The Mata Hari Defense

Yesterday while reading Tech Crunch, I came upon an appalling post: Who the Hell Is Enrolling in Journalism School Now?

Sarah Lacy reveals that ten years ago she stumbled out of a liberal arts college with a lackluster GPA, but she managed to land a job at a weekly business journal. Her friend that majored in journalism has left the field, but Lacy is having a blast:

I’m not only gainfully employed, but [sic] have managed to make more money every year the industry has declined all around me. I get to travel around the world looking for great stories. I’ve had the privilege of writing one book, and I’m mid-way through another one. Frankly, I’ve gotten farther in ten years than I thought I would in fifty.

Readers were quick to decry Lacy’s self-congratulatory tone and use of the word journalism to describe her brand of fluff. One comment in particular caught my eye:

I’ve never seen an article by Sarah Lacy where she doesn’t compliment herself excessively. I missed her at SXSW this year. Her train wreck of an interview with Zuck last year was the highlight.

Train wreck? I love train wrecks. I decided to investigate.

As a non-geek, I’d never heard of Sarah Lacy, but apparently she is quite famous. Or infamous, depending on your point of view. Last year in the blog Buzz Machine, Jeff Jarvis posted a vivid critique of Lacy’s South by Southwest interview with Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of facebook: Zuckerberg Interview: What Went Wrong.

In her effort to charm Zuckerberg, Lacy came off like Mrs. Robinson. That was embarrassing for her and us…She interrupted him…She wasn’t listening…She rambled on to the point that Zuckerberg had to suggest that she ask a question. Definitely not a good sign in an interview.

Buzz Machine commenters echoed the Mrs. Robinson comparison and noted that during the interview Lacy had twirled her hair, giggled and otherwise called attention to herself.

But as uncomfortable as all that was, said one commenter, Lacy’s worst sin had nothing to do with flirtatious demeanor.

[Lacy] failed to become fascinated by the subject….If there’s one attribute across all great writers and interviewers that stands out, it’s that they are insatiably curious about almost any topic that can be opened up and explored. In short, the writer cares much, about everything. And that passion plus the skill they develop for asking the right questions is what makes them great.

Sounds like a journalist. So if Lacy is not a journalist, what is she?

On video I watched a pivotal moment during the Zuckerberg interview in which you can hear the audience turn against her. In a follow-up video Lacy tried to defend herself, but only succeeded in digging deeper.

Under normal circumstances I’d be happy to pile on. Lacy’s Tech Crunch article was not only poorly researched but also insensitive, considering the post date of April 8, 2009, long after thousands of journalists with families to support began losing their jobs (disclosure: I’m married to one who was downsized).

But this time I could not chime in. The bottomless pit of hostility towards Lacy had awakened the contrarian in me.

One comment mentioned the Attractive Woman handicap. I might go a step further and suggest Lacy is an Attractive Woman Raised by Loving, Conscientious, Affluent Parents. Wild guess, but her level of self-confidence is not a given, at least not among the women I know.

matahari

Mata Hari in 1906, at age 30

If a pretty girl gets cooed over all her life and she manages to arrive at adulthood without once being beaten, raped, starved or otherwise abused, she’ll probably end up with a personality much like Lacy’s unless her parents work hard to prevent it.

Perhaps Lacy had a way with men that got her a job for which she was unqualified. Should she feel bad about it?

She should definitely tamp down the bragging, but one can’t expect a woman to act against her own interests. While I admire scrupulously honest and fair individuals, if I limited my social circle to just them, I’d get lonely in a hurry and probably bored as well.

When confused by life, the saying goes, look to nature. But if you’re like me, you can’t watch nature documentaries for long before fleeing the room in tears.

No, hyenas! Don’t bring down the little zebra. No, alligators! Give that baby parrot another chance to fly away. No, lions! Don’t kill the cubs just because you’re not the sires. Adopt! Thugs.

If I didn’t grasp the utter futility of the question, every day I’d be asking: Who invented such a cruel world? It’s one big restaurant out there.

Or, you could say, one big brothel.

If playing the coquette works for a woman, she will no doubt continue to act the part until the day it stops working. You’d think last year’s disastrous interview would have been a light-bulb moment for Lacy. Guess not.

But eventually real trouble comes to us all. Author James Lee Burke once said, “I’ve never had to seek humility. It has always found me of its own accord.”

For thousands of years women lived by their wits and any other tools at their disposal, including sexuality. Perhaps natural selection did not favor chaste girls. In any event, today’s women must exude professionalism no matter what their gut tells them. Alas, evolution is slow.

Socialite and suffragist Alva Vanderbilt, who divorced her first husband in 1895, advised her feminine friends and relatives to marry first for money, then for love. Some would call that marrying well, but whatever you call it, the Mata Hari strategy is a time-honored tradition just about everywhere.

As for Margaretha Zelle, the Dutch woman who took the stage name Mata Hari, she was not just a courtesan, but also a double agent. In 1917 she was executed by firing squad. Calm and defiant to the end, she refused a blindfold and looked the soldiers in the eyes as she fell.

While the art of seduction might be a hard-wired survival tactic, the women who practice it don’t always survive.

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About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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One Response to The Mata Hari Defense

  1. Ed says:

    Hello Donna,

    I had never heard of Sarah Lacy before I read your post on her. After reading her stuff, I’m not sold on the Beautiful Woman Effect as the explanation for her fame. Outspokenness, flamboyance and arrogance have always been recipes for success in media, and blogging is a great enabler for a person who possesses those character traits. Her attack on traditional journalistic values should be understood on these terms.

    Remember Sarah Vowel? She seemed to revel in her unattractiveness, but her outspoken, slyly ironic manner made her quite popular for a short time in the late 90s and early oughts.

    It’s important to note that blogging is not necessarily the future of media; it may only be a fad. Most digital breakthroughs of the past 15 years have been co-opted by corporate interests, which distill individuality out of the equation. Even those who have adapted to a new order may have to adapt again (or die).

    Lacy’s fiasco of an interview with Zuckerberg is so unremarkable at face value. Journalists screw up all the time. But this interview has to do with Facebook — the portal through which all reality flows. Therefore, everyone must be interested. The unearned infamy that comes from such associations enables Lacy to claim that even her ordinary mistakes have extraordinary merit. Sad, really.

    Thanks for your compelling posts. — Ed

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