Cat Marnell of xoJane.com Photo: Racked.com
Are you familiar with the writings of Cat Marnell? She’s a very talented and funny blogger on women’s website xojane.com – and is also a drug user. As the site’s beauty director she writes about black eyeliner, coconut scented body lotion and red lippie, but she also explicitly discusses her past and current drug use in a way that can be extremely confronting. She’s posted pictures of her fridge full of pill bottles and articles with titles like “My Mental Hospital Hair Secret For Subtle Punky-Pretty Pink Streaks”. Marnell takes confessional blogging to the extreme where as a reader you have to start questioning is it even right for me to be reading this? Is it fair that this person’s pain and struggle should be part of my casual blog reading? I’m not alone in my conflicted feelings towards reading about Marnell’s relapses and moves toward becoming clean – the comment boards come alive whenever she posts with some visitors saying her “train wreck blogging” glamorises drug use while others praise her honesty.
Ever since the early days of LiveJournal blogging has been an integral part of the cyberspace. Confessional writing seems a natural fit for online, perhaps because it is a medium that celebrates subjectivity over objectivity much more than traditional forms of media – the internet is a place that glories in different opinions expressed. There’s also something about the seeming anonymity of being online that makes it easier for some of us to discuss parts of our lives we might not even talk to our closest friends about. And often this anonymity is maintained, but for every hundred unknown bloggers there’s a Belle de Jour/ Brooke Magnanti (the anonymous sex blogger who became so popular she ended up having to out herself.) These days many of the web’s most popular confessional bloggers such as Emily Gould and fellow xoJane writer Emily McCombs don’t hide behind a pseudonym because if you want to be a professional writer via blogging there’s no point in hiding your identity (plus if you become successful it’s quite likely someone will uncover your real name anyway.)
Marnell was featured on a recent issue of New York Magazine. Photo: New York Magazine
It seems to me that as readers our attraction to confessional blogging may be the natural counter reaction to the stage-managed virtual presences we see daily on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If we believed what we saw through those social media channels it would seem everyone spends their day in a haze of red velvet cupcakes, Net-A-Porter purchases and endless cups of chai latte (served in vintage china of course.) I have no problem with that (I kind of wish my life was like that...) but the continual glorification of the pretty over the mundane or downright dirty parts of our lives makes confessional blogging seem an almost revolutionary act in an age where many of us would admit to “airbrushing” what we present online.
It’s obviously a messier ethical line when it crosses from confessional blogging (particularly where what is being discussed is in the past and therefore we as readers can’t have any impact on the writer’s actions) into train wreck blogging where they discuss actively self-destructive behaviour. Are we enabling Marnell by reading and positively commenting on her articles about her addiction? Is Marnell being exploited as more controversial posts get more hits, and therefore more ad dollars? Are we treating her problems as entertainment? Train wreck blogging makes us uncomfortable because as humans we like to look at what is sensational. We feel the twin push-pull of being attracted by our own curiosity and then repulsed by the realisation of our voyeurism.
I don’t think the answer is to try and decree what should and shouldn’t be written about. If all sensitive topics were off limits we’d have no Sylvia Plath, no Hunter S. Thompson, no Liz Phair. It also seems a somewhat feminist issue as I’ve noticed often complaints of “oversharing” equates to “Please stop talking about girly things like feelings ARGHHH MY EARS ARE BURNING THAT YOU’VE MENTIONED PERIODS”. If people want to blog about their rapes or their miscarriages or their depression or their addiction isn’t it a good thing if they can do it in a hopefully supportive and respectful forum where they can realise that they are not alone – why should it be swept under the rug as unmentionable or as a supposed source of shame? This is not to say everyone is obligated to write about their most private moments obviously, but for those who want to, why not? Marnell herself has stated on xoJane in response to criticism about her taboo topics, “Why shouldn't I be honest about my life? Do you really think I don't deserve my job, a platform, because I'm an admitted drug user?”
Right now the good news is that according to Marnell’s Twitter she’s on hiatus from her job to attend addiction treatment. While I don’t know what is next for her (hopefully health and happiness – I don’t subscribe to the Bukowski school of thought that you have to be dysfunctional to be a good writer) I do know that I’ll be reading.