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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 speaking to strangers

It’s every girl’s dream*: the meet-cute in the park with a handsome stranger. He becomes inexplicably smitten and whisks her into a world of glamour and chic cocktail parties and weekends in St. Bart’s. The modern fairy tale, brought to you by Gossip Girl and unrealistic millennial aspirations, n’est pas?

But how does she know, at first, that he is who claims to be? What proof do we ever have of identity?

*Not actually every girl. Only basics like me.

Strangers are everywhere, of course. We operate on either side of a thin line: ignoring those we don’t know, or taking the leap of making a connection. Usually, that thin line is a threshold—literally. Step inside a restaurant or bar, and boom—everyone in the room is on-limits for conversation. Step back onto the sidewalk, and New Yorkers avoid dreaded eye contact at all costs. Place denotes identity in our society. In the city’s whirlwind of anonymity and dense humanity, location is all we have to cling to when we’re trying to figure out the people around us. That’s why we ask the rote questions: where do you live? Where do you go to eat, to drink, to work out? We relax only when we’ve pinned someone down on our mental maps. There’s a story to tell here, and it’s about class and money and how much we’ve tied social identity to access. It’s about how much that access comforts us, makes us feel kinship, lets us trust.

So when encounters occur outside of transactional spaces like bars or cafes, outside of the borders that contextualize a stranger’s presence and allow us to craft the rudimentary outlines of their narrative, it’s a jolt. In public spaces, we are anyone and everyone. There’s no way to tell where we’re from, where we belong. Stories are malleable; encounters are fate.

A few weeks ago, I found myself locked out of my apartment. It was one of those sticky, golden early fall evenings and my roommate would be home soon, so I trotted off to Washington Square Park to waste some time people-watching. I stretched my legs on a bench, observed some squirrels, checked my Instagram.

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Not Washington Square Park, but same sunset vibe.

“Excuse me, do you know where NYU is?” a stranger asked. I glanced up. He was a bit scruffy: baggy pants, scuffed sneakers, beginnings of a beard. He carried a Whole Foods shopping bag in one hand and a briefcase in another. I half-registered his question and replied offhand that it was “pretty much all around.”

“Are you a student?”

“No.”

“But you live around here?”

“Yes.”

“Do you like this neighborhood?”

“Yes.”

“And what do you do around here?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not in the mood to chat.”

Usually, that’s a line that works. I went back to my phone.

But not so fast. A switch flipped in him; he began to yell.

“… and here I am, just trying to make conversation, be nice, I thought maybe you were homeless, I was going to give you some money, but no, you are just going to write me off like this?!”

The performance of his anger was expansive, almost laughable in the drowsy evening. On the light-dappled lawn behind me, a woman in a lawn chair went on reading her book. Across from me, a couple of tourists licked their ice cream cones, nonplussed. He was acting out a different script, disrupting the scene the rest of us were playing so placidly. Whatever, I thought, I was here first—and I had nowhere else to go. Better to smooth it over, let him move on.

“I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Do you even know who I am?!” he shouted, gesturing broadly, as though the whole park should know, did know. The light was seeping out of the day. A rat scurried through the bushes next to me. I shook my head, trying to keep my face blank. This is absurd, I thought. My poker face must not have been enough, because he paused for a moment in his rant—and sat himself down on the adjacent bench.

I blinked. There was no getting out of this one now.

“Let me start over. We got off on the wrong foot, is that how you say? My name is Giovanni. Giovanni Gabbana.” He waited for my reaction. “You know Gabbana?”

“Like Dolce, the Italian brand?”

He was excited now. “Yes, exactly! I am Gabbana’s nephew. I am the heir to the brand.”

Look, I know how this all sounds. But when a foreign stranger comes up to you in a park on an otherwise nondescript day and professes to be an heir to a famed Italian luxury fashion brand, your interest is piqued. You begin to hope. Maybe this is the right stranger. Maybe this time…

He was a talker, Giovanni, and he talked for the better part of an hour. Unceasing eye contact. Classic Italian intensity, hand gestures, superlatives. I kept my responses to the minimum; where I was from, the industry I worked in. He said he was a Harvard grad, went to Columbia Business School, had been an early funder of Snapchat, founded a tech company called CyberWise. He was a socialite and a Tribeca resident; he told me his address on North Moore St, mentioned his favorite local restaurants, and said I should swing by. He had been at a fashion show with Jessica Chastain last week. He vacationed in Ibiza. He grew up between London and Milan. Would I like to join him for coffee next week? He could introduce me to some people who might help me with my career…

At 8:30pm, an alarm on his phone went off. “Ah, yes,” he said, “that’s to remind me to go home. I used to stay out very late. I was a party boy, some people maybe they think I’m a dick because of it, but I’m getting better now, I’m staying in,” and he kept going on. He gave me his email and his phone number (“…and this is not my publicist’s number, which I usually give, but my private phone, OK?”) and said that it was up to me, he knew it was crazy to meet in a park, but it was fate, I intrigued him, I was not what he expected, I was different, no Prada handbag, no pretension. I said nothing but “thank you.” Eventually, finally, he left. I blinked and looked around: night had fallen.

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Washington Square Park, shining bright.

When I got home, I Googled him. I needed to pin him down, verify his claims. If we had met in a bar, I would never have doubted. But it was the park… it was a public space.

His LinkedIn corroborated his story. I’m a former investigative reporter, though, and one source is never enough. So I dug deeper, looking for a paparazzi photo, a mention—but what I found was both terrifying and sad. He was a fraud. He had been arrested for grand larceny and locked up in 2009 for credit card fraud, accused of scamming his so-called “friends” out of hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on partying at nightclubs and living in luxury at the Waldorf. Since his release, however, his behavior hadn’t much changed; he was spotted spinning his story in Washington Square Park to a young woman back in 2010, too.

I did not send him the email I had promised.

Right now, I’m sitting in a cafe in the West Village, listening to soft French jazz as cigarette smoke drifts in through the open windows. It’s 4:30pm on a weekday afternoon, and people are thinking about a glass of red wine.  

But I’m thinking about the threshold, the thin line, between the sidewalk and the cafe, and how I always believed in its ability to connote identity, and how maybe that trust is misplaced. I’m thinking about the difference between Giovanni and the man sitting next to me in his navy cashmere sweater, MacBook out. I’m thinking about how we make strangers familiar by association with places and things.

I’m also thinking about how Giovanni tricked me; about how careful we have to be about trust; about how the stories people tell are not necessarily true, even if they say the right things. The article written about Giovanni shows he was savvy to this fact. He knew he would receive access only if he pretended to have it already. He knew I would speak with him only once he signified that he was worthy of being spoken with. He could no longer pay for tables at a nightclub, but he could still convince me that he belonged there, with a glass of Dom Perignon in hand.

There is a difference between the stories we tell and the truth as it is. In a conversation with strangers, we surrender our ability to discern that difference. We accept that fantasy and reality might coexist. It doesn’t really matter if we are in a restaurant or on the street, after all. The restaurant just requires that we pay for the illusion of safety, of belonging, of trust. And what is money but an illusion of its own?

So if the man in the navy sweater said hello, I’d say hello back. And I’d have that chat with Giovanni again. Speaking to strangers is half the fun of this city. It’s how I learn my responses to the unknown; it’s how I step outside of my comfort zone. The only barrier is my own sense of superiority. The only fear is that the stranger will be crazy. And if he is, like Giovanni? The story speaks for itself. There is no fairy tale without risking an adventure.

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Strangers all around.

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 Law of Attraction

When I finished high school, my ballet teacher—and spiritual guide of sorts—gave me a graduation present: a deck of cards called the “Law of Attraction.” Each card, beautifully illustrated with abstract designs in bright colors, held a statement about positive visualization. The deck was one of the only sentimental items I brought with me across the country to college. Every Monday, I’d select a new card from the deck and pin it on my freshman-year bulletin board: a constant reminder to think boldly and optimistically. After all, a positive mantra never hurt anyone.

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But over time the tradition faded. And so, too, did the Law of Attraction in my life. It was enough to muddle through college in fits and starts, succeeding and failing in equal measure, learning strengths and flaws along the way. Who needed the Law of Attraction when opportunities seemed to fall comfortably into our laps, gilded with potential? And after college, things can snowball faster than you expect; one day you’re sitting at home, fixing up your resume; the next you’re sweating in your nicest blazer as you prepare for the pivotal interview handshake; and suddenly you find yourself adding another line to that old resume, and this time it doesn’t read “intern.”

There’s a fun saying that goes “We accept the love we think we deserve.” It’s the Law of Attraction in action: we receive what we expect, what we visualize, what we aspire for. We’re treated the way we think we should be treated; we control the persona we project and the expectations that are imbued in it. This is, of course, a wildly utopian concept. Dreams do not turn into realities just by willing them that way. We’re jaded enough to know that where there’s a will, there really isn’t always a way. One glance at the news will show just how deeply the structural challenges to change are carved.

But it’s a guiding tenet nonetheless, so bear with me as I carry out this thought.

As an exercise, we can expand the saying a bit, unpack it, and flip it around. Perhaps: we accept the self-worth we think we deserve. Or: we deserve the self-projection that we accept. Or: the self we project is the one others will accept as true.

A few months ago, I read Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, an NYT bestseller about a group of self-proclaimed “talented” kids who grow up in the New York of the 1980s and fall short, to different levels, of their outsized, youthful dreams. It’s a book that hits home in a lot of ways—if you’re at all like me, you see yourself easily (and uncomfortably) in these so-called gifted children, brimming with ideals—but it also left me bitter because of the smallness of the dreams; of the limitations that each character places on him/herself. Maybe I just don’t want to accept adult reality and its finiteness, its endless smallness. The book riled me up. I wanted to slap the main character into some semblance of self-confidence, or just self-projection of confidence. As I finished it, I itched to distance myself from her story arc. There was no drama, no cathartic ending. There was only the slow fade.

At 23—well, 24 on Sunday—I am allergic to the slow fade on what feels like a fundamental level. I can only believe in the cosmic rise. Which brings me back to the Law of Attraction. It’s easy—scarily easy—to let one thing become another. To allow our fates and our work and our paths to plod ceaselessly in the direction that we start out with, because inertia is as real a force in the psychological world as it is in the physical one. That’s why we live in this modern phenomenon of “extended adolescence” that the talking heads drone on about; that’s why we fall into ruts.

The conscious choices to project a self and project a future are not easy, and they’re not comfortable. Setting stakes in the ground—“I will be this person; I will not be that person” or “I will accomplish x by x age; I will discard that other dream forever”—all of these seem so final, like closing a door when you don’t have the key. But that’s the point, isn’t it? In order to visualize what we want, the image has to be specific, which by necessity excludes other outcomes; the would-you-rather is real. Mountains or beach? The only rule is you can’t pick both.

So what does that mean for us? For me, it means I have to buckle down and actively, finally define the big bad “goal.” And it also means I have to put in place a series of incremental visions to support the attempt; baby steps. “Adulthood” is a thing that happens when you act the part each day, every day, shaping yourself into the person you’d like to become. It is not some far-off tropical destination you lust over, lazily adding photos to a Pinterest board, yet never booking the ticket. It is the daily mundane decisions: the things you buy, the people you spend time with, the stories you read, the self you create. It’s hard, and I’m terrible at it, but it’s worth a shot.

I’ve always believed in image as a proxy for reality. We perform our own truths. It’s the Law.

Let’s abide by it.

On “‘man” and “Boy” and “thing”

“A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.”

This is the hand-written quote that’s scrawled on a notecard stuck to Michael Keaton’s vanity mirror in his backstage dressing room in a shabby Times Square theater. (The movie, for reference, is Birdman.) It’s a cluttered room – a stuffed animal here, flowers there, an old radio, posters, knickknacks, rickety chairs – but even in this mess, even as we get a first glimpse of Keaton’s miraculously wrinkled forehead in his reflection, that quote was where my eyes flashed to, and rested for a long moment. And then the camera swings and Keaton distracts you with an unexpected pout, a shrug of the shoulders, and the screen is his again.

A thing is a thing – not what is said of that thing.

Boyhood is about faces and representation, too. Every review I’ve read (a thing is a thing, not what is said of the thing, but still), notes the moment we meet our hero, Mason: there he is, lying on his back in the grass, eyes wide and dreamy, as fresh and young as anything. He’s got an expressive face (we learn, as we age with him), but he holds himself close – he’s not expansive, never flips a switch. A child contained. A child intent on finding truth, not living above it.

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The thing about movies like these – movies about sweet white boys, weird white men, the kid down the block, the actor we grew up with – is that they don’t threaten us with difference or with discomfort. Yes, Mason messes up, and says things that shouldn’t be said; but the anxiety we feel is because we don’t want to see ordinary mistakes in our Hollywood movies. Yes, Keaton is a mercurial bastard, Iñarritu casting his brand of subtle magical realism to guide us deftly from the ordinary to the explosive; but the fear we feel scratches at us because we have to make leaps of rational faith, because we can’t trust this character.

But no, they don’t scare us in the sense that a deeply changing world can scare us. They are friendly in their familiarity: the narratives, tropes, and story arcs are what we’ve always seen, known. The difference is only in the art of the telling.

I loved Boyhood. I can forgive it pretty much any flaw because that’s the point: to show us, with aching slowness and tender, impartial honesty, the moments that aren’t picture-perfect. Lines we crave to hear (“I love you,” maybe, or “I’m sorry”) are never delivered. Beats are missed. Angst isn’t glossed over with a makeover montage. Drama is sporadic. Mason’s energy is slow, mesmerizingly out-of-touch. It’s a simple movie, simple desires, simple lives – which is where it derives its own sense of magic. The premise gives it room to breathe, excuses its mistakes, adds a childish charm. As viewers, we get to be naive; we get to be cheesy. Because for once, we can’t critique a movie for its attempt at wit or humor or depth. Cynicism isn’t allowed, and it’s a relief.

I really liked Birdman. Edward Norton is a lit match; Emma Stone’s eyes are too awesomely big for her face. Keaton is weird, obviously, which is the only way it works. It’s artifice at its finest, the division between fact (Keaton IS this character, after all) and fiction (but can he levitate, truly?) shunted aside. You’re left with little time to ease into the suspension of disbelief; you just have to accept this alternate-yet-so-close-to-home reality. It bubbles over with its own cleverness, the melding of backstage and onstage and the world stage, the continuity of the shot mimicking the relentless pace of 21st century digital life. (The social media tirade felt weak, though – an older generation trying to write words into Emma’s mouth as she hurls them, insults, at a man the writers must themselves identify with, as though they’re delivering their own self-punishment, an apology for their age.)

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 12.51.28 PM

But a thing is a thing, not what is said of the thing. You can write yourself crazy thinking round and round about these stories and what they say about Hollywood, America, the patriarchy, film, art, creativity, consumerism, egomania. The thing, though, is still the movie. Two stories, a boy and a man. These are the subjects, objects, pronouns. They are real and we can’t ignore them.

The only question left: why these things? Why not other things? What can we say about the absence of things? Because no thing is… nothing.

On new jobs & killing the incompetence game

On Monday, I started an internship in an industry that is new to me. I was nervous, so I wore my favorite pants (you gotta take your confidence boost where you can get it).

On Tuesday, I submitted a completed Excel spreadsheet of social media marketing campaign analytics, listened in on a status call with a client, and formatted a slide pitch deck for a digital strategy plan. Sound a little too corporate to you? Don’t worry, my desk chair is an exercise ball and there’s beer on tap on Friday afternoons—not that it matters. Sometimes, a little bit of corporate, structured medicine (and an education in how to use a PC) is just what the doctor ordered.

Desk with a view.
Desk with a view.

At every job, internship, or activity I’ve participated in over the past five years, the constant has been a focus on writing, on understanding storytelling and news-gathering, and on building a better organization. But not now. Now I’m learning to tell the story of the numbers in a chart, to gather news about relative efficiency of dollars spent and keywords used, and to find where I fit in a large, well-functioning operation.

We forget how entrenched we’ve become in the ecosystems of the intellectual paths we choose early on. In liberal arts college, they call each major a “discipline” because you train your mind to think in certain ways—to approach problems with a particular toolkit, a template for coming to a conclusion. For me, the anthropological approach was a natural fit with the journalistic activities I pursued outside class. In brief, the process is (1) interrogate and investigate the accepted reality, (2) observe and collect in-depth information about the truth of the matter, and (3) present your findings with panache—and without judgment.

But in this industry I’m now exploring, the process—the one-two-three of approaching and attacking a problem—is new. The end goals are different. On an institutional level, the social structure of the place is complicated and foreign. The vocabulary that’s tossed around in the office leaves me slow on the uptake, too: what’s a project manager vs. a brand strategist vs. a media planner? What’s the difference in our partnerships between vendors, creative, and clients? And how is social different from digital different from mobile? I knew what ROI stood for, but CPC, CPE, CPV, DSP, KPI, RFP, and SOW are all brand-spanking-new. The two main things that remain the same across all my working experiences are snarky email exchanges and the expectation to stay late.

Here’s what happens when you step outside your comfort zone: you feel incompetent. You want to apologize for taking up people’s time by asking questions—but if you don’t ask the questions, then the work doesn’t get done (and you have to apologize for that, too). You sit at a meeting and frown, lost before it even started, trying to memorize faces and names. I haven’t felt so young and fish-out-of-water in years. Being a n00b happens to be pretty damn uncomfortable.

But I’m not going to apologize. I’m still convinced my youth is my best asset, and so is my inexperience. It’s early days for me yet, but I have a feeling—in fact, at the ripe old age of 22, I know—that my current (and hopefully just momentary) incompetence is actually a plus. I’m being forced to bend my ingrained ways of thinking into new paths.

So if you’re considering a career you know nothing about, here’s the takeaway: it never hurts to stretch.

It’s kind of like a yoga class. Worst case scenario, you enjoy some undisturbed meditation, take in the chill music vibes, and work on your flexibility. Best case, you kill at your headstand and warrior three and your crow—and you just fly outta that studio, dripping with sweat and ready to take on the world.

 

On Hustle & Wolf: Hollywood’s finest sleaze, packaged for your pleasure

At their best, movies elevate the images of the lives we don’t lead into all-consuming, believable, magical art. At their worst, they fail to convince us that the lives we are watching unfold onscreen are worth our time, our attention, our money. At their best, they instill dreams—and nightmares. At their worst, they’re forgettable.

From that standpoint, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street are two pretty good movies. I watched them on back-to-back nights, and the comparisons between the two cropped up unbidden. We’ve got blockbuster directors, high-wattage celebrity casts, and unlovable anti-hero main characters—all bound up in two twisted, demoralized takes on the classic American rags-to-riches storylines we know and love so well (thanks, Horatio Alger). Before you watch these movies, I recommend setting aside your moral compass. In the worlds of Hustle and Wolf, right and wrong don’t apply. The compass points to success and survival; don’t bother with north.

Screen Shot 2014-01-03 at 4.05.57 PMWolf first. Leo diCaprio first. We’ve seen him evolve from Titanic‘s sensitive romantic to Romeo + Juliet‘s violent, sensitive romantic to Catch Me If You Can‘s confident impostor to The Aviator‘s over-confident visionary to The Great Gatsby‘s sensitive, romantic, over-confident impostor-visionary to… this. It’s the rawest of the Leos yet. The swagger—and there’s lots of it—is not fake, but instead bursts from an ego inflated by the crudest kind of successes. Jordan Belfort (real person, real story, real asshole) is a salesman, and that’s what Leo plays: the kind of salesman who has nothing beneath the pitch, not even an interior consciousness. His life is the pitch. And The Wolf of Wall Street, with its Leo voiceover narrating and explaining events as we see them onscreen, is the pitch.

Once we get that, we can let Scorsese do his work. What really happened doesn’t matter, because we’re getting the memory of it—the feeling of it. And what a feeling. Sex, drugs, gratuitous naked flesh, more drugs, more strippers, fancy cars, hot blondes, fancy clothes, expensive yachts, beautiful homes, public urination, violence, wads of cash, testosterone, bacchanalian parties, and the sheer, irascible, powerful force of GREED: Scorsese shoves this stuff in our faces with a reckless, dangerous enthusiasm. It’s glorious. It’s seductive. It’s despicable.

Up-by-his-bootstraps Jordan Belfort and his finance firm conned investors out of millions of dollars, lining their own pockets instead (a tactic explained early on by a pitch-perfect Matthew McConaughey as an innocent young Jordan’s first raunchy boss). In the movie’s telling, the motive is always just money. And behind the money is the art of the sale—of your business, of your shitty penny-stocks, of your self (and, inescapably, your soul). Scorsese doesn’t give us any likable characters. They’re all absolute shmucks. Instead, he wants you to drink up that world of unfettered conspicuous consumption; he wants you to get wasted on it, on the saturated colors and naked breasts and endless lines of coke. And once you do, you’re along for an aggressive 3-hour trip that doesn’t let up. (Luckily, this one doesn’t come with a hangover.)

Leo in his office element.

Leo in his office element. Those baby blues!

The Wolf is also a story of addiction. Jordan is addicted to sex, drugs, and making money. It’s those addictions—particularly the last one—that drive him from nothing to something bigger than he can handle. He gets his true high when he’s selling himself to his staff, who worship him cultishly. Everything else fades away, and for a second we see the terrifying beauty of the self-made man who has bought into his own myth. He either will not or cannot see anything beyond it.

Scorsese doesn’t pass judgment. The shocking shallowness of The Wolf isn’t supposed to be a reprimand to American consumer culture; if anything, all the things that (dirty) money can buy are lovingly fetishized with that slick Hollywood lighting and Leo’s sexy voiceover. (That includes naked women in all objectified forms. From a feminist perspective, this movie is abominable. I’m trying to set that aside so I can critique it more objectively. Not sure if that’s a good thing, though.) There’s something both shiny and grotesque about the whole thing—the story, the way it’s filmed, the characters—and I still can’t decide if it’s revolting or appealing. Is hedonism so bad, after all? Hasn’t America always revered this kind of man? Hasn’t he always been our way in, our dream, and our addiction?

(And here’s a sobering account of why the Hollywood-ification of this kind of crime is problematic at best, and destructive besides.)

American Hustle is also about the art of the sale—in this case, the ability of a sadly de-Batman-ified Christian Bale and an oddly sexed-up/tits-out Amy Adams to sell fake loans. They get caught by an over-ambitious, hyperactive FBI agent (an energetic Bradley Cooper) and end up working a complex con involving a fake Arab sheikh, a half-dozen corrupt politicians, and Robert deNiro in an inspired cameo as a mob boss.

But Hustle is less about the work they do than the things they conceal about themselves, the human relationships they struggle with—and what drives each of them to get a little bit ahead. It’s a more nuanced movie than Wolf (thankfully); these guys all do have interior lives. It’s also much slower and sometimes angling towards dull. (I have to wonder if they dressed Amy Adams in free-boobing costumes slit down-to-there in every scene for character purposes… or more likely just to keep male viewers engaged.) Where Wolf never stops striving for more, more, more, the characters of Bale and Adams are content with just enough to be better than the rest… until Cooper wants more, more, more, and then they’re hustling for real. The Hustle here isn’t necessarily money: it’s staying one step ahead of the game, whether that’s in love or in career. It’s an addiction, one could say, to “getting over” the other guys (in Amy Adams’s words). The only one left out (at first) is Jennifer Lawrence, the spurned, airhead wife—but she gets in on the action in her own way, too. (She’s also, in my opinion, the movie’s hands-down highlight.)

Again, no heroes; no clear good-guy/bad-guy; no ethics separating those who succeed from those who fail. There’s a shady glamour in Adams & Bale’s small-time pre-FBI work. The movie is a love story to the low-rent hustle, to the small not-so-great things people do in order to lead almost-great lives. It’s only when they go big that things start to crumble; the love story is up, the romance begins to fray, there’s infidelity on a number of levels. But they pull it together, conning their way back into stability. Faking it until they make it. Classic.

Sweet costume design, though.

Sweet costume design, though.

In Wolf, you root for Jordan Belfort not because you like him, but because you want to be at the crazy party he’s throwing with all that Leo charisma… and you believe in our American right to have that kind of party. In Hustle, you root for Bale not because you like him, but because you want to believe that for this one very flawed—but not irredeemable—regular guy, his story can have a happy ending… just like yours.

Oh, America, aren’t we predictable. The self-made man is always our favorite Hollywood flavor—served with a side of sexed-up women, naturally. They will sell this vulgar myth to us as art until the end of days, and like Jordan Belfort, we will never be sated. It’s bad, it’s morally reprehensible, I shouldn’t be supporting the film industry making this stuff… but as movies, they are pretty damn good.

So, are we addicted or what?

Six months later; or, on being young

It’s been six months since I left the East Coast for sunny southern California.

This evening I celebrated a childhood friend’s birthday with a picnic potluck in the public Santa Barbara rose garden. The roses, my namesake flower, were blooming in a big way. Behind us, the arcaded hall and facade of the old Mission, which dates back to 1820, glowed a buttery gold. My Catholic middle school held services there. As 8th graders in blue graduation robes, we posed for pictures out front after the Baccalaureate ceremony.

But there were no blue robes tonight. The sun set; the full moon rose; the candles were lit; and I met some of my generation’s version of hippies as we sprawled on picnic blankets in the gathering dew. They were creative and eclectic young people bedecked in unusual jewelry, flowing with talk of reiki healing and energy systems and the challenge of finding your way. Laugh all you want, but I love it.

That’s because I can relate to the challenge of finding your way. It’s been my primary life focus for the past half year. It’s driven me to seek solace and self-realization in endless yoga classes (and endless downward facing dogs); in long runs on the trails that crisscross my neighborhood’s citrus orchards and oak groves; in tall stacks of critically acclaimed novels; in hours spent mindlessly clicking through the wormhole of the Internet, jumping from food blogs to news sites to daunting job listings. It’s a challenge that has taught me the importance of talking things out with friends and family, and taking the time to ask for advice. It’s also taught me the importance of figuring things out for my self, and not letting the lives and opinions of others outweigh my own intuitions.

And the thing is, I’m pretty different in background and schooling from the alternative young people I hung out with tonight. But we all have this in common: We all worry about our futures. We all don’t know what America will look like for us anymore. We are open to so many different kinds of dreams.

Halfway through the night, in a lull in the conversation, my friend sidled up to me and asked: “What inspires you lately, Rais?” I was momentarily flustered. What inspires me? What a question! Who even asks that!

But it’s a good question. What does inspire each of us? Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to that on a daily basis?

After a minute of floundering for ideas, I started telling my friend about this NYT story on youth unemployment in Europe. The story is great, but it’s this multimedia feature that I found incredibly powerful, and that’s been haunting me ever since I read it. The Times introduces us to a slew of young people from southern and eastern Europe, all highly educated, all highly relatable, all trying hard to find their way. These were the kids I’d be friends with, had I been born in Milan or Dubrovnik. These are the young adults who I would have been. And they’re struggling: they see no future in their home countries; they see no future in the new ones they’ve adopted—for the time being—for the purpose of subsistence employment. They are a generation confused, depressed, uncertain of how to envision a long-term when the short-term is hard enough.

Laura, an Italian with two masters degrees, says:

“In general, the situation is quite depressing because young people don’t look at the future with hope. They see only a big black hole, and that’s it. It’s very scary. Sometimes I think it’s like the beginning of the last century, when people were forced to go to America because there was literally nothing here.”

Their quotes and stories haunt me, and, yes, inspire me. To do what? I don’t know. Maybe just to recognize the fairly universal experience of being a young person, of trying to figure out how to plan for a future you can’t fully envision. Of trying to decide what you want for yourself—and how you want to go about getting it. But unlike Laura, I am already in America; I am steeped in the privileges of health, family, citizenship, elite education—and rational hope. In this season of thanksgiving, cheesy as it is, their stories inspire me to appreciate my relative luck. American Millennials like me, despite a grim job market and grimmer economic prospects, are still fairly swimming in luck.

I’ve been lucky, over the past 6 months, to meet and interact with a motley collection of young people from outside of my college world—surf instructors, yoga addicts, artists, tutors, chefs, young professionals, students, waiters, organic farmers, tour guides—and it never ceases to amaze me how much we’re all the same: swaggering our way towards something, but (some secretly, others less so) second-guessing our decisions. It also amazes me how little it matters where we came from. College, with all of its pressures and concerns, seems pretty far away from where I sit.

I’m not sitting here for much longer, though. In fact, by next weekend, I’ll be in deep in the midst of college in all its Game weekend glory. I’ll be looking seriously at my future and career, and even considering making a more permanent life on that other, colder coast—or at least another, probably colder, city.

On one hand, I can’t wait.

On the other, I don’t think a 22-year-old (or anyone!) can ever be ready to plan for the future.

You just have to jump.

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.