In Defense of Marie Calloway

Following the publication of her story, Marie Calloway -- a college student originally from Nevada, self-described as “introverted and sensitive,” 18 at the time the story had been lived -- found herself the center of a media attention that was largely negative and loudly debating whether or not
Publish date:
February 29, 2012
issues, entertainment, say something nice on the internet day, marie calloway

As a writer who was seemingly put on this Earth to write about one thing and one thing only, namely: sex, talking about sex, writing about sex, talking about people who write about sex, talking about people who talk about people who write about talking about sex, etc -- I may be the right (or wrong) person to leap to the defense of Marie Calloway. But when Emily first suggested the whole Say Something Nice on the Internet, she is who immediately came to mind.

Marie Calloway is a 21-year-old writer who became known this past November after self-publishing an essay on her blog about sleeping with a writer twice her age. The essay was picked up by novelist Tao Lin, and reprinted as fiction on his blog, MuuMuu House. For those of you who don’t go to my virtual high school -- i.e., participate in New York City’s “literary scene” -- Tao Lin is so much of a sort-of big deal that, following his endorsement, Marie Calloway -- which is not her real name -- was contacted by The Observer for an interview. They entitled that interview "Meet Marie Calloway: The New Model for Literary Seductress is Part Feminism Part ‘Fame Whore’ and All Pseudonymous."

One could argue whether it was that article and others like it or Marie Calloway’s writing itself that set off the “shitstorm” -- as Calloway called it in a later interview with Stephen Elliott of the Rumpus -- but what is inarguable is that a shitstorm had, indeed, been set off. Like so many of us who had come before her -- Lena Chen, etc -- Marie had dared to write publicly about herself and her experience, thus provoking the internet’s ire.
Following the publication of her story, Marie Calloway -- a college student originally from Nevada, self-described as “introverted and sensitive,” 18 at the time the story had been lived -- found herself the center of a media attention that was largely negative and loudly debating whether or not Marie Calloway and the likes of her deserved any attention at all.

“It’s a case of internet oversharing-turned-emotionally-hurtful not seen since... I dunno, yesterday probably,” bemoaned Gawker Editor Hamilton Nolan. He went on:

“There is a certain mechanism by which people are turned into microfameballs, finding their lives forever altered. Marie Calloway has now been set on that path. We can argue over whether or not these people were "asking for it" -- in many cases, yes, they were practically begging to be exploited, though often they find that they hate this sort of fame once they receive it. Let us call this what it is: entertainment.”

The point Nolan’s article makes -- like so many things that have been written about her -- is that there is nothing interesting about Marie Calloway or her writing, concluding with this final line: “Let’s all shut up more in 2012.” Nolan’s call for all of us to shut up, of course, did not include him. But, given the nature of the criticism, we can pretty much apply it to all of us here at xoJane.

Seeing as this is “don’t hate on the internet day” (or whatever Emily is calling it), I’m not going to hate on Hamilton Nolan -- for that reason, and for the reason that he is an editor at Gawker and so, quite frankly, I am afraid of him -- but I will say that it really irks me when I hear anyone being told to shut up, particularly when that someone is a woman (and, let’s face it, isn’t it always a woman when someone’s being told to “shut up”?). Nolan criticizes female writers for “relentlessly focusing on one’s own sex life to the exclusion of other topics,” and dismissing the stories of our sex lives as “no more or less significant or deep or worthwhile than other stories” and not “inherently noble, or brave, or feminist” as Nolan says they are falsely accredited with being.

I, of course, disagree. Seeing that women have been historically and contemporarily excluded from conversations about our bodies -- and that such bodies are the epicenter of all existence, our sex being the conduit to life -- I’d argue that what happens to a woman’s body -- what is done to them or what we choose to do with them -- holds a special significance. Our bodies are politically contested territory, and so when a woman chooses to step forward and tell her stories in the first-person, I’d say that’s pretty fucking significant.

“It seems unfortunate” -- a rather self-effacing Marie Calloway told the Rumpus -- “[that] the ‘attention whore’ slur is used as discouragement from women (especially young ones) writing honestly about their life, if that’s what they want to do.” Calloway’s goal, she patiently explained, was not to become a celebrity nor a target of people’s meanness, but to “create honest writing” -- writing that, as she says, “holds at its center an unapologetic expression and admiration of young female subjectivity.”

When some people discover women’s writings of this nature, they appreciate it for its candor, its honesty, its raw quality that tells us it’s sincere. When other people discover such honesty, they want to throw its authors to the flames. My own reaction to Cat’s work hasn’t always been positive -- but I’d never tell her to shut up. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that the writing is provocative -- it is powerful in that it illicits a response, and the backlash that these women writers face only belies the critics’ claims of its unimportance.

I think Emily Gould said it best when she asked and answered her own question: "Why do women who aren't afraid to humiliate themselves appall us so much, and why do we rush to find superficial reasons to dismiss them (‘she's crazy' ‘she's a narcissist' ‘she's young' ‘she's a famewhore')? I think in part because they pose a threat to the social order, which relies on women's embarrassment to keep them either silent or writing in socially accepted modes."

I don’t think Calloway purposely “humiliated” herself. I think people in the media sometimes falsely assume everyone outside of the “scene” to be as savvy as they are. Had, upon pondering publication, Calloway thought that she was setting herself up for the sort of tarnishment that she ultimately received, I don’t believe that she would have hit “send.” I don’t think it was Marie Calloway’s intention to provoke the level of attention her work ultimately inspired... And I also I don’t think that such work is “humiliating.” Unless it is “humiliating” to improperly conjugate the verb “to lay” -- which, according to The Observer’s commentators, seems to be Calloway’s greatest embarrassment -- what is “humiliating” about Calloway’s work is the nature of her truth.

What is “humiliating,” it seems, is to be a young woman writing honestly about one’s tender sexuality. What is humiliating, it seems, is to be a young woman-- so humiliating, we are led to believe, that of such experiences we should never speak. Humiliating is right, if the critics have their way -- unless we all stand up and bravely declare that it’s not.

Marie herself seems unfazed.

By Internet-time, this story is old -- it happened in November -- but I am just thinking of it now because, the other night, I saw her in person for the first time. Marie Calloway and I met at a reading -- if you consider exchanging polite smiles while our mutual friends carried out a brief conversation to qualify as “meeting.” I will be honest, I went only to the reading because I knew she’d be there and because I wanted to get a look at her in person. And there she was.

At the risk of making myself appear any older than I am (I’m 32), I cannot emphasize enough how young this person looked -- which reminded me of how young we are, really, at 21. Young, I thought then, and naive. There she was: big bad provocateur “literary seductress” Marie Calloway, in the flesh. A girl of average height, with an awkward disposition, her long hair conspicuously tucked both in front and behind her ears.

All I could think was this is it? Why, she’s not threatening. She looks like any other girl. Then: Yes, absolutely. She is absolutely a threat.

Read Marie Calloway here and here.