Mallory Ortberg: "If you ever question the status quo, you're obviously causing trouble which means you're not happy and it means you're joyless. That's a very silly idea of what happiness is." Photo: Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg, writer, satirist and co-founder of The Toast, is heading to Australia next week to appear at Sydney's All About Women festival. I spoke with her on the phone ahead of her appearance to talk about happiness, feminism and torch songs where the word 'me' is replaced by the word 'bees'.
CF: I know you use Twitter, but it feels like you're able to maintain mammoth popularity without being hugely accessible. Is this a conscious move on your part?
MO: I think part of the reason I feel the way I do is I was on Twitter before I was a professional writer. Everyone can have a different experience of Twitter but for me it has rarely felt like work. I never feel like I have to be on Twitter or feel obligated to follow certain kinds of people. I still have a lot of fun and it just feels like shooting the shit with kids at the lockers after school.
I mean, I feel like I am personally a troll. I feel like I am a troll more often than anything else.
One of the things I love about The Toast is how feminism is woven into its fabric rather than necessarily being its mission statement. As a feminist writer, I like that it's this hilarious, absurd site that doesn't need to explicitly discuss feminism but just is feminist as a rule.
Absolutely. It doesn't feel like something that needs to be overtly stated because it's something we all acknowledge at the door. Everything important doesn't always need to be openly declared. Everything doesn't need to be a manifesto for you to care about it.
You once said about your readers at The Toast, "if men show up, that's great, but we don't need them." It's a view I share, but the idea that women might not need men in order to value what they and other women are doing still seems to provoke so much defensiveness and hostility. Why do you think that is and have you personally experienced that?
Honestly no. I really haven't. I know these people are out there. I get less than my fair share of nonsense. They're not coming to The Toast and hanging out. If you don't get a lot of traction, people won't show up. If you really want to have a big argument with someone and they don't engage then it's awfully hard to get that conversation started. I don't really care, which I think is another reason why we don't get into a ton of fights. There are plenty of spaces out there that cater to men and that's fantastic. We're not really that place. The community developed its own boundaries and figured out how to control its own borders. Frankly, they're are a lot of great guys on the internet but they don't need a parade.
Yeah. And the vibe of the place is like a giant slumber party with all these cool women who share a similar sense of humour and who you feel simpatico with. You go to read the articles but you stay for the community.
Right. The open thread on Fridays can get up to 1500 comments from amazing people talking about the facets of their lives. This is so cool and fascinating and is so much more than just me and Nicole and anything we had envisaged.
Tell me about Nicole Cliffe [Ortberg's business partner and co-owner of The Toast].
Nicole is in many ways my partner in almost everything. She has a husband and children and obviously they are a part of her life. But she's someone who, you know, I feel like she and I understand each other so well. Even when we disagree...disagreeing with her is more fun than agreeing with someone else. I've never gotten tired of her. I talk to her everyday and I wish I could talk to her more. And it's because of the Internet that I discovered this woman who completes me in every way. The more I work with her, the more I trust in her decision making. And she always fights clean. I was meant to do a business with her.
I love this depiction of friendship. It's always really annoyed me that a movie like Beaches is constantly shit on for being pathetic and silly because women and the things we like are pathetic and silly, but almost every man on every dating website ever lists The Shawshank Redemption as his favourite film. But the relationship in Beaches is just that - a life partnership that is in many ways the most important, fundamental relationship of these women's lives.
Look, I don't know that I'm necessarily more important to Nicole than her husband. But I don't wish I were anything other than what I am to her. It's not a friendship where I feel jealous or insecure about other people she's close to. With Nicole, I don't feel a sense of needing to know how close I am to her at all times. I don't feel territorial. It's truly the kind of friendship where the more she has in her life the better I feel, and vice versa. That's rare too, because I've had the kind of friendship where it seems painful if they are close to someone other than me. With Nicole though, this is a part of being friends and business partners. She is my person.
You're here for the All About Women festival in which you're presenting at a session called, "The Happy Feminist". Happiness and feminism are so rarely paired together, even though all of the feminists I know are hilarious and full-hearted. Why is joylessness still such a go-to insult for women who have political strength?
I feel bad about this question because I didn't choose the topic. I don't know who did, but you should ask them that question.
However, I get it. If you ever question the status quo, you're obviously causing trouble which means you're not happy and it means you're joyless. That's a very silly idea of what happiness is. I think that person is mistaking unruffledness for happiness and that's not the same thing at all. The idea that if you ever get angry about certain things then that means you must be angry all the time is another silly and odd thing to say. Sometimes anger is an appropriate response to a situation. [Criticising it is] a way of trying to keep someone from noticing or acknowledging something that benefits from going unacknowledged.
You wrote a genius piece for The Toast called "Torch Songs where the words 'Me' has been replaced by 'bees'". Did you brainstorm a whole list of whackadoo brilliance, or are these things that just come to you at different points during the day?
(At this point, Mallory starts singing Bonnie Raitt and I died a little bit, but then her dulcet tones brought me back to life. "Turn down the lights/Turn down the bed/Turn down these voices inside my head/Lay down with bees")
I do have daily deadlines so I have to write something whether I have a good idea or not. We have a schedule that we all fill out in google docs. On any given day, we are working a couple of days ahead. Anything of half of it to two thirds might eventually get written. Generally I find if I come up with an idea and if I never do anything with it I'll delete it. Whatever pops into my head at any given moment. It helps me having multiple deadlines during the day, though. I think if I only had to write one thing a week I would find it much harder.
I'm sure you hear this all the time, but your Women In Art History posts are life giving. It feels like that and things like Texts From Jane Eyre help highlight how similar women are despite living in different generations of eras. It's like, these women would sound exactly like us if they could narrate the feelings they have about the guy playing the lute at them or reciting poetry.
The art history posts never feel like work. Every once in awhile, I feel guilty because it feels trolly to go through Wikipedia Commons and go, "That's funny! That's funny! I'll make a joke out of that!" But I only choose paintings I love, and there's an affection there for everyone, even the guy playing the guitar. Like, I get it. I've been that guy. I've experienced that moment where I'm like, "I'm the crank, I'm the bore, everyone is looking away!" And I've been the person carefully arranging her face while saying, "Oh that must be so difficult please tell me more about it". It's a lot of fun for me to recognise each person and what they're doing.
Hang on, I have to sneeze. It's coming...is it coming?
Look at a light.
Okay. Uh oh, I looked at the sun, that was a bad idea. [Sneezes]