Not much of a tempest

It’s been a long and busy week, so I no longer remember who linked me to the Jezebel article The New Decornographers (boy is that an unwieldy title) but I’m very grateful, mystery friend!  The article, written by Sadie Stein, discusses the effect of the spate of craft, domestic, and fashion blogs on women.  Actually, more specifically, it discusses their effect on Ms. Stein, but there are larger implications woven into the article.

I’m both a writer and a consumer of craft blogs, so this topic interests me greatly.  You may remember the storms that arose in 2007 when the blogger Jane Brocket released her book The Gentle Art of Domesticity, inspiring backlash and anger from feminists in Britain.  (On a wholly egotistical note, that storm inspired what I consider to be my best blog entry to date.)  There’s no violence in this squall.  Ms. Stein isn’t really condemning the blogs in which the domestic is writ large so much as expressing her own bemused fascination and frustration with the domestic blogs.  (I’m lumping all the various craft, food, fashion, and lifestyle blogs under the header of “domestic”, which may or may not be fair, but it’s at least simpler!)

The point of the article is that so many people are Martha Stewart these days.  While I think it would be inaccurate to say that Martha was the only model of active domestic femininity that the pre-internet generation had to worry about, never has it been so easy for a wannabe domestic goddess to promote her lifestyle to an audience.  All it takes is a hobby, a camera, some photo editing software, and you too can be a queen of the internet.

This sort of blog depends largely on photos.  Cropped, artful photos, color edited for mood.  We get a little story from these pictures.  It is of course an intentionally partial view, usually quite literally (these are most often cropped close-ups) and with artful blurring to heighten the sense of depth.  If I sound critical, I’m not wholly so.  As I discussed in a recent previous post, I try for this sort of artful photograph myself, and while I’m not nearly as skilled in photography as the best of the domestic bloggers, I think sometimes my pictures look pretty swanky.  I like swanky pictures.  But it is important to remember that the camera does indeed lie, and quite ingeniously at that.  Close cropped photos are intentionally not showing you everything that there is to see.

You can't see the dying leaves with spots, because I cropped them!

The article goes on to discuss the ways in which blogs of this sort make the author, and others, feel bad even as they hold a certain allure.  This is where I have mixed feelings.  On the one hand, some blogs do seem to be an intentionally rosy picture of life that has an inherent smugness attached to it.  Others, while not smug, do seem effortless in a way that is unlikely at best, and entirely false at worst.  However, the self flagellating reader is not choosing to read these blogs at random.  There are plenty of blogs out there by every day schmoes with regular lives and crappy cameras and a perfectly decent writing style.  The very reason that the guilt-inducing blogs are sought is their perfection.

The artichokes look pretty because I framed them so that the overgrown weeds don't show. My backyard is seriously messy.

At the time I’m writing this, there are so many blogs on the internet that while the exact number is not known, it IS known to be upwards of 100 million.  In the time it takes me to write this entry, hundreds, possibly thousands more blogs have started.  Your choice in blog reading is almost literally innumerable, and when the numbers get to be so great, it’s a very small number that stand out.  Those that stand out often do so because of photographs.

Let’s face it.  You can look at the mess on your own desk whenever you like.  Domestic blogs are entertainment and escapism.  Sure, they may offer a cupcake recipe, a knitting pattern, or a fashion tip that you’ll use, but generally speaking, we don’t read blogs looking to adopt a new lifestyle.  While the self consciously perfect person is yet more insufferable when she insists, “I’m just like you, really!” I don’t think bloggers are under any obligation to show sides they don’t wish to display.  If you keep a fashion blog, I don’t need to see a flash lit picture of you in your ratty pajamas at noon for every keen photo in which you display dashing sartorial sense.

We took about a hundred photos. Only a handful looked good.

One of the things that this article did was cause me to go back through my archives and look at my blog.  Honestly, I can’t see it well.  I don’t think any of us can see ourselves well.  I have no idea how people see me.  I can’t get rid of the context I have that tells me that I spend a lot of the week in a big ugly mess, that I lose my temper with my kids more often than I’d like, that there are whole days in which I get very little done.  I’m not taking pictures of my messy desk or my ratty pajamas or the times when, instead of doing a cool craft project, I snap at the kids and they behave like little monsters.  But I know all that’s there, whether it shows or not, and it makes it impossible for me to gauge whether I am, myself, presenting an intimidating front.  I don’t think I am.  But I’m also here with my posed and edited photos, leaving out huge chunks of my life and presenting the parts that look good.

I believe strongly that the personal is political.  I believe that women hurt each other when we pretend to be OK all of the time, when we pretend that having it all is something we can all do.  I believe that making choices and sharing those choices helps keep us whole.  But I don’t share every choice, every flaw, and truth be told, I have no intention to do so.  This isn’t the place where I do that.  This is primarily the space where I write about my knitting, and where I occasionally write something like this, but it’s mostly just the place where I write about knitting.   I don’t even share all of that.  Sometimes, when a project is so discouraging or has failed so hard, I am too depressed to turn it into a funny story or a useful lesson or a tale of woe.

Women and men both have it tough these days.  Women and men have always had it tough, and the toughness changes over the years.  Right now, we’re in a transition and no one knows quite what’s expected of them. Rigid gender roles aren’t gone, but they’re softening, and that’s freeing, but it’s also scary.  Some of us retreat to more hardened gender roles to feel safe, and some of us push against any expectations we perceive and most of us try to make a path that feels sort of comfortable.  Sometimes, the very things we seek out for comfort or ideas or for entertainment are the things that make us feel most lacking.  But the truth is, none of the perfect cupcake ladies is really perfect.  Some of these bloggers are writing from a place of privilege.  They can afford to stay home and bake lovely cakes for fun.  Some of these bloggers are writing their blogs after a long day slogging at a job that they hate and baking perfect cupcakes is how they relax.  Some bloggers are baking perfect cupcakes in between changing dirty diapers and running around the house desperately trying to keep ahead of the mess, and those perfect cupcakes are the one thing that is under control.

The point is, how we react to these blogs is far more about us than about the blogs.  Some of these blogs aren’t very good, really.  Some aren’t really good for us, anymore than indulging in perfect cupcakes would be good if it was an every day occurrence.  But we can click on that little X in the corner, close the browser window, and step back into our imperfect lives, lives we sometimes make a little more perfect with a camera lens and a story.


14 Responses to “Not much of a tempest”

  1. Paula Says:

    Thanks for pointing this article out and for such a well written response!

  2. Rebecca Says:

    Thank you for being HUMAN! I love it – I completely read blogs because they generally make me happy, or align with things that I like (knitting, baking, gardening, cute kids) – and I write mine in a fashion that generally shows the parts I like – not because I want to rub it in to people and make them feel bad that I have nice things that I like in life, but because those things make me happy and one day if my kids were to look back and read things I wrote – I don’t want them to read everyday how they make my life so much harder, or how I just wanted to rip my hair out all the time and how I couldn’t stand that I was yelling or being lazy etc – even though all those thoughts cross my mind… yea, I agree with you, and you wrote it in a much prettier way than I could have had time or words to do – so Thank You.

  3. Ingrid Says:

    The author of that article sees oppression – I see inspiration. Some of my finest crafting moments have been inspired by the blogosphere.

    I generally don’t write about the more draining side of my life, because I don’t want to have that kind of blog, but I do keep people updated on the big events as much as I am able.

  4. Emma in France Says:

    Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

    I love blogs with great pictures of knitting, I feel really drawn to them. I do like to see some accurate real life in them too. I’ve found that the blogs with artful poses and somewhat pretentious posts have started to turn me off in a ‘It’s a cardigan not the flippin’ Mona Lisa’ kind of way.

    While I don’t necessarily want or need to see every single bad yarn day, it’s good to see the occasional cock-up, the odd whinge and moan. I think while we as readers have a responsibility to ourselves to edit our blog subscriptions and read between the lines and pretty photos, I do think that blog authors have a certain responsibility too and shouldn’t present a completely false image of themselves.

  5. threadpanda Says:

    I agree with Ingrid and her comment about what the blogger chooses to see. She’s the one allowing herself to feel bad that she can’t, or chooses not to, do the things that she sees on blogs. I took up knitting again because I saw a friend doing it and thought “hey, I can do that,” as opposed to “hey, I suck because I can’t do that.”

    Most of us don’t blog (or at least don’t start out blogging) because we want to be known on the internet. Most of us take up blogging, on whatever topic, because our heads are too full of stuff we want to say and we’re trying to find people who want to read and share their own stories (and our non-knitting friends have gotten sick of us talking about wool vs. wool-blends, or what have you).

    I’m always interested in perception, and how two people can perceive the same thing in radically different ways. Thank you for sharing this link, and your thoughts.

  6. Emily Says:

    Whoa. I have SUCH conflicted feelings about this issue, but your post is briliant and I agree with what you say one hundred percent.

    I have an immediate, visceral reaction against the idea that we, the craft-blogging community, should be attempting to mitigate our accomplishments, or present ourselves as less accomplished than we are. And yes, I can definitely see both sides: that by choosing to present only the positive, only the successful experiments and not the ones that bombed, we are being false and unrealistic. But my opinion is, we are artists. And painters, for example, make MANY preparatory sketches before ending up with a completed painting. Musicians make do MANY out-takes before ending up with a take that sounds good (or cobbling one together from different takes + digital effects). They are under no obligation to present every piece of their process – painters are not required to exhibit their preparatory sketches along with their final products, and collectors are certainly not required to buy the sketches rather than the finished paintings. It can be interesting to look at the sketches, as part of the process leading to the painting, but we certainly should not be laying a guilt trip on the painters for wanting to exhibit their finished products, rather than all the rough, unsuccessful sketches that led up to their success. As my partner said, it’s fun to listen to Beatles out-takes occasionally, because it humanizes the Fab Four, but we would never want to give up Abbey Road in favor of some off-key out-take in which Paul and George get into a fight.

    And I think, as much as women do hurt each other by pretending to be perfect, we also hurt each other by expecting that every woman’s number-one priority is to be nurturing toward every other human being she encounters. I am an artist; I am interested in making my art the best – the most attractive, the most cohesive, the most functional, the prettiest – it can be. The idea that I am somehow obligated to prioritize the feelings of every possible reader of my blog, is an expectation that requires me to be at least as much of an unrealistic Superwoman as the expectation that my house will be perfect or my temper always in check (every reader has different desires, after all). Besides, that should not be my priority. My priority is to challenge myself, interest myself, and communicate what I’m excited about if anyone else wants to read it. Personally, I believe that engaging with other women on the level of artistic challenge is INFINITELY more respectful to us and our own integrity than assuming that we are all delicate, insecure little flowers. I know that *I* feel inspired and respected when another woman engages with me on a level of artistic competence & self-respect.

    I played in a rock band for years; we were pretty mediocre, to be honest. And one of the things that brought home to me that I should STOP playing in a band, was that I could no longer listen to anyone else’s music without raking over it for mistakes and inconsistencies that would make me feel better about the shortcomings of my own music. That’s a horrible feeling. But honestly, it was never about those other bands. It’s not down to any of the amazing local musicians here in Portland to dumb down their performances in order to make me feel better. It’s down to me to make peace with my own relationship to music.

    Obviously, this post touched a nerve with me! Hopefully I don’t sound totally crazy & reactionary in this comment. I really can see both sides, but I feel so defensive of my ability/right to just make art and present it the best I can.

  7. Sarah Says:

    My house is not a tidy place, but I do scramble to clean it up for guests (and my husband helps, I’ll note). The blog is rather the same way. My corner of the internet is never going to look perfectly polished and posed, partly because I lack the skills to make it look that way, especially when all my creative endeavors come at the expense of housekeeping (which I don’t enjoy and happily shove to the rear burner whenever possible), and partly because that’s not an illusion I set out to create. But why should it be dishonest to document the successes, to focus the camera where the beauty is? It’s more about optimism and remembering what’s made you feel happy and accomplished. I don’t think my blog’s ever going to be one of those making people feel inadequate in any realm, but I do credit my readers with enough imagination to realize there’s an editorial process. I don’t draw any inspiration from the crusty contents of my kitchen sink or the state of my baseboards and neither would anyone else, and since I didn’t create my blog as a confessional or an instrument of self-flagellation, I don’t usually write about the messes I ignore in favor of trying out a new idea with fiber or fabric. I don’t try to measure my life against blogs that paint a superior picture of domesticity or any other realm, and at some level I think it’s insulting to women to insinuate that we can be harmed by others’ blithe and rosily painted internet lives. Surely part of the reason for the feminist movement was to win us the right to set our own standards for success at whatever we decide fulfills us? I feel that in general it’s up to me to use the ideas and images I encounter out in the world for creative rather than destructive purposes.

    Today Jane Brocket has lovely photos of hundreds of tulips picked and arranged by her daughter. We’ll never know if Jane’s initial reaction to finding her kitchen overwhelmed with bouquets was, as mine might well have been, “Augh! You cut down the entire garden at once!” Her post admires the girl’s grand vision, and I filed that away in my brain because I don’t want to be a snippy, tight-fisted mother and I know I’m going to have to fight an innate urge toward cautioning prudent and conservative use of resources. And I may plant some more tulip bulbs this fall, even if I’ll never cut them and arrange them and photograph them beautifully. Jane Brocket has reminded me that I love tulips and has also given me the useful information that the bulbs get spent after a year or two and that’s why only a few came up in my weedy little excuse for a garden this year. That’s what I’m taking from her today.

  8. the Lady Says:

    Damn it, I completely lost my comment!

    But yeah- I got about 1/3 of the way through that Jezebel article and I have to agree with you, the way a reader views those beautiful blogs say the fuck of a lot more about the reader than it does about the blog. So what if someone is posting inspiring and beautiful pictures? So what if Ms. Blogger never reveals the nasty grit and shit of her life? How the reader feels is determined by the reader – and honestly, if Ms. Reader can’t figure it out that Ms. Perfect Blogger probably isn’t all that perfect, then she’s probably the same girl who reads fashion magazines and doesn’t remember that many models are airbrushed 12 year olds – so yes of course they’re 5’11” and 110 pounds with amazing cheek bones! I mean, come on!

    My blog is so very obviously not “perfect.” I keep it because I like to monologue, I like to create a little dialog, I like to have an outlet. No one is obligated to read it. And if people don’t want to, they move on. And if something I’ve got to say inspires or touches a chord in them, they stick around and maybe we e-mail back and forth a bit.

    I like to be honest. That’s just me. Other people like to have an escape, a pretty place. Make art. Make beauty.

    It’s all in the eye of the beholder, n’est-ce pas? I think we as women – artists and crafters, are not obligated to show the dirt if we don’t want. And if we do feel like it, then fine.

    Not very eloquent, but then I never am. And that’s *me*, right?

    I think the Jezebel writer would do VERY well to keep in mind the colossal amount of time those bloggers are spending on photography, blog layout, crafting time (which is usually spent alone, in the house) listing time (Etsy – again, alone, in the house) and editing. That’s why I only blog once a week any more – it takes far long enough just to write, let alone take a crappy snapshot and upload it. I’d rather be out and about, meeting people and having experiences, than shut up in the house on the fucking lap top making pretty pictures for someone to view.

    And perhaps this beautiful Bloglandia *is* these women’s art. You know? So it’s worth it to *them.* And it is our responsibility as people, not just women, to remember that art is a *created* thing.

    The best lesson I had in this was
    Woman my ex left me for. Beautiful fucking blog. Beautiful. Stories about him and her doing things together. And guess what. It is not reality. A few pretty pictures in faded tones with magical little sparkling bloggy posts are not fucking reality. Reality was him cheating on me while he lied to her about my very existence. Reality was him telling me he didn’t even like her as a person, that she was fat and not as pretty as me and that he didn’t want anything more to do with her. Reality was fucking fucked up. So that’s what we have to remember. Pictures are pretty, but go into a dark room sometime, work with a paper and chemicals photographer, and you’ll learn well enough about the dodge and burn.

  9. Kristen Says:

    Gosh, I struggle with this a lot as a blogger…how open and honest should I be? My life is not perfect, and I know, because of what some of my readers say, that sometimes it seems perfect.

    But am I obligated to blog about it when I am mad at my husband wonder why I married him? or when I have had it up to my proverbial neck with my children and I think longingly back to the days when I had no children?

    I don’t know.

  10. Kristen Says:

    Coming back to this, I guess I feel hesitant to blog about some of the uglier sides of my life because blog readers can so misconstrue things. If I post that I yelled at one of my kids, some well-meaning soul will probably conclude that I am an abusive mother.

    And if I write about being irritated with my husband over something, I worry that doing so is insensitive and unfair to him, and that the one bad thing I blog about will overshadow all the good things I’ve said about him.

    I don’t feel at all bad about posting pictures of messes in my house or baking failures or anything of that sort, though, as that type of thing only reflects on me and not my family.

  11. HeatherLouise Says:

    Amen. A blog is just a blog, which is to say, it is whatever the writer wants it to be. I find it hard to believe that those perfectly manicured photos are more about postulating than about 1) pandering to an audience that likes to look at a good photos and 2) hesitation to “air one’s dirty laundry in public.” And frankly, if it were a blogger’s purpose is to climb some pedestal, the joke is on them, because (at least I find that) perfect photos, cupcakes, and children are dreadfully boring (much like in real life). Pretentiousness is detectable, and a reader’s reaction says more about the reader than the writer.
    I write because because I love to create and it’s a medium I enjoy. I read a blog when it has a characteristic that I find entertaining, inspiring, or relative. I enjoy reading Knitting Kninja because I like to see the knitting projects and enjoy reading from an intelligent, opinionated young mother with the courage to be at-home and design beautiful cottage-industry knitting patterns.
    And for that, Kristen, thank you.

  12. rose Says:

    Wow. Just. Wow. Thanks for writing this. Wonderful perspective.

    I read (more like skim) some of these “perfect” blogs, and really, I consider them escapism and inspiration. I am ardently against a certain preciousness that seems to plague a segment of craft/food/home blogs. (Emma in France, I love your Mona Lisa comment above!) I am, however, willing to overlook *a bit* of artifice if there is real information to be found.

    You’ve articulated well something that needs to be put out in the open, but without demonizing anyone. Thanks for doing that so well.

  13. verdande Says:

    Good post! The list of things that have been said to be bad for women’s self-esteem is really very long, and it occurs to me sometimes that maybe aiming for stronger self-esteem is a better long-term solution than criticising or attempting to eliminate all those bad things. I think about it frequently when I and my friends and colleagues discuss wedding plans, recent births, home improvements – some women take my different choices to imply some sort of criticism of theirs (the men never do!). I wonder if women would feel as vulnerable to these blogs if they felt more secure in their own choices regarding work-life balance, child rearing vs career plans etc.

  14. Enia Says:

    very interesting post. i recently came across it myself (the original article) and i have to admit my response to it was somewhat more ‘in an uproar’ than yours. though i have lots to say, i particularly liked this idea of this being more about the readers than the bloggers… i think that is right (or seems to me to be at least)…

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