What does it mean to get 'woman'd'?

There's a depressing inevitability when it comes to the short online life cycle of famous women.

by Rayne Fisher-Quann
25 July 2022, 9:35am

Like wild animals and recycled plastic, women in the public eye have a life cycle that most of us know it by heart.

It starts with adoration: she lands starring roles, she writes hit songs, she goes viral. She’s new and young and profitable. Then, the idolatry begins. Maybe magazines start selling copies by calling her the voice of a generation, or the next Marilyn or Eartha (even though she’s barely college-age). Maybe they’ll label her a feminist icon because she went to a Women’s March. Maybe she gets too many fans, too fast. Either way, she’s well on her way to overexposure — the jokes that people found charming six months ago are starting to get old, and you’re being force-fed her face through every algorithmic channel your phone can handle, and wasn’t she always kind of annoying, anyway?

Now she’s being discarded. Sometimes, it’ll be a rude comment on a rough day that pushes her off the pedestal; sometimes it’s a genuine mistake or wrongdoing (the response to which rarely seeks to genuinely or meaningfully address the problem at hand). It might be a mental health episode. Sometimes, she simply receives too much praise — appears to have just a little too much power — and faces a wave of backlash for daring to be perceived as good at what she does. Most often, the public seems to just get tired of her.

If she’s famous enough, her life cycle might include a narrative-shifting documentary a decade down the line or a social media resurgence when everyone figures out she’s still hot. Either way, her image is still not her own; her life (and her perceived virtue) is still being used for profit by powers much larger than herself. It’s a system that builds women up into untouchable fantasies just so we can watch in glee as the facade inevitably crumbles; it’s a perpetual cycle of ritualistic idolisation, degradation, and redemption that serves only to entertain the masses and generate profit for the powerful.

Jokingly, I’ve begun to call it “being woman’d”.

The tweet was a reference to the very in vogue writer Ottessa Moshfegh, who was recently the subject of a scathing (and brilliant) analysis in Vulture by critic Andrea Long Chu. It describes the nebulous but unmistakable cultural event in which mass public opinion on a woman reverses dramatically, universally and seemingly overnight.

To be clear, a central tenet of any useful feminist politic is the idea that women should not be exempt from fair, reasoned criticism. The idea that women are inherently gentle and good — and that any criticism levied against them can or should be chalked up to sexism alone — is a piece of right-wing ideology that’s just as rooted in misogynistic exceptionalism as the belief that women are inherently wicked. Both dogmas serve only to excuse women from the complexity that comes with personhood, and in the process, deny women any kind of personhood at all.

Ottessa’s writing, like all popular media, demands to be criticised (and is more than deserving of much of the criticism it’s received). Andrea’s piece gets into many of its thorniest problems with specificity, nuance and razor precision. The issue worth addressing, both in Ottessa’s case and in the universal sense, is not the valuable criticism itself — it’s the extreme, instant wave of shifting public opinion that often surrounds it. A reply to my tweet summed up the issue perfectly: often, the communal response to an intelligent and reasoned critique of an over-exposed public-facing woman is to eagerly accept the idea that hating her must therefore be inherently intelligent and reasoned, regardless of individual intention or action. The result is a widespread “vibes-based” hatred that frequently uses meaningful criticism as a crutch on which to hang preexisting resentment rather than as an instigator for earnest critical engagement.

I say this to draw a clear distinction: being woman’d is not the same as being criticised. In an ideal world, one can be critiqued without being woman’d; conversely, women frequently experience the ritualistic humiliation, misogynistic abuse, and disposal I describe here without being meaningfully criticised at all. Anne Hathaway, Britney Spears, Millie Bobby Brown: time and time again, young women have been sentenced to death in the court of public opinion for the crime of being too visible, too successful, too proud, not good enough at performing humility or coolness or whatever new mode of womanhood is enforceable that week.

Whether it be in the public sphere or within the sexual zeitgeist, the patriarchy urges us to believe that women can only be either Madonnas or whores. The dichotomy between good girls — virtuous, flawless, spiritually virginal — and fundamentally bad ones leaves no room for the necessary middle. Once a woman stops being a Madonna, she becomes a whore. Once she has proven that the perfection the public expected of her — perfection she never actually embodied or even attempted to claim — is out of her reach, she becomes a monster, and the women who like her are monsters by virtue of liking her, and so on and so forth. And, thank God, everyone watching is just so entertained now. Perhaps even more entertained than they were before her downfall began.

In the 90s, they would have bought tabloids and tuned into gossip TV; now, algorithms designed to reward polarisation and negative engagement show them ads for weight loss and online therapy in between targeted videos calling her a hysterical problematic annoying bitch.

The latter part of that cycle has begun to draw necessary criticism, but the impossible standard to which women are held is too often left out of the equation. Many women with large audiences have begun to explicitly stress to their followers that they’re imperfect, flawed, and don’t wish to be idolised. They know, consciously or not, that their dehumanisation as women doesn’t begin when they inevitably falter from the pedestal they’ve been placed on — it begins when the pedestal is built in the first place.

The idea that one should have to make those distinctions is almost a dehumanising demand in and of itself. Disclaiming to the internet that you have made mistakes before and will make mistakes again is as fundamentally ridiculous as declaring that you breathe oxygen and drink water. Imperfection is fundamental to humanity. The trick is, of course, that humanity is rarely awarded to women in the public eye.

In reality, these women are often treated as something closer to commodities: disposable, replaceable objects made for public consumption with no more autonomy than a television channel and no more permanence than a Barbie doll. Their function is predicated on their ability to perform within an unattainable standard of womanhood, which means they are built to fail. The ideal public-facing woman is a product with planned obsolescence. This is the thing about objects: Why should they not be discarded when they stop working correctly? And how can a living, breathing woman ever “work correctly” when the condition of her trespass into our collective attention span is that she be fundamentally flawless — and therefore fundamentally inhuman?

This is not a bug in the system. The ritualistic cycle I describe here — the dynamic that pushes a woman to perilous heights so the public can relish in taking her down a peg and then pat themselves on the back when they build her back up again — is immensely profitable and seemingly inexhaustible. But we don’t benefit from the reactionary exorcism of every woman who fails to hold our attention, perform an ever-changing standard of ideal femininity, or meet the exacting, puritan standard to which she’s been held. Women deserve to be criticised, disliked, rejected and embraced on our own terms. Our only option is to refuse the fantasies being sold to us and try to find people instead.

Otessa Moshfegh