Garment workers in Rochester, NY, strike in 1913.
Fair warning: I’ve been a bit obsessive about the recent “skinny white girl” yoga post in XO Jane and the myriad amazing responses to it. I see no need to add too much here apart from to point readers to some thoughtful pieces in Flavorwire and Brooklyn Magazine about how “good intentions” and “honest writing,” citing the recent XOJane article and Jezebel’s picking apart of Lena Dunham’s unretouched photos, are not necessarily ingredients for good journalism. At least not the only ingredients.
I think one of the reasons I’ve come to find sites like Jezebel and XOJane so frustrating is because I do admire their good intentions–at least sometimes. I want writing–even pop culture writing–that is smart and feminist-slanting, tells me I should embrace my body, explores race relations in the U.S., and especially among women. And yet, the quickness of the writing, the near lack of editing, the click-baiting and living for pageviews, have all created spaces where a lot of anti-feminist stuff gets shared for the world to see. The managing editor of XOJane claims, in a pseudo-apology, “I don’t give a f**k about … pageviews” (a little hard to believe) but “the one thing that I give a huge f**k about is race, and the conversations surrounding race.” While I’m sure that’s true, and certainly the article did get people talking, we can’t get away from the fact that when a major publication posts something (unless they properly contextualize it or print something as an excerpt), they are in some way condoning it.
And worse, we are being distracted by it. Feminist women are spending time ranting and raving (myself included) about one person’s obvious self-absorption and tone-deaf writing. And we aren’t talking about things that really matter to women. And neither are these publications writing about them (and if they are, they aren’t getting traction). Because these issues take more research, more time, and are more difficult to stomach–they may also be unpleasant to read and to write.
One such issue for me is fashion and the sweatshops these clothes are made in. I typed “Bangladesh” into Jezebel. Certainly last year’s garment factory collapse in Bangladesh is a feminist issue? According to a report by the National Library of Australia, of the industry’s 3.6 million workers, 2.8 million are women. So if we assume the 1,127 who died in the collapse is a representative sample, that’s 868 WOMEN. There are other issues here, too. According to the report, “Women workers face physical abuse and sexual harassment inside as well as outside the factories, but management does not ensure the security of women workers.” You know what a great piece of honest journalism would be? A U.S. woman reconciling her shopping habits and her self-proclaimed feminism, given that Gap and H&M were among the brands working with this factory.
But you won’t find that kind of story on Jezebel. You will find a human interest piece about two women who work in the industry, as well as a news piece or two. You’ll also find a woefully out-of-touch headline: “You Might Have to Pay More at H&M So Workers Can Get Better Wages.” As well as this gem: “Hallelujah: Americans Will Finally Be Able to Shop at H&M Online,” published just TWO MONTHS after the factory collapse, which includes this super-dismissive last paragraph (dang it! the editor made me tone down my earnest praise of H&M–a bunch of women did die two months ago, I guess):
“It should be noted that while there’s been a lot of scrutiny of fast fashion’s problems, H&M is one of the retailers that signed the Bangladesh Factory Safety Deal. The company also has a conscious collection, which attempts to sell sustainable clothing. And since sometimes, in Manhattan, the wait for the fitting room at H&M can be ridiculous, this online shopping stuff is pretty exciting. I’m already on the site, hitting refresh.”
Two things: Signing a pledge is just that. Signing a pledge. Check out this piece for details on what H&M is actually doing (note that they aren’t pushing for higher wages in their other 750 factories until 2018). Oh, and just because you make something with organic cotton (that’s all a sustainable collection means) doesn’t mean you treat workers any better. To be fair, Jezebel did publish this piece, the closest I could find to any kind of call to action. It is better than the rest, but again, it could go so much further. It encourages us to put the pressure on Walmart, a store that I’m willing to bet many of Jezebel’s liberal readers don’t shop at anyway. To Jezebel, at least, signing a pledge in what some could see as mainly a PR move, is enough.
XOJane fares a little bit better with this piece, which actually uses the words “garment workers are dying.” But the problem here is again of distraction. The piece was tweeted 47 times and received 500 comments. The yoga piece? Tweeted nearly 1500 times, Stumbled 54 times and received 3315 comments. (And the managing editor says she doesn’t care about pageviews.) These kind of unedited knee-jerk pieces are not only adding noise but distracting from the worthwhile journalism that’s actually out there.
Side note: I want to make clear that I am not trying to shame anyone. I’ve shopped at these stores, too, and I have enjoyed the thrill of a cheap t-shirt. But just like I try to think about where meat comes from and avoid animal cruelty by paying a few extra bucks, I also try to think of where my clothes come from and avoid human cruelty. It costs a little more, but it is worth it. I am not perfect all the time, by any means, but I try.
All of this leads me to my final point (and if you’re still with me, bravo). Writing, journalism and otherwise, has simply gotten too fast. As a novelist and journalist, believe me that I know it is hard. And any writer has a box or a hard-drive full of pieces that are overly earnest and too self-involved and almost as cringe-worthy as Jen Polachek’s yoga piece. See my post on the bad writing party. I guess what I’m saying is: I yearn for a time where those pieces weren’t splashed around the Internet with a major name behind them. For an investment in the several rounds of edits it takes to make a good book or story. I have no doubt that with a good, dedicated editor (who doesn’t think everything honest is inherently publishable), Polachek could have delivered a much less nauseating piece and possibly even learned a few things about herself.
And I want to commend the people: novelists, journalists, playwrights, songwriters–whoever–who are still practicing the art of “slow writing.” There are no instant rewards, and you won’t necessarily gain Internet notoriety, but in going back to the drawing board time and time again, you are much more likely to contribute something that rises above the noise and gets closer to a kind of truth we all need to hear.