The semiotics of Jennifer Weiner: Why was she in the lede of the Carly Fiorina article in the New York Times?

Why Did Jennifer Weiner Show Up in the Lede of an NYT Piece on Carly Fiorina?

Why Did Jennifer Weiner Show Up in the Lede of an NYT Piece on Carly Fiorina?

Brow Beat has moved! You can find new stories here.
Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 28 2015 1:55 PM

Wait, Why Did Jennifer Weiner Show Up in the Lede of an NYT Piece on Carly Fiorina?

187689123-jennifer-weiner-attends-glamours-23rd-annual-women-of
Jennifer Weiner, bestselling writer and guest star of the recent NYT article “Carly Fiorina Both Repels and Enthralls Liberal Feminists.”

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Glamour

The New York Times has published an article titled “Carly Fiorina Both Repels and Enthralls Liberal Feminists,” but instead of opening directly on Fiorina, writer Amy Chozick kicked things off with an unexpected cameo—from Jennifer Weiner:

When the novelist Jennifer Weiner watched the second Republican presidential debate with her two daughters on Sept. 16, she felt a sense of pride at seeing the lone woman on stage, Carly Fiorina, hold her own against Donald J. Trump.
Then Mrs. Fiorina denounced abortion and Planned Parenthood in a graphic monologue that thrilled many conservative Republican voters but left Ms. Weiner appalled.
“It’s so weird—she looks like one of us, but she’s not,” said Ms. Weiner, who in addition to being a best-selling author is an influential feminist with a large social-media following. “You’re on the bus with her until she starts talking about Planned Parenthood.”

This minor appearance—somewhat akin to Chris Rock showing up briefly as a fearsome drug lord on Empire—raises a few questions, namely: Why Jennifer Weiner? Why here, in this lede? Weiner is a well-known writer of commercial fiction and, yes, a feminist gadfly, but she is a pretty jarring namedrop for the opening of an NYT politics story. It’s well-documented that one of Weiner’s lifelong gripes is that she’s never been reviewed in the Times. She has argued that this oversight reflects the publishing industry’s disdain for fiction by women, marketed to women. And now the Gray Lady, invoking her opinions on Fiorina, has essentially bought into her self-framing as a feminist everywoman while still withholding critical attention from her books. So how did the Times decide to make her a stand-in for the “liberal feminists” of its headline? 

Weiner’s career as a public advocate for “middlebrow,” woman-oriented writing—not to mention her critiques of Big Male Authors like Jonathan Franzen and “Unsisterly” Success Stories like Claire Messud and Adelle Waldman—has led her from controversy to controversy. Perhaps she is a useful figure in an article about the polarizing Fiorina because she, too, inspires such ardent support and disdain. What’s confusing is where liberalism fits into this schematic. Weiner gets far more attention for her hatred of literary elitism than for her progressive politics. So Chozick could be trying to highlight the ways in which Fiorina strays from the populist aspirations of the Republican Party by juxtaposing her with the “lil ol’ me” bestseller.

Or maybe Weiner, who is famously so invested in the notion of character “likability” that her light-footed plots only seem like delivery systems for approachable heroines—makes a good foil, image-wise, for “frost queen” Fiorina, who dominated the debate with her tough, hard-charging style. Maybe the Times would like to appoint Weiner spokeswoman for the brand of softly-lit, weak-kneed femininity that may be beneath their book critics but is still sociologically relevant to this political moment. Maybe they are suggesting that what makes Fiorina formidable—different—is the kind of invulnerable rigor that the Weiners of the world find both entrancing and alienating.

One other thing Weiner is really good at? Dividing people into teams. According to her 2014 New Yorker profile, she fiercely supports young women whom she believes need a leg up in the publishing world. But she just as fiercely condemns those—Meg Wolitzer, Alexander Nazaryan, Andrew Goldman—she perceives as sexist, blinkered, or overrated. Perhaps her function in an article about the ambivalence Fiorina churns up in feminist hearts is simply intended to show the reach and depth of this confusion: If Jennifer Weiner, who has made “us vs. them” the ethos of her whole public image, can’t decide whether or not she’s “on the bus” with someone, the rest of us probably won’t be able to either.