Sexism Watch: NY Times Book Review Calls NY Times Reporter's Book "Chick Nonfiction"

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by Melissa Silverstein
February 20, 2012 11:00 AM
3 Comments
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We hit another dubious milestone this weekend.  A book called The Obamas written by veteran NY Times reporter Jodi Kantor was called "chick nonfiction" in a NY Times book review written by Douglas Brinkley.

Whoa.  Let's take a moment and process this.  Because this book is about the Obamas, their marriage, how they cope in the fish bowl of The White House AND that Michelle Obama plays a major role in it, the book is said to be "chick nonfiction."  What bothers me so much about the term is that is automatically says this book is not serious, that it is "light."  I've read Kantor's reporting for some time and there is nothing "light" in it.  What the term does is paint a well researched and non fiction book about politics, albeit from a different angle, and it paints it with a brush usually reserved for romantic comedies that have been of late starring Kate Hudson.

Here's a question.  Would Mr. Brinkley have called the book "chick nonfiction" if it had been written by a man?  I doubt it.  Game Change which was about the 2008 election and had many tabloid anecdotes in it and features Sarah Palin very prominently, would never be painted with the same brush because the book is by men.  And have you seen the recent previews for the HBO movie Game Change?  The star of the movie is not John McCain or Barack Obama, it is Sarah Palin as played by Julianne Moore.  And you know what, the movie looks great.  She's the most interesting character and the producers smartly decided that her through line would make the most compelling narrative.

While most people might dismiss this term "chick nonfiction" as unimportant in a mostly positive review, I don't.   I think it's very dangerous because it demeans the author as well as Michelle Obama and all that she does in their relationship and in her partnership with the President.  It allows the reviewer to say: "On a couple of occasions, the tabloid scent in the book is so strong that one would be forgiven for thinking Kantor writes for Us Weekly, not The Times." 

But what it really says to me, is that women just don't matter as much.  Your stories and experiences are just not as important.  Your stories are for US Magazine and not the NY Times.  Just stay on your side of the building and let us dudes do the important stuff.

This book review is just another illustration of why we need more women in power.  Look at it another way, if Michelle were President and Barack were the first man the review of this book would never be called "dude non fiction."  Just would never happen. 

The First Marriage ...    (NY Times)

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3 Comments

  • Kate | February 20, 2012 4:24 PMReply

    Again, thanks for your pungent feminist critique. Chick is a derogatory word for women because it implies that we're itsy bitsy baby cowards.

  • stephanie rosenfeld | February 20, 2012 3:54 PMReply

    In answer to your question, "Would Mr. Brinkley have called the book "chick nonfiction" if it had been written by a man?" -- no, what would have happened is it would have been treated like the most ORIGINAL, GROUNDBREAKING, SIGNIFICANT act of creation since the invention of the wheel. Just like "Sideways" and "The Descendents" invented emotional-based drama; and Judd Apatow invented films about adolescent friendship. And Richard Ford, John Updike, Tom Perotta et al were given the designation "writers of suburban fiction" while their female counterparts are called "chick lit writers." I have been railing at the "chick flick" and "chick lit" designations for the exact reasons you cite, ever since it started getting thrown around and quickly became a way to marginalize women's creative products, perspectives, concerns, voices.

  • Jodi Lustig | February 20, 2012 8:49 PM

    Well said, Stephanie!

    Excellent article. Makes me want to get up in his face (and make fun.) Grrrrr.

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