Saturday, April 29, 2017

Who is cool enough for Howard Street?

It's never a good sign when, upon entering a store, you hear two young French women discussing how a salesperson had told them (and for this one of them switched to English, presumably the language of the interaction) they didn't have whatever it was in big enough sizes. These women were, you know, slender. Were they talking about the store they were exiting, or another shopping experience? That I can't say.

What I can say is the store this was: Reformation, on Howard Street. This is significant because there's this stretch of southeast SoHo that has this aura of ultimate cool. While I'd like to think I've aged out of being too intimidated to enter certain stores, that part of the city sets off that old apprehensiveness. From Outdoor Voices (been inside) to Glossier (wouldn't dare), Opening Ceremony (dared, for fear-overcoming purposes, really), it's all just so cool. It gets a tiny bit less intimidating west of Broadway, for reasons I don't entirely understand. Agnes b. is expensive, yes, but is not, like, judging me. Oak and Fort might seem minimalist and daunting if I didn't know it from Toronto and, more specifically, from the mall in Toronto.

Anyway. This bit of the city is near the one store where I do actually shop - Uniqlo, still Uniqlo, plus Muji when that's open, plus Housing Works but not the Housing Works in that part of town for some reason - so I decided to take a look. I was feeling confident, for some professional reasons, but also because the trench coat I'd been considering had been on sale in my size and in the color I wanted. (I'd also had luck at a Cosabella sample sale, which makes me think of the lyric 54 seconds into this video.) Maybe these stores... had sale racks? Maybe I would see something gorgeous and splurge?

I started with Outdoor Voices and was reminded that it is - at least to my insufficiently honed tastes - meh, even if the space does look like one of my favorite Toronto coffee shops. (Specifically: Early Bird.) Glossier, sorry, way too intimidating, plus I've already spent too much on things I've heard about on Into The Gloss, so the danger was great that I'd wind up leaving with eyebrow mascara, which is not something I am in fact on the market for.

At this point I was thinking it was time to get food, but I was so close to Reformation and had this vague sense from online that it would be filled with clothes like that French Birkin-esque model-socialite wears/designs. (She'd done a collaboration with them. Why do I know this?)

I went in. And the stuff was gorgeous. On point is I think how I'd describe it if I were someone young and cool enough to shop there. And rich enough. The clothes are (unlike my $60 trench coat, if less than my similarly-priced Theory-via-Housing Works blazer) ethically produced, at least according to the website, which means I can't moan about the prices without either feeling guilty or launching into a rant about how ethical fashion as a concept seems (sometimes but not always) designed to make people who can afford to spend a lot on clothes feel good about themselves.

Who are the women who wear these dresses? This one, say? They're young (as in, I would feel, at 33, too old for that one specifically; this I think I'm just the right age for, but a foot too short), but they have $200 to spend on a dress they couldn't wear to work... or could they? What are their jobs, or are they just professionally fabulous? They're presumably not women who'd be too intimidated to go into the Glossier showroom/store/whatever it is, but I suspect they're so cool they're on the list to get sent the eyebrow mascara for free.

Wheels on Fyre

When I saw the vague social-media rumblings about a music festival gone wrong, my impulse was that this was one trending story I could easily skip. I don't go to music festivals (and was never tempted, even in my younger, occasional show-going days), and can't get up much excitement over controversies (or fashions) specific to music festivals.

Then I saw the viral photo of a cheese sandwich. The sandwich - ordinary if unappetizing, but still presented with fresh-enough-looking mesclun - embodies the story. The story being, as I understand it from copious explanations (and backstories), that a music festival promised a luxury experience (and more; more on that more in a moment) but delivered... a badly organized, music-less music festival. Standard-issue tents and food instead of yacht parties or jet parties or whatever. Something approximating a regular vacation for most people, but a mess, and tragic-feeling for those experiencing it because they'd paid up for something else entirely.

Now, as someone who as purchased unnecessary goods and services, who am I to laugh at others having been ripped off? I mean, I've spent $6 (CAD but still) on matcha lattes, and if one of those turned out to be a cup of lukewarm Lipton, I'd have been displeased. (Note: that has never happened. They're magnificent and worth every Canadian cent.) Does this mean I forfeit my right to cast stones?

Or... does the sheer scale of this spending (tens, hundreds, of thousands of dollars), and its ostensible purpose (avoiding the peasant experience of going to a regular-posh music festival) make schadenfreuding, in this case, acceptable?

Does it even matter what I publicly conclude here, when I can perfectly well find it hilarious in private?  

What struck me most was the movie trailer for the festival, which I watched via the Vox explainer while on the bus to the supermarket (this background, I think, is key). Yes, the video depicts luxury, but more than that, it shows... soft-core male-gaze fantasy. It's a bunch of beautiful (famous?) women, and only women, in bikinis, frolicking and not infrequently making playful physical contact with one another:

This is, in other words, a sort of conspicuous consumption where access to beautiful young women is a big part of what's being bought. And not even in the sense of sex work - no, it's about being seen, by others, as the sort of man who can get women who'd universally read as desirable.

So yes, some of the visceral fun of watching the Fyre story unfold is about my snobbish sense that the (unaffordable-to-me) thing a bunch of people had paid for was (or, well, promised to be) tacky, douchey, whatever. Some is also that the lack of an equivalent phenomenon wherein rich women pay up to watch beautiful men dancing serves as a reminder of just how sexist our society remains. The proverbial punch, then, goes in any number of directions, if mainly, on the whole, up. But is that even the issue? Is this even political? Or if so, is it even subtly political? Or is it just populist catharsis minus so many of the troubling elements that that can sometimes involve?

Friday, April 21, 2017

What I mean when I talk about "privilege" criticism

So. I have been a fan of Eliot Glazer for even longer than I've been one of his sister, Ilana Glazer. Which is to say, I was binge-watching "It Gets Betterish" prior to "Broad City." I am deeply pro-Glazer. However.

The A.V. Club HateSong interview with Eliot Glazer, about a Meghan Trainor pop song, but really Trainor more generally, put me off, and I'm trying to put my finger on why. With interviewer Marah Eakin's encouragement, Glazer explains, at length, why the 23-year-old singer is not just not to his tastes musically, but is - in her embrace of content-free "empowerment" - an anti-feminist villain of sorts:
[I]n a world where feminism needs to be taken seriously, in the wake of the election and how we felt such a blow to the cause when everything shifted, at that point, it does more harm than good to have a singer who I’m pretty sure also doesn’t like the word “feminism” tell little girls how to act.
Oh, and she's kinda-sorta to blame, apparently, for Trump:
Meghan Trainor is just terrible. She really is a reminder that it’s still possible for the patriarchy to take control of the White House, the way that her brand of watered-down feminism can still be equally as powerful as it was when the Spice Girls called it “girl power.”
I should say that I come at this with zero feelings about Trainor or her music. My brief stint as a car-having person means I'm familiar with her butt-positivity song, and I remember it falling very much into that category of songs where I'd neither be pleased nor feel compelled to change the station. I have no interest in coming to Trainor's defense musically or politically. And yet the interview left me feeling weirdly - and with important caveats - pro-Trainor. Why?

As is so often the case with cultural criticism these days (yes, there's a chapter on just this), an essentially aesthetic objection is phrased in political terms. Sure, the starting point is Glazer's assessment that Trainor is "such a lowbrow dum-dum." But that has the whiff of a punch down. Snobbish, maybe even... classist. So the rest of the interview becomes this painstaking attempt at explaining the social justice necessity of hating this random pop singer.

The problem with Trainor is that she's "a 23-year-old from Nantucket." (A Google suggests Glazer's background is at least as posh.) That she appropriates black culture in her use of language. More than the typical white pop star or, for that matter, comedian? More than Glazer himself? Unclear, but Glazer is not the first to raise this issue where Trainor's concerned. If this had been his central political complaint, we could have a discussion of whether criticism along those lines, and from that source, falls more into the helpful or virtue-signaling category (and I'd be persuadable that it's the former), but alas, that is not the main point of the rant.

The main gist is that according to Glazer - note, a man - Trainor's doing feminism wrong:
Her version of feminism is just a party favor. It’s a thing to rhyme words about. It feels like she’s never read a book about feminism in her life. And maybe that’s being 23, but also: Stop. Stop and write songs about jelly beans or something.
That's but one passage of a long-form complaint that Trainor is bad for feminism, bad at feminism, maybe not even a feminist at all. And why? Because her boy-centric, body-positivity-focused concerns are so last season. According to a critic who is, again, a man. (If he were a straight man, I guess it would be a notch worse, but, as Miss Tibbs remarked on "Fawlty Towers," in a totally different context, "a man is a man.")

This is peak "privilege" criticism. We have a man who's managed to frame a gratuitous takedown of a woman performer with particular appeal to girls as the true feminist act. It can't be that Glazer thinks a performer sucks because she "writes terrible basic bitch sock hop stuff," both because that would be purely aesthetic and because it would hint at unsavory (that is, sexist and classist) politics. It has to be that he came to his anti-Trainor stance for only the most impeccable political reasons.

I now feel about Trainor approximately the way I've felt for a while now about Chelsea Clinton, which is to say, anti-anti. Even if the individual criticisms add up, the thing where white men present ugh-that-gross-woman-I-don't-like-ism as a social justice project is just, well, ugh.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Nice things

I was feeling that hankering for refurbishment. Or maybe just a beauty treatment. The problem: I don't do any of these. I don't get massages, manicures, pedicures, or any of the pseudomedical options. I just never got into any of this. But I get the impulse.

So I was an easy sell, if you could call it that, when I saw Into The Gloss's video with French stylist Christophe Robin, promoting a pop-up he's doing in Tribeca. I clicked on "How To Wash Your Hair" with some skepticism, but by the end I was utterly convinced. 

While my first impulse was to go out and buy the eye shadow the model is wearing in the video (which, gulp, I also did, in silver, as per the details in the comments), I was too intrigued by the prospect of a (free! although in such situations I always tip or at least ask to) shampoo and blowout in a glamorous and fleeting Parisian salon within walking distance (very loosely defined) of my home. 

The salon itself was spectacular. Were there poodle figurines throughout? Yes, there certainly were.

Was the experience exactly like in the video? Not entirely - most obviously, I am not a model. And my hair issue is not and has never been greasiness, as a week in NJ without hot water once demonstrated.

While I met Robin (who's very charming and gave me not just samples but helpful explanations), a different (but also French) man washed my hair with an array of the special products. Then another stylist - a woman who is, much like yours truly, non-French - blowdried my hair... and made it look better than I would have thought possible. Was it the products? The use of an apparently $400 hairdryer? The (special, also-Robin-branded, I think) brush? Whatever it was, it was at least a good part her technique, which I did my best to file away for future reference. How? How did my hair go from a mix of frizz and straw to what you see below?

Yes, this is a selfie I took in a Pain Quotidien.

I was feeling splurgy so I asked the stylist which product would allow me to replicate this at home (leaving out the part about how I frequently fall asleep with wet hair). She said all the products were contributing, which is doubtless true, but I wasn't feeling quite that decadent. So I went with one, a leave-in conditioner (?) sort of product, which, fine, for all I know (having never done this) cost more than a blowout from one of those blowdry places. (I know it's googleable but I choose ignorance on this matter, because this was a lot of fun but not something I expect to repeat.) 

Also: I'm not sure how to balance use of this new product with the fact that I will now never wash my hair again. I have big plans that involve combining The Hair (now with DIY trimmed bangs) and The Eye Shadow and... The Navy Rayon Clothing From Uniqlo, I suppose.

The most surprising aspect of all of this is that I learned that the type of shampoo I'd used in high school, and later looked back on as an example of my hair-cluelessness at the time, is actually the sort I should be using. Clarifying shampoo! That was, all along, the way to go.

Conditions of production

For everything in the world, every good and every service, there's the behind-the-scenes. Others can only judge the final product, as is fair. This is no less true of writing. Below, then, is a behind-the-scenes account. A process post, of interest, I suppose, to other writers, and to anyone curious about writers' neuroses and work-related anxieties.

I'm thinking, first, of my dissertation. Once I knew I'd be writing on French Jews and intermarriage, I had this goal of covering everything. After all, this was a narrow topic! I was going to write the definitive work about every last aspect of it. Fictional and real-life cases! Actual rates across time and location! Comparisons with other times and places! I was going to cover everything from the French Revolution to World War II! I was going to visit different regions and find out everything!

In the end, I had to focus on what was possible given existing sources (and resources) and my own methodological limitations. I did research in Paris and New York, and not across France. I stuck with the 19th century. And - and here's the big one - I was never being able to ascertain how many French Jews married out across this period. France didn't keep records of marriage by religion. I spoke with established scholars who are experts in Jewish demography, and they confirmed that not only do figures not exist in published works, but there's no simple way, likely no way at all, of figuring this out. 

Now, to some doctoral students, this might have posed an exciting challenge. (And I hope someone gets to it!) For me, it would have been a prohibitive sidetrack. I was in an interdisciplinary PhD program, but trained primarily as a literary scholar, housed in the French literature department. If I was going to write the dissertation I needed to and felt passionate about, and to spend less than a lifetime doing so, I was not going to self-train as a demography innovator. I was going to have to state what was known or knowable to a scholar from an adjacent field, and focus on the questions that most centrally interested me, which related more to perceptions and anxieties at the time than realities. 

The interdisciplinary nature of the program I was in, and the project I was doing, was in some ways freeing - I got to work with historians and write scholarship of interest to people in a variety of fields - but it was also daunting. I felt - and still feel! - a certain amount of... regret? guilt? at having not written the work on French Jews and intermarriage covering every possible angle and discipline. Yes, even though my committee was pleased with the result. I did my best to - and this is always the trickiest - make sure my argument as presented at the beginning of the document matched up not with the one-time everything-covering dream project, but with what I was actually able to produce. Still. 

So. While my book is not in the least bit based on my dissertation (it's about the idea of privilege in contemporary American cultural conversations, not that of intermarriage in 19th century France, and is for popular audiences, not specifically academics), the thesis-writing experience prepared me for the fact that the book I'd wind up with was unlikely to cover absolutely everything on the topic. I knew - again, from that experience - that no project can use every methodology. I knew that at a certain point, I'd have to determine which paths served my argument, as well as which were beyond what my skills (or, really, contacts) would allow. I knew I couldn't do everything, just, you know, some things.

Writing a book wound up being quite different than writing a dissertation - more fun as well as more challenging. A dissertation feels like a solo slog, but I wrote my in a cohort. Not continuously surrounded by friends doing the same (except at the BNF!), but often enough that I never felt like I was doing it alone. A book, on the other hand... it's really just you writing it. Yes, instead of an advisor, you have an editor. But there aren't a whole crop of other writers who start and finish around the same time you do. Or maybe there are, if you do an MFA, but I did not, so there weren't. From college, from social media, I knew (and 'knew', respectively) a handful of authors, none of books similar to the one I was working on.

And then there's the structure question. I was lucky to be funded throughout my doctoral program, including long stretches where my only responsibility was to write. Paid to write! Not paid a ton, but enough, and with health insurance. Books - with rare exceptions, as I understand it - are not like that. I was tremendously lucky there as well - editor-wise, publishing-house-wise, and even advance-wise - but there was never a question that I would still need to earn money in other ways while writing. Yes, yes, my privilege is always and forever showing, but I, the author of the privilege book, am not independently wealthy. As is normal for authors, I worked - in my case, teaching and doing other writing. For a year, free time didn't really happen, and I'm going to have to say, it was worth it. If not necessarily a schedule I'd repeat. 

And I think the whole needing-to-work thing was good for the book, as in, good for the end result that now sits before readers. Limited time forced me to focus, in a way I never had to for the dissertation, with those months spent living in a dorm room in Paris with all the croissant money a person could ask. (Also key: books have deadlines. Dissertations, not as much.) What is this book really about, and why does it need to be written? I had to keep this front and center. 

That said, does my inner critic immediately turn to places I would have added/expanded, had I had all the time in the world? Of course! Does this make any criticism that (inadvertently, of course) lands on wondering why this or that wasn't mentioned, where "this or that" is precisely what I'd have mentioned with more time, extra frustrating? It does. This, even though with more time, I'd likely have spent it making more thought-through decisions about whether to get a cappuccino or a matcha latte, and not turning my book into the imaginary, every-methodology-covering fantasy every project probably always will be, before practical constraints and my own limitations enter the picture.