On being a woman

On summer in the city

On a recent Wednesday night, right smack in the heat of that thing called summer in the city, I found myself in Central Park to see some Shakespeare. The play was Troilus and Cressida which, frankly, I didn’t know at all, and it’s based on some weirdly free-wheeling mashup of The Iliad and a Chaucer tale—again, not my area of expertise. When we got to our seats (after wolfing down two glasses of rosé and some tiny canapés, thanks to my new friend in PR) I was already sweating in my long linen dress, a blister forming on my toe. My skin was sticky, many steps past that sought-after “dewy” look. I unbuttoned an extra button.

And then, magic: as the sky deepened and all eyes flicked to the open stage, I was rendered invisible.

The thing about Shakespeare is that you kind of sink into it. Like a foreign language you grew up with, it flickers in and out of conscious translation, but by the second act you’re deep in, feeling that tiny thrill when you get the joke or when you register the double entendre. Troilus and Cressida is about a lot of hot young army guys; the plot wanders; there’s a romance. Critics hate this story and call it one of Shakespeare’s lesser works. And it’s true: it see-saws between comedy and tragedy, young love and dry politics, with very little preamble or signature Shakespearean magic and sense.

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But in the hands of this director, these actors, this summer in the city, it seemed like the perfect show just because of its imperfections; just because it’s so obtuse, aggressive, unfinished. Those hot young army guys—Achilles, Hector, Ajax—were decked out for the show in modern-style rugged fatigues, copious tattoos, dog tags. The romantic lead, Cressida, wears a trendy leather jacket. There are machine guns and cell phones involved. Chaos is never far. Sound familiar?

Here’s what happens: Cressida and Troilus, after playing hard-to-get for a bit, finally admit they like each other. Cute! They spend the night together, profess their undying love. Then Cressida gets swapped over to the opposing army as a prisoner of war—and, naturally, her loyalty to Troilus is put to the test.

But first, here’s a snappy snippet in which she very presciently explains the rationale behind playing hard-to-get:

Yet I hold off. Women are angels, wooing:
Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing.
That she beloved knows nought that knows not this:
Men prize the thing ungained more than it is:
That she was never yet that ever knew
Love got so sweet as when desire did sue.
Therefore this maxim out of love I teach:
“Achievement is command; ungained, beseech.”
That though my heart’s contents firm love doth bear,
Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear.

— Troilus and Cressida, Act 1 Scene 2, lines 225–234

Very contemporary, no?

But back to the story. Cressida gets gang raped. (She’s a lone woman in a military camp, unfortunately.) When a potential protector/suitor comes forward, she makes the tortured decision to forego her promise to Troilus and flirt with this new guy, to be flirted with. Troilus is hiding in the shadows and sees it all. He’s disgusted by her disloyalty. He disavows her—and after that, we never see or hear from Cressida in the play again. The show goes on.

When I got home and Wiki’ed her, I learned that she is a symbol of whorishness throughout Greek mythology and later literature. I also learned that her story really does end, not just in Shakespeare but in everything; her narrative use to the (male) writers over, she’s forever frozen in time as an icon of infidelity, a caricature of flippant red womanhood. Like a punishment for her supposed weakness, all these men chose to strip her of agency over and over again. 

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But what a shame, right? As Shakespeare in the Park presents it, here’s a woman who was smart enough to understand danger. While Troilus wears a bulletproof vest and a machine gun, Cressida gets tossed around by boorish soldiers in a flimsy nightie; she has to be pragmatic about survival, about the use of sexuality as capital. She did not have the luxury of trusting in the flimsy love of poetry. Or maybe we can tell a more modern story. Maybe her loyalties changed; the new soldier was pretty hot in the play. Is it such a crime to change one’s mind? More realistically, we can tell a horrible war story. She was dealing with trauma. She was dealing with life.

So Cressida: Cressida’s cool. In the heat of her moment, she’s more real than the virginal youth of Juliet, more relatable than the ice queen fantasy of Titania, more sane and sturdy than fragile Ophelia. She tells us something about the precarious power of being a woman.

But I didn’t know any of this while I watched the play on that Wednesday night in the park. I only knew that I was hooked on a complex story I’d never heard. I knew that I was looking, eagerly and for a long time, at something that wasn’t a computer—a victory in and of itself. As a humid mist layered itself snugly over us, I forgot, for about four hours as I sweated it out under the invisible stars, about the cockroach that lives in my bathroom and the rent I needed to pay and the sheets I needed to wash. Weird things went down in the play; there was fake blood and fake gunfire and cowardly betrayal. Weird things went down in my head; I was sad and ecstatic and surprised. I let summer, in all its weirdness, happen.

That’s the thing about summer: it stretches and jerks, grows bloated and sweaty. And then it gives us Shakespeare in the Park and there’s a glistening Achilles in front of you, abs flexing as he delivers his lines, hot-blooded and from another world and for a short moment, everything might just, strangely, be fine.

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On the privilege of ignorance

I remember the DKE chant incident of 2010. It was the beginning of my sophomore year at Yale. The whole thing had gone down less than a block from where I slept, but it felt surreal and separate. Sure, I was appalled by their language (“No means yes, yes means anal”), and I wanted them chastised. But when non-Yale friends asked me about what was going on, I said: we’re fine, it’s all fine, the media is really blowing this out of proportion.

Then the Women’s Center and a group of strong-willed, strong-voiced students came out with an official Title IX complaint and made it an even bigger national issue. They said that Yale was a “hostile sexual environment” and that fraternities were mainly to blame.

I was outraged. I loved my friends in fraternities! I loved that they welcomed me to their houses. I loved that one of them found my phone when it was lost, and that another worked with me on Econ problem sets every week. I loved that they were just like all the guys I’d ever known (but more fun, because #college). They were good and goofy and made bad jokes and some even told me I was hot. “Hostile sexual environment?”

NO, I said.

NOT TO ME, I said.

NOT MY YALE, I said.

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Did I mention I was 19? Did I mention I was white, privileged, and so young—young to life, young to bad things, young to my education as a human and as a humanist?

Ignorance is bliss.

But I couldn’t be ignorant forever. What changed: I took Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies classes. I read books that expanded my feminist perspective (bell hooks! Betty Friedan! Virginia Woolf!). I had experiences in frat houses and at parties that made me uncomfortable. I heard raw stories from peers who had been hurt. I grew up, and in growing up I realized the incredibly simple fact that “my” Yale was not everyone’s Yale. My luck was not everyone’s luck. My privilege was not everyone’s privilege. It’s obvious in retrospect, but understanding the experience of others is often the hardest—and most human—thing we do. Especially when that experience is at odds with our own. Especially when it casts a dark shadow over something we love and are proud of. We don’t want to know.

But we learn. Just because I was not sexually assaulted or did not feel overt sexual hostility did not mean I could not accept, empathize with, or fight for the cause of creating a safer environment at Yale. It did not mean that I should not fight. And it did not mean that I was exempt from that fight.

Social justice is like this. We cannot all see, feel, or know the experience of other groups, of the subjugated or of the disenfranchised. We are not all in a minority; that’s what makes the fights of the underdogs so hard. We, the majority, are the oblivious upholders of a system that works for us. So it’s our responsibility to try our best to banish that oblivion. It’s our duty to accept full equality as a greater good in every sense, from the emotional to the economic. And it’s our challenge to fail less, work harder, and be more conscious every day. The minority does not “win” these fights. Rather, we all must come together better. The baseline gets adjusted.

– – –

My parents often ask me why college students are no longer activists. “Where are the protests?” they ask. “Why aren’t you marching against what’s going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria?”

They were in college at the height of political activism during the Vietnam War. The threat was real then: fight against it, or you (or your friends) would be sent to a jungle from which you (or your friends) might not return. Mortal peril was in the mix. Everyone was in the mix. Everyone had to have an opinion because it was their world at risk.

2015 is a bit different. Political activism is passé; maybe we’re too removed from personal impact, or just jaded to violence and bad governance. Instead, the new activism riling our country is for social justice. Equality activism. LGBTQ rights, #blacklivesmatter, Lean In and Title IX and equal pay for women.

But the problem with these causes is that, by definition, they don’t affect the majority. And so, by definition, the minority has to work harder—speak more loudly, agitate more aggressively, demand more insistently—just to be heard, just to keep their place at the table. This is how systems of power and oppression work, and they continue to operate in social justice fights just as they work in everyday life.

They are harder to win because implicit bias is hard to acknowledge and harder to strip away.

And this is what’s happening at Yale right now.

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Photo by Philipp Arndt

– – –

The associate master’s email and the SAE Halloween incident are just two straws in an ongoing fight that is finally being brought into the light. That camel has had a damn strong back for many years. None of the fears, pains, concerns, or demands expressed by students right now are new. But now is their moment to make them known.

Yes, the national news media is turning this into a free speech debate. Yes, people are calling for Yale students to “grow up” and not expect to be coddled. The real world is hard, they say. Safe spaces don’t exist. Be less sensitive.

They’re right: the real world is hard. It is doubly hard for anyone who is a member of a minority group, who has faced—and will always face—discrimination on any number of levels.

But campuses are always where the movement starts; they’re built for progress, especially the liberal arts ones. No one is saying that Yale is that much worse than anywhere else. No one is saying that students at the University of Missouri, for instance, have it better. But the Yale students are saying: let’s start this at Yale. Let’s use our access to the national stage to make a strong, clear, and unambiguous point. Let’s set an example that will bring the country up with us. Let’s start at home, because that’s where change starts, and Yale is our home.

I am not on campus anymore. I can’t speak to the mood of the place, to the lived experience of students there right now. But I can say that I am proud to see productive, positive protest taking place. I am interested to see the demands drafted. I want to see activism and administrative action at work.

More than anything, as I’ve had urgent, thoughtful, and conflicted conversations with fellow alumni and current students, I want us—especially those of us who, in this case, are in the majority and have the privilege of ignorance—to do our best to deconstruct that ignorance.

Change does not come from the top alone. Structure and agency are both at play here: we can only ask the college administration to do so much to break down preconceived biases and systems of conversation and social structure. (Mark Oppenheimer’s piece in Tablet is a worthwhile investigation into the limits of this approach). Yes, Yale should create appropriate channels for submitting complaints; for educating everyone about cultural sensitivity; for improving diversity in faculty and in hiring.

But also, yes, every student and alum who wants to do better SHOULD do better, SHOULD be an agent of change. This is an open ask to people of color and others who want to participate: tell us how. Lead us there. Share with us the things that make you uncomfortable, that we have said or done that are not right. Teach us how to be better allies, so we can do our part to spread this change. Tell us what to read and what to watch. We will all shape our own opinions from this conversation, and not everyone will be on board. The debate will be real, and it will be healthy.

We’ve been ignoring it for too long and we’ve got to get started. It’s hard work. For many, myself included, it is often uncomfortable.

Let’s begin.

– – –

Further reading:

The Vilification of Student Activists at Yale | The Atlantic

The Yale Student Protests Are the Campus PC Wars at Their Best| Slate

Here’s What’s Really Going on at Yale | Medium

What We Want & Need: Black Student Demands for the Administration | DOWN at Yale

Student Activism Is Serious Business | The New Republic

Open Letter from Yale Alums

On Magic Mike XXL & the myth of male objectification

On one hand, it makes no sense that Magic Mike XXL was written, directed, and produced by men.

On the other hand, it makes complete sense.

Let me back up: this movie is meant as pure, unadulterated eye candy. At least, that’s how it comes across. Two hours of giving the women what they want. Tatum Channing gyrating with his carpentry tools, enjoying himself way too much? Yep. Joe Manganiello stripping to “I Want It That Way” and dousing himself with water? Yes please. A dance segment involving both a faux-wedding AND a sex swing? Naturally.

What’s shocking about Magic Mike XXL isn’t the male strippers and gratuitous toned, oiled, tanned flesh on display. What’s shocking is that everyone looks like they’re having so much fun, in what we would usually think of as a world inhabited by the down-and-out. Adult entertainment isn’t supposed to be glamorous—at least, not for the those who perform within it. (In most movies, female strippers move sinuously in cages at sleazy clubs while wealthy men of the world conduct their business, ignorant of the bodies in their midst. See: Oceans 11.) And yet: in this Magic Mike XXL parallel universe, the entertainers seem to be having just as much fun—if not more—than the entertained. Jada Pinkett Smith preens in her power, calling the women who flock to the club she owns “queens”, giving them the visually and experientially rich nights out they crave. Donald Glover seems in awe of his own ability to make women happy, just by being there to listen and to perform for them. Matt Bomer sees himself as a healer—by sharing his talents. Joe Manganiello is damn proud to call himself a male entertainer; it’s his profession! There’s none of the gritty dark side to the adult entertainment business here. Sure, the guys are on a last-ditch road trip, facing the end of their careers (and their age of appeal). They’re uncertain about how they’ll make it in a post-stripping era. But they leave that angst behind to embrace the fact that their present hedonism is beautifully harmless. This is a sugar-coated approach to the sex industry. It’s all frosting. And as pure entertainment, it’s gloriously sweet.

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So what’s wrong with that? I’ll be the first to say that I left the theater elated, giggly, and feeling pretty #blessed that people like Tatum and Manganiello exist to exhibit their bodies for our ogling. Did I love this movie? Yes. Should everyone go see it? Absolutely. I felt similarly after seeing the Entourage movie, but Magic Mike XXL left a better taste in my mouth—because I can’t defend Entourage as a feminist film (it’s disgraceful on that count, although good fun to watch), whereas popular discourse accepts Magic Mike XXL as a feminist’s dream.

But hold on. First off, this is a unicorn of a movie. As far as I’m aware, it’s the only wide-release film—at least amongst the non-pornographic kind—that exist for this kind of open female pleasure and complicit male objectification. Its singularity feels wrong, but it’s also expected. And yet: flip the genders, and the unicorn nature is still intact. Are there any sex-positive male-audience-oriented movies in which, despite heavy female objectification, the women maintain considerable agency?

The equivalent might be something like Coyote Ugly. But that one tallies more closely with the original Magic Mike, which was moodier and slower and filmed entirely (and annoyingly) in the Valencia filter. Coyote Ugly isn’t exactly sex-positive, though, despite the scantily clad dance routines. Of course, a movie about empowered female strippers who proudly claim they love being entertainers sounds ridiculous. Critics and (hopefully) audiences would disdain the positive angle. We would want grit and truth. We would dare a filmmaker to ignore the dangerous realities that plague adult entertainment, and we’d sign petitions to boycott his works for their damagingly unrealistic approach to a serious issue.

So should we be uncomfortable with the double standard we apply to Magic Mike XXL? Is male objectification inherently more palatable because it’s more rare? Or is male objectification just more palatable because the men never really seem all that negatively objectified?

That’s why, despite it’s pro-female-sexuality stance, despite the way it panders to women’s desires in a way that no other movie has ever done quite so explicitly (which is a good thing!), it’s still obvious that this was a movie constructed by men. (Add in the strict heteronormativity and elevation of machismo, and it becomes even clearer.) Straight men still have the power here—women, too, but the men are not subjugated by a gaze or a structure. They’re liberated by it, buoyant with it. This fact doesn’t make the movie any less enjoyable. It doesn’t make it any less of a celebration of the male figure (as art, as object, as athlete, as sex machine) and of the women who take pleasure in seeing and touching it. It simply begs the question: can we ever truly subvert machismo in sexuality—or is that a gender binary that will persist?

And, even more unsettling: can we even imagine a world in which (heterosexual) men do not revel in their own (heteronormative) physicality? And isn’t that pleasure-in-self—that supreme male confidence—a source of biological attraction for (heteronormative) women? In other words: is the ideal of sexual equality an oxymoron?

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In 2015, we’re working hard to level the playing fields of class, race, and sexuality. We’re winning small victories consistently. People are calling out Magic Mike XXL as one of those small victories: the recognition that heterosexual women are an audience worth creating for, and their desires worth catering to. I celebrate this step forward unequivocally, just like I celebrate Charlize Theron’s turn in Mad Max: Fury Road; Alicia Vikander’s performance in Ex-Machina; the Marvel universe’s development of Ms. Marvel; Amy Schumer’s unapologetic Trainwreck. These things are fun to watch, and this is a fun time to be alive to watch it all unfold.

But leveling the playing field, for all its positive connotations, should not and cannot be the goal. Just like “leaning in” is important, but doesn’t ultimately change the game—it asks women to play nice with the boys. Just like female action stars are just men with breasts. The real heroes of Mad Max: Fury Road are the harem of sex slaves who retain their femininity in a masculine world. The real change happens when we shift structures, not just behaviors. And the structures of power that define fields of sexuality are especially fraught. Rightfully so, too. They are not things we level; they are things we shape, and re-shape, and mold to fit identities and specific relationships. Which is for the best: in sex, balance—true equality—is boring.

Magic Mike XXL succeeds as a Hollywood movie because it doesn’t subvert any power structure. It is not uncomfortable. It is not a threat to the current order. It is sugar—addictive, a kind of drug, and all the more delicious because women are having fun in it, too. But when we come off the high, let’s not forget that it feels so good because it’s not asking us to participate in a revolution. It’s not asking us to eat our greens. It’s smirking at us, with Channing Tatum’s irresistible charm, to enjoy the status quo. To let him guide and fulfill our sexual fantasies. To be his complicit object. To drink his sweet, sweet Kool-Aid.

So enjoy. Just don’t overindulge.

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On the whole #BanBossy vs. #BeBossy debate

Some smart people have written some very smart things on this latest Sheryl Sandberg / TeamWorkingLady / bossy-is-a-bad-word marketing fiasco, so I’ll let the links do the talking:

Ann Friedman — NY Mag’s The Cut

Katy Waldman — Slate’s XX Factor

Jessica Roy — TIME

And my favorite: my friend Zara Kessler on Bloomberg View. Zara has coined the word “bossiful”, which we should ALL be using immediately. Goal for the weekend: use it in a sentence with 5 different people. Just spreading the bossy love.

Above is the star-studded #BanBossy campaign video, which has the right message but, ultimately, just the wrong hashtag. It goes back to the basic Lean In debate: do women adapt their attitudes and vocabularies to the already-existing culture, or do we attempt structural change? Sheryl says get with the program; the women linked to above say we’ve gotta change the paradigm. (Disclaimer: I agree with them.)

On a personal note, sure I was called bossy when I was younger—mostly by boys, but often by girls too. Sure it hurt—because it was somehow an insult; because it suggested I wasn’t “chill” enough, that I needed to just relax and care less about the class project, or the dance we were choreographing for a school show, or the extracurricular we were organizing. And yes, these were good lessons to learn about interpersonal communication and social interaction. You can’t go through life bossing people around indiscriminately. (Not that I was doing that, I hope…) Couch your commands in kindness; delegate with reason; lead with humility.

But bossy isn’t bad. I figured that one out soon enough. Bossy gets things done. Bossy doesn’t take no for an answer. Bossy knows that without her, things don’t happen.

Bossy is being a leader at the age where standing out from your peers is scary, uncomfortable, and not “popular” or “cool.”

And that’s really, really good. So, as those writers have articulated in the links above: don’t ban bossy. Celebrate what it truly means in a youth context. Encourage its positive affiliations for girls who are afraid to stand out. Don’t ban the word, because that makes it a stigma. Turn it into a compliment, because it means you’re speaking up.

As for me, right now I’m not the boss; far from it. But I damn well plan on being one. And being called “bossy” as a kid? There’s no shame in that now. In fact, in retrospect, it was definitely a compliment.

On Miley & Lorde: pop princess rebels?

Two albums. Two young women. Total opposites. And… I’m addicted to both.

Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 12.49.18 AMFirst up: Lorde. Royals is just the start. She’s from New Zealand, 16 (!), and writes her own (very poetic, very cool) lyrics. She’s the rebel-smart-girl who, I imagine, smokes cigarettes between classes but is really down with Salinger and gets As on her lit papers. She’ll drink an underage beer (or five) but gets home by her curfew. Then again, her parents are chill, so she probably doesn’t have a curfew. (Here is a great interview with her done by Interview mag, of course.)

Next up: Miley. Yeah, I know, I can’t help it: I’m into Bangerz. (Not every song, but… I am down with lots of it.) Miley is 20. She does not write her own lyrics; she gets top producers to do that for her. I don’t need to paint a picture of Miley’s life for you, because we’ve all been inundated with the details already. (But here’s her Rolling Stone cover story interview, just in case.)

They’re both Scorpios (although Miley’s on the cusp). Their music is big right now. They both go by pseudonyms. And they are both young women. Naturally, this means they are ripe for comparison: two ways to do fame, 2013-style, as a young female pop icon.

We all know that Miley is… just being Miley. She was famous before she was a personality; and now that she has the stage, she uses it to experiment with being a personality. At 20, she’s a seasoned star, posing nude for Terry Richardson; flaunting her body and sexuality on national TV; and making waves with her personal life, her style, and her ever-more-“rockstar” antics. OK Miley. You do you. And right now, Miley is—and/or wants everyone to think she is—a badass. Got it. Then comes the music: Bangerz is a mixed-bag album of collaborations with rappers, hip-hop producers, and “hood” (her words, not mine) influences. Some of it is catchy, some of it is crass, some of it is weak. The unifying thread throughout is Miley’s voice, which is satisfyingly straightforward: loud, clear, a little raspy, but under control. She’s no Beyonce in the vocal department, but she sings with strength.

Lorde, on the flip, came out of nowhere and remains—to a certain extent—an enigma. Which is how she likes it. Her break-out single Royals (and the rest of her debut album, Pure Heroine) is an ode to the punk nobodies; to the tough kids from the suburban block; to the small-town hipsters living a less-than-luxurious life on the outskirts of the city lights. In interviews, she reiterates this image and this background. She’s an outsider, reclusive but unmistakably cool, a quirky/regular teenage girl with a hard-won edge. So it goes with her album: it’s beat-and-voice heavy, uniformly slow, with haunting rhythms and choruses. Her soft, clear, slightly undulating voice wafts over synth beats. It’s hard to tell if she’s singing or speaking; no matter, the words lilt. And you pay attention to what she says.

(Note: I could write a whole post just comparing the videos from “Royals” and “We Can’t Stop”… There’s just TOO MUCH to #unpack and #decode, SO MUCH juicy cultural #appropriation and #representation, and endless amazing parallels…)

Miley’s face and body are everywhere. There’s barely an inch of her flesh that we haven’t seen. She’s out and about in LA, at parties, walking her dog; and the paparazzi snaps crop up copiously. She’s also a big social media sharer. Cleaned-up at a red carpet event or post-party makeup-streaked, the barrage of images streams endlessly. The only way for Miley to make a point with her personal brand, to get noticed against the background noise of her daily photographed life, is to be bolder, crazier, stupider: that always catches the public eye. Miley knows that, like any good kid of the reality-TV age. So she owns it all. YOLO is apparently her life motto. All publicity is good publicity—the bigger, the better.

Lorde initially released only one photo of herself, a classical chiaroscuro portrait (see above). Since then we’ve gotten a little more; but it’s a carefully curated selection. Unsmiling, heavy-lidded, never too candid, Lorde’s image is one that she continues to fully control and art-direct, in the way that only a true teenage Millennial can intuitively art-direct her own fledgling brand. In the same way that she feminized the masculine “Lord” to make her stage name by adding the “e” on the end and thereby playing on traditional precepts of royalty and power, so too has she co-opted the visual language of wealth, luxury, and celebrity in her pictures. There’s lots of dark lipstick, black winged eyeliner, flowing hair, gilded chain jewelry. Girl knows exactly what she’s doing. Her restraint speaks volumes about her vision—for herself and for her music. (She reminds me, actually, of early Lana del Rey, who chose a character for herself and created the mystery and sound to surround it. But where Lana thrived on 20th-century Americana and pin-up nostalgia, Lorde looks forward to a kind of ironically-rich post-economic-collapse aesthetic.)

(Now’s a good time for you to click over to my favorite Lorde song, The Love Club.)

And here’s the thing about Lorde: she’s 16, clearly beautiful, a pop star on the rise… and has, thus far, completely avoided the sexualization pitfall that inevitably makes (and, usually, breaks) all of the female pop stars… ever. (Think Madonna, Britney, Rihanna, Selena Gomez, Katy Perry, obviously Miley—all started young, all captured that lusted-after fame through the use of their own burgeoning sexualities, all had to figure out ways to deal with the ensuing objectification.) Instead, Lorde embraces the battles of youth, idealism, change, and growth. Am I being hyperbolic? Sure. She has a love song on her album. But it’s a GREAT love song, and it isn’t about her body.

Compare to Miley, who has gone above and beyond the classic call of female pop star sexuality, provoking strong reactions to her decisions in the feminist spectrum—is she inviting objectification or sidestepping it through appropriation? What to think of “Wrecking Ball,” which is a really great, raw, emotional song… but is accompanied by her most sexually-charged video yet? How DOES one interpret the licking of a sledgehammer in the context of the song? Is her Bangerz song “FU” emancipated or retreading old territory? etc.

(And you should listen to FU because why not?)

So: two young women. Today’s new pop princesses. Fame for both; Lorde’s is on the way up—and Miley’s is guaranteed for as long as she lives (if Lindsay Lohan is any indication).

And, for both, a definite rebellion against the rules of being a pretty-faced female singer. Miley’s rebellion against the script is to act out, to continually shock. Lorde’s is to reign everything in—to keep her clothes, her words, and her concept clean of the trashy side of pop, of the cheapening male gaze.

The cool thing about both cases (and one area where I have to give Miley credit, and applaud Lorde) is the self-awareness with which both artists approach their brands and images. They are not Britney, publicly melting down, hiding from the flashbulbs. They’re pop-culture-savvy. Their authority over their own sounds and looks makes them stand out from their peers.

I don’t know if you can call this “leaning in”—but at the very least, they’re looking everyone straight in the eye. That’s a good start.

On the “hook-up culture”: Part 2

By now many others have said—more succinctly, more earnestly, and more wittily—what I had intended to say, so instead I’ll offer up some links to thought-provoking reads on the topic.

First up, my friend Eliana over at Time lays it down in her piece What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Ivy League Hookup Culture (full disclosure: she quotes me in the article… #stillfamous). I definitely recommend reading her full article (it’s a quick read), but in brief she points out three major flaws in the prevailing discourse on the subject: (1) College students are choosing random hookups over meaningful relationships; (2) Most Ivy League girls are too busy and ambitious for relationships; and (3) The so-called hookup generation represents a radical break from the past. All three myths; all three debunked by Eliana. I couldn’t agree more.

Next, we have Leandra Medine over at popular fashion blog The Man Repeller. Never heard of her? Her main claim to fame is wearing crazy trendy clothes (think lots of clashing colors, unexpected layers, vertiginous heels), making Snapchat-style faces at the camera, and blogging at length about it—all underlaid by a very do-whatever-makes-ya-happy ethos. But don’t write her off just yet! Leandra’s got a social conscience too, and her post The F-Word is not so much fashion as feminism. Yep, fashion blogging—that realm of the woman-as-object-adorned-and-decorated—just got political. (Note: I have lots more to say on fashion blogging, but we’ll save that for a later date.) “There’s a sense of innocence inconspicuously tied to silence, and in this story, the men are on mute,” Leandra writes about the NYT piece. Yes! (Read the whole post, it’s great.)

Then we have one of Slate’s contributions to the ouevre, The Hookup Elites by Lisa Wade (thanks to Emily Y. for passing this one along). Wade suggests that most research on college hook-up culture focuses on gender dynamics on college campuses—but there’s another side to the story, and that side is not about male-female power play but white/wealthy/heterosexual privilege.

“So what we are seeing on college campuses is the same dynamic we see outside of colleges.  People with privilege—based on race, class, ability, attractiveness, sexual orientation, and, yes, gender—get to set the terms for everyone else. Their ideologies dominate our discourses, their particular set of values gets to appear universal, and everyone is subject to their behavioral norms. Students feel that a hookup culture dominates their colleges not because it is actually widely embraced, but because the people with the most power to shape campus culture like it that way.”

—Lisa Wade, The Hookup Elites

So not only do we (privileged women) think that men are writing the script, but actually we women are writing it too (even if somewhat unknowingly) by virtue of our subject positionality. Classic.

On the flip side of the Slate coin, Matt Yglesias reminds us that hooking up isn’t actually that bad. In fact, it makes sense! Modern world, modern problems: we are saving marriage for later and later, but are interested in sexual experimentation at the same age as humans across the centuries. “Young people should feel free to do what they want with their sex lives, but I think it’s the people who are following neo-traditional visions of dating and romance who are operating with bad information and are more likely in need of guidance,” he writes.

Which brings me to my own more broad, contemporary-romantic thoughts on the subject, which are that we (generationally, civilizationally) currently lack the language, vocabulary, and social acceptance to discuss the various newfangled romantic partnerships that make the most sense for our lives today. What often gets lost in translation is that not every relationship must exist in the black-and-white binary of casual/emotionless/short-term vs. serious/marriage-oriented/soulful. There are infinite stages in between these two opposites—don’t tell me you haven’t been in some intermediate place yourself! But until we start accepting the range of options and complexity that any relationship might hold (and the idea there is not always an end-goal), we limit our conversations (especially in the media) to this frustrating back-and-forth, and set expectations of ourselves and others that cannot be realistically met. And that, to me, is just plain regressive.

Fin.

(…For now.)

On the “hook-up culture” (sorry, folks): Part 1

Let’s talk about sex. “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” that is.

(Sidenote: why do we continue to use sports-related metaphors for stories ostensibly about romance? Patriarchal and stale.)

As with all New York Times trend pieces, this story is in the Fashion & Style section of the paper (sex is stylish, y’all!). As with most of the trend pieces, it’s snappy, well-reported (perhaps even over-reported for this kind of fodder), and has some charmingly naive quotes. And like most of the trend pieces, it’s fairly late to the game: Hanna Rosin’s “Boys on the Side” was published in the Atlantic in August of last year, and since then we’ve been reading an endless parade of articles on the subject of hook-up culture and sex and college life and, really, “girls these days.” No one can figure us out, it seems—most of all not the journalists whose job it is to plumb the depths of our psyches to understand what we’re doing with our potent 21st-century combination of sexual liberation, feminist inclinations, education, and ambition.

The easy response to this latest NYT addition to the hook-up culture canon would be to refer readers back to my own foray into the subject, my 30-minutes-of-Internet-fame: #SWUGNation. To be perfectly frank, I’m bored of discussing this stuff ad nauseum. I mean, I already lived that particular hell.

But since here we are and there is that NYT piece staring back at me, I suppose I’ll add my latest two cents. Here’s the story’s thesis:

“Until recently, those who studied the rise of hookup culture had generally assumed that it was driven by men, and that women were reluctant participants, more interested in romance than in casual sexual encounters. But there is an increasing realization that young women are propelling it, too.

Hanna Rosin, in her recent book, “The End of Men,” argues that hooking up is a functional strategy for today’s hard-charging and ambitious young women, allowing them to have enjoyable sex lives while focusing most of their energy on academic and professional goals.”

And then the writer goes on to share various anecdotes about young women at Penn, almost all of whom don’t have time for or interest in relationships, instead focusing on their professional and academic goals. Their interactions with men range from consensual casual sex to unwanted hook-ups that just sort of happened. It’s all fairly depressing; I don’t get the sense that any of these young women are particularly satisfied—sexually, emotionally, or otherwise. They just don’t have time, they say. It isn’t important. No one does the relationship thing anyway. Where’s my vodka-soda?

So I actually have three cents to throw down here.

Cent #1: Look, girls: I feel you. I, too, have been there. I, too, put myself first. “You do you!” as one of my former suitemates used to say—and she’s damn right. In the realm of college romance, you do what makes you (and, ideally, your partner) happy; and that comes in all forms of interaction. But I also have to contend that what each woman likes, thinks she should like, and says she likes are often very different things for each person. Especially important: these are ideas about ourselves and our preferences that are constantly changing, maybe even every day in college. Which brings me to the point that no trend piece, no matter how many people you talk to, is going to be universally satisfying. I’d rather not revert back to that old saying of “women are complicated,” but in this case… there’s something to it. When it comes to relationships, love, and sex, each person’s experiences tend to be disctint and, well, personal. This is the overarching danger of all trend stories, but in stories of love and college, it often rings especially true. The “trend” outlined is usually reflective more of a subculture—a specific phenomenon perpetuated by a social group—than a nationwide, generation-wide, or even college-wide experience. (And let’s not diminish the fact that this “trend” is only applicable to a certain sector of affluent, educated, sexually active young adults—a small slice of the American pie indeed.)

Cent #2: My experiences, and my college environment, were unique; everyone’s are. But after spending four years at Yale, I can count on one hand the number of female peers I spoke with who said they were “too busy” for a relationship. We were ambitious, we were committed to our futures, we were focused on projects and school; but that almost never precluded interest in relationships. To be harsh, saying that you are “too busy” sounds to me like a justification for a problematic power structure; like an excuse for accepting the status quo, a shield to protect from frustration. OK, here I go with the “structure vs. agency” debate. I’m not convinced, and never will be, that women in the case of college hook-up culture are at any kind of advantage. Free agents in their choices, sure; but agents acting within the space of a limited, gender-hierarchical sexual script. Never forget the forces who define the field of action.

Cent #3: Where are the guys in this story? They seem fairly awful, on the whole (sorry dudes). But they still should get a voice. My male friends believed in a male-dominated hook-up culture, no question. Girls may be “playing that game” too, but they certainly did not write the rules, nor do they make the calls. This is common knowledge. And although we like to think otherwise, and though we like to say (as the girls in this story often do) that we’re in charge, the joke is often unfortunately on us. If guys’ voices had been included in this article, I’ll bet we’d be reading a very different story—in which most of the men don’t even recognize any kind of woman-fueled hook-up culture, but instead see themselves as being in charge of defining and benefiting from romantic activity.

I am not—and never have been—advocating for a return to some old-fashioned era of traditional dating and rigid gender roles. I’m very grateful that I’m a young woman today, and not 50 years ago. And I’m glad that these articles continue to be printed and read, even if they are repetitive, even when they’re frustrating and seem to miss some elusive point. At least we’re talking about this stuff, constantly, with fervor. That means we care. And kudos to the Penn women who are prioritizing their lives and careers over relationships. I believe in that too, and I live by that belief.

But I am advocating for us to move beyond the strict binary: are guys or girls in power in hook-up culture? Is hook-up culture good or bad?

The reality, as with women, is (thankfully) much more complicated.

(Stay tuned for Part 2, y’all!)

Where the cottonwoods grow

… and it was there, that summer of 1943 while the hot wind blew outside, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, ‘at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.’ As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.”

—Joan Didion, “John Wayne: A Love Song” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem

On “how to be a woman”

I’m in the middle of a self-prescribed novel-devouring time in my life, with a hefty stack of books on my bedside table, their spines fresh and (mostly) un-bent (thanks Amazon for cheap used books that are ‘Like New’!). The thinking goes that somewhere between E.M. Forster and Joan Didion and War and Peace (which I’m saving for winter, to be read by a roaring fire with a mug of hot tea), I’ll come to some kind of slow, deeply-felt understanding of truth and beauty and writing and living. Omm.

I’m eight books in now, and I woke up the other day needing something different. So I started into the one non-fiction tome I had on my list: How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. (Thanks to Phoebe & Catherine for the recommendation!)

Maybe I’m at a vulnerable place in my life, but man, this book spoke to me. Or rather, it made me laugh, which is arguably even better. It’s the grown-up version of the Angus, Thongs & Full-Frontal Snogging series (funny, silly books for and about British teenage girls), and it’s also a flat-out feminist manifesto for our time. Everyone should read it. Here is the most important passage:

“But of course, you might be asking yourself, ‘Am I a feminist? I might not be. I don’t know! I still don’t know what it is! I’m too knackered and confused to work it out. That curtain rod really still isn’t up! I don’t have time to work out if I am a women’s libber! There seems to be a lot to it. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?’

I understand.

So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your underpants.

a. Do you have a vagina? and

b. Do you want to be in charge of it?

If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.

If you answered ‘no’ to the first question, try this: (a) Do you know someone who has a vagina? and (b) Do you want her to be in charge of it? If you said “yes” to both, then congratulations, you’re a feminist too! Now, back to Moran:

Because we need to reclaim the word ‘feminism.’ We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29 percent of American women would describe themselves as feminist—and only 42 percent of British women—I used to think, What do you think feminism IS , ladies? What part of ‘liberation for woman’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue,’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF SURVEY?”

—Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman

I spent a good deal of my senior year in college talking about feminism with my peers—analyzing the debate around it, trying to pinpoint when and how it came to be problematic, discussing if it was even relevant anymore, deciding how to “fix” it so it would “work” for more people. There were Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies seminars. There were speakers and events about Shulamith Firestone and Sheryl Sandberg and sex.

So in the midst of this muddle, it’s nice to have Moran spell it out so plainly. This part of the debate is just not worth having.

The debate that is worth having is the one about sexism and equal treatment. I’m lucky: to my knowledge, I have yet to be discriminated against in any noticeable way for being a woman. (Aside from online commenters dissing my photo attached to a story I wrote, but ça va, that’s the Wild West of the interwebs for you and a whole other can of worms.) I have run in circles full of strong, leading women and equally talented, conscientious men. I’m young and admittedly can’t really see a glass ceiling for myself. Which doesn’t, obviously, mean it’s not there. That’s the point: you can’t see it.

So as many of my friends (and, eventually, me too) strike out into larger circles with more complicated social dynamics, I hope that all of us—men and women alike—don’t forget to keep one hand raised, checking for that invisible glass, making sure that when we feel it coming down to meet us we push back. Feminism isn’t scary: it’s just that simple act of pushing back, of taking a stance, of holding our ground with chin up. I think that is how to be a woman.