Sexism at the New York Times Magazine; or, it’s the little things

By now, some of you may have heard about the controversy concerning sexist comments made by New York Times Magazine writer Andrew Goldman. Goldman, who writes the weekly interview column in the magazine, has a history of saying dumb and sexist things to female interviewees. Last week, he asked actress Tippi Hedren the following question:

The worst abuse happened after you rebuffed his advances. Actors have been known to sleep with less powerful directors for advancement in show business. Did you ever consider it?

I thought it was a pretty stupid question, and a sexist one to boot, though on the scale offensiveness it was pretty mild. However, the whole interview was full of this kind of annoyingly obtuse, low-grade sexism. For instance, Goldman characterized Hedren’s going public about Alfred Hitchcock’s sexual harassment of her on the sets of The Birds and Marnie as a form of (presumably petty) “revenge;” he doesn’t seem to get the idea that breaking the silence about these issues is freeing and empowering, not only for Hedren personally but for women in general.

Novelist Jennifer Weiner took to Twitter to call Goldman out on his sexism, tweeting:

Saturday am. Iced coffee. NYT mag. See which actress Andrew Goldman has accused of sleeping her way to the top. #traditionsicoulddowithout

This is where Goldman really stepped in it. His response to Weiner wa this:

@jenniferweiner sensing pattern. Little Freud in me thinks you would have liked at least to have had opportunity to sleep way to top

That response was not only nasty but cowardly. Rather than engage with the substance of Weiner’s criticism, he chose to hide behind his male privilege and attack Weiner’s sexual attractiveness. A twtterfest and minor internet sh*tstorm erupted.

The upshot of all this was that Goldman was forced to apologize to Weiner, but unfortunately, he was not fired. Goldman’s editors were clueless and hyper-defensive, but I thought that the Times’ new public editor, Margaret Sullivan, handled this controversy quite well. She had some sharp words for Goldman, writing “Given his misbehavior on Twitter and his status as a highly replaceable freelancer, I think his editors are extraordinarily generous” to give him “a second chance.” Her questions to Goldman’s editors were also admirably tough.

There’s a lot I could write about this little episode, which in a variety of ways has been highly instructive. But the major one is this: as I indicated above, I thought the level of sexism Goldman demonstrated in the Hedren interview was relatively mild, by internet standards at least. But you know, that’s kind of the point. Women have to put up with crap like this all day, every day. It never ends, and it takes a terrible toll on women’s psyches. You can get so depressed and demoralized by it, and so tired of it — this constant drumbeat of remarks and gestures, some subtle and some not so subtle, that have the effect of demeaning you and are designed to keep you “in your place.” Voicing your objection to each and every one of these incidents is not only exhausting, but it will quickly earn you the reputation of being a total bee-yotch. Yet remaining silent can, over time, slowly eat away at your dignity.

I think the source of Weiner’s irritation was not just at that one question, or that one interview, but all the other similarly snarky, vaguely hostile, mildly sexist questions that Goldman has asked female subjects in previous interviews. And Goldman is just the surface of the toxic sexist sewer of a media climate we are all swimming in. Since the little things can, in the end, take as much of a toll as the big ones, I think it’s important for women to let people know that the milder kinds of sexism are also totally not okay. No woman, of course, has the time or energy to constantly object to each and every incident of everyday sexism she experiences; every woman must choose her battles, for her own sanity, if nothing else.

But it is important for women to speak up when they feel they can — not only for each woman individually, but for women as a class. It is even more important for men to listen respectfully when these complaints are made, and to engage them in a thoughtful and constructive manner. People who, knowingly or unknowingly, engage in sexist behavior need to understand that even the milder forms of sexism can, over time, do serious damage. The little things can add up to quite a lot.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee