A Refinery29 article incited a wave of backlash and a lot of think pieces.
The website Refinery29 published an article earlier in July documenting a 21-year-old college student’s weekly spending under the headline “A Week in New York City on $25/Hour.” However, the article quickly revealed that the subject does not actually live on her $25-per-hour marketing internship wages: She also receives $1,100 in allowance from her family each month, and her parents pay her $2,100 monthly rent while footing her tuition, phone, and health insurance bills.
Lots of people got very, very mad.
The article has 1,703 comments to date. A tweet by writer Tessa Bahoosh declaring “YOU SHOULD NOT BE WRITING ABOUT MONEY” racked up more than 31,000 retweets and 109,540 likes. It inspired responses from the New Republic and the New Yorker.
“A Week in New York City on $25/Hour” is part of a Refinery29 series called Money Diaries, which has been around and pissing people off since 2016. As the New Yorker’s Carrie Battan wrote in November 2017, it is a space where “no amount of honesty goes unpunished,” where commenters “quickly established themselves as financial, and moral, adjudicators.”
So why did it hit such a nerve this time?
It comes in the middle of a larger conversation about privilege relating to socioeconomic status, race, and gender, which often determines whether you can go to Starbucks for a business meeting without getting arrested or pursue a career without being sexually harassed.
“A Week in New York City on $25/Hour” presented people with an opportunity to air their frustrations with an economic system that grants a massive leg up to a small fraction of the population — allowing a young woman like the author to focus her energies on getting acai bowls with her boyfriend and picking up wine for a Hamptons trip instead of worrying about student loans or making rent.
Though some onlookers noted that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the author taking her parents money — and that she’s far more honest about her wealth than many young people living in New York — it was a lack of self-awareness about her advantages that incensed readers.
The Money Diaries piece sparked a range of critiques, including accusations of clickbait and misleading headlines
In the money diary, the author recounts that in the course of a week, she sits around doing nothing at work, uses her expensive Equinox gym membership for hot yoga classes, and takes a weekend trip to a friend’s Hamptons house, where a private chef prepares their meals. The privilege of this anonymous young woman’s situation — compounded with a blithe attitude toward it (after detailing her allowance, she tosses out a seemingly unironic “#blessed”) — incited wave after wave of backlash.
The first bout of responses came on Twitter. Some people expressed shock at learning that the story wasn’t satire; others were outraged at this young woman’s obliviousness toward her economic advantages. Numerous people called out Refinery29 for publishing a misleading headline implying that she lives on $25 per hour. The website wound up amending the headline (“A Week in New York City on $25/Hour and $1K Monthly Allowance”), though that still didn’t satisfy some critics.
YOU SHOULD NOT BE WRITING ABOUT MONEY pic.twitter.com/kt8Rjsn6oM
— tessa b (@tessabahoosh) July 17, 2018
Many people did come to the author’s defense. In a thread on Twitter, Elite Daily editor Alexandra Svokos contended that, as a series, Money Diaries is meant to illustrate the diversity of women’s economic experiences. “To not have someone privileged talk about how they spend would be to ignore that privilege exists,” Svokos wrote.
The conversation soon moved off Twitter. A Salon headline read, “The joys of hate-reading the rich: Why raging over a wealthy intern’s money diary feels so good.” Josephine Livingstone at the New Republic used the Money Diaries kerfuffle as a jumping off point for an indictment of feminist-y websites like Refinery29 that traffic in barely concealed branded content and clickbait, concisely titled “Women’s Media Is a Scam.”
Refinery29 itself published a follow-up article, “About That Money Diary: Why We Love to Judge the Way Women Spend,” noting that commenters always find a way to shame Money Diaries contributors for their spending habits, whether they’re making $38,500 a year as their family’s sole breadwinner or living it up as a debt-free intern. It’s yet another symptom of the impossibility of existing as a woman in the world.
“You have to be a near perfect human to not face any backlash in the comments,” writes Lindsey Stanberry, Refinery29’s Work & Money director. “(We joke at Refinery29 that you have to be self-made, make a good salary, but not too good. You can’t be too young, receive any parental support, rely on a man, or buy too many coffees. Bonus points if you are good to your pets.)”
Why this money diary hit such a nerve: people are fed up with unexamined privilege
The Refinery29 response piece and other defenders of “A Week in New York City on $25/Hour” miss a key point, though. People got mad at this intern not simply because she has a significant allowance and a free ride to college — they were mad because neither the author herself nor the editors did enough work to acknowledge these advantages.
Yes, there was the problem of the headline claiming she was living on $25 an hour. But there were issues within the article, too.
As Jia Tolentino points out in the New Yorker, instead of recognizing her privilege, the author engages in “reflexive attempts to disown” it. At one point, she implies that spending $6.99 on cold brew at Whole Foods is a frugal choice because “it’s the easiest way for me to not spend too much on coffee.” And rather than marvel at her own good fortune, she points to others who have even more than she does, as in this aside during her Hamptons trip: “My friend’s chef (?! I know) prepares vegan tacos.”
“There is a fluency around the idea of privilege now,” says Anna Sale, the host of WNYC Radio’s Death, Sex & Money. “I’ve heard the word for years and years, but it used to be in workshop settings. Now, if you’re a young person in America who is in any way following the public conversation, you’re aware of the concept of privilege.”
The problem with “A Week In New York City on $25/Hour” was that it was missing the fluency that’s expected in conversations around money in 2018. Examinations of the role of privilege in American life are everywhere, from major, award-winning magazine cover stories to celebrity social media posts. This information is out there. People are expected to understand and make use of it.
“In this era of world-historical inequality—and in this country, which is psychologically addicted to the idea of bootstrapping—it is not ‘cool’ to be blindly privileged, to have lived your life on the soft velvet cushion of family wealth,” writes Tolentino.
And so the anger directed at the Money Diaries intern isn’t really just about the Money Diaries intern. It’s the same frustration that was directed at Forbes last week for stating that Kylie Jenner, the youngest sister of the Kardashian-Jenner clan, is “set to be the youngest-ever self-made billionaire.” With a stupendously popular cosmetics line and brand endorsements with Puma and PacSun, Jenner is undeniably, massively wealthy. But she’s not self-made. One parent an Olympian, the other a reality TV matriarch, Jenner grew up with a powerful platform.
It’s the same frustration people feel toward Donald Trump, who claims to have built his real estate empire from a “small loan” of a million dollars from his dad.
Examples of people who don’t understand their own privilege abound. The public is just less and less willing to let them slide.
The question remains, though, whether this anonymous intern was a fair target for people’s rage. As yet another response piece on Refinery29 put it, “If the aim is to punch up, why not aim higher? A college student and intern is not the pinnacle of society’s power elite.”
Railing on a single college student’s “brattiness” is easier and more fun than talking about systemic inequality, the author writes, but it’s not the conversation we most need to be having. In a phone conversation, Sale made a similar point.
“Of all the people we’re going to focus our class and inequality ire on, a 21-year-old intern who’s a college student is not really the problem,” Sale says. “I think there are structural things that are happening here.”
Author: Eliza Brooke