Porche: Sexism Or Senior Moment

Apr 20, 2016

You may have heard about the person who posed an awkward Woman Question to veteran journalist Gay Talese, age 84, at the recent Power of Narrative conference in Boston. Well, I was that person, and that moment touched off “a national social media firestorm."

This was a teaching conference for mid-career journalists, and everyone with a smartphone had received a sneak preview of “The Voyeur's Motel,” Gay Talese’s about-to-be-published offering in The New Yorker. Everyone had agreed to respect an “embargo” on public comment until the article’s release.

The expectation was that this master craftsman would talk about the craft. Instead, he reminisced about the evolution of his values: avid yet respectful curiosity, hard work, honor, truth telling. With respect to “The Voyeur's Motel,” we in the audience laughed as he recounted his adventures with a sexual voyeur.

Talese recalled the writers, all male, who had shaped his style: journalism with the flair of fiction. Over the course of an hour, he mentioned only two women: his mother and, in passing, Nora Ephron. But those attending the conference were about 70% women. So when the laughter died down, I simply asked what women had inspired him, as writers?

He seemed rattled, paused, and came up with Mary McCarthy. Then, reconsidering, he said, “None.” There was a rippling hiss, a syncopated intake of breath, and a barely-audible clatter of women punching their devices. It reminded me of that feminist “click” described in Ms. magazine’s first issue, in 1971, that revelatory moment when sexism is real and shared.

Talese went on to explain his theory: educated women want to talk to educated people, but educated men are attracted to grittier stories. He dug himself deeper as tweets flew out to the world from women, gifted journalists themselves, who felt stereotyped and excluded, some for the first time.

Friends began circulating lists of women writers not-to-be missed. My Facebook timeline erupted with high-fives – plus barbed remarks about a prudish nobody harassing an old master.

Was this an example of contemporary sexism or simply a senior moment? The syntax of experience is hard to parse. But for a few days, I was Vermont’s most inflammatory export since Bernie Sanders