Cat Marnell is xojane.com‘s beauty and health editor. She’s also a self-described drug addict who is happy to detail how her Republican psychiatrist father ruined her life. (#GenYProblems)

Marnell is also a self-described feminist. She is very upfront about her brand of feminism (that she should be able to do whatever she wants, regardless of her gender) and that attitude appears in her writing. She is not shy about the messy, controversial details of her life and they feature prominently in her articles. Marnell has written about using Plan B as birth control and how her addiction forced her to resign from Lucky magazine.

Despite her scary stories and problematic opinions (thinness is a feminist choice?), there is something feminist about Marnell’s writing. She belongs to this new group of women who “over-share” the sad, messy details of their lives in acts of grotesque honesty. It’s a hard reaction to the fact that most women’s stories come in the form of a romantic comedy or some other kind of sanitary, sweet story.

It’s feminist to write about your problems because women are supposed to be perfect. This is like introductory stuff. You never hear about women’s messy lives unless they are reformed, recovered, and/or saved (usually by a guy, obviously). There are no Don Drapers.

But I’m concerned about the way in which Marnell’s openness about her vulnerabilities may actually be reinforcing them. (There’s also the obvious issue of glamorizing them.) I’m not a doctor or a psychiatrist or her mom. But I don’t know, if my writing career were dependent on telling you all my deepest and darkest secrets, I’d go work in a factory, or somewhere else that has nothing to do with writing.

Marnell idolizes her boss, feminist icon Jane Pratt, and says that she is given lots of freedom to take risks and make mistakes. Of course she is. Pratt is using Marnell like her cash cow. Pageviews and unique visitors are what sell ads. The more sensational Marnell is, the more people read her stuff. And Marnell delivers on this promise. In addition to the posts about Plan B and her ongoing discussion of drug use (which is actually fascinating), Marnell once devoted an entire “health” column to how she is a bitch. People loved it because she showed them her weak side.

And online confessional writing is built on shilling weakness. There are many publishers and business owners out there making money on the legions of under-paid 20-somethings who are willing to write personal stories on the internet about sex, drugs and shame for clicks. Thought Catalog thrives on this model. So does Gawker Media.

And this is where the feminism ends. When you’re regularly tearing yourself down in public for money because you are encouraged to, that’s exploitation. We’re not helping women. Confessional writing has reached the point where total self-humiliation and self-immolation is necessary for success. That’s terrifying.

Gen Y are frequently criticized for their total lack of propriety and general sense of self-importance. But as media jobs dry up, one has to work harder to stand out from the crowd. To write that blog that will get them a job. Websites like xojane.com, Thought Catalog and Gawker Media prey on this. They find the writers that are underemployed and desperate, and push their desperation to the breaking point. If you’re in therapy or are afraid to leave your apartment because of that post your wrote about your ex-boyfriend, maybe there’s something wrong here.

No one is arguing that people aren’t responsible for their own actions and decisions. And I do believe that many of these writers enjoy sharing their truths. There’s an anti-secrecy thing happening.

But I can’t ignore the sense I have that writers like Cat Marnell are actually being exploited in the name of feminism and truth bombs.

Sometimes I worried that I’d been chosen not in spite of my inexperience but because of it. Hiring women in their early 20s with little or no background in journalism was a tactic that worked for the site’s owner twice before, and I expected to be a victim of the same kind of hazing my predecessors were subjected to as they learned how to do their jobs — and how to navigate New York — in public. I’d once heard someone refer to us as “sacrificial virgins,” which didn’t seem too far off.

Emily Gould on working at Gawker

Related reading:

True confessions in new women’s lit — The Guardian

In Defence of the Confession — The Walrus Blog

Exposed — New York Times Sunday Magazine

  • Test

    Cat is implying on her Twitter that she is out at xojane!

    • allisonmcneely

      I haven’t looked at her Twitter in awhile, but yeah, you’re right, there are some weird-looking tweets. Guess we’ll have to wait and see. She was tweeting about going to LA for a month to dry out.

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