Thursday, September 28, 2017

On just reading about Justin Trudeau for the articles

What does "sexy" mean to you? What does the word evoke?

If you're wired any way other than standard-issue hetero dude, there's an awfully good chance your answers to those two questions will not be the same. The word "sexy" evokes young blonde women with large breasts. And yet, people who meet that description - and images of the same - do nothing for me. How can that be? Does this mean I'm... sex-negative?

I've been vaguely following the discussion around Hugh Hefner, who has died, and who was - I am now learning, this is not something I'd ever given any thought - apparently not just a tame-ish middlebrow pornographer but also a social liberal in some important and before-his-time ways. What does it all mean?

Sexual liberation without feminism is not sexual liberation for all. It's sexual liberation for men. Mostly for straight men. When women push back against male sexual liberation, this gets mistaken for prudishness, when what it oh so often is, instead, is a lack of interest in... women, or women presented for a male gaze. Or sexual acts involving a man and two women, at the man's suggestion. (Our society's default where Sexual Adventure is concerned.) A lack of interest, that is, in the things straight men tend to/are expected to find sexy, paired with a visceral understanding that a good number of things men find sexy aren't the greatest for women. (As it would go, for men, were women in charge.)

Ours is a society already centered around male desire generally, straight male desire especially. More to the point, it's one centered around men - their needs, what's convenient for them - in general. So abandoning rules, unless intentionally done with feminism in mind, means giving further freedom to men, while decreasing that of women. It's not always zero-sum, thank goodness - the pill seems a fine case of everyone benefitting - but it sure can be. 

The mistake is to think differences in male and female interest in sexy-as-society-defines-it are rooted primarily in an asymmetry of desire, rather than an asymmetry of power. To imagine that men lust, women lust after push-up bras and, later, eye creams that might make them look lust-worthy.  

Remember that we are living in the era of the Savage Lovecast and nuanced, mature conversations about cuckold fantasies, but also that of "cuck" as (revived) insult. Of consensual post-monogamy arrangements and Very Modern (ostensibly) gender-neutral forgiveness of dalliances, but also of Trumpian men-can-do-whatever, women-not-so-much. We are not living in gender-neutral times, no matter what pockets of doing-its-best enlightenment might suggest. This means we haven't the slightest idea how male and female sexuality would differ without all the cultural constraints that are most definitely still in place.

Let me put it another way: Is a magazine featuring sexy photos of men, plus serious articles, even conceivable? A niche one for gay men, perhaps, but one with a mainstream or presumed-female audience? Because it's not that women just aren't visual creatures. Looking at photos of attractive men, being aware of attractive men, this is absolutely understood as a part of female heterosexuality, but one to be outgrown. In a woman, sexual desire - for men, maybe in general - is seen as incompatible with seriousness. Incompatible with maturity. Thus - maybe? - why so much of the recent feminist move to reclaim female heterosexual desire (reclaim it, that is, from the assumption that it's merely the desire to be desired) has centered not merely on younger men but on boy bands and teen idols.

The (misguided) thinking is that mature female sexuality - once you age out of caring about Jordan Catalano or One Direction or whatever - is about flexibility, malleability, being agreeable. Thus the refusal, on the part of... society? too many men?, to ever really believe a woman when she says she's straight or - for that matter - gay.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

No opinion

For over a decade of my life, maybe longer, I had opinions. So many opinions! Why? I have no idea. But I did. Whichever (entirely sensible) reticence stops most from holding forth in print on various topics their views may change on in a week's time, I lacked. I had an op-ed column in the college paper. I blogged (and wrote some articles) during grad school. After that, I wrote more articles; guest-blogged while at the Dish; had various regular but technically freelance gigs; and... the book. An entire book, published by a major publishing house, filled with my opinions! Something I still can't believe I had the opportunity to do.

For the past few weeks, I have been - to put it very mildly - busy with work. Work that has zilch to do with my opinions on privilege; on Chait's latest piece, Trump's latest outrage; cultural appropriation; intrafeminist debates, "Becky"; or problematicness. OK, near-zilch - one course I'm teaching involves some discussion of contemporary-ish opinion articles, but on French Jewry, which is not really at the heart of takesville. And I've been doing some book-stuff here and there. Mostly, though,  I'm teaching and doing admin work for French language classes. The pace of this work, while intense, is likely to slow up a bit once further into the semester, meaning I will again be able to opine. Able as in, with a bit of free time and energy that could go to that. But will it?

I can't decide if my profound indifference, at least at 10:17pm, after teaching two classes almost back-to-back, one ending at 8pm, is simply a matter of being tired; whether it points to some ominous disinterest in the things that used to give me pleasure; or whether it's a sign that I'm ready to move on to the next thing, writing-wise. And I think it's mostly the third.

As for what the next thing writing-wise will be, the whole tired thing means my notions are, for the moment, somewhat vague. More literary (fiction; I can appreciate, but not produce, poetry), less take-ish.

It's been freeing, in this odd way, to realize how not-remunerative even professional, full-time ( if patched-together) opinion-writing, except I guess at the very top (which I can safely now say having a book out with a major publisher, and clips in major publications, is not), tends to be. Payments are too low, too late, to be anything but supplements to a day job. Editorial and columnist positions that sound great and are indeed a lot of fun are - sometimes, not always, but more than one might imagine - freelance, precarious and without benefits.

And that's when everything is going as promised. If I were to speak openly about every entity, every individual, that either didn't come through with payment or required months of prodding to do so, or that caught me at just the right moment and persuaded me to do extensive unpaid labor, I'd burn... not my most important professional writing-related bridges, thank goodness, but... still quite a few of the somewhat-important ones? But what would even be the point, when the culprit likely isn't the individual editor, or even (necessarily) the specific publication, but the industry as a whole? Because on some level, the assumption is that writing - the fun sort of writing - isn't anyone's means of self-support. Thus the non-absurdity, in this context, of demands for revision of work you have done for free.

If I start from the assumption that none of this pays, not really, I can save the opinions for... where I actually, urgently, have an opinion about something. For things like... the book. Or, more recently, this article. And I can also write other things! Things not tied to the news cycle! At least, this is the hope.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Best of Toronto, subjective and subject to change edition

Lately I have mostly been either teaching, doing admin work for teaching, or drinking the enormous coffee-chocolate-sugar beverages that allow me to do both of these things on little sleep. Aka it's the start of the semester. But I'm trying - now that I'm doing just this, and not writing a book at the same time - to see a bit of the city. Recommendations include:

-Ravine-running. This sounds very adventurous but is basically, you run through the city, then a suburban part of the city, then end up somewhere called the Nordheimer Ravine, which is... it's a park. A very small park, anchored by a very authentic-feeling trail, but not so much so that you can't see tall buildings from it. (A plus, for me; maybe not for everyone?) Also good: ravine-walking.

-Little Portugal's beautiful-expensive-clothing district. V-S-P Consignment has (sometimes? seasonally?) one tucked-away affordable-stuff section, but is otherwise... well, it's otherwise some sort of fabulous Parisian consignment shop, which is to say, I could afford nothing, but admired everything. For a variation on that aesthetic experience - think Tokyo, rather than Paris - there's Blue Button Shop.

-Uniqlo. I know, not a very original (or original-for-me) recommendation, but... it's here now! And has even gotten the good socks (the Heattech ones) back in stock! Fine, so some of the collaboration areas are either picked-over or not quite brought to the Eaton Centre branch. It doesn't matter. I never did figure out where one buys practical clothing in Toronto, and now thanks to globalization I've been saved the trouble of doing so.

-The bus. Under-the-radar and very chic. Often empty. Air-conditioned, which is more than can be said for many of the streetcars.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What happens in Cambridge

Normally, a Harvard news story causes my eyes to glaze over. These stories receive a lot of attention in the press generally, and fascinate whichever subset of my Facebook friends went to Harvard, but their broader interest - for those who've never so much as applied to Harvard in any capacity - is doubtful. It might have some - if there's some bigger story hinted at - but if the stakes hinge on exactly what's happening at Harvard, it's like, why does the algorithm think I want this information?

If this is also your attitude towards Harvard stories, you should push past this and read about Michelle Jones's near-admittance to their history PhD program. Also Heather Mallick's response. It's an upsetting and compelling story all around; I'm really just going to look at it from one side-note but I think important angle: admissions.

It can seem, to rejected applicants, that US universities are looking for against-all-odds narratives, and turning away kids who've had it easy. (I discuss the notorious Suzy Weiss 'humor' piece in the book.) This is not the case. It's easier to get into elite colleges if you're super-rich and your parents will buy the school a gym. There's this odd dynamic where privileged-ish kids think they're being rejected for being insufficiently tragic, when in fact it's far more likely to be because they're insufficiently rich and well-connected. I'm thinking here more about college admissions, but maybe this applies, a bit, to grad school? Maybe?

At any rate, where college is concerned, there's this sort of track where a handful of students from poor backgrounds get to attend elite schools, but often only in exchange sharing (sometimes very publicly) their inspirational stories. (While the NYT scholarship program itself sounds great... does the NYT readership get the familial dirty laundry of well-off applicants? OK, of the ones who don't opt to be profiled in the lifestyle section?)

The stories need to be PG-rated tragedy, though. Again: inspirational. Nothing that would be a liability. The narrative has to involve the family being a mess, but the applicant him- or herself being a sweet, somewhat nerdy kid who's basically like the other incoming freshmen, but with less money and more character. Even more of an innocent, where ordinary teenage misdeeds are concerned, than an equivalent posh kid.

When colleges reject applicants who come across as privileged (voluntourists, proud SUV owners), they're not making it harder for the privileged to get in, but, rather, penalizing moderately posh applicants who didn't (couldn't?) pay for a tutor to tell them not to write their admissions essays about a vacation... while happily admitting the very rich. Similarly, a different route to admissions is about obstacles-overcome, but not really. Some obstacles, ones that in no way tarnish the image of the applicant. It can't be a faux-obstacle, but it also can't be something that makes the applicant seem like the source of the obstacle.

A grad school applicant who had murdered her own child? This is a liability obstacle. It's also - with the full picture of this student's background, and how she came to be pregnant in the first place - a depressingly unsurprising outcome of life circumstances about as tragic as they come. Hers is an inspirational story in some respects, but not in the way that works as a sound byte, or for all audiences, because - as is so often the case when obstacles are overcome - it's messy, and upsetting, and not just inspirational. And so we arrive at the other end of admissions hypocrisy - maybe not an intentional, cynical hypocrisy, but a hypocrisy all the same.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"Lady Bird" and the value of a pumpkin-spice soundtrack UPDATED

The Guardian review of Greta Gerwig's ah-mazing new movie, "Lady Bird," opens with an interlude about men. The reviewer - also a man, which is no crime - first congratulates Noah Baumbach on the "smart career move" of working with Gerwig (who is also his-as-in-Baumbach's partner), both because Gerwig is talented and because she offers insights into how it goes for the ladies: "He realized that without her voice, he would be yet another guy in his 40s trying to speak for women half his age. (Woody Allen would do wise to follow a similar path.)"

That intro is a disclaimer that suggests the reviewer will not get the movie itself, or not entirely. (A man certainly could get this movie, and this reviewer does, in places. Girls have, since forever, been identifying with protagonists of male coming-of-age movies.) Which is - and I say this as a tremendous compliment - a girl movie. It's a movie about being a girl. I related to it in the visceral way I did, not because I have any familiarity with what it's like to have the precise adolescence depicted - I was never a small-town girl dreaming of the big city, nor a Catholic school student, etc. - but because oh my goodness. Having just mentioned two facts about the movie clear from the first minute or so, it's spoiler time...

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Must be nice

The expression "they took our jobs" evokes, what, that South Park episode? Nativist resentment? That's assuming the "they" in question are immigrants. What if "they" refers elsewhere?

Twice recently on Twitter - once antagonistically, once not - I've seen this topic pop up. What interests me is the question itself, which is when someone should or shouldn't take a prestigious internship, or fellowship funding for a creative pursuit, or for a grad program, or... you get the idea. When is a job not just a job, but economic redistribution?

Because the answer clearly isn't never. Sometimes, money of that nature does or should take need into account. College scholarships come to mind. Specific jobs programs. Beyond this, though?

As appealing as it might be to aim for need-based employment - in spirit, if not in practice, because how on earth would this be enforced* - it seems like it would invite any number of unwanted consequences. If the truly independently wealthy - people who've inherited or been given so much money that they don't need to work - did the honorable thing and either didn't apply for internships/fellowships/grants or - because surely even the fancy are allowed ambitions - handed back any money they won, then... great? (Would they, though? Are the independently wealthy handing their far more substantial corporate salaries, in full, over to charities?)

It gets much trickier when you get into this other caste of supposed rich people with no need to work: adults currently - or potentially - dependent on their parents or partners. Compared with adults who have neither option, these are... adults with options. But what are those options? The parents scenario can involve things like - to give a not-that-uncommon example - not coming out because if you did, your parents would cut you off. Or parents who want to give and give and give, and do, but really shouldn't, because they're not actually rich enough to support their 30-year-old child's journey through a fourth graduate program.

The partner one has its own issues. There's the extreme (but, again, not-uncommon) case of people staying in abusive relationships for financial reasons. But there's also the precariousness angle - a partner could leave, or lose their job, and then what? Is this gendered? Sure can be! The notion that a woman with a higher-earning male partner doesn't need to work is bad news. Deeply bad news, in that it extends not just to women who do in fact have partners who fit that description, but also, as an assumption, to women as a caste. If women are viewed as people who do/should/surely must have rich husbands, why pay women an equal amount? Why pay women at all?

Point being: There are the people - and this would be most adults - who need to work to live and it's that simple. Then there are the handful who don't - how nice for them. Then there's this not-insignificant group of people who could - under temporary or precarious conditions - not work, but who would be risking something in giving up on employability. And I'm not keen on the implications of declaring that set part and parcel of The Privileged, and announcing, for example, that a stay-at-home mom is entitled for seeking a return to the paid workforce.

*As in, how would anyone force rich people not to take jobs (whereas the state can, in theory, force rich people to pay higher taxes, which is the way this should actually be dealt with), but also as in, how would employers measure need? Or how would that happen in a non-exploitative way? Employers can and sometimes do exploit desperation, but will, in other situations, reward the already-posh. But this notion that redistribution is going to come from employers seems mighty unrealistic.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

A most sophisticated trip to the Eaton Centre

Who is Inès de La Fressange, and why does her name being on an item of Uniqlo clothing make a person ("a person") that much more intrigued by it?

For reasons stemming from the timing of poodle-grooming and the necessity of a TTC day pass for this, I had an excuse yesterday to check out Inès de La Fressange's new line at Uniqlo. I realize this isn't the most exciting use of the one true weekend day of a long weekend, but it seemed like it would be relaxing. Which I'm going to have to say it was.

To be clear, I know exactly who Inès de La Fressange is, or as much as is possible from having read various La Fressange profiles over the years, retaining dribs and drabs. She's very tall and thin. French. A former-and-current model - not young, but so French that she gets to embody glamor at any age. But I doubt the idea is to appeal specifically to whichever subset of the population has read these profiles. It is, I suspect, her name - French and aristocratic, but with Inès suggesting a still more cosmopolitan sophistication.*  It costs 75 euros to have her name on an otherwise nondescript t-shirt. A sinkhole investigation finds a whole Fressangian merch empire akin to the part of Hudson Bay where they sell everything, including all these random wooden paddles, in the store's trademark stripes. No La Fressange paddles, I don't think, but door stoppers, dog leashes...

What does La Fressange's involvement entail? Presumably she's not personally stitching together each garment. Has she designed them? (She's evidently designing something.) Does she serve as muse for a Uniqlo designer (maybe?), or does she get a catalog to look through and say whether or not she approves of whichever style having the stamp of La Fressange? How do they decide that Fressange-anointed items should cost $10 more than their regular-Uniqlo equivalents? If still - and pardon this most peasant of observations - less than, say, Aritzia, which was what brought me there in the first place.

$50 plus tax later and I'm the owner of dark red thick-wale corduroy miniskirt that has Toronto winter (by which I mean fall) practicality written all over it. I'd like to think La Fressange would approve. I also kind of think I once saw her on the street in New York, and that she smiled at La Caniche, but it's possible some other tall, French-looking woman did this.

*Wikipedia tells me her full name is Inès Marie Lætitia Églantine Isabelle de Seignard de La Fressange - the capital "La" explaining why her last name isn't just "Fressange" but rather "La Fressange," which is spectacular - and that her grandmother was part of a French-Jewish banking family, which makes Inès herself vaguely Jewish, which makes me basically Inès de La Fressange.