Continuing our regular team feature, we asked contributing editor Sarah Todd to share her thoughts on women’s media, pop culture and the writing process.
How did you get involved with AWT?
Circuitously! One of my best friends from college is engaged to a writer in San Francisco. His friend had told him about a new women’s publication that was launching in New York. They gave me the email address of our fearless leader Saskia, and I met up with her for drinks one night over the summer. She was so smart and invigorated about AWT; I couldn’t wait to get involved.
You’ve written about culture and entertainment for several media outlets including The Hairpin and Salon. How prominently do women’s issues feature in your writing?
I feel like women’s issues inform everything I write — sometimes sort of sneakily. I co-founded a feminist pop culture website with my friend Phoebe back in grad school, and I definitely try to view all media I consume through an intersectional feminist lens, whether that’s a teen TV show like Switched at Birth or Jonathan Franzen’s infamous New Yorker essay on Edith Wharton. I also mostly read and watch media that’s produced by and features women, so anything I write about in that area will almost necessarily have a women’s angle.
I also cover financial news and the environment and health and other topics that don’t always have an obvious relationship with women’s issues. But I think the connections are always there. I try to interview women no matter what I’m writing about, since their perspectives — and the perspectives of people from other underrepresented groups — too often get left out.
At our editorial meetings, we often talk about the writing/editing process. Tell us a little bit about yours.
I think it depends a lot on the kind of story I’m writing. If I have to turn around a breaking story in a short amount of time, I’m focused on getting all the facts and quotes and ideas down quickly and cleanly and accurately. I figure out a kicky lede and do a quick edit-swoop before handing it over. That’s generally what I’m doing in a newsroom situation.
But if I’m working on a longer article and I have some breathing room, I tend to edit each sentence and paragraph as I write. I delete a lot of what I put down at first. I like the process of rummaging through my notes and thinking about different ways to tell a story and playing around with structure. I definitely want everything to be super-polished before I give it to an editor.
If I’m at home, I’m usually writing sitting up in my bed with a cat or two napping beside me. I chug a lot of coffee before noon. I think listening to hip-hop while I write is sometimes helpful because it makes me write punchier, shorter sentences.
You wrote an amazing piece on the good girl/bad girl trope in modern entertainment, using the TV show “Gilmore Girls” as your focus. How do you see this playing out more broadly in media?
I think television as a whole is moving toward a more comprehensive representation of women that goes beyond the classifications of good and bad. I loved what Maggie Gyllenhaal said in her Golden Globes speech about how performances in the past year suggested a cultural shift toward featuring women as real, flawed, complicated people. Shows like “Broad City” and “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent” are doing an incredible job of just scrapping the question of whether a female character is likeable or not — which is the least interesting consideration in the world and something that way too many media critics still get caught up in. And then there are shows like “Jane the Virgin”, which playfully adapt the good girl/bad girl tropes and flesh them out. That show has so much affection for both Jane (the heroine) and Petra (the villainess). Of course there’s a long way to go, but I think TV is moving in the right direction.
I see fewer movies, so it’s harder for me to identify trends there. But I think in general mainstream movies today are more conservative than TV shows. Pop music still leans more heavily on the good girl/bad girl trope too, I think — that’s where you get the boring oppositions of Taylor Swift (good) vs. Miley Cyrus (wanna-be bad) vs. Lana Del Rey (sad girl category). To be clear, I’m talking less about those singers’ performances of identity and more about how each of them are received.
Finally, like so many of us on the team, you’re an avid reader and you recently wrote a piece about the best feminist books of 2014. What are you currently reading?
I’m obsessed with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, about the complicated friendship between two girls growing up in Italy in the aftermath of World War II. There are three so far — “My Brilliant Friend”, “The Story of a New Name”, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” — the last of which came out in fall 2014 in the U.S. The books are raw and fierce and determinedly honest about what it means to be a woman in a hostile world; I’ve never read anything like them.