It is not easy to make me angry, and it is harder still to make me angry enough that I feel the need to write about how angry I am. This is, I think, the first time I’ve written anything angry on this blog.
But GQ recently did a really good job of making me angry.
Not the entire magazine, but this story, which has inspired me to write my first post with a tag of “outrage”:
I annotated the story with the Genius Web Annotator, so you can see my notes in the original context, though the context doesn’t make the story any less terrible.
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I try to explain the story, and my reaction, below. If you’ve already read the story and my notes, and don’t think I should be as angry as I am, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments of this post. You can also comment on my comments directly with the Web Annotator.
(The rest of this post won’t make much sense unless you read my comments on the article. Click the genius.it link to see them.)
Prelude: Journalism Is Hard
I try not to get angry at journalists. Journalists don’t make very much money, and the work they do is often difficult. They need to become experts on a wide range of subjects, and most of their knowledge can’t be put to full use because it doesn’t fit into the stories they write. They’re forced to squeeze multi-hour interviews into a few paragraphs. They work with editors who often want to change their stories in unfortunate ways. (Perhaps a bad editor is partly to blame for this story.)
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the author of the story above, has written many other stories. I’ve enjoyed several, including her profiles of Nicki Minaj and Hannibal Buress. Those were excellent profiles.
Keeping all of this in mind: I’m still angry that GQ decided to publish this particular article. And I find it difficult to understand how the same person who wrote those profiles wound up writing such a bitter and mean-spirited article.
Why I Am Angry (Short Version)
GQ published a story which mocked sex workers and people who don’t participate in the conventional dating scene. The author of the story went to great lengths to point out how superior she was to her “delusional”, “megalomaniac” sources. Somehow, no one else seemed to notice this. Longform even decided to post it as an example of a good long-form article.
In other words, one of the world’s most notable literary publications got away with publishing something awful, and was even praised for doing so. This struck a very bad chord with me.
Why I Am Angry (Long Version)
The author set out to write a story about “sugar dating”, wherein people with lots of money (usually men) hire attractive young people (usually women) to spend time with them, go out to dinner with them, and have sex with them.
She interviews both “sugar daddies” and “sugar babies”. Her sources answer extremely personal questions about their backgrounds and sex lives. Some of them seem to be a little bit boorish, or vain, but they started sugar-dating for sensible reasons. One sugar daddy has a fetish that most people don’t like, and sets out to find people who will have sex with him and not be disgusted. One sugar baby earns money for college — she wants to become a choreographer, and also teaches dance on the side — by dating both men and women.
For some reason, the author decides to spend the entire article mocking her sources.
Some of them get condescending nicknames, like “Scrooge McFuck” or “Kitten Babypuss”. Sugar daddies are “pathological”, motivated by “megalomania”. One woman is “a very beautiful Bratz doll”. Another is dismissed because she gives blow jobs for money, rather than doing something dignified (like writing for GQ). At one point, the author begins to insult every one of her sources at once, accusing them of “sociopathy” and “delusion”.
She also calls them “defensive”. I wonder why they’d feel the need to defend themselves?
The author continues to insult her sources until the very last sentence of the story. When I finished, I wanted to find the people she interviewed, hug them, and tell them they deserved to be happy.
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I can believe that the author met some terrible people as she went about her research. But none of those people seem to actually appear in the story. Instead, the men and women we meet are flawed but ordinary people who found themselves in an unusual situation. They aren’t running dogfighting rings or trafficking slaves: They are using an app that is essentially Tinder plus money.
I was a journalist in college. I never wrote for anything as fancy as GQ, but I think I learned something about journalistic ethics. One of the foremost principles: Journalists should, within reason, write respectfully about their sources.
The author completely missed the mark on that one: She not only fails to show empathy, she takes active steps to put words in her sources’ mouths and attack them for things she assumes they were thinking as she interviewed them. (I want to assume that her attacks had some basis in reality, but she uses so few direct quotes that I can’t tell what her sources were actually saying.)
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Journalists have the privilege of hearing stories almost no one else gets to hear. People are surprisingly willing to answer intrusive questions if a journalist is asking those questions. Journalists have power: They can use a few select words from a long conversation to create opinions in the minds of tens of thousands of people.
I don’t think she did it intentionally, but I do think that the author abused her power in this scenario. Thankfully, the sources were anonymous — but in the course of trashing them, she also managed to trash a huge group of people just like them.
Some of the people the author trashes are sex workers. They pay their bills by trading sex for money.
In liberal society, it is considered impolite to imply that people who trade sex for money are bad people just because of the way they earn a living. But that’s what this article does — it finds people who do difficult work and often suffer in the process, then portrays them as spoiled children who don’t know what’s best for themselves. Rather than evoke readers’ empathy, it aims to make us laugh at easy targets: promiscuous girls and horny old men.
(At times like this, I’m grateful for the language of the social justice movement. It’s hard to read this article without thinking about slut-shaming and punching down.)
Perhaps the most offensive part of the article involves the author setting her own happy marriage in contrast to the sad lives of her sugar-daddy subjects. She’s lucky to have fallen in love with someone who loves her back. Not everyone is that lucky, and if those who aren’t decide to spend some money for a few weeks of something that resembles love, why the heck should we judge them for that?
For all its flaws, the story has good points. It’s packed with interesting detail, and aside from the bizarre ending, everything flows together well. With a little more empathy, and some more exploration of the non-stereotypical aspects of the scene, it could have been great.
Instead, GQ published the most spiteful, anti-humanistic article I expect to read this year. Bleah.