Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The shoe-guilt school of criticism

Paulette Perhach's essay about the advisability of a "Fuck Off Fund" is a great read. That much is for sure. As writing, I loved it; read it! As advice? There I'm less convinced.

I mean, as advice, 'save up so you're not dependent on a guy or a specific job' is sound. Sound in the way that a plan for the week that involves jogging at 6 am, a full workday, and socializing over exactly one drink (no more, no less; red wine, for the heart), and then going home and prepping some quinoa, and then not watching any TV at all but actually getting cracking on whichever Great Book might remain on your list, is sound. Do everything right! Who can argue with that? If only it were so simple. If only those pesky desires didn't get in the way. Which reminds me of another Billfold piece, by Nona Willis Aronowitz, about the way that life's tragedies, rather than automatically bringing about perspective, inspire such things as shopping sprees. Can't-take-it-with-you and all that. It isn't just - as Jezebel helpfully YPISes (and I'm not being entirely sarcastic) - that being in a position to save is not universal - if you're impoverished and unemployed, good luck. It's also that... stuff is nice. (Did I recently buy a pair of shoes that are entirely incompatible with Toronto's salted sidewalks, salted until who knows which month but I'm thinking April? Maybe.) As is free time. Perhach advises working full time and having an additional job on weekends, and... while, fine, I do this, I can't fault the people who don't.

It's always the same, right? To lose weight, eat less than you burn. To save money, spend less than you earn. By all means, find new ways to help people with these goals (well, the latter) get there, but at least acknowledge that there are reasons - sensible and less so - why people aren't already doing what they already know they should. It's not generally because the advantages to a different routine haven't occurred to them.

And then there's the more troubling angle, from a feminist perspective - which is sort of the only perspective from which to read something like this. (Other than: as literature. Which I'd recommend.) Are women who, out of financial dependency, put up with sexually harassing bosses and mediocre-turned-abusive boyfriends to be faulted for having not thought to save up enough to get out of whichever situation? The structure of Perhach's essay - two alternate narratives - doesn't outright blame the woman who ends up screwed. It's more, I don't know, that this is an unavoidable conclusion. Of course, how would one offer that same, sound advice without a victim-blamey edge? With disclaimers. And disclaimers are annoying, and pointless, and it's not as if the ideal narrative Perhach offers involves 'win trust fund, have parents who support you until you're elderly.' So maybe just forget my qualms, the qualms of the all-too-fallible (but these are spectacular shoes), and read the thing.


caryatis said...

I liked the article too. Way better than Billfold's usual articles where the author dithers about whether she should buy something frivolous she can't afford and then concludes that she should, because happiness.

In my experience, people are all too ready and eager to tell you their excuses. I don't think a motivational article needs to list all the possible excuses preemptively. And something like saving money is the kind of big, life-long goal that you kind of have to keep coming back to despite all the times you fall short.

I plan to go to the gym 6 days a week. If various obstacles cause me to skip a day (which happens a lot), should I conclude that my life is just too hard for fitness, or should I go back the next day? I'm still doing pretty well gyming 5 days a week. Same thing with a foolish purchase (I want to see the shoes!) or even a few years in an abusive relationship. You can acknowledge the shortcoming and move on.

Phoebe said...

Billfold's been really good! I liked Aronowitz's piece as well, which was absolutely about buying frivolous things, but which put that into a context.

And I do think there's something to be said for motivation. Which was why I kept going back and forth on the argument of that piece. Putting the old-and-obvious (save!) in a new framework might reach/motivate more people! It's a pretty bleak way of looking at it - my own frugality advice would be more about not acquiring new, expensive tastes, or cultivating some kind of internal sense of 'I've been spending too much' - but I think her way may be more effective.

But it also made me think of the Helaine Olen latte argument - changes in little choices, by someone who baseline is making next to no money, aren't going to make someone rich. Now, having enough money to get out of a bad situation isn't "rich," so that's not quite what the piece is doing. Maybe a little? But not really. Which is why I ultimately agreed with it.

caryatis said...

"Changes in little choices, by someone who baseline is making next to no money, aren't going to make someone rich."

But that baseline isn't inevitable, right? Especially if you're reading Billfold as a college student. I guess the best-case scenario for this sort of article is that young women will read it and really embrace its lesson: that you are responsible for supporting yourself, that you can't rely on someone else to cover your rent, and that unexpected expenses will happen. And that might lead to buying fewer lattes, sure, but more importantly it could lead to making better big choices--about education, career and deferring childbearing--which are the sort of decisions that actually make you rich.