Monday, December 25, 2017

"Kantaro"'s surreal relatability

I have a new favorite television program, and by "television" I mean Canadian Netflix. "Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman," which I'm somewhere in the middle of, tells a story at once universal and highly specific. The highly specific first: it's about a Japanese businessman who gets his sales visits (to bookstores) done as quickly as possible, so as to try desserts in cafés near wherever those visits happen to have taken him. When he arrives at the dessert place, a mildly NSFW but ultimately more suggestive than literal scene ensues: eyes rolled back, syrup splashed, and then, inevitably, his head transforms into the (main ingredient of the) dessert in question. After each visit, he writes on a pseudonymous blog about the culinary experience.

The drama comes from the possibility that Kantaro will get found out at work for slacking off while on the clock. Much suspension of disbelief is needed, because a) he's the best salesperson, so maybe they don't care that he's eating a snack here and there, even if snacking for him evidently requires table service?, but also b) dude could just, like, schedule his blog posts, so it's not obvious where and when he's posting, with the times and places lining up with his sales visits.

So fine, this much is specific: we are not, all of us, Tokyo salesmen with distinctive eyebrows, who reach heights of ecstasy when eating traditional Japanese bean-based desserts.

The universal: who doesn't use Yelp or Google Maps or just a knowledge of whichever area to go eat the most delicious thing near whichever work task? Who doesn't get a doctorate in French in order to eat market cheese and croissants and other delicacies readily affordable even to a grad student, the trick being just to get to Paris in the first place? Who wouldn't choose to live and work near a dreamscape Toronto East Asian food corridor, with a Japanese convenience store in the back of a ramen shop, an H-Mart, and (at least) two amazing izakayas? Who doesn't order a bowl of scallion noodles at a Shanghai-style restaurant and then feel the need to recite exactly what is making the food so exquisite?

I can't quite imagine being as thrilled as he is (or to be honest, thrilled at all) about the prospect of a melon-flavored shaved ice, but replace "melon-flavored shaved ice" with "crema bomboloni" and I see where he's coming from. What makes Kantaro so great is, he's not a foodie in the sense of, he's sharing photos of food on social media for status purposes. He's genuinely thrilled with everything he's eaten, to the point where you're sometimes a little worried about him, and wondering if he should maybe keep a KitKat or something on hand, if the cravings are too much.

In some sense the show isn't even about food - it's about the tension between fun and responsibility, and about the way having just enough time to go do something makes whatever it is that much more enjoyable. In a really boring sense, it's a show about time management - the way that if you're trying to get something big accomplished, it's paradoxically easier to have a routine than to have all the time in the world. Except... it's totally about food.

Which brings me to maybe my biggest question about the show, which is whether Kantaro ever eats... meals. Anything savory? Ever? Or does he have regular meals but feel indifferent to them?

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Why 'Ban Men' is not the answer

When Dan Savage declares himself "done with men" in a recent column, it would be a stretch to take that literally. (If nothing else, he is a man, and can't be done with himself.) But when straight or bi or otherwise somewhat-into-men-identified women make declarations along those lines, this is taken seriously. (As in the letter Savage is responding to!) Being done-with-men is... it's not a thing, exactly, so much as an ambient mood. Every day, a new story emerges about another of those men. Men in positions of power being awful. The stories are so plentiful that today, a man I'd actually encountered, in person, in a professional situation, is on the list. (I'd thought I was sufficiently out of the loop that this couldn't happen, but a brief brush with media-stuff is apparently enough.) And if you yourself are not a man, you do have that option, in the abstract at least. No men, none, done with them.

The zeitgeist, then, seems headed towards a world without men - as a dream, if not, of course, a reality. As a millennial, feminist woman, one who has authored countless think-pieces, a New Yorker living in Toronto, a woman who owns a Glossier highlighter for crying out loud, I'm the target audience for women-only spaces, but also for a very modern sexuality that allows women to just sort of opt out of men. Ban men! Men are the worst. I know I should agree to this. And I don't lack for personal experience of certain men - men I knew personally, men in public spaces - being the worst. But... yeah.

That women - some women? most women? - seek out sex with men, seek out sexually charged interactions with men, find men desirable, have partners who are men (without finding their partner's gender a drawback) becomes this lost detail. That a woman would actually want men, and would admit to this, at a time like this, is... passé? problematic? It's an admission that can be made, if at all, with a regretful tone, with this sort of, ugh what a shame, this can't be turned off. That there's any sort of positive joy in attraction to men is taboo.

The "joy" aspect might seem like a side note: What does the female pursuit of pleasure have to do with the far more pressing concern of female victimhood? (Worse: it may come across as nostalgia for old-time office 'flirtation' of the sort that consisted of what is today rightly understood as sexual harassment.) This is why it's important to see that women's desire for men and sexist oppression are intertwined. The expectation of female passivity in hetero relationships is what gives us the rom-com narrative - repeated in real-life (if embellished) examples such as newspaper wedding announcements - where a woman was indifferent to some man in her life, until he pursued her and persuaded her to get past her apathy or even revulsion. Also the pick-up artist myth that every woman is a strategy away from consent.

Female heterosexuality is understood - as I've mentioned before, likely on WWPD - not as a sexual orientation but as a lack thereof. As conventionality. As basic-ness. As agreeability. Which, I mean, I see how it can look that way - the curious privilege, as a woman, of wanting the gender one is expected to want is that one gets to play-act that role - but a moment's reflection on how teen girls (who are for various reasons that would themselves be a post largely exempt from those expectations) respond to heartthrobs suggests that straight and bi women are, yup, attracted to men.

If we were to acknowledge that women want, and more specifically, that women have desires other than being thought hot and available while 22, by men at least two decades their senior, that would... well, that would be at least as dangerous to patriarchy as the conceptual banning of men.

While there may be differences in exactly how men and women - as well as those of varying testosterone levels - experience desire, it's a mistake to imagine (or to infer from the trans man's testosterone anecdote in Savage's post, a story I'd seen somewhere else recently as well - maybe The Rebel Sell?) that women could take or leave the people they're drawn to. It's a mistake - or a fantasy? to think of female desire as the desire for, at best, a very special friend. It's a dangerous mistake, because it leads to a mistaken understanding (see also) of exactly why it is that the villain in nearly all of these cases is a dude. It leads to imagining the reason there are male but not female Weinsteins is that men, but not women, want. As versus that societal power dynamics are such that (some) men are led to believe wanting=getting, while all women are aware that wanting and acting on it entails risk. Risks of all sorts - of violence, of unwanted pregnancy, of ruined reputations, this is all old news.

But there's another risk, which is of falling into the category of... undesirable. The Woman is meant to be constantly rebuffing advances, not pursuing and - some of the time - getting shot down. A woman who pursues is one who has made peace with the fact that not everyone finds her attractive. Whereas a woman who doesn't pursue? She can live in the belief that the world's straight men are divided between those who definitely want her and those who are simply too respectful (or intimidated, or busy with work...) to express their desires for her. If pleasure, for women, involves being thought desirable, then what joy could there possibly be in verifying that the hot guy who hasn't given you the time of day is, in fact, not interested? How could the slight chance he is interested make pursuit worthwhile, if the whole point is to be thought beautiful, which would rather have to happen unprompted.

All of this - and personal bias, fine - is why I think The Conversation needs to incorporate, and not brush aside as distasteful or irrelevant, the fact that many/most women desire men. If anything, we'd all be a lot safer if that were better understood.