Wednesday, September 24, 2014


"My therapist has told me I need to remember that I don't want to be in a relationship with him."

This, and only this, is the part of this advice-column letter we're going to discuss. The letter? It's about the lure of the aloof asshole. A classic problem, but not the question at hand.

And that question is: If you have a therapist, why are you writing to an advice column? Or: Why run such a letter? Or: If you are an advice columnist writing your own letters, why include a bit about a therapist? If you're already paying a neutral third party to discuss boy trouble, why are you taking up precious advice-column space? A second opinion, sure, but aren't advice columns for those in search of a first?

Monday, September 22, 2014

When the first-person person is a man

Nicholas Troester has (tongue-in-cheek) nominated a commenter to this very blog as "Commenter of the year," and with good reason. The commenter, who's chosen the discreet pseudonym of Anonymous so as not to be blacklisted by an op-ed-writing cabal, wrote the following, in response to my last post, on the women pressured into confessional writing:

Yes, but where is the demand coming from? This is a strictly by-for situation, but Hadley doesn't seem too keen to explore that angle (and neither do you, for that matter). The result is that demand for the "confessional" is put down to some non-specified blob of a demographic, even though we all know who is reading all this stuff. I'd also say that sociobiology/evopsych could explain this apparently perplexing phenomenon in about five minutes, but the op-eding class doesn't go in for biodeternism, so they'll continue to wonder why one half of society needs a visceral, emotional connection to the subject at hand. We really do live in an amusing world.
Between the lines, I think what Anonymous is saying is that women are the ones driving the demand for confessional writing, and that biological determinism explains why that's the case. And that if you don't agree, it's because you are part of, or have been silenced by, The Feminists.

Anyway, I was going to respond by pointing out that supply here is key: It's cheap (often free) to publish personal essays, and easy to get this content, because everyone can produce these, whereas not everyone can, say, analyze the subtleties of Cambodian politics. And you don't exactly need to factor in reporting costs - let alone international-bureau-type ones - if you're getting a 22-year-old's musings on the hook-up culture at her college. So even if the demand from men and women alike is greater for other topics, these are so much cheaper to produce that that's what fills the marketplace.

But then I realized I'd had enough Gender Angle for the moment, and will instead turn to two instances of personal-hook fails, where the authors are of the dude persuasion.

Here goes: Dude A wrote a piece about the downsides to prolonging life, Dude B, one advising parents not to leave money to their kids. Both reasonable topics, both pieces backed up with evidence.

But that's not enough in today's journalistic marketplace. We have to hear from Ezekiel Emanuel that he wants to die at 75, and from Ron Lieber that he doesn't want money from his parents. Why? Are we meant to believe that these authors are particularly representative of humanity, or that they, for personal reasons (as vs. professional expertise) truly get the issues at stake? What does it add to frame these topics in the first person? Is Kant's categorical imperative somehow involved? Is the idea that they're hypocrites until proven otherwise, and asserting that they'd do the thing they're advocating preemptively absolves them? Thanks to the personal twist, both articles end up reading smug-and-self-righteous in a totally avoidable way. The issue stops being inheritance or quality-of-life in old age, and starts being what sort of person we think Rahm's brother and this Lieber fellow might be.

And I'm not - as the way I begin this sentence suggests - an anti-first-person absolutist. What I object to is the first-person requirement. Or to this odd hybrid genre, where it's never enough that the writer feels whichever way (too subjective!), so you instead get a piece that results from how the writer feels, plus various evidence that supports whichever preexisting assumption.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

A placeholder post

Hadley Freeman is always right. But sometimes she's extra-right, as with her column on the pressure on female writers to get personal. It's a variation of a point others (myself included) have long been making, but Freeman nails it:

The book publishing world has, for some time now, become wholly memoir-ified. Nothing gets a publisher’s chequebook out faster than a memoir, to the point that nonfiction books that are ostensibly about a specific subject (butchery, say, or George Eliot) are now styled and sold as memoirs (respectively Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession by Julie Powell; and The Road to Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead.) Everything must be seen through the personal lens, the theory goes, and a personal story gives the reader a narrative to follow, because the disintegration of a woman’s marriage is far more interesting than some boring old butchery. Make the writer a celebrity and the book will sell itself – ta da! 
A book is not worth buying, it seems, unless the writer discloses something shockingly personal about herself – and it is, almost invariably, a her.
[I]t is a thin line between the long overdue validation of women’s lives and telling women that the most interesting thing they have to offer, and that all they can be trusted to write about, is themselves.
What can I add, apart from go read it?

One thing, I suppose, is that there's a blurring that goes on, where women are urged to write about gender-related topics that aren't about themselves specifically, but that kind of lend themselves to that interpretation. Either to a personal hook (which sometimes works but sometimes feels tacked on) or, more frustratingly, to reader interpretations along the lines of, if she's writing about contraception, she's writing about her contraceptive choices! Or, if it's something the woman maybe can't personally relate to - a thin woman writing about plus-size fashion, or a woman without kids writing about parenting - then she lacks the authority to write something on the topic, in a way that having never been to China and not knowing Mandarin or Cantonese wouldn't stop someone from writing an op-ed about China. And... there's no way for me to proceed with this thought that wouldn't, ironically enough, lead to a personal essay. Which is what Freeman ends up with, but it is, it seems, inevitable.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"Middle class"

As some of you might know, I'm hooked on BBC podcasts. The Woman's Hour and Comedy ones especially, but I sample around as well. British TV, especially if it's bad and from the 1970s-1990s. And British online newspapers, highbrow and decidedly less so. So! My question, Anglo- and Anglo-knowledgeable readers, is this: What do you people mean when you say "middle-class"? Various things are referred to as such, various cultural preferences, neuroses, etc. But does middle-class - as used in Britain today, not in some period when the aristocracy was more important - mean posh? Rich? Does it mean something like upper-middle-class means in the States, i.e. sort-of-rich, well-educated people who are not the 1%?

Or, conversely, does it have snobbish connotations as if from above, as in, middlebrow? In the States, "middle class" sounds sort of... ordinary? It means normal people, as vs. the destitute and as vs. the rich, but when used in, say, the media, without the "upper" qualifier, it means something closer, I think, to "working class" - a precarious status, not that of a definitive have. If you're middle class in the US, you would, for example, look at what things cost in the grocery store, and not be that guy who's rung up at Whole Foods, and the bill comes to like $200 for like three things, and he clearly does not bat an eye at this. (I may or may not be referring to a specific incident at the Princeton location.)

I suppose another way to put this is: Is there something between "middle-class" and the aristocratic elite? Would one of these schmancy business types who could actually afford to do and buy things in London (i.e. Kate Middleton's people), but who is not in the nobility, be "middle-class"? (Why is a Lorde lyric now stuck in my head? None of us can say for sure that we'll never be royals, now, can we?)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


-There is a dog in Japan that looks exactly like Bisou. Not as in, another gray poodle. Exactly.

-The housing changed the locks into card-entry, for the same reason as they came in and replaced our furniture - subsidized academic housing has its quirks. My husband's ID works to get into our apartment. Mine does not. I now have to enter through the back door (no innuendo intended!), which still allows a key. I'm sure it will all get resolved soon enough, but just, as they say, saying.

-Comfort-chic is so-very-now. According to a fashion expert, "[T]his season it’s about freedom and mobility." Flats, sweatshirts, etc. This - as I've said before - is a mixed blessing. If comfortable shoes are "this season," we can anticipate that next season will be a return of those horrible platform-plus-stiletto Louboutins, and the associated trend pieces calling such shoes (choice feminism! sex-worker-inspired!) empowering. Give it a couple months, and "mobility" will be so last season.

Monday, September 15, 2014

"Bambi legs"

So. What is this? Humblebrag-the-article? ("With pale skin, red hair, gangly arms, and clumsy legs, I’ve been told I look like either a manga character or a high school senior. There is no mature beauty about me. [She is 30 and has a baby.] Rather than mourn that fact, I dress to embrace it.") Trolling? ("What grown woman wants to risk looking childish in an expensive designer dress? That would be me.") Something in between? ("[L]ike my mother before me, who got carded well into her thirties, I’m often mistaken for a student.")

Or is it some sort of personality issue on display (or - it's writing! - that of the author's narrative persona)? ("Undeniably, there’s a small thrill, a tiny power in rejecting other women’s standards, in playing the provocateur. And in knowing firsthand the one sure way to win the attention of every man and piss off every woman in any given room: Wear thigh-high socks.")

Or is just obliviousness? ("Kate [Moss] herself was a revelation, a one-woman shift in the beauty paradigm who made it seem possible that there was an upside to being built like I was.") It might be super-highbrow thinspiration, which is, if nothing else, not something one sees every day. Not a genre one sees much of, which is probably for the best.

Whatever it is, it's strangely compelling. Well done, Stephanie La Cava. I may be a year older and an unthinkable number of pounds heavier than you are, I may identify with exactly none of that article, but it was, I suppose, food for thought.

Speaking of food, see also her Grub Street Diet. Although it, too, should probably come with a trigger warning of some kind.

The same old song

Sucker for advice columns that I am, I've had to branch out from Prudie and Dan, because sometimes weekend NJ Transit trains take that long. Which brought me to this Mariella Frostrup letter, from a man who sure sounds like a winner:

I have a female colleague who has, over the past three years, told me she loves me and would like to marry me. The problem is that I do not love her and I have told her that. I used to be in a relationship with another girl, but we recently broke up. In April I was at a low point and my colleague visited me and we had sex, and now she is pregnant. The dilemma I have now is that she insists that I marry her because the child will need a father and a mother.
It goes on, but doesn't become much more sympathetic or, for that matter, straightforward. Was this woman confessing her love and proposing marriage before the two had any kind of sexual entanglement? Or were they seeing each other, and he considered things more casual than she did? Was this April visit significant because that's the hookup when Female Colleague became pregnant, or was it the one and only hookup between the two parties? All of this matters, because we're looking either at a massively unhinged woman who's asking an acquaintance who could very well not be the father to marry her, or at a woman whose what-in-quainter-times-would-have-been-called-boyfriend refuses to commit.

Frostrup (whose advice is pretty sound, I suppose, either way) seems to assume the former. I read the letter... as close as I could read anything on my phone on a Sunday night train, and I'd say it's 50-50. It's obviously in the man's interest to downplay the extent to which he may have led her on by, say, having had some sort of ongoing thing with her. I mean, in most ordinary life situations, when one party's in love and the other is not, the two are at the very least involved.

Anyway. The bigger takeaway here, for me, was that letters like this - stories like this, and it's one of so many - illustrate the problem with the so-very-now gender-neutral approach to understanding and giving advice on relationships. Precisely everything that's playing out in this letter is deeply wrapped up in both the sex and the gender of the participants. Their sex, because of the pregnancy that's resulted (something I don't think Savage's "monogamish" ever successfully addresses - birth control can fail, people who support abortion in principle don't always want to get one, etc. - not issues in same-sex relationships), and their gender, because of the same-old-song way this is playing out. She wants marriage and kids; he wants consequence-free intimacy with a woman who's either very bad news (but hot/available enough to be interesting for sex) or just far, far more into him than vice versa. We might speak of them as "partners," but to do so ignores both biology and deeply-ingrained social roles.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

In lighter news

-A 32-year-old woman is enjoying college. Disagree with Dan Savage that the guy's into her, though - hard to pinpoint why, exactly. Maybe it's the comments, many of which are the sort of rationalizations women often give themselves - he's shy! he's afraid to ruin the friendship! - for why a guy hasn't made a move. While I'll accept that there are 20-year-old men interested in elderly women of 32 (#sarcasm, as one must note; I'll be 32 in under a year) attractive, I just don't get the sense that this 20-year-old finds this 32-year-old all that ravishing. On behalf of Team Women-In-Early-30s, I hope I'm wrong, though.

-More weirdness around adult women - and their uteri - being on their parents' health insurance. (Not lighter news, exactly, but not Iraq-war-announcement-of-erev-9/11, either.)

-Emily of Cupcakes and Cashmere answers a question I'd long been wondering about: How does one do that 'statement lip' look without looking otherwise washed out? I mean, I had seriously not known, but wanted to know. I now know. Useful information.

-According to the latest official Science, Ashkenazi Jews and Flemish Belgians are not related. Everyone in an Ashkenazi-Flemish couple is breathing a sigh of relief.

-The great closet-cleanse of late June was supposed to lead to a discovery of all the somewhat dressier, more glamorous clothes I'd wear if I weren't so lazy about such things. Instead, it unearthed a couple business suits from 2005, a super-elegant dress shirt with certain wardrobe-malfunction tendencies when combined with a cross-body bag (which is the sort of thing one wants to notice before heading out in that shirt, with that bag; what's done is done), some pants that were too small in 2006 and are lo and behold no more zippable in 2014, and other winners. Also a really spectacular shoe collection... if all of the shoes were in wearable condition. Few were.

So if the hoped-for end goal (shopping-of-own-closet) was out, maybe something was accomplished? At least now I know, in stark terms, what it is I don't own. And it's basically ever item that the Average American Woman supposedly owns a dozen of. Except for gray v-neck t-shirts. An infinite supply of those. And somehow, when browsing the e-commerce-sphere, I found myself gravitating to... more gray v-necks. Stacey and Clinton, consider yourselves summoned.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Dressing for one's fourth decade

Guest-blogging at the Dish was fun. If you're so inclined, check out my posts there, which cover the usual WWPD gamut - European anti-Semitism, shiny things, "privilege," and so on.

On a different note, clothes-shopping. Sort of. Let me start over:

I find it incredibly relaxing to look at clothes. Online or in person. I understand that there's a whole web of privilege-critique to apply to this - if I were black and thus preemptively accused of shoplifting, I might not enjoy poking around stores so much; so, too, if I didn't fit into straight-sized clothes, although that bit matters somewhat less, because I don't often actually try on any clothes. As someone whose career has been in the academia-and-writing realm, I've never had a tremendous shopping budget. If anything, I think the fact that I can't have all-the-clothes makes looking at them somewhat more interesting, but not so much so that I'd look around in a place where I truly could never, ever afford anything. (That, and little boutiques where it's just you, the salesperson, and the unaffordable clothes are not for me.) It's not that I never buy clothes - the Uniqlo receipts floating around various surfaces in my apartment suggest I do this sometimes. It's just that the looking-to-buying ratio is somewhat skewed. And I spend far too much time on the COS website for someone who's never going to buy these $100 Scandinavian minimalist dresses that would look reasonable - if on anybody - on a six-foot, broad-shouldered Scandinavian woman.

Offline clothes-browsing is not an activity easily indulged where I live. Less so, still, on a Sunday evening. But Urban Outfitters was open, so I figured, why not?

And it was a sea of... familiarity. All plaid flannel skirts and crushed velvet. Pre-ripped all-cotton jeans (the skinnies are on clearance; so last season). And then it hit me: I remembered when this was first in fashion. What an old-person thought, but there it was. What Tavi had been precociously nostalgic for a few years ago is now mainstream-hip. I guess that makes sense. (Self-promotional aside: NYMag linked to something I wrote about Tavi! Not quite the same as founding a magazine while still in utero, but it'll do.) Anyway, it occurred to me that if I can vividly remember crushed velvet dresses and Angela Chase-chic from the first time around, none of it would benefit my wardrobe.

That said. I know I should be thinking: 30s! Like those spreads in fashion mags, where they tell you how to dress for each decade, which seems so ageist when you're in your teens or 20s, but which, once you've seen yourself in clothes from 15 at twice that age, start to make sense. (There's an amazing bit about that, but as it relates to discussions of cosmetic surgery, in Roz Chast's new book.) As much as I might like the holographic oxfords I spotted on a recent looking-but-not-buying trip to a local mall, they'd do nothing for me. But what is 30s dressing, if not office attire for a corporate life I don't lead?

All that said: what do we think of these jeans, in Ultrafaded? So-very-now? Or yet another gesture in the wrong sartorial direction?

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

On haters and their tendency to hate

Facing a kind of mountain of everything-swamped, but must pause for a moment for a wonderful headline: "Designer Carolina Herrera Hates Your Outfit." That she no doubt does. While the chances are slim that she's seen my outfit (is she a deer? a rabbit? a newly-arrived physicist?), I can well imagine how she'd feel about a Muji cap-sleeved black t-shirt almost certainly selected for its $6-ness, a pair of Yves Klein blue (ha!) J.Crew shorts that also had a sale going for them (not fit, that much is for sure), and the Nikes (full-priced - fancy!) that I may have bought with some aesthetic vision in mind, but that I end up wearing every day with anything, which tends to defeat the purpose.

I'm sure that if Designer Carolina Herrera could take a crack at my NJ-humidity-styled hair, my I-was-thinking-about-nail-polish lack-thereof, and my plans regarding cookie-dough ice cream, she'd have the fashion police (and not, as is so often the case, the mold-removal people - so fun that there was a leak in the apt. upstairs after the people there moved out) at my door.