Thoughts on ‘American Blogger’

April 10, 2014

Like a lot of people, I watched the trailer for the new documentary American Blogger this week and scratched my head.

American Blogger Official Trailer from Chris Wiegand on Vimeo

As someone who loves blogging and analyzing the way blogging is done/received/regarded, and who follows a couple of the bloggers featured in this documentary, I wanted to like this. I actually expected to like it. But…the trailer leaves a lot to be desired. After reading the #americanblogger hashtag on Twitter this morning (which is mostly snark and criticism), I think some of the response is fair and that some is completely off-base. 

First, the self-important voiceover basically sets this film up for ridicule. I can’t remember the last documentary trailer I saw that laid it on that thick, and that includes documentaries about far more life-changing and world-changing topics. I think the filmmaker got a little too excited about his film. It reads like parody, which is a bummer because this could be a really good documentary. But if it is (and I hope it is!), the trailer certainly didn’t really show any of the interesting parts that would make someone who knows nothing about blogging want to watch. Instead it just tells you, “YOU SHOULD REALLY WATCH THIS.” But “show me, don’t tell me” is the oldest rule in the journalism book for a reason. 

The most common criticism I’ve seen is that the majority of the bloggers featured in the film are thin, conventionally attractive white women. That is a fair criticism but one that should be directed at the filmmaker, not the bloggers featured. Frankly, I’m kind of over listening to a bunch of middle-class white women complain about the fact that it’s only middle-class white women being represented in blogging. That’s not to say that white women shouldn’t ask for more diversity, when, say, a brand is announcing the bloggers they are working with, but I rarely hear the criticism being directed at the person (or, more often, media outlet or brand) responsible for the choice; it’s often said in the context of why a particular white woman is unworthy of being chosen. By all means, call someone out if they are claiming that they were successful so you can be too, if you just work as hard as their white, middle-class, thin, cis, straight, self did. But I don’t think that the sobbiest sob story ever should be a requirement for whether or not we can celebrate someone else’s success.  

In reality, there are so many different types of bloggers out there; I think what we really mean when we say that blogging isn’t diverse is that the powers that be (typically bigger media outlets and brands) who offer the attention, money, and best opportunities (which are the major markers of a success) to bloggers aren’t doing a good enough job of making sure the bloggers they recommend or work with represent a wide swath of people. That is a valid criticism and one that’s worth repeating until that changes. Because even if you have a more targeted audience (like a women’s magazine, for example) it’s still absurd to assume all your readers only want to hear from one type of person, or one type of woman. But that doesn’t mean blogging isn’t diverse, or that we should be mad at white bloggers for being white. It’s also harmful to say that something sucks just because of its association with white women (I hear this come up a lot when people criticize Pinterest too), without acknowledging that if you think a particular thing on the Internet is for white women only then you’re probably just following the wrong people. 

All that said, one could still make a legit documentary about white women bloggers. I would watch the shit out of a documentary that was all about white female Mormon bloggers because I find that topic pretty fascinating. (In fact, three weeks ago, I found myself Googling to see if any journalists had written about the topic in an interesting and relevant way because I was curious to know more.) One could make a fantastic documentary about women bloggers in general—go to BlogHer, talk to women of different backgrounds, share readership numbers and ad dollars, talk about the incredible ways blogging has shaped or united many different communities, include women who have had bad experiences blogging, etc. White, middle-class, lifestyle/mommy bloggers could be a part of that documentary, but not the main focus. I would love to watch that film. 

But to make a film called American Blogger in which you take a cross-country road trip in a restored Airstream and talk to 50 bloggers who are your blogger wife’s friends…well, come on. If “show me, don’t tell me” is the first rule of journalism, then “don’t just use a few of your friends as sources” is the second. That’s pretty basic stuff and Chris Wiegand could have done better.

For his part, Wiegand told The Daily Dot:

“‘I wasn’t sure if anybody would try to question my motives on picking people or something. I filmed the women who said yes. It’s not intentional if it’s heavy one way or another,’ he says. “I would hope that nobody would ever look at that and make some political argument out of it.’

‘I hope that’s not what people think about…I’m a documentarian. I see myself as a journalist. I can’t force something that’s not there,’ Wiegand explains. ‘I just film what is presented to me.'”

OK, see, no. A good journalist doesn’t just film what is presented to her. A journalist finds the story, finds the sources. And if you can’t find any sources who aren’t, say, non-white, then you should think about and share why because that is very likely a part of the story.

Aside from the film’s lack of diversity, a lot of people have just been bitching about lifestyle blogs in general—that they are too staged, that the bloggers are too perfect, that these bloggers put a lot of pressure on their readers to be perfect too. 

I certainly think that a good documentary about blogging would be as non-staged as possible (because, um, that’s sort of the point of documentaries); maybe that’s the case with American Blogger but just isn’t evident in the trailer. But sure, show me a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of the most popular bloggers. That said, this is where the criticism starts to veer away from valid and gets into just complaining about blogs/bloggers themselves. 

As I’ve written pretty extensively, I just don’t get the idea that bloggers have to share their messier photos, their piles of laundry, their boring weeknight evenings with the world. I mean, why would I want to read that? Being a writer or a blogger or creative of any type is about editing—removing the stuff that doesn’t really help you tell a good story. And I don’t think it’s part of some big conspiracy either. I clean my house if I’m having company. Some days I clean it just because. Some days I don’t. It’s not that deep. Saying that blogs are too staged and therefore all bloggers are evil starts to sound a lot like the MRA trolls who say that women who wear makeup are engaging in false advertising and should therefore be beaten. (I…wish I were kidding about that sentiment, but it’s a pretty common one among a certain subset of misogynistic assholes.) Women aren’t she-devils who are out to trick you (into…what? following them on Instagram?) because they would rather share a photo of their laundry room looking nice than looking disgusting. 

Most bloggers do post behind-the-scenes pictures or messy house pictures from time to time and it’s…never that interesting or revealing. But I’ve seen enough bloggers get torn a new asshole for posting a photo that includes a dirty kitchen appliance or chipped fingernail polish that I’m pretty confident we as readers don’t actually want to see every moment of someone’s actual real life. 

But this sentiment that not sharing every detail of their lives means bloggers are hiding something persists. What’s bizarre to me is that that’s…not how the world really works offline? Like, if my coworker tells me each day about the cool stuff she did the night before, I don’t sit around speculating that she’s actually depressed, or cheating on her husband, or secretly a lesbian, or about to go bankrupt. I don’t assume that her life is perfect; I assume she probably has more on her mind from time to time but she isn’t telling me the stuff that’s really mundane or just none of my goddamn business. Again…it’s not that deep. And, frankly, I don’t want to hear all about her proverbial dirty laundry any more than I want to hear about her actual dirty laundry. That doesn’t mean I expect everyone to be all sunshine and light all the time; it just means that, on the whole, I’d rather hear the good parts. And again, considering how bitchy people get when anyone overshares the darker stuff, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that regard.

But we can’t have it both ways. Either we accept that while a blog might be true, it’s still an edited view of reality and that’s OK…or we decide that we really just want everyone to start shitting with the door open and then posting it on Instagram. Personally, I’d prefer the former. 

Whether or not American Blogger is actually a good documentary about blogging remains to be seen; I hope the film is better than the trailer and I’ll certainly be watching it when it comes out. 

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