Cat Marnell and the Double-Edged Sword of Concern

I’ve always loved a hot mess. But just the girl ones. Can men be hot messes? I guess so but I find them boring. Probably because it’s so noncontroversial to be a male hot mess. It’s usually either straight-up sad or straight-up awesome. You’re either Corey Feldman or Leonardo DiCaprio. You’re either Late Show with David Letterman Joaquin Phoenix or Walk the Line Joaquin Phoenix.

But no man can be Cat Marnell, who interviewer Emily Gould says looks like a cross between two other hot messes, Emily Wurtzel of Prozac Nation and Tara Reid of American Pie.


I did not like the Gould interview of Cat Marnell. An ex once described me as “hypervigilant” about insults, which may or may not be true but the fact that he is the kind of person to say that, instead of, you know, “I’m sorry” after I told him something he said sounded insulting is why he’s my ex. As I read Gould condescend to Marnell in a way no one does to men, I felt insulted on her behalf.

Hot messes trigger our protective impulses. “She wound up writing a column that reliably generated news,” Gould wrote of Marnell. “Much of it from other websites that questioned her employers’ role in enabling her.” Did anyone wonder what role A&E played in Corey Feldman’s breakdown by giving him a reality show?

“There’s always a fine line between appreciating the art that someone’s making out of her fucked-up life and feeling like your attention makes you complicit in her self-destruction.” Did anyone who watched David Letterman interview Joaquin Phoenix wonder whether by watching it they were fanning the flames of the tire fire that was his career?

Hot messes are hard to look at and harder to ignore. You wouldn’t call a movie about a hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous man “Trainwreck,” a la Amy Schumer. Trainwreck is the word you think when Gould writes:

Curiosity about her (“Is she terrible?”) was mingled with a kind of guilty concern. “I don’t want to look sometimes,” a friend who follows her on Instagram told me.

We want to protect women, from others and from themselves, in a way we don’t want to protect men. So strong is our protective impulse that we expect the people around women to protect the ones we perceive to be in danger. Even when it’s not really their responsibility.

Former employer Jane Pratt told Gould plainly that she’d work with Marnell again in a heartbeat. And just when you think Gould couldn’t condescend to Marnell more, she asks Pratt whether keeping Marnell on staff and giving her a platform “and the health insurance that enabled her to fill her prescriptions” was helping her to harm herself. I have trouble imagining Gould ever calling a man’s former employer and asking him if he feels guilty for hiring him, keeping him on, and giving him health insurance.

It’s not that we don’t care as much about men. It’s that we trust men more to take care of themselves, to make choices they can live with.

When Gould writes, “She works what she calls the ‘wolf in bimbo’s clothing’ angle, though it’s not entirely clear why a wolf would want to adopt that particular disguise, it feels like an old-school British person describing an indigenous group. “One can’t imagine why the savages stretch their earlobes out. Absolutely bizzare.” It felt like Gould was describing Marnell misogynistically without ever evincing any awareness of the ways in which her own internalized misogyny might have colored Gould’s view of Marnell.

But Pratt falls into the same trap. Gould’s question assumes that it’s possible Pratt should have decided whether or not to employ Marnell based on what she thought was best for Marnell. This is incredibly condescending to both women. It assumes first that Pratt would know better than Marnell whether being employed or not is best for her. But it also assumes that Marnell’s best interests are more important than Pratt’s. That getting high-quality writing (and Pratt is clear that the work quality was high) for the magazine Pratt poured her blood, sweat, and tears into is less important than Pratt’s assessment of what is in Marnell’s best interest. This isn’t a fucking supper club. It’s a business. The fact that it’s two women doesn’t change fundamental nature of the employer/employee relationship.

But instead of questioning the fundamentally misogynistic assumptions behind the question, Pratt responds in a way that proves my point. “I worried about whether I was enabling her fairly constantly, particularly toward the end of her time on staff at xoJane when I was more aware of her self-destructive behaviors.”


Some readers will take away from this post that Cathy Reisenwitz called Emily Gould a misogynist. “This cunt thinks that any woman who disagrees with her hates herself.” But there’s more to it than that. I’ll admit that I am hypervigilant about the unique ways women are condescended to, including by other women. I tend to respond to any attempt to take any autonomy away from any woman with “Misogyny!” Like when I said Amanda Bynes was just being weird and everyone needed to chill out and then it became apparent that she really did need help. Or, when I got mad that some dude, I can’t remember whether it was her dad or boyfriend, took control of Britney Spears’ money. Maybe access to a checkbook isn’t what you need when you’re in a state of mind where shaving your head seems like a good idea.

This person definitely doesn't need help.

This person definitely doesn’t need help.

“She does tell me at some point that her dad is now in control of her money,’ Gould writes of Marnell. “I think immediately of Britney Spears.” Sometimes women really do need to be taken care of. Sometimes men need it too, and our conceptions of masculine toughness and individuality and our expectations that men provide and not depend on others (our toxic masculinity) keep them from asking for help and keep us from helping them before they ask.

But care is a double-edged sword. Swooping in to “help” before a woman really needs it deprives her of the freedom to find out how far she can go. And it deprives the rest of us of the things you can only create from the edge of safety and sanity. What have we missed out on because some woman’s boss said she can’t go to work until she goes to rehab? Probably not a lot, actually. But you get my point. “That’s too dangerous” is both a kind and understandable impulse and a straightjacket.

I want us to walk back further in both directions. I want it to be okay to save men sometimes. And I want it to be okay to not save women sometimes. I want people to feel okay letting women decide how to prioritize their health and happiness. I want women to feel justified in focusing on creating things that feel meaningful, and not feel like they have to save each other from themselves while they’re doing it.