or even, ANYONE- likes what you blog about.
Thanks for your thoughtful, supportive response, Stuart. Yes, knowing that my teenage self would be proud of where I’ve ended up is a damn good feeling. And it’s great to be part of a supportive community that encourages me to take artistic risks.
Thank you for writing this! You are well aware that I feel the same way. Solidarity!
I’m musing about the idea of “what messages” our work is “sending”… I like to think of the craft of fiction as close observation of people and the world through a point of view (naturally mine) rather than messages. Sure, I have my beliefs that my work is bound to represent, but if I think too much about that I lose sight of what’s right in front of me. And each piece explores something different–why must I address all issues in each piece (for example, by having strong female characters in everything I write)? I think writers of fiction have the gift of being able to see many subtle points of view and nuances. It’s this that we uncover for others. Sometimes just representing that complexity seems enough and we can leave the “arguments” to others.
I don’t think there’s neutral art. I think neutrality is a privilege that reflects many different securities and internalized strengths.
Too often, artists in the USA pretend that presenting the status quo is a neutral act. Whose status quo? Usually the paying audience and with ticket prices what they are . . .
It will always be an open question what it means to be a strong character. Without proscribing a particular philosophy, it has been my experience that stereotyped, reductive, and ignorant characters only ever affirm the status quo.
I agree that it’s impossible for us to address every one of our concerns in every single thing we write — the world is too complex for that — and that if every piece of art had to be 100% politically correct, that would stifle free and creative expression. However, I think it can be a coy abdication of responsibility to say “Oh, I’m just putting a story out here, it’s up to YOU to decide what it means!” There’s obviously a reason that you chose to tell that story and I think that, as artists, we need to be honest with ourselves and with our audiences about why we’re putting these stories out there into the world. Maybe your reason can be “because I want to represent the complexity and the gray areas of life” — but what if it’s not?
High-schoolers/middle-schoolers use the same vernacular of experiences. If you aren’t self-realized it can be very affirming and reassuring to make pronouncements of “right/wrong.”
That said, I found the linked article to not be guilty of simplistic othering. Perhaps because the behavior she criticized was an absence rather than a presence. Perhaps because it doesn’t talk about me.
I do want to reiterate that I think Melissa Hillman makes some good and some thought-provoking points in her blog post, and there’s nothing about it that unfairly attacks or targets the work she’s discussing. Nonetheless, I do see it as fitting into a trend of Internet writing that tells people (women, especially) that they are wrong and they are the problem. As I said, I definitely spoke to women who said that this blog post made them feel lots of stress and anxiety, even if you and I did not have that same reaction to it.
[…] I’ve written before, as you know, about how the “you’re doing it wrong” etho…. It sounds like you feel that way too, Stuart — you write “[there isn't much] telling us to say what we really think and feel, even though there seems to be an awful lot out there telling us what we’re doing wrong and basically trying to scare us into saying nothing.” […]
[…] to accentuate the positive rather than wallow in a pool of the negative, so when her article “You’re Doing It Wrong, You’re Doing It Wrong” (Technically the second half of a two part article. The first one is also worth reading, but […]