Fake Failures: Why Are Successful Young Women Writers Playing Miserable Online?

November 16, 2016 | 11 6 min read

I hadn’t even finished reading Miranda Popkey’s piece, “All the Time I’ve Wasted Watching the Better Versions of Me,” when I copied and pasted the link into a text to my best friend. I wrote “stop what you’re doing and read this.” Ninety seconds later my bff wrote back “oh shit but i’m working on my book proposal. can i handle this?” I wasn’t sure.

Popkey’s essay is about envy —specifically of other writers, but more generally of other women. It’s about how difficult it is to metabolize their success, their beauty, their Instagram feeds, and the pain of reckoning not only with the fact that other writers are publishing better things (though she says that’s also true), but that “whatever I publish, I remain the person whose dresser is covered in dust and detritus and whose jeans are coming apart at the crotch, the person who writes in bed and bites her fingernails and hasn’t showered in days.”

It’s an honest, disconcerting dispatch from the hot bundle of synapses in our brains where it seems we exist only to hate each other, and of course, by constant comparison, ourselves. It’s sad, but it’s one of those unflinching, self-deprecating, and really funny pieces that make you smirk and issue micro-exhalations of over-identification every third line or so.

It’s also brave, although I’d put that quality in quotations. It feels almost like the quote-unquote-bravery of the ingenue who’s willing to gain weight or go without makeup for a role. Yes, in so doing, she allows herself to be represented in an unflattering light, and submits herself in that unflattering light to public scrutiny. Then again, that enactment of ugliness is one she herself engineered, or was complicit in engineering. Most importantly, it’s one she’ll profit from. She’s not actually ugly —she’s a movie star pretending to be not a movie star. In this piece, Miranda Popkey is a writer who’s kind of pretending not to be a writer.

Naturally, I say that from my own petty, envious, spiteful, self-doubting, nail-biting perch. My own detritus and dust. And I say it with what I feel to be a more compelling claim to envy than Popkey’s. After all, I’m in California, where (unless you’re Joan Didion) writerly endeavors go to die—or, more accurately, to become media startups, then “pivot,” then die. I’m surely older than Popkey, and I don’t have bylines in any of the places she does: The New Yorker, The New Inquiry, the New Republic. I also don’t have a husband—Popkey has written recently about her decision to don a bridal veil and, quite brilliantly, through a couple old novels newly reprinted by The New York Review Books, about the complicated stakes of being financially supported by her new spouse.

But I do have a couple of kids. Via Quartz, I learned last week that motherhood is actually an “efficiency hack” (which —whatthefuckever), so maybe that shouldn’t be a big deal. But it feels like a big deal. The commute and the full time job and the freelance jobs and the burdens of domesticity —well, they feel like a handicap. And that makes it hard to read articles like Popkey’s, and endless tweets by similar millennial women writers and creatives who seem mired in minor miseries.

I don’t want to compete with Popkey, because in most ways my life is, in the parlance of the day, “blessed,” but also because I really love her writing. And I feel for her. I of course ended up Internet stalking her and found that she has, like me and like so many of us, long been dogged by the more anguished side of ambition: resentment, discontent. She’s been pursued by the question she asks in “All the Time I’ve Wasted:” “Why not me?

Last year in New York magazine she wrote about a solo road trip, on which she hoped to learn a new kind of freedom and to shake off the persistent condition of “wanting to be wanted —accepted.” Instead, she was forced to confront a radiantly happy old friend who’d traded in life in East Coast publishing for a burly husband and a ranch in Wyoming. (The cowboy husband even rubs the friend’s feet beneath a taxidermied elk head.) She realizes she doesn’t know exactly what she wants. She writes, “New York had encouraged a desire, already hard-wired, to be generally desired —by jobs and men and girls whose Instagram feeds made me sick with envy—while at the same time concealing what it was I desired.”

On the one hand, her words are refreshingly real. The anonymity of modern life can be crushing. The city, she writes, “feels glutted with other versions of yourself, trying to do precisely the same thing.” I wrote something nearly identical in my journal 10 years ago on a tipsy winter night, after looking around the L-train at the other sad, Semitic brunettes also dwarfed by their parkas and bulky scarves, with their heads in books, their headphones possibly even piping the same songs as mine into their frigid, lonely ears. The city felt at times like it was teeming with other versions of me —better, smarter, prettier versions. We’re the stars of our own movies.

For women especially, this competition for recognition isn’t only intellectual, it’s intellectual-aesthetic, revolving at least as much around youth and fashion as brainpower. These days, the careers of even the most brilliant among us are abetted, amply, by selfies. It is, after all, one thing to write the essay for n+1, and another to show up, svelte and fuckable, to the n+1 party. In certain circles, the pressure is on to do both, and if you’re not feeling on your game (or don’t have the resources—financial, psychological, genetic —to access the game in the first place), it really fucking sucks. I get it.

On the other hand, I’m tired of reading the anxious apologetic essays—and tweets—of a generation of super smart women who seem to spend half of their time writing with confidence and appearing in literally the best magazines and journals in the country, and the other half pretending to be failures, broken, stained by the last shameful drops of Seamless takeout, hanging on by a fucking thread. Forget Sad Girl Twitter, this is, like, Hot Mess Somehow Published in the Paris Review Twitter.

Why are so many pretty, skinny, young, mostly white women who are published, even prolific, writers, advertising themselves as sloth-like layabouts, wracked with crippling anxiety, perennially dirty, late, awkward? It feels like my feed is full of the kinds of girlfriends I sometimes made in college or grad school, who perversely want you to believe that oh my god, they didn’t study, either! They’re always the ones who produce a stack of neatly written flash cards from their backpacks, turn in the paper early, and invariably ace the exam. What they’re drawn to is the staging of a lack of preparedness, the heady camaraderie of stress.

Going public with emotions once thought to be either unladylike, unprofessional, or essentially feminine (and therefore weak, frivolous, or crazy) is still a courageous and political act. And much of what’s great about social media is the fact that we can do just that all day with varying degrees of seriousness, varying numbers of fucks given. But often, Hot Mess Twitter doesn’t actually feel ultra-honest. It feels like just another slightly disingenuous performance of femininity.

I say this not to call into question the veracity of any actual individual’s claim to anxiety or depression or self-loathing, nor to dismiss the very real anxieties of the writing life and of many women’s lives. But rather to suggest that the flippant micro-chronicling of every bad mood, awkward exchange, and looming, soon-to-be-abdicated responsibility works to obscure all of the privilege, yes, but also all of the striving that got you to the big boys’ table in the first place, and to undermine your actual (often extremely good) work.

Then again, maybe none of this is supposed to be the real deal. After all, sad-girl social media doesn’t seek to be taken particularly seriously. It’s knowingly indulgent and laced with irony: a post-everything pose that knows it’s a pose. The bondage of self elevated to personal brand. But if these accomplished women are seeing themselves as unkempt failures, why? Do they feel a need to downplay their own ambition? Are they jealous of other people who appear to be “adulting” better? Or perhaps perversely proud of a certain skin-of-their-teeth success? Are they seeking genuine empathy and support?

In 2013, Slate published a piece by Michele Weldon called “Why Do We Admire Women Who Are ‘Hot Messes?’” In it, Weldon earnestly wrote, “I want to tell the ever-growing crop of hot messes a well-kept secret: When you behave responsibly, you bathe in the fullness of a life held in place with a deliberate and intricate construction of mutually respectful connections. And that makes you happy.” I remember reading that and thinking, God, SHUT UP. You’re not my fucking mom, Michele! Don’t tell me to “behave responsibly!” It seemed like the perfect encapsulation of the feminist generational divide: a judgy Second Waver passing on a “secret,” telling “young women” how to “bathe in fullness.” I guffawed, feeling myself to be squarely in the irreverent young women category. Now, three more years into absorbing the caustic narcissism of young women on the Internet, I think I may actually be somewhere in the middle. To use the kind of hyperbole common to Hot Mess Twitter, I’m exhausted.

The thing I most appreciated about Popkey’s envy piece is its ending. I expected it to close with an entreaty to stop wasting time feeling jealous of other women and start supporting each other! It doesn’t. Popkey doesn’t summon any false sisterhood. She ends instead with a dollop of realism, saying she expects she’ll spend a lot more time feeling envy in the future.

I’ll end similarly, then, with low expectations. Writing is hard. Late capitalism is absurd. Memes are funny. We all hate ourselves. To the hot mess writer girls of the Internet: I’ll keep reading your articles with genuine interest, lol-ing at your tweets when they’re funny, and rolling my eyes when they’re annoying. I guess if I really don’t like it, I could always press Unfollow.

Image credit: WikiCommons.

is a writer and editor based in Oakland, Calif. She is a features editor at Full Stop and senior editor at Timeline. Find her online at @black_metallic.


  1. “Why are so many pretty, skinny, young, mostly white women who are published, even prolific, writers, advertising themselves as sloth-like layabouts, wracked with crippling anxiety, perennially dirty, late, awkward? ”

    So many? But zero examples? Who are these people?

  2. Wow. Went in wanting to hate it. But I don’t. Good essay, if a little bit here’s-my-ramble-blogosphere. But maybe that’s the style now-a-days.

    “It is, after all, one thing to write the essay for n+1, and another to show up, svelte and fuckable, to the n+1 party.”
    This is a great line.

  3. What does skinny have to do with it? Some people are just naturally skinny. Why must a woman’s body type be brought into it? Yet again.

  4. It’s jarring to read this essay in between articles about Steve Bannon. Who are these Twitter women and how can anyone possibly care what they do? The stakes are so incredibly nonexistent.

  5. It’s a choice. I don’t think the choice to be other-directedly responsible is actually that much better than the choice to be an other-directed hot mess. But the intuitive ability one brings to one’s writing doesn’t have to be inner-direction in the service of other-direction. Through it one can find one’s way to a core self.

    Not to finger-wag. Like I said, it’s a choice. Most don’t choose what a few choose. Oh well.

    And this is not about the worried well. More core selves, fewer votes for Trump. Which is momentous.

  6. The best thing you (and anyone else who feels like this) can do for yourself is to have someone who loves you change your twitter and instagram passwords so you can’t log in, and also have them change the email address associated with those accounts so you can’t change the password back yourself. Your addiction will be broken after a few days or weeks and you’ll be able to focus on making good work. Social media is like heroin for some people, and even for people who aren’t addicted, the negatives outweigh the positives and can be crippling. Farhad Manjoo wrote a good essay on this topic called “Breaking Up With Twitter” that was in the NY Times about a week ago.

  7. The answer is because it’s me, me, me, me, me, me ALL the time. Perhaps these writers should open their eyes to the world around them.

  8. And while everyone was gazing into their navels, a band of proto-fascist lunatics took over the country. See Weimar Republic, 1920s & 30s.

  9. “And while everyone was gazing into their navels, a band of proto-fascist lunatics took over the country. See Weimar Republic, 1920s & 30s.”

    Mostly agree except the techno-fascist lunatic A Team started in *1980*… 36 years later, a proto-fascist lunatic from just slightly outside of the Bush/Clinton/Bush2/Obama continuum is getting his chance. Looks scary but the past looks scarier by quite a margin.

    Why is it so hard for the US electorate to face this stuff? Why the hollow fantasies of Billary-as-Progressive Savior(s)? These people are racist, Rightwing, profiteering Warmongers working only for the Banking/ Corporate Sector. It’s all on public record… the only thing up for debate is the definition of “Evil”, which seems to have shifted somewhat over the years as the country drifted to the Far Right.

    If the redneck former governor of Arkansas (who enjoyed the fabulous perks of rape and racially-restricted country clubs in that position) is everyone’s serious idea of a “Progressive”, we are doomed. The word is “Neo Liberal”; it’s neither a Liberal nor a Progressive mindset. It’s an Ayn Randian Nightmare we’ve been trapped in for decades. Kinder, Gentler Mega Death (with Hugs and Smileys sprinkled on top) for the Planet and encroaching Serfdom at home.

    And let’s not forget Hillary, who demonized Bill’s rape victims out of one side of her mouth while courting the Feminist vote with the other. Oh yeah: “We came, we saw, he died… giggle!” That’s a good one, too. Veni Vidi Psycho. Oh, and the truly sick thing: there’s tons of evidence that the bombing of Kosovo was designed almost solely to distract from the Clintons’ domestic media problems at the time. But even that’s less sick than the fact that The Clinton Foundation is funded by the same source (Saudi Gov/ Qatar) funding ISIS. As I used to say under Dubya’s reign: what does the guy have to do, shoot your grandmother on national Television and piss on your ice cream?

    America (under Bush/Clinton/Bushj2/ Obama) has committed the (often unilateral) War Crimes of bombing, starving, blitzkrieging, occupying, obliterating and/or applying collective punishment in the following *admitted* cases:

    1982-1984 — Beirut
    October 1983 — Invasion of Grenada, (Operation Urgent Fury)
    April 1986 — Raid on Tripoli, Libya
    December, 1989 — Invasion of Panama
    1990-1991 — Persian Gulf War 1
    1992-1993 — Somalia
    September 19, 1994 — Invasion of Haiti
    September 1995 — Bosnia, (Operation Deliberate Force)
    April 1999 — Kosovo (Operation Allied Force)

    After 2000 we got:

    Iraq 2 (2003-2011), Afghanistan ( 2001-), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-), Somalia ( 2007-), Libya (2011),and now Syria.

    Remember: it is *illegal*, as established at Nuremberg, to invade a sovereign nation in a War of Aggression: “A war of aggression, sometimes also war of conquest, is a military conflict waged without the justification of self-defense, usually for territorial gain and subjugation”. The USA does *not” get the godlike right to decide when/if/how it will blitzkrieg in order to “protect” its (business) “interests”. How can we ignore this?

    Civilian casualties (including many, many children) reckoned, conservatively, to be in the millions. 500,000 Iraqi children *starved to death* to send a message to Saddam Hussein. Innocent people are being droned at weddings/ schools/ hospitals… and even if they *weren’t* innocent, by what right does POTUS get to be their judge/jury/executioner? So: no more Magna Carta? Because…?

    None of the countries bombed/droned/ obliterated were engaged in attacks on the USA at the time the various killings began (many obviously being countries with primitive armies on the other side of the world).

    If that’s not fascism (on a military scale anything Uncle Addy could have dreamed of), what the Hell is? Sorry: nobody else even comes close. Nope… not even the “Russkies”.

    But the Propaganda is strong, is it not? Otherwise Good People appear to be having nervous breakdowns rather than shake it off and start thinking again and facing the fact that this time (from 1980 until the present) , unlike in WW2 (and very much like Vietnam)… WE are the Bad Guys. And HRC is near the top of the War Criminal pile.

    How long will it take?

  10. Have you seen “The End of the Tour,” the movie about David foster Wallace—because this article gave me identical vibes. Basically Jesse Eisenberg’s journalist interviewer character is both fascinated by the authenticity and intelligence of Wallace’s work and “genius” but also deeply frustrated by his idol’s determination to deny his own success, reject appreciation and remain deeply, miserably unsatisfied with the world.

    I think one trite answer to this paradox is that the fascination and irritation come from the same source in this case—the refusal to accept credit and success and to instead concentrate on emotions of self-hatred and revulsion towards fundamental underlying structures of human experience is precisely what draws us to these writers in the first place, what makes us relate to them and want to keep reading them in this guilty, devouring sort of way. They question our basic assumptions that we are put together exist socially and or relate to the world in a functional, rational, self-actualizing way and even more than that both reject the very idea that social and material success will make us happy—an attack bound to challenge the basic scaffolding of our attempts to improve ourselves and make it in the economy. This is seductive and repulsive stuff for the same exact reason.

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