Friday, March 27, 2015

Sex and self-promotion, not in that order

I've written a bunch of articles this week for The New Republic. Please read them!

Also worth checking out - a Savage Love letter revealing the difference between gay and straight "monogamish" - specifically, that threesomes involving men and women have the potential to produce children. This - the fact that sex can, indeed, make a baby - has always struck me as a bigger deal than Savage makes it out to be, when it comes to his suggestion that straight people open their marriages. His advice to straight people on this can seem implicitly geared to a world not only where contraception is infallible, but where no one's at a life stage where they might actually want children - impacting both how reliably whichever contraception is used, and how inclined a woman might be to terminate an unplanned pregnancy.

This is a big deal because one of the reasons he promotes monogamish for straights is as a way to have couples stay together for the sake of the kids, even if doing so means having a companionate marriage and a piece (or several pieces) on the side. But the fact that someone isn't a primary partner doesn't mean they can't, in turn, bring about a pregnancy. It's not, of course, that a child born to such an arrangement is doomed for life, but even by Savage's own framework, it's a non-optimal situation.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Logical endpoints

In the interests of writing a coherent article, as versus a transcript of everything that goes through my head when thinking through one, I ended up not fully addressing David Brooks's "logical endpoint" argument in my piece about his op-ed. While the "logical endpoint" of all bigotries is violence, it's true that that of anti-Semitism is genocide (what with the Holocaust), while that of anti-black racism is enslavement (what with slavery), and that of sexism, the subjugation of women. In this sense, anti-Semitism is different in that, at its most extreme, it's about wanting everyone of the group in question dead.

But "logical endpoint" arguments are only of limited use. While they get at something (and here's where I get fuzzy) about the psychological underpinnings of different bigotries, they don't tell us anything, for instance, about how much violence any particular group is actually dealing with at any given time. And dwelling on worst-case-scenario anti-Semitism has the inevitable effect of leading people to dismiss instances that fall short of Hitlerian.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Safe spaces, "30-something moms"

-Is there a "safe spaces" epidemic on campus? I'm skeptical.

-Via one of the parent-writers I wrote about in that overshare article a while back (and more on her post in a moment), I see that there's this amazing Emily Bazelon article about parental overshare from 2008 that I don't think I'd ever seen before. How had the internet not pointed me to it earlier? I'd first blogged about the topic in April of that year, and this piece was in June, but I guess I wasn't particularly glued to that beat at the time. It's an interesting piece because it gets at the professional-ambition/livelihood angle. There's a difference (if not an infinite one) between a parent who shares tantrum-stories for "likes" and one who does it to pay the bills. Sharing on Facebook... ideally isn't done in a way that humiliates a child, but is the modern-day equivalent of a family album, and 

As for her post, the gist of it is that her detractors, "30-something moms," don't get how tough it was for those a decade older to know where to draw the line regarding online privacy. This seems plausible-ish, and appeared, at first, to be leading to a mea culpa. Which... sort of? She says she's changed the way she posts and now shares less, but then adds that she doesn't regret outing her child's condition: "In the case of mental illness, or any illness, advocacy trumps privacy." She goes on to explain that sharing didn't hurt her son - quite the contrary:
Because I spoke up, my son got effective treatment and is now back in a mainstream school with friends who are totally fine with his bipolar disorder. In fact, they—and I—admire his self-advocacy and think he is brave for speaking out and sharing his story. We were also able to connect to an amazing community of mental health advocates. No one has ever approached us in the grocery store and said, “I know who you are. You’re that mom and kid who talked about mental illness after Newtown. You are horrible people.” It doesn’t work that way.
What she doesn't say is why it was necessary for her to speak up to such a wide audience in order to get this help. If silence and stigma are preventing you from reaching out... to doctors, teachers, friends, family members, etc., about a concern along these lines, then that's a problem. What I'm having trouble picturing is at what point it becomes necessary to reach out to the world at large.

And she also doesn't seem to grasp the harm people are worried about. It's not necessarily about being shamed at the supermarket. (Note that her theoretical example involves her being harmed, not her son.) It's about her son perhaps one day wanting to enter whichever social, romantic, or professional setting as someone whose full medical history isn't easily Googleable. There are a lot of facts about just about any of us - not just illness, certainly not just mental illness - that we have no reason to be ashamed of, but that might not want to lead with. Parental overshare doesn't leave these children with the choice.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Author-humiliation-bait and YPIS

I'm not sure if this even counts as a YPIS cycle, because it's just so ridiculous, but here goes: a Jezebel-affiliated piece takes down an xoJane personal essay about tipping, one introduced with the heading - all-caps - "UNPOPULAR OPINION." The essay is by-and-about a young woman who refuses to tip. (For maximum future author-shaming, it includes a photo of the author, in a restaurant. Because a really great thing to do is to proudly declare your aversion to tipping with an accompanying photo.) The Jezebel "Kitchenette" post is about why people who don't tip are assholes. So far, so predictable. But! The xoJane author a) lives somewhere where there isn't a lower minimum wage for tipped workers, and b) is a retail worker making minimum wage. These details combined do kind of cut against the idea that this opponent of tipping is some rich lady oblivious to the plight of low-income workers.

But how can an anti-tipping piece go without a YPIS critique? What the Jezebel affiliate comes up with:

I'm going to put this as plainly as possible: restaurant jobs are harder than retail jobs. I know it hurts to hear that, but it's true. Sorry, Sarah; your lot is not the harshest one, and you are far from the special snowflake you see in yourself. You can resent the implication all you want, but I'm not implying, I'm straight-up telling. Your job is easier than a job waiting tables, and if you'd ever worked in a restaurant, you'd damn well know that already. 
I've worked multiple retail and multiple restaurant jobs — on average, there is absolutely no comparison of which one is more physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding, and it's not even particularly close. Do you get breaks at your job? Generally-speaking, do you have regular hours? Is your pay directly dependent on your ability to put up with harassment and abuse from customers (not should it; is it)? Oh, you do, you do, and it isn't? Kindly have a seat, please.
Take that, minimum-wage retail worker! How dare you be so stingy with your tips, what with the pile of gold that Old Navy or whatever is surely paying you, except that you're getting minimum wage, but... yeah. It would seem that if restaurant and retail workers get at least minimum wage in a certain locale, but only the former also get tips, servers are if nothing else getting paid more. But no! Here's this pampered, princess, minimum-wage retail worker, paid no doubt a ton to write an essay for xoJane (#sarcasm), and where there is privilege, it must, of course, be checked.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Blame the messenger

I was listening to an old DoubleX podcast earlier, and learned that I'm many news cycles late to an interesting conversation about drag and minstrelsy. Is drag akin to blackface? This is, admittedly, something I'd wondered about before, not enough to be offended by drag, but enough so to Google the comparison, and find that this is an ongoing debate. But this latest discussion began when Mary Cheney, daughter of the charming Dick, made the comparison on Facebook.

The Internet responded with a great big how dare you, as if Cheney had made a gaffe betraying ignorance of gay culture (gay male culture, that is), and not... raised a reasonable question. In eras when taking offense at entertainment wasn't as common as it is today, things were more anything-goes in that department. Today, performers are taken to task for even relatively subtle forms of cultural appropriation. So yes, it is worth exploring why a genre that involves men dressing up like women for a laugh is celebrated. Even if that exploration leads to an assessment that no, drag isn't quite like blackface (which is - spoiler alert - where I end up), it's a question that ought to be asked. It's a shame that the person who asked it is this symbol of the Republican party, which gay people - men included, have good reason to be annoyed at.

Anyway, on this podcast, the guest brought in to explain the topic, drag performer Miz Cracker, had written a piece arguing - contrary to what further Googling tells me was the prevailing view at the time - that the question itself wasn't totally off-the-mark. But it wasn't clear, exactly, why. What does it matter that drag queens are caricatures of women, and not shooting for realism? Is/was blackface any different? And having a drag queen on is in a sense a guest expert, but also a way of answering a question upon asking it - obviously they wouldn't have had a blackface performer on to discuss why it is black people and their allies might find blackface offensive.

A few thoughts, whose profundity might have been greater had I not just spent three hours getting from NY to NJ:

-Drag and female impersonation pose similar but distinct concerns. With the latter, I think - perhaps because June Thomas mentioned Britain - of Monty Python. Straight (or, in one case, gay-but-not-out-to-audiences) men dressing as women, to comic effect. I remember hearing somewhere along the line that I was supposed to be offended, as a woman, by these performances. But I have trouble identifying with Terry Jones in a dress, and can easily put this into the same category as other comedy that I can recognize, in the abstract, is at my expense. I don't think women should feel obliged to be offended by female impersonation, but I also think telling women who are to get a sense of humor about it is very much akin to telling black people who aren't keen on blackface to do the same.

-The fundamental difference with drag - the reason it's a different conversation - is that the man is (always? usually? unless-otherwise-specified?) gay. And yet, a man all the same, and not a gender-non-conforming man, just a man - cisgender is, I believe, the term we're looking for. (Someone like Justin Vivian Bond - who's great, by the way - would be a different story, since Bond doesn't identify as male offstage, either.) Either drag is the gender equivalent of cultural appropriation, or it's a marginalized group poking fun at one with relatively a lot of power. And it's not that it couldn't be the latter. A drag queen risks hate-violence in a way that a white performer of blackface presumably wouldn't have, because there's some relationship between the femininity of the performance and the non-straightness (seems wrong, as a straight person, to write "queerness") of the performer.

-So the question comes down to whether gay men are more marginalized than straight, conventionally-feminine woman. I feel like Jamie Kirchick might have the answer, but I, for one, have no idea. It's possible for a gay man to be misogynistic, and a straight woman homophobic. This isn't something like "reverse racism" where one can just point to obvious power structures and say that discrimination's only possible in one direction.

-It could be, then, that drag is a way for gay men to punch up, as it were, at people who are able to live openly feminine, openly attracted-to-men lives in every society. Straight women have the advantage of being born into bodies/identities that allow them to be attracted to men without being ostracized, without having to come out. Consider that the classic act of straight female homophobia is the proverbial bachelorette party at a gay bar in a state without same-sex marriage. That, or the Sex and the City-inflected "my gay" phenomenon, where a gay man lives his romantic life vicariously through a female friend. It could be all of this, and a performance/the phenomenon could still feel like punching down by women in the audience.

Thursday, March 19, 2015


A certain coffee company has been in the news lately for encouraging discussions about race between baristas and customers. While this has inspired some thoughtful and interesting articles - see especially those by Conor Friedersdorf and Tressie McMillan Cottom - I've been reluctant to join the conversation, essentially because I keep coming back to the sense that this is a brilliant ad campaign. What could be wiser for a company that sells spaces where you can surf the internet than to launch a thousand think-pieces with its name and perhaps logo throughout?

But the story is interesting. For a conversation that was meant to be about race, it's quickly become one about class. About the labor baristas already must provide, and now there's this, but also - less obviously - about the class of the chain's typical customer. The 'bucks customer is thus - much like "middle-class" - an archetype that can mean just about anything. The old cliché - from long before McDonalds had started serving kale - was that lattes were for the rich. This still gets repeated - Ijeoma Oluo refers to the chain's customers as "people privileged enough to spend $5 a day on their coffee." Elsewhere one finds the implication that the $5 is a splurge for poor people. Chain coffee as fast food and all that. Because... clearly you don't need to be rich to sometimes spend $5 on breakfast, and with debt an option, doing so daily is even a possibility. Rich people are, by this estimation, either thriftily making their coffee at home or super-splurging on single-origin and third-wave made by hipsters who've been trained in the Barista Arts in Sydney or wherever. So perhaps the customers somewhere in the middle - the whole "basic" thing? Rich enough to spare the $5, but not upscale enough to make their way to Williamsburg, or to know that it's cool to avoid - rather than seek out - brands?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A serious matter

I keep going back and forth on these sandals:

-They're fabulous!
-They might be more fabulous in brown, but they're only available in black.
-But they're actually maybe better in black? And they have this cool, south-of-France vibe, and for only $80!
-Actually, $80 is kind of a lot for glorified flip-flops.
-But they're so Gwyneth! So timeless!
-They're so impractical. It's not sandal weather, but even once it is, it's not sandal country. These are not poodle-walking sandals.
-But they'd be fine for, like, driving somewhere. (To the supermarket.)
-What makes you think they'd even fit? This is a place that charges $5 for returns!
-But free exchanges! And the t-shirts are definitely nice, so if an additional size doesn't work out...
-$80 worth of t-shirts?
-But... that leather belt from them is gorgeous, and similar!
-Do you ever wear that belt? Do you even know where you put it?
-But the thing with them is, they might sell out.
-This is a website that doesn't post reviews, and the Googled reviews seem to be PR-journalism written by people who've never so much as seen the sandals in person. (And are you sure those Facebook ads for the company aren't influencing your thinking?)
-Perhaps, but everything's advertised. Surely the day will come when some sandals are necessary.
-Yes, and when it does, the Naots from before grad school will do.
-No, actually, those have long since disintegrated and don't stay closed.
-Which doesn't change the fact that you don't need sandals.
-You make a good point, although I'm not entirely convinced.

Almost-right advice

First up, Philip Galanes, answering the following:

My daughter lost her wallet on her college campus. Someone returned it to the campus police. (With all of its contents!) But when my daughter picked it up, the officer berated her for having a fake ID. Her driver’s license was in plain sight, so there was no need to rummage through the wallet. He told her possessing a fake ID was a crime, but he wasn’t going to charge her. (Is he even an actual police officer?) Instead, he would report her to the dean, who may put her on probation. I think he was way out of line; she wasn’t using the ID. You?
Galanes gets the essential right - the officer wasn't out of line. "[W]e’re not exactly talking about the march on Selma here." Indeed. It's not the job of police officers, campus or otherwise, to return illegal items to their rightful owners. I might have added an analogy - would you expect the campus police to return your lost cocaine, or whatever the kids are using these days*? No, you would not.

But Galanes also takes the opportunity to lecture the letter-writer on alcohol:
Of all the complexity surrounding the epidemic of campus sexual assault (for the “epidemic” angle, see the blunt new documentary “The Hunting Ground”; for the complexity, pick up anything by the brilliant scholar Catharine MacKinnon), one factor is really clear: booze. Rather than belittling the campus police, you should thank them. Underage drinking is not your daughter’s friend.
This, just... so many issues here. The first and most obvious is that "booze" doesn't magically start having a different impact on the body at 21 than it did at 20, and plenty of college students are drinking not just moderately but legally. Or is the idea that women shouldn't drink during college? Another: the absence of a fake ID hardly means underage drinking isn't taking place. Again, lots of college students are 21 and over - the notion that there'd be separate parties for classmates above and below the legal drinking age is one of the many absurdities of having it fall smack dab in the middle of traditional-college-age.

But the big one, of course, is the one Galanes is getting taken to task for elsewhere - he suggests that a woman who drinks is asking to get raped. I'd push this further and emphasize that he isn't just saying that getting blackout drunk is dangerous. He's saying that consumption of a non-zero amount of alcohol by 18-20-year-old adult women invites rape. It seems clear to me why this would be iffy even to those who are OK with the Emily Yoffe-type arguments against passing out at parties. That the drinking age is as high as it is may well be contributing to the interrelated problems of binge drinking and campus rape. (Lest you think that's a pro-libertine, out-there position, here's Ross Douthat saying the same thing.)

I get that in an advice column, there's a need for a life lesson. But why couldn't it have been one about how college students and their families shouldn't think they're above the law? About certain parenting choices, even of adult children, that encourage entitlement? It's like he almost arrives at that conclusion, but gets sidetracked.

Anyway, back to Yoffe. Here's a recent Prudie letter about interracial dating:
I am a black woman for whom culture, race, and politics are very important and sometimes painful subjects. I love my partner of two years very much. He is a white man in his late 30s who has very little experience with these matters, and our differing views have caused many arguments. Now we avoid the subject of my culture completely, and it is killing me that he does not understand this important part of who I am. Occasionally he will make generalizations and comments that I find worrying or insulting. He is not a racist, merely ignorant—he thinks we are all one as humans and should not pay attention to differences. If the playing field were equal between all people, I would agree with him, but it is not. Except for this, he is a sweet and gentle man—intelligent, trustworthy, and a blessing in my life. I love him, but I feel I am betraying my politics and community. Mostly, I just want to talk—but I can see why he avoids it, with all the shouting that’s happened. Help.
Yoffe, too, gets the essential correct - this guy is never going to know firsthand what it's like to be black, and if the obliviousness that's all but unavoidable in someone who hasn't personally experienced a certain form of bigotry (if, it sounds like, especially pronounced in dude) is a dealbreaker, the deal should be, well, broken. And what Yoffe says about the ability of someone who isn't Other in the same way you are to be "an oasis from the often troubling issues that you spend so much time on in the rest of your life" has more truth to it than some might want to admit. (To those who'd ask how I, a white person, could possibly know about such things, see the post below.) But there's also an aspect of this that comes up in all opposite-sex relationships - a man can never really get sexism (well, a man assigned male at birth, as the vast majority were), so the best a straight woman can generally hope for is a man who gets it when it's pointed out to him. Except... straight women are stuck dating men. This letter-writer is neither stuck dating white men nor stuck dating this white man.

Where Yoffe goes astray is in the last sentence: "Or you conclude having a partner who reflects your own views and experience is so central for you that you must let this good man go." It's there that she takes a stance that the letter-writer would be wrong to end the relationship for this reason. That's a man-shortage argument. (How much worse it is to make a man-shortage argument in reference to a black woman than to a woman whose race isn't specified I couldn't say.) Man-shortage arguments are ones that go like this: Men are so terribly hard to snag that if you've found one who doesn't beat you or drink away the paycheck, you should hang onto him for dear life. According to man-shortage theory, a woman should never dump/reject a man for reasons like, she's not attracted to him, she finds him boring, or - apparently - he holds incompatible views on a political issue with tremendous personal significance. Is this man "good"? It's advice-column cliché that a major complaint about a significant other will be accompanied by a disclaimer about how wonderful the person is. The disclaimer is there, but it doesn't sound as if she finds him all that wonderful.

*I'm trying to make sense of this article, a personal essay by a journalist, the takeaway of which is, as best as I can tell that she's simply too straight-edge (if that's still an expression) to properly report on campus drug use. Since when are journalists bragging about being too squeaky-clean for investigative reporting? Since when are newspapers encouraging journalists to confess to ineptitude? Why would you need to have used drugs to write about those who do? Why do readers need to know either way about a journalist's past drug use? And why the hedging about having never "really" been offered drugs in college? Is the issue that the author is - thank you, Google - a Kennedy, one of JFK's grandchildren, and thus someone born with a reputation to protect? (If nothing else, should that biographical detail make me feel better about having not been offered cool reporting assignments at 24 by any major publications?)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The end of racial anti-Semitism?

A commenter suggests that I may be too quick in dismissing the existence of racial anti-Semitism in Europe. Which tells me that I should have been more clear: I don't remotely think racial anti-Semitism is done - in Europe or anywhere else. But it does seem significant if anti-Semitism has swung (back) towards penalizing Jews for not assimilating. Bigotries that target immutable traits (real or constructed) are always going to be that much more unsettling.

But racial anti-Semitism hasn't disappeared. This is most obvious when it comes to the whole "looking Jewish" question. Secular Jews - Jewish women especially - continue to be relieved when they pass as non-Jewish. This is still, in 2015, a thing that happens. What else is going on when Broad City's Abbi Jacobson compares doubts about her and Ilana Glazer's Jewishness to "being carded"? I point this out not to accuse these women of self-hatred or of hiding their backgrounds - far from it! - but to point out an aspect of how Jewishness is day-to-day experienced, even by many out-and-proud Jews.

Or consider the response to the first sentence of Lisa Schwarzbaum's recent essay about traveling through Europe on a Jewish heritage tour. The sentence: "Like many who share my hair texture and fondness for rugelach, I am the descendant of Jewish forebears who boarded boats in the first half of the 20th century to escape bad times for our people in Central and Eastern Europe." Readers were horrified. One commenter writes, "That opening could just as well be coming from a Nazi, who was (falsely!) trying to prove that we Jews are genetically different, and therefore somehow inferior!"

Imagine a similar reaction to an article by an Italian-American writer - same reference to hair, but replace "rugelach" for "tiramisu."  Would that be seen as an outrage-worthy affront to the Italian-Americans who don't have "Italian" hair (whatever that might mean!!!) or enjoy delicious, creamy desserts? But the default assumption is that looking Jewish is a bad thing, and that surely the author is upset about her hair texture, whatever it may be. (A Google image search confirms what I'd suspected - she and I could totally share hair-product recommendations.) Schwarzbaum didn't say that all Jews resemble her, or cast doubt on the Jewishness of those who don't. Nor did she even say that most Ashkenazi Jews do - but what if she had? What does it tell us that Jewish-looking is assumed to be something a person - a woman - would wish to avoid?

Monday, March 16, 2015


Jeffrey Goldberg's opus on the future of European Jewry isn't quite as panic-stricken as the title - "Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?" - suggests. Some thoughts:

-It's an extensively-reported piece, and not an easy one to brush off, not that it isn't being brushed off by some who've read it. Anyone who requires further evidence that Jew-hatred persists might want to check out the comments the piece is getting. It's hard to see, though, how an article about European anti-Semitism could exist that wouldn't attract charges of being overblown and propagandistic.

-That said, there are a couple small but crucial... I'm not sure if they're errors, exactly, so much as misleading moments. How is Dieudonné indicative of "[t]he union of Middle Eastern and European forms of anti-Semitic expression" and what does he - a non-Muslim (see the correction here) - have to do with "the European Muslim community"? And there's nothing particularly sinister about the Brussels Jewish museum being empty - I visited a couple years before the attack and, as is often the case with tiny museums, I don't remember it being overrun.

-There are some issues, too, with the framing, in the title but also in the piece itself. Repeating the idea that The Jews are a coherent entity, and that The Jews might up and leave an entire continent where they are, on a day to day basis, quite safe, is a bit... problematic might be the word. The sorts of questions you ask can determine the sort of answers you'll get. If you head out asking, "Is it time for the Jews to leave?," you're not going to hear from the people who are French, etc., of Jewish origin, and not considering emigration, or not any more than non-Jewish Europeans might be.

-There's also a question of methodology - if you're looking for Jewish Opinion, you sort of have to seek out people who are in one way or another active in the Jewish community. When plenty of Jews aren't, and may have different experiences. I had this issue when writing my dissertation - to figure out where 19th century French Jews stood on intermarriage, the obvious place to look was the Jewish press. But this offered only hints of how other Jews felt on the matter (hints like, columnists complaining that Jews weren't panicked enough). While I was able to counterbalance some of this with Alfred Naquet's writings (a fiercely secular and twice-intermarried politician of Jewish origin), the balance was inherently skewed. I think Goldberg, by necessity, runs into some of this issue as well.

-But Goldberg gets at something key with his follow-up question: "Is [Europe] still a place for Jews who want to live uncamouflaged Jewish lives?" That's precisely the issue - the "uncamouflaged" bit - and is a different one than whether individuals who happen to be culturally/ethnically Jewish are on the cusp of being hunted down. This comes up again later in his piece: "Of course it is possible, in ways that were not 80 years ago, for Jews to dissolve themselves into the larger culture. But for Jews who would like to stay Jewish in some sort of meaningful way, there are better places than Europe." It's not, to be clear, that it's somehow OK - somehow not anti-Semitism - if the only Jews who are in danger are the ones who worship at synagogues, or go to kosher supermarkets, or wear identifying clothes or accessories. It's anti-Semitism, but it's not racial anti-Semitism. And racial anti-Semitism is no-choice, no-opt-out, echoes-of-the-1930s anti-Semitism, and thus a different beast. Such is, at least, the impression I got from the piece. (See also, again, the UCLA controversy.)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Fiction is better, the nanny edition

Let's say that you're a nanny for a rich family, and an actual nanny - not one on a slightly-too-chipper Netflix show. You're a creative type, but creativity has never once succeeded in paying an actual bill. Because jobs as one of Gwyneth's kids' white-collar-compensated tutor/nanny/yachting-instructor are scarce, you end up in a position of the very sort people totally end up in after a masters program, and that would really be worth remembering exist when people are all, how can it be that so many more women are getting grad degrees these days, yet the wage gap persists? You try your best, kind of, but the family you're working for is unfair, kind of. The hours are erratic, but you've shown up late a couple times. Maybe you're thinking, this would make a great personal essay! It would make great fiction. The essay format - the default these days, it seems, even for fiction writers like Laurel Lathrop, author of the essay in question (which, for the record, I enjoyed) - seems not to lend itself to the most helpful readings of situations along these lines. Which is to say, ambiguous ones, where the narrator doesn't come across as infallible.

The sentiment of feeling overqualified for a job isn't necessarily matched by a reality of overqualification. And it's possible to be exploited by a job and to be somewhat entitled and inept as an employee. These are all widely if not universally-shared life experiences. It wouldn't be especially hard for most anyone who's, say, been 22 to identify with that sort of sentiment, without necessarily endorsing it. Fiction allows for that ambiguity - for characters you can sympathize with, without applauding their life choices. Fiction permits readers other than tsk-tsking at mistakes that I-for-one would never make, or, conversely, earnest advice intended to help the author not repeat the same mistakes. It allows the reader to relate to someone who maybe got herself into that mess and maybe knows it and maybe hasn't emerged having Learned Her Lesson.

But the personal-essay format puts the reader in the position of someone who knows better and is almost ethically obliged to intervene. It demands this of the reader. (If that's the same Caryatis in those comments, hi!) A short story about this situation would lead to a totally different set of readings. Ones that, granted, wouldn't leave the author with specific, individually-tailored life advice, but possibly more useful ones all the same.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Harvard of Harvards

-Frank Bruni has some words of comfort for college applicants/their parents. It doesn't matter where a kid goes to college! How liberating! Except Exhibit A is a kid who didn't do so great in college admissions, but ended up in euphemistic Boston for post-college studies. It doesn't matter where you go to college, because there's always Harvard grad school! Which does kind of cut against the prestige-rejection message. It's a bit like the narrative that tells young women they shouldn't worry about anything so generic as finding a husband, and should focus instead on their own careers and interests... until they reach 30, at which point ideally the independent spirit they cultivated in their 20s will have succeeded in that ultimate of end goals, snagging a man.

-Assorted feminism-and-contrarianism links: Elizabeth Nolan Brown praises Laura Kipnis's defense of faculty-student romance. Katha Pollitt takes the now-controversial stance that abortion should be presented as a women's issue. (Controversial, that is, not because the would-be father might want a say, but because not everyone who's biologically female identifies as a woman.) And Ann Friedman rejects the joyful-self-expression-through-clothes approach of Women In Clothes.

-Speaking of clothes: When an admired dress turns out to be well over $300, only available in Japan, and sold out, one approach would be to scour eBay and whatever the advanced version of that sort of research is, and to find the place where the very same dress can be bought, and for much less money. I made a gesture or two in that direction, but realized early on that this was a dead end, or, rather, that the investigation necessary to make it otherwise wasn't worthwhile. (If only I had the same level of commitment to this that Ilana's mother has for knockoff handbags.) But I've been keeping an eye out for dresses that might resemble The Dress, at least in spirit. And oddly enough, this, once on, produced a similar effect. Or I see how it might, with proper styling. That, or it's a potato sack. I haven't cut the tag just yet. The same trip to the mothership also yielded a mid-length skirt of the kind that - according to Instagram and my now-fading memory of the place - is favored by many chic women in Japan. If today ever gets past the vacuuming-and-taxes-in-pajamas stage, perhaps a performance of femininity along these lines is in order.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Obliviousness as content

It might seem that being an out-of-touch European aristocrat would be almost a prerequisite for a certain kind of job in fashion journalism. But there's out-of-touch and then there's out-of-touch, and it seems one such journalist has, reports Fashionista's Dhani Mau, "crossed the line". Had she done so? Yes, clearly - the post in question did, as Mau said, merit a "[w]e shouldn't have to explain why her decision to put this on Instagram, as wealthy princess, was of questionable taste." A photograph of a homeless person reading Vogue, with a silly caption, is going to be, at the very best, "questionable," for reasons that, indeed, do not require explanation. And yet explanations abound. CNN is on the case, as is Jezebel. A Google news search confirms that others are as well. It must be spelled out, it seems, that this princess is so rich, so clueless, that she can't even empathize with a homeless person. A Jezebel commenter helpfully points out the "privilege" of a woman born "at the family palace, Schloss Thurn und Taxis, 500-room 8th-century abbey [.]"

What I'm wondering, I suppose, is what's to be gained by pointing out that an out-of-touch socialite is out-of-touch. Why does this become a news story? (To those who'd argue that I'm making it one, agreed that this is the inherent problem with writing anything about this topic, but WWPD is a slightly smaller outlet than CNN or the Daily Mail.) We're talking about a sector of the economy where people are hired for being socialites, where clothing too expensive for just about anyone to afford is displayed on emaciated models so young they haven't even been born yet. Vogue sells out-of-touch-ness! Are the homeless helped by a pile-on in this socialite's direction? Put another way: is the point of joining in the self-righteous pile-on that doing so helps homeless people from the plight of insensitive Vogue editors, or is it that shaming people for obliviousness is - there's really no other word for it - good content?

What's different about this YPIS cycle than others, though, is that the person whose privilege is being called out is, like, really, really privileged. It's... too easy. It's not quite as much fun as pointing out the obliviousness of someone who thinks they're (she's - it's always a woman) kind of scrappy, when they're actually not quite as scrappy as all that.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Usual disclaimer about varying levels of seriousness

-You should read Helen Rosner's essay on cookbooks even if this isn't your usual go-to topic. I'll never think of "lifestyle" in the same way again.

-Noreen Malone has the Canada Goose explainer we've all been waiting for.

-Yes, the UCLA story's disturbing - about as disturbing as it gets, short of the student ending up on Devil's Island. As is the extent to which some people (in the comments, on social media) are bending over backwards to excuse what happened. The argument seems to be that because Hillel is pro-Israel, a student's membership in what is generally the Jewish club should be viewed not as a Jewish cultural-religious thing, but as a political act. Which... yes, it's less bad, but barely, if someone's discriminated against for membership in specific Jewish groups than for having a Jewish name, Jewish ancestry, a New York-inflected accent, an innate ability to turn pantry ingredients into bagels - Jewishness, that is, that someone really is just born with.* Racial or cultural anti-Semitism is more unsettling than the hatred only of Jews who are active in particular organizations. So fine, allow them to win this incredibly limited point: it wasn't just that this student's Jewish - it's that she wasn't silently Jewish. But! That doesn't make it somehow not anti-Semitism if membership in the Jewish club (which indicates... Jewishness, and doesn't necessarily imply a political stance) is held against someone in this way.

Side note: Should the question arise, I wouldn't be pleased to see UCLA professors or instructors (particularly those who teach these students) writing blog posts, articles, etc., shaming the students in question. That said, I don't agree with the commenters who think that the people involved are children and therefore people whose activities can't be discussed in the media. (As if parents don't regularly write about their kids, but now I really digress.) I don't see anything unethical about a newspaper reporting on what happened. Journalists can and should investigate this. Not UCLA professors.

*I think I'm still on the UChicago Hillel and Chabad mailing lists, despite not having ever been a member of either.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Snowed in and all caught up on outrage

Thank you, p.c.-indifferent, telling-it-like-it-is menfolk of the Internet, for keeping me entertained. This is going to be the genre now, I guess - the flagrantly outrage-baiting personal essay by a man. Not that I was able to get through it in its entirety, but Knausgaard's "saga" - in which he white-male-privileged his way through Canada for the New York Times - might count. Sensitive, well-meaning essays get criticized for not being sensitive and well-meaning enough. Essays by people from marginalized groups conclude with the privileges the author does have being checked. The only way out of this cycle, it seems, is for men to write essays coming from places of unapologetic privilege.

-Exhibit A: Ryan Boudinot's rant about MFA programs, in which he takes a courageous pro-child-abuse stance:

Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.
-Exhibit B: Brendan O'Neill's ode to having sex while trashed, in which he takes a courageous pro-rape stance:
We've gone from punishing those who rape to casting a vast blanket of suspicion over anyone who has sex. But the fact is—and please don't hate me—sex isn't always 100 percent consensual. Especially after booze. Sometimes it's instinctual, thoughtless, animalistic. Sometimes it just happens. It's sex without consent—that is, without explicit, clearly stated, sober consent—but it ain't rape. It's sex.
-Exhibit C: Jeff Wilser's self-pitying but brilliantly clickbait-ish humblebrag about being a late-30s straight man who's too lost to settle down, in which he confesses to an inability to take women's phone calls. No pull-quote - the more relevant fact here is that the piece rides the wave of the news that Tinder will be charging more for the over-28s. This news was generally received as upsetting by the wider over-28 community, even those in relationships or otherwise not using the hookup app. 30 isn't old! Except it kind of is - ask anyone in their early 20s, or perhaps the teenager at the supermarket who called you "ma'am."

Still in search of a name for this genre, though. Lumbersexual Lit? xoTarzan? The quest continues...

Wednesday, March 04, 2015


If there was ever an issue designed to bring out self-satisfaction, it would have to be food waste. If you'd been simmering with the urge to shame people who throw away broccoli stalks or carrot tops, the NYT is offering not one, not two, but three comments sections where you may do just that. Now's the moment for your Sunday pot of lentils, which you virtuously distribute into your and your family's meals for the week, to make its big-media debut. And the "tips" article is especially... I mean, if your main food waste concern is that you throw away kale stems, you might as well just bask in the Gwynethy green-juice glow of your smug.

Or perhaps what I'm objecting to isn't even sanctimoniousness, so much as the fact that other people seem able to eat foods I think I'd have trouble getting down. A NYT reader: "Every now and then I’ll have a couple of tablespoonsfull of a dish leftover. I’ll pulse it and add it to a sauce or soup for some extra depth and flavor." See, I would not do this.

The sad truth is that I'm responsible for some not-insignificant percentage of the kale that's gone uneaten in this country over the past five or so years. I feel good about myself for buying it, but unless I have a very specific plan for using it (and I inevitably use other vegetables first, because they're more appealing, but I'll defend this as, because kale keeps), it eventually turns yellow and much of it ends up in the trash. Kale-discarding guilt is a special kind of food-waste guilt - and yet it's the very ingredient I'm most likely to toss. I can already hear the recipe-suggestions - garlic and olive oil! sausage! shred it and make one of those City Bakery-type salads! kale chips! - and it's like, you can know all of this, but it's still kale, and the answer's clearly just to not buy it in the first place.

The only way I know of that works to avoid food waste is to treat food the way you treat other household products - that is, to buy the same things over and over again, and use them up. Buy only the things you actually like to eat. Don't expand your repertoire beyond one or two cuisines. Don't assume that because other people (claim to) enjoy defrosted legume puree night after night, you'll do the same. Have a preferred cereal and milk at breakfast, and have dinner be pasta plus (say) arugula, tomatoes (canned and turned into a sauce or fresh and raw), and parmesan. Buy some kind of fruit that keeps (clementines, apples), and... done. You probably won't get scurvy, and you'll definitely appreciate meals out.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

I remember snow

-Thought I could be all smug about having missed the East Coast winter. Evidently not. It's somehow March but still undriveable. I'd been so eager to use my newfound highway-driving confidence for, I don't know, a spontaneous trip to Philadelphia. (Working from a Philadelphia coffee shop as vs. a Princeton-area one is a longstanding driving-ability fantasy of mine.) Instead it's more like, maybe it's not worth skidding off the road to go to Wegmans ten minutes away, even though they do have really good cheese. Now might, however, be a good time for me to hate-read articles urging people to investigate the provenance of their vegetables. Produce-wise, I'm working with one bunch of scallions here, possibly one blood orange as well. (I feel like I should be directing the implied recipe dilemma to Lynne Rosetto Kasper.)

-First instance I've seen of this: a journalist attempts to report on her own family, fails to get their approval. This seems, ethically, like a step in the right direction.

-When someone who "coordinates [...] a body positivity group started by fat queer people of colour" speaks out against privilege-checking, people (rightly) pay attention. Read Asam Ahmad here, although I found this via so many people who may well be reading this, so you've probably already read it by now.

-Via Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Lindsey Finn's list of "feminist humblebrags." The McSweeney's website isn't big on telling you when a piece is from, but it is - as they say in journalism - evergreen. Item 4 seems like it might be/have been a little controversial.

-Lisa Miller's anti-minimalist essay suggests that the Marie Kondo's neatness philosophy is the opposite of frugality. I'm not sure I agree, but she makes a good case.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Cleansing through Paris

There's France, a country in Europe. Then there's Frahnce, an idea, a symbol, a prime study-abroad destination, an Anglo-American fantasy, a disappointment to some Japanese tourists, and the place where Alice Waters learned that American food was inferior. I'm not sure which of these Dionna Lee's guide is in reference to.

As would make sense for "Into The Gloss," where the guide appears, it begins with advice on where to find "100% organic juices, açaí bowls, and homemade almond milk cacao shakes." As the commenters correctly note, this is an odd pick for a city with... well, for a city with this as an option. Other suggestions include shopping at an H&M-affiliated store with a location on lower Broadway; getting cheesecake at an American-style café; and having an expensive vegetarian dinner. This is, in other words, an upscale, fashion-world version of a guide to Paris's McDonalds and Starbucks locations. A guide for those who find snails not too weird but too fattening. (The cheesecake can, I suppose, be Instagrammed but not eaten.)

But the beef in the comments seems mainly to come from the framing: "Paris Like A Local," the post is called, when basically everything being suggested could be better-accomplished in New York. But... does that necessarily make it not a like-a-local guide? New York is so hot right now in Paris, or was when I was there, which was granted a while ago now, but I've heard things, and it's my understanding that that remains the case. The more Williamsburg-ish a place is, perhaps the more likely hip French people will be in it. Or hip Parisians, a group that includes expats. After all, Parisians aren't going to shop exclusively at stores that only exist in Paris. It's a let-down for you-the-tourist if you can find the same thing for less at a mall, but not for someone who's unlikely to ever set foot in the Quakerbridge Mall (and how nice for them) in the first place.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Of noble provenance"

-Gender parity in the literary world. What can be done? If women persist in painting their nails and watching British glorified soap operas about middle-aged lesbians in a part of England where people drop the definite article (not just a Russian thing, it seems), while men are writing Literature about North American obesity and overflowing toilets, how exactly can one expect 50-50 representation? Can the literary world use the contributions of someone Netflix correctly guessed would give the full five stars to "Last Tango In Halifax," based, no doubt, on our interest in "Waiting For God"? Such is the question some of us must ask ourselves when we open up that Word doc.

-Just as I'd predicted, the fashionability of sneakers was not, in fact, the first sign of a feminist revolution, but a trend. And, by definition, trends at some point start looking dated. The time to look of-the-moment in white Adidas is done, and "more traditional heels" are among the replacements.

-Will I try this David Tanis chicken recipe? Probably. (Maybe not, given my immediate chicken thighs -> yakitori thought process.) But speaking of trends, when will food writing stop having paragraphs like this?:

Of course, you should try to get the best chicken you can. Choose organic, free-range, heritage birds when possible. Even at $4 a pound, that’s far less expensive than other prime cuts of meat, and you are more likely to get flavorful chicken if it is of noble provenance. Free-range birds generally have firmer muscles than cheaper “factory style” birds. If you have tasted chicken in other countries, you know that firm meat and flavor go hand in hand.
I like the nod to what's "possible," in discreet recognition of the fact that some of us live in New Jersey. New Jersey, where a trip to the fancy supermarket yielded a spontaneous free glazed doughnut hole (a product they're now "testing," whatever that means; I survived it) and, OK, some baby artichokes that will be used to make a different Tanis-inspired recipe. And... he's right - chickens shouldn't suffer unnecessarily, and better-quality chicken (like, ahem, what's sold for whatever reason in the Santa Barbara Whole Foods but not the Princeton one, thus posing the ultimate of first-world problems) really does taste better.

But... "of noble provenance"? And a random dig at the U.S., and at the poor souls whose chicken experience (and perhaps life experience) is limited to this country? Must recipe-writers insist on budget-shaming their readers? And from an ecological perspective, should they be encouraging those of us who could buy this special chicken to do so even if it means driving around more so as to track it down?

Or is this more to preempt the commenters who'd see a chicken recipe as inviting a sanctimonious lecture on chicken farming? Is it a disclaimer, so that he can't be accused of encouraging anyone to buy that chicken, even if, realistically, this is a chicken recipe, which people will make with the chicken available to them?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Surf, turf

Hadley Freeman brings our attention to a lip gloss named "Underage." Should we protest? Perhaps, but in the U.S. (where, it sounds like, this product is mainly being sold), underage can refer to a 20-year-old, too young to go to a bar legally but otherwise an adult. It's not necessarily Roman Polanski territory, but it's also not necessarily not that.

I'm thinking the name, though, is less about helping grown women (if, indeed, that's who buys lip gloss) resemble the 15-year-olds that pop-evo-psych-type men claim are the only "women" worth looking at (search WWPD for "Derbyshire" to see what I mean), and more about tapping into a less directly sexual fantasy: that one will be carded. And the threshold for that is probably more like 25 or 30 - anyone who could plausibly be under 21. As such, "Underage" is evil only insofar as the entire beauty industry is guilty of tapping into/inventing the desire to be a young-but-adult woman forever.

While denouncing lip-gloss labeling is one strategy, a more effective approach to dealing with the obsession with female youth-and-beauty might be to acknowledge that youth is associated with beauty in men as well. Or, at least, not to perpetuate the myth - as Stella Grey does - that women are somehow nobly immune to appreciating the beauty of beautiful younger men:

There seems to be a gender imbalance, vis-a-vis the packaging thing. All the women I know are tolerant of middle age showing itself in a chap. We quite like a late flowering, in fact: the silvering, the smile lines, the coming of bodily sturdiness. We read these as signs that life has been lived and enjoyed. We read them as indicators of substance, of being substantial. In general, men don’t seem to grant us the same courtesy, at least not the men I meet online. They are highly focused on the packaging. It’s disheartening.
Later in the piece, Grey (a pseudonym) specifically refutes the idea that she'd check out 25-year-old men. (25, not underage, even by car-rental standards.) These men, she recalls telling someone, "'have mothers of my age, so it’d be like randily pursuing the children of your friends.'" And, I mean, I'll take her word for this - I'm sure there exist, in the world, heterosexual women who could see a pack of surfer guys walk by in the outfit they wear here, consisting of a half-unzipped wetsuit, tight pants on the bottom, chiseled shirtless torso on top, and not notice.

In all seriousness, I think it's more a case of, women are socialized to deny noticing the surfers (or the London-or-wherever equivalent), while men are socialized not only to admit to noticing, but to pursue equivalent women, regardless of their own age (or surfing ability).

A better situation might be to accept the noticing for the gender-neutral near-universal that it is, while urging friends of both sexes to be realistic about who will date them, and whom they'll have anything in common with. And the way to get there would be to stop with the (pardon my jargon) patriarchy-affirming insistence that women are actually more inclined to ogle a man the less he resembles an underwear model.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Today in YPIS

-Students at NYC private schools are studying their own privilege, reports Kyle Spencer. The obvious: if unearned advantage were a problem for private schools and their supporters, private schools would cease to exist. The students would switch to the public school system, where everyone's on 100% financial aid, and where rich kids can't help but be exposed to kids less rich than themselves. (Also: remember that private schools, at least last time I checked, are including Asian and Asian-American students in their "non-white" figures. The counting goes otherwise in commentary on the city's public schools.)

But here's the most interesting bit:

Educators charged with preparing students for life inside these schools, in college and beyond, maintain that anti-racist thinking is a 21st-century skill and that social competency requires a sophisticated understanding of how race works in America.
This tells us either a) that the entire privilege-acknowledging project is actually about further perpetuating privilege, or b) that it needs to be sold as such to skeptical parents who'd otherwise protest, and who are indeed sending their kids to private school in order to perpetuate family privilege. I mean, who's to say the people running the workshops don't wish these kids were in public school? More investigation is required...

-Anatomy of a YPIS cycle: Blogger calls out obliviousness, only to be called out for own obliviousness. Jessica Coen brings Jezebel readers' attention to the leaked cover letter of a job applicant (unnamed, thank goodness). In the cover letter, the applicant uses his or her past experience working in a bridal salon to explain why he or she would be right for a crime-victim-advocate-type position. Coen frames this in terms of bridal-industrial-complex obliviousness - how insensitive that someone would conflate stressed-out brides and actual, you know, victims.

But no! The commenters point out that Coen herself is oblivious to how job searches, especially entry-level ones, work. You have to draw connections between the work you've had and the job you're applying for. Is it really such a social-justice move to make someone feel bad for using a retail job as a stepping stone to a do-gooder one?

But so it goes in YPIS. It's a conversation that takes place among people all of whom are interested in calling out obliviousness. But once that's the thing you're doing, people will be hyperaware of your obliviousness.

-How's this for the first-world problem of the day? The running sneakers I like the appearance of are never the ones that actually fit well enough to go running in. Note: it's not the flashy colors I object to, but the way they're inevitably combined.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

So many feelings

Huh! I wrote something that people seem to generally agree with. (It's my thoughts on feelings journalism - the long and edited version.) Good for my ego, bad for fueling a furious comment thread, but I can live with that.

Feelings journalism, to be clear, isn't when a writer offers up his or her own feelings in lieu of reporting. It's when a writer puts thoughts into the head of another person, real or imagined.

Now, I'm not an anti-feelings-journalism absolutist. Sometimes it *is* interesting to know what a journalist thinks someone else is thinking, or would think. If it's clear that we're in the realm of an author's imagination, if it's done carefully, it can work. (Again, the Wadler-ice-floe example.)

The problem is when the imagined thoughts are the story. Or: when the tone suggests more is known than is. Worst is when there was a specific person who might have been, but wasn't, interviewed. It definitely strikes me as worse if the imagined feelings are those of a real person (named especially, but also if it's just the guy sitting next to you on a plane, at a movie) than if it's a clearly invented person. (Ms. Ice-Floe.)

Perhaps that's what the unofficial rule should be - it's fine to speculate on the feelings of rhetorical constructions, but not of actual people. This is separate, then, from the question of what place, if any, rhetorical constructions should have in journalism. But the goal shouldn't be eliminating creative-writing, "Shouts and Murmurs"-type pieces - it should be making sure that they aren't posing as - or filling the role of - reported ones.

More on this later, maybe. In the mean time, I suppose what I'm saying is that I both get why people write these pieces and why such pieces get people so worked-up.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The self demands promotion

-In the New Republic, I argue that professors shouldn't blog negatively about students, reacting to Conor Friedersdorf's piece and several others. I'd written in the past about instructors who make fun of their students online - the hilarious-error genre that will be familiar to you if you have friends who teach. While student mistakes can be the stuff of great comedy, it screws up the teaching environment if students who mess up risk not only low grades but mockery from the people supposedly helping them learn.

The case I talk about in this article is different - a tenured professor, John McAdams called out a grad student for a classroom-management decision she'd made. Because she wasn't his student, and because the behavior he was criticizing was her instruction of undergrads, he seemed to think he could take her on as a fellow college instructor, or as an investigative journalist, or as some bizarre hybrid.

-And for a video of me chatting with Aryeh Cohen-Wade about viral shaming, European Jews, and the "cool girl," click here.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Feelings journalism

Joyce Wadler says here exactly what I was trying to get at here, only better. The difference between sophisticated, sex-positive (Dan Savage-approved) entertainment and mainstream may be overstated. More on this later, perhaps elsewhere.

Katie Johnson, meanwhile, offers supporting evidence for the phenomenon Amanda Hess discussed, wherein the "50 Shades of Grey" franchise relies on the hate-fandom of people whose hate-enjoyment comes from setting themselves apart from the "constructed Other of the ‘vanilla’ housewife," as some "50 Shades" scholarship (cue the CCOA outrage that such a thing exists) brilliantly if jargonishly puts it.

Johnson's review of the new movie is feelings journalism taken to the extreme. Based on the fact that her fellow movie-goers were wearing sequined clothing and various observations (or stereotyped assumptions, it's unclear) about the town where she saw the film, she projects all kinds of attitudes onto the audience:

If you’re going to spend two plus hours watching one dimensional characters act out the not so nuanced fetishes of handcuffs and ass slapping, you might as well go somewhere where you can enjoy the show around you. 
In our case, that show consisted primarily of women. Most had come in groups, presumably to dilute their feelings of guilt and embarrassment, while others had their submissives – er, boyfriends – in tow.
 Emphasis mine. It continues:
We opted out of the Valentine’s Day weekend screenings because we weren’t interested in seeing conservative couples taking note on how to spice up their holy sanctioned marriages. Instead we showed up on a Thursday night, opening night, because we wanted to see the die hards; the fans who felt obliged to see their unspoken favorite series brought to the big screen, the ones who left the kids at home and told their husbands they were at book club.
These details - the spicing of marriages, the book-club evasions, are things Johnson has, by all accounts, made up. Not "made up" in the Scandal In Journalism sense, but made up in the unhelpful-speculation one. It's one thing to say something like this to set the scene (and if an author wishes to situate herself as hipper-than-thou, I mean, it can work, but it's dicey, given the YPIS accusations it invites), and another to spend an entire piece attributing views to a group of people you haven't interviewed, based on what they seemed as if they might be thinking. It makes me think of the thing in - allow me a mass-market moment here - Gone Girl, where Nick and his sister - both back home in Missouri after stints in NY - decide to call their bar The Bar, ironically, thinking their cleverness will go over the heads of the rustic locals. It does not.

But back to Johnson's review. There's more along these lines - e.g., "I spent the majority of a sex scene involving whips watching the 60-year- old man behind me stare open eyed and open mouthed as his wife held his hand" - but this was the clincher:
[J]udging by the enrapt faces of the audience members, something told me they could have cared less about the emotional complexities of Anastasia and Christian’s relationship. I looked around the room during the the film’s raciest moments and registered looks of secret acknowledgment and endearing shock. They were completely absorbed by acts that are never discussed in casual conversation, or not in Mesa anyway.
Now, one might point out that Wadler's piece, which I thought was fabulous, is also the product of the author's imagination. Both pieces are examples of fiction in journalism. But... we're not meant to actually believe Wadler had an encounter with "a young woman on an ice floe." Whereas Johnson's presenting her speculation as fact.

Ugly women, unconventional-looking men

Just after telling a woman that she should settle for the guy she's with because she's in her mid-30s and not getting any younger, Emily Yoffe fields a letter from a man who describes himself as "ugly." He explains that he has everything else going for him - work, workouts, clothes, hobbies - but is so unattractive that women won't date him. His question is whether he should get cosmetic surgery.

Yoffe allows that there are such things as "actual facial deformit[ies]," but doesn't seem to believe it's possible for a man to just be ugly:

There are plenty of women who would go for the guys on this list of “actors who aren’t very attractive” (I’m winking at you, Paul Giamatti). A man who is happy in his career, who is seeking a committed relationship (and who cooks and can serenade), should have had many second dates. I doubt the problem is your looks, so going under the knife for cosmetic reasons will just leave you a lonely, different-looking version of yourself. So you need to figure out what’s really going wrong.
Normally, advice-columnists take letter-writers at their word. Not here. Yoffe deems unattractiveness implausible, but suggests he might "fall somewhere on the autism spectrum"! I mean, he might, but nothing in the letter suggests as much.

Yoffe's right that plastic surgery's probably a mistake - as it is for most, male or female, if only because elective surgery, ugh. But separate from the question of whether surgery should - or could - improve dude's looks is the one of whether physical unattractiveness is possible in a man. And... why wouldn't it be? Yes, looks are subjective, and yes, most people are within normal limits. A further yes - yes, sometimes people grow into their looks at unexpected ages.

But some people - men and women - are found plain-looking by the vast majority of people they meet. It minimizes the pain the men in that situation experience to suggest that their troubles in love can't actually relate to their looks. It can.* But it also - especially in conjunction with that earlier letter - suggests that women ought to be grateful for any man who's reasonably upstanding.

I wonder how Yoffe would have answered the same question from a woman. While I doubt she'd have recommended surgery there, either, she might have advised a trip to the Clinique counter. That is, I doubt if she'd have entirely dismissed the possibility that looks were at least part of it.

*The ease with which very good-looking men succeed in dating is the subject of a really spot-on scene in "House." It culminates with Chase getting the most interest by far, despite having put on an unappealing act, and despite the well-above-average attractiveness of the men he was with. Fiction, yes, but I link to it only because of the logistical and ethical problems with linking to real-life examples of any such phenomenon.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Californian fashion commentary UPDATED

-There's a woman in the coffee shop I'm sitting in wearing the nicest dress I've ever seen, ever. Can't quite describe it (a pattern is involved), but it's perfect. There's also a 98% chance it's from Japan (I can hear the language the women are speaking, among other clues), and an 198% chance it wouldn't look nearly as good on me. That said, on my or their way out, whichever comes first, if I summon the courage, I'm going to ask where it's from. Fingers crossed that the answer will be "the Old Navy down the street."

Mid-post update: I asked! And yes, from Japan. (In blue, but that's definitely the style, confirmed by the woman wearing it.) The quest beings...

UPDATE: This is the dress, in the right color and everything. Not made for my body type, I now see, but gorgeous.

-If you imagined Cupcakes and Cashmere was all Emily Schuman, you... were making a reasonable assumption. Personal blogs that expand take different approaches to acknowledging said expansion The one I worked for, as the careful reader may recall, used a masthead. It wasn't spelled out who did what, but it was clear that a group of people were involved, and who they were. Some go with bylines. Others with some mix. Still others just morph into publications.

I was of course interested to see Schuman introducing her staff, but couldn't quite say what to make of what I can only assume was her choice to mention them only by first name. It's like a quasi-credit. It feels sort of breezy and feminine and on-brand and... odd. A little less so for the recent college grad whose first real job this is than for the woman who's "been an L.A.-based editor for the entirety of [her] career."

Dependent but paraben-free

Like Miss Self-Important, I was baffled by Eric Posner's call for for declaring college students children. The biggest issue with it for me, though, was something much more basic, namely the vagueness surrounding whether the idea would be to treat college students or all individuals of traditional-college-student age as minors:

Society seems to be moving the age of majority from 18 to 21 or 22. We are increasingly treating college-age students as quasi-children who need protection from some of life’s harsh realities while they complete the larval stage of their lives.
It would be one thing if we as a society acknowledged the difficulties of becoming a self-supporting adult by 18, and the existing effective-majority of 21 (adult socializing is legally out of bounds for 18-20-year-olds), and decided to move The Age up by a few years. It might not be the best idea - if we let the 'the brain only fully develops at...' crowd pick an age, they'll go with 50 - but it would be, as I say, one thing. It would be another entirely to declare 18-22-year-old college students children, while maintaining 18 as the age of majority for the non-student population. It would be writing into law an existing norm, though, of a class-based age of majority.

This is, as others (Elizabeth Nolan Brown? a NYT op-ed? both?) have brought up, already an issue when it comes to campus rape. College-age women are evidently less likely to be victims of rape if they're college students, but the cultural conversation is about college sexual assault - especially cases at elite schools. One might also point to the issue of juvenile offenders (generally not from the most advantaged backgrounds) tried as adults - there's no upper-middle-class equivalent. Privilege - that amorphous buzzword - can be summed up as, at what age will society consider you an adult? If the answer's over 40, you're positively drenched with the stuff.

Except... is it actually advantageous to be a dependent at the age when your first gray hairs appear? It's advantageous to have the option - that is, to have a safety net if things have gone wrong. But are endless years of dependency desirable?

In a very interesting article of hers that Miss Self-Important links to, she points to "descriptions of emerging adulthood as something that one is 'supposed to have' [and that] soon enough slip into talk of emerging adulthood as a right, and one that government programs are obliged to provide for everyone." She's skeptical: "And what more important use of tax revenues is there than to level the emerging-adulthood playing field so that the less fortunate can have equal access to a year or two of aimless hipsterdom after college?"

This is already the case when it comes to the cultural conversation about unpaid (or negatively-paid) internships. These internships tend not to be necessary for entering well-paid fields, nor (last I checked stats on this) do they up the chances of getting paid employment. But rather than discussing them as yet another foolish undertaking of the pampered classes, another way well-off parents hurt their kids while trying to help them - as we very well might have done - we refer to them as the epitome of privilege. We ask how we can extend the ability to work for free for an indefinite period of time to all.

The obvious counterargument would be, well, college. It's now quite generally accepted... not necessarily that every individual should go to college (although that's a popular view with political support), but that no one should be prevented from doing so for socioeconomic reasons.

But the thing is, not everything common among elites is better. For that matter, not everything common among elites is conducive to perpetuating elite-ness! Some highbrow habits are conducive to regression to the mean. Going to college, getting and staying married, these have advantages. But the elite thing of researching the ingredients of all food and cosmetics products, this seems mainly to encourage women to stay out of the workforce, with dubious benefits to their paraben-spared offspring. Related: the elite thing of not vaccinating one's children. I'd lump unpaid internships and ever-emerging adulthood into that same category.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Barcelona market value UPDATED

Whenever I read a real-life account of romantic-comedy style pursuit, I can only hope that what I'm look at is a revisionist history of the early days of the relationship. That is, one that casts the man as the stubborn suitor, the woman as the gorgeous-but-passive object of his affections, rejecting his romantic advances until finally deciding to give the guy a chance. This is the most generous way to read such narratives. If you take them literally, they're at best objectifying (in that one-sided, woman-as-object way) and at worst borderline frightening. But if you read them as partial truths - presumably the man would have shown some interest along the way - they make more sense. For whatever reason, it's seen as insulting to a woman to speak of her relationship as having emerged from mutual attraction.

That is, at any rate, the best I was able to come up with re: UPDATE Arthur (thank you commenter Peter!) Brooks's op-ed intro here:

She was 25. I was 24. We spent only a couple of days together and shared no language in common. But when I returned to the United States from that European music festival, I announced to my parents that I had met my future wife. 
Of course, I had to convince Ester first. So I tackled the project as if it were a start-up. I began by studying Spanish. Before long, I’d quit my job and moved to her native Barcelona — where I knew no one except her — in hot pursuit. The market pressure was intense: Men would shout wedding proposals to her from moving cars. But I pressed on, undeterred. It took two years to close the deal, but she finally said yes, and we married.
As some of the commenters to the piece gently mention, what he's describing sounds like stalking. But I doubt that's it - I think it's about the narrative. A lot is left out - did he move to Barcelona for a woman he found attractive, or for one he'd already formed an intense relationship with (i.e. Ethan Hawke would play him, Julie Delpy her, in the movie version)? Were two years spent chasing her down, proposing daily, or, you know, dating her, during which time they probably both realized they were serious about each other, even if he's the one who eventually proposed? 

Then, of course, there's the rest of the op-ed, which is about how everyone needs to put down the smartphone and live in the moment (generic if sound advice), but also how one should apply the principles of entrepreneurship to romance. But I don't think the advice is aimed at women, entrepreneurial or otherwise: "This Valentine’s Day, don’t be a risk-averse wimp. Be bold. Treat love as if it were a start-up that will change the world. When you find your target, focus mindfully, and push through the fear." No one would ever refer to a man a woman was interested in, but who had yet to reciprocate, a "target." I might go so far as to say that no one of any gender should be referring to love interests as targets.

The narrative is meant to flatter women. Maybe some find it flattering. I can't decide whether I find it more creepy, patronizing, or silly, but I guess I'm not its target audience. 

At the end of the piece, in a final shout-out to outrage-prone feminists (and I'm including people who became thus halfway into his piece), he adds, of his pursuit: "Believe me, it’s worth it. After 23 years of marriage and three kids, men still shout to my wife from cars when we visit Barcelona." A marriage, you see, is a success if your wife doesn't let herself go, and if she continues to be catcalled in middle age.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Cool Girls are GGG

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn's novel, is the story of a woman in her 30s who turns herself into the ideal girlfriend and, later, wife. Who does this so thoroughly that she ends up in what "Seinfeld" fans will recognize as a "serenity now" situation - that is, she's bottled up her actual feelings to the point that when they emerge, they do so with tremendous and dangerous force. Some of what "ideal" involves is predictable, clichéd - she maintains a small dress size and, when asked to uproot her life for her husband and to take on new caring responsibilities, does so without complaint.

But passive and beautiful is no longer enough. Today's ideal is a "Cool Girl" - that is, one who likes guy stuff (yay sports! boo shopping!) while looking flawless and feminine. (See of course Amy Schumer's parody. See also Flavia's commentary.) Under a façade of feminism and empowerment - girls don't have to like girly things! down with consumerism! makeup is gross! - women engage in the not-especially feminist act of going out of their way please men. The frustrating aspect about Cool Girl-ism is that it looks so much like liberation. From the outside, the two can be just about impossible to tell apart. (It's not necessarily Cool Girl if a woman on the slimmer end of the spectrum eats more than a leaf of lettuce. The myth of the slim woman who subsists on air is at least as damaging as the one of the effortlessly slim woman who can't get enough cheeseburgers. Not that there aren't slim women who eat very little or very much but... you know what I mean.)

You'll see that in the much-discussed Cool Girl speech, Amy Elliott includes, among the Cool Girl's traits, an enthusiastic appreciation of what just so happen to be classic hetero male sexual fantasies. A Cool Girl is sexually adventurous, but not really - her sense of adventure is about eagerly consenting to anything a man suggests, or anticipating a man's desires. Considering the plot of Gone Girl, one might add to this that a Cool Girl looks the other way when her husband's having an affair - it's just male second nature to see that one's wife is a bit older than she used to be and to sleep with someone younger!

I thought about this when I saw Dan Savage heap praise upon (and semi-claim credit for, not unjustly) a recent scene from "Broad City." The show has its Cool Girl moments, and the scene in question is one of them. Is it about a woman feeling empowered to try something new in the bedroom? Or is it about a woman doing something a man has asked her to do, something where there's (not to get too technical here) something in it for him but not for her.

And this brings me to my qualms about Savage's approach more generally. A lot of what he advocates - not all - amounts to asking straight women to cheerily agree to men's sexual requests. I say "amounts to" - he advocates this in gender-neutral terms, while admitting that women are socialized not to make requests of their own. And... as the "Broad City" clip only further demonstrates, Savage's ideas are more or less synonymous with what sex-positive means in our culture.

Extraordinary descriptions of ordinary occurrences

-Yesterday I - I! - drove to Los Angeles and, crucially, back from Los Angeles as well. Around it, too, even, a little bit. My husband (and former driving instructor) was with me, which was particularly helpful when I was driving on whichever part of the freeway has like 20 different lanes on either side of you. Given the driving involved, L.A. itself was a bit of a blur. We had some (all excellent) ice cream at Carmela, coffee at Dinosaur, Thai food at Wat Dong Moon Lek,  Korean BBQ at Eight. I think I ate (and spent) enough for this entire month in California in one day.

There was also a halfhearted attempt at clothes-shopping. Which is to say, I tried to go where the five minutes of where-do-my-favorite-bloggers-most-of-whom-seem-to-live-in-L.A.-now-that-I-think-of-it shop? research directed me (this trip was, as you might gather, spontaneous), but this one boutique that sounded very promising turned out to be... exactly how I now see the Yelp reviewers found it, which is to say, ridiculously expensive and hipster-parody-ish.

-After reading so much about it (the "cool girl" speech especially), I decided the time had come to read Gone Girl. It was a complete page-turner, as in, it was difficult to put it down as I was reading it. It had a lot that held my attention apart from, you know, the suspense. Specifically the parental-overshare angle. The book does suggest that writing fiction about your kid can be as damaging as non-fiction, at least if it's more fictionalization than fiction-fiction. Much of the story ends up hinging on this. Well, that and the "cool girl" thing - Amy Elliott is so chill that she cheerily moves from New York to rural Missouri, where she can't find work, so that she can care for the aging parents of her cheating husband. (There may be thoughts on the intersection of "cool girl" and "monogamish" forthcoming.)

The only thing that bothered me was that Amy makes no sense as coming from New York. She's from a demographic of native New Yorkers that exists in entertainment - I'm thinking especially of "Gossip Girl" - in which Manhattan-ness means being the too-cool-for-school popular girl from an all-American high school. I couldn't figure out where she fit into any actual part of the New York population of the years when she's supposed to have grown up. She's this posh woman with family money, but the money was made from bestselling children's books. Yet that somehow lands Amy into something like a WASP upper-crust ice-queen status, and not, like, Zabars-and-Fairway country.

OK, and one other thing... I wouldn't say bothered me, exactly, but it's something I wondered about. I kind of get why literary fiction is so often about writers. I wish it weren't, but it sort of is what it is. But a mainstream suspense-type novel, does that also have to be about Brooklyn writers' parties, even if it quickly moves elsewhere? 

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Women and comedy

(Spotted near the place where I returned the emptied-into-the-sink green juice bottle for the $2 refund. Photo includes a finger-selfie for good measure.)

-I've (finally) seen "Broad City" - the web series and a couple episodes. I feel as if I'm supposed to say it's better than "Girls," but I think it's more that the protagonists are more likable. If at times a little too likable - not "cool girls" exactly, but maybe a bit? 

As with other sketch comedy, it's hit or miss, but more hit than is typical. But those first few episodes of "Girls"... I mean, there's a reason they use a photo of Lena-as-Hannah to illustrate every article about millennials. Capturing a zeitgeist isn't the same as accurately representing the experiences of people your age. While "Broad City" does better at the latter (esp. the depiction of the extent to which first jobs, however advertised, tend to involve cleaning bathrooms), "Girls" has the former figured out. 

-A different sort of humor can be found in the comments to a recent profile of Lululemon's founder. In an odd way, the thread amounts to an ad for the brand, if only because the counterarguments to the commenters' objections come so easily. Objections being things like, you can work out in cheaper clothes as well (yes, but you can also go to work in thrifted business attire, to parties in H&M sale rack outfits, yet we don't find it baffling when people spend a bit more in those areas, even though there, too, there's a mix of marketing and the more expensive things actually being nicer). Or that it's offensive that the pants are designed to make women look good to men (yes, how dreadful... and how likely to inspire readers who'd never heard of the make before to go to its website). 

My favorite, though, are the comments from women who'll have you know that their butts look good in cheap leggings. (OK, those, and the one from a woman who on principle won't buy clothes from a store that doesn't make larger sizes, but she - let the record state! - is a six.) A professor of mine in grad school would always talk about "the terms of the debate" and, well, these commenters aren't exactly changing those. A shapely rear remains the goal. And if it's a choice between working out twelve times a week or paying up for leggings that give the illusion you do (or that you've convinced yourself do this), I wouldn't be so quick to assume the fools are the ones in luxury stretch pants.