Robert Farley suggested I weigh in on the Great Satan’s Girlfriend controversy, so over the weekend I spent a little bit of time poking around the foreign policy and milblog community where the buzz has been hottest. For the uninitiated, Great Satan’s Girlfriend is a blog about foreign policy, diplomacy, and military issues, ostensibly written by a woman named Courtney Messerschmidt, who illustrates her posts with images of scantily-dressed women and pop stars like Avril Lavigne. The upset comes partially from female commentators on those issues who feel that Messerschmidt’s schtick made it harder for other women in the field to be taken seriously. And most recently, it comes from the fact that Courtney turns out not to be a real person, but of four, two of whom are men, one of whom is the “brains behind the thing.” Bloggers like Starbuck at Wings Over Iraq have defended the project on the grounds that the product was useful no matter the source, while Carl Prine and Thomas Ricks (both of whom have published pieces by the collective in their spaces) have said they think it’s a brilliant bit of performance art.
I can’t really rate the quality of the collective’s thinking, though describing the disposal of Osama bin Laden’s body as “in a fun, friendly ‘forget you’ way—hauled off the body as booty and chucked it overboard from an American aircraft carrier (sovereign American turf—no less) as shark bait,” feels like a deliberately light reading of events with both solemn and dark overtones, but that’s not the point. What’s interesting to me is the ways in which reminds me of the Gay Girl in Damascus hoax, another case of a man taking on a woman’s identity to attract a readership for their commentary and observations on international events. Gay Girl in Damascus was arguably more damaging — the author wasn’t in Syria, and deliberately suggested the character was in danger because of her sexual orientation to garner sympathy. Great Satan’s Girlfriend apparently seemed like a performance rather than a reality to many readers even before the collective was unmasked, and looks (from my reading) like it was mostly reporting opinions rather than faked experiences. In addition, a Courtney was actually involved in the project, so it’s not solely a man pretending to be a woman.
Still, there’s something fascinating to me about men’s desires to take on minority status, whether it’s to be a rarer commodity in a male-dominated field as with Great Satan’s Girlfriend, or to exploit the solidarity of the vulnerable for fun, profit, and recognition as with Gay Girl in Damascus. It speaks to a blindness some men have to their own privilege, a resentful sense that attention to diversity means transferring unwarranted privilege to women, gay people, people of color, etc. And there’s something quite strange about trying to get a piece of that so-called advantage through the practice of non-consensual fiction. It’s not an impulse I particularly get, and in neither case do I think the results were wildly compelling on an artistic level. Instead, they were mawkish in the case of Gay Girl in Damascus and sort of overheated and exhausting in the case of Great Satan’s Girlfriend (at least to this outsider, who may not fully appreciate the way the blog riffs on existing military and diplomatic commentary). I’m all for men trying to get more sensitively and thoughtfully in women’s heads when they write fiction. But I’d sort of like to know they’re men when they’re writing so I can assess for myself how well they’re performing that experiment.