In June 2013, RTÉ 2FM presenter Eoghan McDermott declared that Roe McDermott was the most ‘exciting, gifted & talented young writer / interviewer in the country’. Although the duo are brother and sister and some may consider Eoghan’s opinion to be tinged with a certain bias, I’m inclined to agree with him.
Thus, when the opportunity arose to interview Roe for this ‘Extraordinary Women’ series, I was awash with nerves and excitement. That lasted approximately thirty seconds as her warm, endearing nature envelopes you immediately and you feel almost at ease asking her the most intimate of questions.
I had the fortune of catching up with Roe prior to her brief emigration to the US as a Fulbright Scholar. It was a genuine pleasure to converse with her about feminism, social media, criticism and the treatment of sex in the media. It’s worth a read, even if I do say so myself.
How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?
I feel like I’m on a dating website.
This isn’t Tinder, don’t worry.
See, I don’t have Tinder because I don’t have Facebook.
Honestly, you’re not missing out.
I can’t imagine I am but back to your question. First of all, Roe isn’t my real name – I think Sinéad Gleeson first put that tidbit ‘out there’ – my name is actually Sinéad too and we’re all starting a girl band, I don’t know if you’re aware of that.
I’m not, but I’d most definitely like to join.
Of course! But yes, I’m an arts critic, I’m the film editor for Hot Press, I love doing book reviews, theatre reviews and radio essays. Then, I had an experience with a certain women’s lifestyle website, I came in before it was really established, we were told that it would be Ireland’s answer to Jezebel, but quickly it became apparent that that was not what we were doing. So, myself and a few other people decided that we needed to set up our own feminist website, so we started Fanny.ie and I became the ‘Fanny Sex Girl’. As you can imagine, my parents are so proud. At dinner parties, they gush how their daughter is the ‘Fanny Sex Girl’. So yeah, that’s the general ‘thing’…
What made you change your name – was it merely because Sinéad is so popular?
When I was younger, I worked in the Gaeltacht every summer and every Jean and Jennifer was translated into Sinéad, but because I had red hair, I was called Sinéad Rua. With various weird accents, that changed into Roe. Around the same time, I moved schools – changing from my very insular, parochial community school, to The Institute of Education – with the fresh start, I thought I would use the name that people whom I liked called me and try to leave the horrible memories of being Sinéad from Knocklyon Community School behind… *we both laugh*
How did you first begin your profession as a critic?
I did a BA in English Philosophy and Women’s Studies in UCD and whilst there, I worked on the college paper. I really just hung around The College Tribune a lot, I dropped out for a year and was bar-tending. I started college when I was just 17 and I suffer from depression and a sleeping disorder, at such a young age, I think it all just became a little too much for me. When I went back to college, I started doing more film reviews in my final year but it was really more just on a whim. I had planned to do psychology and law but somewhere along the way I thought to myself, ‘Ah sure, I’ll give this writing ‘thing’ a go’. I had always loved writing but I always felt that journalism was somewhat of a dodgy area because there is so much politics involved, so I was always very idealistic and thought that I’d become rich doing poetry. That wasn’t the case! After that, I did a Masters in DCU and through that I got an internship in Hot Press. It went really well and I was incredibly jammy in that their film critic was leaving just as my internship was ending. Tara Brady, who is amazing, moved to the Irish Times, so in a sense I kind of just snook in under the radar. I’m very aware of how incredibly lucky I was but that’s how it all started.
When your profession is that of a critic, is it important that you are able to receive criticism also?
I wrote my big piece for Fanny.ie about being in an emotional abusive relationship and that was the one piece that I had written that was incredibly personal. It was the first piece that I had sort of done for online writing and it got quite a lot of attention. I got so many amazing comments; they were really beautiful and supportive – it was a reaction I wasn’t expecting. I had been in this abusive relationship and essentially, I lost all of my friends, particularly those who worked in the media as that’s where he was employed too. So, I saw that people who were really popular in the media, those who I thought were my friends, completely abandoned me and they knew exactly what was going on. What hurt more though was that they abandoned me when the relationship ended and when I started talking about it. Thus, I saw this very deep chasm between what people actually do in their real life and what they say. You know, some people will say ‘Gosh, that’s so terrible, you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship’ but they won’t step up to the mark and actually support you. So, I think when you get amazing, supportive comments, a part of me thought, ‘it’s kind of easy to leave a comment and it’s harder to do something’ and if you’re not looking to the online / anonymous masses for validation, you kind of don’t take the criticism as personally either. If it’s constructive criticism, I absolutely adore it and I’m one of those people who actively surrounds myself with those who challenge me and call me on my bullshit – once it’s in a constructive / ‘we want you to be the best possible version of yourself’ kind of way – but if it’s just comments that are trying to be nasty, put down your work or come from a place of envy, it doesn’t really affect me because I know that it’s all nonsense.
It’s so easy to be faceless online too.
So easy! I think it goes both ways and in a sense, it keeps me grounded. For example, some people take Twitter followers so seriously and honestly, it really doesn’t matter. So I never feel incredibly important with my work and it stops me from going into a spiral of shame if people don’t like it or from becoming an egomaniac if they do like it.
You mentioned Twitter and for me, I would follow your account as it’s almost a curation of the most interesting and thought-provoking articles, animations and interviews that exist on the internet but how would you describe your relationship with that particular social media platform?
I love Twitter but I follow very few people on it. I left Facebook about three years ago because I found that it was making me hate my friends and it is that thing whereby with social media everyone thinks that their life is innately fascinating and they’re really not! So yeah, I use Twitter to follow media outlets and writers who use their account to share really interesting things. I look to it as a medium of learning almost and a way in which you can grow and expose yourself to a new kind of thinking. I make jokes on Twitter too and I’m not afraid to take the piss of myself and my dating life, but I actually share very little in a personal sense. My brother is on Twitter so we kind of ‘have the bants’ and joke with each other on it but I’d never tweet saying ‘I’m out on a Friday night’.
So you wouldn’t ever say, ‘Just ate a scone. Lol!’?
Never! Twitter has been amazing because I’ve met people – and I’m so delighted that we’ve met up outside of the internet – who I share a lot of interests with but without Twitter, I never would have known of. So, although it’s a social network, I prefer to do the socialising element of it in the ‘real world’.
If we talk about your career for a few minutes – in such a short amount of time, you have achieved such an incredible amount professionally but has there been any one moment so far that you would define as memorable or somewhat amazing?
To be honest, doing Anti Room was huge for me. I have so much respect for Sinéad Gleeson – I genuinely think she’s unreal – but she has also been incredibly supportive, probably more supportive than I deserve but not just me as she’s hugely encouraging of women in general who work in the arts and female journalists. At Anti Room, we facilitated a talk on books in culture, literature and writing about sex. It was with Sheila Heti who wrote ‘How Should A Person Be?’ and it was at the end of a year where I had been writing the sex column for Fanny.ie and although I was getting a brilliant response, I wasn’t sure if it was being respected. I had pitched the column to a few papers and the feedback was really weird as there was almost this sense that they would be far more comfortable with it if I was older and less attractive or less provocative looking. It was this idea that they didn’t have any problem with the subject matter but me and the subject matter combined was too much. It was a really strange situation as I felt that my work was being respected but because it was coming from me, it was not.
Why do you think that fear or stereotype exists within Irish, or perhaps any publication(s) that sex and sex columns has to be portrayed by a particular age demograph or individuals with a certain physicality or lack thereof?
Germaine Grier has a great quote; Sexuality has been liberated. Porn has been liberated but people have not been liberated’ and I think it’s a lot to do with that. We all like to think that we’re so sexually enlightened but there’s still a hell of a lot of sexual judgement and if you’re a woman talking about sex, you get a lot of crap over it. Even at Anti Room, whereby we were in a room full of feminists – I started talking about Kat Hertlein who used to do a sex topic at ‘Davenport After Dark‘ – I was saying that Kat is great but there’s a distance there that people are comfortable with because she’s American and so American’s are allowed to talk about that stuff; she’s not one of our own. Someone in the audience at Anti Room stood up and said that when she heard Kat speak for the first time, she thought she was very slutty. I think we all kind of bawked and just moved on. I mean, that was in a room full of feminists and I think it’s almost ingrained in people that we should be weary when talking about sex. Also, I don’t think they know how to market it. In the newspapers, there’s often an article by a women with a photograph of someone in a skimpy maid’s costume right beside it and they’ll sell it as something scandalous and naughty rather than a topic which is ‘the great unifier’ and something empowering. We’re still straddling that line between ‘everything is so cool and like Sex & the City’ and ‘doesn’t that make us so naughty’ and then there’s the taboo and shame element too. We haven’t yet found the middle ground and realised that it’s ‘normal’.
What are the next steps then to propel this ‘movement’ of sorts?
It’s a weird one because I think we have moved on in a very community sense. There is a real solidarity out there but I think that’s in a feminist media community and people can sometimes become quiet naive and not realise that it’s not extending outwards. I think it’s also important that people are aware of that alot of those who are talking about feminism come from a place of privilege and they’re surrounded by other people and a bubble of privilege and it’s not necessarily moving outwards. There has to be a push towards that! There also has to be a push towards making feminism accessible and placing it in a framework which a larger population will be able to interact with it. For example, if you talk about Miley Cyrus or Lily Allen’s ‘Hard Out Here’ video and document how it is problematic due to the objectification of the black body, you’re bring up so many issues but people can look at a video on YouTube and comprehend or question it where otherwise, they may not have bothered.
If we momentarily abandon the feminist movement and place the spotlight once again on yourself, what are your aspirations for the remainder of the year?
Well, I’m moving to San Francisco. I received a Fulbright Award so I shall be studying sexuality on the east coast for the latter part of 2014. It doesn’t feel real yet because I applied back in November and my sister turned around to me a week before the deadline – and I don’t even know if I should be saying this because some people spend six months on their Fulbright application – and I sort of threw something together.
If I’m honest, I’ve a weird sort of relationship with Dublin since my ex because it felt like a very threatening place. I lost a fuck-load of work and friends. I had to build myself back up again and so I saw the application process as something to give me direction – I didn’t for a second think that I would actually be awarded a scholarship. I’m really excited about it as San Francisco is a place where conversations are actively happening about race, privilege, sex and sexuality; it has always been the city of progression. I’m going to be there for two years studying topics such as sexuality and disability, sexuality and race – subject areas which are rarely, if ever, talked about in Ireland. However, I’m coming back home after the two years and I want to be engaged with the Irish media whilst I’m away. My aim is that I travel outside of Ireland and our small little bubble of topics and be exposed to ideas that I never would have access to. I want to bring them back home and hopefully progress some kind of conversation here because there’s so much that we’re afraid to talk about. It’s not because I think that I’m the ‘be all and end all’ of every topic but it literally got to a point where I spent so much time saying ‘someone should do this’ and have eventually come to conclusion ‘fuck it, why not me?’
Will you miss anything about Dublin?
For so long now, I’ve had this sense of ‘I need to leave Dublin’ but now that I’m actually leaving, everything seems amazing and I really want to stay. Honestly though, in the past twelve months I’ve met so many amazing women, yourself included – mostly through Twitter – and have had conversations and furthered dialogue that never would have been possible several years ago. It’s so amazing to see that all of these awesome women are available to have these empowering conversations and I mean that on both a personal and a political level and so I’m really going to miss that. I’ll miss my family, I’ll miss my brother insanely and I’m really going to miss being involved in projects and the media at home – which I have no doubt will storm on ahead without me but I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops and re-joining it when I come home.
What particular developments would you like to see occur?
When I started working, even just the film reviews, I was asked to do a lot of really stupid video interviews. For some people, if you see a young woman in the media, you automatically assume that she’s only going to want to be on certain ‘fluffy’ programmes and I found myself in this constant struggle to try prove myself. It wasn’t that I went out of my way to prove myself but I just removed myself from anywhere where I felt games were being played to ensure that my work spoke for itself. That gets easier though when you get a little bit older and so I’m hoping – which is a shit state of affairs and I wish it wasn’t the way – that Irish print outlets will hopefully be like ‘Hey, she has a Fulbright, maybe we can stop focusing on what colour her fucking hair is and start publishing her work!’ For example, I went to San Francisco for a week and wrote a travel piece for a national publication – the travel editor loved it but the main editor said that it was too emotionally vulnerable to run with. What does that even mean?! It made me realise how afraid we are of anything that’s a little bit too personal or that may touch on taboo topics but then again, since when are emotions taboo? I think the online community are breaking down those boundaries – there are no middle-aged editors, people are free to be as creative as they please without the risk of hurting advertising – I’d like to see that seep down into mainstream media.
This notion of breaking down boundaries, is that why you first began writing about sex or was it a less conscious decision?
That’s definitely part of the reason as I knew that if you break down the taboos surrounding sex, you also help to break down the taboos about sexual violence. When I was growing up, I never romanticised sex as this beautiful, romantic thing nor did I think of it as this unimportant thing that you use as a currency – which terrifies me! My parents were very cool, liberated and feminist in their thinking but when I was sexually assaulted in college, I didn’t tell them because I didn’t have the vernacular to separate what had happened me from sex and the taboos that surround it. If I had been mugged or punched in the face, I could have told my Dad all about it but I didn’t know how to say that someone put their fingers somewhere where I didn’t want them to because that’s caught up in ‘Oh my God, I’m telling my Dad that I was engaged in a sexual act and I wasn’t’. So far, it has taught me how to talk about sex but more importantly, it’s taught me what sex is and what sex isn’t.
As we finish our coffees, do you have any final words that you’d like to share?
Well, I know that being a film critic is my main gig but I take being in the media incredibly seriously. It’s an incredibly valuable role of responsibility and I feel that if you are in it, you should use your platform to do something good! That sounds like fuckin’ Spiderman, doesn’t it?!
Thank you so much to Roe / Spiderman for taking the time to chat with me. If you do nothing else today, follow Roe McDermott on Twitter and let her guide you to a new way of thinking with a side of miscellaneous street art and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
For other ‘Extraordinary Women’ interviewees, just click here!