Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Edina Monsoon Syndrome

Marisa Meltzer is a brilliant writer, and a bunch of rich-hippie women (think the "Moon Juice" lady or, if you're not as tragically plugged into these controversies as I am, think GOOP) going into the wilderness to revel in pseudoscience is a wonderful, must-click-now topic. So when the moment in the day came to read something with no (immediate) work-related purpose, I devoured Meltzer's Harper's Bazaar feature on the Spirit Weavers Gathering. At it is even more of a gem-filled extravaganza than one might expect; see the Jezebel aggregation the gem-only version. (Basically, weird stuff involving IUDs and menstrual blood, plus the opportunity to purchase $400 dresses.)

But! There is handwringing. Just after retweeting the piece (which I totally meant it as an endorsement), I came across journalist Annie Lowrey's tweets, criticizing the piece for misogyny and shady ethics. (The rich-hippie women hadn't known Meltzer was a journalist. From Meltzer's article: "There's one woman at camp I've met before; she knows I'm a writer, so I keep hiding behind trees to avoid her, like I'm in a Looney Tunes cartoon.") And this seemed sort of... true, and in keeping with my own squicked-out-ed-ness at the nude photos embedded in the story. Yes, these were - are! - public and on Instagram. But in a specific context. I know it seems absurd to call any part of the internet a safe space for attractive young women to publicly post nude photos of themselves, but in a sense, maybe? Maybe not? Gah!

And yes, absolutely yes, there's a super-specific misogyny that involves (generally well-off, generally white) women (and men) bashing other women for being wealthy and white. More on that... later.

Then, though, there's the counter-qualm case: Would Meltzer get any of this criticism if she were a male journalist? (Upon reflection: Probably!)

Meanwhile, the less-enthusiastic aspects of my own response were mostly of a different nature. Here's the passage that jumped out:

[I]t seems like the vast majority—85 percent or 90 percent—of women here are white. The employees of the camp, the women who clean the toilets, are Hispanic. At some point during the weekend there's a talking circle for Spirit Weavers of color—which seems like a lost opportunity for a larger discussion about race, class, access, carelessness, privilege and probably a lot of other things I'm failing to mention.
Gah! Nonono! The thing you want to do, if you've gathered all the clueless rich hippie white women in one place, is not, definitely not, to have them discuss the social issues of the day. Should they really be encouraged to discuss (and thus Instagram discussions of) "privilege"? Think of Mischa Barton's yacht post! It would all be highly stylized and counterproductive and even if productive would look counterproductive and wind up shaming these women into never caring about the outside world ever again.

And then there's the inevitable problematic nature of rich-hippie dabbling. Meltzer's particularly worked up about the level of "cultural appropriation":
I know that people get up in arms when white girls wear feather headdresses to Coachella. At Spirit Weavers there were many white kids running around dressed like Tiger Lily in Peter Pan, with a single feather attached to a headband and moccasins on their feet. I can't tell if all the good intentions at Spirit Weavers make it any better.
And here's where I'm just not sure. It's not that I don't think symbolic or cultural items can be racist, or that people who aren't themselves members of the group in question can never comment on what counts as bigotry. (That Yale window? Super racist!) But... is anyone other than Meltzer offended by the "hodgepodge of cultures and spirituality: Indian music, Japanese incense, Moroccan rugs, all inside a Mongolian yurt"? Is she offended? Or is this - and I find the "I know that people get up in arms" bit telling - about her knowing that this is the sort of thing that will get people - mainly people who aren't Native American, and who aren't otherwise invested in being allies to that particular demographic - riled up?

Meltzer calls out the festival for hypocrisy: "A back-to-the-land weekend is perfect for resting and socializing. Do we really have to pretend we're changing the world at the same time?" But are they pretending this? How can they be bad, insufficiently intersectional feminists if "feminism" is "not a word [she] heard used more than once or twice at the festival"? That is, if it's not even claiming to be feminist? This seems like a conflation of categories. The rich-hippie earth-mama thing isn't inherently progressive, nor is there much reason to believe a woman, say, homeschooling six kids in the wilderness while raising organic coriander or whatever would be liberal. Are these women hypocrites? Or are they just... engaged in an activity that's kind of hilarious and a worthy candidate of gentle mockery? Is it that it's impossible to call the women out for silliness without arguing there's something politically problematic about their silliness?

In any case, it was (clearly) a thought-provoking read. So much so that I could go on, but maybe better to just suggest others read it for themselves.


Miss Self-Important said...

Are we sure these women really are rich? I think $700 is about how much a ticket to a Billy Joel or Rolling Stones concert costs these days. So these women might be rich, or they might just be like the regular people who attend those sorts of arena concerts, who often just think this is a worthwhile splurge b/c THE ROLLING STONES ARE LEGENDS or whatever. Also, in California at least, a lot of women are into this kind of lifestyle, and especially if their income is actually tied to it, like they sell caftans or essential oils for a living as some of these women seem to be, they're usually not all that rich. So it's a good thing they have all those DIY skills and can ferment their own kombucha, I guess.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Good point. The $700 figure jumped out at me as well - too much for some, but not, on its own, indicative of anything. (It's possible to signal adherence to the same aesthetic with $30 'natural' eyeshadow or $10 green juice, or even just sharing certain sorts of articles on social media.) It's presented in very much the same way as the eternal Asian-immigrants-taking-prep-courses story, where the prep course is *several hundred dollars* and therefore evidence that these are the true elites. And (because I had to look at the festival's instagram page itself, which is, unsurprisingly, less insufferable than the curated highlights) it seems as if there are "scholarships" so maybe not everyone even is paying that.

That said, I wouldn't be shocked if many of these are rich. A DIY caftan business could be a job, but also has the sound of something a woman with a rich husband would refer to as her job because we live in an era where women can't just not work.

Then again, I'm not even sure how much it matters. The women are white-privileged-oblivious. That is their *purpose* for the story. Whether they're actually rich, or actually white, or any richer/whiter than the journalist (who is, in this case, really, really good; I might have otherwise skipped this one) is almost a side note. They have to be The Mockable for the article to exist. If there's anything even slightly underdog-ish about them, it doesn't work.

Miss Self-Important said...

All of what you say is true re: these people are just silly rather than perpetrators of Great Injustice and should be described as such. But what strikes me about this article is not how very politically oblivious/rich/white/female the gathering is, but how very California it is. This is a place where pretty much the second question I was asked by my (medically-licensed, not homeopathic shaman) OB/GYN at my first pregnancy visit was, "Do you plan to eat your placenta?" There are dedicated "kombucha tasting rooms" in hip neighborhoods (yes, like a wine bar, but with kombucha*). The line between New Age nonsense and science is unusually blurry. I'm sure some of these ladies come in from out of state to spirit weave, but I'd wager the majority are Californians.

This in and of itself is not a point of any great political significance, but to move our Twitter convo about Styles style here, the writer's failure to notice this element of her experience suggests one way that lifestyle journalism hijacked by social justice concerns (sincere or not) is not as good. When you have to find your own an angle for a story, you might notice more about the situation, like its intense California-ness. When the article is justified in advance by the promise that it uncovers heretofore unnoticed social justice violations, you can get away with more superficial observations - maybe no more than what is the income and racial distribution of this group? - and be done with it. Which may be why there are hardly any quotes from the participants in this article, just official descriptions and images from social media.

Not that lifestyle journalism is or should be some great art form, but I did appreciate the knack for massaging outrageous quotes out of everyday (rich) people that the Styles writers had.

Miss Self-Important said...

*Not to slight kombucha. I kind of like it.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

While my own California knowledge is limited, what you're describing lines up with what I observed in Santa Barbara, and with my recent bafflement at the non-resemblance of this Californian nutritionist's food diary with anything I've actually seen out in the world. So... yes, I think there's something to this.

More generally, I think this lines up with something I've seen elsewhere in the big cultural-appropriation conversation. More frequently, it'll be an American complaining about cultural appropriation (or just cultural insensitivity) in another locale, ignoring that this other locale has different concerns, a different population, etc., meaning that the (in this composite case) American critic is doing the exact same thing he or she was complaining about. As for how that relates here... At this point, there's probably a long tradition of pan-'ethnic' California hippie culture, one that's long since branched away from the specific cultures once borrowed from.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, that food diary is peak California. Matcha juice, goji berries, kelp noodles. All of these foods can be obtained within literally 200 ft of my apartment. So this is a real lifestyle or sub-culture which is completely normal here but is also objectively absurd.

Of course it was all borrowed from somewhere (matcha from east Asia, acai bowl fad from Brazil, shamanic healers from who even knows where, though the kelp may well be local), but it's now been amalgamated into its own distinctive craziness, totally unrecognizable to any Korean or Brazilian but a matter of course to a Californian.

That's why I said above that the women in the article may not be all that rich, but just followers of the lifestyle for whom Spirit Weavers is the equivalent of a Billy Joel concert. I've met a number of people who go in for these kinds of things through birthing classes (again, the normal ones at the hospital, not the underwater-in-a-yurt ones, where nonetheless there are long diatribes against epidurals and c-sections and formula-feeding) and baby playgroups, and sometimes it has been the case that the woman is a crunchy yoga instructor married to a meat-and-potatoes business executive, but I think equally often, it's both spouses who follow this lifestyle. Which makes sense, since it takes a bit of commitment to subsist on kelp, and a supportive partner probably helps. But the result is usually not great wealth.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Right. It's not that these women are rich, but that they're "privileged." A category that doesn't actually mean much/anything about their level of wealth. It just means that there are, conceivably, poorer people, and that their interests can be dismissed with a 'white people amiright?' by other white people.

Miss Self-Important said...

One more thing about California and appropriation, not quite related to Spirit Weavers: The term recasts openness to new experience as rapacious destructiveness, which distorts how unusual and unlikely appropriation actually is. But most Americans are not open to matcha juice and kelp and shamanic healing. It takes real adventurousness to be willing to drink a weird green powder from China, or seek healing from a strange man in a forest hut before these things have the imprimatur of the FDA or at least a respectable American brand.

As much as I hate California and can't wait to leave, it is indisputably the most dynamic and open place I have ever been in America. The reason is that Californian are radically open to new experiences, which also makes them voracious cultural appropriators. Their very openness makes them tolerant of the immigrants who complain about being appropriated (as well of all kinds of weirdos and other noncomformists). It's the people who prefer the familiar to the new who don't appropriate, because they're content with what they have. So appropriation ends up being an engine for tolerance and diversity, while unwillingness to appropriate reinforces a closed and static order.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Yes - Toronto has this as well.

To move still further from the Spirit Weavers but stay on the same topic, I'm thinking of this NYT Magazine story on soccer and racism. Unlike the commenters who are super skeptical and accusing the author of inventing racism where there isn't any, I think there's probably something to it. But! If a bunch of white Americans became Mexican-soccer superfans, which would indeed be indicative of cultural openness, it's unlikely that wouldn't be interpreted (if not by this author, by others) as still more problematic.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, when that does happen, the author might suddenly discover that Latin soccer fandom is also violent and scary, and that the problem is probably soccer fandom itself rather than which continent's soccer you decide to become a fan of. But yes, I'm sure that Americans embracing Latin American soccer culture will result in a similar accusation. In fact, in one special place, it already has.

For now though, wouldn't the most obvious answer to his question about "why soccer fans in a country with millions of immigrants from soccer-crazed countries in Central and South America would look so longingly toward Western Europe" be that Latin American soccer is broadcast in Spanish? It seems like even the Americans who follow soccer in order to be racist as the author claims have notably alighted on English soccer rather than that of all the other equally fanatic European countries which inconveniently do not speak English.