Sunday, July 29, 2018

On "Nanette" ambivalence

Everyone seemed to really love "Nanette." By "everyone" at this stage (there will be other stages), I mostly mean people I follow on social media: friends, acquaintances, like-minded writers. I had not, thus far, much-if-at-all noticed any reviews. But judging by word-of-mouth reception, the show, a Netflix stand-up special, seemed to have achieved the miraculous feat of seeming spot-on regarding feminism, across swaths of feminists who don't necessarily normally agree on much. There was a #MeToo angle! Something about mansplaining, but not heavy-handed-seeming! But also: performer Hannah Gadsby spoke about being a gender-non-conforming lesbian and not — as others would sometimes insist — a trans man, which pleased the contingent fearful that butch lesbians these days are under pressure to transition. (That is not my lane — I'm a cis woman not averse to menswear, but who, earlier this evening, booked something called "partial head highlights" — and nor am I any kind of outside expert; I bring this up merely to point out how branches of feminism I wouldn't have expected to were converging over "Nanette.")

Without giving much thought to how any of this would translate to comedy, I found myself with the requisite set of factors — an hour or so of free time, a limited array on Canadian Netflix — and figured why not?

It started out promising: We meet Gadsby with her dogs, and they're excellent dogs. Then, and more importantly, there's Gadsby herself, who's so charming, as well as just... original. Her stage presence, but also her well-told, unusual-for-stand-up life story (a gay Tasmanian woman with a background in art history, in an arena where "woman" can, on its own, suffice as difference). And maybe most of all, originality-wise, an unpredictable politics: unambiguously progressive but in-group critical. That's a tough line to walk, especially in comedy — how can this be done without making it seem like you're giving out-group members, aka the majority of the audience (and of society), permission to laugh at the group you're a part of? — but somehow she was managing it.

And then...

The second part of the routine is what critics (although the word "critics" seems the wrong word for near-unanimous adulation) have deemed the point. It's a monologue covering quite a bit of ground, all righteous, some cathartic, some more along the lines of a gets-it-right op-ed (or, as some have observed, a TED talk): Picasso was a sexist whose lover, during his own middle age, was a 17-year-old girl. Self-deprecation is problematic, you see, a self-defense mechanism of the marginalized. Comedy is problematic. Gadsby speaks about her own experiences as the victim of sexual violence; what she says is not funny, but who would ask this to be? She also repeats the refrain, "straight cis white men," I think in that order, in reference to the category of humanity without experience being the underdog.

Where did all this leave the viewer, or much more accurately, this viewer?

I came away as convinced as I already was — which is to say, abundantly convinced — that homophobia is a scourge which has lived on well past when some might imagine it's obsolete, if with more specific knowledge about Australian homophobia than I'd ever had previously. I was also — shockingly, I know, especially As A Woman — already opposed to sexual assault, as well as irritated at the thing where male geniuses (and a whole lot of not-so-brilliant men, under that cover) get a pass to do pretty much whatever. And yeah, I've experienced a bit of mansplanation in my day, even if my interpretation of it may be slightly different than the usual. (I think mansplaining is a thing, but a thing men also do to other men, only the dynamic's different in that context.) I may not have been precisely the target audience for "Nanette," but not far off.

But did agreeing with (most of) the arguments themselves mean liking "Nanette"?

According to The Moment, yeah, pretty much. Reviews and profiles in major publications (New Yorker, NYT, Guardian, etc.) tended to hit the same notes: Behold, a list of unassailable public figures who not only praised "Nanette" but declared it the most important work ever. Behold, Gadsby herself, someone whose relatively late, out-of-the-blue-seeming success, after numerous personal and mental-health struggles, feels not just earned but like justice being served. And then the third element: the cultural and political context, the ultra-solemn Now. "Nanette" feels like a response to Louis C.K., to all the bad men who've felt entitled to our bodies and our laughter. (Consider the New Yorker's choice to have Moira Donegan, creator of the "Shitty Media Men" list, as a "Nanette" reviewer.)

Failure to swoon over "Nanette" becomes a multifaceted misdeed: a dissent from the critical consensus; a personal-seeming insult against a performer who seems like an unusually deserving person (because, after all, the show is so personal);

While watching "Nanette," I found myself thinking of Woody Allen, not least because he comes in for some criticism in Part II. A straight cis white man, yes. Problematic, undoubtedly. (And who can forget that the journalist credited with #MeToo — even if, fine, two women journalists got there first — is none other than Allen's son? Woody Is Everywhere.) But I have trouble thinking of the self-deprecation of Allen's early years as coming from a place of privilege. I found myself wondering whether Gadsby, whose show so deeply rests on her own unequivocal underdog status, has reckoned with her own (best as I know) gentileness, when effectively throwing Jewish humor (yes, and other sorts as well) out the window.

I am not an experiencer of male privilege. I did not take the ugh-men turn remotely personally. Nor, somehow, was I cheering.

Far more than Woody Allen, though, the comedian I had in mind while watching was Ali Wong, a comic I also learned about via social-media hype leading me to a Netflix special. It's hard to argue that Wong's physical presence in "Baby Cobra" (which, for what it's worth, I watched and enjoyed well before motherhood was on the horizon for me personally) or "Hard Knock Wife" — Asian-American and heavily pregnant — is less outside stand-up norms than Gadsby's. Wong, too, broke ground, and addressed all manner of 'identity' topics, and also... was hilarious.

It helps that Wong's performances (and, as I recall, the critical and social-media endorsements of them) don't leave the viewer feeling like anything less than a heartfelt enthusiastic reception means you're an anti-Asian bigot, or unsympathetic to the challenges of life in a female body. Nor, for that matter, that any response other than This Is Important was akin to bashing a sensitive soul's artistic production.

But what I kept thinking was, are we meant to believe Ali Wong pandered to the patriarchy by doing stand-up routines that were funny the whole way through, addressing race, female sexuality, and miscarriage, but also, heaven forfend, making audiences laugh? More broadly: why is anything other than unsubtle, earnest outrage now viewed as being on the wrong side? Does someone like me — someone who (this is in the book) found much of "Master of None" cringe-inducing — simply not belong to this era?

(Is it too cynical, or worse, to remember that "Master of None" was only held up as this icon of Awareness until co-creator and star Aziz Ansari became problematic via an itself-problematic early #MeToo story, wherein he was reportedly gross while dating? To remember this, that is, and to wonder whether it's tempting fate to declare Gadsby — or any human being! — the epitome of pure, underdog goodness, when who knows what will surface, or as they say online, milkshake-duck?)

Sanctimonious entertainment doesn't drive me to the right politically. (Thus why you're getting this to-do on WWPD and not in a publication — I could see my view on "Nanette" being not just published celebrated on the right... but for the wrong reasons.) Maybe it does this for some, I wouldn't rule it out. For me, it just makes me think cultural consumption is something that effectively needs to happen in private, if it's to happen honestly. Not necessarily in the sense of alone, but among friends, or over direct messages.

To be clear, it's not about what can or can't be said, or not exactly. I'm well aware that there's a tremendous market for dissenting views from self-identified progressives. But that market is, or amounts to, the right. Or if not the right, exactly, then a subset of the center that has its priorities wrong, obsessing over progressive sanctimony while the right offers up one disaster after the next. It's certainly permitted not to like "Nanette." But where are you left if you like its political message but not its artistic one, or just found the whole thing a bit meh, despite rooting for the creator personally? Is this a case where it's best to say nothing at all?

The trouble with personal writing (yes, I repeat myself on this) is that it's impossible to criticize the writing without seeming to be judging the author, or making light of her struggles. A similar problem comes up with political art: If you care about Issue A, the expectation is that you'll love Work X, and conversely, if Work X doesn't do much for you, then it's clearly because Issue A doesn't move you. This approach to culture, which feels (and is!) so very now, isn't entirely new. It's just become ubiquitous. (Please, please read Lauren Oyler on "necessary" art, especially this part, but really, all of it: "When applied to bad art with good politics, 'necessary' allows the audience to avoid engaging with a work in aesthetic terms, which tend to be more ambiguous and difficult.")

"Nanette" falls squarely into both situations — it's personal and topical. To feel meh about "Nanette" is — unless you're really leaning into contrarianism — to feel as though you're wrong politically as well as contributing to the wrongs the performance's creator has already had to suffer. Which is... not great, I think, for art, or ultimately, for politics either.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Woman Over 35

There are certain birthdays that matter. The last of these for me was 27, aka the age I became a madame, in a couple (but not all) senses of the word. 18 and 21 blend together, as both involved wandering around the East Village with friends. 30 made no great impression - as I recall, it was one of those Princeton summers when no one was around, and I marked the day itself by driving to H-Mart in Edison and buying, among other groceries, a whole fish.

But 35! That's the one, isn't it? Women under 35 in one category, those over that age in another. In a matter of days, I will be a Woman Over 35. A not-young-anymore woman. Which would probably feel a whole lot more momentous if I'd spent 27-34 under the illusion that I was, during those years, young. But for so many reasons, not so much? I was never under the illusion that everyone thought I was ten years younger than was actually the case (for every flattering carding, three 'ma'ams'; who was I kidding?), nor, I suppose, that 30 was supposed to look ancient so how odd that I at 30 did not. (30 looks ancient to children, but not to fellow adults of any age.) Still, the famous signs of aging start... at birth, really, so while I'm sure new ones will pop up that alarm me at various points, it would be absurd to think you could reach 35 without having yet encountered any. 

Also: 35 is already well into the age range where one is only a young woman according to people (men) who are themselves so far from young that maybe you're not young, either. And by that standard, every age at least a decade under that of the typical male lifespan is young, if you want it to be. (A 50-year-old is a mere slip of a youth where 70-year-old dudes are concerned.)

Also, also: Most of the "35" scaremongering is directed at women in life situations other than my own. Whether 35 is too old to get a man (yeah, no, and no, not all women even want one in the first place!) isn't my immediate concern, given I've been with my now-husband since 23. I'm more aware of that other issue pertaining to 35-ness, but (see posts below) one can rest assured it is not in this very moment occurring to me that female fertility declines with age. In any case, the woman who reaches 35 shocked that the likes of her could possibly age past 20, in a way that impacts her body or is perceptible to those around her, is either a myth or a rarity. The whole women age thing (presented, inevitably, as though people who aren't women don't) is sort of the gist of much media aimed at women, so it's unclear how any of us would reach even 20 oblivious to it.

And yet: 35 feels like a thud. Despite feeling ancient since forever, I've doubtless been benefitting (or suffering??) from youth in ways I haven't been aware of. Like, maybe I thought I knew, but give it a few days and I'll realize I didn't have a clue.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Maternity garb, Part II: realities

To discuss maternity clothes is to discuss bodies. There's no one situation of The Pregnant Lady (or to expand further, and open up another whole set of questions: The Pregnant Person). Every thought you've ever had about your body — including relating to the pregnancy itself — is going to enter into the feelings that impact the day-to-day question of how to get dressed. I come from this topic from a specific place, as does everyone. Consider this not so much a privilege disclaimer as an everyone's-different reminder. What's been easy for me may have been difficult for others and vice versa. With that, moving on...

The challenges:

 -There’s an assumption behind maternity fashion advice one finds online: that you want to look pregnant rather than fat. On the one hand I get it – I am a woman living in our society! On the other, if you’re a woman who shows from approximately day one, you maybe don’t want to announce to every single person you interact with. So the first step is giving up the notion that you’re looking for something that’s somehow both slimming (or as it’s euphemized, in this age that gestures at body-positivity, flattering) and pregnancy-obscuring. Ultimately you may want some clothes from both categories. But ultimately-ultimately, at least in summer, at least if you're as short as I am, nothing's going to be ambiguous.

 -Also tricky: the conventionality of maternity clothing. Or maybe just the limited options, which assume a universally-shared female end goal of looking like the “after” on an episode of “What Not To Wear.” Or there are shirts that announce, with Pinterest-era graphics, the situation (with "mama" or baby-inside or whatever). If you're someone who values dressing like yourself, whatever that means to you, you kind of have to avoid maternity clothes, but sizing-wise, this may not be possible. 

-Oh yeah, and the big one: $$$. At just the moment in life when saving money starts to seem particularly important, it becomes necessary to buy all these new clothes for yourself. And not just any clothes, but ones a) that will only fleetingly fit, and b) that cost a ton because they can. (Forgive me for being a peasant, but $150 strikes me as steep for a plain t-shirt.) Avoiding the bleak-for-different-reasons paths of getting ripped off and wearing absolutely any potato sack involves a bit of thought.

Practically speaking, what works:

 -Oversize t-shirt dresses. Helpful in that I already owned some. Muji probably has the best (I have the Breton-striped, short- and long-sleeved), made of sturdy but chic material, and with pockets. Uniqlo Marimekko had one (also with pockets) but I think that’s done now. Regular Uniqlo (along with Gap) seems as if it would have this, but not so much. H&M is the place to go if you're willing to forgo pockets but just get $10 t-shirt dresses. And if you’re short, you have the option of actual long t-shirts, or so I tell myself. (I realize that in a pale-blue shirt-thingy I recently bought at Kotn, it looks like I’m going out without pants on, but I can live with this.) Giving up entirely on the idea of a waistline helps. Think enormous t-shirt, not merely jersey-material (but likely too fitted) dress.

 -Hideous but loose shorts. I bought some at H&M in very much the spirit of, this'll do, but when it’s very hot out and I need to take my dog out in something with pockets, they do the trick. They don’t have the maternity band (they’re not maternity shorts), which means they work when it’s a million degrees out. Why hideous? Among other reasons, because they’re not actually cut to be worn low-slung, so when I wear them it looks like I haven’t pulled my shorts up correctly. Oh well.

-Lululemon Align cropped leggings. New York Magazine was right, what can I say? I went two sizes up, and they fit where other leggings do not. Something to do with the waistband material. The seams are a bit itchier than one might ask of leggings that, with tax, approach the shame-on-me $100 mark, and the pocket situation is minimal (a tiny one hidden in the waistband), but... I haven’t found better? Very Tribeca Whole Foods Mom, even if she'd go for one of the more obscure and still pricier brands. (Did I mention I'm embarrassed I bought these leggings, even though I've worn them a ton, because doubtless somewhere out there are much cheaper ones that would have been fine?)

-Actual maternity bottoms from the mall. I’m just not a dresses-every-day person. It’s not what I generally feel like wearing, and it’s not even practical from a summer-laundry perspective. (I’m not buying a laundry cycle’s worth of t-shirt dresses, and if 85 degrees feels like 150 for me, I’m not keen to re-wear these a bunch of times before washing.) And the leggings-or-terrible-shorts thing was getting old. The prospect of buying clothing this fit-specific online didn’t appeal, so I (braved the unspecified threat to popular sites that day in downtown Toronto and) went to Thyme Maternity and got some regular shorts and jeans, both with the (too warm but what can be done) stretchy band, which together came to about $100. They're both... fine, I think — needed a shorter length in the jeans, so will see once those arrive. Both seem an improvement over the one such item I had already bought – Uniqlo maternity pants, I think the one style they sell, which were an acceptable $40 CAD but went from too big to too small, skipping the bit where they're meant to fit.

 -Random clothes you have around and can still squeeze into. I’m thanking my past self for not getting rid of enormous sleep t-shirts or very washed-out regular ones, but am also able to get into my usual t-shirts, even if they look very odd at this point. I even found a sleeveless, cowl-neck black dress from the Uniqlo Inès de la Fressange range circa 2014 that wasn't fabulous as a regular dress but that may now be my only correctly-fitting garment.

-The pregnancy-book advice to 'just wear your partner's clothes!' I was very skeptical at first in my case, what with the height difference, and was picturing going around in jeans a foot too long. But this approach may be what means I don't need to order maternity t-shirts. A task I'd been dreading, not least because wherever you get them, they'll cost three times that of an equivalent regular t-shirt. And what are you then supposed to do with those side-ruched, stretch-material t-shirts afterwards?

And now, what seems like it would work but does not:

 -Empire waist dresses. I know this is the look that says ‘pregnancy’ but this is, again, because the style gives the illusion of a larger midsection, and not because it’s actually comfortable when pregnant. The waist won’t fall where it needs to, and or will go from fitting right one day to near-bursting the next. I got an absolutely stunning navy prairie-ish dress at Durumi, a Korean boutique on Queen West – $35 down from $129! – that would be perfect for Park Slope Writer Mom. Empire-ish waist, button-up torso. Pockets. It fit perfectly for a week or so, but if I try again it will almost certainly rip.

 -The jeans you find when Googling “maternity jeans,” or stocked in the posh maternity boutiques where you can go to buy bras but not under any circumstances look around at the clothes. These jeans are $300 (in Canada, at least) and even if they’re good (which, judging by how they looked on a Tribeca Whole Foods Mom I saw in the Toronto obgyn waiting room, they very well might be), they can’t be that amazing, because they're still jeans with a strange stretchy inset, and that will only fit correctly for a few minutes. If I were ever to spend $300 on jeans (unlikely), I’d want at least the prospect of decent cost-per-wear, which this situation pretty much rules out.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Maternity garb, Part I: fantasies

Before the day came when I, personally, required special clothing to accommodate an ever-expanding midsection, I had only the vaguest idea of maternity style, or put another way, what you do when, abruptly, none of your clothes fit anymore, and yet the societal requirement to go outside dressed persists. This is at once the very least on my mind at this moment and, in a practical, day-to-day sense, the most. There's an immediate, daunting quality to trying and failing to get dressed in the morning, which the bigger-picture questions (aka anxieties) sort of lack. It is a good, and (relatively) manageable, problem to have.

While pregnant women of course come from throughout society, and have the whole spectrum of attitudes towards their situation, the ones I especially noticed, and who formed my impression of maternity style, were those who Garfinkel and Oates sing about in “Pregnant Women Are Smug.” Women, that is, for whom pregnancy is the pinnacle of bourgeois success. Who’ve checked every box and have now arrived at that one as well. Whose pregnancy look epitomizes that general sense that everything in their lives have lined up.

Do such women exist, really? Almost certainly not - with pregnancy at least as much as everything else in life, particularly where bodies are concerned, there's a lot, even in this supposed post-privacy age, that goes unsaid, or unpublicized.

What I was picking up on, then, was an aesthetic, or more accurately, two overlapping ones: Tribeca Whole Foods Mom, and Park Slope Writer Mom. As for why these two, it’s because these are the women several years my senior who I’d see when walking around New York in my early-mid 20s, as a grad student living in neighborhoods around or not far from such women.

Tribeca Whole Foods Mom – epitomized by Gwyneth Paltrow, who for all I know has never even been to that Whole Foods – involves being unfathomably rich, and toned in a way only possible with infinite money and personal training. There’s an enormous rock of an engagement ring. She wears head-to-toe name-brand, but understated, athleisure. She swaps out her Chanel and La Mer beauty products for still-pricier organic alternatives. This lady would have been selected to do a maternity installment of Into The Gloss’s Top Shelf, and would have inspired my 26-year-old, very much not-pregnant self to buy some too-expensive non-toxic nail polish. A California approach, but a bicoastal lifestyle. 

Park Slope Writer Mom, then, involves not quite as much money, but still a bunch. (A brownstone is likely, but could well have been purchased before those got so expensive.) Its essentials: clogs and in-the-know literary tote bags. As for clothing? Those long, notoriously plain dresses sold in Brooklyn boutiques where everything’s at least $400 (but ethically produced!) and nothing’s on sale. She was probably eating organic already but now that she's pregnant this isn't even a question. She not only has feelings about being pregnant (who doesn’t??) but the openness, talent, and connections needed to weave those into a well-received essay or memoir.

These two aesthetics, then, sit in the back of my mind as I try to sort out my own maternity style. I say “the back” because ultimately the question of style has not much entered into it.

Here’s what happened: One day, my clothing all fit. (I’ve moved apartments a lot, so stuff that didn’t fit for other reasons hadn’t moved with me.) Then it was like, neat, my jeans are snug, I really am pregnant! Then, suddenly, and earlier than the internet said this would happen, even leggings were too tight to get on. Dresses and shirts that probably made me look pregnant when I was not didn’t work, either – maternity-esque is not good enough. The lower bit of my wardrobe became limited to sweatpants and (certain) running shorts, not that I'm running anywhere in them. And now, at just past the halfway point, t-shirts have become an issue.

What I was left with was more an engineering (and frugality) challenge than a fashion one: How can I go outside and look decent, in the covered-up sense, not necessarily the elegance one? How do I convince myself to get past my usual rule for clothing purchases — only buying stuff I desperately want and have contemplated for months — when the time has come to emergency-purchase any cheap pair of pocket-having shorts that are big enough but don't fall down? And least expected of all, given my previous experience of Toronto 'summer' as a whole lot of nothing for which a/c isn't even required: How do I combine these new proportions with the fact that it's ten trillion degrees out this year, and in my current state feels hotter still, in a world where "maternity" is code for "thick band of fabric going up to the armpits"? These questions and more will be addressed in Part II...