Modern Public Shame — Mia Freedman, Roxane Gay, and the Collective Response

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Roxane Gay on stage at the Ukrainian Federation Hall. Photo: Vita Azaro

Last week the internet unleashed its collective wrath upon Mia Freedman. The scorn was a sight to behold. She was described as:

“Literally sickening… Epically disturbing…Disgusting… Disgraceful… Utterly shameful…”

She was called

“Monstrous… Soulless… Absolute scum… Trash… The worst… C*unt”.

People were, in a word,

“Murderous”

Sounds heavy. I guess we should see what it was all about. Here was the introduction for an interview with Roxane Gay on the No Filter podcast:

“A lot of planning has to go into a visit from best selling author, college professor and writer Roxane Gay. Would she fit in the office lift? How many steps will she have to take to get to the interview? Is there a comfortable chair that will accommodate here six-foot-three, ‘super morbidly-obese’ frame? None of this is disclosed in a mean spirit, it’s part of what Roxane writes about in her new book Hunger, and what she talks about with Mia in this interview. It’s about realising that not everyone fits comfortably in to the world as we expect them to.”

There is no mocking or ridicule inherent in those remarks. This is saying “here is something I learned about fat people today which I hadn’t considered, and perhaps you should consider it too.”

It’s not like Freedman revealed a shameful secret. Gay is famously large, and that’s what a lot of the book deals with. And that’s fine. Gay said to Ira Glass on ‘This American Life’:

“… There’s when you’re super morbidly obese, where you can’t really even find stores that can accommodate you. You don’t fit in any public spaces, like movie theaters, public bathrooms, so on and so forth.”

Freedman was simply expounding on these themes. Here is a tweet from Gay herself, on June 15:

“Fat is not an insult. It is a descriptor. And when you interpret it as an insult, you reveal yourself and what you fear most.”

Interpreting this as an insult is doing exactly that. It is implying that there is something wrong with a publicist making prior arrangements. That’s obviously not the way that Freedman saw it, or the intent with which it was offered.

They then went on to an adoring, thoughtful, respectful, 45 minute interview. Mia is a huge fan of Gay’s and that was abundantly clear before, during, and after. They covered the material in the book — being assaulted at age 12, how she talked to her parents about it, writing fiction and non-fiction, how we present to the world, how hair relates to how we present to the world, how one can come to enjoy sex again after being gang raped, growing up with and without privilege, what offends big people, what book tours are like. And more. They talked about how people don’t always know or appreciate the thought that big people have to put into their lives.

And that could have been it. The whole thing would have slipped into obscurity, remarked upon only by those who actually listen to the podcast. But Courtney Robinson tweeted a screenshot of the intro in the podcast description. Gay picked up on it, retweeted it to call it “cruel and humiliating”, made three more posts to the same effect, and it snowballed from there.

I think that part of the problem was that Gay maybe wasn’t aware of the questions that her publicist asked by way of preparation, and was mortified to find out publicly. So her initial tweets carried implicit accusations of dishonesty on Mamamia’s part, which inflamed the response further. Whatever the case, she was hurt.

And that sucks. No one wants to feel that, or make anyone else feel that. It was a mistake. In spite of publicly advocating for awareness of fat issues, Gay would have preferred those particular details weren’t revealed, and Freedman said she was “deeply, deeply sorry. Unconditionally sorry.”

Again, you’d think it could be left there. But instead, everyone picks up their pitchforks and leaps to Gay’s defense, tripping over themselves to show off how appalled, and how “brutally, heart-achingly sorry” they are. They use it as a chance to show off how much they hate Mia personally, and everything that she has worked for and accomplished. It turns into a complete and utter public shaming, the scale and ferocity of which should raise some red flags, because it carries serious implications for our modern discourse.

It’s easy to imagine that a woman who built her own business to give voice to other women, in a media landscape dominated by male voices, would experience push back from those male voices. But what was surprising was the vicious condemnations from those who claim to be progressive feminists.

The story was across most media platforms, with many running multiple articles each, plus another few more each after the apology. All generating huge numbers of furious and deeply hateful comments. I’d hate to think it was as crass as a bunch of independent digital media agencies throwing stones at one another, so what’s really going on?

A pair of articles on Junkee by Matilda Dixon-Smith seem to cover it all off as well as anything.

The first led:

“Mamamia Is Under Fire For A “Cruel And Humiliating” Interview With Roxane Gay”

The headline itself is quite telling. The story here is that Mamamia is “under fire”. You can see that theme carried through the article:

“Mamamia and its founder Mia Freedman are receiving a tonne of blowback today […] Most of the Australian media is criticising the women’s website or just slowly, silently shaking their heads […] yup, you’d better believe that people are maaaaaaaaddddddddddd […] Mamamia has been accused of […] The publication and Freedman herself have previously faced a lot of criticism […]”

Do we notice a trend emerging here? The reporting is about the reaction, rather than the substance. The “A” story is Mia Freedman being criticised. (Also, the headline is factually false. The interview wasn’t “Cruel and Humiliating”, the intro was).

Dixon-Smith then wrote another article the day after, linking the same stories.

It opens by saying:

“I am angry at Mia Freedman. We all are.”

Seems like a problematic definition of “all”, but we’ll carry on.

“The history of women — even feminists, especially feminists — betraying each other is long and arduous. Mostly, it’s about white women throwing their sisters under the bus for a shred of male respect, attention, or safety.”

Something tells me that this perhaps a more salient point than we might first think, and yet it seems to be written with a straight face and no trace of irony or self awareness.

“At last year’s US election, 53 percent of white women voted in an openly racist, self-confessed abuser. Closer to home, consider how many white Australian women do not raise their voices, or direct a vote, to help the women locked away in Australian-funded detention on Manus Island and Nauru — where they are raped, tortured and denied basic rights — all for the preservation of our own superiority or blissful ignorance.”

I mean, this sounds like a pretty important point. Is that not worth an article itself? Because here it feels like it’s just in there as a disingenuous effort to make the whole Mamamia thing seem a lot more sinister.

The author seems to write mostly about film and TV and pop culture. Lately she has written 3 articles about Wonder Woman, one about Lindsay Lohan, one about Lorde and Harry Styles, and other assorted bits. She wrote one about Refugees, likening our treatment of them to television shows, in February 2016, and has now written two about how angry she is at Mia Freedman within a week. A woman who as it turns out, actually has been to see conditions in PNG with UNICEF, and who’s network has published dozens of articles trying to educate the public about refugees. Actually for the record, Freedman’s article about the PNG experience contains something I’d debate. She says:

“However, I know that a major deterrent is needed to stop people risking their lives and the lives of their children”.

Because I’d go the other way. I say if you want to stop people risking their lives, then instead of using a deterrent, let’s actually go over and get them. We’ve got the room. Try just north of Perth. That’d smash the people smugglers’ business model. I appreciate that this is a somewhat radical approach to immigration, and I am happy to elaborate another time. But I’m not going to hate someone for having a different opinion than me on this, and it sounds like we could probably talk about it and have a fruitful discussion.

“And so we return to Mia Freedman, a wealthy white woman who has made millions by unashamedly catering to this narrow and exclusive market of women. It’s easy to be seduced by Mamamia’s slogan, which purports to cater to “what women are talking about”, without acknowledging that it is referring to a certain kind of woman.

Do we expect one publication to literally do it all? How narrow and exclusive is this market? What is this ‘certain kind of woman’, and do they not deserve to have a media platform for them? Isn’t that how these things usually work? Isn’t Junkee aimed at a certain type of person?

We’ve come this far, and we’re really still searching for something Mia’s actually done wrong. Fortunately, we’re about to get there. So let’s jump in:

“It’s no secret that Freedman is a public figure who courts controversy (at times, seemingly on purpose). As a woman who has built an empire on “feminism”, but very often betrays that amorphous cause, Freedman has been accused of myriad sins against the sisterhood. She’s been called out for not paying her freelance writers, most of whom are women (hello, wage gap). She’s been exposed contributing to the systemic victim-blaming of female assault victims — an act made admissible, at least in her eyes, by protestations of playing protector “as a mother”. She is also deeply wh*rephobic — what is often a calling card of the prototypical White Feminist.”

Right, that all sounds pretty horrible. We’d better go and have a look at what Freedman actually said.

This is her “Victim Blaming”:

“Let me be clear: sexual assault is never the fault of the victim. Neither is being hit by a drunk driver. The sole person to blame for such crimes is the perpetrator. But teaching girls how to reduce their risk of sexual assault is not the same thing as victim blaming. It’s not. And we must stop confusing the two.”

We’d all love to live in a world where these horrible crimes don’t happen, but we don’t. What’s the alternative? Tell kids to get so drunk that they pass out and get raped and it gets filmed, then say “Don’t worry sweetheart, it wasn’t your fault”? That doesn’t feel like much of a consolation.

Of course it’s not their fault. That doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t tell them how to reduce their risk. Are we really that incapable of nuance? That’s concerning. And actually arguably dangerous. Absolutely we need to make men accountable, and absolutely Mia does that.

Now let’s look at the pay thing. The Mumbrella article the post linked to explains it pretty clearly: Like a lot of media organisations, they used to accept unpaid voluntary submissions. Now they pay $50, and have a large paid staff contributing most of the content. Not seeing a huge deal here. Maybe it’s bad, but talking about a wage gap? Most media organisations are largely owned and run by men. Radio is dominated by male voices — someone check the numbers but I’d say it’s at least 3:1. The Mamamia Podcast Network has created over a dozen shows, hosted and produced almost entirely by women, with content usually directly related to women, and reaches a global audience, with over 4 million downloads per year.

The ABC reports:

“For all types of news coverage, internationally and at home only about 24 per cent of the people seen, heard or read about were female,”

Is Mamamia not working more than most to rectify this imbalance? But oddly, the line in the Junkee article was the exact opposite of “She’s also been called out for paying hundreds of full time staff over nearly 10 years, most of whom are women (hello, wage gap).”

Next, this is Mia being “deeply wh*rephobic”:

“If you are an adult woman who is not suffering from a mental illness, addiction or sexual, physical or emotional abuse, who has not been trafficked or exploited or co-erced into sexual slavery and who is CHOOSING of her own free will to sell sex? I respect that. I’m cool with that. I recently listened to a fascinating podcast with a sex worker whose clients have disabilities. We’ll be publishing a story about her soon. I’m certainly not interested in demonising sex workers — I’d never do that. But no, that doesn’t mean I see your career choice as something I’d want my daughter to aspire to. Or my sons…. Accepting the free choices made by other women does not mean you have to aspire to them or advocate them.”

Again, we’re hating her for this? I mean I can see where it’s coming from here at least, because yes, there is an implication that there is something wrong with sex work, and our society could arguably do with out that stigma. But far out, if you’ve got to drill that far down to someone saying that she’d rather her kids didn’t aspire to be a sex worker to call her a horrible person, then we’re in trouble. Find me a majority of women who say they want their kids to be sex workers, and I’d question their honesty.

There were two more things that Junkee didn’t mention which we may as well deal with while we’re here.

First was the “blackface” incident, something she was at least 3 steps removed from but still managed to cop heated hatred for. Some fans of The Voice dressed up as the judges — Delta Goodrem, Seal, Ricky Martin, and Joel Madden. The guy dressed as Seal painted his face black. Someone took a photo and tweeted it. Delta Goodrem retweeted it and called it hilarious, and received a swift and massive backlash on twitter, calling her stupid and racist.

Mia saw an angry mob descending on a well intentioned woman, and decided to chime in. Notably, Delta has yet to return the favour.

“Blackface IS racist, no question. But to me (admittedly, a white girl so I welcome comments from those with a different perspective, please leave them below), there is a huge difference between painting your face black to mock an entire race and painting yourself black to respectfully dress up as someone who has black skin.

I do think it’s fantastic we’re now having conversations about racism, sexism and homophobia that we never would have had a decade ago. I love that these terms are being used to measure, filter and judge words and actions that once would have passed without comment let alone condemnation. I also understand that different people have different thresholds; something I consider sexist may not push your buttons and vice versa. But this is what I worry about: using words like ‘racist’ to describe the retweeting of this photo diminishes and dilutes the power of that word. I worry that by over-using it, we render it almost meaningless.”

Freedman didn’t do black face, she didn’t photograph black face, she didn’t condone blackface, she didn’t even retweet black face, or call it OK, let alone hilarious. She commented that unleashing hatred on Delta Goodrem by branding her a “stupid disgusting racist”, risks diminishing the sting of the term. And she received the gleeful pile-on we are now becoming depressingly familiar with. This unstoppable wave of righteous indignation which descends on anyone who dares to bring nuance into a debate.

To round it out, there was the discussion about rehabilitation of pedophiles on The Project on channel 10. Again, note the headlines: “Mia Freedman slammed”, “Mia Freedman criticised”, etc. In a discussion about whether or not pedophiles can be rehabilitated, she said

“We accept that gay people can’t change who they love and who they’re sexually attracted to, so why do we think that people who are sexually attracted to children can be rehabilitated?”

To say that’s comparing gay people to pedophiles, which most articles did, is wilful misrepresentation. We know that we can’t choose who we’re attracted to. But once again, everyone used it as an excuse to show how appalled they are with this woman, and she had to explain herself because people don’t seem to be capable of any actual thought or analysis:

“Many people have angrily pointed out that I could have used heterosexuality as a comparison instead of homosexuality. So why didn’t I? I could have — and in hindsight I really, really wish I had. But heterosexuals don’t have any history of people trying to change their sexuality. There is, however, a long and shameful history of religious organisations trying to ‘cure’ homosexuality with ‘therapy’. We have run many stories on this here at Mamamia such as these four:

The Australian organisations trying to ‘cure’ homosexuality.

Kidnapped for Christ: ‘stealing’ kids to cure them

Oh look. A Christian group is ‘curing’ homsexuality

Homosexuality? There’s an app for that.

The idea that someone could — or should — be ‘cured’ of their sexual orientation is repugnant. So that’s what informed my analogy. Was prime time TV in a 10-second sound bite the right place to make that point? Clearly not. I was trying to raise concerns about our capacity to rehabilitate child sex offenders and I chose a bad example to try and do so.”

As you can see there, Mamamia is in fact extremely progressive on all of these issues.

The podcasts are painstakingly inclusive, spending a great deal of time thrashing out what is the best and fairest way of thinking, of acting, of talking, about all sorts of issues: miscarriages, parental leave, work life, television, sex, race, feminism, privilege, women’s sports, whatever. All produced primarily by women, for women.

So that’s it. You have those 5 things: Victim blaming, wh*re phobia, fat shaming, gay hating, and being racist. Yet upon closer inspection, none of them are actually really any of those things.

So why then, do we see these angry mobs? Why are people so quick and eager to lambast this woman, and why do they keep getting away with it? Let’s return to the Junkee article:

“I don’t like this kind of woman: the kind who is only concerned with feminism as it relates to her, the kind who laments the condition of women in the Middle East, or of sex workers, without asking those women how they feel about their circumstances.”

It’s not clear how many of those women Dixon-Smith has talked to herself, but what is clear is that Freedman has talked to: Susan Carland, Lindy West, Emma Betts, Peggy Orenstein, Georigie Stone, Nas Campanella, Madison Missina, Sarah Monahan, Cate McGreggor, Magda Szubanski, Rosie Batty, and more.

That’s literally just a handful of the guests on the No Filter podcast. Sex workers, disabled people, big people, small people, muslim people, victims of abuse, etc. The number and range of women who have been featured on the Mamamia network altogether is obviously far higher. Can it be even more inclusive? Maybe. Should they go to the middle east and interview people there? Sure. Go and pitch it. They’d probably love to.

Mamamia as an organisation is explicitly and emphatically for same sex marriage, for humane treatment of asylum seekers, for funding for education and health, indigenous rights, for women’s issues, for trans rights, for sex worker positivity, for body positivity, and any other progressive cause you can think of. Are they perfect? Probably not. No one is. Nothing is going to appeal to everyone. But they try pretty damn hard, and encourage every else to do so too.

The article then takes an interesting direction:

“But I also don’t like the idea that, when a woman makes a mistake, we suddenly jump on her and beat her into submission. […] Allowing other women their honest mistakes and teachable moments is vital to the whole movement advancing and opening up to make space for those diverse women who are often shut out by straight white supremacy. Sometimes calling out is just correcting and moving on.

Yesterday I was unusually vocal on Twitter […] about the Gay/Freedman incident. Not only did I post about it myself, I joined other threads to express my outrage. As I piled on and on, I felt the gleeful bubbles of drama build inside me. I don’t particularly like Freedman, or Mamamia, so part of me was probably thrilled to have a justifiable reason to lay into her (and the organisation itself). But how much of my vitriol was a legitimate response to Freedman’s bad behaviour, and how much was an excuse to be mean about a woman I did not like? That question can be an uncomfortable one. I was made more uncomfortable still when I joined a thread on a women writer’s Facebook group dedicated to the incident, which quickly devolved into some thorough Freedman-bashing. Over the past 24 hours, Junkee has deleted a number of abusive Facebook comments under their stories on the incident. Freedman was repeatedly called names like “c*nt”.

This kind of self reflection is rare in journalism, and it’s refreshing. Unfortunately, it looks like that question was a bit too uncomfortable to actually answer, because sadly the next paragraph lays into her twice more by essentially saying she totally deserved it:

“This is not to say that the complaints against Freedman are not legitimate, or that she does not deserve to be deposed from her self-appointed role as “spokesperson for all Australian women”. But I worry about how easy it is for us to turn a call-out into a pile-on. […] Of course, in the case of Freedman, she has more than proved she is not worthy of clemency”

It looks like the issue is that Freedman is just not liked. It’s hard to know with any certainty why that is. If I had to guess, I think at least part of the reason comes from Mamamia’s history of clickbait-y listicle type journalism. It was fluffy pop, it was new and different, it caught on, filled up a lot of people’s feeds, with some stuff which was important women’s issues, and some stuff which was a bit dumb, neither of which were universally appreciated.

That has defined her character in the public view, and so when she dares to voice her opinion in a way which might not conform letter-for-letter with our collective mantras, people disregard the details and relish the chance to pounce, to prove how progressive they are, not like this horrible disgusting mainstream “fake feminist”. And then it reaches a tipping point, where no one wants to risk the collective ire by voicing a different opinion, because then they get tarred with the same brush. And so we have the deafening silence in the face of this universal condemnation, and the standards of quality we set for our arguments drops dramatically.

The reality is that we live in a pay-for-click world, and articles along the lines of “Mia Freedman betrays feminism” get clicks, along with gratifying ‘progressive twitter points’ among all the other people doing the same thing.

But I think it’s a trap and I think we’re worse for it. This dynamic is not healthy. A lot of the conversations that happen on Mamamia are important, and they don’t necessarily happen elsewhere. There aren’t cut and dry answers for a lot of issues, and part of Mamamia’s thing has always been about the conversation, the discussion. Talking about things and trying to understand them better together. And that is extremely valuable.

It is emphatically not telling people how to be feminist, and I find the accusation, which I have seen levelled many times over the past week, frankly bizarre, and blindingly ironic.

Language is absolutely important. The world is changing faster than ever before, and we need to be eternally vigilant to ensure that our discourse is inclusive. Our privileges can and do cause hurt, often without us even knowing it, and we must be mindful of this. Mia explicitly invites people to talk about exactly that.

In a world where senators are told to not breastfeed in the chamber, we absolutely need a media network set up to call it out. When the Daily Mail is out there calling stomach rolls confronting, we need to take the fight to them, not just with an article or two, but an entire platform that says day after day, including on June 13, “Bodies are bodies, deal with it.”

So, I guess this is a message for progressives. There are big problems in the world right now. We need to focus our energies. We need to be on our ‘A’ game. We need nuance, because some things are complicated. At the very least, we need to employ critical thinking. Absolutely we need to call out mistakes, and we need to do it constructively. We’re all learning together, and we need help, not hate.

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