Monday, July 18, 2016

Foer days late to the most important story of all time

So here's something I'd wanted to write about for a Jewish publication, but was very much beaten to the punch, which... I'd sort of figured would happen, because, I mean, this story. It's now yesterday's news, but the personal Weblog is yesterday's genre.

What follows, to be clear, is not the article that might have been. Rather, it's the free-from-constraints WWPD version. This is the very definition of my beat, in a way that no other story past or present possibly could be.

Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer. By now we all know this much: He got the byline, she the pantsless fashion spread in that T Magazine story from over the weekend. It was kind of like that Margot Robbie profile, except, I think, much worse. With the Robbie one, I'd thought it was a bit silly that the standard feminist complaint was that this woman famous primarily for being gorgeous wasn't being asked more intellectual or substantive questions. After all, isn't a better feminist complaint why the women in magazines being asked questions, period, tend to be ones about whom the salient (known) facts are such things as "26," "blonde," "sufficiently good at acting," and "looks good in a bathing suit"? Meanwhile... yes, Portman is beautiful (ahem, understatement), but the reason she's being profiled is because she directed a highbrow foreign film. (Clarification UPDATE: the *profile* is a pretentious/flirtatious musing on Jewish identity and alternate side of the street parking regulations that has been aggregated and parodied all over the place at this point.) But we're still in the world of male-gaze female pantslessness.

The Foer-Portman article, though, presented itself as more sophisticated. This is even alluded to in the profile, which isn't a profile but a back-and-forth email exchange (but intended for publication) between two colleague-type friends (and more on that in a moment). At one point Foer writes (and note that this needs to be specified in a piece given only his byline, ahem): "[...] we weren’t going to be in the same place for long enough to allow for a traditional profile — me observing you at the farmer’s market, etc., which would have felt ridiculous, anyway [...]" Ridiculous why? Because they already knew each other, or because standard-issue celebrity profiling is for peasants?

And then there's the gossip angle, which is too fascinating, and which sheds light on a reason, other than logistics, why the profile may have had to be via email, rather than at the café where the starlet orders and picks at the proverbial cheeseburger (but not real one, in this case, because of the famous vegetarianism of the parties in question).

Anyway. I read Foer's recent short story in the New Yorker. And it was... fine. But it was also a predictable return to that thing in Jewish literature where "Jew" equals a Jewish man; where penises and that ever-fascinating-to-men question about them (cut or uncut?) is the metaphor; and where female characters couldn't possibly play into any of the psychodrama. Not to be all, Philip Roth did it and did it better and so did Arnon Grunberg so why bother, but... Roth and Grunberg did it better, and even if I weren't a Jewish woman myself, I'd be ready for stories about Jewishness that weren't entirely about the concerns of - to use an of-the-moment but in this case entirely needed specification - cisgender men.

Portman, meanwhile, is the subject of longtime fascination here at WWPD. If you're a petite, dark-haired, pale-skinned Jewish woman who's read at least one book not assigned in school, and who has at any point in her life given off that vibe that says, 'Please, men of a certain type, write me pretentious emails' (a vibe that is, let it be known, entirely consistent with "RBF" in day-to-day interactions), you are that type. (There are plenty of us; allow me to shed all intellectual credibility and note that we're what Patti Stanger refers to as "spinners.") But as much as I am that type, I'm also not that. I'm not about to be hired to be the face of a perfume, or to pose in a thousand-dollar sweater and little else. Which is a way of saying that yes it annoys me, as a feminist, that she's pantsless and not given a byline, and yes it gets to me that Jewish literature is to this day such a (kosher-) sausage-fest. But there's also the whole thing of how Natalie Portman is Natalie Portman and I am not.

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