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Defending 'Joan of Snark': It's a Feminist Thing

02/15/2013 11:24 am ET | Updated Apr 17, 2013

In a column several months ago on Slate, cultural feminist and essayist Katie Roiphe pronounced "earnest, self-righteous" feminism DOA at the hands of a new generation of women hopped up on snark and sarcasm. Citing individual writers such as Tina Fey and Caitlin Moran and larger enclaves of feminist bloggers/writers who power sites like Jezebel and the Double X section of Slate, Roiphe views the celebration of snark as a hollow victory for feminists precisely for the way it seems to advance form over substance, smug elitism over inclusivity. "The tacit assumption," wrote Roiphe, "is that we all take for granted a certain set of shared beliefs, and we should mock those few retrograde Neanderthals who do not agree with us." Roiphe and others who bemoan snark as the junky debris washed in on feminism's latest wave give the mode too much credit as some sort of new feminist ideology. It is not (new or a belief system). It is, however, an increasingly important, critical tool in the feminist arsenal and deserves defending.

There is general agreement that snark is bad, corrosive. David Denby made that point overwhelmingly transparent in his book, Snark, where he witheringly wrote about the toxic nature of snark in civil society and its reflection of contempt and invective. Denby rode the dangerous curve of snarkery himself in his adamant dislike for the concept. The fact remains that women have a long history of reaching for sardonic humor to further their artistic or political aims. Dorothy Parker, Mary McCarthy through to Caitlin Moran and Chelsea Handler represent a small sample of women who have used the sharper end of their wit to throw any number of cultural, gender, sexual or class disparities in relief. When attached to those women who practice it, the art of snark becomes conflated with the more pejorative aspects of a feminist identity; it is little more than an excuse for women to posture in their perceived political and moral superiority. Snark is form -- tongue-tripping word play, inventive imagery, acerbic tone, hyperbole and exaggeration with the occasional school yard "burn" thrown in for good measure -- that empties the issue of substance, making, by association, the purveyors of snark equally vapid. This logic grossly misunderstands the difference between snark's properties and its effects. For women, its effects are what matters and why snark is worth preserving or at the very least, embracing, for the given moment.

It is useful to understand snark as rhetorical window dressing, as an aesthetic mode and not a sensibility seriously invested in wanting harm to come of others. It aligns itself with other comedic conventions such as sarcasm, irony, and self-consciousness deployed to expose truths. Snark is another type of persona or voice used by the writer or performer, which functions to expose truth, to diffuse and disarm the volatility around its subjects. Sarah Silverman has famously quipped that she views her stand-up persona as a person who is ignorant with a lot of arrogance. Meaning, the outlandish version of self Silverman presents allows her to comically effect a range of perspectives on diverse subjects. Snark operates in a similar fashion: it provides a vehicle, in this case one marked by humor, by which to deliver commentary and, more importantly, provoke discourse.

A cursory glance at the comments section of any Jezebel piece yields double-digit numbers. The comic elasticity that accompanies snark provides the type of cognitive distance that enables readers to readily join in the discussion in a number of diverse ways: supporting the writer's argument, picking apart the writer's logic, offering up their own, and often similarly snark-filled, perspective on the issue, or by raising concerns related to the piece's topic, but that instigates an entirely different conversation. Snark is not the only reason for this outcome, but it is what keeps the dialogue from collapsing into unproductive and frustrating polemics. Feminism suffers from enough division within its own ranks; snark has the potential to keep feminist discourse fluid and invite inclusion, despite Roiphe and Denby's assessment to the contrary.

In time, snark will likely run its course. The pendulum will swing the other way to reunite Roiphe with her beloved "earnest," "angry feminist," or else produce a new controversial form entirely that wrangles the culture at large. For now snark, as well as the women who wield it, is here to stay.