Sunday, February 18, 2018

Anatomy of a troll: why the yoga pants story is a Work of Art

Some texts demand close readings, and none more so than today's NYT op-ed by Honor Jones, "Why Yoga Pants Are Bad for Women." First, we have the author: not, as some surmised, a pseudonym. But it's the piece itself that I can't put aside. By design, no doubt, but, just, wow. Nearly a thousand comments! (Including from the requisite dude who doesn't care about fashion, doesn't care so much that he simply had to comment on a fashion article. Maybe several variations - haven't combed through all 910.) A nerve was, as they say, hit.

As a traditional op-ed, it's... not the greatest. It's not urgent, not topical, not consistent, but *is* mean-spirited. The premise - "Whatever happened to sweatpants?" - falls apart instantly, upon noticing that lots of people these days do indeed wear sweatpants, just not on the elliptical machine because they're too warm for that activity. 

As a trolling, 2018 NYT op-ed page installment, however, it is magnificent. I have this compelling, inexplicable need to pinpoint why. Here goes:

Feelings journalism:

"I got on the elliptical. A few women gave me funny looks. Maybe they felt sorry for me, or maybe they were concerned that my loose pants were going to get tangled in the machine’s gears. Men didn’t look at me at all."

What we're getting, to be clear, is not a report on something that happened. We're getting the author's feelings about others' feelings about her, as she imagines them. Projection, in other words. Like the original viral (also New Years-ish-themed!) yoga-class hate-read (the one in xoJane), we have a story built around one person's private anxieties, but presented as if offering the views of actual other people. I don't do yoga - maybe it lends itself to this? At any rate, feelings journalism is outrage-bait, because the reader immediately sees through the rhetoric and is like, you don't actually know what these other people are thinking, hmm!

A forced feminist thesis:

"It’s not good manners for women to tell other women how to dress; that’s the job of male fashion photographers."

This is, I think, the key to the text. Jones is making a feminist case for women telling other women they're dressed all wrong. Because... well, because it's a woman saying it, and because it's kind of like high heels, except it isn't. The problem - which is to say, the genius - is that yoga pants aren't uncomfortable, or some sort of tax on being a woman. They're just... leggings, give or take, which more men would wear if this were socially acceptable. "We aren’t wearing these workout clothes because they’re cooler or more comfortable. [...] We’re wearing them because they’re sexy." 

Except, are we? If this is the Very Enlightened Feminist Case Against Yoga Pants, why does Jones refers to them as "pants that [...] threaten to show every dimple and roll in every woman over 30"? Is the issue that women shouldn't try to look hot at the gym, or - and how exactly is this feminist? - that women are trying and failing

But the over-30 addition is just part of the sinister genius of the op-ed. How many NYT readers (or others who come across the article) are women, over 30, who own stretch pants? Add to that trillion the men with opinions on stretch pants on women of various ages and physiques, and there you have it.

Sartorial side note: there was a time when leggings showed everything, but the technology has improved, which may explain why women are all wearing yoga pants these days.

#MeToo, misunderstood:

"We felt we had to look hot on dates — a given. We felt we had to look hot at the office — problematic. But now we’ve internalized the idea that we have to look hot at the gym? Give me a break. The gym is one of the few places where we’re supposed to be able to focus on how our bodies feel, not just on how they look. We need to remember that. Sweatpants can help."

This brings up an interesting angle: Why not concentrate your spending - and your primping - on gymwear? Maybe we've finally gotten it right - office clothes can be purchased for not much money at H&M or Uniqlo or whatever (black slacks, navy sweater, done), whereas the outfits worn in the setting that's both me-time (or me-time-adjacent) and a place where it's (relatively) OK to flirt (again, compared with at work; caveat that I've never actually belonged to a gym, and have no idea) are the ones you really save up for. Maybe leggings should cost more than blazers! In the name of work-life balance!

But what we're looking at here is, it's like the ukelele video. Choosing to mention the need to look hot at work, in a piece not really about that, but offering up only an ironic "problematic" as commentary, is... problematic! Which is, I think, the point.


"Frankly, I’m annoyed by the whole booming industry around women’s exercise..."

Is this an article about women wearing the wrong thing to the gym, or about it being wrong to be at the gym in the first place? 

Personal-finance judginess:

Telling people they're paying too much for X is just always always always irritating. You can't know that someone with $100 yoga pants didn't save up for those, or that this is somehow evidence of financial irresponsibility. Also? There are a whole lot of cheapo leggings out there, so the fact that a woman is wearing stretchy pants doesn't mean she's wearing those stretchy pants. And sales exist, as do thrift stores. As do people who quite simply knowingly pay a lot for workout wear because they want to, what's it to her???

The 2016 election:

"Pantsuits had a moment, back in 2016. I think women are ready to give them another chance."

Hillary! No troll is complete without the opportunity to spark a Twitter debate over whether Bernie would have, if given the chance, won.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The Good, the Bad, and the rest

It's becoming something of a truism, even among those who support it, that #MeToo needs to make room for nuance. Once the question moved beyond whether Harvey Weinstein was the worst (I mean, clearly?), it started to be clear that the way ahead couldn't be declaring half the population equally the worst, let alone extending that worst-ness assessment to all women who fail to get it right on a proper schedule.

Unfortunately, there's a pronounced lack of nuance on the ostensibly pro-nuance side. Not always, but... often. Arguments against purity politics have this way of overstating exactly what happens when otherwise progressive types disagree on one point or other. The reality is bad enough; there's no need to claim it's worse than it is. (Unless that claim has become your brand; more on that in a moment.)

Witness this, one of the good (if not Good) parts of Katie Roiphe's notorious Harper's essay*:

Part of what bothers many of the people I talked to is the tone of moral purity. As a culture, we seem to be in the midst of dividing ourselves into the flawless and the fallen, the morally correct and the damned.
Yes. Also yes:
To hold a lot of opposites in our minds seems to be what the moment calls for, to tolerate and be honest about the ambiguities. If we are going through a true reckoning, there should be space for more authentically diverging points of view, a full range of feelings, space to hash through what is and is not sexual misconduct, which is an important and genuinely confusing question about which reasonable people can and will disagree.
And yet, where's the nuance in this pro-nuance manifesto? Roiphe dwells on "thought policing," and tends towards hyperbole, to put it mildly. (A New Republic article guilty at most of being a bit of-the-moment and preaching-to-the-converted has, to Roiphe's ears, "the friendly yet threatening tone of a low-level secret policeman in a new totalitarian state.") She leads with the refusal of her sources to speak on the record, concluding that this is because questioning conventional feminist wisdom on #MeToo leads to banishment. Which... how could it, when so many high-profile backlash pieces have appeared?

How could Roiphe conclude anything greater from the reticence of her sources, when as she herself acknowledges, hers was an unusual case: Justified concern that her piece would be outing the identity of the "Shitty Media Men" document's creator, along with widespread knowledge of where Roiphe stands on this issue, meant that she wasn't simply a reporter looking to see which opinions were out there. To speak to Roiphe on the record meant something beyond the usual risk of having one's words quoted out of context. Nuance here, I should think, would require proportionate annoyance or anger at male misbehavior as well as a proportionate response to progressive sanctimony, which is not in fact totalitarianism.

And yet, and yet, while witch-hunt rhetoric overstates the case; confuses matters; and has this way of presenting the very powerful as the only real victims... there is an expected stance on everything (and everyone) these days, and if you don't agree to it, you risk something. But what, exactly? 

That's where it gets tricky. The fear of being ostracized often exceeds the reality of that threat. The pain caused by being called garbage on Twitter - and please please please read Katie Herzog on this phenomenon - can exceed the power of the 20 people who've just declared you the worst. 

There's a psychic toll from a culture where you're Good or Bad, and forever at the risk of slipping into the wrong category. Yes, even if you're someone who in theory stands to gain clicks or book sales from causing controversy, but goodness knows, especially if you're not. Also! Given what writing pays, it's, not a long shot that someone who stands to gain clicks, even book sales, from controversy could also lose their livelihood from the same.

As I see it, the goal here shouldn't be praising nuance for its own sake. It's that a Good vs Bad framework leaves a vacuum for the (genuinely) Bad, as well as for qualm-less profiteers prepared to embrace Unapologetic The Worst status in exchange for such things as Patreon income or the US presidency.

*My other, sleepily-expressed thoughts on the piece:

-Yes, it's odd that someone not used to using Twitter is claiming expertise on Twitter, and yes, it's possible to read too much into individual tweets, but no, it's not inherently bad journalism to treat public tweets by professional writers as writing they have done, and to quote it and respond to it.

-Why couldn't the piece have been what it at first seemed like it would be about, namely about how women somehow wind up the ones held accountable (in this case, via purity-politics demands) for men's misbehavior? (Already - I promise - a somewhat controversial stance.) Why the men-are-the-real-victims direction?