Wednesday, April 10, 2013

who cares if it's satire?

I had to ask myself why, in retrospect, I had been so excited to see Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. I guess because it combined the Korine sensibility (which I know mainly from 1995's compelling Kids) with themes of pop culture, debauchery, and the lives of young women. I guess I hoped it would be like a self-aware version of "Jersey Shore." But I must've looked at my watch 50 times during the movie, with its endlessly repetitive footage and dialogue. It is about four college girls who go to Florida for a boilerplate Spring Break experience of drinking and partying, but get mixed up with a repulsive thug named Alien (James Franco) and go on a murder spree with him.

The whole thing comes off as generally banal and feels like a juvenile attempt to shock. Ooh, violence! Ooh, senseless nihilism! Since Korine is considered an art-house filmmaker, critics have been trying to layer meaning on top of it, earnestly pondering whether it's "satire" or dumb sexploitation, with the implication that if it's "satire," it is intelligent and worthwhile. But I am really sick of satire as a device for young men who consider themselves badass to wallow in self-admiration. (Is Harmony Korine "young"? He was born the same year as me. I will be 40 in 10 days, and I just don't know what to do with that. Yes. We are young.)

With surprising frequency, news articles appear about college students (always, or almost always, male) who publish articles in their college paper that are meant to be "satire" of sensitive, "taboo" (oooh) topics like RACE and RAPE, but their skills are so poor and the essays so hamhanded that they wind up coming across instead as examples of the bigoted, toxic attitudes the pieces supposedly satirize. Then they cause a stir because they're so offensive and hurtful. One technique they use is to bombard readers with as many stereotypes as possible, thinking that this has the effect of "subverting" those stereotypes, which is subversive. This happens so regularly that it seems like a recreational ritual for college boys who like to consider themselves smart, politically incorrect troublemakers. It's like the intellectual equivalent of Spring Break. There should really be a component of Freshman English called "What Is and Is Not Satire."

So I really don't think it's interesting to contemplate whether "Spring Breakers" was satire. If it was, that basically means that Korine was indulging in his preferred film-school version of beer funneling. If we contemplate it, we are indulging him. I mean, I know he's not just some random college sophomore, he's a celebrated indie filmmaker with a track record, but I just wish everyone would stop assuming that the question "is it satire" is the same as the question "is it intelligent."

The main flaw of the movie is that it's boring and repetitive. Is it a "commentary" on the moral bankruptcy of Today's Youth? I don't care. If it is, it's a boring one. The "commentary" basically is, "Look how terrible they are!"

But there are a few interesting things about the movie anyway. Let's talk about those instead of the question of whether it's satire.

It's one of the rare films that explores the way girls try to be hard-core. One false stereotype about girls is that they don't gain status from being hard-core, that they get femininity points for being quiet and accommodating. That's never been my experience of girlhood, especially when I was in the stage of youth (late teens) that these girls are in. But it's interesting to watch the four protagonists occupy different places on the continuum of most to least hard-core, and what it implies for each of them.

Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), with matching beach-blonde dye jobs, have a limitless appetite for danger and sleaze. After they stage a robbery of a diner to get money for their Florida trip, terrorizing its patrons, they're just completely high on their own power to create mayhem, and have an unqualified enthusiasm for any amount of sex, drugs, guns, crime, and murder. By the end of the movie, they're the only two girls still partying.

Next is pink-haired Cotty (Rachel Korine, Harmony's wife), who's a bit more toned-down. She drives Brit and Candy to the diner and stays in the car while they commit the robbery. She takes a nap while Brit and Candy force Alien to fellate his own (loaded) automatic weapons, laughing all the way. When she gets shot in the arm, she decides she's not having fun anymore and boards the bus home.

But the most uptight party-pooper of all is Faith (Selena Gomez), the sweet, religious "good girl" of the bunch, who has undyed dark hair and says, "I don't like this, I don't feel comfortable" when Alien first takes the girls under his wing, taking a special, creepy liking to her, stroking her chin, seeming like he's about to give her a disgusting kiss, echoing the sex scenes with Telly in Kids where he has sex with very young virgins, tells them he cares about them, and unknowingly gives them HIV. Faith, unlike those girls, isn't convinced, and gets on the bus home right after that.

It's an obtuse, clichéd cop-out on Korine's part that he uses religiousness as the basis for Faith's lack of faith (funny how that works) that everything will work out OK if she and her friends go off with this leering dirtbag. It reduces her, more than is necessary, to Luann, the shrill, bible-thumping prude in that other movie about a foursome of girls on spring break, Shag. But the movie is unexpectedly good to Faith, and to girls like her. I spent more than my share of time as a teenager playing the role of the shaky-voiced girl who's like "I don't like this, I wanna go home," and that was never fun. But Korine validates that girl, oddly enough. It isn't religion that saves Faith--it's a healthy self-preservation instinct.

Much as pop culture claims that all the best social-status rewards are reserved for the girls-gone-wild, Brit and Candy don't get any of those rewards. They get to become murderers, and they get to have sex with a truly repellent guy, the kind of guy who's usually portrayed as going to prostitutes who pretend to like him as part of their job but really find him unbearable. It seems genuinely weird that Brit and Candy seem to really enjoy having sex with him, rather than pretending to enjoy it--isn't pretending what girls are usually rewarded for? Being--if I may invoke Ashley Benson's claim to fame--pretty little liars? I mean, the dude is not even sexy-ugly, like Vincent Gallo in Buffalo '66. Faith, and to a lesser extent Cotty, are spared.

Meanwhile, the process by which Candy and Brit devolve into complete miscreants is also worth looking at. At the beginning they're just ordinary thrill-seeking teenagers, but the diner robbery does something to them. They're so blinded by the adrenaline rush of risk-taking that they don't seem to notice that the things they're doing aren't even fun. It's like the queasy downer version of 21, that movie about a bunch of MIT students who figure out how to cheat Vegas casinos and are power-drunk on their own outlaw cleverness; I got caught up in the adrenaline when I saw that movie. I felt the thrill. Here I didn't.

And I guess that's what the problem is: I wanted a movie about hedonism to at least feel a little hedonistic, to offer a little pleasure, which would lend some much-needed tension to the girls' leap off the deep end into despair. If the "commentary" is just that there is no pleasure, it's all sheer stultifying emptiness, then I guess Harmony Korine truly isn't young anymore.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Reading Alex Williams' "Hipsturbia" article on the front of the Styles section of the Sunday Times, I winced unbearably. Not least because I have been doing the Hipsturbia dance longer and harder than just about anyone I've met, and it has slowed down in recent years, because I've realized its futility and fatuousness, and because I've become less interested, and because it's become less necessary (more on that later). But I know it all too well, and I winced both because the people described in the article are doing the very same things I used to do, and because the way Williams takes it apart is insultingly disingenuous.

I grew up in Westchester County, where Williams claims that "hipsters" in their 30s, with children, are settling down. I now live in Putnam County, even farther away from Brooklyn, and I never actually lived in NYC at all, even though I aspired to live there for quite some time, and my entire social life pretty much took place there from 1996 (when I got my first job out of college) to 2011 (when I had a baby and everything changed). The planets never aligned in such a way that a move to Brooklyn, or anywhere else in the city, would have been practical, so I stayed a suburbanite the whole time, even though I maintained (ew, I can't believe I'm typing this) a "sensibility" (I know, gross, I'm sorry) that was in line with what people like Williams like to think of as "Brooklyn." And I spent a lot of time in Brooklyn, especially from, say, 2002 on. Before that it was the East Village, but same thing.

It would not be exaggerating to say that I had a complex. I yearned, ached, pined for the environs where I lived to sport trappings of That Lifestyle. Anytime an independently owned (I refuse to use the word "indie") coffee place opened up in one of the towns near me, I got excited, but with reservations, because when you went into that coffee place, there was usually a maximum of one bearded MacBook user sitting there. And the Live Music (very important!) that they had on Friday and Saturday nights (but not on Tuesday or Wednesday nights) always sounded a little too much like the Dave Matthews Band and not enough like The National to fully be what I wanted it to be.

The "artisanal vegan soap" shop mentioned in the article, in Dobbs Ferry, would have inspired a similar happy dance in me 10 years ago, not because I had any special need or desire for artisanal vegan soap, or found it so convenient to have it available nearby, but because of what it signified. And that's the same thing Nicole Miziolek, an acupuncturist who, with her artist husband, was somehow able to afford an $860,000 house in Hastings, was doing when she told Williams, "I saw some moms out in Hastings with their kids with tattoos. A little glimmer of Williamsburg!" Oh, that exclamation point.

In 1998 you felt better about yourself because there was a yoga studio in your town; now there's a yoga studio in every town. But the trouble is, getting excited about a yoga studio in your town can only take you so far, and then you have to join the yoga studio and start practicing yoga there, and before long, this exercise starts to be about the yoga, and about the real relationships you have with the people you meet there, rather than what the presence of the studio in your town signifies about the town, and what it signifies about you that you live there. Which is a different thing entirely from wanting to live near a yoga studio because you practice yoga.

Because it's not really REAL to worry about what you "are." Whether you "are" hip, or a hipster, or Brooklynish, or whatever. Yet that's what underlies this whole line of thinking about "Hipsturbia"--it's not simply about finding a place to live where you feel comfortable, where you fit in. That's a perfectly understandable and universal sentiment. It's about aspiring to a certain lifestyle and wanting to brand yourself a certain way and having status anxiety. And never, ever admitting it.

Not admitting it is the first offense of the "Hipsturbia" article. The New York Times is notorious for droooooling over anything that bears the stamp of "hip" or "cool" in this way that really grates. It has been known to GUSH over the fact that someone who lives in a loft IS A FILMMAKER!!!!! And what's so annoying is, they never come out and say explicitly just what is so super-fantastic about that, because it's supposed to be obvious that the super-fantasticness lies in the fact that filmmakers and lofts are cool in that aspirational way, they have high status in the cultural-capital competition and don't you wish you were just like them? This offense courses through the "Hipsturbia" article too, making all the people interviewed in it seem like pretentious douchebags even though in real life they might be perfectly nice people. I mean, the acupuncturist-artist couple afforded that house somehow. It's the Times' fault that the article doesn't mention how.

The language used in the article is so uncomfortably familiar. One recent Irvington transplant said that when she goes to restaurants that serve certain kinds of cocktails, she thinks, "This place gets it." That whole concept, of "getting it," is so thorny, and its thorniness goes totally unexplored (i.e. tacitly endorsed) in the article. For practically my entire 20s and 30s, I was obsessed with people and places who "got it," and making sure there were always some of those in my midst despite having the incorrect area code. But why did I want them? Why does my heart still sink when I go to a restaurant with Exposed Brick as part of its decor, and the chalkboard wine list advertises "Pino [sic] Grigio"? Does it mean that exposed brick is not enough, and I now need either mason jars or Edison bulbs? Why does my heart soar when the shop next door to that restaurant offers hand-printed dishtowels with oak-tag labels that feature an web address?

It's not because I don't have enough friends. If that were the reason, this would be legitimate, in the sense of, "I wish I could meet people who had things in common with me." It's about whether you deem your surroundings "good enough" to satisfy the snob in you. This strain of snobbery isn't exactly about money, but it's not exactly NOT about money either. It's about what it implies that you name your kids Denim and Bowie, as one couple in the article did.

And let's say you craft your lifestyle to be perfect, to curate your environment so that it includes ONLY people and things that "get it." Then what? Do you just stand there, as if posed for a photo? Well, you can do yoga, cook with locavore ingredients, make art or play music, but you could've anyway. Or maybe you couldn't. I don't know how to play the bass. But I could have learned, if the time I'd spent shopping for the perfect outfit to express my membership in that club had been spent learning bass instead.

Williams refers repeatedly to the concept of a certain kind of person. "We were the we'll-never-leave-Brooklyn types," Miziolek tells him. The "creative class" is mentioned, as is the "character of the river towns" and the "aesthetic" of people who move there. Type, class, character, aesthetic--just all these terms that allude to labels and brands. Which the article implies is a perfectly reasonable #1 reason to make all the life choices you make. In fact, that it should be your #1 reason. It really shouldn't.

There are also plenty of words about symbolism--"signs of creative ferment," "glimpses of 'Portlandia'"--that just highlight how ignored the non-symbolic, concrete aspects of life in this tableau are. How is the artisanal soap shop doing? I hope they're making a profit.

The second problem is he imbues these choices with much more meaning, or different meaning, than they really have.

It's true that the hipster parts of Brooklyn have become too expensive for most people in recent years, and that's why most former residents of those areas have decamped to areas less well known for their hipness. Five years ago, I saw friends who had previously lived in Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Clinton Hill and Park Slope move to less expensive, less hipness-saturated neighborhoods like Gravesend, Richmond Hill, and Sunnyside.  It seemed that this happened because my friends were getting older, and their priorities were changing. Then when you have kids, priorities change even more, and certain everyday realities (like living in a third-floor walkup) become problems. Isn't it easier to strap your child into a car seat and drive somewhere than carry a stroller down the subway stairs? I don't envy the friends who are still in the city, now with kids, who are doing that.

But the article claims that this is a phenomenon mainly because the "artsy," "culturally attuned" people of hipster Brooklyn have been priced out of it, not because they've gotten older and their priorities have changed. I gotta tellya, when I was 26, in 1999, there was nowhere aimed at people my age living up here who "got it" in that sense; the closest I got was places aimed at college kids at Westchester colleges, who were 20 and would probably move to Brooklyn the day they graduated. All of twentysomething nightlife and culture was way more Snooki than Lena Dunham. (Think lots of half-price jello shots and no alt-comedy.) But these people, in the article, are all at least 30. And the twentysomething nightlife that exists in the suburbs is STILL just as Snooki and non–Lena Dunham as ever. Yet, there's pub trivia here now. There are summer concerts on the river featuring surf-rock bands in rockabilly outfits. There weren't, 5 years ago--it was all folk and classic rock.

So does this mean these people are just doing what every generation before them has done and moved to the suburbs in their 30s to have kids? Well, what's different about these people (which Williams is overawed by), according to the article, is that they're bringing their aesthetic with them from Brooklyn rather than settling for the chain stores and other trappings of unsophisticated suburbanness that their parents did.

That's such an offensive way to look at it. That aesthetic, while stereotypically associated with Brooklyn and very popular in Brooklyn, is not intrinsically OF Brooklyn. It does not sprout up in Hastings and Tarrytown because Brooklynites "bring it with them" when they move there. It is a cultural phenomenon of our time, as opposed to our parents' time. Just as there were hippies in the suburbs in 1969, there are these people here now.

It has to do with our generation. Generation X, who are now largely in their 30s and 40s, has a different approach to being in one's 30s and 40s than previous generations did. We are the first generation to hold onto aspects of youth culture through adulthood, even as we do conventional things like getting married and having kids and progressing in our careers. The whole twee-artisanal-locavore-hipster (whatever you want to call it) lifestyle that certain privileged, overeducated Gen X adults identify with is a generational phenomenon that applies to people our age and younger. Thus, when we turn 30 or 35 or 40, and have kids, and our priorities change, and the suburbs seem attractive for reasons not related to our personal identity mythology, that phenomenon will naturally emerge in the suburbs. In other words, it's not about Brooklyn. It's about people born in 1973 turning 40 this year. A subset of our age group has always leaned that way, culturally. It's just that when we were 26, people our age in New York almost uniformly lived in Brooklyn (or at least Astoria or the Lower East Side). Now, as we age, some of us in the city are leaving, but we're still the same people.

Meanwhile, Gen X tends not to "look old" in its presentation--the women have long, flowing hair and everyone wears jeans and t-shirts--the way older generations did at our age. So it makes it appear that "young people" are moving to the suburbs, when really we're just as old or older than our parents were. (My parents moved to Hartsdale from Queens when they were in their mid-20s and had me shortly thereafter.)

What's offensive about saying it's about Brooklyn is, that claim just lends credence to that annoying New York Times starry-eyedness about filmmakers living in lofts but-who-cares-what-the-films-are-about. The starry-eyedness continues as the Hipsturbia article lists various Westchester river towns and names one hipstery business in each town, trying to imply that the presence of that one business exemplifies the character of the town.

I'll have you know that while Dobbs Ferry, Hastings, Irvington, and Tarrytown are all very beautiful and pleasant, and there are plenty of good restaurants that you would say "get it" if you were into saying such things, and they are "artsy" in a way that Scarsdale and Yorktown Heights are not, they hardly (not now, and not in 2003) feel like hipster Brooklyn. They feel the same way they always felt: Like moneyed suburbs full of middle-aged parents who are more into the arts than the average suburbanite. Now that there are more 35-year-olds moving there, that means that yes, there are going to be more stores selling moose heads made of felt, and fewer stores selling the kinds of "artsy" baby-boomer items, like huge black shapeless floor-length linen dresses that cost $200 and maybe have some subtle batik work going on there. (As Jessica Grose of Slate noted in her response to the article, Eileen Fisher is headquartered in Irvington).

It's genuinely weird that Williams chose Dobbs Ferry, Hastings, Irvington and Garrison to profile for this article while ignoring Peekskill and Beacon, which have much more hipster activity than any of those towns. Tarrytown isn't that weird a choice, since not only Village Dog and the Music Hall are there, but also Coffee Labs, which totally "gets it" in terms of urban coffee culture. But Peekskill and Beacon aren't wealthy the way Dobbs Ferry, Hastings and Irvington are. And it's troubling to think that that's why the article profiles the towns that it does.

It brings up the perennial question, just what is a hipster? Since no one is allowed to call themselves a hipster, it is always problematic to write about them. But the aesthetic deemed "hipster" in this article is something that just about anyone my age who's been to college is familiar with. It's pretty widely known and practiced. The people pictured in the article all look like they could be just as at home on the Upper West Side as in Williamsburg. So does that mean a "hipster" just is anyone with some vaguely "alt" urban cultural sophistication?

It reminds me of the 2003 book A Field Guide to the Urban Hipster by Josh Aiello, the lesser-known cousin of Robert Lanham's of-the-same-time Hipster Handbook. Aiello's definition of "hipster" is extremely broad, encompassing not just the expected DJs and fashion types, but also ex–frat boys, outlaw bikers, and goths, to name a few categories that seemed not to belong there. I'm not exactly sure how he determined who was a hipster and who was not, but my best guess is, he thinks anyone who can loosely be defined as part of a "subculture" is a hipster. Or, anyone who goes to bars. Anyone other than the most staid McMansion-dwelling middle-management golfer.

And at the heart of the "Hipsturbia" article, the most disturbing (hipsturbing?) thing about it, is the assumption that "the suburbs" always means that staid golfer. That it's worth marveling that people with actual Taste! and Style! are deigning to live there (WE WERE ALWAYS HERE, in some form, but our generation brings with it different signifiers of that taste and style), so maybe it isn't the barren landscape that it was before.

But there is complicated truth and falseness to both sides of that argument. On the one hand, it is a barren landscape, with its Snooki nightlife, cafes with one person in them, Lite FM on restaurant sound systems, and other phenomena that just fail to measure up to the Brooklyn Ideal. As the article admits, the family in Hastings with the groovily-named kids are the youngest adults on their block. But on the other hand, there have been independent coffeehouses and yoga studios in the river towns ever since the 90s. There have always been artistically inclined families with college educations living here. It may not be twee nightlife central, but it's just not so black and white as all that. So you really have to start questioning, rather than lauding, the impulse to define yourself by whether you live in a place where enough people are tattooed (with the right kind of tattoos).

Indeed, the article relies on the laziest, most cliched signifiers. The worst one is in the cartoon that accompanies the article: A man walks down a street wearing a shirt with the word "irony" on it. I believe that using the words "irony" and "ironic" to humorously denote the presence of hipsters is just SO FAR GONE that you can't even do it anymore. They're like symbols of symbols of symbols, ultra-shorthand that has lost its meaning. Do you even remember what irony is, or just that the word "irony" is a synonym for "hipster"? This Thought Catalog piece on "the 25 best hipster buzzwords" used in the article gets at this problem. "Hipsturbia" is an article about people trying to apply buzzwords to themselves, and the New York Times congratulating them and encouraging them in that endeavor.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

I made the opposite choices from Elizabeth Wurtzel--and I still understand what she's getting at

As insufferable as Elizabeth Wurtzel is, and she is, just the same way she's always been--I see what she's saying in this article, "Elizabeth Wurtzel Confronts Her One-Night-Stand of a Life."

The article is about being 44 and having essentially the same unmoored life she had at 24 and instead of feeling energized by it all, she's sad and tired and even scared. It's about how she was successful starting at a very young age doing something very glamorous and fun in New York City, and just never traded in the lifestyle that came along with that for a more settled, less chaotic existence because she's never been willing to compromise. And now she feels this feeling of "enough." She writes, of dating, "I don’t think I really want to be going to the new P. T. Anderson movie and Mission Chinese with someone new when I’m 85." She never chose to "settle down" the way the majority of people do between 24 and 44. She is unmarried, has no kids, rents rather than owns, and lives in cold hard Manhattan, rather than the kinder, gentler boroughs. (I was closer to 30 than 40 when I stopped wanting to go out in Manhattan, much less live there, and started wanting to stick to Brooklyn and Queens.)

I see what she's saying because I know that feeling of "enough." That was in large part what drove me to choose as settled-down a life as I have. I don't know if I have the stomach for as much shit as Wurtzel has been through. Her article is structured around a traumatic incident that happened to her last year--the woman she was subletting from broke into her apartment repeatedly, threatened and harassed and stole from her, and the police refused to help her, taking the other woman's side. She had to leave her own home for safety. In the course of telling us this, she reveals that a friend of hers had already had the same problem with this woman. My thought was, and she still chose to live there, knowing that? Forget whether this makes her stupid. My point is, I would never enter into a relationship with a stranger if I already knew that about them, no matter how amazing the apartment was. Some people would, because the amazingness of the apartment is more important to them than a feeling of general safety. So I know how she is feeling now, needing safety all of a sudden. Because I have always needed it.

As romantic as it might be to always choose swooning love-at-first-sight passion over comfort and safety, I have always felt there is a limit to the romance of that life. Too often, it feels cold and empty. If there is no permanence to anything, it's just you out there, trying to get the attention of people who don't care about you, trying to forge connections in impersonal places, making yourself vulnerable to liars and thieves, numbing yourself with alcohol and drugs.

The other thing is everyone wonders about the road not taken, especially around this time of life when you feel so ensconced in whatever place you're in that it starts to be alarming how far away you are from any other options, even if you're happy. I settled down and had a baby, and of course I've wondered at times (more so a decade ago than today) what would have happened if I had stayed single through my 20s, and maybe 30s, and instead thrown myself wholly into the same sort of hard-partying literary career, full of one-night-stands and drugs and flirtations that flame out spectacularly, that Wurtzel had. New lovers all the time, but also breakups all the time, because staying with anyone less than perfect is "settling." So when she wonders "what if" about having chosen a life like mine, she's really doing the same thing. None of us can really know, can we? But we chose the way we chose because we are who we are.

So when Elizabeth Wurtzel says she is unhappily resigned to living out her days as a wild-eyed, uncompromising thrill-seeker, though now she realizes her unwillingness to compromise is "about feeling trapped when I am doing something I don’t like, and...probably more childish than anything else," I get it. Because that's who she is. Just like I know that I need some measure of stability and comfort in my life, or else I will feel absolutely debilitated and unable to create great works of art or enjoy intoxicating encounters with strangers at parties or whatever. That's my limitation. As I stare down my 40th birthday, I know that, and I've taken steps along the way to accommodate myself to that, just like Elizabeth knows her limitation and has tried to live within it, bearing whatever sacrifices she had to make along the way.

Because, as it turns out, you always have to make sacrifices. Even if you never compromise, you sacrifice the things you would have had if you had chosen the other path. All compromises are in the interest of getting something you want. We take imperfect jobs for the money, we keep going back to a guy who mistreats us because he's sexually thrilling. We wouldn't compromise if we didn't get something out of it. If you don't compromise, you lose those things.

For a while I've been of the belief that most people just make do as best they can with the resources available to them, and Elizabeth Wurtzel is no different from the rest of us in that regard, she just had different resources available to her. For instance, she had a successful writing career at a young age, something many of us strive for and never get, with much greater and longer-term effort than she ever had to expend. So, that plus a propensity for living life on the edge and never compromising = living alone in a romantic but disconnected and vulnerable way in a New York City sublet at age 44.

Sure, it's annoying that she seems so unaware of how her circumstances have shaped her point of view. Like, she doesn't think things would have turned out any different for her even if, say, she had met with some failure, some resistance, when she first tried to have a writing career based on spilling her deeply personal and emotional life onto the page, the way most people who try that end up doing. But the fact remains, early success is what happened to her, and other stuff didn't. She could stand to be less myopic about it, but what she did was really pretty universal: She took what life handed her and went with it. You could say the same thing about me, in a way.

I met my now-husband when I was only 24, an age that's considered extremely young in New York-ish circles. I've been with him, monogamously, for more than 15 years. You could say I "chose" monogamy, but what if I'd never met him? Maybe I'd still be dating now. Maybe I'd be the one living in that illegal Chelsea sub-basement. And Elizabeth Wurtzel says she's primally driven to bleed her truth onto the page as a way of life, but what if that way of life hadn't proven lucrative for her? Maybe she'd have some nice-girl publishing job that entails more of a suppression of self than a baring-all, just to pay her rent. Maybe she'd have gone to law school sooner and had a job making binders.

It's the same old stupid fatuous post-9/11 Elizabeth Wurtzel (who famously called the sight of people jumping from the World Trade Center "the most amazing sight") here who calls women who are supported by their husbands "prostitutes," so this declaration didn't really get anything more than an eyeroll from me, especially since she says in the same breath that it would "feel imprisoning" to "get through every day, through a job of staring at pencil marks in spreadsheets through glassy eyes"--when someone who didn't publish Prozac Nation at age 26, and yet refused to be supported by her husband, would probably be forced to do just that. It reminds me a lot of Amy Sohn's narrow-minded rejection of stay-at-home moms, in which she ignored the reality that most working women do not have access to a career that is lucrative, flexible, or interesting, so for those women, staying at home may be the better choice. It is my belief that when women become mothers, their choice to stay home or work depends mostly on that same thing I mentioned before--the specific circumstances of their life, and what makes the most sense at the time. What if Elizabeth Wurtzel had struggled for years to get one lousy personal essay published in some amateur zine, but met a wonderful guy she loved who had enough money to support them both? Would she have taken a job that involved staring at spreadsheets through glassy eyes just to avoid being a "prostitute"?

At the same time, calling them "prostitutes" just shows how little Wurtzel knows about relationships. A prostitute is a woman who a man pays to have sex with him, and maybe to pretend to like him. That isn't really the way marriage works, unless it's a very dysfunctional marriage. I would never want to be married to a man who saw me only as someone to have sex with, even if he supported me financially. I also would never marry a man I only pretended to like. That's a compromise I'd never make, while we're on the subject of compromise. But, based on this essay, it seems like Elizabeth would never "settle" for any romantic relationship that wasn't at least 75% about sex, so you have to consider that context.

But it is nice to finally know how she got that job as "music critic" at the New Yorker all those years ago. Toward the beginning of the time that I knew of Wurtzel--my first exposure to her was when I picked up a copy of Prozac Nation from a table at Barnes and Noble during my first summer out of college, 1995--I read that she had simply called up the New Yorker and asked them for that job and they gave it to her. It seemed inexplicable, when all she had was a college degree and a college journalism award. A lot of people have that stuff, and no one gets to write for the New Yorker just like that. But in this article, at long last, she reveals: During college, she had an internship at New York Magazine. Then, after college, she wrote about music for that magazine, an opportunity she likely had because of contacts she made during her internship. Only after that did she get to write about music for the New Yorker--and that makes a whole hell of a lot more sense.

Perhaps it is the perspective of middle age that has finally helped Wurtzel feel magnanimous enough to share that information--or maybe now is the first time she's realized it was relevant, that in the past she was indeed so naive as to believe that just cold-calling the New Yorker is the same thing as what really happened. I suppose if you leapfrog straight from New York intern to New York columnist to New Yorker columnist to the bestselling author of Prozac Nation, that level of naivete is possible.

But just like everyone, her lot in life is a combination of psychological tendencies, strategy, and luck. She made choices with certain goals in mind, and sometimes they turned out well (career-making book deal) and sometimes not so well (crazy landlady). The choices she made are ones that a minority of people would make, and that minority does not include me, but I think we all wonder what would have happened if we'd gone the other way. If we'd had different psychological tendencies, maybe, that led different choices to seem attractive. If we were a different person.

Which is exactly what she's saying. "Maybe I should have been wiser. But the only way I could have was to have been a completely different person," she writes. I feel the opposite but same way about my life: The commitments I made when I was younger are serving me very well now, but I didn't make them because of how well they would serve me in the future, I made them because I couldn't stand not to. If I had chosen the other thing--a studio apartment in the far East Village and maybe a coke habit and staying out every night and really devoting myself wholly and entirely to the edgy downtown writer thing--maybe my writing career would have progressed more than it did, but how could I have gotten there, when that kind of cold urban loneliness makes me cry? I've always known that it made me cry.

It's only just now making Elizabeth Wurtzel cry. It happens to people more easily the older they get. Maybe she'll change. I know I've changed. When I was 24, I would have loved nothing more than to publish a raw and revealing memoir along the lines of Prozac Nation. If I were 24 now, I might just do that on a Tumblr. But I don't want to anymore. I'm happy with my husband and kid and warm little house. Sure, having that kind of life sometimes means there are things I can't do, that I'd like to do. Just finding time to write this blog post was a major effort. I never get to see movies on opening night anymore. These things sometimes bug me, but overall, I think the sacrifices are worth it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Don't just find Waldo. Look at the rest of the picture.

In last week's election, I voted Democrat all the way down the line, as I have done in most elections ever since I was old enough to vote (1991). I'm not entirely in agreement with everything the Left does, but I like the Left a whole hell of a lot more than I like the Right. Furthermore, there are broad ideas of what the left and right are all about, and I relate to the ones on the left and feel alienated by the ones on the right, which sounds like a stupid reason to align oneself with one party or another, but I think everyone does it. Most people just don't admit it.

I mean, the Left is about cosmopolitanism and intellect and museums and adventurous eating and adventurous travel and diversity and curiosity and inclusiveness and compassion, all of which are things I love. The Right is about hating anyone who isn't a straight, white, rich man and irrationality and religious dogma and conformity and Wal-Mart and xenophobia and prudery and high fructose corn syrup. I defy you to look inside yourself and honestly say that this idea of what the left and right represent is not a major factor in your alignment with whichever side you say you're on. This is not to say that Romney and co. were not deeply scary this year, with their ideas about women's health and healthcare in general, but think about why you generally label yourself the way you do.

This idea of mine was validated when I read David Brooks' The Social Animal, which posits that party identification fits a "social-identity model." But I may not be allowed to say that and still call myself liberal, because Brooks is known as "conservative." And that problem is at the root of what I call "Where's Waldo" news-reading.

"Where's Waldo" is a series of fun and delightful children's books that present big, complicated pictures of crowd scenes and such, where children can find Waldo hidden somewhere in the crowd, wearing his signature red-and-white striped shirt. Where's Waldo news-reading is much less delightful, but I call it that because it uses the same mechanism as finding Waldo: Knowing what you're looking for before you've seen the picture. Ignoring the rest of the picture.

As much as I feel aligned with the Left, I'm disappointed by how much of this has gone on among us, especially during this last election. It seems more like something the Right would do (and the Right does it too, rampantly, but you would expect it of them, so that's not as noteworthy).

For example, I get updates on my Facebook page from an organization that promotes "attachment parenting," a practice that's aligned with the Left despite the anti-feminist element of it that exhorts women to be tied to their children to such a degree that they can't do anything else. Attachment parenting involves breastfeeding, co-sleeping, babywearing, and various other practices that keep a baby and its mother physically attached at all times. I agree, to a point, with that philosophy--I do think it's excellent for the mama-baby bond to be as close as possible with your baby--though I feel that there are exceptions and one shouldn't be dogmatic about it.

So this organization posted a link to a Fox News article that cited a study that found breastfeeding makes new mothers less stressed out, but co-sleeping makes them more stressed out. They posted the link on Facebook without any commentary.

My heart sank as soon as I saw that the link was from Fox News. Because then I knew that the organization hadn't posted it in a "here's an interesting article" sort of way. They posted it with the preconceived conclusion that it was evil and wrong, because everything Fox News says is evil and wrong and filled with right-wing "bias" (despite the fact that just about all journalism is agenda-driven, and Fox News is just more boorish than average about it). So essentially, they were asking readers to search the story and find the bias, in a "Where's Waldo" sort of way. That's how it works: First, notice that the article comes from Fox News; second, find what's evil and wrong about it. Third, beat your chest in righteous self-satisfaction.

With a deep sigh of frustration, I searched for and found Waldo. The Waldo in this instance is the idea that co-sleeping could ever be anything but wonderful and perfect all the time. Because only Evil Republicans like the ones who agree with Fox News would ever have a problem with co-sleeping. And problems with co-sleeping ALWAYS stem from Evil Republican beliefs about it being "unsafe" that stem from conservative dogmas that venerate 1950s-style child-rearing. (The study's other finding--that breastfeeding is good for mothers--is agreeable to attachment-parenting advocates, and thus is not Waldo, so doesn't matter.)

Personally, I AM stressed out by co-sleeping. When I do it--more often than I'd like, because a lot of the time my son refuses to sleep unless he can sleep in my bed--I don't sleep as well. I'm too preoccupied with his well-being. I feel like I'm parenting in my sleep. I feel like I don't get a break from active parenting even while I'm asleep. I'm constantly waking up and trying to see if he's asleep and if he's okay and what he's doing. Sure, I did this more when he was younger, but I still do it. I believe that being well-rested makes me a better mom, even if that entails sleeping while not being in physical contact with my son. He also takes up lots of space in the bed, giving me less space, especially when he insists on sleeping horizontally with his feet in my face. Sometimes he wakes me up in the morning by pulling everything that's on the headboard down onto my head. Sound stressful? It is. Maybe we should get a new bed, one that's larger, which would necessitate moving into a larger house, and that's not stressful at all, right?

My experience with breastfeeding also falls in line with the results of this study: It makes me feel relaxed and connected and full of warm well-being. I'm very happy that I chose to nurse.

So I'm saying, in a sense, that I "agree" with the article. I mean, I don't agree with it in the sense that I think mothers "shouldn't" co-sleep--far be it from me to tell anyone else what they should do--and I don't agree with it in the sense that I'm certain the study was valid--what do I know about whether the study was valid?--but I agree with it in the sense that my personal experience jibes with the results of the study.

And the implication of this is that I'm a Republican, just because I read a Fox News article and didn't find it completely abhorrent. Despite not having EVER voted Republican. Because that's what Where's Waldo news-reading does. It disallows readers from considering ideas. It tells you what your opinion should be, before it even tells you what subject you're having an opinion about. It penalizes you for thinking critically, in the sense of, "You must not be one of us, if you don't mindlessly follow our dogma." The link says "Fox News," so you know you're supposed to hate it before you even click on it, and then, when you find Waldo (i.e. you find the part you're supposed to hate), you can breathe a sigh of relief. I'm one of you after all!

But if someone tells you that Waldo is hiding somewhere in a picture, it's always possible to find him. And if you believe that the whole point is to find Waldo, you stop engaging with ideas. You stop looking at the rest of the picture. You label something evil and wrong, and only afterward look for reasons why, which one can always find.

Four people commented on the Facebook post. Two of them didn't even MENTION the content of the article--they only mentioned the fact that it came from Fox News. One of them said, "Hell of a thing to wake up to Fox News and their 'studies'"; the other said, "Umm, why do we watch Fox News again?"

The other two used logical fallacies to "debunk" the article, dutifully finding Waldo and pointing him out.

One respondent said the study was invalid because it was done only on new moms, who are stressed out by co-sleeping only because they've been frightened by "the media" about "how dangerous it is," and once they get "accustomed" to doing it, they begin sleeping better. How does she know that all moms who find co-sleeping stressful feel that way because they've been brainwashed by the media to believe it's dangerous? What if there's some other reason? Like, say, the use of a plastic alarm clock to awaken a mother by hitting her in the head with it? The placing of a tiny hand on a sleeping mother's jugular vein and using that hand to support all 27 pounds of one's body weight?

The other commenter bragged that she gets nine hours of sleep a night while co-sleeping and her "cortisol levels are pretty awesome right now." She then qualified this statement by saying she's on her third child, so she's "perfected the art of co-sleeping" by now. Which implies that co-sleeping is an art that needs to be perfected, which sounds like hard work to me. Given what hard work motherhood in general is, taking on the task of "perfecting an art" on top of all that other stuff sounds like it could increase stress. I mean, yes, once one perfects an art, things become less stressful, but if you're still working on it, it might be more stressful, even if you aren't a Republican and haven't been brainwashed by right-wing propaganda.

It seemed clear to me that these respondents were starting with an opinion and only then looking for evidence to back it up, rather than starting with the evidence and using it to form an opinion.

I recently learned of this awesome website, Your Logical Fallacy Is, that lists a bunch of common logical fallacies that people use to win arguments, and it's illuminating to see how many of these were used in the four responses to the Fox News article:

1) Genetic: You judged something on the basis of where it comes from. This is at the heart of Where's Waldo news-reading. Any idea that you hear about from an untrustworthy source--say, Fox News--isn't worth engaging with. Furthermore, it's not OK to engage with it. The only acceptable response to it is to shut it down and find reasons why it's wrong. Engaging with it means you agree with it--in fact, it means you agree with EVERYTHING that source has to say, on ALL topics.

2) Black or white: You presented two alternative states as the only possibilities. Either you love co-sleeping, or you've been brainwashed by the conservative media to believe that it's dangerous.

3) Special Pleading: You moved the goalposts or made up an exception. Co-sleeping may be stressful, but only in the special case of new mothers, who aren't used to it and whose only source of information about it is right-wing fearmongering propaganda. Because certainly those women haven't ever read anything from pro-co-sleeping sources who say it's perfectly safe.

4) Anecdotal: You used a personal experience or an isolated example instead of a sound argument or compelling evidence. "I co-sleep, and am not stressed out." Well, I co-sleep, and I AM stressed out. But, of the two of us, YOU are the only one who's saying that your personal experience is enough to disqualify the study. I never said that my personal experience was universal, only that it happened to go along with the results of the study, and that might just be a coincidence, but it might not, and it's worth thinking about. You're the one who thinks it's not worth thinking about.

5) The Fallacy Fallacy: Presuming that because a claim has been poorly argued, or a fallacy has been made, that it is necessarily wrong. I'm really not at all a Fox News fan, and I will totally grant you that anything that comes from them probably does have some nefarious right-wing agenda, including this article. But that doesn't mean the study itself is automatically invalid, OR that the opposing view is automatically correct. The key word here is "automatically."

6) No True Scotsman: You made what could be called an appeal to purity as a way to dismiss relevant criticisms or flaws of your argument. As soon as you get through the stressful experience of perfecting the art of co-sleeping, co-sleeping isn't stressful. Anything Fox News says is automatically evil, even though the story was pro-breastfeeding and so are we.

All of these fallacies, plus the other ones on the website, are rooted in arguers' desire to be right without really considering the opposing point of view. These arguments, in other words, are not your real reason why you believe something to be true; your belief comes first and you find reasons to justify it afterward. And THAT is what I have a problem with.

I don't have a problem with co-sleeping. That is, if other people like it, by all means, they should do it. I even enjoy it sometimes. Like when I've gone on vacation and stayed in a hotel with a king-size bed, which was big enough to comfortably accommodate all of us, it was great that I could just nurse him without getting up at all. Or sometimes my son falls asleep in my arms and I can just lie there and feel his warmth and look at his sweet little face and feel joy and happiness. All that is excellent. But still, as a rule, I find sleep more relaxing if I can do it without the baby.

Do I owe it to my baby to sleep with him anyway? Is it better for him even if I find it stressful? Is that a sacrifice I ought to be making for my kid, one that's so important that the downsides are worth it? Will the stress of "perfecting the art" be outweighed by the bliss of what comes after? If we start to wrestle with these questions, then we're getting somewhere. We're getting into the actual ideas, rather than empty declarations of club membership.

This incident is just one example of Where's Waldo news-reading, and I've seen countless other examples of it on both the right and the left, especially in the months leading up to the election. Every time I saw one, I found it upsetting, especially if it came from the left, because we should be above that.

The root of my problem with it is that it encourages complacency. It is an exercise not in arguing your views, but in feeling self-satisfied in them. People do Where's Waldo news-reading for an easy high, not for becoming more informed and informing others. But what's extra insidious about it is that it LOOKS like an engagement with ideas, yet it DISCOURAGES engagement with ideas. It encourages you to find Waldo at the expense of looking at the rest of the picture.

So what really depressed me is that the parenting group posted the Fox News link at all, and that the commenters responded to it in exactly the way they were primed to. It is a self-indulgent, gratuitous act of self-congratulation.

It also implies that the right way to be a liberal is to agree with all the opinions put forth by liberal news organizations, and disagree with the ones from conservative organizations, and never think about any of them at all. Is it any wonder that I bridle at this idea of what it means to be liberal? I thought we were supposed to be the rational, intelligent, thoughtful party, not the ones who say "I believe in the rules because those are the rules" (another logical fallacy).

It's harder than ever to find unbiased information that can help us really form, from scratch, our own personal political ideology. But, as I said in the first paragraphs of this essay, I don't believe most people really do form theirs using information. I think they do it using broad, abstract ideas, and then favor the media that is aligned with the side they've chosen, though they pretend otherwise. Where's Waldo news-reading is a way to pretend.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Think about what being you entails. Really think about it.

I don't think most of us properly appreciate how incredibly intense an experience selfhood is.

I mean, you're you 24 hours a day. You can't get away from yourself. You know what you're thinking ALL THE TIME. You can read your own mind, and you can't turn it off. You know about all of your most embarrassing moments and all your secrets, and you have to deal with them even if no one else knows about them. However it feels to live inside your body, you feel that way ALL THE TIME. No one else feels it--EVER--but you always do. Even if you try artificial ways to simulate turning it off, like getting really drunk, those experiences become part of you and inform your experience of being you too. Even if you're partial to your mind over your body, or your body over your mind, the less favored one still affects you subconsciously every single moment. It never stops, until you die. Your life is an unrelenting onslaught of yourself-ness.

Please take a moment to think about how different this is from our relationships with other people.

Even if we love someone, even if we have a best friend, a parent, a child, really the best we can do is guess at what being them is like. Even if they tell us, in intimate detail, that's nothing compared to experiencing it, nonstop, every second for your entire life.

This explains a number of things.

1. It explains why everyone thinks the world revolves around themselves. Since being yourself is ALWAYS a deeply intense experience, and has been from the moment you were born, you don't tend to think about it that way most of the time. You take it for granted. Which can lead to the unconscious belief that the world should always cater to your desires. That in a conflict, the other person is always wrong. That anything that seems weird to you IS weird.

But when you stop to think about how much more deeply you experience your own life than anyone else's, you might realize, huh, I guess my viewpoint must be kind of skewed. Imagine having to live inside THAT person's body/brain 24/7 for my whole life. Now their point of view might not seem so strange.

2. It explains why some people seem so glamorous and desirable. Of COURSE someone else is always gonna be more mysterious to you than you are to yourself. Think about everything that's happened to you just since this morning when you got up. You've already had a million thoughts and made decisions and felt good about some things and bad about others. By contrast, that enigmatic acquaintance across the way has had a morning that's virtually opaque to you. But it only seems that way to you. To her, it's anything but.

3. It explains why some people seem totally inconsequential. The last time you walked down a city street, assuming you've ever done that (and of course I assume you have, since I have), you walked past a whole bunch of people. Each one of them, you only saw for a split second. But each one of them has to be themselves every moment for their entire life. Their life affects them soooo much more than it affects you. That girl who walked by wearing the ugly jeans, who you thought, "Ew, those jeans are ugly"? She has to wear them ALL DAY. She knows what it's like to feel them on her body and see them every time she looks down. She's either glad or sorry that she purchased them and probably knows which. Every time she gets up in the morning and has to decide what to wear, those jeans are one of the options. She knows the score about those jeans, and you really don't. Which sort of puts your rejection of them into perspective.

It's like, meanwhile you're walking along, engaging in the deeply intense experience of you-ness, and other people just can't compare. Of course, each one of them is doing the same thing, which is why none of you have very much regard for one another, except out of politeness.

4. It explains why you should trust yourself more and other people less. I recently turned 39 (!)  , which seems kind of unbelievable to me, and in contemplating this I was thinking about what I'd say if anyone asked me what the most important lessons I've learned in my 30s were. "That I should trust myself more and other people less" was the first one that came to mind. And this is really rooted in what I'm talking about here, about how you know your own experience so much better than anyone else ever can, even the people who know us best. We are constantly searching outside ourselves for advice, validation, categories that we can fit into, studies that show people react in certain ways to certain things, methods that worked for other people that might work for us. But a method has a better chance of working for us if we don't take it whole cloth, if we just take the parts that are useful and combine them with other stuff and custom-retrofit the whole thing to our exact life and experience, which we know intimately.

Have you ever tried to tell someone about yourself and they didn't understand? That's probably because it's impossible for them to REALLY understand. For them to understand, they'd have to BE you, because that's the only way to get as comprehensive an understanding as you have. I think the closest you can get is a sort of simulacrum of understanding, which itself can be exciting because it's so much more than what usually happens, but even that, you shouldn't get too too excited about. You certainly shouldn't go pinning your hopes and dreams on it. And I'm not even talking about the truly sleazy people who out-and-out PRETEND to understand us so we'll sign our hearts and minds over to them. Certainly watch out for them. (This is definitely a case of "too good to be true.") But even someone who honestly thinks they understand? Doesn't--not as well as you yourself do.

But at the same time, you should surround yourself with people who do sort of understand you. Don't isolate yourself or reject potential partners because they don't completely 100% get it--you'll never find anyone who does. There is this meme (is it a meme?) going around that you should never "settle," and a lot of us would think it was "settling" to stay with someone who doesn't 100% get it. But no one ever will, so you might as well stay with a partner you love who shares your basic values and gets most of the important, big stuff. It's OKAY for them to get it only that much. It's physically impossible to have the other.

5. It explains why you should treasure and value the people in your life. Aside from providing a welcome break from the endless work of conscious selfhood, other people's perspectives can stop you from going totally crazy. The fact that selfhood IS such an intense experience makes it really fortunate that we have other people around to sort of temper the intensity. And this works especially well when it's someone we are very close to who we care about a lot, particularly if the person is in our care. I had my first baby last year and one of the unexpected wonders of the whole experience has been that it's taken me out of myself to a very refreshing degree. It's certainly possible to take very good care of someone, or be taken care of, without that person having as intimate an understanding of you as you have of yourself.

We are here to engage with the world, and that means other people. We learn systems and rules to navigate the world and achieve things in it. The way we feel inside ourselves wouldn't mean much without the world that we live in. It's hard being in the world while being ourselves all the time, but at least everyone else has to do it too, and if we bear that in mind, it might seem easier.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My problem with Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” and all the criticism of it

Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly: I do NOT believe that Lena Dunham’s “Girls” has an obligation to “diversity.” I am of the mind, which I’ve seen written about elsewhere, that if “Bored to Death” didn’t have that obligation, then “Girls” doesn’t have it either. What is that, anyway? That a show about Women is defined as “other,” and therefore it has to represent every population that is ever “othered”? I think it’s almost more progressive to have a show about rich white girls that doesn’t try to be universally diverse, where that’s not its raison d’être, because then we’re one step closer to women not being “other.”

However, the whole debate about diversity, and whether “Girls” is obligated to have more of it, is limited to boxes on a diversity checklist (does it have a person of color? check; gay person? check; disabled person? check), and I guess I am opposed to that checklist view of humanity, not only because it promotes tokenism, but also because it isn’t humanistic enough, holistic enough. It reminds me of people in relationships who have a Conversation about whether they’re going to be Exclusive, and if they aren’t Exclusive, it means they’re Free to date and sleep with other people. What about the emotional tenor of your relationship? What about the implicit promises you’ve made to the other person by confiding in them, by acting as if you care about being with them? I’ve always been wary of people who treat other people like a checklist, who need a contract to have a relationship.

But if “Girls” wanted to acknowledge the diversity of the human experience in a more holistic way, it might do so in a less lazy approach to the main character’s central problem. Hannah, the protagonist, suddenly gets “cut off” by her mom and dad, who have been entirely supporting her for the two years since college, during which time she’s had an unpaid internship at a publishing company and started writing a memoir. And as much as I bristle at people who get to do unpaid internships in glamorous industries rather than get the first job they can find the minute they graduate from college because they need the money, I understand that some people are like that, and if Lena Dunham wants to represent those people, that’s her prerogative.

But then Hannah is all, “What am I gonna do, work at McDonalds?” and that’s when my heart sinks. Because “working at McDonald’s” is such a lazy cliché of a worst-case employment/career/future scenario. It’s such a lazy cliché that if you DID end up working at McDonalds, you could mitigate the horror of it by being self-consciously twee about it, like, Look At Me, I’ve Really Hit Bottom Now. The symbolism of it would be heavy enough to carry you. And being carried by symbolism is actually a comfortably familiar way to live for someone like Hannah.

I would like to see Hannah get a job as a customer service representative at a car insurance company, or something like that. She should get the job by looking at a bunch of want ads and responding to all of them and taking the first job offered. And she should NOT be comically bad at the job, but rather perfectly competent at it even if she hates it, because then she wouldn’t even be able to fall back on the image of herself as a flaky fuck-up.

And then she would meet people at her job who were totally unfamiliar with the type of lifestyle she used to lead. People who had gone to college, yes, but maybe they went to CUNY while living with their parents in Queens and working at the same time, rather than a four-year stint on an idyllic quad where people had dorm-wide meetings about cultural hegemony. People whose favorite band was Maroon 5 and had no idea anyone thought there was anything wrong with that. People who don’t understand those little boots Hannah wears. People who don’t even USE the word “hipster.” People who don’t watch “Girls” but do watch “American Idol.” People who would peg Hannah as “artsy” and use the word “funky” to describe her outfits and then get it all wrong when buying her a birthday present, maybe they’d buy her some goth thing made of crushed velvet because that’s what they associate with the idea of “alternative.” Women who think French manicures are beautiful and have never met anyone who didn’t agree.

Because that’s the population that you work with when you just have a job because you have to support yourself. In real life, it isn’t a question of publishing internship or McDonald’s. It isn’t about symbolism of despair. It’s the way the rest of the world works, and diversity would be a natural by-product of that scenario. You’d definitely get racial minorities there in addition to middle-class (as opposed to upper-middle-class) white people, maybe not so many out gay people because homophobia runs super rampant in environments like that, but that idea too might be eye-opening for Hannah. That Republicans aren’t just freaks you see on the news, they’re also the people in the next cubicle at your unglamorous job that is too mundane to even offer the comfort of being a symbol.

“But wouldn’t that be boring? It’s a TV show; it has to be fun,” some might say. No, it wouldn’t be boring. Hannah’s JOB would be boring, yes, but I’m not saying we should watch her do data entry for eight hours. Her being in that environment would be anything but boring. Especially if she still held onto dreams of “being a writer” and led her former lifestyle in the off hours. I mean, you could still live in Greenpoint with a roommate on a customer-service salary. What kind of conversations would she have with that horrible guy she has sex with, about her job? Would he encourage her to switch to woodworking because it’s more “honest”? What if she went and had sex with some Republican guy from work who had a thick New York accent and unironically showed off his giant flat-screen TV to her but was better in bed than that guy? (Which wouldn't be difficult.) What would be more offensive, hearing his opinions about illegal immigrants or having the woodworking guy say “let’s play the quiet game”?

That’s just one example of what could happen. What I’m trying to say is, if you let her work at McDonald’s for comic effect, you’re playing it too safe. If you let her be a “day hostess” at a fancy restaurant where her only coworker is a hipster, as Lena Dunham’s character did in her movie “Tiny Furniture,” you’re still playing it too safe. You’re indulging the upper-middle-class mindset about what the possibilities are for how a person can survive and build their adult life. Which is a much bigger implicit insult to the viewers than anything the critics are saying about checklist diversity.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

why 1996 REALLY IS the sweet spot of women-fronted rock music and not just because I'm a compulsive maniac

One of my less compelling qualities is that I'm obsessed with 1996. This is partly because some of the biggest and most positive changes in my entire 37 years on earth happened during that year. If you don't already know about these changes, I'm not going to tell you about them here, because this blog is a public place, but when we get home, or maybe in the car, I'll fill you in.

But really I think the utter bestness of 1996 transcends my navel-gazing. This was proven when I read the first few chapters of Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music by Marisa Meltzer.

She starts by going into the history of Riot Grrrl, followed by what was known as "foxcore," which meant Hole, L7, etc., followed by Alanis and Fiona and a bunch of angsty one-hit wonders like Heather Nova, Tracy Bonham, Patti Rothberg, Leah Andreone, and Poe. Also Garbage, with the album that had "Stupid Girl" on it and the song from Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (amazing soundtrack overall). Then after that, of course, we had the Spice Girls and the Lilith Fair ('97), and Meredith Brooks and Natalie Imbruglia ('98), which was when things really started to go south, and then Britney ('99). The way she narrates this trajectory shows that it reaches a high point in '96.

I was in college during Riot Grrrl, and my feelings (not my opinions, but my feelings) about Riot Grrrl were always that I liked it, I liked the music and the message, and I'm indebted to it for everything I love that came after, but it is not and has never been my most favorite thing. It didn't speak to me the way that, say, Fiona Apple's first album or Tracy Bonham's hit ("Mother Mother") spoke to me. The book presents the main difference between Fiona, etc. and her predecessors as that Fiona, etc. were pretty and nonthreatening and marketable, but that's never been the way I see it. I might even go as far as to say that Fiona, etc. were MORE THREATENING than their predecessors because they presented seeming paradoxes that threatened people's ability to put people in cliched boxes and their honesty made them vulnerable in potentially dangerous ways. And the fact that this was "marketable" was a miracle that only lasted for eight crazy nights, or thereabouts. (This is not to say that the book isn't fantastic, because it is, and just the very idea of having a retrospective of how 90s female rock artists influenced the future of music is something I have needed in my life for Quite Some Time, and the chance to mentally engage with these topics thrills me.)

You had to have riot grrrl first, obviously, but what always blocked me from feeling fully connected with it was that it was lacking in personal vulnerability. Riot Grrrl was angry and rebellious and we're-not-gonna-take-it-anymore and defiant and nigh-invulnerable. And me, I was vulnerable. I was angry, but also sweet. And my sweetness was not borne of chauvinistic ideas about how women should be quiet and deferential. I was raised (a) by feminists and (b) in New York, so I never internalized any ideas that women should be anything except pushy and loud, which sucked because I wasn't really pushy and loud, especially not in childhood. I was sweet, by my very nature, and sensitive, but also angry. Can't fight the seether.

So it was kind of frustrating to me that, until the mid-90s (as opposed to the early 90s) Chick Rock basically went two ways: (1) angry, pushy, invulnerable; (2) sweet, sentimental, saccharine. The first glimmers of a shift came with Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville" (1993) and Hole's "Live Through This" (I've always related more to this album than to its predecessor, "Pretty on the Inside"), in which the artists did not shy away from all their own personal failings and fears and weaknesses and disappointments, and not just the ways they had been unfairly oppressed by other people. They took on the rather dicier proposition of taking a hard look at themselves rather than blaming others, but not in a maudlin "woe is me" way, in a complex, upfront, and somehow tough admission of their own fallibility.

Then Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" came along in the summer of '95 and further changed the game (unfortunately, the rest of that album didn't live up to the promise of that song). Jill Sobule's hit "I Kissed a Girl" led me to get the whole album, which is WAY more brilliant than that song would imply, and made a lifelong Jill Sobule fan out of me (she's had plenty of other albums since then that are all excellent, and fuck you Katy Perry). One of the best songs on that Jill album was "Karen by Night," in which the narrator follows home her beautiful, cold, mysterious, icily friendly boss at work and finds that she moonlights as a badass motorcycle-riding drug dealer (or something). Suddenly, you didn't have to be the badass biker girl. You could be the somewhat less badass girl who wonders about the badass biker girl, and that could be interesting too. To use a 90s analogy, you didn't have to be Rayanne, you could be Angela.

And then in '96 there was a full-on explosion of these vulnerable chicks. Who wanted to go out into the world and have adventures and prevail, but most often what held them back was their own self-destructive tendencies and horrible secrets and doubts and unstoppable drive to do potentially harmful things that had some twisted logic behind them. And certainly it took into account the entrenched cultural oppression of women that led them to be in these situations in the first place, but it was always taken on from an introspective standpoint that had been missing before. It was an inner psychological battleground, as opposed to an outward, political battleground, and personally, my battles have usually been fought in the former place and not the latter. I'm hungry, I'm dirty, I'm losing my mind, everything's fine ("Mother Mother").

Now Bitch Magazine is saying the same thing about Tori Amos, who's pretty much a grande dame of this phenomenon, and whose best album, "Boys for Pele," came out in '96.

In 1997 the sweet spot started to devolve in two different directions: One, into the sugary pop of the Spice Girls (which, yes, I enjoyed, but not as much) and two, into the treacly ululations of Lilith Fair–style pop feminism (when Sarah McLachlan started to suck). After that you had your fake angry-sad girls, Meredith Brooks ("Bitch") and Natalie Imbruglia ("Torn"), and I've grown to enjoy those songs in more recent years in a kind of mindless nostalgic way but when they came out I felt stabbed in the gut by them. There was something really disingenuous and manipulative about the so-called pain or complexity expressed in those songs that was like taking real feelings and pretending to have them because now it was trendy and sexy in a Suicide Girls way. "Bitch" had a surface rebelliousness but was really about being the kind of slippery chameleon-girl who is anything but honest; "Torn" came across as a way of cloaking the one-dimensionally sexy line "lying naked on the floor" in faux angst.

(I also gotta say that in '96 I enjoyed Natalie Merchant's hit "Wonder" and considered it part of the same canon, but that was because I thought the lyrics were "with love, with patience, and with pain, she'll make her way." But later I found out that it wasn't "with pain;" it was "with faith," and ugh. The Lilith let me down.)

That same year, '98, Alanis let me down, with her new album about wondering whether she's pretty enough. The '96 girls' central worry was never about being pretty enough; it was other, darker things. And Courtney let me down too with "Celebrity Skin," another song I like now but at the time I felt lied to, as if Courtney was trying to make people think that these were her real problems when they were just what People Magazine was writing about her. And Woody Allen let me down too, while we're at it, with that movie "Celebrity." And then Britney happened and it all went to hell. It was no longer trendy and sexy even to pretend to have problems. Problems didn't exist.

But for that one brief fleeting moment, the culture was at that sweet spot, and it wasn't just me, it was 1996.