On Monday, Mathilde Krim died. She was a biologist who spoke five languages; who contributed, in her 20s and 30s, to more than a dozen papers on cancer and virology; ran the interferon lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering; served on a team that developed a method for determining sex in utero; smuggled guns to opponents of British rule in Palestine; threw John F. Kennedy’s 45th-birthday party at her East Side townhouse; married twice, had a daughter and later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her historic work in AIDS research and advocacy. At the news of her death, the internet paid relatively little attention.
Instead, by the next morning, the leading conversation among women whose voices are prominent on social media revolved around the story of a young photographer who had a demoralizing sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, after going out for lobster rolls with him a few months ago. The woman, who used the alias “Grace,” recalled the events of the evening, which began with drinks at Mr. Ansari’s downtown apartment and ended with recycled jokes and Uber and sorrow, to a writer for an online publication, Babe. We are meant to infer that the comedian’s self-regarding erotic misbehavior began the moment he gave his guest a glass of white wine when she wanted red — there’s no place for speculating that maybe he just ran out of Syrah.
Grace came to view what happened as assault, even if the facts she presents do not warrant the charge. Mr. Ansari, as he put it in a statement, believed that he had been given every indication that what had transpired between them was consensual. He continued, he said, to support the essential movement toward sexual equilibrium that was upending the old order, and the world appeared willing to let him do it — few people seeming to demand that his distasteful persistence leave him expelled from public life.
But the conversation had its own momentum. Writing for the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan, whose interrogations of gender are as welcome by young feminists as hymnals are by atheists, was the first to wonder why Grace, pushed beyond her point of interest, had not simply gone home. The reprisals were numerous. Maisha Z. Johnson, a writer and editor whose website highlights her professional commitment “to the power of digital media for social change and healing,’’ for instance, alerted her Facebook followers that Ms. Flanagan was not trustworthy, offering as evidence a piece that appeared in Bitch Media, several years ago, titled: “Douchebag Decree: Caitlin Flanagan, Our First Douchebag All-Star!” The irony trumped the incivility. The piece attacked Ms. Flanagan, in part, for denouncing Helen Gurley Brown, the Cosmopolitan founder, who at the time of the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 jovially said, in response to a question about whether anyone on her staff had ever been sexually harassed: “I certainly hope so.”
A counterargument to the idea that young women ought to just extricate themselves from sexual situations in which they aren’t having any fun soon circulated, maintaining that the culture conditions them to acquiesce, to prioritize the needs of others before their own. “It feels paralyzing to assert ourselves,’’ Jill Filipovic wrote in The Guardian in reaction to all of this. And yet when I look around at millennial women, problems with inhibition or the ability to hang on to a healthy sense of entitlement are not the ones I am quickest to identify.
A few days before the Ansari controversy erupted, some number of young women had taken to eviscerate the writer Katie Roiphe on Twitter, for a piece she was writing for Harper’s Magazine, related to the movement against harassment, but still weeks away from publication.
This week, when the HLN television host Ashleigh Banfield called out Babe for the Ansari story, claiming that it threatened to dilute the crucial work of #MeToo and that Grace had merely endured a “bad date,” the writer of the piece, Katie Way, 22, lashed out in an email that Ms. Banfield read on air. It called her “a second-wave feminist has-been,” who “I’m certain no one under 45 has ever heard of,” and went on to ridicule her hair and lipstick. And yet, Ms. Banfield suddenly had a currency she hadn’t had in years.
The quiet treatment of Mathilde Krim, when stacked up against the ubiquity of Grace, ultimately reveals a strain of internet sexism that we are all complicit in perpetuating and barely address — the bestowing of outsize rewards, measured in publicity, for certain female narratives over others, for stories that invite judgments and counterjudgments, nearly always about sex and domestic complexity. Just a few days ago, a young writer, Moira Donegan, found herself anointed in the wake of a well-crafted and thoroughly absorbing essay she wrote for The Cut, in which she announced that she was the woman who had created the fabled list meant to steer women away from potentially dangerous men in the media. And yet this kind of success isn’t scalable. It is nearly impossible to imagine a similar reception for a 25-year old woman who composed a powerful piece about how she came to believe in the moral necessity of, say, congestion pricing.
In the course of her career, the academic Anne-Marie Slaughter had written two books and countless scholarly articles about foreign policy, but it wasn’t until she wrote a cover story in 2012 for The Atlantic — “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” about her decision to leave the State Department and spend more time at home — that she became widely known.
When Joan Rivers died, the internet exploded because we could talk about what kind of feminist her comedy of self-loathing really made her. Mathilde Krim, who fought passionately against stigma and stereotyping and whose work saved tens of thousands of lives, left us with too little ambiguity — and presumably not enough wisdom on hooking up.
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