In Conversation with Ann Friedman

Confession: I am a bit obsessed with Ann Friedman. It all started when a friend suggested I check out Call Your Girlfriend, the hilarious podcast Ann co-hosts with her bestie Aminatou Sow. As soon as I heard these boss ladies discuss the Benghazi hearings and Justin Bieber with equal seriousness, I was hooked. Then I started reading Ann’s work — and there’s a lot to read. Ann shares her keen take on gender, media, and culture pretty much everywhere on the Internet. She writes a weekly column for New York Magazine’s “The Cut,” creates hilarious pie charts, and sends out a weekly email newsletter full of interesting links and witty GIFs. Oh, and also regularly contributes to publications including The Los Angeles TimesThe Gentlewoman, and The New Republic. I got a chance to meet with Ann during her recent trip to Montréal, where we talked fangirling, responsible journalism, and the hustle behind her one-woman freelance empire.


Sara Kloepfer: You coined the term shine theory to explain why women should befriend powerful women instead of being jealous or intimidated. Why do you think it’s important to make female networks of power visible?

Ann Friedman: For a long time people have said, or have noted correctly, that women voters are important or companies where more than one woman is empowered, more women tend to rise through the ranks, we have all this research that says that. It’s important to talk about it because then maybe people will actively try to make it happen, as opposed to just being excited where it happens to exist already, like in industries that happen to skew female. I also think about — and this is a tiny little corner of the economy — tech investors telling women that their idea is only for women, and that being a limiting thing. Whereas we obviously understand that when women all care about something or tell each other about it, there can be a huge amplifying effect and so people who care about spreading the word about something, or getting women to vote about something, or even trying to sell a product, it’s good for them to pay attention to how we talk to each other, and recommend things to each other, and support each other.

SK: Who would be your dream collaboration?

AF: That’s a great question. The first thing that came to mind for me, which is so funny, I’ve interviewed Miranda July a couple of times, and the first time I went in to interview her, I think I was kind of disdainful. I had seen the movies and I had a view of her as maybe kind of twee or not serious, which is wrong and fucked up — whatever, internalized misogyny is real. But then I actually talked to her and was like, “Oh yeah.” She’s a woman of many side projects, which I respect, and is someone who I think has done pretty interesting things with the platform that she’s built for herself. So I don’t know what that looks like, but I’m super interested in her.

SK: You’ve gotten to interview a lot of really cool people, who did you fangirl the most?

AF: Oh my god Robyn. Robyn is the best. We kind of got drunk together, we took a selfie together. You have a view, and it’s usually a false view, when you are a journalist who sometimes interviews famous people that you admire, where you’re like, “Well you know we’re just gonna love each other.” There are not that many interviews going into it where I’ve felt that. For someone who has basically been famous since she was fourteen, she should be the weirdest, most disconnected person. I just had a great time talking to her, and not just the kind of interview questions like, “Tell me about your upbringing” or whatever, but just about how she’s thinking about the world now. That’s totally a standout.

SK: You cover a lot of feminist issues. I sometimes feel unsure when I write a piece that touches on subjects outside of my lived experience as a privileged white lady, like “Who am I to write this article? Is it appropriate?” You touched on this in an interview where you talk about your approach to writing about Caitlyn Jenner. How do you keep that mentality from becoming a roadblock to writing?

AF: Sometimes it is a roadblock. Sometimes there are things that I don’t write about because I don’t have lived experience with them, at least not in a column. As a reporter, I’m sure there are things that I would say no to, like an assignment that was reported about something way outside my lived experience where I only had two hours to interview one person. But if I had time to talk to a lot of people, there’s pretty much nothing I wouldn’t write about, as a reporter. Opinion-wise, even that Caitlyn Jenner column, is sort of talking to and about cisgender women like me and putting it in that context. I think it’s bad that the presumed audience of places like “The Cut” is twenty-something and thirty-something straight, cis women. While probably not inaccurate, probably that is a good chunk of the readership, writing always for that audience is bad, but that’s where I’m sort of like well, that is where I come from, and this is how I think about this stuff and care about it, even though that is my background and I am not trans, and so I’m going to make an effort to quote people who are and contextualize it in a way that I actually think about it and feel about it. I don’t always feel like I can do that in a column, and so I don’t always write columns that touch on everything. In that case in particular, there were a lot of cis women writers who I respect who were like, “I’m not going to write about this, there’s already too many cis women writing about Caitlyn Jenner, so I’m not going to touch it.” Which I kind of don’t love either, because it goes back to doing the work to educate people with your own background, as opposed to expecting trans women to author every op-ed on this and take the heat in comments. I think there are cons to staying silent as well.

SK: I came across that in writing about Ferguson, I tried to think of it as educating other white people about what they can do to be allies. At first I felt a bit uncomfortable, like “What do I have to bring to this?” But there’s also the unfortunate phenomenon of white people only listening to other white people, so I’d rather give them the tools to do something or be educated about it, while also linking to articles by people of color.

AF: One of the downsides of being a writer who puts yourself and your opinions and your biases forward is that you can be criticized even when you are being authentic, but also people are pretty good at spotting your blind spots. I’ve never done a comprehensive audit of my old columns, but I’m sure there are lots where I’m like, “Oh god I would never phrase it that way today,” or where people were like, “Hey you totally forgot about this aspect of it because it doesn’t fit with your personal experience.” And I think that is a great privilege of being someone who writes down your thoughts and puts them on the internet, is you can have this dialogue where you’re held accountable for the blind spots that you have.

SK: Callout culture is so real, especially coming from a politically active university sphere. I feel pressure to be careful not to write something that will offend somebody — and I do want to write things that take into account all these views, but I also don’t want to feel like I’m looking over my shoulder every time.

AF: That is hard. I started writing in feminist blog Internet, which is close to the university atmosphere of checking your language so much that your prose actually feels muddy. I’m sure if you looked at my whole catalogue of columns, I would say, ninety percent of the time, when I say “women,” I mean people who identify as women, I don’t mean cisgender women. But someone will be like, “Well you’re rendering trans women invisible if you don’t add the caveat.” I had a moment with this recently. I did a list of nonfiction by women every year from 1960 forward, and the first piece on that list was by a writer, Jan Morris. Someone was like, “Jan Morris when she wrote the book that you’re citing in 1960, her byline was James Morris and so she doesn’t belong on your list.” And I was just like, well she does and it’s my list so go home, trans women are women. I didn’t need to add a caveat. And totally frankly, I don’t care about what her byline was at the time, she identifies as a woman journalist, she published that in 1960, I made the call. I felt really happy to be able to include a trans woman on a historical list of journalism. I want to live in a world where that doesn’t have to be called out. Her work wasn’t about her trans identity, it was a travel book about Venice, and a very well written one. So that’s another great privilege of writing, you can make assumptions, like when I write “women” it means women and if you have a different definition, that’s your problem, the world I’m constructing says “women” is inclusive of trans women. I know that’s not the world we live in. I think it gets more complicated when you start talking about things that have to do with reproductive health, and then maybe you should be drawing more distinctions, but by and large, I’ve decided that a lot of the debates about language that happen in activist spaces don’t lead me to make better work, and don’t help me serve the communities I want to serve better.

SK: Going off of that list, what writers have you found the most inspiring — journalistic, literary, or otherwise?

AF: Susan Sontag’s journals I really recommend to everyone, almost as a model of journaling. I read the first volume, which is from her teens and maybe very early twenties when it came out in 2009 and it’s really interesting because it’s some deep thoughts and some petty thoughts and some lists of what she was working on. Not that you need a model for your own private writing practice, but there was something about that, where I think if you were to look at my journaling from the time, it starts to look more like hers, which is not just here’s what I did today, but some bigger thoughts about the world, and grocery lists, and stuff about the people in my life that goes a little bit deeper. I found those really, really inspiring in terms of how I write privately. Also her public work is obviously incredible, that’s like duh. She did a long interview with Rolling Stone that was published in full as a volume a couple years ago, and that’s also really great. More recently I read this book On Immunity by a writer named Eula Biss. She also wrote a great, great essay in the New York Times Magazine about whiteness and teaching her son about whiteness and what that means. On Immunity is really good because it sort of explores why someone would be an anti-vaxxer. You never doubt where she stands, you know that she’s like, “vaccinate your kids,” but it’s written with this tone of true empathy, like trying to understand why you would consider not doing it. It also does all these really interesting things with culturally how we think about immunity, how we think about our responsibility to other people, and it’s just written in this way that is academic, but accessible, and compassionate but not wishy-washy, like she has a point of view. So there’s a lot about that tone I hope to emulate.

SK: A lot of young writers ask you for advice. Something I find really helpful in your responses is that you emphasize “My career and my network looks like this after ten years of working.” I love that you underline patience and consistency. What is your perspective of building a career now that you’ve had that time?

AF: It’s easy to look back and say that it all makes sense, you know you can kind of back-construct a narrative. The truth is, I don’t know, I’ve wanted different things at different points in my career and before I became a freelance writer, like immediately before, I really identified as an editor and I didn’t really think that I could make a living as a freelance writer. I might’ve told you I didn’t want to either, but I think I was scared. One thing I do think translates is a balance between plugging away at a day job or actually building a career in kind of a more traditional sense while meeting people who do what you do and trying to get better at the core skill set, like in my case writing and reporting, but other people’s might be different. Balancing that with making your own stuff and doing things that are low-paid to unpaid on your own that try to explore a little bit more what your own voice and interests are, because a day job is going to give you certain things, but probably exploring your personal voice and personal interests is not one of them. Your passion projects I think are really important, but are probably not going to pay you that much. When I look back, I can see how those things have played off against each other well to get me to a point where I’m happy in my career. I also see how those things could have interacted differently and led me to a different place and I’d probably be happy there too. But you’re right, the biggest factor is also just time and continuing to do it.

SK: I feel like it’s a little different for people my age, because we’re surrounded by all these overnight success stories and young powerhouses. What would you tell people in my generation who are trying not to compare ourselves to that?

AF: I think that there’s a lot of room for a lot of interesting work and just because someone is making interesting work and being well known for it doesn’t mean there is no space for you. It is kind of shine theory-like in that the opposite of shine theory is feeling like only one of us gets to succeed. I don’t think that’s true at all. That mentality is just so toxic, that someone else did it, and so that means there’s no space for me. And I think if you have stuff that you want to do, if you have a desire there, that means there’s space for it. The worst feeling in the world for me is — and I would feel this way when I was younger, especially if I was hanging out with media people in New York — all the good ideas are taken, everyone has written everything I might possibly want to write, they’ve already done it better, they’ve already done it first. That’s true of some things, I definitely feel like I’ve been beaten to some things, but most of the time that’s not true. You do things in your own unique way, with your own unique group of people, and with your own style. I think there’s still space to do good work.

SK: Now that you’re in a mentorship position, what is the worst advice you’ve ever received?

AF: My first day of work at a politics and policy magazine in D.C., it was pretty much my first full time paid post-internship journalism job. One of the older editors there who was a woman asked if she could take me to coffee on my first day and she suggested that I just tone down the whole feminism thing because it would make people less inclined to listen to me at the magazine and in Washington. I did not take her advice, but I think that there is an older generation of women that was like, how do you most conform to a male idea of success and that’s how you get by. Obviously I feel like the more I work on what I care about and the more I am openly feminist, the more successful I have been.

SK: You do so many different types of things that a lot of people know about, what is a secret skill you have?

AF: I’m really good at making deviled eggs. Seriously. Someday I will make a deviled egg zine/cookbook. At some point, when I have some free time, I’m going to do a deviled egg/female villain zine called She Deviled. Love deviled eggs, real good at that.

SK: I’m sure your career looks different than how you might have imagined, just because there are so many mediums and formats you’re using that didn’t even exist before. What is a way that you’ve surprised yourself?

AF: I think just trying things. The podcast is a really good example where Amina and I were just like, “Why do we keep hearing about only dudes who do this, it can’t be that hard if men are doing it.” This was pre-Serial, so we were definitely not thinking “How do we recreate Serial,” we weren’t thinking on a level of ambition like that, it was just like let’s try to use this format. I do think that the reason that’s turned into a bigger thing is because we were consistent, we didn’t just make one and stop. It was a surprise that there was such an audience for it. The fact that we were complaining like, “Ugh why is it all men making this,” I don’t think we followed that through with “And therefore if we make this from an unapologetically female point of view, it will be popular.” We didn’t go there, we were just like it can’t be that hard, we’re going to make it. That was the surprise, which shouldn’t have been a surprise, that there’s also a demanding audience of women who are like, “Yeah why is it all dudes?” Not all, there are obviously a lot of women podcasting. So that’s part of it too, I think, if you are annoyed that some medium you’re interested in doesn’t seem to represent you or your views, someone will probably be excited that you make something with that medium that represents your views, people like you will be into that. That’s been an awesome “what shouldn’t have been a surprise” surprise.

SK: What are some of your favourite podcasts?

AF: I have so many. There’s one called Joblogues, which is about young women and work. It’s not exclusively about women at work but it’s hosted by women that I really like and they do in-depth interviews with people who have what I think are pretty interesting, not always new media, but often kind of new-ish career paths that they’ve carved for themselves. I really like Actuality, which is a podcast that is a collaboration between the website Quartz and Marketplace about weird, economic business-type news that I got into because it’s co-hosted by my friend Tim, but I really, really, really like it. A friend of mine and one of her friends have a podcast called Go Head Mama, they’re both mothers. I don’t have a kid, for me it’s not so much about that, but they talk about a lot of things that have to do with identity, and navigating social pressure, and body stuff that I think is relevant even if you don’t have kids, and it’s kind of a chat format, like Call Your Girlfriend. I’ve been enjoying The Tell Show, which is one of the new Buzzfeed podcasts, that’s pretty interesting to me.

SK: If you had to make a pie chart of your life in the next 10 years, what would it look like? For example, 30 percent writing, 20 percent piña coladas on your porch…

AF: Oh my god, I have no idea. That’s a good question. I definitely want to keep the writing percentage high. In terms of where that writing appears, maybe it will look different in ten years. I’m always kind of fascinated by people who become almost exclusively book writers, where they’re like, “Oh I’m not producing every week, I’m producing every year or two years.” So there’s something about that, the pace might be different, but I want to keep the writing percentage. I hope to be still drinking a lot of rosé — rosé on my porch is probably the accurate thing. I really hope my patio furniture game is improved by then so maybe we can do a slice that’s like “rosé on a really nice lounge chair or Adironack.” Good travel. I’m [in Montréal] for three days, which feels kind of luxurious, but it would be nice if I had the flexibility to say, “oh I’m going to go for a week, not two days.” I hope there’s a bigger percentage of just being in different places in the world. It’s vague, it’s very unformed, it’s like dotted lines pie chart.


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