Closing Up, Moving On

Hi there.

If you’ve forgotten this newsletter even existed, good news — so did I, sort of.

I started this newsletter in the very brief window of time when I was only writing one biweekly op-ed column. I thought I’d send this on my weeks off, or when I had a newsy idea that I didn’t want to bother pitching elsewhere.

Since then, I’ve signed up to produce two columns — alternating at Medium and DAME Magazine, respectively — and gone through the promotional cycle on a book, and run a second newsletter, and spent much of the past year working on other projects which are not yet fit for the sight of Man, but which I hope to show you shortly.

In that time, the goal of writing a sporadic just-the-columns-but-bloggier newsletter has become much less attainable. Aside from all the other projects — this is the work I’m already getting paid to do, and anything I write here is something I can’t write for a paying outlet. So it’s dropped off the radar, and my grand plans for it have gone the way most grand plans eventually do.

I may yet come back here, if I find myself with more free time on my hands, but in the meantime, you deserve a formal acknowledgment that this newsletter is on indefinite hiatus.

If you’re one of the people who was generous enough to subscribe, please know that I have no intention of ripping you off; you now have a year’s free subscription to my pop culture newsletter, Dangerous Characters, which I actually do update very regularly. Other folks can, of course, feel free to sign up there too! But I don’t want to leave you empty-handed.

Until next time,

Sady.

Can't Always Get What You Want

Owned

Game of Thrones ended on Sunday. For a while — for the last week of its run, in fact — that ending was all I could talk about. This was because I hated it, sure. But more importantly, the ending of Game of Thrones was something to think about. Something that, no matter how awful it may have been, paled in comparison to the shit going down in the real world. 

The fury over Game of Thrones feels like a throwback, doesn’t it? It feels like something we did in a simpler time, when feminists had leisure to examine the stories our culture tells, and parse the nuances of representation, rather than endlessly responding to crises in real time. My first blog, Tiger Beatdown, started in 2008, and at least half of it was pop-culture criticism. I covered electoral politics when I had to, but I often didn’t have to. My writing on movies and TV (and sometimes-but-not-really music) was the first thing anyone ever hired me for, the first thing I ever went viral for; when I was linked to by an outside website, or shortlisted in an anthology, or published in a Really Important Publication, it was always that stuff. 

I know I’m inviting takes about the decadence of feminism in the Obama era — you people think movies and TV are real life! You wasted your time on rape jokes instead of Medicare for All! All you care about are symbolic victories! — and certainly, in the later, more clickbaity iteration of that particular politic, there was a lot of shallow, performative stuff. Mainstream media websites learned how to do the kind of writing my friends and I were doing for free; they rarely hired the people who had pioneered that type of writing or made it popular, and instead hired younger writers without recognizable bylines or a deep grounding in the issues. Those writers were more precarious, more exploitable, and they were able to turn out quick takes on whether something was “problematic” without any deep passion or connection to a wider political movement. It showed. 

Pop-analysis feminism became its own recognizable form, and people kind of thought it sucked, and maybe, by the end, when we were writing listicles on how feminist the Disney Princesses were or weren’t, it kind of did suck, the same way it kind of sucks that I can buy an endless variety of “STRONG WOMAN” dresses for my almost-two-year-old who hasn’t even officially told me what her gender is. It’s probably better to buy her the “STRONG WOMAN” dress than something that says, like, “Flirt” or “Daddy’s Little Tease” or “I’m A Very Sexy Baby,” which was the previous fad. But it’s still an odd, dissociative feeling, watching this political moment my friends and I worked to bring about become a pin, or a baby onesie, or a motto woven into some novelty socks. 

Today, picking up some summer clothes for the baby, I found a little T-shirt that showed a “diverse” group of little girls (a white redhead, a white blonde, a brown girl) riding rockets through the sky, leaving a trail that said “OWN YOUR POWER.” I thought it was a nice message, but I also thought $13 was a high price to pay for it. I thought about how it must be vastly more marketable to create a T-shirt about women’s power than to actually be a feminist who analyzes and advocates for women’s power in the public sphere; how my income is dwarfed by the incomes of the people who sell these shirts, and yet I’m expected to give them money to reflect my own points back to me; how so many women swam out, in the early and mid ‘00s, way ahead of the wave, writing full-length essays every day for no money, trying to bring the culture to a place where girls didn’t begin all their sentences with “I’m not a feminist, but…”

No-one invested in those websites. You couldn’t even get ad money or sponcon partnerships for them. Some of them pulled more traffic than sections of the Huffington Post, but according to the experts, they just weren’t “marketable.” Then, somehow, with no support, and no-one taking them seriously, those women changed the culture to the point that Beyonce was sampling feminist lectures in her hit singles. And not only did most of us never become famous for it, or even earn a living wage, we didn’t even get the stupid T-shirt. We still have to go to the mall and pay up. 

So I thought about that. And I thought about how effective it would be for my daughter to wear an “OWN YOUR POWER” t-shirt in Georgia or Alabama. How much power you can really own, or purchase at Old Navy, when your own government is taking your sovereignty over your body away. 

I don’t know what there is to say about Georgia and Alabama (and Ohio, and Michigan, and Missouri, and) that I didn’t say last week, or that a thousand people haven’t said for me. People have been saying the same thing, myself included, for years now. Last summer, when the news broke that Justice Kennedy would retire, I remember sitting numbly in a coffee shop, staring at my computer screen, not moving. The way you do when something horrible happens; when you’re afraid to move, because then linear time will commence, and you’ll have to live in the horrifying future where this has already happened to you. Eventually, the spell broke. I saw a headline where Bernie Sanders said something stupid — “in many ways, we did win the election,” I believe it was — and I snapped back into the moment, and I swear to God, my ears started ringing. The whole world was silence and whine, like some cheesy movie portraying the aftereffects of a bomb blast. I was so angry it briefly shifted the pressure inside my skull.

So I felt it all then, and I’ve known what would happen ever since, as we all did. This past week — the one where I keep making fists and remembering I don’t know how to punch walls without breaking my hand — is just the fulfillment of a prophecy, an echo of the original feeling I had in that coffee shop. The anger that hit like a bomb. 

I find it impossible to know how much my friends and I actually changed the culture. So much of it has moved in response to our pressure, given us what we asked for: Superhero movies, baby clothes, pop stars. These aren’t minor symbolic victories; something like Wonder Woman is a multi-million dollar franchise. This means it can never be radical, or substitute for political action, but more importantly, it means that the people who make multi-million-dollar franchises are betting that feminism can draw a crowd, and they are winning. That victory connotes a massive level of popular support, which could potentially be turned to more practical ends. When I first started, there was one (1) press that routinely published books by young feminists, and the advances were so small that some literary agents refused to deal with them. Now, we’re on the New York Times bestseller list, on TV, on every cheap baby shirt at the mall.

But reality grinds on apace, and it is brutal. Another state with a total abortion ban. Another ban with no rape or incest exceptions. Another rapist very publicly getting away with his crimes, flaunting his invulnerability to the law. (Between Game of Thrones and abortion, there was seemingly no room for another big story this week — but speaking of throwbacks, Julian Assange is out and trying to evade rape charges again, which I wrote about.) You can bet on feminism and win big. You can bet against women and win bigger. You can tell a baby to “OWN HER POWER.” But when it comes to adult women and childbearing people, and their power to decide whether to have babies, well: There’s nothing left to grab. The state owns it all. 

I don’t know where we are: Progressing, backlashing, or just stuck in place on some moral and ethical hamster wheel, whereby the faster we run, the more stuck we are, and the more I bitch about girl-power t-shirts, the closer all those “FUTURE SEX MISTRESS” baby clothes get to coming back. I don’t know how the symbolic and the real fit together; if our stories, like our dreams, reflect our deepest beliefs and run ahead of our conscious knowledge, or if stories only distract and tranquilize us while the world crumbles. I had a lot of anger this week, and I put 98% of it into Game of Thrones, because it was a remnant of a time when we had the luxury to care about stories. Because the story it told reflected all there is to be angry about in the world.

Game of Thrones, in the end, was the story of a woman who began the series being raped by her husband, and ended it being stabbed by her boyfriend, and both men were framed as heroic despite these actions, or because of them. It was the story of a woman who tried to escape the violence; who soared through the sky, bearing a message written in fire and smoke; a woman who OWNED HER POWER. And it was the story of how she failed to deserve that power; how she had to be destroyed because of her ambition, or her trauma (“madness”), or her anger, or just her sheer inability to step down and let a calmer, more reasonable man take her power away.

It was a story about how women do not own our bodies and shouldn’t try to. And it was the most popular drama on television, for almost ten years. I don’t know whether that’s a symbolic problem or a real problem. It seems like both. I am angry about Game of Thrones because it feels less threatening than the real crisis. But that only means I am angry at us all.

The Powerful

I felt powerful when I was pregnant. It wasn’t what I expected to feel. I’d been taught that pregnant women were fragile: Balloons about to pop, eggshell-thin teacups that would shatter if you dropped them. People certainly treated me like I was fragile. They gave up their subway seats for me at least 40% of the time, more if I sighed and heaved my balloon belly around; once, when I puked after taking two incompatible supplements together, five or six people rushed over to tend to me and offer to take me to the hospital. But they also treated me as public property. For the last three months, in particular, male strangers kept stopping me on the street to say “I bet it’s a boy!” 

Hope. They hoped it was a boy; they assumed that I hoped for a boy, too, which is why they thought they were paying me a compliment. I couldn’t argue with the reasoning. A few hundred years ago, that would be my whole purpose: Get married, get pregnant with a boy, maybe get pregnant with another boy in case my husband needed a backup, and then I’d be cleared to die. We’re supposed to be past all that, but in 2017, men who wanted to be nice still assured me I would bring my husband an heir for his land and name. 

There were moments like that, when the world crashed in on me; I saw myself as others saw me, A Pregnant Woman, and felt the full weight of history descend. But when I was alone with my pregnancy, I felt the opposite of helpless. I was putting on weight, growing large, beginning to take up space in ways I never had before. My body was curving out of anything you might call feminine, and into some primordial, animal shape, shedding its decorative value to become pure function. I felt like the brontosaurus in Jurassic Park, large and marvelous, making passersby stop and stare in awe: When I walked, my step was heavy. When I moved, people moved out of my way. I was directly responsible for the continuance of the species; I was part of nature, I was nature, in fact, because if people like me stopped doing this, humanity would cease to exist. 

I don’t know what to make of that sense of power. It could have been hormonal. Or maybe I just felt good because pregnancy forced me to quit living on cigarettes, wine and Chinese takeout. I could have been in touch with the wellspring of all life, but I also could have been in touch with adequate nutrition. But I think I was right; I think there is some power, terrible and primordial, in childbearing bodies. If we didn’t have that power, men wouldn’t spend so much time trying to take it away. 

The Georgia abortion ban feels new, but it’s only the culmination of something that’s been happening for years. Not even a culmination: A new high-water mark, a new Biggest Outrage, which is sure to be erased in a month’s time by something worse. 

Other total abortion bans have passed elsewhere — in Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, and my home state, Ohio — and like Georgia, they’ve used the language of “fetal heartbeat” to disguise what they actually do. (By the time a doctor can detect a “heartbeat,” at six weeks, the patient is about two weeks late on her period. At that point, many people don’t even suspect they’re pregnant.) Newer and nastier legislation is already on the way in Alabama. All of it is intended to trigger the overturn of Roe v. Wade, in which case, restrictions just this bad or worse will be instated in half the country. What makes Georgia stand out is not its aim, but its sheer punitive viciousness. This bill makes it exceptionally clear that banning abortion is not about limiting doctors’ ability to practice, it is about controlling and punishing women.

You’ve probably heard some or all of the implications already: Women who self-administer abortions — either safely, through medication, or through the bloodier methods that we had before Roe — may receive life in prison. Women who miscarry can be investigated and charged with second-degree murder if it’s found that they were “endangering” their fetuses (read: themselves) through drug use or other “irresponsible” behavior. This is a state ban, but pregnant women are not allowed to leave the state; “if a Georgia resident plans to travel elsewhere to obtain an abortion, she can be charged with conspiracy to commit murder,” writes Mark Joseph Stern. The same sentence, and the same 10-year prison term, will apply to anyone who helps her cross state lines. 

I’m using the terms woman and she, here, because that’s who the lawmakers were aiming at — some imaginary cisgender woman, who’s pregnant, and who must be stripped of control over that pregnancy. A woman who must have her power ground out of her, and her body taken away from her, even if it means investigating the loss of a wanted pregnancy; even if it means locking her in prison for eating sushi or soft cheese or having a glass of wine at her sister’s wedding. 

Cis women aren’t the only ones to have their bodies or power stolen by patriarchy. Trans men who are required to sterilize themselves before transition also experience this invasive, degrading control. (And, of course, some American trans men will need abortions, or be jailed for them.) Trans women live with being defined down to their genitalia every day of their lives, not just for the nine months of a pregnancy. But there’s a specific kind of hatred in laws like these, and it helps to place that hatred in its ideological context: A worldview in which human life and civilization is male, and women are not people, but the faulty tools men use to create more men.

I bet it’s a boy! Yeah, buddy. I bet you do. And if it weren’t a boy, I bet you wouldn’t quite see the point. As a woman, I am presumed to be a pause between two men; the one I must marry and the one I must raise. My body is a conduit through which men transmit names, money, history, property, lives. Who I am doesn’t matter. A road doesn’t have feelings about the cars that travel along it. A faucet doesn’t consider the water.

There is power in pregnancy. But rivers are powerful, and men dam them. Electricity is powerful, and men use it to run microwaves and razors. Childbearing people are powerful, and men damn us, too. They use us, because we are part of nature, in fact we are nature, and “nature,” in modern capitalist society, is just a collection of resources for men to acquire and exploit. One of the ways men maintain the upper hand is by passing laws in which it is illegal for us to use our own bodies. They take all that power, and turn it into a weapon they can use to keep women in line.

I knew this, in an abstract way, before I had a baby. So does everyone who knows the meaning of the word “reproduction.” But it wasn’t until I got pregnant that I actually felt it, held the truth of it in my body: Humanity depends on me, on bodies like mine, consenting to carry it forward, one baby at a time. 

The fate of the entire species rests on the bodies of people we’ve been trained to see as less than human. In fact, we may be trained to see those people as subhuman because of how important they are; because of how dangerous it would be if they recognized their leverage. If women and AFAB people stopped having children, or stopped having them with cis men — since, after all, a lot of women could plausibly serve as sperm donors — then cis men would be irrelevant. There wouldn’t be a point to them any more. If sufficiently provoked, women could end the whole human species; without a large number of pregnant bodies, humanity just sputters out, doomed by our collective refusal to cooperate. The power I felt in pregnancy wasn’t fist-pumping, go-girl, feel-good power. It was supervillain power: We could end the world.

Of course cis men respond to women’s reproductive agency violently. It’s an existential threat. So is queerness, so is gender transition and legal recognition of trans people. Patriarchy is a system wherein cis men have assumed control of a biological process in which they play no truly necessary role. The service they offer, “protection” — from poverty, with their higher wages and better career tracks; from sexual exploitation or male violence, on the theory that men won’t touch another man’s property — is only necessary under conditions of male domination. If we end wage inequity and male violence, the protection racket dissolves. We only “need” men because of problems men have created to make themselves feel needed. It’s brutal, but it’s true.

Of course want is not the same as need. Plenty of women will still want cis men around, even when they don’t need them, myself included. Sex strikes are no-one’s idea of a good time. But many cis men are not okay with just being wanted. Everything in patriarchy is set up to place women in positions of crushing dependence, to gain “security” at the cost of being sequestered in the home, or to be destitute, even criminalized, if they live and raise children without a man. Under these conditions, as Andrea Dworkin could tell you, “want” is a lot more complicated than it looks. Do you want the man, or do you just want to live? It’s okay to want either, but it’s a problem that women can’t treat sex and survival as separate drives. 

Yet, strange as it sounds, women could destroy men. In fact, women are destroying men, albeit very slowly, and while meeting lots of resistance. Any feminism worthy of the name has the destruction of manhood — the idea of a “man” as we’ve inherited it, the ideals of success and dominance and authority we’ve packed into “masculinity” — as its ultimate goal. Cis men often seem to recognize this better than women do; they work to legislate our power out of existence, or they terrorize and intimidate women into a state of learned helplessness, which means they understand they have something to fear. Men brainwash us and belittle us and raise us to take their side. They tell us there are no sides to take, that we’re all on the same team. They demand solidarity. All the while, that primeval power rests beneath the surface, more visible in the things done to contain it than in any use women have made of it. For now. 

You would think, having just written a whole book about this dynamic, that I would have a clear idea of what to do about it. But it’s tricky, trying to claim the power I felt in my pregnancy. Defining womanhood down to the ability to bear children leaves a whole lot of women out, and not just trans women. Assigning motherhood an elevated moral status, or trying to claim it as a source of political insight, neglects the fact that many mothers are neither moral nor feminist, and some are just as heavily invested in systems of male domination as the men themselves. There are systems of power that are not merely reproductive; black men are not more powerful than white cis women. Then again, white people have committed plenty of atrocities in the name of controlling black women’s fertility, or preventing black men from having children with white mothers.

In the past, whenever feminists have tried to tap that chthonic, Jurassic-Park power I sensed in childbearing bodies, it’s turned into TERFiness and mysticism, which — though I happen to like the mysticism — doesn’t leave me with much in the way of practical, on-the-ground suggestions. I know the power exists. Whether I can tell you what to do with it is another thing. 

But if sex strikes won’t work, childcare strikes might. (They already have, elsewhere.) Voluntary single motherhood or communal parenting, for those who can afford it, might; so might universal childcare and universal basic income, everything that makes living with your co-parent a choice, a want rather than a need. Celebrating and supporting trans parenthood and queer parenthood will work; helping pregnant people end their pregnancies when necessary, no matter what the laws are, will always work. What works is an ethos of disloyalty; when we realize that our individual bodies and lives and choices exist in service to the system, we can start to betray and sabotage that system, whenever the chance comes to hand.

The system, when it is working perfectly, produces a nation of Georgias. A place where the power of childbearing bodies is placed out of reach, and turned into their greatest vulnerability, over and over again. But even under those conditions, cis men’s vulnerability remains open. Because their vulnerability is us. They just have to hope we don’t realize that, or act on it — and the more they push us, the more likely it gets that a reckoning will come.

Happy Mother’s Day, by the way. It would be pretty sad if I let the day pass without offering you something, so — since we’re almost to the number of subscribers I need before I can friends-lock this baby — here is a coupon that will give you, or anyone you forward this email to, a month’s subscription for free. It’s good until May 18.

Subscribe - first month FREE

Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention (again) that I just wrote a book about reproduction and power, and that it’s coming out this August. It’s called Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, it’s very metal, and you can pre-order it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or IndieBound.

Mirrors, Mamas, Warren, Trauma: A Grab-Bag

Contrary to appearances, I have not, in fact, disappeared shortly after promising to write you once a week. What I have done is fallen into other work. (Among other things, I have a book coming out this summer that I need to prepare for.) This is a looser newsletter than usual; I might start sending these out, just grab-bags of quick thoughts and links, so that I can stay in touch even when I don’t have a full essay in me. First up, a reader question:

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I’ve been trying to find thoughts from good thinkers on a topic you’re well positioned to think about: being a white woman raising kids of color. My spouse’s family is mixed Filipino and Burmese, and my twin girls are going to grow up in a world that will see them differently than it saw me, but also differently than it saw their dad. 

The unfortunate answer to your question is that I’m trying to figure it out myself. Obviously, I think about it a lot, just in a “how do I raise a human being without traumatizing her or making her hate me” sort of way. And I think about it more now than I used to, in Brooklyn. Up there, we were just another family. Here, in a smaller town, we move through a much whiter world.

What I feared for Lulu, initially, was isolation. When I’ve spoken to biracial friends, or transracial adoptees (like my husband), they all mentioned that painful feeling of being stranded; they thought there was no-one else like them in the world, or at least, no-one in their neighborhoods, which is the same thing when you’re a little kid and the neighborhood is all you know.

We didn’t have to think about this in Brooklyn, because families like ours were so common. To give you an idea: My husband and I were one of three interracial Asian-white couples in our friend group, we all had babies within two years of each other, and all of our babies were assigned female at birth. Lulu was the youngest, so not only were we never short on hand-me-downs, we never had to worry about finding other biracial Asian toddlers for her to hang out with. She could always see herself reflected in her surroundings. 

Just as importantly, she could also see grown-up Asian ladies. It’s early days, still, for Lulu’s gender identity; my understanding is that kids don’t fully wrap their heads around gender as a concept until pre-school, and even then, it takes them a while to develop a firm sense of where they fit on the spectrum. Right now, though, she is very stereotypically girly. She likes pink, and she likes dresses, and she likes mermaids and unicorns and taking care of her baby dolls; she calls herself a “girl.” She has an idea that different genders exist; she calls some adults “mamas,” and some “daddies,” and she likes pointing out which is which. (Again, rude, but we’ll work on it.) And — watch, now, as I very slowly come to my point — she absolutely LOVES spotting Asian mamas.

She gets excited to see Asian ladies at the store. She gets excited to see Asian ladies at the library. When we hung out with our friends, she was sometimes more enchanted with their mothers than she was with the other little girls. Once, at an airport, we went through security just behind a whole line of international stewardesses. The combination of a dozen Asian ladies and the fact that they were all wearing the same outfit was the high point of her entire life, entertainment-wise; she was squealing and pointing and laughing like a rowdy audience member at a comedy club until the moment they were out of view.

Some of this applies to friends her own age, too; she likes everyone, but she seemingly gravitates more toward kids of color. But I would be a fool not to get the message. It matters to her to know that there are Asian mamas out there, and it will matter even more as she gets older. Assuming she keeps calling herself a girl, she will need to know, and see, that her Asian girl-hood has Asian womanhood on the other side of it, and that she can be proud of who she’s becoming. 

I’m her mother, and I want to be everything to her. It’s what mothers want; she was part of my body, she used to be inconsolable if we were separated for more than a few minutes, even now there are things that only Mama can fix. I don’t want that closeness to go away. And I always wanted a daughter, because I thought I could share things with her, understand her, in a way that would be more difficult with a boy. But raising a healthy human being means raising them to be okay without you. And some part of raising this particular daughter will be knowing how to get out of the way. 

Of course, she’ll need me for some moments; of course, there will be things I understand that her father just doesn’t. But there will also be things she can only share with him. He can already interpret parts of her experience in ways I can’t; he mutters to her about white people when he thinks I can’t hear. That’s fine. She will, at many junctures in her life, need to commiserate with someone about white people, up to and including her white mother. Sometimes, my job is just to leave the room. 

The other part of my job, the more difficult part, is to make sure she grows up seeing Asian mamas. Her father works to resist his training in patriarchy, I work to resist my training in whiteness, but Lulu’s life will be a whole lot easier if she has actual Asian women to look up to, who don’t have to cross any sort of divide to understand what she’s going through. In other families, this is probably easier; the moms are Asian themselves, or there’s extended family with grandmas and aunts and cousins. My husband doesn’t know anything about his biological family. Even our basic knowledge of Korean history and culture is pretty limited. Our ability to create a supportive space comes down to the two of us making friends. 

I was less worried when we had friends already made, and nearby. Now, I have to start all over again, and somehow do so without being a creepy white lady. So your question is also my question; I am still figuring it out, and probably always will be, and the best I can do is to keep my ears open for when someone with actual experience — including, as she gets older, my daughter — speaks up. 

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Other notable things:

  • For Medium this week, I wrote about women who are too anxious about “electability” to support a female candidate, and how the 2016 election has traumatized us in ways that are both real — all that sexism was enough to make anyone nervous about another woman’s chances — and misleading in several important ways.

  • If I were feeling collected enough to write a big essay (and I may, eventually) it would be about the rise of the new patriarchy — the one where jobs are changing their requirements to push mothers back into the home, and men are so resistant to changing gender roles that it will take 75 years for men and women to approach an equal share of parenting work. (From that last article: “A San Diego dad said his wife did more because she was so uptight.” I BET HE DID.)

  • One thing that would change much of this is (a) San Diego Dad getting served with some San Diego Divorce Papers, and (b) universal childcare. I invite you to read my latest very, very intense fan screed about Elizabeth Warren.

  • This is not a “mommy blog,” because (a) it is not a blog, (b) it’s about electoral politics half the time, and (c) “mommy blog” basically seems, like “chick lit,” to be a derogatory term for women’s writing that happens to cover the common conditions of female experience, i.e. parenting. (Since, as we’ve previously established, men are too cool and relaxed to do any of it.) But this excellent profile of Dooce, “queen of the mommy bloggers,” is a good look at the long-term trauma caused by Internet harassment, and at how we treat women who talk about their lives online.

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