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Anne Helen Petersen interprets celebrity
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Anne Helen Petersen interprets celebrity
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"The thing about a celebrity is that their image can be read like a text like any other."
23 May 2017

Anne Helen Petersen interprets celebrity

Interview by Jane Nethercote

Meeting Anne...

It is a funny thing to admire someone from afar for a while—and then realise you actually have a way to chat with them. I first came across Anne Helen Petersen’s writing in The Hairpin, where she wrote the magnificent Scandals of Classic Hollywood column. Whether it was Fatty Arbuckle or Katharine Hepburn, Anne coloured her subjects in, clearly relishing their stories as she explored them through the lenses of feminism, class, capitalism and more.

The rigour was to be expected for someone with a PhD in celebrity gossip—even if they were nothing like your average academic paper. When university jobs proved hard to come by, Anne was quickly snaffled by BuzzFeed, a move that in retrospect seems inevitable.

Now, she works there as a senior culture editor. With a somewhat open brief and the permission to follow her nose, Anne has increasingly waded into political waters with pieces like How Dallas became one of America’s most refugee-friendly cities and Ivanka Trump and the aesthetics of denial. However, her focus remains on the human story.

Anne’s upcoming book is a return to home turf, infused with politics. In Too fat, too slutty, too loud: The rise and reign of the unruly womanshe examines how famous women—think Serena Williams, Hillary Clinton and Madonna—have broken from the prescribed roles of acceptable womanhood and what the backlash tells us about ourselves and society.

Meanwhile, if you want to see Anne in her element, the Facebook page she runs with former student Hari Raghavan is where you’ll often find her. While the page has pushed further into the political-activist space in recent times, it still interprets the world through celebrities and their culture. It is a deep well for discussion.

Like the teacher she once was, and arguably still is, her work always invites conversation, an exploration of the times in which we live and, sometimes, a good old gossip.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

What’s your day been like?

It’s like three o’clock. I’m researching this big piece on Tom Hanks so I’ve been, like, going way deep into the history of all of his movies. It’s been fun.

So thank you so much for saying yes to an interview. It’s probably a weird thing to have these random people from across the seas pinging you.

No, no, I’m very flattered.

You know, Dumbo Feather is almost the anti­celebrity magazine in a way. But we all consume information about celebrity and I feel like to understand what’s going on in the world at the moment, you actually need to be able to read it in the right way. So why do you think celebrity is important?

So I think any pop culture artefact, whether it’s music or whatever, there’s something in it. If you look at the narrative centre within that artefact, there’s something ideologically going on that reflects the things a culture has anxiety about, and the things that they’re very confident about, so questions of race or gender or marriage—all sorts of things that they’re working through.

The thing that’s really comforting about the progression of a song that has lyrics or a movie or a television show is that it offers some sort of response to these larger questions.

And the thing about a celebrity is that their image can be read like a text like any other.

So there’s ideological meaning underpinning these celebrity experiences. And whether or not that’s fully legible until years later is often hard to decipher.

So like right now, it’s much easier to figure out what Tom Hanks means in the 1980s than the 1990s. It’s much harder to try to decipher how his image has evolved with the times and stayed popular in the 2000s. And similarly it’s much easier with stars from classic Hollywood. The historians have done the work in a lot of ways of thinking about “okay, what was ideologically going on?” And then you just have to think “oh! Well this is how that either matches really pretty closely with the representation of masculinity of, say, Jimmy Stewart or doesn’t.”

I find it fascinating. And it’s the way that I like to read about celebrity. Probably I don’t classically go to people.com but I will read anything that you write on the subject. And I haven’t read a Nicholas Sparks book, but I’ll read your dissertation on what that means for the culture.

Right, right, right. And I mean it’s not that I necessarily particularly find joy in reading Nicholas Sparks myself. [Laughs]. Although I do like the movies. In like a weird way.

I have seen The Notebook. I have ticked the box.

But at the same time, if so many people are finding pleasure in anything, like, any text, no matter what it is. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Nicholas Sparks or an action movie, whatever. There’s a reason for that. So if you can analyse that relationship, that attraction, there’s really fertile ground for understanding.

I actually did have a facetious question written down here. Which is what does Kim Kardashian mean?

This is actually one of my favourite ideas, and I heard this once at a conference. And since then I’ve never been able to shake it. The reason why Kim Kardashian and the Kardashians in general, the way that they first became meaningful as a cluster, has been understood by this one scholar by comparing them to the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice.

So you have one sister who is not the oldest but is clearly the prize sister in Kim. You have the goody­two­shoes sister. You have a sister who is more aggressive and stand­offish. And then you have this mother who is attempting to marry them all off. So, especially in the beginning, you have these two very young sisters in Kylie and Kendall…

Who are just watching what’s going on and being brought up in that world.

Yep. And vulnerable to it. And then you have a kind of useless dad, which is what Bruce, now Caitlyn Jenner, was, especially in the beginning. You have a Mum who is essentially trying to social climb vis à ­vis her daughters. So it’s a compelling narrative!

It’s brilliant narrative! And I guess that makes it age­old. I was also thinking when you were talking that locating Kim within a family is also very important because in America, family is at the heart of how you see yourselves—and how Australians see themselves as well. So locating her within that family and what that means say in comparison with the ’50s nuclear family, how it’s evolving, is powerful.

Yeah. It’s a totally untraditional family, which is increasingly the norm here in the United States. But then at the same time, at least the way that they’re depicted in the show, they are so supportive of one another. You know, they all live in this close proximity that is very rare. And they spend their time worrying about each other, going over to each other’s houses, posting about each other on social media. So it’s this intimacy that is really lost in a lot of ways. But it’s manifest in this untraditional post­racial times, like you have all of these different relationships that are informing it. So it’s fascinating.

And also now having a trans person at the heart of it too. And watching how they react to it and support her is a really fascinating way for people to relate to things that they might not have in their own life. So maybe the way that I would relate to my parent coming out as trans, would I take Kim’s posture? Would I take Khloe’s posture? You can identify with these different ways of acting, ways of being.

And so you’re writing a book that talks about the “too­ness” of women and the way that we perceive women. You’ve got that Amy Schumer’s too honest, Melissa McCarthy’s too fat, Hillary Clinton is too shrill. What drew you to those stories? And why is it that we can’t deal with the excesses of women?

So there’s this trope of the unruly woman, the first wave of it was really popularly identified. This woman who is my mentor, her name is Kathleen Rowe and she was a professor of mine when I was getting my Masters. She wrote about this trope of the unruly woman through antiquity! In old operas and in the carnivalesque and all this sort of thing. But specifically she really focuses on Roseanne. And the role of Roseanne in the early ‘90s and how Roseanne was this compelling figure. People could not look away from her, but she was also a figure of revulsion. And the way she talks about this understanding of unruly is that it’s deeply rooted in the abject. So something that you desire but that also you must define yourself against.

And so that idea I think is really present in the images of all of these women who are magnetic and a lot of women are either identifying with them in some way, finding their strength of voice and personality really compelling. Also there’s this idea that like “well I don’t want to be too much”, right? Women are always circumscribed to a very limited set of behaviours and place in the world, you know. Whether it’s that they shouldn’t take up too much space by getting fat, they shouldn’t take up too much noise by talking too much! All these things. And so when women transgress that there’s a way of disciplining them to keep them in line. And so even with this current cluster of ten chapters, each one of them treads a line of acceptability. Because if they’re actually too unruly then they can’t be a superstar.

They don’t get acknowledged.

Yep. Yep. You know. There are also women that could have been included in this book who actually are too queer or too fat. But they’re not allowed to be stars. So you have to do this really fine negotiation of what is pushing the boundary but not too much.

And the other thing that I gesture to throughout, and this is what happened to Roseanne, is there’s cycles of American culture where there’s a sort of unruliness that’s been embraced and then rejected. And so Roseanne was summarily rejected in the second half of the 90s. And I think right now we’re at this real kind of tension point, at least in America, of embracing it and celebrating it. But it remains to be seen. I mean Hillary wasn’t elected—which was a sort of referendum on her style of being in the world. Right? And then also just there’s been backlash against Amy Schumer recently. I actually added a chapter that wasn’t in the original table of contents about Serena Williams, and she’s someone who people love to celebrate, but then also really push back against. So I don’t have any neat answers. Just observations.

And if the election was a referendum on Hillary’s approach, what you’ve called her “unrepentant ambition”, is the answer more unruliness…or something else?

I think unruliness is absolutely crucial right now, especially as legislation in the US threatens to further curtail women’s control over their own bodies and destinies. It’s hard, because as you gesture to above, that sort of unruliness can also be divisive—I heard a joke that Lena Dunham probably guided more votes to Trump, ultimately, than Clinton.

I think celebrity women lead by example—and that means less just “speaking out” in terms of support and more of actually advocating for causes, and writing/thinking/bankrolling/starring in things that continue to work against toxic masculinity, inequality under patriarchy, intersectionality in all things, etc.

And are there women who are transcending the box that they’re being defined by do you think? You say some women are able to push and pull it a bit within their celebrity. Somebody like Beyoncé comes to mind for example. Who’s fighting those definitions that society’s placing on them?

Yeah. I mean I think Beyoncé for sure. And if Lemonade had come out before I wrote my book then I would have had it in there. Before Lemonade she wasn’t as political, she wasn’t engaging as much in the question of “Black Lives Matter”, it wasn’t that she was opposing it, but it just wasn’t there. And even her embrace of feminism was somewhat tentative. Like having lights behind her that said “feminist”. Kind of like a Taylor Swift­esque feminism. But I think whether it’s like an artistic awakening or, you know, something else going on in her life or just the cries of the political current’s just speaking so much that she wanted to reckon with them. But she absolutely has forced people who were used to listening to “If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it” into these really trenchant critiques of racism and masculinity and intersectional feminism. So I think she’s a really good example of that.

I honestly think Lena Dunham’s a really good example in part because she messes up so much [laughs]. She’s not a perfect feminist. Like, she says things that are sometimes inappropriate or aren’t super sectional or she has to backtrack but she also really crucially is controlling the means of production. So she’s a producer of her own show, she’s producing documentaries, she owns a newsletter that really has become this place where a lot of female stars and women in general can speak about their lives. And I think when you’re making the box instead of men making the box, it’s easier to push the edges of that box.

For sure. So you become the publisher. You become the empire. I wanted to know, from all this celebrity watching, whether you draw from it inspiration for your own life.

Yeah. Yeah. I mean I think that I have been taught to be “ruly” my entire life. And it’s easy to internalise a lot of those lessons. And I know when I start press for this book a lot of people are going to ask, “Was it really about you? You’re a blonde slender woman who is 35 and white!”

I think that I have tried to look to the lesson especially of these women that I’m writing about, these unruly women, about the ways in which you can critique the system from within the system. How can I make my voice heard within the system? And then also critique the system? So in order to do that you need to know how to play the game. Like, I need to know how to build my Facebook page and I need to know how to build my Twitter following and I need to think about what’s a headline that I can use for a piece that will make more people read it even if that headline is slightly sensationalist and not as subtle as I would like it to be?

So how can I play by those rules while also using my actual work to challenge those rules?

So I think that that’s something that I’ve specifically learned from studying closely how these women who have succeeded and sort of, you know, imploding, how they manoeuvre Hollywood and how they manoeuvre celebrity as well.

And who do you think does it kind of beautifully? Who do you admire in that setting?

My favourite celebrity always is Angelina Jolie. Just ‘cause I think she’s so savvy, so fascinating. Doesn’t have a publicist, just understands things. And one thing I really have always loved about her is her reason that she remains compelling is because she herself is endlessly hungry. She is an autodidact and is hungry all the time. She wants to learn more about something. She wants to try directing or producing or, you know, being a UN global ambassador. And part of that, it just happens that those things also make her seem like a more interesting person. It’s ’cause she is a more interesting person. If you were to meet Angelina Jolie, even if she didn’t have a beautiful face and this compelling celebrity narrative, she would still be I think one of the most interesting people that you know just from the breadth of her experience and her hunger for different sets of knowledge. And so that to me makes her really fascinating.

And she’s not trying to work within the framework, is she? She’s saying no, there’s a big world out there, and that’s what I engage with. And that’s how I demonstrate who I am. And so, with your Facebook page (Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style), which I think is fantastic, you run that with…

A former student, his name’s Hari. And actually it just happened, one time I was going to be gone for two weeks. I was giving a talk in New Zealand. And I was like “hi I’m going to be gone”—and this was back when the page had a thousand followers. I was, “do you think you could post a couple of things?” And he said “sure!” And then we just kind of continued in that relationship. And he’s like a queer Indian American millennial. He’s ten years younger than me. And so he has a different perspective, viewpoint, voice to me. And I think it’s really good to have that contrast.

But at the same time I think we share goals for the page and want to make it a place where people, mostly women, but people, can feel like they can have conversations, they can disagree with one another. But also, there are things that I don’t feel like you ever need to tell two sides. The page is feminist. The page is intersectional. The page is not xenophobic.

The title of the page seems to circumscribe it into, like, “Celebrity Gossip Academic Style”. But we really have expanded it, and I think a lot of people like this, to just be more about how can we think of things going around the world that are often times really related to celebrities or public figures, but how can we think of them in a critical way? Either through our writing or through other people’s writing.

And I think that’s what’s interesting. I’ve watched the page evolve over the last little while and increasingly, obviously because of what’s going on in America, it’s got an activist tone. And you’re quite straightforward about saying the reason you’re interested in celebrity is ’cause you can use that lens to look at the culture and what’s going on at large. How do you see the political and celebrity crossing over?

Right, right. I mean I think a lot, both in terms of feminism and activism, and in terms of “Black Lives Matter”, I think you see celebrities, first of all, who are articulating those ideas in their artwork or who are speaking about them on social media or, you know, appear, like Lena Dunham appearing at the Democratic National Convention, that sort of thing. So you have that kind of straightforward level.

But then I also think that you just have celebrities who have risen to prominence because they do seem to embody these attitudes that are ascendant. So Beyoncé I think is a really great example. And the classic stars of the past who were able to both grow as artists and individuals, and then also in their publicity, in ways that shifted with the different ideological periods. So Joan Crawford, the reason she could be a star for 40 years is because she bent her image, both in terms of the star roles that she played and then also who she was in her private life. She continued to resonate, she continued to speak to women about what it meant to be a woman during that time. And so I think someone like Beyoncé, you can’t talk about Beyoncé today without talking about politics. Like, her image is so fiercely political, even if it’s not about voting. Right? It’s about cultural politics.

It makes me wonder whether the celebrities who try to continue to stay within that Hollywood framework and that bubble, whether they won’t be allowed to because we want to know what they believe in.

That’s it. Well and that’s the problem with social media is that there becomes, and I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing, but there becomes this imperative that every time there’s a shooting every celebrity on social media must make a statement.

It shouldn’t be compulsory. Otherwise it comes off as hollow or forced or false. Actor Shailene Woodley was arrested a little while back at the Dakota access pipeline protest. And so that sort of activism to me is really interesting, like first of all she was at the protest herself. Which is very, very rare. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a bunch of money and narrates documentaries but he is very much not involved in direct action in terms of protest. So she’s at the protest. She Facebook livestreams herself. And she gets arrested. Right? So she’s not just observing but part of it. And she’s used her Facebook page almost exclusively to promote things to do with the protest. She’s used her public appearances to promote the protest. And I think that that is a different model that really resonates with millennials. Right?

Millennials see social media as a tool to actually accomplish things. And also see actual action, direct action.

Like if you see something, you do something. You go to a march. Yes, social media can do something, but it’s not enough.

So for them this kind of confluence of her being there, streaming it on social media and using her celebrity in a way that is very much not just like “I’m going to donate what I can on the side”, it’s like “this is fundamental to who I am”. That to me is a new model that I think we’re going to see much more of. That’s really interesting. Do we then have that expectation of that level of engagement? We want to feel like we’re seeing their authentic interest.

It’s interesting that you speak of authenticity. A lot of what Dumbo Feather is about is capturing people authentically. So when it comes to celebrity culture, what is real? And does it matter?

The thing is, when people say someone is authentic, a lot of times it’s that they have performed authenticity in a way that seems authentic! And so I think there’s this understanding that something is more real because it’s a tweet or something is more real because it’s on Instagram. When really social media has just become the latest form of publicity that has been mastered and turned into a very tight performance of self. And so I think there are moments of rupture when something like a real self comes through. And, you know, oftentimes it’s things that are scandalous. So it’s things that weren’t meant to be posted. Like the photos of Jennifer Lawrence and the other stars who were hacked. That sort of thing seems authentic. The hack of Sony, the studio. And the emails that were released from that seem authentic. Like here I am accessing what is meant to be hidden.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t still this veneer of authenticity that clings to social media, but in 2007 when stars first started using Twitter I wrote a piece back then and it was like “oh my gosh, this is the actual star!” “This is how we see them!” You know, it had this real aura around it that I think is decreasingly gone. And not just because a lot of stars have other people tweeting for them but also because the stars themselves have realised its power and how to wield it in a really effective way. But like I said there are moments that feel very real and they come, they’re just increasingly seldom. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not still there and they don’t still speak to fans in a really colourful way.

And when you were chatting then I was just thinking that understanding of brand and branding of self—and even you were saying it about your work—in 2007 I don’t think that was a concept that was as prevalent.

Right. Right. No I think that everyone, especially millennials, understands themselves as a birth record in some way. Like whether it’s your brand that you’re trying to get a job. And that is antithetical to Generation X. Like Generation X don’t want to sell themselves in any way! You know! [laughs]. And those two understandings really bump up against each other, especially here in America.

I see it in the newsroom. You have people from Gen X who are like “I don’t want to tweet my story!” And then you have someone who’s a millennial who’s like “I’m going to tweet my story ten times!” [laughs]. And I think that increasingly, even if that feels like an anathema to you, it’s the way that you survive within the business world and so there’s less derision towards celebrities who do this thing. It’s just the natural posture of navigating the world. As a business person, who are you? What is your brand? What is your skillset? So a celebrity will do that as well.

And I guess, at its heart, having a brand is a way to have a voice. And you yourself have an increasingly powerful media voice. How do you want to use it?

I think speaking truth to power is what most cultural critics want to do—and that takes many forms. There’s a phrase, “punch up, cite down,” that I really try to take to heart.

So I want to shift the conversation a bit. One thing I really picked up on from previous interviews you’ve done was how much you loved teaching as part of your academic career. And so I wanted to understand what it was in you that loved teaching.

I mean one of the things that I had with teaching was most of the time I was teaching small classes. So classes of around 15 people. And that intimate teaching environment was far less me lecturing and far more, like, let’s have a conversation about this. And there was this real kind of contact high of teaching. Like you get nervous and your face hurts from smiling too much. And to lead a really effective question and answer discussion you really have to be on your feet. Not just to head off if someone accidentally says something racist or sexist or xenophobic, but also to make sure that the conversation leads in a productive manner. And so that itself was enthralling.

But also, and it’s kind of a clichéd thing to say, but each time I taught a theory or taught a movie or something like that, I learned more about that thing, it became a more rounded and textured thing in my brain. And so it made me think in different directions. So that helped me. When you’re teaching or hanging out with 18 to 21-year-olds, they’re both invigorating you and introducing you to new things that you don’t necessarily experience because I’m like an old person now [laughs]. And then the exchange of ideas I find I really get to do in my platform on Twitter and my platform on Facebook continues to broaden I think I have a lot of those conversations that way. And it’s not the same as having a discussion group in class. But at the same time I think that it’s challenged me to be a better thinker, to think about “how can I reach people who don’t already think like I do? How can I engage in a dialogue instead of a monologue about these sorts of things?” So that’s good.

That is good. And dialogue is what this world seems to need right now! How does the teacher in you handle the conversation America needs now?

My big push has been for more and more media literacy: always asking, where is this from, why am I being led to believe what I’m inclined to believe, am I surrounding myself with opinions that simply reinforce my own, etc.

And yet, there’s a challenge in opening up the conversation. How do you listen better to those who feel forgotten (and, say, brought Trump to power) and yet stand up for those who are oppressed by the current system (and have much to fear from a Trump presidency). What is the way through?

Ugh, this is REALLY TOUGH and yet also exactly what I think BuzzFeed and many others are trying to do with their reporting and writing. I think that no one writer can do it all, but by working together, publications (and writers across different publications) can work to understand, but not excuse—and give voice to fears in a way that’s not melodramatic or sensationalist, but works towards larger understanding on both sides. Part of that is just sitting down and listening, but it also involves calling bullshit when you see it.

One of the things I did actually love reading about of your time teaching was the fact that you took this Mad Men course—and you were using the show as a way to view history and understand history. And so I thought I’d just kind of cheekily ask you what kind of TV shows that you kind of would direct Dumbo Feather readers to? What’s your recommended watching list for engaging with all of those questions of a live well lived.

Yeah. I mean Mad Men for sure, honestly. I think that that is such a deep and melancholy exploration of the human psyche in the 1960s, but also it’s so deeply American in the way that it explores those things. There are flaws to it, but it also is one of the best pieces of historiography that I have ever seen in terms of really plumbing the depths.

What else do I really like? I think there are a bunch of really interesting shows especially that are produced by women. Like one of my favourites is Top of the Lake. Because it is such a fiercely feminist show and is produced by a woman. And not just because I just love Elisabeth Moss! She’s in both of those things. But I think that then it’s investigating these questions of victimhood and loss and identity with unruly womanness. Like, there’s so many unruly women in that show.

I love Catastrophe because there’s usually this very idealised representation of parenthood that is all, “oh it’s hard, but it’s worth it!” It’s very warm and fuzzy in some way. Or like “oh it’s just so manic!” But actually not that crazy. And I think that “Catastrophe” really gets the profound ambivalence of parenthood in a lot of ways. And also has a couple that fights all time but that actually love each other instead of secretly hate each other. Because I think that’s at the heart of a lot of shows about marriage, is, like, they actually hate each other. Which is pretty toxic and foreign to a lot of people. Trying to think if there’s anything else that I’ve been really loving. I’m going to have to think on that more.

Yeah! (laughs) That’s all right. There’s such a wealth that it’s a bit wild. And you know, you’re from a small town in America. I do wonder how many if the reason you engage with these topics is rooted in that? Because I think often there’s a yearning that comes from living in a small place.

Right. It’s interesting because I wasn’t really super into celebrities when I was growing up. I was much more fascinated by the movie business. And specifically there was this magazine called Entertainment Weekly which is a sister publication to like People magazine, it was and remains a big kind of general audience magazine but was focused on the ins and outs of the industry. And so even when I was very young, like ten years old, I think I was really bored. ‘Cause there just really wasn’t a lot for me. I read a lot and I had friends, I wasn’t a loner or anything like that. But I was obsessive and wanted to know more.

And this magazine is all about these movies that didn’t even come to my town. But I loved just learning about them.

I think that that was a world that was closed to me and I was able to access it in the very legible way through this magazine. And I was interested in People magazine and that sort of thing, but it wasn’t like I was dreaming about celebrities. I didn’t have posters of celebrities on my wall [laughs]. You know, like, I don’t know, the New Kids on the Block.

But I do think that trying to understand a world that was larger than me, that’s at the heart of celebrity studies and that’s what I really yearned for living in a place that was very small and very white and very conservative and normal.

Interesting. I wonder what you would be looking to now. What would interest your teenage self now.

Yeah. The internet would have changed my life. Of course. But being able to find other people, I would have been cosplaying and like doing super nerdy things. [Laughs.] But I do think that there was in some ways a benefit to not having those communities. Like I just learned to develop my own tastes in a different way. Kind of on my own. And again this goes back to the Gen X thing that because people didn’t have communities they like, people would be like “oh I’m the only person who’s ever liked this album!” Do you know what I mean? (laughs) And there’s a profound loneliness in that, but also a pride.

A “special­ness”.

Yeah. And so I think I have at long last a confidence in my tastes that I might not have had! I do think that’s interesting because, you know, the internet might sate people to a certain extent because they can find their communities online, which that outward kind of looking to the world for that. And the travel and everything. Just musing, ’cause I feel like the role of yearning in growing up is actually incredibly important. And it’s not like teenagers don’t yearn for stuff anymore. They’re still worried about various things.

And one of the things I also wanted to bring up is at one stage, and this is one of the things that I read of yours but without realising it was you writing at the time, it was a more personal piece about growing up and falling in love and then losing that first love, a complicated first love, Luke who died in the Iraq War. And I wanted to know—often you’re seeing the world through cultural eyes—what it was that made you want to write a more personal story?

Yeah. I’ve written a bunch of personal stories. They’re kind of scattered. Some are on The Hairpin, that one was on The Toast. And one thing that I’ve come to understand is I kind of told all my personal stories, like, before I got to BuzzFeed.

Each person only really has five really good personal stories.

Yep! That would make an essay just by themselves. You know, like obviously you can continue to tell stories. But if you’re a really good writer you can tell them forever. But I think I told all five of my stories. But that one is a story that I’ll tell all my life. Because it’s very defining for me. It’s defining in part because it’s something that makes me unique. Like most people in America don’t know someone who was killed in the war, most people my age in America don’t know someone who was killed in the war. It’s limited just numbers wise. It’s so much smaller.

But also the people who are involved, they’re just so much more of a certain class and it’s something that is not thought of as a bourgeois experience is to have someone you know die in the war. And it wasn’t that he was my boyfriend when he died. You know. Like there’s these stronger emotional ties that made me always struggle to articulate why it mattered to me so much and why it continued to matter to me. So I think that writing about it was like a way to tell both: tell the story that really has become like part of the fabric of who I am, the kind of leading up to it. But then also kind of work through my own understanding of why it matters so much to me articulate their understanding of this? ‘Cause they’re not dumb, right? It’s just that they have a different ideology that informs the way that they look at the world.

Yep. And you were talking earlier about wanting to seek out different points of view, like on your Facebook page. How do you not create an echo chamber? How do you create a space that encourages other people to come?

Right. It’s hard on the internet because you invite too many… [laughs] Be careful what you wish for! I’m more concerned with making that a safe space, which is a fraught term, but making it a place on the internet that’s not toxic. And I think you can however invite people to voice their differences…like, differences in approach to different issues. You can be like, “well okay, so what would you do about this?” So part of it is just teaching people how to listen to one another and not to be reactionary.

I guess that’s the teacher coming through as well. And then sometimes I’ll pose in a question like “what do we think?” Like, “how can we react to this? Like, this is really complex. How do we approach this?” (laughs) ‘Cause I don’t know the answer! And I think that oftentimes, you know, talking about it that way helps me work through to it.

So what is good listening to you? How do you encourage people to listen to each other and be compassionate?

You know Hari’s really good at this I think. Better than me sometimes. When someone comes off like really aggressive, trenchant, I think he can be all, “hey we’re just trying to have a conversation here”. Like, “can you say something that’s like constructive?” Or something like that. But often I feel like people who react in that way just also realise that they don’t have a place on the page. And other people on the page do it too. They police other people. And they’re like “hey! This is not the place for you.” Like “stop mansplaining me!” You know what I mean? Let them shame them in a way that isn’t maybe the Platonic ideal. But also it’s not my full time job to police the comments, and so I really appreciate other people helping with that as well.

Do you have a sense of that community? Do you have a sense of people out there? Does it feel kind of warm and fuzzy?

It does, it totally does. And I think the congrats around my book and how people say, when they read my pieces or how they share them, you know, I can just see the language that people use for them. And that makes me feel really good and like I’ve helped build something that I like. Or when people on the page are like “this is one of my favourite places on the internet”. Like, that makes me really happy! It’s nice! [laughs] Because the goal is always to make a space to talk intelligently about the things around us. And I think that we’ve built that together.

Who are you when you’re away from your work? Does the boundary get blurry?

Lol, I honestly don’t know! The boundary is super blurry, and that’s of course facilitated by social media: I met someone at the store the other day who recognised me, had read my book, and knew all about my dog, not because I’ve written about her, but because she follows me on Instagram.

But I’ve always believed that the personal is political, and I don’t feel violated by slipperiness between my “public” and “less public” spheres. I would, of course, feel much more violated by, say, an email hack, but then you’d mostly learn that I’m a bad speller and a bad email flirt.

Jane Nethercote

Jane has LOVED Dumbo Feather since she spotted it in the magazine racks at Borders. Most of the Dumbo Feather team would be too young to understand this reference. She’s worked in online publishing for a wee while at places like Crikey, Lonely Planet and World Vision.

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