Discover more from Lean Out with Tara Henley
Weekend reads: The sexual revolution didn't fail - the mainstream media has
Unpacking coverage of the recent Free Press debate on feminism
For months now at Lean Out, we’ve been rethinking feminism, along with a number of our podcast guests, including Christine Emba, Louise Perry, Nina Power, Erika Bachiochi, Mary Harrington, Mary Eberstadt, and Andrea Mrozek. And, of course, our essayist today — author, podcaster, and Lean Out guest Meghan Daum.
Meghan was in Los Angeles last week for a much-discussed debate about the sexual revolution, put on by The Free Press, and she wrote about it at her Substack. I found the piece so compelling, I asked her to let me share it with you today. If anyone out there is still wondering why trust in the media is so low, read this essay.
I’m delighted to bring you the very smart and funny Meghan Daum. — TH
I hadn’t planned on writing anything about A Clash of the Female Titans, last week’s debate in Los Angeles put on by The Free Press, co-sponsored by FIRE, and featuring author Louise Perry, Red Scare podcaster Anna Khachiyan, technopop star Grimes, and (most importantly) activist and writer Sarah Haider, with whom I co-host my “other podcast,” A Special Place In Hell. Most of the time, I don’t have it in me to respond to things I read or see on stages or screens, having exhausted that part of my brain in the first 30 years of my career. Besides, I knew Sarah and I would talk about the debate on the podcast anyway. But as mainstream media coverage of the event begins to trickle in — as of this writing, in the Los Angeles Times and New York Magazine — I find myself unable to hold my tongue.
First, let me say this about my tongue: I hate how the words “mainstream media” taste on it. I try never to say those words, since they give me flashbacks to Sarah Palin’s coinage “lamestream media” and, from there, conjure every half-baked blowhard reactionary who picked it up and ran with it. I also happen to think there’s plenty of mainstream journalism that remains outstanding and, thanks to an at-times frustratingly high bar for sourcing and hard evidence, simply cannot be replaced by even the most rigorous independents. Some examples are here and here, in case you were wondering. There are plenty more where those came from.
That’s less true of cultural criticism. In the past several years, with rare exception (I’ll cite Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic and Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books), most of what I’ve read about arts and ideas in the “legacy press” (another wearisome term, but what can you do?) has favored moralizing and tone policing over anything resembling sophisticated analysis. It’s bad enough when this malpractice is committed against a book or movie that paid critics have proved themselves constitutionally incapable of taking in on its own terms.
But when I’m being told that an event that happened before my very eyes — I was at the debate on Wednesday, sitting close to the front — was fundamentally the opposite of what I witnessed, I get enraged in that blinding hot way more often associated with personal betrayal. Being lied to is maddening. Being lied to under the guise of credentialed analysis is unforgivable.
First it was Lorraine Ali’s write-up in the L.A. Times. Ali is positioned primarily as a television critic, which might explain her apparent unfamiliarity with the ecosystem of writers and podcasters represented at this event. Nearly every paragraph contained multiple misrepresentations if not downright inaccuracies. In the second paragraph alone, it’s hard to say which was more infuriating: her characterization of Free Press founder and debate moderator Bari Weiss as a “full-time agitator,” her decision to label author Louise Perry a “Daily Mail writer,” or reducing comedian Tim Dillon’s multilayered observations about culture-war hypocrisies to “joking about transgender teens and how bored he was with the war in Ukraine.”
Never mind that Dillon’s opening bit mocked the entire premise of the evening. “We’re here to debate the most pressing issue of our time,” he said (or something close enough). Referring to the apocalyptic homelessness surrounding the Ace Theatre in a Skid Row-adjacent pocket of downtown Los Angeles, he noted that “right here, within the immediate surrounding blocks, there is nothing more important than whether or not the sexual revolution failed.” It took the piss out of the participants and audience alike. Everyone loved it. As for joking about trans kids or being bored with the war in Ukraine, uh . . . the jokes were about adults who manipulate trans kids and people who pay empty lip service to Ukraine. Not that you asked me to explain them.
Being lied to is maddening. Being lied to under the guise of credentialed analysis is unforgivable.
I’d like to think Ali got the jokes. She may not have approved of them or found them funny, but I refuse to believe that an arts critic at a struggling-but-nonetheless-still-major newspaper doesn’t understand the basic principles of irony. More likely, Ali intensely dislikes Weiss, either personally or on some kind of blanket principle, and decided to phone in a hatchet job instead of actually covering the event. If nothing else, her precisely backward description of FIRE as “a group that claims to advocate for free speech on college campuses — except when the speakers don’t share its political views” suggests the kind of incuriosity that is born less of not wanting to know something than of being afraid of knowing.
In this case, the fear is that figures like Weiss and the others onstage might be more interesting and less malevolent than the Tumblr-trained, establishment-approved cultural arbiters want to admit. Meanwhile, Weiss, who despite her full-time job as an agitator managed in her spare time to build a multimillion-dollar, multi-pronged platform in less than three years, can do something that the L.A. Times probably couldn’t do if it gave the tickets away for free: fill a 1,600-seat theater. The fact that the event was just a mile away from Times Mirror Square, the historic, now-empty Art Deco monument that housed the once-great L.A. Times for more than 80 years, makes the pill all the more bitter.
By the time Kerry Howley’s article “Scenes From the End of the Sexual Revolution” popped up in New York Magazine on Saturday, I figured that my rage reserves were sufficiently depleted that I could skim it and move on. I even had a little hope for the piece. Howley is a brilliant writer with a taste for oddball, misunderstood subjects; maybe this would be a fair or even commendatory appraisal.
Alas, no. She can write circles around Ali, but she appeared just as determined to paint the event with an 18-inch roller brush. As Howley saw it, the audience comprised “1,600 plaid-skirted e-girls and be-khakied normies.” Dillon was making “targets” of Ukranians and trans kids. Perry’s book, in Howley’s estimation, “takes as its presumed reader an extremely credulous liberal raised up in isolation from any information beyond the feminist blogosphere circa 2004 and who needs to be informed, at truly extraordinary length, that men are, on average, physically stronger than women.”
As for my podcast partner Sarah, who argued that the sexual revolution had not failed and who had spent weeks exhaustively preparing arguments that she wasn’t able to deploy (we will discuss this on the pod soon), Howley at least credited her with making a “sensible point” about marriage as an economic stabilization strategy being a form of sexual commodification. Ali, for her part, barely mentioned Sarah at all. Which is especially odd since she and her debate partner Grimes, whom Howley referred to as “Techno Mechanicus’s mother” (that’s her recently announced third child with Elon Musk), actually won the debate.
For reasons I remain unable to fully comprehend, Weiss elicits in otherwise mild mannered people an unfathomable level of visceral disdain.
For reasons I remain unable to fully comprehend, Weiss elicits in otherwise mild- mannered people an unfathomable level of visceral disdain. I have seen entire dinner parties fall apart at the mention of her name. Moreover, Bari Weiss Derangement Syndrome has a second-order effect you might call Bari Weiss Anti-Defamation Derangement Syndrome. She elicits in her defenders a ferociously protective instinct.
I tend not to care about most of the vitriol aimed at media figures. I’m even pretty good at waving off nasty or incorrect things people say about me. But when I see Weiss tarred as a right-wing idealogue — or even right-wing at all — it’s as if a switch is flipped and I want to physically strangle the person who said it. Admittedly, some of those dinner parties fell apart because I got into an argument with a Weiss hater and wouldn’t let it go.
So I’ll cop to being a deranged Bari Weiss anti-defamer. As such, I let two articles (short ones; fewer than 2,000 words total) ruin my whole weekend. But here’s what it really boils down to: I care deeply about ideas.
Everything I’ve done in my career — and even a lot of what I share and value in my personal life — is in service and celebration of the way complex and abstract ideas map onto the vagaries of real life (for example, the fact that the “extremely credulous liberal raised up in isolation from any information beyond the feminist blogosphere circa 2004” is an all-too-real phenomenon that warrants our understanding).
Last Wednesday’s event was a sprawling, chaotic, captivating, entertaining, exasperating pageant of ideas. It was also a mess. But it was the best kind of mess. It was a mess due to its outsize ambition, full-throated opinions, and ebullient, multi-generational audience that was hardly composed solely of e-girls in plaid skirts and normies in khakis. (I had to look up “e-girls,” and I have to say that if this description is accurate, The Free Press and FIRE deserve a Nobel Prize for coaxing them out of their rooms.)
Thinking about it, I see the event as a mess in the same way the Barbie movie was a mess. It tried to do too many things at once, which made it frenetic, confusing, and about 30 minutes too long. As with Barbie, the takeaway message was whatever you wanted it to be. Was the sexual revolution a failure? Yes. No. Well, maybe sometimes, sort of. As with Barbie, it defied the laws of audience sexism and brought in plenty of men despite the all-girl vibe of the ensemble. It also cost a lot of money. Tickets at $165 a piece? That takes some balls.
But a messy movie full of boilerplate feminist pabulum is one thing. A messy debate featuring complicated, controversial personalities who challenge conventional wisdom and force the audience to think is another. As such, the mainstream media will sweep it into a trash bin of bad-faith critique without a second thought. And that brings me back to this whole problem of the Mainstream Media™. As much as I don’t want to join the chorus of hollow invocations of its lameness, it’s painfully clear that if you want to be excited by ideas, you’re going to have to go digging for them. They’re not going to land on your doorstep in the morning with a gentle thud.
Thirty years ago, the women on that debate stage would have been introduced to the world via media standard-bearers. They might have been controversial, but they would have come with a mainstream stamp of approval. The conversation would have taken the form of a Charlie Rose roundtable rather than a stage show with a boxing bell. Their words would appear in books released by commercial publishers rather than on Substacks and edgelordy podcasts. Anyone who’d built an organization as successful as The Free Press would have almost certainly been included on Time’s “100 Most Influential People” list or even featured on 60 Minutes. At a minimum, when a newspaper sent a reporter to cover an event put on by such an organization, the reporter would have done her job and gotten the facts right.
Instead, we have derangement begetting more derangement. We have petty resentments masquerading as social critique. We have tribalistic pandering passing itself off as moral clarity. It’s beyond lamestream. It’s downright heartbreaking. No wonder it makes me want to break things.
Meghan Daum is the host of The Unspeakable Podcast and the author of several books, most recently The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through The New Culture Wars. She co-hosts, with Sarah Haider, the podcast A Special Place In Hell.
Lean Out with Tara Henley is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.