Tuesday, October 17, 2017

My very urgent not at all late Mayim Bialik op-ed take

A million years ago, I read (and reviewed) that "Israel Lobby" book. The main thing I remember about the book itself was a certain rhetorical device: the authors would preempt whichever point about a sinister Jewish cabal controlling everything with a finely-worded disclaimer about how of course they are not anti-Semites and of course they do not think a sinister Jewish cabal controls everything. It was this odd back-and-forth - the thing they were arguing, and the periodic insistance that anyone who noticed what they were arguing had (willfully?) misunderstood.

Disclaimers are funny like that. If everyone thinks you wrote X, but X is something you don't think, not even a little bit, it's always a good idea to stop and think why that mistaken belief about your work is out there. Sometimes there will be a reason - a bad headline, say - but you want to be sure. You want to be sure you're not arguing X. I went through something like this when writing my book. I anticipated certain criticisms. But rather than disclaimerizing and saying that even if you think my book is about X, oh no, I insist, it's not, take my word for it, I went and looked at the texts that are deeply X and examined where I did and did not agree with those stances. Where you think something controversial, you need to own it. Where you've been unfairly accused of thinking something you don't, you should at the very least know for yourself why the accusation is unfair.

This approach is more easily accomplished in a book than an op-ed. Maybe that was the issue with actress-scientist Mayim Bialik's recent NYT piece. But also, maybe not? Because bad takes are clickbait, or maybe for a more noble reason I'm not thinking of at the moment, the NYT Opinion pages had her do a video continuation of the op-ed as well, where she could defend herself from her critics. I watched a lot of it. I watched her go through the ritual of explaining that of course she doesn't victim-blame (which she does; that's central to the op-ed!), because... well, what was her reason, exactly? Because it's her, and she's a good feminist, and how could anyone possibly think something like this of her? (And I caught the very beginning, where her editor notes how well the piece is doing traffic-wise. You don't say.)

Well, the reason people criticized her piece was because she wrote it. I mean, I have no preexisting beef with Mayim Bialik. If anything, for various personal reasons (see comments to the post below) I'd have been biased to agree with her. But... the piece itself! Why is it remotely relevant to Bialik's history or lack thereof with respect to the "casting couch" (on that term, see Jessica M. Goldstein's excellent take) that she was not allowed manicures as a child? Why the cutesy ending about how plain-looking women don't need to look for love on casting couches, as though that's remotely what the expression "casting couch" has ever referred to? Why the reference to choosing not to flirt, as though the women men think are flirting with them actually are in all/most cases? Why the treeeemendous blind spot of, dressing modestly within a religious context has a long history of not doing a darn thing to prevent sexual abuse or assault?

I get the minuteness of Bialikgate. Minute compared with what's happening in Somalia, minute compared with the story now circulating of Trump joking about how Pence wants to murder gay people, and minute within the broader Weinstein-and-abuse story. (Bialik's story is about having not been a victim; thus in a sense the press it's gotten, since anything other than #MeToo was, from a cynical journalistic perspective, a fresh take.) The fate of the world does not hinge on whether Mayim Bialik gets, I mean really and truly gets, where her op-ed went wrong. And it's not as if she's abusing anyone. Anger should be directed at abusers, at the culture, not at individual self-identified feminist women who fail to meet flawless Awareness standards. Why am I still thinking about it even at all?

Partly it's that the piece came so close to being useful. It might have been a reflection on the ambiguities of an industry where, under the best of circumstances, people - women especially - are getting chosen for work in a large part based on their looks. It might have been a piece that reflected on how an industry (or society) that pseudo-values women only when young and gorgeous winds up screwing over all women. It might even have been an unpopular-opinion-ish point about how lived experience is different for women deemed sexy and those deemed less so - about how plain-looking or dressed-down women can absolutely still get assaulted, abused, etc., but may not be the recipients of a certain kind of ambiguous male attention. It might have been nuanced. It might have stayed put at Bialik's own highly specific experiences, without the additional take-tastic level of and you, too, could avoid sexual assault, if only you wore longer skirts, hussy. But who would have clicked on that?

So I guess this interests me as a media story. But also a rhetoric one. The it's me disclaimer, the one where the argument that the author is not actually saying whatever it is they're saying isn't so much an argument as a demand not to besmirch their good name, is really something else. I wonder if it's a rhetorical devise only really possible if you're someone generally protected from criticism. A star, in one area or another. Someone without the protection from criticism that stardom allows may well want to pull a but it's me, but be, at one stage or another, prevented from doing so.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Yes, I guess, all women

A lot of the Weinstein coverage has taken a certain approach: all women have experienced this. Not from Weinstein, specifically - though granted his alleged harassment and assault ran the gamut - but from the Weinsteins in our lives. Every woman, goes the (generally woman-authored) thinking, has dealt with this. Accompanying this is the notion - which has its own issues - that every woman has this group of other women she shares stories about who to avoid, which is unfortunately not the case.

I don't know what to make of the it-happens-to-us-all interpretation. As in, I really don't. I keep swinging back and forth between doubting - doubting, that is, that this has happened to all women, but also and more to the point, that you even need to make the case of universality to explain how awful this story is... and thinking that yes, that does actually sound about right, all women probably have encountered this in one form or another.

Put another way: I don't think it helps, from a feminist perspective, to present the universal female experience as being one of constant unsolicited male attention. I know women for whom something like this is true, others for whom, nope, not really. I suppose I fall somewhere in between - as do, I suspect, most women.

In one sense, I am a woman who has - luckily - never dealt with anything quite like this. I have never been asked for sexual favors in exchange for professional advancement. The only workplace sexual (or just body-related, hard to explain succinctly) harassment I've ever experienced was from a (powerful) straight woman.

How much of my spared-ness from that universal can be attributed to the workplaces I've landed in (straight men were underrepresented in my early-mid 20s work environments), and how much to the fact that I'm... within normal limits, but not someone met by a horde of suitors upon leaving the house, not someone who could have one of those jobs where looks especially matter? I have no idea.

But when I think less strictly about the Weinstein narrative - and when I leave the moment, that is, being 34 and very wrapped up in work stuff that keeps me living very much in the present... sure. There were things with elements of this. There was a librarian where I was doing research who wouldn't leave me alone until my now-husband actually physically showed up at this library. I can piece together a Weinstein-ish picture from certain boss behavior (not all bosses, but not none, alas), a certain college classmate situation (which I sure hope that college's administration would be better about dealing with today but who knows), and the overall experience of having existed as a young woman. Not a young and beautiful actress, but a young woman, which is, for what I'm going to guess is the vast majority of young women, enough. (Other incidents I'm thinking of, now that I think of it, have been in the last year or so. Young-ish will do.)

There was also, though, a time I still think about more than I should, when some (male) profs suggested - to me as well as to another woman grad student - that we promote the department by putting a third female grad student - a strikingly beautiful one, not present - on our brochures. And you know what? I'm going to classify that in the same pile.

What "lucky" is in this context is its own question. It's both easy and appropriate to focus on the recipients of Weinstein and similar's unwanted advances. These are not stories of glamor and sex appeal (and - in cases like Paltrow, Jolie, extreme beauty, celebrity relatives, the hovering presence of Brad friggin' Pitt) helping anyone, but quite the contrary - they're stories of exploitation and abuse. But it is worth also keeping in mind all the women who - because they aren't beautiful 22-year-olds - are not part of the story, as it were, to begin with.

While writing this post, I came across Marie Le Conte's excellent post on just that angle:

Something I hadn’t seen discussed in light of recent events is how they treat the women they don’t seek to abuse. In so many cases, men who sexually harass women struggle to register the existence of those other women, the useless ones. .... There is absolutely no doubt that one of the scenarios here is far worse than the other, but escaping from the threat of being sexually assaulted doesn’t even mean that women will get to be treated as human beings.
Yes. Exactly.

The story of gorgeous young women being lunged at and worse is - in crude media terms - easy to illustrate. The story of ordinary-looking women in that same workplace situation, getting harassed not by a powerful movie exec who wants to show he can 'get' the world's most beautiful women, but by a boss in some less-glamorous situation exerting his power over the nearest young and vulnerable woman, a notch or ten less so. And that of the women not lunged at, but treated as invisible, this... I mean, from a journalistic perspective, how would you even illustrate that?

But the story is all of this. Any system that values extreme youth and physical attractiveness winds up being awful, in different ways, for all women. For the women (fleetingly) treated as if they matter (except not really; it's a ruse - see Jia Tolentino on that angle), there are doubts about whether anyone ever did, ever will, take you seriously professionally. For the women who had been in that situation, give or take, but have aged out of it, there's the nagging question of whether you're too old, not just for Under Age Whatever achievement lists, but for achievement, period, if your accomplishments aren't those of a woman young enough to count. (Thought processes such as, 'Why write a novel if it would, realistically, only ever be finished, let alone published, at age whatever?') And for the women never or less-frequently in that situation, at any age, it's a cap on professional options extending well beyond the tolerable unfairness that not all of us have the option of being Glossier brand ambassadors.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ugh-ing in unison

Highly recommend Michael Sacasas - via Navneet Alang - on "affect overload," or the way social media drifts from ubiquitous emotional displays regarding one crisis to... the same thing, but re: the next:

"Even apart from crisis, controversies, and tragedies, however, the effect is consistent: the focus is inexorably on the fleeting present. The past has no hold, the future does not come into play. Our time is now, our place is everywhere."

Sacasas argues - and I think he's right! - that this phenomenon makes it very difficult to actually stop and think about... well, anything. I'm half asleep but have been wanting to yes-and this since reading it earlier today:

The thing on Twitter, maybe a bit on Facebook too, where everyone is upset about the same thing, all at once, and you feel like you're interrupting a meeting for those distressed about the topic of the moment if you opine about anything else... it's real. It's a thing. It's the thing where someone without any apparent connection to a story of the moment announces they're tired, and the assumption - the default assumption! - will be that this is a tired from the strain of the upsetting story in the news that day, and not any other sort of tired. Not the literal tired of having not slept, nor even the personal-and-political tired of having dealt with discrimination on a personal level. (Not that the not-having-slept tired can't have personal-as-political roots of its own...) No, the tired of terrible things having happened, that you have read about. The tired of something having happened to a member or members of a demographic you're not necessarily a part of, but that you definitely consider yourself an ally of. And it's not just "tired" - it's any out-of-context ugh. The assumption is that you are plugged into exactly what everyone's talking about now, even if you're in no way employed as a commentator, and that this is an ugh at what everyone else is ugh-ing about.

The impact, then, isn't just to reduce the thoughtfulness with which it's possible to analyze current events. Nor is it just to make any thoughts not about the news seem insensitive. It's this odd performance-yet-shaping of emotion. Think of your moods in a given day. When were you happy? Sad? Angry? I suspect that even for the very online, these don't especially track with news stories. Not never - for reasons I myself don't entirely understand, I find the Weinstein story incredibly sad and angering, even by awful-story-in-the-news standards - but... not as much as it would seem from social media? Because people have offline lives, as well as all sorts of idiosyncratic things going on in their online lives, inasmuch as those can be divided at this point, etc., etc., apologies but I am tired in the literal sense. 

The overshare era is done, replaced with intense displays of emotion about what would have to be a limited part of what's impacting anyone's emotional life. Yes, this relates - in ways I'm not quite awake enough for - to Jia Tolentino's argument about the personal essay feeling irrelevant unless anchored in an issue, unless - in a sense - an op-ed. Which is a win for privacy, I guess? But seems as it if would have some downsides as well.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Red Sweater(s)

It was a big-news week. So many huge, important stories tweeted out as must-reads, which I would notice here and there in between teaching, and which I am catching up on, one by one.

I do not have the bandwidth, though, for follow-through on any of the stories of the moment. What I will tell you about instead is sweater-shopping.

It all started - as these things not infrequently do - with a photo of Emily Weiss. More specifically: of the Into The Gloss / Glossier founder in a red sweater that was just so great. Céline, evidently, and discounted to a price at the high end of what I'd consider plausible for a sweater to cost full-price, and at any rate, that was over a year ago, so for this whole host of reasons, that specific sweater wasn't going to happen. But something like it, why not? I loved the idea of a bright red sweater - an everyday item not in a fade-into-the-background navy, gray, or black, like my other sweaters. A pop of confident, grown-woman color.

If I speak of a quest, it sounds as if I was devoting every moment from whenever I saw that photo until the moment of locating a sweater along those lines in an attempt at finding one. That would not be an accurate way of describing the last year or so, to put it mildly. But it would be fair to say The Sweater was always on some level in the back of my mind. It inspired the purchase of a rayon, long-sleeve, bright-red shirt from Uniqlo in New York. But upon return to Toronto, the moment had come. I was going to find this sweater.

Uniqlo did not come through in that regard. It had numerous variations, each not quite right: v-neck rather than crewneck, short-sleeve rather than long, dark crimson rather than the perfect bright red. They clearly have the right fabric, but use it only for this one $150 turtleneck dress, which is definitely not the thing I was looking for.

I don't know what came over me, as this is not my normal way of shopping, but I decided to look on eBay. Sure enough, there it was. The great advantage to being ancient is that I can tell, from a photo, if something is likely to fit me, and indeed, this did. Even with all manner of I-live-in-Canada fees, it was something like $80 (CAD) - not cheap but not outrageous. I was thrilled.

I became a notch less thrilled about it when the Everlane pop-up appeared in Nordstrom, and... there it was. The Sweater. In the right color, at least. Too expensive ($140ish), but still. I had to know. Did The Sweater exist, even if I wasn't about to buy it? The eBay one is a true, bright red, but more like cherry-red, a bit darker than the neon, almost orange red (think Nars Heat Wave) I had been imagining. (On Pinterest they look identical, which tells you something about the level of color difference we're talking about here.) Had I foolishly bought a sweater online, in some confusing and effectively non-returnable way, only to see The Sweater in person?

Was it foolish, though, given that I would not spend that much on a sweater, even if it were The Sweater?

I am pleased to report that the sweater I already bought is the superior entity, at least for my subjective purposes. The Everlane one fit me all wrong (too long and generally odd-fitting), and the material was flimsier. As for the color itself, while it's for sure the color of The Sweater, I can now see that the shade is - like all permutations of orange - not great with my coloring, whereas the slightly darker red seems to work.

If there's a moral to this story, it could well be that it's sometimes worth it to look for clothing in places other than Dundas and Yonge, with all due respect to that most relied-upon of intersections.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Hi from Canada

At the curious intersection of American gun culture and progressive Twitter... motifs?, the following narrative has emerged:

The problem isn't guns, or not mostly/most urgently guns, someone will say, but rather something amorphous in society. Toxic, aggrieved masculinity, say, or "white male entitlement." White men. Or just: men. (The first link brings up a thread where that very question is debated.) This is about men being the worst. And also, maybe, whiteness, if not in the act itself, which sure seems to correlate with maleness, then with which killers get which treatment in the press, from law enforcement. The problem isn't guns but societal unfairness.

Make a pronouncement along these lines, and you will get nods of agreement from some, trolling from others, but you know what you probably won't get? You probably won't get the gun nuts I got in my mentions (and in my employer's inbox...) for weeks after writing this.* Those taking this stance are people whose politics on this I share, I guess, kind of? But something seems off about the priorities, or maybe just the pragmatism?

Anyway, here's how I see it: racism, sexism, structural injustice, all of this is real. It's all important. It's important, too, that every time one of these idiots goes and shoots some unfathomable number of people, whichever motivation gets attributed (attribution of motive being its own web of problematicness), lo and behold he - virtually always he - has a history of domestic violence against one or more women. It all matters. It should all be addressed. It's not zero-sum, not at all.

But all these societal problems are intractable relative to having fewer guns. When addressing the specific and I think rather important issue of how to make it so people aren't constantly getting killed or seriously injured as a side effect of human awfulness, sure it's a good idea to look at the "human awfulness" angle, but also: guns.

Put another way. I want to live in a world without racism, sexism, domestic violence, or self-destructive urges, without white male entitlement. But I can picture a world without ready access to guns.

Guns are physical objects. Countries with different laws don't have this issue. It's not that there aren't obstacles - legal** and cultural - to shifting away from a gun culture. But consider those obstacles relative to abolishing racism and sexism. Especially to abolishing unconscious racism and sexism. Yes, a world with a bit less general awfulness would also have less gun violence, less violence of all kinds. But it should not be possible to kill, as guns allow, on a whim.

*A strange thing about having written that article is, even nearly two years later, there are these rounds of, a mass shooting happens, the piece again starts circulating (without my sharing it), and I again get the furious tweets, emails, etc. The moment I see something in my inbox with the subject heading, "You live in Canada," it's like, yep, that time again.

**Yes, I am aware of the Second Amendment. Whether the answer here is new interpretations of it or a repeal, others would know better than I would. I'm certain the issue is guns, but am not the policy strategist who's going to figure out how to get rid of them.

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.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Blueberry bagel as subtext

So. Lots of the people on the cultural appropriation is wonderful bandwagon, or adjacent liberal but anti-"PC" bandwagons - and who are at this very moment being called out for their white obliviousness on that topic - are Jewish. This has been the case for the last however many rounds of this topic. Best as I can tell, it's true in the US and Canada alike. What does it all mean?

-The ungenerous interpretation: The Jews in question are white, middle-class or well-off, and but for this one marginalized quality, Jewishness, would be raging alt-right white supremacists, as versus contrarian liberals. They feel as they do because they're white; their Jewishness is incidental. And after all, Jews are also well-represented among this set's critics.

-A more generous interpretation: Those with a liminal, intermediary, ambiguous identity - Jews, but also, to varying degrees, white women, gay men, non-black POC - have unique insights into how it goes for the oppressor and the oppressed. Even if they're not announcing their Jewishness, and instead opining as white people critical of 'identity politics', it's relevant.

-The sympathetic interpretation: Jews have long been oppressed, still are, especially by the newly-revived neo-Nazi movement, but a left framework refuses to acknowledge this one form of oppression makes some Jews feel excluded from the broader anti-oppression struggle and be sort of like, screw you, left and right. (Subtext: 'We never got a chance to complain about the dreadful things done to bagels.') But then you have to choose; some choose the right, whether out of a sense that the left is worse-for-the-Jews or for whichever other (esp. baffling in light of this GOP administration) reasons.

-The meta interpretation: I keep thinking about Item 3 from Bret Stephens's (yes, how apropos) advice to those who "aspire" to write op-eds. It is, in effect, to avoid nuance. That this is what the style does indeed demand means opinion-writing can't ever quite reach the subtleties of opinion-having. A stance that places you on a culture-wars team sells better than one that does not. (I'm still amazed that I got the opportunity to write a book that's critical of privilege discourse, but not team-anti-identity-politics.) To really get into the subtleties of how Jewishness impacts an experience of whiteness, this is something that needs... introspection? A separate study of its own, one not in op-ed format?

As might be obvious (?) I lean towards all of the above. I don't think the answer here is to say that well actually, white opinion-writers A, B, C, etc., are Jewish, both because they're still also white and because the listing of the Jews, no matter the motivation, can feel like a sinister activity. But not mentioning that A, B, and C are Jewish somehow feels - to me, a white Jewish writer a few notches to their left - like missing something important.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The beginnings of thoughts

-The post-decency presidency. He's not just unconcerned with niceties on some liberal-arts-seminar level. It's this elaborate performance of, how would a person act if totally OK with being awful? And the answer is, unsurprisingly, not great. 

Because oh. my. goodness. Say what you will about virtue-signaling. Roll your eyes, if you feel like, when acquaintances with no personal relationship to a tragedy, no news or help to share, post about how they find it sad. But if your job is president of a country, then even if your mind is on which flavor of potato chips to next eat, you really do have to at least pretend to care. Ideally you would care, but given who the president is, that's exceedingly hard to picture happening.

All I can think is, Trump won on a platform of opposing political correctness broadly defined - not just of-the-moment hypersensitivity and progressive Tumblr excesses. Not just baseline, mainstream-etiquette rejection of overt racism and sexism. No, it goes further. It's about rejecting whatever check most of us but especially politicians are meant to have on selfish and tone-deaf impulses.

Which, look, if his thing were that he said what popped into his head, had no concern for niceties, but had good policies, and diverted the energy that might have gone to platitudes and PR towards improving things, then... fine? But no, this is not what he was doing. This was never what he was going to do. He's dispensed with niceties and put, in their place, awfulness.

-The White Lady, post-post-election. (Chapter 4 is on this but I wrote it - like the rest of the book - pre-election.) Anne Helen Petersen's essay and much of the Taylor Swift continues to exist content. Also: Chelsea Clinton continues to exist content. Louise Linton's #designerboasting, Paris Hilton's canine McMansion. The lady who opened a fancy-Toronto-neighborhood-named but also appropriative bar in Brooklyn. Marie Antoinette.

As always, there's the question of, how much of ugh-white-ladies is anti-racism and/or anti-oligarchy, and how much a form of ugh-women-in-general but with a progressive-seeming veneer? It would seem to be a case where speaker identity matters. When a white man - I don't care how sure he is that he's speaking As An Ally - declares white women the worst, particularly a straight white man who likely has a romantic history (real or desired) in which white women play a substantial role, I have to wonder. Whereas when a woman of color - especially, in the US context at least, a black woman - makes what are in principle the same points, I'm ten trillion times more likely to think there's something there.

But this still leaves the question of whether it's on the whole a positive development that Bourgeois White Lady Awfulness has become such a thing in the culture. How much is it a necessary corrective to the idea (an idea someone may in fact hold, maybe?) that the real racism or classism is sexism, i.e. that rich white women of the Louise Linton persuasion are, because women, just as oppressed as, say, trans women of color? And how much is it just a new way of sparing rich white men - that is, the people with the most power, but oh, not the most luxurious privilege, just, you know... power - their comeuppance?

-Sam Sifton or maybe the NYT on behalf of him crowdsourcing female authors. A response tweet that one got - and that I'm now not finding - with someone's spreadsheet listing books they'd read, with the authors' gender and race also noted. The necessity of feeling allowed to like what you like (and of having some space where you consume whatever you consume, without an audience), but also the advantages of being... thoughtful? intentional? when, as a critic, you're deciding what to promote. Which is a different thing. And which is what a summer reading list in a big newspaper consists of. The whole thing didn't begin with online activists digging up a Goodreads account.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

As yet unanswered: what brought "Meghan" to the back room in the first place

If there were ever a question that feels of another (recent) time, it's the one about whether it's offensive for straight women to go to gay bars. A time when same-sex marriage was not legal, making (straight) bachelorette parties in gay bars not just out of place but unthinkingly cruel. Also, maybe, a time when gender and sexual orientation categories weren't quite as fluid as they now are, in some quarters.

And yet, here we are. Kind of. The latest installment of this oddly persistant topic began with a somewhat all-over-the-place think-piece by Rose Dommu, in Out. Dommu was arguing that "in 2017, women can go anywhere we want to!", gay bars included.

Most of what Dommu says is harshly phrased but seemingly uncontroversial - bachelorette parties behaving badly shouldn't be in gay bars, but not all women are bachelorette party participants (or, for that matter, straight, cis; from between the lines, seems Dommu herself is describing straight, cis women as a group she's not a part of). Also: men, even gay men, should not say cruel things about women as a group. Agreed! The only remarkable thing about the piece is Dommu's insistence that it's misogyny for a gay man not to want to have semi-public sex where women are present. ("If you can't dance to some shitty house song or go down on a stranger just because a woman is in the room, you need to examine what that says about you, not call for that woman's removal.")

 Is it a violation of consent to demand access to a space where there's implicit consent among members of a particular gender? I'd think yes, kind of? But what do I know - it had honestly never occurred to me that the fact that it's 2017 would have any bearing on whether women should expect an enthusiastic welcome at gay male sex clubs. I don't believe Title IX covers this.

I learned about the story from the latest Savage Lovecast. Dan Savage interviews Alexander Cheves, about his response to Dommu. So, two men discussing whether or not a phenomenon (excluding women from gay bars) is sexist, which isn't great, but at the same time, the 'right' of women to go to gay male sex clubs seems an absurd thing to make one's cause. Cheves and Savage discuss an incident where a woman inadvertently (or so she claims?) stumbled into the sex-club back room of a gay bar, got groped (most likely, as Savage and Cheves speculate, by someone who, in the dark and given the context, thought they were groping a man), freaked out, and then got the back room (but not the bar itself) shut down.

The discussion is a fascinating (to me) case study of what happens when there's no clear answer to who falls where on a privilege hierarchy. It's a great privilege talking-past: For Dommu, gay men are part of this privileged category, men, and thus in a position of exclusionary privilege when deciding women can't enter their establishments. And for Cheves, straight women fall into their own privileged category, straight people, and are showing up at gay bars out of a sense of straight entitlement. Which is closer to what's happening, but which is also, I think, missing the point.

Cheves ends his piece with the sentence, "Check your privilege at the door." He's able to arrive at that clear-cut explanation - that this is simply about straight privilege and queer spaces - by changing the terms of the debate from the ones Dommu (messily) laid out. That is, he responds not to Dommu's point about women, of all sexual orientations, belonging anywhere, but instead addresses the question of straight people generally demanding access to and control over queer spaces generally, with straight women this barely-differentiated subset of The Straights.

Writes Cheves:

There are cultural zones for certain demographics that are intentionally exclusionary — not out of hate, fear, or prejudice, but because everyone deserves space, and you must respect it. Straight women: If you don’t like this, go literally anywhere else in the world. Wherever you go, you can be assured that there will be straight people there.
Which... look, he's right, Savage is right, straight women should not be shutting down gay sex clubs because of our delicate, sex-negative lady-sensibilities nor holding bachelorette parties at gay bars (which is evidently a thing, if not one I've ever encountered so much as anecdotally), even in areas where same-sex marriage is legal. But is it really true that all space except gay bars is safe and welcoming for women? In the whole world? Which... Cheves would seem to get, in that he references "straight male violence against women" in the previous paragraph.

I guess what I'm wondering is, does straight entitlement explain why "Meghan" - the name Cheves gives to a straight cis straw-woman - is at a gay bar in the first place, if not as a guest of a gay male friend? Or rather, does it fully explain what's happening there?

It's curious how straight womanhood gets discussed - in this conversation and others - not so much as a sexual orientation but as a sort of absence thereof. As the desire for convention, for stability, for social approval. It's readily forgotten that it's the desire for men. Straight women are imagined to have no desire apart from the desire to be desired. Not to be all ridiculous here but: Think of the meme. Women are either the nagging girlfriend or the unattainable object of desire. The sometimes humiliating but ultimately powerful role of protagonist goes to men. It's not that the meme Is Sexist, but rather that it only works because everyone knows these tropes.

So why are these straight ladies in gay bars? Here's a theory! They're there to look at men. Not men they consider pets or zoo animals. Men they consider... men. To look at men without being looked at by men. Also, perhaps - and this is all speculation, not the results of, like, a bachelorettes-at-gay-bars survey - out of a certain degree of identification with gay men. This, to be clear, is an explain-not-excuse.

Human beings are complicated; a straight woman who's by all accounts cis might still identify with desire as gay men are understood to experience it - a desire for men, for a particular man, that's not linked up with a desire to be a people-pleaser. This is merely a subset of how cis women can - for reasons having zilch to do with gender dysphoria - will sometimes, in all sorts of contexts, wish they were men. This is something I've tried and it feels like failed to explain here various times over the years (!), so rather than explicitly linking to posts from 2011, 2012, I'd suggest reading Rebecca Solnit's excellent new essay on more or less this topic.

But yes, it's true: A straight woman who sees herself as belonging - physically or just symbolically - in gay male spaces, even ones that are bonkers for her to expect a welcome in, is revealing oh so many unchecked privileges: her identification with maleness is nothing compared with what trans men experience, but also, and more to the point, she's missing that it's not actually an easy-breezy party to be gay in our society. She's missing that she could be open about her crushes growing up, her boyfriends later on. She's missing that her desires conveniently - at times annoyingly, but mostly conveniently - line up with societal expectations. She's ignoring that the reason gay male sexuality is viewed as so separate from white picket fence land is that gay people were, until five minutes ago - and socially, to some extent, still- prevented from having that outcome.

Her privilege, agreed, it is showing. But her choice to exercise it in that way is - if there's anything to my theory - rooted in a lack thereof.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

In 2017, are there still blogs?

Hello again, blog readers. I blog to you from a coffee shop, in a country led by a handsome liberal-minded leader. I hope your 2009 is going well.

If I were to give you recent updates of my day-to-day life, you would hear a detailed account of syllabus-planning and IKEA-furniture-building. Are you me? If not, you may not find this compelling. So instead, some links:

-Sarah Ditum on the at times overestimated role of women in organized white supremacy. Pair with Tanya Chen's story about racist bots posing as "basic white girls."

-Kat Stoeffel on feminism pre- and post-election.

-Penelope Green found a woman who's "paying $3,499 for a 212-square-foot room" on the Lower East Side, "which comes with a terrace and four roommates." A correction notes that the room is not, as originally stated, 65 square feet.

-In further exorbitance: French presidents sure do spend a lot on makeup! Presumably no-makeup makeup. As is the French way.

And in the self-promotional realm:

-I discussed what happens when the White Ladies called out (by other white ladies) for doing anti-fascism wrong are white Jewish ladies, for TNR.

-Soon after arriving back in Toronto, I did a TV Ontario book interview, with Nam Kiwanuka. Who was fantastic. This was my second-ever TV appearance, the first of which was when C-Span came to a book event. I was - and doubtless seem - terrified. The program aired last night; there's also a book excerpt accompanying. It's the book's afterword, which I - although yes, I would think this - find relevant to our times.

-New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni interviewed me for his column. No big deal, things like that happen to me all the time. (They do not.)

And finally, some Toronto and non-Toronto recommendations:

-The new Sud Forno, near the Eaton Centre. Custard bombolone heaven.

-Kintaro Izakaya. Current contender for best restaurant in Toronto, according to the very subjective izakaya-centric rating system WWPD adheres to.

-Riverdale Farm. Specifically, the sheep.

-That new HEMNES dresser. Enormous and life-changing.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Other writers

Other writers live in New York. If you, too, live in New York, then other writers live in a specific Brooklyn neighborhood. If you live in that neighborhood, then other writers live in Manhattan, in townhouses or Classic Sixes they were handed upon reaching majority.

Other writers are three years younger than you are.

Other writers have held beautiful-person jobs, which they write about more eloquently than you ever could.

Other writers got there by connections.

Other writers had the gall to not get there by connections.

Other writers are raising five kids which actually makes them better at managing their time, would you believe it.

Other writers are friends with other other writers and make this known on Other Writer Instagram.

Other writers have secret family money.

Other writers definitely don't have secret office jobs.

Other writers are sent Glossier products for free.

Other writers' eyebrows don't even need those products.

"As if it were nothing"

I knew Taffy Brodesser-Akner's feature on the status of the diet industry in an ostensibly post-diet culture would be brilliant before I started reading it, given author and angle alike, and yes, it sure was. Diets are passé, but eating less to lose weight is not. If you'd ever wondered about how that's supposed to work (I had! I had wondered this!), you need to get to it.

It's a deeply reported piece, as well as a personal one. Brodesser-Akner leads with the reported, not the autobiographical, but it's hard to picture a story working at the level it does if it were written by a journalist, however talented, who lacked personal experience in that area. The personal angle comes through most clearly in the conclusion:
A skinny woman was eating a cupcake and talking on her phone, tonguing the icing as if she were on ecstasy. Another skinny woman drank a regular Dr Pepper as if it were nothing, as if it were just a drink. I continued walking and stopped in front of a diner and watched through the window people eating cheeseburgers and French fries and talking gigantically. All these people, I looked at them as if they were speaking Mandarin or discussing string theory, with their ease around their food and their ease around their bodies and their ability to live their lives without the doubt and self-loathing that brings me to my arthritic knees still.
I've read through a handful of the piece's nearly a thousand comments, which was enough to see I was not the only reader to wonder about the "ease" Brodesser-Akner says she witnessed. It seems possible, I think, both to respect her response to seeing thin women eating non-diet foods, and to question whether "as if it were nothing" is an approach to food our society ever really allows women, of any size. Which is something she argues, or at least suggests, elsewhere in the piece, when she writes, "A woman’s body isn’t neutral. A woman’s body is everyone’s business but her own."

What that conclusion describes might be called thin privilege - that is, the blithe indifference of the thin to the struggles of those for whom every bite is fraught. But is thin privilege, in that understanding, something all or even most thin women have ever experienced firsthand? Is it the typical experience of slimness?

Let me be clear: In a society that stigmatizes being fat, it's advantageous not to be fat. In one that valorizes thinness, it helps still more to be thin. If you're someone who has never had to wonder if you'd fit in an airplane seat, or if the store has a large enough size, if a doctor has never suggested you lose weight, you probably can't get what such experiences are like, and may have never even considered them. If I were privilege-categories dictionary dictator, that would be Thin Privilege.

But how many thin people - how many women especially - experience "ease around their food and... their bodies"? Is that thin privilege? Once you include people who were once fat but are currently thin due to tremendous effort, and once you add to those the ones who'd be not-fat regardless but remain thinner still due to (yup) tremendous effort, you're talking about a whole lot of... effort. (See Alana Massey's excellent essay on this phenomenon.) Some of that effort crosses the line into diagnosable eating disorder territory. That which does not will nevertheless often take up huge amounts of time and mental energy that could be going absolutely anywhere else. Throw into the mix women whose thinness is the result of stress or illness - here, see Maris Kreizman's - and you've got quite a lot of women who absolutely reap the unfair advantages of thinness, but maybe don't experience thinness as "ease."

I point all this out not to say that well actually, thin women have it worse, or even as bad. Certainly not. Rather, it's that because these two things - societal weight obsession and sexism - are intertwined the way they are, they're that much more difficult to dismantle. In theory, "wellness" and so forth might have proven a great equalizer, reminding that you can be living well, or not, at any size. As Brodesser-Akner's piece makes painfully clear, it's done nothing of the kind.

Dieting has long been the default (not universal, but yes, default) state of women's food consumption, as well as an activity engaged in by women and men who - because society has deemed them fat - are trying to lose weight. The concept of "clean eating" manages to somehow merge existing fatphobia with a purity requirement extending to all women. It's not a chipping away at thin privilege. It's the worst of both worlds.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Assorted thoughts because it's pouring outside

-When men wait in line once a week to see which new clothes a store has in stock, it's not about stuff. It's an experience. (Is Ruth La Ferla tongue-in-cheek here? Her sources, at any rate, don't seem to be.)

-Working from home may be associated with coffee shops but the afternoon coffee is almost inevitably leftover coffee from the morning carafe, over ice.

-Another budget tip (forgive me but I was, until three days ago, paying rent in two cities): Lululemon Run Club. What it is is, you go to one of the stores at a designated time and have... well, what you have is track team practice, minus the track meets. The fee is the same as for high school track practice (assuming a public school): free. No, you do not need to wear Lululemon to participate, although I have done so, both because that's the make of my non-disintegrated shorts and because it somehow feels like a nice gesture. If you need a kick to go running - which, in Toronto at least, with its absence of obvious running paths, I do - it's just the thing.

-There is a Lena Dunham controversy. Probably another since I started typing this.

-There is also curvy wife guy. Basically a man who's some sort of Inspirational Influencer Ted-talk-giving beacon of Positivity posted to Instagram that he's always liked shorter, curvier women than are on the covers of magazines (i.e. the vaaaaaast majority of women; dude has always liked women) and is Not Ashamed to admit that he loves his short, curvy, cellulite-having wife. (He mentions her butt cellulite in the post.) It went viral - if I'm getting the timing right - first with encouraging responses (his wife is among the post's vocal supporters), then with variations on WTF.

I'm embarrassed to admit I find this story incredibly compelling. Why? Is it because at a formative age, the "neg" was a big topic? Because of how similar dude's line is to the thing where men (Jewish or not) admit to actually liking Jewish women? Because it's yet another fine example of body positivity being a conventionally attractive young woman in tight clothes? Because it's a window into a whole non-poodle use of Instagram I find hard to comprehend at the best of times? Because it's hilarious to think of equivalently not-actually-flattering things a woman could say about a male partner's physique? Because dude seems to have confused body positivity (which is about how people, girls and women especially, see themselves) with his own coming to terms with liking a body type that is... what women tend to look like, give or take? Is it - as Sarah Ditum suggests - the "low expectations" angle, that is, how he wants to be congratulated for... loving his wife?

What I keep coming back to is, it's that he presents himself as someone who could have married a supermodel, but only after reckoning with his unusual preferences and becoming A Feminist was he willing to pursue his dream of partnering with a merely attractive woman. That's the premise of the post - that not-a-supermodel was a choice he made, as versus the reality for nearly all humans. That, or his premise is that all men could be partnered with supermodels (something an unfortunate number of men perhaps do believe). Either way, it's a heck of a starting point.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Supermodel vs. Schlub

Recently the following Twitter exchange made the rounds, with a comeback that has won praise from at least two people I follow: Chrissy Teigen - model, actress, social media personality (nearly seven million Twitter followers), wife of John Legend (marital status relevant to the tweet at hand) - tweeted, "I have a best selling book, great boobs, a family I love, am literally eating pasta on a lake in Italy and I married rich." This (since-deleted) tweet was not gratuitous self-congratulation. Rather, it was in response to another tweet, from a now-locked (but one might infer, Trump-friendly) account with 314 followers, suggesting that getting blocked by Trump on Twitter was the high point of Teigen's otherwise pathetic life. Her point? Yeah, not so much.

One response to the episode is that Teigen sure told dude. Another: this was a punch down. Supermodel vs. Schlub. Presumably the fact that dude's account went from public to private in the course of my writing this blog post has something to do with him being inundated with negative attention from Teigen's numerous supporters. Teigen had been personally insulted, but only one of these two people was in a position to instigate a Twitter pile-on against the other.

There's a third possibility, which I'm getting to...

Versions of this dynamic, involving people with platforms but not Teigen-level celebrity, play out on Twitter all the time. Someone behind an account with relatively few followers (or - as in a case I'm thinking of, just one follower) will say something fairly garbage, directing their women-should-serve-men, their all-lives-matter, at someone with a large platform, who is also personally (as in, identity-categories-wise) impacted by the issues at hand. It won't be report-worthy abuse, but it will be on the cusp. The speaker will be, individually, quite powerless, but will be speaking in defense of the powerful.

What are the options of the marginalized-but-platform-having party? Should they just take it silently, missing an opportunity to show what oppression looks like in action? (That was certainly my response to a wave of Twitter harassment I received, just before it became the thing to RT one's harassing mentions.) Retweet but with a screenshot? Obscure the account name? Quote-tweet and mock the idea but not the person? Quote-tweet with a 'look at this idiot'-type message? How responsible, if at all, should they feel for subsequent harassment the last of those might inspire?

And what's the threshold, once we're talking not about real influence but just... disparate follower counts? I had few qualms reacting to tweets from a dude (I think?) who thought he'd dug up something really nefarious when he went to the Wikipedia page for the Israeli flag and learned it had ~Zionist~ origins. As if this was some sort of discovery. My aim, in sharing the tweet (which had already been RT'd - favorably, I would guess from the context - by SlutWalk Chicago, which was how I'd found it in the first place) was to point out the abysmal level at which a conversation supposedly about "Zionism" was taking place, with craptastic consequences for Jews, regardless of position on Israel. Does it matter that flag dude and I have follower counts in the same general range, and are neither of us even Twitter-famous?

Or was I, in calling out bigotry-tinged stupidity on Twitter, part of the problem of how one just can't say anything these days, and therefore the Reason Trump Won TM? I felt a twinge of guilt for sharing it. Guilty, that is, not because I doubted the importance or correctness of calling out that (consequential) foolishness. Guilty for taking pleasure, even a little bit, in doing so.

If we take a step back and return to what the Teigen-and-troll back-and-forth was actually about, we see that the president is blocking people on Twitter. The same president who uses his Twitter account to do things like announce a ban on transgender people in the military. If Teigen chooses to use her platform to draw attention to the absurdity and general disastrousness of the Trump presidency, isn't that... good?

The third option, then, involves - sorry, this is not very exciting - taking things case-by-case. A norm that says it's always bad and inherently harassing to publicly tell someone they've said something offensive, if you have more of a platform than they do, effectively eliminates social media's capacity for righting wrongs. It is a good thing about Twitter, say, that there are people from marginalized groups with power on there (sometimes elsewhere, too!), who are able to expose and push back against all manner of horribleness. Meanwhile a norm that every misstep needs to be called out by everyone who sees it, however tangentially involved, just leads to the kind of awful Twitter pile-ons where self-proclaimed allies battle it out with one another, ostensibly On Behalf Of, and they may each and every one of them mean well, but ultimately for their own entertainment/posturing.

Put another way: blanket rejection of call-outs - when it extends to people who a) are actually impacted, and/or b) were personally insulted and are replying to the person who personally and publicly insulted them - is purity politics in its own right.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The French Girl vs. The Frenchwoman

Despite thinking the whole thing is silly - and despite knowing, about as much as any American could, that the whole thing is nonsense - I've never quite been able to avoid falling for the whole Frenchwoman thing. I get - and have long since gotten - that the entire thing is based on a myth. It's subtly racist, classist, and more. It essentializes French women, who are real people, not objects for Anglo tourists to gawk at as fashion references. I know - believe me, I know! it's what my degree is in! - that there's more to France than ballet-flat shopping.

And yet.

The women in the posh parts of Paris do have great style. Yes, this is circular - "great style" is defined, in much of the world, as looking like a rich Parisian woman. But I was reminded of this last year, when I was back in Paris for the first time in several years. Gosh but did these women look fantastic. How boring of me to think this, but there it was.

I left feeling inspired to dress like the women I saw there... all the while realizing that this would have to involve clothes purchased elsewhere (because my Canadian dollars add up to 1/16th of a consignment blazer), and that once assembled by me, once on me, nothing particularly Parisian would result. It's not as if taking inspiration from French classmates and professors during grad school (one, in particular, of each, now that I think of it) left me looking Parisian. But was that ever the point?

My thinking is, the appeal of looking like a French woman is really two different things, depending on your age. When I was younger, it was about the gamine look. Not that I ever looked all that gamine - I was, and am, the wrong build for "gamine" - but the idea was to look understated, elegant, not trying too hard. It was a way to look nice but not sexy, which, day-to-day, especially when you're in your early 20s, has its practical advantages. "Gamine" is also a way of tricking yourself getting excited enough about dressing in work attire that shopping for that sort of clothing doesn't seem like a chore, or like a reminder that you're no longer a young person. (Without the myth, without the belief that you're somehow channeling a New Wave actress, you're just a grad student buying used J. Crew ankle-length slacks.)

As I got closer to 30, Frenchwoman style started to be something else: the promise of getting older but not, I suppose, giving up. To me, at almost-34, it seems like a way to look good that doesn't involve trying to look younger. Which is immensely appealing because looking younger is not a thing that's going to happen. Not for any of us. While French women hold no secret where DGAF-ness about aging is concerned (witness the skincare industry of that country), there does seem to be a thing where women of all ages look glamorous. It's an aspiration, even if the reality is, I'm an American with the collection of sweats (school-name-bearing and generic) to prove it.

This is what I think is happening: Younger women and even teen girls in that bit of Paris dress what would seem in the US (and, as I understand it, the UK) to be sort of middle-aged, but the look works for them. Older women dress... exactly the same as younger women, and it works for them, too, at least as well. There isn't, in those neighborhoods, much of a youth culture, at least where clothes are concerned, but nor is there an assumption that The Elegant Uniform is for daughters, not mothers or grandmothers.

My own vision for Older Frenchwoman Chic, for the look I aspire to/to age into/to wear if I can sustain Effort for long enough, is a bit different from the gamine uniform. Fewer Breton-striped shirts. More... black boots? Skirts rather than cutoffs? How far this project goes beyond my imagination, we shall see.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Notes on a gray, almost Parisian Saturday in Toronto

Just now, a lost laundry card turned out to be in the pocket of some laundry-day jeans all along. Crisis averted! Which is, I guess, the theme for the week. If everything that I'd feared had gone wrong, large and small, had done so, this would have been a different Saturday indeed. One not as devoted to the dual goals of living in non-squalor (as in, unpacked and with furniture) and trying to dress more like a glamorous (not gamine; these are different) Parisian.

Today began with a run, and by "run" I mean what was, according to Google Maps, a short jog to the St. Lawrence Market, but which took a long time because I'm still worn out from - yes - a Lululemon Run Club run earlier in the week. (Joining a gym seemed too expensive, so the fancier-sounding but free option it is.) This would have been better to do early in the morning, before the market itself got incredibly crowded. (I'd chosen sleeping in and reading a short story in the New Yorker, about graduate fellowships.) But we now have a lot of Ontario-grown cherries, which came in a pretty basket declaring their provincial origins.

I was still on a noble-and-efficient kick for a little longer, able to sustain interest in getting the apartment reasonable-looking for long enough to vacuum and put some more pictures up, but not quite long enough to find and sort out delivery for a dresser. Still, it's now sort of... civilized here. We can have people over now, with somewhere for them to sit and everything. Which is more than can be said for the last few places we'd lived.

Then came the poodle-centric diversion of taking Bisou to a dog run. There aren't any nearby, so this is a bit involved, and requires taking advantage of Toronto's dog-friendly (off-hours) public transportation system. The run we went to is in the same park as the Allan Gardens Conservatory, which turned out to be pretty spectacular. (And very Midsomer Murders. Orchids!) Right there in the middle of Toronto, all these tropical plants! Cacti! Also: koi! turtles! We took turns, because (very understandably) the conservatory does not allow dogs.

There was something else after. What was that? Oh yes... shoessss. With the help of my more-French-than-I-am spouse, I decided upon a pair from Gravity Pope, in the final sale aka absurdly gorgeous shoes at reasonable prices section. But... too small! And it was the last pair!

Turns out another branch had them in (what I think will be) my size, so in 7-10 days, I will be Inès de la Fressange, crossed with Charlotte Gainsbourg, with a bit of Isabelle Huppert thrown in. I have a whole vision for these shoes, involving black tights, which... look, it does not get hot out in summer in Toronto, at least not this summer, so I might as well wear this outfit before parka season arrives.

Friday, July 21, 2017

New to Downton

Have made it into Season 2 of a show everyone watched a million years ago (why hello again, Canadian Netflix), and can say the following:

-It's like Upstairs, Downstairs but also not really. At first I thought this was going to be distracting, not least because maid Anna (played by Joanne Froggatt) looks so much like Jean Marsh's Rose, and has very much the same kindly personality. But the show is different. Sillier? Campier? Less subtle (esp. re: the horrors of World War I, which thus far I think Upstairs, Downstairs conveyed more effectively)? But on the whole, good and addictive in the same general way. It took me a bit longer to get into, but now it's like, will this be a Downton night? Will it? 

-The big difference? And the point of Downton? The Dowager Countess. Maggie Smith. Her scenes are everything. She's always in the wrong, but you root for her all the same because she's a friggin' Dowager Countess and her conviction of her own superiority feels about right.

-That's a very big house. And almost certainly not furnished through a mix of IKEA Etobicoke and Toronto Craigslist.

-Thomas isn't half bad! If a sort of terrible person. Not sure I buy bland Matthew, however, as the love interest, although I guess the point is that he's an heir. But really, owning Downton seems like more trouble than it's worth.

-The marriage-plot stuff is the dud in an otherwise compelling net of plots. I don't care at all who Mary, the eldest daughter, marries. Which is maybe the point - Mary herself doesn't seem to be losing much sleep over this, either.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Obvious in retrospect: Some things to know before writing a book

As with most life advice, this batch of highly subjective suggestions could readily be condensed to: we all care about our own stuff more than anyone else does. This (yes, clichéd) realization can be disappointing, or liberating, as in other arenas.

Below, a mix of what I wish I'd known, and what I had known but isn't self-evident. It's all in one way or another variants of the meta-advice above:

-If you're fortunate enough to have anyone other than yourself interested in your book, and for your book not to completely disappear into an abyss upon publication, you will be asked two questions most often: Why that title? Why that subtitle? Those are likely to be the two aspects of a book that had the most editorial and marketing input, meaning that the literal answer is a behind-the-scenes conversation of no interest to anyone outside publishing.

While it's certainly important to be able to explain (and to like) your title and subtitle, what you need to do find a way to turn the title question into a book question. Which is, after all, what it is.

-Writing a book doesn't change everything. You don't suddenly emerge in a black turtleneck, with a coterie of acolytes. No one is awestruck - or, if you've already been writing professionally for years, terribly surprised - that you're now an author. Unless you're 22, one of the main questions you'll get will be, "Is this your first book?" And this will be a reasonable question, not a prompt to dissolve into a puddle of self-criticism for having not published one while still in your 20s. But it is cool to see your book in a bookstore, and to have, you know, written a book. (Did I go visit mine at the Eaton Centre - again - over the weekend? Yes.)

-Here's one I was aware of (largely thanks to Emily Gould's essay on the topic), but that falls very much into the not-self-evident category: You will still need to work during and after your book's publication. Google your favorite (famous, even!) writers and note that they too have jobs, at the very least teaching writing at colleges. If your aim is to support yourself solely from writing, a book (or ten) won't hurt, but writing is unlikely to be your job.

-In addition to whichever paid work you're doing, you'll wind up engaging in mostly-unpaid work to promote the book. The more professional promotional help you have, through a publishing house - and I've been tremendously lucky in that department - or otherwise, the more such work you may wind up with. The work can be anything from radio and video/television appearances (which I've done, and which are terrifying at first but a lot of fun) to a self-funded book tour (which I did not have the self-funds for, but which could well be useful.) The part that is (generally) paid is if you do freelance writing related to the book. And on that note...

-Having a book out does not automatically equal leverage in the writing world. If you want a higher fee for a freelance piece than was your rate previously - if you want any fee for one - you still have to ask. If anything, unless you're super-famous, having a new book out might be that much harder on the freelancing front, with editors assuming book publicity is payment enough. (You know how everything costs more once the word "wedding" is uttered? It's kind of like that.) Be advised: Book publicity is not payment enough. 

-Criticism will be more memorable than praise. If someone writes on Goodreads that your writing style is awful (can you tell that I'm writing this item shortly after seeing that comment?) you will never be more convinced of the accuracy of anyone's assessment of anything, ever. Deal with it privately however you see fit, but take Goodreads's advice and don't, like, engage. It's for readers to decide what they think of your book! Probably best not to engage on Twitter at all, but I confess to not having always been able to restrain myself when it's along the lines of 'I haven't read this book, have no plans to, but it says X which is awful' and you - having written it - know it doesn't say X and... yeah. Best to just leave it, I think, even in a case like that.

-Whatever you imagined it would be like to have written a book, it won't be exactly that. My two big book-related fears - that the book would vanish unnoticed, and that it would be read as an Ann Coulter-esque right-wing tract rather than the intra-left critique it is - have, thankfully, not happened. Nor, I suppose, have any of the fantasy versions. One involved everyone with the means to do so buying ten copies and my retiring, at age 33, to a villa in Santa Barbara. Another, a reception that - I realize now but hadn't always - is reserved for the sort of non-fiction books where mere proximity to the tome makes a person seem cooler, more glamorous, more with-it in some informed but not too controversial way.

The other... is trickier to explain. It came from seeing how it goes for fiction-writers, where chances are, those around you will react positively or not at all. And yes, I'm going mainly by some anecdata-affirming advice given by Mallory Ortberg aka Dear Prudence: "Generally, if someone has written a bad novel/short story/fan fiction, they will not be told 'You have written something bad.' They will be met with silence, and politeness, and unreturned emails." If you write a novel - or, for that matter, a dissertation - you'll at the very least get responses along the lines of, 'that's nice.' If you write a non-fiction, opinion-driven book called "The Perils of 'Privilege,'" maybe you don't get quite that response. Which is a longwinded way of saying, I don't really know what it's like to have written A Book. Just to have written that one.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Settling in, déjà vu edition

Before moving from Toronto about a year ago, our big - as in, physically big - concern was our furniture. We didn't have much of it, and storing it would cost more than the furniture itself. So we sold most of it on Craigslist. We have now come full circle in that regard. 

While we did wind up back at IKEA for immediate needs (almost a year without a dining table makes me put that into the "need" category), we'd held off on bookcases because it didn't seem urgent, and seemed wasteful (environmentally if not cost-wise) to repurchase so much IKEA, so soon. And then... if you have books, and want access to them, you need a place to put them. A near-year without bookcases made me read... less? Differently, at least. The bookcase-less-ness was starting to really get to me. It just seemed wrong.

And so, what had at first seemed like an inessential, to deal with when we got to it, started to seem very, very urgent. A quick browse of a couple furniture shops on Queen West reminded me exactly why we'd wound up at IKEA the last time - behold, an array of $700 bookcases less attractive than the Billy. A halfhearted search for a Toronto version of Housing Works - that is, a thrift store with good, reasonably-priced furniture - led me to conclude that this is either not a thing here (so much "consignment") or not one you can just find with a few Googling attempts. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I am deeply acquainted with this website

So much Craigslist furniture! And at a certain point, so familiar. I know the teak bookcase in the storage unit. The table with the map painted on it. The various round-backed furniture, built for homes without corners, and thus unsellable. The name-dropped Scandinavian designers who maybe are worth knowing, but not when you're in shelf-desperation mode. Oh, and the bunk beds photographed in a room that strikingly resembles a prison cell. And how can I forget? The kitchen cabinets photographed with someone's 1970s dad in front of them.

Why were we even doing this? We don't have a car, nor interest in doing our first-ever Toronto driving as a first-ever U-haul rental. But on some level, I remembered the ottoman. The gorgeous velvet ottoman that an office across the street from our last place was for some reason selling on Craigslist, and that is the only furniture from then that we held onto. You really just need to be able to lift whatever it is, assuming two elevator buildings or houses near each other. (We did carry a street-purchased bookcase to the top floor of a Brooklyn walkup, but that was close to a decade ago.)

On the cusp of giving up, we saw a couple of bookcases very much like the ones we'd sold, but not so much so that they might be the exact same ones. They struck me as being a readily carry-able distance from our apartment. That they most certainly were not, but the seller kindly agreed to drive us-and-them, which meant we could buy both, which... We have bookcases! Two identical ones! This actually happened! 

An hour or so in, it of course seemed like the bookcases had always been there. Totally normal. Why wouldn't an apartment have bookcases?