While researching this article, I started a Facebook thread asking why women ‘hate’ Mia Freedman. It was an inflammatory and limited statement that I now regret, but there was no shortage of response. Many who commented had not listened to her notorious podcast interview with best-selling author Roxane Gay (some argued that they would never give Freedman the satisfaction of extra clicks), nor had they read Gay’s memoir Hunger. But as is the nature of outrage culture, that didn’t matter. It was clear that no apology was ever going to get Freedman out of this mess.
I don’t believe Freedman ever set out to humiliate Roxane Gay. On the contrary, Freedman gushed more than once about how much she admires Gay, how Bad Feminist is one of her favourite books, how Hunger taught her so much. But Gay warned Freedman that she’s prone to passive aggression and anyone who listened to Freedman’s original podcast, filled with excruciating attempts to bond with Gay over superficialities such as hair dye, Botox and fashion, would have known that no good would come of this. And of course, there was that introduction. So Gay tweeted that Freedman’s interview was cruel and humiliating and women across the country jumped on Twitter and Facebook and told Freedman exactly what they thought of her.
This reaction, this venom, the ‘ugly hate’ Freedman’s close friend, Lisa Wilkinson described as being ‘completely out of proportion,’ no doubt shocked Freedman to the core.
And here’s where the problem lies. Freedman, a media savvy mogul who has managed to make it big in an industry that is notoriously tough to crack, had no idea how inappropriate she was being. For a woman, whose website claims to know exactly what ‘women are talking about,’ this is worse than being deliberately cruel.
To most of us Mia Freedman is not a person; she’s a brand. This was a deliberate move on Freedman’s part when she started her website, Mamamia, in 2007. Freedman has strategically positioned herself as every woman’s best friend, using feminism as a kind of commercial signature. To give her credit, she has opened up discussions surrounding difficult topics such as miscarriage and infertility and it was Freedman who replaced models with ‘regular’ women of all shapes and sizes when she was the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine.
But Freedman is also a brand that is losing its currency. The past five years have seen a massive shift in the way we think about gender identity, body image and cultural diversity. When I was growing up, girls like Freedman ruled the world. They were the ones you saw in Dolly magazine: skinny, white, conventionally pretty. Those of us who didn’t fit the mould, for whatever reason, were outcasts, destined to spend our days reading Sweet Valley High and pining to be popular.
Now, all of a sudden, Freedman’s irritating combination of privilege and entitlement, not to mention the unwavering self-confidence that so often comes with such characteristics, has backfired. Rather than being an advantage, it has become a barrier. Freedman desperately wanted to connect with Gay in her interview. But she couldn’t. And this disconnect highlighted the limitations of Freedman’s ability to connect with so many of us. Even with women like me. White. Middle-class. Heterosexual. Two children. Conventional. But also sick of and unsatisfied by the limitations of Freedman’s exclusive white-bread feminism.
I have no doubt that Freedman read Hunger and genuinely connected with it. But she seemed to have missed the point. Hunger is a memoir about trauma, about how a terrifying, horrible, shameful experience can impact a person’s relationship with their body and their sense of self.
But Freedman’s feminism, her outlook, is trapped on the surface. Throughout her interview she chose to focus on Roxane’s looks, her size, rather than the more complex relationship we all have with our bodies and why we feel the way we do about them. For most women, no matter what their ethnicity, sexuality or social class, this is no longer enough. It’s an unsatisfying way to view feminism and the world. And Freedman’s blunder provided a springboard to express this disenchantment, sadly at her expense.