Peacock Feathers and Political Blogs

Cross-posted on Fem2.0

Quick: off the top of your head, name the most prominent voices in the progressive political blogosphere. Kos? A guy. Atrios? A guy. Josh Marshall? Glenn Greenwald? Jerome Armstrong? Ditto. The only top-level female bloggers in the general progressive political space who come to mind right away are Jane Hamsher and Digby — and apparently, when it was revealed that Digby is actually a woman, plenty of lefty blog readers and authors were startled. Of course, this obviously isn’t true for ALL segments of the progressive blogosphere (how many male “mommy bloggers” are there, for instance, and how many men contribute to feminist blogs [besides, apparently, me]), but when we’re talking about the general progressive political blogosphere — what most people think of when they talk about “the blogs” — the big names are predominantly male.

What gives? If you look at the demographics of the blogosphere as a whole, men are a little more likely than women to write a blog (54-46%, according to the latest figures I could find), but not much. It might make sense that, say, technology bloggers would be disproportionately male, since many more men than women work in high-tech (and obsess about it), but politics is a different animal — women may still be underrepresented in top elected offices, but at least as many women as men work as political activists and political staff or as volunteers. And 12 years in the nonprofit space in DC has shown me that MORE women work for progressive advocacy groups than men (far more of my clients over the years have been women than men, for instance).

Of course, you could argue that one reason men dominate the top ranks of the lefty blogosphere is that men are more likely to be opinionated blowhards, behavior that blog readers frequently reward with readership, comments, links, etc. But let me submit (carefully) that at least part of the reason is built-in — that men are DRIVEN to display, and that this pushes them (us) to write in public aggressively.

Often in the natural world, males display and females choose, to the point that the relatively few species in which the opposite is true have been described as “sex-role reversed.” Think peacocks — male peacocks put an enormous amount of energy into producing large and vividly colored feather arrays intended to attract females, even though it also makes them more visible and hence more vulnerable to predators (the feathers of peahens are relatively dull by contrast, as is the plumage of females in many bird species). Males of other complex species across the biosphere demonstrate fitness by, say, conducting elaborate “dances,” through complex soundings, exaggerated body parts, etc.

Sound familiar? Men show off, and though we show off for a lot of reasons, the ultimate goal underlying them is to attract (impress) a mate — even scientific achievement has been described as a mating display. In that sense, blogging is like playing guitar in a rock and roll band — lots of women study music, but far more men seem compelled to get up on stage and show off those skills in a very public way (trust me — the band I’m in formed when we were all very male and very single…and we knew exactly what we were doing). Of course, reality is a lot more complicated than this rough caricature — biology is NOT destiny for animals with a complex brain, and human instincts are filtered through layer upon layer of culture and other learned behavior. But I would still submit that men are disproportionately driven to show off, from the playground to the stage to the blogosphere.

For another angle on the question, let’s look at a different kind of online space, one that’s collaborative rather than solo — Facebook. By this logic, men might be less likely than women to gravitate to social networking, because social sites are spaces that encourage interaction rather than spotlight-hogging. And the demographics of Facebook bear this prediction out: more women than men use Facebook, and by a margin almost exactly the same as the relative male dominance of the overall blogosphere (8-ish points). Guys don’t wanna play where we can’t display!

So, what’s the upshot? Clearly, it’s not that women should “surrender” the world of political blogs to men; that would be a bit of a cop-out, plus self-defeating, and even suggesting it would no doubt get me (verbally) beaten. But I suspect that it does mean that women are going to have to work extra-hard, not necessarily because they have extra hurdles to overcome (though I would bet that they do), but because guys are going to be busting our proverbial balls to show off our brains, our opinions and our literary agility. Male bloggers and our egos collide like head-butting elk, and it creates the fiercely competitive look-at-me! environment that defines the political blogosphere. If you want to get noticed in that world, you’re likely to have to seek attention just as aggressively. Writing first/thinking later is optional — though I suspect it often helps.


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • It’s hard to disentangle the various reasons that men are vastly overrepresented at the “big progressive blogs” as compared to their presence in the blogosphere as a whole and the overall online population. How much of it is the normalized sexism and misogyny? How much the dynamics of privileging “filter blogs” that Susan Herring et. al. discuss in “Women and Children Last: The discursive construciton of the blogosphere”, or the incestuous linking habits described so memorably by Shelley Powers in “Guys don’t Link”? Is there indeed a difference in the urge to display as Colin describes, or is the 54/46 male/female ratio cited in that study a measurement artifact (for example not counting different kinds of blogs equally)? It’s certainly a good discussion to have …