Charlotte Allen Interview
You may have heard of D.C.-based freelance writer (and former City Paper writer/editor) Charlotte Allen: She wrote that thing about how women are (spoiler alert) "kind of dim." Needless to say, a lot of people didn't like it. Yesterday, Allen was kind enough to meet up with me to talk about the Post piece, the Clinton campaign, and why women are good at tending for the weak and the old (sign me up!).
Here are some excerpts:
CP: You've certainly gotten quite a response from the piece. What do you think of the responses?
CA: Well, I thought [Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell's] position was essentially ridiculous. She was saying that women are such frail flowers that nobody can make a joke about them, including other women, which is just absurd. You know, we’re half the population.
I think one point she made was that it wasn’t funny. What do you think she meant by that?
I have no idea. She interviewed me and asked me if I intended it to be funny, and I said yeah, I hope that it was funny. She said she didn’t find it so amusing. That’s when I knew she would write exactly what she wrote. I was not surprised. But I think feminists are always saying "That’s not funny!" whenever you make any sort of joke about women.
There were obvious jokes there. But I think what people were concerned about was the idea that they were jokes in the vein of, "Well, it’s funny because it’s true!"
Well, it is funny because it is true.
That women are dumb?
That women do act really dumb a lot of the time. I got a lot of e-mails from women who did like the piece, and they would tell me about women in their office, and women who drove putting on their makeup and talking on their cell phones, which are two things women drivers do all the time. I’ve seen so many women darting out of alleyways in their cars, not looking at the street because they’re talking on the phone or putting on their makeup. If you’ve worked in an office of mostly women .. .it [can be] sort of hilarious in terms of its reinforcement of all stereotypes of women on the job: Pettiness, cat-fighting...
Do you think you act dumb most of the time?
I hope not. But I do have little dumb areas that I do describe in the piece.
Don’t all people have those?
Oh, probably. I mean, my husband has little dumb areas that I describe in the story. And then people send me other examples, how men are mesmerized by blondes and things like that.
I think the kicker for a lot of people was the idea that women should just stay home.
I didn’t say that. I said that women should revel in the things that we do best.
Tenderness toward children, men, and the weak, and making a house a home. None of those things have anything to do with whether women should stay home. But, in fact, so many women who wrote me felt insulted by that. These are things that women can really do well, and that make life worth living for everybody. Especially men.
Some women are resistant to the idea that all women ought to be good at those things instead of, you know, their careers.
Perhaps so, and of course there are exceptions. One women wrote in and said she hated children, that she thought they were all little monsters. And some women do have a kind of natural nurturing instanct toward women. Naturally, there are going to be exceptions, there are exceptions to everything. But I think that those generalizations are fair, and women are very good at taking care of sick people and old people. These are good things! I don’t know why some women think that these are examples of how women are denigrated.
One of my problems with the piece was that it initially started out as a critique of women during this election season. Does that mean that women should not ‘revel in’ activities like running for and voting for president, because they’re not good at those things?
No, and I think that some women, like Margaret Thatcher, are really great at doing those things. And there are some great women Democratic politicians, like Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi is certainly another example of someone who’s extremely shrewd and has learned how to manipulate her way to the top of Congress.
But these women are not normal?
Let's take your example of the women who are fainting at Obama rallies. The majority of women are not fainting at Obama rallies. Aren't they, then, also what you would call "outliers"?
Someone just happened to write a newspaper article about them, because outliers are interesting.
I think generalizing their behavior is probably unfair.
It just seems a strange thing at a political rally for women to be saying, "Obama is a rock star."
I think it’s a little bit strange too, I just think you use that as a larger argument to say ... I’m not sure what. Because some women are going crazy about Barack Obama, does that mean, you know, they shouldn’t vote?
No, it’s just these are dumb things women do. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t vote or shouldn’t have jobs or shouldn’t run for president.
In my experience, anybody who has really strong opinions about anything can come off as very ridiculous. I don't think that's a trait that's exclusive to women.
Some people are more articulate as others, but I don’t know if I’d go that far to make that generalization.
That most people are ridiculous?
Most women are, though?
A lot of women just come off as ditzes. What can I say?
Shouldn’t we, then, be encouraging women to do serious things like run for president, and not knock down their campaign by saying that it’s dumb?
The thing about Hillary is that she ran or had run such a really awful campaign, and I’m not the only one who thinks that ... But it’s not just that she’s run a bad campaign; there’s something particularly female about it. She’s surrounded herself with friends and has done so since the Clinton administration. They were her friends, and it didn’t matter if any of them had actually run, or had experience running, a campaign. She just appointed them because they were loyal and because they were good at some things that they did for her. There was a particularly female aspect to it that is very cliquish, which is very typical of women.
Isn’t that type of political cronyism a long-standing convention of political campaigns and presidencial administrations?
To some extent. But male social groups are much more open. You went to high school; you know what it’s like. That happens in female working life where there’s a critical mass of women, where they get into groups. They decide, "Oh, we’re the group, and whatever we say goes, and we’re cool, so what we’re doing must be cool." So you get a situation where these women have no contact to the outside world or reality until that loss in Iowa, which came as a huge shock.
It came as a huge shock to everyone, including the pollsters.
I would not say that her losing in Iowa can be attributed to her being a woman, and therefore, not connected to reality ... We could seemingly take any attribute of an individual and find a way to explain it through a gender stereotype, but why would we?
Because there are differences. It’s just a tendency that women have to see everything in terms of it being a personal drama about oneself. Such as the act of driving, for example: Girls driving and talking on their cell phones becomes a sort of roleplaying thing that’s like, "I'm so cool, oh, I’m talking on my cell phone, and I’m putting on my makeup because I’m so cool, and I can drive at the same time." It becomes a personal display about how they are ... and they forget there’s a real world out there with real people also driving cars. And I think that was a problem with Hillary’s campaign. It seems less so now, she’s become more shrewd and aware after all those losses, I think there’s been a reality check. I think it has to do with women being the sex that’s on display ... we wear makeup and do our hair so we’re constantly playing a roll as well as being ourselves.
Do you think that’s changing at all?
Not in the slightest.
Do you think that’s something that should change?
No, I think it’s wonderful! I think that’s one of my dim girly things: I love shopping, and clothes, and makeup. I think it’s fun, I don’t think we should change in the slightest.
You think we should embrace being dumb?
Well, not being dumb, but just being what we are.
… Which is dumb.
Which is dumb.
I think that cultures have the capacity to change, and I think a lot has changed for women over the years. Obviously, I’ve been a woman for less time than you have.
When I was growing up, there were jobs that women couldn’t get or that were very difficult to get. And all of that has changed.
Do you think that’s been eliminated?
I think that that’s completely gone. When I was in college, there were departments, for example, at Harvard, where women could not get tenure track jobs, so they could get their doctorate and teach, but be non-tenured, making less money, and with no job security. And that was the way it was. And there were brilliant women who were discriminated against, but that all has changed. Women can do whatever they want! They can run for president. I just think that’s great. I think women should do whatever they want, but I don’t believe in hiring quotas, I don’t think society should make an effort for women to have as many jobs as men, because there are inclinations and aptitudes that men simply have more of and women have less of. Women have things to do and be that men can’t, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. But now there’s no opportunity women can’t have, they can work for top law firm, they can go all the way to the top jobs. It’s just whether they want to, because it’s a lot of work. There are a lot of women CEOs, but to be a CEO demands an immense amount of work and drive and aggression, and competitiveness, and more work, and your job’s on the line because if you don’t produce for the company, you’re out–your salary’s on the line. In no time, if you stop producing, there’s a lot of stress. You never see your family. If you want family, forget it. Many feminists assume there’s a glass ceiling or a boy’s club or a conspiracy or an unwritten conspiracy, but it's just that men are naturally more aggressive, more violent, more competitive, and they don’t take things personally, so they go back and fight. They’re more inclined to fight their way to the top.
I think that one of the problems that women face now, when they are going for a top job like running for president, is this: When they fail at it, people will say, "Oh, it’s because she's a woman."
But that would be crazy. Look at Margaret Thatcher, she made it.
But isn’t that what you’ve been saying about Hillary’s campaign?
No! Hillary’s campaign was, in fact, flawed by some specifically female aspects. She was also an inexperienced politician. Margaret Thatcher was charming and shrewd at the same time, and tough as nails, and was working essentially in a man’s world because there were very few women in politics, and she's very very smart. She had the ability to do it. Women with those traits can do it. But I do think that Hillary failed for some specifically female reasons. Of course, she hasn’t failed yet, and maybe she can pull herself out.
Let me see if I understand what you’re saying. Some women can make it to the top, if they exhibit certain traits: Male ones?
But Hillary does not have those traits.
It seems clear to me that just because all the obvious obstacles to women are stripped away, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.
That’s what people say, that there are subtle obstacles. But I just don’t see them.
A lot of people might say that the people who continue to hold the positions that you do are, in fact, the obstacles.
I’m part of the problem?
I think people have probably suggested that to you.
Oh, sure, people have accused me of perpetuating stereotypes that would hold women back.
What's worse for you: Being called mean, or being called not funny?
I think it’s definitely worse to be called not funny.
A lot of times people accuse me of being mean. But some people think I’m both mean and not funny.
That would be the worst. I would hate to be mean to people who deserve something better, people in trouble or people who are weak. I suppose I’d rather refrain from making jokes at their expense. But as a general principle, I’d much rather be mean.
I couldn't tell if some people didn’t think [your piece] was funny because it was offensive, or if they didn’t think it was funny because...
...Because the jokes fell flat. Yeah. I could not tell either. I couldn’t even tell from Deborah Howell’s piece if she just thought it was, in fact, not funny, or if it was not funny because it was mean.
I have to say that a lot of time, I wasn’t sure what you were making fun of, or who the jokes were meant to be at the expense of ... But I don't agree with [Howell] at the end of her piece, where she says that the Post is no place for comedy. Which I think would be sad.
That’s what the Post should have more of. Its best critics are very funny.