Are Sharp Women Enough?

Twitter was a medium made for Dorothy Parker—alas, a century too late. Her famous poem “Resumé” is 141 characters. Her breakout feature in Vanity Fair, a series of Hate Songs, begs for a hashtag ...

Twitter was a medium made for Dorothy Parker—alas, a century too late. Her famous poem “Resumé” is 141 characters. Her breakout feature in Vanity Fair, a series of Hate Songs, begs for a hashtag. Parker mastered the meme before it was a concept. Queens of Twitter snark like Molly Jong-Fast, Kashana Cauley, and Lauren Duca carry her mantle.

Parker was convinced that wit was an inadequate response to the pressing crises of her time. In her 1956 Paris Review interview, she scoffed: “Damnit, it was the twenties, and we had to be smarty.”1 She marched to protest the Sacco and Vanzetti verdict. She bequeathed her estate to the NAACP. From Parker’s perspective, the humorist’s mission to make light of the world could not bear the weight of politics, in part because style is self-centered. “We were little individuals,” she declared in a 1939 speech to the American Writers Congress, “and when we finally came to and got out it was quite a surprise to find a whole world full of human beings all around us.”2

There is a similar tension in our own moment between the parodic facility of the retweet and the affiliative urgency of hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. The single sardonic voice can skewer the bombast of @realDonaldTrump, but structural violence also demands a collective response. At the same time, social media can create an artificial impression of consensus and a pressure to cleave to the reigning opinion. The ironist cuts rather than cleaves. Michelle Dean tackles sardonic journalists from Dorothy Parker to Janet Malcolm in Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion.

Each chapter of Dean’s book takes on an iconic woman perceived in her own time as ruthless and cutting—hence the label “sharp.” These women’s stylish sadism provoked outrage and drew devoted fans. Their lives intermingled in the New York publishing scene, which creates a gossipy, cocktail party effect in these pages, but also underscores the perceived exceptionalism of the woman intellectual and commentator. Each of these women was hailed as a replacement for one who came before (Mary McCarthy was the new Dorothy Parker, Susan Sontag was the new Mary McCarthy, etc.), a succession that implies that there can only be one sharp woman per generation.

Irony’s indirection may be cloak-and-dagger, but it’s a dagger nonetheless.

Dean details the controversies their writing sparked: Hannah Arendt’s willingness to criticize the role that Jewish community leaders played in the Holocaust; Pauline Kael’s take-down of Orson Welles; Nora Ephron’s satire of Carl Bernstein. These stories effectively dramatize the scandal of a woman’s fighting words, especially when directed at prominent men. At the same time, by choosing to focus on the women’s biographies, Dean implies—and sometimes outright states—that the sharp voice stems from a cantankerous temperament. The labels “smart” and “sharp” minimize a writer’s accomplishment. Sharpness implies precocious cleverness, intuition without the formal training and philosophical abstraction traditionally reserved for men. I doubt I would have enjoyed dining with Mrs. Parker, but the personalizing take sells short the artifice and performance that go into creating a public persona.

Whether an editorial byline or a social media profile, a public persona combines journalistic convention and authorial invention. Appropriately, then, the word “sharp” in Dean’s title alludes both to how these women fashioned themselves and to how their audiences perceived them. Sharp slips between the two without much reflection on their relationship. Dean also describes sharpness as “the ability to write unforgettably,” in part because the sharp tone attacks a target. The wounding voice leaves a scar: “Often people reacted badly to the sting.” Irony’s indirection may be cloak-and-dagger, but it’s a dagger nonetheless.

After consigning women to the supposedly lesser arts of laughter, men express surprise and anger when some women use those arts to fight back. Psychoanalyst Joan Riviere describes this dynamic in a 1929 essay called “Womanliness as a Masquerade.” Her ambitious patients exaggerated their femininity and adopted humor in order to claim masculine authority while apparently disowning it.3 While women cultivated sex appeal and engaged in flirtatious banter to put their male colleagues at ease, men sometimes sensed the hostility behind the charm. “Womanliness,” Riviere concluded, is “a mask, behind which man suspects some hidden danger.”4

In journalism, the mask of wit blends the idea of the author, a marketable brand, with the audacity of her opinions and the imprint of her style. Dean’s protagonists play up style as a facsimile of femininity and turn the mask of womanliness into a critical vantage point on the status quo. Their opinion pieces seem to enshrine an essential self, but the opinion piece is a performance. And because irony widens the gap between tone and belief, spoken word and speaker, “a certain degree of uncertainty” unsettles even “the robust first person” voice, making the reader wonder if the “narrator might be pulling [a trick] on us.” The reader keeps trying to peer behind the curtain to figure out what the speaker is really saying or who she really is. Though we never get to see the Great and Powerful Oz, we do often encounter—to our subversive delight—the Wicked Witch.


Books Full of Women

By Alison Booth

Dean retrenches a few pages later and insists that all style derives not from experiment, play, or speculation, but from experience: “You can speak only in the voice you have been given.” (By whom?, one wonders. God? David Remnick? Presuming that we admit those two to be separate entities.) Dean goes on: “And that voice has a tenor and inflection given to you by all the experience you have. Some of that experience will inevitably be about being a woman.”

The reclamation of sharp women as feminist figureheads quickly runs into an apparently insurmountable obstacle: most of her cast of characters actively rejected the women’s movement; many scoffed at their peers’ attempts to diagnose and combat sexism; and several insisted upon their own sex appeal and camaraderie with men. Sontag deliberately kept her lesbianism out of the limelight. It’s hard not to read this rejection of feminism and embrace of individualism as an attempt to succeed in a man’s world (and an anti-Semitic, heterosexist one at that). After all, Riviere’s essay on the masquerade describes women who try to conceal their own ambition in order to succeed on their peers’ terms, not to overturn the status quo.

Like many of us who cherish witty iconoclasts, Dean doesn’t know what to do with the apparent anti-feminism of her key players: “It’s not considered very sisterly to believe one stands out from the pack. … All through this book I have been trying to point out that there is room, in this deep ambivalence about and even hostility toward feminism, to take away a feminist message.” What that message might be—besides a vague sense that women speaking up at all is a feminist act—remains unclear. Disappointed in her search for sisterhood, Dean settles for sibling rivalry: “Feminism is, yes, supposed to be about sisterhood. But sisters argue, sometimes to the point of estrangement.”

Dean’s feminist rhetoric is somewhat outdated. Signs at the Women’s March spoke more of resistance than of sisterhood. Black feminists like Audre Lorde have long since established that “being a woman” is not the same for all women.5 The kinship among women is imaginary, fraught, and hard-won. The transformative energy of feminist thought emerges from contention and difference. While Dean has a vocabulary for the former—citing “individual personality” and the skeptical drive to “stand on the outside of things … ask[ing,] ‘But why must it be this way?’”—she falters when it comes to the latter.

Like many of us who cherish witty iconoclasts, Dean doesn’t know what to do with the apparent anti-feminism of her key players.

Though Dean uses the word “intersectionality,” she doesn’t think intersectionally. In an apologetic and cursory chapter, Dean explains that Zora Neale Hurston did not become a major mainstream journalist because of “racism,” and leaves it at that. Whiteness shapes the sardonic personae Dean studies. Though she states straightforwardly in her introduction that her key players “came from similar backgrounds: white, and often Jewish, and middle-class,” Dean does not speculate about the influence that the potent cocktail of racial privilege, uneasy assimilation, and class aspiration might have had on their humor. Even the apparent iconoclast can be in love with normativity.6

To discern how sharpness might serve as an engine of critique rather than a consolidation of privilege requires a more contemporary account of feminism and a more trenchant analysis of style. Happily, two recent books offer just that: Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life and Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil.

In Living a Feminist Life, Ahmed distills her earlier work on feminist killjoys, institutional diversity, and willful subjects to present ideas about personal practice and collective power that emerged for her when she turned to blogging and tweeting. Her prose style captures the improvisatory, provisional quality fostered by digital platforms: it is incantatory and quizzical, probing and playful. Dean’s prose tends to be workmanlike, a jarring contrast to the syntactic grace her writers hold dear. By contrast, Ahmed holds particular words up to the light and lets their unsuspected facets gleam, polishing their queer potential.

Ahmed takes up the interrogation of sharpness: “As a feminist killjoy, I have been giving my ear to those who sound sharp.” From Ahmed’s perspective, sharpness as an insult and sharpness as a strategy have a causal rather than merely contingent relationship: “You might have to become what you are judged as being to survive what you are judged as being.” The woman who speaks of painful experiences or unhappy truths defies received scripts of fulfillment and harmony: “A feminist tool is sharp; we need to keep sharpening our tools. When we speak, we are often heard as sharp. Hear her: shrill, strident, the killjoy voice. A voice can be a tool. And yet somehow sharp can become blunt.” The outspoken woman is imagined to be the source rather than the object of violence.


On Spectacle and Silence

By Carley Moore

At the same time that the feminist killjoy or the willful woman serves as a cultural lightning rod, she also “sparks” other women “into life.” Her refusal to mince words or make nice creates a “collective source of energy.” This communicable frisson may explain why these writers who dodged feminist affiliation can nonetheless inspire feminist feeling. Ahmed argues that “A feminist history is affective: we pick up those feelings that are not supposed to be felt because they get in the way of an expectation of who we are and what life should be.” Artful aggression gives a contact high. The ripple effect authorizes other women to stop people-pleasing and start truth-telling.

In Tough Enough, Deborah Nelson features six unsentimental women—Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Simone Weil—who cultivated such candor, no matter the pain their observations might occasion for their audience, their subjects, or themselves. Like the feminist killjoy, they do not flatter or console; they confront the world as they see it. This detachment was a daring divergence, not only from the postwar American ethos, but from the feminine mystique, as Nelson observes: “To face facts, the journalist must risk the social condemnation of rudeness and intransigence … which is all the more perilous for women writers, in whom the assertion of authority and the failure to exhibit good manners are more ruthlessly punished.” Perhaps worse than the inevitable imputation of “castrating bitchiness” was the critical trivialization of their carefully considered style. “Heartlessness” and “coldness” were viewed as “mere quirks of personality” rather than the ethical interventions that Nelson convincingly contends they were.

Toughness can only be proved through exposure to pain, and Nelson’s writers make suffering their subject. In the interests of facing pain head-on, they resisted both euphemism and catharsis. Weil embraced Christianity as suffering for its own sake, rather than as redemptive transfiguration. Arbus focused her lens on the gap between how people would like to be seen and how their bodies betray them. Cancer-ridden Sontag refused illness as metaphor; orphaned McCarthy believed that only attention to fact can rupture inevitable self-delusion; Arendt insisted that unlike the “pariahs” (her word, not mine) who group together and fool themselves through their shared point of view, we must all be alone and separate to face reality.

These are harsh politics and cosmologies, as Nelson is quick to acknowledge. But she locates a beneficial skepticism in ironic reflection. McCarthy, for example, saw that “solidarity” could be used “as a shield against the fact that might erode consensus, however ill-founded.” To resist what we might now call confirmation bias, she calls for “a process of self-alienation that is not only genuinely painful but never-ending.” This form of irony pries open habitual beliefs in pursuit of self-altering insight.

Sharp women writers, with “their preference for solitude over solidarity,” are profoundly untimely figures for the #TimesUp era.

In our era of bombast and propaganda, such relentless interrogation of what we know to be true—of our own ideologies and blind spots, even of own emotions and affiliations—seems both urgent and difficult. Nelson’s writers identify an “anesthetic quality” in solidarity that could produce “insulation.” Given how social media processes opinion through peer ratification, it is difficult not to feel a squirming recognition of our social media echo chambers in that indictment.

Like Dean, Nelson tries to put her finger on why second-wave feminism proved so objectionable to these prominent writers who could easily have been its most vocal and persuasive proponents. Nelson encapsulates Joan Didion’s disparaging essay about “The Women’s Movement” with a provocative paraphrase: “Style [is] feminism’s central problem.” This statement is both startling and ambiguous. To say that feminism deals only in style, not material realities, is a long-standing rebuttal of identity politics from both ends of the political spectrum. To blame feminists for being humorless or badly dressed, not embodying the movement in a flattering way, is a tiresomely well-worn objection. But Didion’s bone to pick with feminism seems instead to be the success of its formula. She fears the appeal of the oversimple, the romance of shared injustice without envisioned remedy. Sharp style, pace Didion, bursts those balloons.

Sharp women writers, with “their preference for solitude over solidarity,” are profoundly untimely figures for the #TimesUp era. Their eschewal of group identification seems particularly surprising and problematic against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. Though Nelson discusses Jewishness in her Weil and Arendt chapters, she does not address the white privilege of her cast of tough characters, which may have contributed to their insistence on standing alone. It is harder to choose solitude over solidarity when survival is at stake, though certainly Arendt might be said to have done just that in the wake of the Holocaust. (Dean discusses at length, though Nelson does not, Arendt’s wrong-headed opposition to desegregation.)

The politics and poetics of impersonality and individualism articulated by Arendt, Sontag, and Didion seem potentially retrograde. What Nelson calls toughness might in another register seem an appeal to reason and universalism, two ideals often inducing myopia even when their adherents imagine themselves to be at their most vigilant. Nelson, however, finds radical receptivity in depersonalized detachment. This is the starkest difference between Dean’s sharpness and Nelson’s toughness: sharpness inscribes, toughness endures. Nelson argues that her writers, despite their stated allegiance to autonomy, attended to the human enmeshment in a world of pain that goes beyond the individual.

Nelson seems uncertain about whether her writers could do more than report trauma and trace the forms of pain. For an artist who fetishizes emotional containment and views it as an ethical good, can toughness itself become a sop? Of Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, Nelson asks: “If style, emotional hardness, and morality form the three legs of Didion’s stool, what happens when one of those legs is broken?” Nelson’s metaphor, though applied to furniture, recalls the undercurrent of disability that also crops up in the Sontag and Arbus chapters. Is toughness a fantasy of wholeness and impenetrability, much like whiteness? In order to live in the broken world, must we recognize that our sharp edges are shards, as Ahmed would urge? For Ahmed, collective politics are made possible by the reclamation of fragility and the recognition of pain. “Killing joy is a world-making project,” she proposes in the manifesto that closes her book. “We make a world out of the shattered pieces even when we shatter the pieces or even when we are the shattered pieces.”

It may be this vulnerability that produces sharpness or toughness in the first place. A model for a more tremulous but still powerful tone might be Roxane Gay, who quips and calls out, who relishes her pleasure and owns her pain. Gay takes the art of having an opinion and turns it into the art of survival.7 Her humor never shrinks from pathos. She knows that when we are taught to say it was “not that bad,” we become complicit in our own oppression.8


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

  1. Dorothy Parker, “Self-Portrait from The Paris Review,” in The Portable Dorothy Parker, edited by Marion Meade (Penguin, 2006), p. 575.
  2. Parker, “Sophisticated Poetry—and the Hell with It,” in The Portable Dorothy Parker, p. 562.
  3. Joan Riviere, “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” in Formations of Fantasy (Methuen, 1986), p. 38.
  4. Ibid., p. 43.
  5. For a critique of second-wave feminism’s sisterhood rhetoric, see Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing, 2005).
  6. Mary McCarthy’s alter ego Meg Sargent frets about her possible flaws: “Was she too disqualified, did she really belong to this fraternity of cripples, or was she not a sound and normal woman who had been spending her life in self-imposed exile, a princess among the trolls?” The Company She Keeps (1942; Harcourt, 2003), p. 112.
  7. There is some evidence that Dean sees Gay as an inheritor of these sardonic journalists and that Gay would like to take up that legacy. Gay recently interviewed Dean about Sharp: “‘Argument Can Actually Be Joyful’: Women, Critics, and What It Means to Be Sharp,” The Cut, April 20, 2018.
  8. Roxane Gay, ed., Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture (Harper, 2018).
Featured image: Dorothy Parker at home in 1924 (detail) via NYPL Digital Collections