Nope, you’re not reading The Onion. Nope, it’s not April 1. And, nope, it’s not 1912. The Washington Post—yesterday, March 2, 2008—really did publish a 1,700-word piece arguing that women are dumb.
Seriously. Here’s author Charlotte Allen, analyzing the phenomenon of women fainting, Beatles-style, over Obama at his political rallies:
I can’t help it, but reading about such episodes of screaming, gushing and swooning makes me wonder whether women—I should say, “we women,” of course—aren’t the weaker sex after all. Or even the stupid sex, our brains permanently occluded by random emotions, psychosomatic flailings and distraction by the superficial. Women “are only children of a larger growth,” wrote the 18th-century Earl of Chesterfield. Could he have been right?
Allen’s answer, based on the cacophony she invokes to sustain her point—“evidence” from neuroscience (Lady Brains are petite!), politics (Clinton’s campaign is one of the “stupidest” in recent history!), pop culture (those silly “chick doctors” on Grey’s Anatomy care more about sex than surgery!), and everyday life (women are worse drivers than men!)—is, to sum it all up: yep. Chesterfield was right. Women are, Allen concludes in the piece’s final line, “kind of dim.”
The piece is ridiculous. So ridiculous, in fact, that it would seem not only to prove Lady Allen’s own point, but also to make me hesitant to dignify the whole thing with even a wag of my finger or a shake of my (small, and mostly empty) head. But this morning offered a twist on the story: John Pomfret, editor of the Post’s Outlook section (which ran the column), told Politico media blogger Michael Calderone that Allen’s piece isn’t, in fact, the glibly misogynistic tirade it appears to be. “If it insulted people, that was not the intent,” Pomfret told Calderone. Because the piece, he said, was “tongue-in-cheek.”
Well, that explains it! There’s nothing Neanderthal-esque about Allen’s logic—even though her piece relies on Cave Culture to explain why girls aren’t as good at math as boys (spoiler alert! It’s because, in caveman days, women didn’t have to figure out how to make spears fly!)—since all the age-old clichés she regurgitates are merely a joke. (Allen’s not being offensive she’s being faux-fensive!) Her piece isn’t pandering to silly stereotypes; it’s transcending them. But in such a cleverly subtle way as to be entirely undetectable: it’s so meta that you can’t even tell it’s meta! Allen’s tongue is so firmly in cheek, apparently, she could choke herself.
But irony’s a tricky little weapon; if you’re going to use it, of course, you have to brandish it brazenly enough for people to know it’s there. Allen, alas, did not. Believe me, I looked—Feminine Empathy and whatnot—for some hint of the sarcasm that would redeem both the article and its author. I found none.
The Allen story seems to me a pretty clear case of page-view sellout; you don’t have to be Nick Denton to know that pissing people off is a surefire way to increase your eyeball count. And, judging by the hundreds of comments the piece has already received, it’s a winner, tally-wise, whatever else its (many) failings. Because of that, we’ll probably see more similarly ridiculous pieces in the Post’s pages and elswhere. I, for one, am already looking forward to the paper’s upcoming eyeball-grabbers, “Asians Can’t Drive,” “Jews Are Cheap,” and “Old People Smell.” They’ll all be tongue-in-cheek, of course.Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.