Sex and the Twitter Girl

A seemingly inane question asked by a New York Times reporter of Tippi Hedren last week led to an online frenzy about the definition of misogyny, cyber-meanness and the role of media. Jesse Ellison says it’s a lot to take in.

AP Photo (2); New York Times

Is it ever okay to ask a woman you just met about her sex life?

That’s the question that lit up the Twittersphere this week after Jennifer Weiner, bestselling author of Good in Bed and other novels that are often described—however pejoratively—as “chick lit”, insinuated that a New York Times reporter was maybe sort of a misogynist. “Saturday am,” she tweeted. “Iced coffee. NYT mag. See which actress Andrew Goldman has accused of sleeping her way to the top. #traditionsicoulddowithout.”

Goldman writes the popular Q & A column for the Times Magazine. His subject this week was Tippi Hedren, a ‘60s film icon most famous for her starring role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Goldman talks about how Hitchcock had tried to blackmail Hedren for sex and then stalked her, and asks the actress if she’d ever considered just giving in for the sake of her career.

Responding to Weiner’s tweet about him, Goldman quickly shot back. “Sensing pattern,” he tweeted. “Little Freud in me thinks you would have liked at least to have had opportunity to sleep way to top.”

Things went downhill from there. Sides were taken. Accusations were made. Fingers were pointed. Goldman was a “douchebag” and a misogynist who should probably be fired. Weiner was “stupid,” her accusation “bonkers.”

I’ll admit, I instantly fell in line with the ladies. I told a male coworker that I was pumped to see Goldman getting publicly called out for his line of questioning. This week it was Hedren, but it’s not the first time I’ve read an interview he’s conducted and come away with a pit in my stomach. I’ve seen Goldman pry into his subjects’ sex lives more than once—and they always seem to be women.

My coworker was skeptical. Our conversation eventually descended into something more appropriate for a middle school cafeteria than a professional workplace.

“But why is it wrong?” He wanted to know.

“Because,” I said. “It just feels wrong. I can’t explain it and shouldn’t have to.”

That wasn’t good enough.

“You just don’t get it because you don’t have a vagina,” I eventually stammered, clearly not winning the argument.

He had a point. If I couldn’t explain in a clear and rational and convincing way why it was sexist to ask about sex in that context, then maybe I was, in fact, just being reactionary. Maybe there was no real basis for my opinion. Maybe I’m one of those humorless feminists they talk about, a pretend victim.

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Surely, it’s ridiculous to claim that all sex-related questions are out of line when it comes to interviewing women. Surely, sex plays a key role in power and fame and perception. Why pretend otherwise? When Goldman told Fresh Air host Terry Gross in his interview with her that people had “erotic associations” with her voice, she didn’t seem offended—she laughed. When he asked actress Tilda Swinton, who is married, if the rumors were true that she had a younger lover, she basically laughed it off, too.

Still, something didn’t sit right with me. So I emailed Weiner directly to ask her why she found Goldman’s line of questioning offensive.

“Sure, there are contexts where you can ask a woman about her sex life (if she’s in pornography … or she’s Pamela des Barres, who wrote a book about being a Band-Aid),” Weiner replied. “With Tippi Hedren, it seemed to me like the question had been (like they said on LA Law), asked and answered … and he kept pushing. “If you didn’t sleep with Hitchcock, probably you must have wanted to sleep with someone, right? Right?”

Weiner also said “it felt like part of a pattern.” Goldman has asked comedian Whitney Cummings, for example, about jokes that she slept her way to the top—and in the same interview suggested that that’s how her friend Chelsea Handler had gotten her big break. He’s asked Melissa McCarthy and Helen Mirren about their sexual proclivities. And then there’s Gross and Swinton and now Hedren. (I also reached out to Goldman, who declined to comment.)

It’s true that none of these questions, on their own, are enormous offenses. And it’s also true that in his previous gig, as a writer for Elle, Goldman asked similar questions of his male interview subjects. But I agree with Weiner that it happens too often. When it comes to women, it seems, conversations that could (and should) be about achievements, ideas and process, instead become about sexuality, maternity, desirability. Women are boiled down to their physical parts. It is, in a word, demeaning.

The real shame in all this, though, is that in the rush to cast judgment in 140 characters or less, it’s hard to imagine that anyone is giving much real thought to the whole thing. And as has been pointed out, black and white play much better in this “of-the-moment Internet” world.

It’s a world that Goldman, apparently, has decided he no longer wants to be a part of. He deleted his Twitter account shortly after the whole thing started. And Wiener announced on Thursday her intent to take a “little twit-cation.” It lasted less than five hours.