In Praise of Messy Katie Roiphe

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As a writer who sometimes is accused of propagating unpopular opinions and indulging in contrarianism for the sake of attention and pageviews, it might not be surprising to hear that I quite adore Katie Roiphe, the cultural critic and essayist who regularly publishes screeds full of ideas that go against what any normal person would see as rational thought. Of course, she’s been doing this since she published her first book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, in 1993: there, she alleged, among other criticisms of modern, mainstream feminism, that much of the so-called date rape epidemic was rooted in poor decisions made by its female victims.

This sort of dissent — while, don’t get me wrong, also being potentially hurtful and frequently moronic — is important, because even if Katie Roiphe isn’t promoting any helpful feminist agenda, she’s at least illustrating by example that there is room for dissenting theories within the world of modern feminism. She argues, most recently in an interview with The New Statesman, that feminism has created one “correct” way of thinking rather than a malleable philosophy, and that has only fueled woman-on-woman rage. “It’s the goal to get people to think about things in a new way,” she says of her work, “and if that’s what you’re doing, you can’t then complain about people attacking you.” One need only look at the comments section of any post on Jezebel to see that — while her claim that there is “unexamined feminist outrage against other women” is undoubtedly valid — there are many different voices and opinions among women, because women are not all alike (despite what conventional male thought might suggest).

But here’s why I really love Katie Roiphe: she’s hilarious. I mean, come on, she’s a provocateur who refers to herself, quite seriously, as an “uncomfortablist,” someone who thinks it’s brave to piss off other people by saying things they don’t want to hear. (Any self-aware person who writes on the Internet will tell you that such a notion is in no way “brave” as much as it is “good for business.”) And her general attitude is somewhat admirable; she’s almost the human equivalent of the famous “haters gonna hate” GIF, only she’s a woman with a perpetual scowl rather than a portly young man.

Roiphe is essentially cultural criticism’s version of Ann Coulter: she seems to spout the most insane, minimally founded theories for the sake of getting a rise out of the people who already hate everything about her but still find themselves unable to deny her the attention she continues to win. What really drives home the hilarity for me is that most of the time she’s not even good at doing it. Take, for example, last week’s piece in Slate: “The Best Breakup Books.” One might expect it to be a list of, say, ten to 20 novels, but she only picked three. A listicle of three items! I mean, Katie Roiphe has bigger balls than the rest of us if only because she decided after just three blurbs — which only encompass books written by men, naturally — that she was done.

My favorite Roiphe moment came when she started, essentially, an Internet fight with author Ayelet Waldman. In her now-infamous essay “The Naked and the Conflicted,” Roiphe took to task the “childlike,” near-impotent sex scenes in the work of male authors like the aforementioned Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel, David Foster Wallace, and Michael Chabon. (What caused this? You guessed it: FEMINISM.) Waldman, married to Chabon, wrote some angry things about it on Twitter. Nearly a year later, Roiphe responded in her typical way: posting a column on Slate, referring to Waldman as “Mrs. C” while also acting as if, ugh, all of this is sooooo stupid and she’s sooooo above it (so above it that she had to comment on it at length and in an incredibly patronizing way).

I love that Katie Roiphe feels as if she serves a great purpose in this world: taking an all-caps STANCE against the marginalizing orthodoxy of mainstream feminism. But at the same time, Katie Roiphe is an asshole — a very smart, entertaining, and accomplished asshole, but an asshole nonetheless. It seems she doesn’t want to promote a broad, all-inclusive form of feminism as much as she just gets her kicks by making people — particularly women — angry. As someone who finds it entertaining to watch an audience fall into such an easy and obvious trap, I admit that I can’t get enough of the numerous responses and criticisms and think-pieces about the dangers of Katie Roiphe’s power. I am betting Roiphe feels the same way, because, like the evil ghost painting in Ghostbusters II (which I remain convinced might be an influence on that grumpy face she loves to show off), she is fueled by the negative energy. What are we left with? A lot of jumping toasters and metaphorical pink ooze, but little progress.