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The 'Opinionator'

Heather Mallick on the war on women, laughter and the Internet

By Vanessa Richmond 18 May 2007 |

Vanessa Richmond is the managing editor on The Tyee.

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Mallick: 'snob and socialist'
  • Cake or Death: The Excruciating Choices of Everyday Life
  • Heather Mallick
  • Knopf Canada (2007)

Heather Mallick finds the word "journalist" too pompous. Instead, she calls herself an opinionator.

The former Globe and Mail columnist who now writes for, Chatelaine and New York Times International Syndicate, (in addition to writing two recent books, Pearls In Vinegar: The Pillow Book of Heather and this year's Cake or Death: The Excruciating Choices of Everyday Life) opinionates about politics, culture and media, about which she concludes, among other things, "I'm an appalling combination of snob and socialist."

Mallick talked to The Tyee recently about what's wrong with America, what's right with Canada, being an opinionated woman (it's fatal, apparently), the death of newspapers and the rise of online media. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

On laughing at horror

"I have a tendency towards British comedy, especially now when the world is so awful. What I love so much about the British is what they call "taking the piss." And they take the piss out of everything. There is just no limit and everything's a joke and I thrive on it. I mean, I just wrote a column about honeybees. And everything you read is so depressing and then you go to British websites where they have a style, of course not all the time, but generally, to take light things seriously and serious things lightly. And that way you get some bendiness in your life rather than just sitting up rigid with horror.

"After 9-11, the British Observer actually did a special section by Armondo Armuci. It was a total piss-take on the Twin Towers. They had a fake quote by Noam Chomsky saying, 'I notice the towers are always filmed collapsing. Why are they not filmed in reverse? One wonders, you know.' It's just brilliantly done. There's very little in British life you can't laugh it. And it sets a good example for me. And I think this is where I get in trouble sometimes and people get angry, well, there are a lot of reasons for that. But I don't take everything very seriously."

On happy gloom

"I think Canadians are all right with gloom, it's the Americans who just do not allow it. They believe in optimism no matter what. That's why all their movies have happy endings. That's something I just can't take about American movies because in real life everything is complicated. There will be an ending, but life isn't simple. They're told they must be chirpy. And they must think positively. And there's that idiotic Oprah thing, The Secret: that if you visualize something and if you want it enough you'll get it. So in the Twin Towers, they deserved what they got because they were thinking negatively? I get angry at that. Because I think they use it to hide from the American working and middle classes who are so fucked. This government has screwed you into the ground, but no, you're just supposed to sit there thinking positive thoughts. And that is bullshit. I actually think Canadians are much more realistic.

On what's wrong with fat-free life

"My mother is Scottish. I was raised in the Scottish manner. My father is from India, but unfortunately, we weren't raised in an Indian household where we would have had delicious food and beautiful clothes. Instead, we had no proper heating. We didn't have nice clothes. We ate game, because my dad was a great hunter and fisherman. He was a gynecologist and on SCTV there was a running skit called 'Frontier Gynecologist,' and I always thought, 'That's my dad.' We ate game: deer, moose, pickerel. So we ate all the meats that have no fat in them. There was no pleasure: nothing with delicious fat in it, simply protein. You know. And that was the way I was just raised, just in a stark way. So for the rest of my life I decided, I'm going to enjoy the pleasures. There are comforts in life."

On outlawed opinionated women

"I am often attacked by right-wingers who say, 'Oh she's left wing but she loves to shop." And what that is, is just another way to attack women. 'I don't like Heather Mallick because she likes beauty, and that's wrong. She should be this ugly, sagging old creature who dresses in sacks of hemp, and makes her own sandals out of rubber tires and washes her face in sand every morning.' Whereas, I love books and pleasure, and also I like sexuality. And you'll notice women like me have almost been outlawed in public life.

"Other women columnists, they now have to make a virtue out of being sturdy and serious to be taken seriously by men. So the successful women columnists in this country have erased their femininity; you wouldn't know they're women writing. They can have no frivolity or humor in their columns or because otherwise they're dismissed with -- it's an awful word -- with being a girl. It's just this law. And I think I have paid a heavy price for it. It allows right-wingers and humorless people to dismiss me. Well, fine, I don't mind people like that dismissing me. But I'm not a fluff head.

"You know that awful trend with chick lit and so-called girl columnists: young women happy to play the idiot for a salary. Well good, but honey, oh I shouldn't say honey, but it's not so funny when you hit 30 and you haven't been a girl technically since you were 16. It makes my toes curl."

On 'dickheads' and writing online

"There's absolutely a different reception to male and female writers on the Internet. Especially when there are responses or letters to the editors that are not moderated. I get abusive mail, and all women online have encountered this, that it's really, really abusive because you're a woman. They refer to you in sexual terms. And the abuse is not for your ideas, it's for the fact that you are a woman or that you're an attractive woman.

"I suppose there are all sorts of equivalent terms for a man. But I mean, I would never call a man a dickhead. I don't refer to people by their genitals. Women get called 'cunt,' I think that's terrible. And as much as it's done to women, I refuse to do it to men in return. I think it lowers me. It's an epithet.

"Women are enduring horrific abuse in all aspects of life, but you know on the Internet, women are enduring abuse more than in most places. Women who write are attacked personally and often are in fear of their lives. That's what happened to Kathy Sierra, the blogger. The attacks on her were extraordinary. They published her address. But she had to give up because she feared for her life. So this really is a problem online. But on the other hand it's a problem in life in general and this is just another aspect of it."

On scaredy-cat newspapers and the Globe's 'awful' redesign

"The tyranny of fear has overtaken media. There's media concentration, and you have huge corporations who don't necessarily know anything about how to run newspapers that are running newspapers. And they're afraid to say anything controversial. And in effect, what they're doing is destroying their reason for existence, destroying the reason they are read. They are making themselves dull and inoffensive, but then they're something you don't have to have.

"There's a human need to know things and understand the world around us. And I'm heartbroken it's not newspapers. But it's why people are going online, they're turning to documentaries, they're turning to books. [That's where] all the news and bold things are being said. They're the only places to get the truth.

"CanWest Global has just turned the Southam papers into something disgraceful, embarrassing. I mean when you're traveling and your hotel room gives you a paper, you look at it and think what the hell is this? It's just very sad. But it's a tragedy happening in print and I'm very sad about it.

"It's scary to write honestly, and mainstream newspapers will just not allow it. There are some wonderful writers -- like Linda McQuaig but she's only writing once a month in the Star, or John Doyle in the Globe -- but there are so few lively intelligent voices left. They've left for other pastures. They're writing books now or for magazines. Publishers will only take notice as readership falls. And it is falling but they're not putting that together.

"Instead they're doing pointless redesigns like at the Globe. I have never seen a more pointless redesign than at the Globe. It's awful looking. I look at the main headline and think, 'What, I'm in a German train station?' It's graceless type. I'm happy to see it on a subway platform but not in a newspaper. With that type they don't even know how to convey urgency any more. The whole thing has gone so down market and I don't get that because the money is in up market. Smart people are desperate for a newspaper to read and love. And it seems as though newspapers are working really hard to repel readers. I'm sorry but pretty soon, I'll be only reading online.

On paying for online content

"I'm happy to pay for the paper online. People will pay for what is good. If you can't make people pay for it, it's not as good as it should be. People are used to online being free because people of all economics levels being able to access it. But I'll pay for it. I used to pay for Salon just to keep them going. No, build it and they will come.

"I think online media is flourishing. I think it's quite wonderful. Whatever intelligent young people are attracted to it will be good. I mean I love McSweeney's; it's so clever. Yes, the Internet is the most exciting place to be. That said, I bitterly regret the fading of print journalism. I think it's terribly sad, I think it's a tragedy. And I think it's why we have such a low voter turnout. In France, they had an 85 per cent voter turnout. They read the paper.

"But not enough people are online. I find that a lot of older people just absolutely will not do it and that's a shame. But I think everyone is going to come around, and this will be the only way to communicate in times to come. The idea of having a newspaper delivered to your door in times to come? That's just not do-able."

On giving in to the online bullies

There's a wonderful essay by Gary Kamiya [about how writers now write differently online]. I don't think it's affecting me. But I'm writing for the CBC and they have rules [about commenters]. No, actually I feel more free. And if an editor says, 'You can't say that,' I say, 'Yes I can. I can say any damn thing I please because my audience is hip,' to use that strange word. If you are online, the world is open to you. I can say go to this site and click on here and do this and do that and [readers] know what I'm talking about because they understand that world.

"But you have to remember when you're an opinionator or a journalist that your readers are smarter than you are. And you have to have that attitude. And I think in newspapers a lot of the time the writers think they are smarter than the readers and I think that's fatal."

On why Bill O'Reilly was surprised 'that I had clean hair, pearl earrings and perfect teeth and I was calling myself a socialist'

"O'Reilly obviously thought a socialist was one of those mad people shouting at you in the street. Thank god Canada doesn't have people like O'Reilly. This country just is not ignorant enough. We don't have a sufficient reserve of what Jonathan Franzen, he was referring to the Midwest, calls a strategic reserve of cluelessness. So there's no market for people like O'Reilly. We're too intelligent, so it's not even relevant here.

"No I think readers are relieved when [I'm an outspoken leftie]. I think I'm just saying what's on people's minds but they are too frightened to say out loud. I'm astounded when my husband calls me outspoken. I can't even grasp that. I just say perfectly sensible things. I'm just stating the bloody obvious. [Laughs.]

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