I recently came across a clip from an interview with humor writer David Sedaris about artist Miranda July in which he makes the absurd (and yet not surprising) assertion that the reason she is polarizing, the reason many people don’t like her, is because they are “jealous.” To him, it couldn’t be because she has a very distinctive, twee style which many people find cloying in nearly any form, realized by any artist. It couldn’t be because people have differing tastes which enable them to find some things amazing and others irritating, even if the irritating things are occasionally produced by women. It has to be, as it almost always is when we are talking about women with creative control in the arts, that we are jealous.
This is an accusation that comes up time and time again when people express dislike for a piece or body of work created by a woman. If we don’t like Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Zooey Deschanel, Miranda July — we’re jealous. This never comes up, of course, when we’re talking about someone not being particularly fond of Judd Apatow’s films or Bret Easton Ellis’ books. For male artists, there are a whole host of possible, legitimate reasons to not enjoy someone’s work. No one will accuse me of being “jealous” of Jason Mraz if I say I don’t like his music. And yet, the second it is a woman’s work I find uninteresting or offensive, I am reduced to a catty schoolgirl, pulling another girl’s braids on the playground because she got the shiny toy and I didn’t.
When I read Sedaris’ comment, I felt personally offended, as I do every time I hear someone (including men who, without irony, refer to themselves as “feminists”) say that anyone who dislikes Lena Dunham’s work or Girls only feels that way because they are jealous. In all honesty, I’m not crazy about Miranda July’s work or Lena Dunham’s. I just don’t find it to be all that interesting or compelling or relatable. I’m not out here writing impassioned screeds about how they’re an affront to filmmaking and humanity in general (though it is far from me to discount the many intelligent writers discussing the latter’s apparent disregard for diversity in her work), but I would not seek their stuff out if given a choice. Apparently, the only possible reason I could feel this way is because, on some level, I am seething with jealousy and bitter, childish rage over their ability to succeed in the face of my unequivocal failures.
While there is obviously some merit in questioning the motivations of someone whose criticism of any particular artist becomes needlessly repetitive, laser-focused, and cruel, to use such broad generalizations about any kind of woman-on-woman criticism is absurd.
To be fair, I am “jealous” of the female artists whose work I’m not particularly fond of in a very abstract sense. I am jealous that they are paid millions of dollars and lavished with critical praise and creative control to do the things they love and put out the stories they want to tell. I am pretty universally jealous of anyone who gets to do that, man or woman. I always just assumed that was sort of the baseline to life in general, though — we are jealous of rich and famous people who get to do awesome things and live seemingly sweet lives. If we’re going by that metric alone, I’m “jealous” of literally thousands of people. But we know that’s not what we’re saying here — we know what we’re really implying when we use this knee-jerk “jealous” rhetoric between women in the arts. And the problems with this kind of discourse are twofold.
First of all, it implies that women are expected, at least to some degree, to move and behave as a homogenous, cohesive unit who unilaterally supports and approves of each other. According to this kind of rhetoric, we are all representative and supportive of one another, toeing the party line and having nothing but uncritical pats on the back for everything we do individually. To step out of line and not approve of another woman’s work could never be a question of taste — that would be impossible! — it must be a question of envy, because a “normal” woman should have nothing but unequivocal praise for what another woman does.
Secondly, this “jealous” talk also ignores the fundamental problem which causes it in the first place: the fact that there is significantly less space for women to move around in and express themselves in the arts, and they are therefore met with greater pressure to succeed “on behalf” of women, should they land a coveted spot. To snidely toss aside all critical discourse from women around another woman’s work with a blanket “you’re just jealous” is to ignore the legitimate reasons she may be frustrated in the first place. Perhaps she is not “jealous” of this other woman who has seen vast commercial success, only saddened and discouraged because she knows that the already-precious real estate for women in entertainment has a spot taken by someone whose work she happens to not enjoy.
So the next time we want to dismissively tune out the voices of criticism against a woman in the arts with a condescending “they’re just jealous,” maybe it would be more constructive to think about how we can get more female voices with creative control in the industry in the first place. Who knows? One day we may even get to the point where they are just considered “artists” and not “women artists,” who must be immune to criticism from the unwashed, “jealous” masses.