Lightning-rod writer Katie Roiphe talks about starting trouble and rethinking feminism

Katie Roiphe and Paul Holdengräber. (Jori Klein/New York Public Library)
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People love to hate Katie Roiphe. But why?

“I don’t know,” she told me last night after her reading at the New York Public Library. “I have some mysterious unfashionability that I don’t even know if we could delve into; I don’t know what it is.”

For those unfamiliar with Roiphe’s bad reputation, or her work in general, she is a cultural critic and regular contributor to publications such as Slate, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, and The Daily Beast; a professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University; and an author, most recently of the essay collection In Praise of Messy Lives, which is what she was at the library discussing with the library's director of public programs (and old hand at live interviews) Paul Holdengräber.

Gawker's Hamilton Nolan identified Roiphe as "a well-to-do white woman who will not shut up," and publishes "cretinous trolling articles which draw sweeping pseudopsychological conclusions about womankind from a small handful of vacuous anecdotes mixed with pop culture strained through the special Katie Roiphe Psychic Sexxx Fantasyland Filter." Columbia Journalism Review's Kira Goldenberg wrote that Roiphe "likes to write pieces arguing about things like how the book Go the F**k to Sleep reflects the sexual frustration of modern parents and how sexual harassment is pretend." Bitch blogger Kelsey Wallace alleged "There is a special face-shaped dent in many a feminist's desk thanks to the writings of Katie Roiphe." And the ever-excitable Ayelet Waldman, responding to Roiphe's criticism of her husband Michael Chabon, Tweeted “I am so BORED with Katie Roiphe’s ‘I like the sexist drunk writers’ bullshit. She happily trashes my husband, but guess what bitch?… He not only writes rings and rings and rings around you, but the same rings around your drunken literary love objects."

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Roiphe has the miraculous ability not to make but to dominate headlines, whether it’s through her own button-pushing ideas on feminism, female identity, and sexual politics, or by way of someone else’s musings on, or criticisms of her.

Fittingly, just after Roiphe ascended the stage, with her Sarah Jessica Parker-like coiffure and her long, thin frame—the audience peppered with Roiphe staples like her mother, Anne, the distinguished feminist writer, and Alexis Lass Trbojevic, the subject of the final essay of In Praise—Holdengräber brought up a recent Twitter "kerfuffle" Roiphe landed in.

Holdengräber used the word "kerfuffle" almost obsessively (before noting that it was a favorite word) to describe the affair, which began with an innocent tweet from Deborah Needleman, the new editor-in-chief of T: The New York Times Style Magazine and an apparent Roiphe fan, around the promotion of last night’s event:

 

 

Misinterpretation was rampant, often intentional, and immediate, and a new Internet meme, where feminists faux-apologized for being “sexy”—among a host of other things—was instantly born. Holdengräber wanted to know how Roiphe interpreted this, which she effortlessly boiled down to its core.

“[Needleman] was not saying feminists can’t be sexy, which is kind of how they interpreted it. She was saying ‘I’m sorry feminists, I’m going to say something nice about someone you hate, Katie Roiphe.’” Laughter erupted in the audience.

And with that out of the way, the two were able to move on to topics addressed in Roiphe’s book, like not taking insults from Gawker personally, something Roiphe discusses in her essay “Gawker is a Big Immature Baby.”

Before getting very far though, Holdengräber brought the conversation back to Roiphe’s provocativeness, a maneuver that became a pattern throughout the night.

Does Roiphe even care about the "kerfuffles" she produces?

“I don’t set out to enrage people.”

“But you do enrage people.”

Holdengräber again wanted her interpretation.

“I think I’m just attracted to these subjects that really everybody else thinks, like, ‘Why do we have to talk about that? Let’s not talk about that.’ And that’s always what I want to write about, the thing you’re not supposed to talk about, so that’s part of the problem, but I’m sure it’s much worse than that.”

Holdengräber responded dryly, dramatic in his pauses: “Well, the reaction is worse than that. You're an irritant.”

As dire a picture as this paints, Holdengräber simultaneously made it clear that he adored Roiphe—after all, he had invited her to be his guest in the series (though he joked early on about losing friends over it). No matter. In the course of the conversation Roiphe’s feathers never appeared ruffled, and she never seemed caught off guard. When the drama that orbits Roiphe was not being harped on, the two made their way through some really interesting topics such as single motherhood, the current stigmas of divorce, and parents’ obsessive need to take control of their kids’ lives, all subjects Roiphe covers in her book. She spoke of the sometimes narrow and hidden conventionality of being a “liberal New Yorker,” and the layers of Puritanism that unexpectedly peek through the surfaces of our culture.

She confessed that when something happens in her life, she goes to a book.

“When I was getting divorced, I kind of went to Edith Wharton. I thought, ‘I should read Edith Wharton, I’m divorced.’ And when I had a child on my own, I thought [of] Hester Prynne for various reasons. Certain things suggested themselves, and my experience made me think of Hester Prynne, so I went back and actually read The Scarlet Letter, which then I realized was extremely relevant. I kind of always thought something like The Scarlet Letter was [a book] you read in sixth grade and didn’t think about anymore, but when I read it, I realized that it was kind of this relevant, modern, important text.”

Another reccurring, more positive thread throughout the talk was about making unconventional choices. As Roiphe was wrapping up, answering an audience member’s question about single motherhood, she began, “There are ways we can look at how children are raised . . .” only to have Holdengräber chime in, solidifying that he was on board (and making a pseudo-flirtatious “we finish each other’s sentences” move in the bargain), with, “a little more imaginatively.”