Thursday, July 21, 2016

"This is one of our great national conversations, isn’t it?"

The thing about having already written the manuscript for a book about privilege is that delightful "privilege" stories keep popping up that can't now be included. This is, I realize, for the best - there's already plenty, rest assured! But this one, from a Dear Prudence letter (yes, the one I just tweeted about), is worth a glance. It's amazing in a somewhat different way than examples I look at in the book, and so it works as a stand-alone vignette of the framework's weirdness:

First, the backstory: In a letter last week, advice columnist Prudence (now Mallory Ortberg) told off a woman who'd yelled at her 18-year-old half-sister for very classic family-drama reasons. The half-sister was the product of the father's cheating. Dad has demonstrated a certain amount of favoritism - including the big'un where family drama is concerned, financial - to the 18-year-old. Prudence correctly assessed that this was a sad situation, but that blaming the half-sister for existing wasn't the answer. The letter-writer's beef was with her unpleasant-sounding father. Indeed.

This wasn't one of the out-there, unusual-sexual-arrangements Prudence questions, so I'd forgotten about it until this week, when someone wrote in to complain:

None of [the situation] was the sister’s fault, you basically said. But I take exception to that. Why shouldn’t the younger sister be made aware of how her privilege has impacted others? That there was time, affection, and money for her in part because it was denied to the other children? This is one of our great national conversations, isn’t it? To acknowledge the impact when people in power (in this case, the father) privilege some and deny others?
It goes on:
For the sister to be so oblivious to how their father had treated his other children is, frankly, her fault. The older sister may owe an apology for the way she delivered her message, but the younger sister owes it to her siblings to recognize she gained from their poor treatment and not blithely go about mentioning it.
Prudence does a stellar job of holding her ground. What interests me here, though, is the specific way this week's letter-writer goes wrong. What this one does is apply a "privilege" approach as if it were the ultimate rule in all things. A "national conversation" evidently necessitates taking an aggressive stance wherever "privilege" is concerned. Note that here, "privilege" isn't the systematic advantage of members of one group over members of another, but favoritism within one family.

What's specifically interesting, then, is that "privilege" confuses matters, in much the same way as it does elsewhere, but it's just more obvious: Rather than locating the site of the older half-sister's (legitimate!) grievance with her father, the question becomes whether the half-sister has acknowledged the impact of her own - yup - unearned advantages. It's almost as if "privilege," in this case (and perhaps others), functions as a passive voice, focusing attention on the acted-upon, and misleadingly erasing the actors.

Placed in this interpersonal context, it all makes so much sense: It can certainly feel more important for someone oblivious to unearned advantages to acknowledge those, than for the source of the inequality to get a good talking-to. And very often, the oblivious-beneficiary party is simply more accessible than the source-of-injustice party. (See that other classic tale: the Other Woman hated, the cheating man given a pass.) But making the ideal end goal Half-Sister Acknowledges Privilege is not only unfair to the half-sister, but also a way of giving a pass to the person here who's actually at fault.

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.

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.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The long-anticipated Defense of Stuff

The piece I wrote recently for the New Republic about stuff vs. experiences seems to have gotten some interest. Elissa Strauss put the ideas into context helpfully in Slate, while Rebecca Schoenkoff had fun with the topic at Wonkette. The Atlantic included the piece in a "highlights" roundup. Miraculously I can still walk through the streets of Toronto unnoticed, but it's only a matter of time until we're talking sunglasses-and-autographs territory.

And there's now even a Bloggingheads on it! I got to debate materialism with Aryeh Cohen-Wade, who made the case for experiences. I was... meant to make the case for stuff, but never quite got there. What I did instead was make the point that much of what's often viewed as worse about 'stuff' applies no more to stuff than to experiences. The case, in other words, against being anti-stuff.

Because I ramble (slightly) less in writing, here's a second attempt at the positive argument for enjoyment of stuff:

For some people - for whichever mix of we-were-socialized-to and we're-just-like-that - it's fun to buy and/or make new things. This is a broad category that includes clothes-shopping and cooking, home decor and book accumulation. It doesn't mean enjoyment of all these categories, or indiscriminate enjoyment of any one of them. I can't speak to what it means for all, but for me, it means having a particular clothing item/recipe/book in mind (not quite at the home-decor life-stage, she types from her it'll-do IKEA couch) and being pleased to wear/use/read it.

But to simplify matters, I'll stick with the big one: clothes. That's the one with some shame attached. No one is judging me for owning condiments (with the possible exception of a broker my landlord hired to rent out our place, who passed along the not-false information that clear surfaces in the kitchen would make his job easier), or calling book-consumption shallow. But just saying I like clothes makes me sound cretinous. It demands disclaimers, apologies. But I'm going for positive here, so I'm going to save those for later.

Here's what 'liking clothes' involves, for me: I think of things I want to wear, inspired by women I know, or who I've seen on the street in Toronto, or on the street elsewhere when I have a chance to experience elsewhere, or on TV shows (female detectives!), or on fashion blogs (such as there still are), or because - and here I'm thinking specifically of the cherry-blossom sneakers; no other example is coming to mind - because I've seen something in a store window and thought how fantastic it is that this item even exists. I don't just go and buy all of it at once, both because $$$ and because that wouldn't be any fun. (How many times can I refer to Kei's brilliant concept of a "wanty list"?)

Because it's not about wanting white Birkenstocks since seeing a woman in Toronto with roughly my build and clothing color scheme wearing them. It's about sorting out which I'm looking for, in which material. And all that only after thinking about what, of what I already own, I'd wear them with. While I don't quite still view my wardrobe in terms of different fashion personalities, there's nearly always a vision for what will be worn how. What look it's all going for. And I'm not really an impulse-shopper. If I go to a store without a specific item in mind, or with only a vague plan ('I will buy a summer dress'), I wander around with... exactly the attitude of someone who hates shopping, and leave without buying anything.

But I got the sandals, and wearing them is great. I feel more myself in an outfit that I like, more together. And conveniently for me, I'm not so fickle as to require constant changing-it-up in the clothing department. If anything, I make the #KonMari mistake of hanging onto clothes (shoes) beyond repair, simply because I totally would still wear them if they hadn't fallen apart (red patent ballet flats), and sometimes do because... red patent ballet flats! Yes, that's what 'liking clothes' can mean - liking what you own so much that when it falls apart or no longer fits, this is a disappointment, so you keep wearing things a little too long. How oddly... not-wasteful.

For me - and who else would I have the authority to speak for on my very own Weblog? - putting in effort in this area is a matter of self-confidence, or something along those lines. At times when I've felt sort of ugh, I haven't felt I deserved either new clothes, or, on some level, even to wear the nicer things I already own. For others, who knows? If you're someone whose "ugh" leads to purchasing the entire contents of the nearest mall, this is not your experience, and maybe liking clothes is not, for you, a positive force in your life. For me, it is.

In a sense, the positive case for stuff is very straightforward. People like it! I don't need to explain why shopping can be fun, nor that in the history of humanity, people have acquired objects without falling into a sea of debt and hoarding. Thus why the anti-stuff tirades are always framed as, you only think you like stuff, but it's a mirage. What if it's just... not a mirage? What if the things in life that seem nice - new shoes, catching a glimpse of Justin Trudeau at the Pride parade - actually are?

And now the handwringing:

To like clothes isn't to like all clothes. Nor is it necessarily to like status clothes, or the clothes of the moment, although I see nothing wrong with either of these factors trickling into the great unknowable that is why we like the things we do. Nor does it mean spending a lot, or too much relative to income, on clothes. Nor, indeed, does it mean owning more clothes than people who just wear whatever. It means getting enjoyment out of deciding what to purchase and, once you own it, how to style it. It's that simple. No great sin has occurred.

Or, put another way: Those who go out of their way to make sure everything they wear is either used or (definitively) ethically produced (as in, not just expensive and marketed as an 'investment') get to hold a moral high ground. Those who simply don't care what they wear and have closets full of clothes they're indifferent to don't get any good-person points for non-enjoyment of the mall.

Oh, and if this needs stating: To like clothes isn't to get tremendous joy in one's own reflection in the mirror. I'm 20 years past losing sleep over questions of whether I'm stunning or hideous, having too many years' worth of accumulated knowledge that I - like nearly all of us - am neither. I fall into the same category as most, which is to say that if dressed reasonably nicely, I look quite a bit better than I do in sweats.

I'm not clear where the line exists between stuff and experiences. Yes, a plane ticket is in one category, and a knick-knack ordered online, another. But rarely is it that straightforward. (Or nor even there: maybe the flight is to a shopping trip, and maybe knick-knack-browsing online is a wonderful experience!) In a sense, maybe that's where my beef with the experiences-are-better-than-stuff brigade comes from. So, so, so often, the things praised as "experiences" and therefore noble sound awfully... stuff-y, while the things derided as "stuff" are basically about the experiences involved in acquiring the stuff, or that the stuff reminds someone of.

As came up on the Bloggingheads... while lots of stuff-acquisition is about keeping up with the Joneses, so, too, is plenty experience-having. Why does "stuff" suggest debt, while "experiences," which can be at least as expensive and ostentatious, get a pass? Indeed, given that everything gets photographed and shared these days, it's incredibly difficult for me to see how the mountain vista on a vacation that someone surely paid for is any different than a handbag.

In other words, insofar as there is a dichotomy, but it's not stuff vs. experiences. It's between the things (material or not) you actually get some sort of pleasure out of, and the ones you're under the impression you ought to consume, and consume reluctantly but out of a fear of what would happen if you did not. (There's a name for the latter category: kale.) If you find you're spending too much money and time on things you only think you should like, then... that's probably the place to cut back. As in, sure, the money I put towards new sandals could have gone towards one of those exercise classes that women of my demographics supposedly enjoy. But having once dipped a toe into the world of paying to exercise, I get the sense that it's not for me, not now, at least. I'd rather have the sandals, so I chose correctly.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

T-shirts to blouses: In praise of the micro-makeover UPDATED

When I think of high school, specifically my time in high school, I think of gray t-shirts. V-neck, I believe. This wasn't like Mark Zuckerberg, with a gray-shirt uniform signaling a preoccupation with that which is more important. The gray t-shirt was, for me, a way of projecting invisibility. I wasn't making a thing of wearing gray t-shirts, and didn't only wear that color. It just seemed like the way to be clothed without endorsing a brand or asserting allegiance to a subculture (remember, these were the days when the worst thing ever was to be a poser). The gray t-shirt doesn't impose. It's so unimposing that it can go into the laundry with the whites or the colors. And you have to really try to find one that's expensive, which is another way of saying: they're cheap.

In more recent years - which is to say, I'm talking about items currently in my closet - I found myself intentionally embracing the same gray jersey-material garment. It seemed very Gwyneth Paltrow, or Parisian, or I don't even know, but it seemed not bland but classic, which is always dangerous to think when you're taking your aesthetic inspiration from GOOP, but there you have it. I would pair an Everlane scoopneck one (note the aspirational past tense) with some pale beige or pink nail polish, dark jeans, and ballet flats. A grown-up, sophisticated approach... that allowed me to wear the same boring shirts, but this time with narrow-cut jeans, rather than bootcut, because 2010s vs 2000s. Revolutionary.

(Crucial side note: While I've always owned a button-down or two for interviews and the like, I've never worked anywhere that wasn't gray-t-shirt-compatible, and between grad school and freelancing, have done a lot of work from home. And... maybe you shouldn't teach in gray t-shirts, in the abstract, but you can do things like pair them with black slacks and a fake-pearl necklace from the Kensington Market, or so I've heard.)

And then at some point over the last few months, it occurred to me: shirts. Blouses. I'm worth it! ("Worth" being key, as non-t-shirt shirts involve spending $30-plus rather than capping things at $20 but mainly staying at $10, as well as using the delicates cycle and line-dry approach; haven't quite made it to dry-clean-only.) While the same might not be true of Gwyneth Paltrow, who'd look good in an organic sweet-potato sack, I, at least, look a lot better in something dressier than a drab undershirt. It's the same level of improvement as lipstick or eyeliner. It's... effort. Which - and you wouldn't know it from the headlines - looks better than effortlessness.

I'm still experimenting with exactly which shirt-shirts this will be. In rotation - that is, on the days when I'm walking the walk - are the following:

-A blue long-sleeved Muji button-down with a white Peter Pan collar. Too warm for it now though.
-A white off-the-shoulder 3/4-sleeve from Zara.
-A pale-blue striped and slightly cropped (slightly) off-the-shoulder from Bershka at the mall in Rehovot.
-A sleeveless, also blue-and-white, part-peplum one that (bonus points!) buttons in the back, from Durumi, a Korean-brands boutique here in Toronto.
UPDATE: Forgot one! There's also a sleeveless white linen button-down, from Uniqlo.

As the limited nature of this collection would suggest, I have yet to truly take this plunge. But it's a start.