On culture

On tortoises, iguanas, and humans

Nature, meet culture

Nature, meet culture

Most animals in the Galapagos Islands have no natural predators. There are no lions or tigers or bears, and for millions of years there weren’t any humans to make problems. No rats either. The birds eat the worms and the sea lions eat the fish and sometimes there are sharks that go after the sea lions, but that’s about it. A primarily vegetarian ecosystem. A pretty peaceful coexistence.

The most striking thing about seeing the animals in the Galapagos is how supremely unbothered they are by the human intruders around them. The marine iguanas go on sunbathing and slithering without concern. The sea lions go on lying there blissfully. The blue-footed boobies go on standing there with their, yes, blue feet. There’s no fear, not even curiosity: just bored dismissal. Whatever, they seem to say. Stare all you like. I’m not going anywhere. I have an egg to sit on. Or: I have seaweed to chew. Or: I have a lady friend to impress. 

That peaceful unconcern is, of course, why many of the endemic Galapagos species have evolved into oddities. When we look at the flightless cormorant, say, which developed an aptitude for swimming and retains only vestigial wings, we don’t think “survival of the fittest” but rather “survival of the weirdest.” It’s because of these incredibly specific adaptations that many Galapagos species are at such risk of survival today.

Tortoise crossing

Tortoise crossing

For instance: the tortoises are big and slow-moving, and over centuries some species lost the ability to retract fully into their carapaces. That kind of armored protection just wasn’t necessary. But then in the heyday of whaling, sailors discovered that the big, slow-moving tortoises were great to have on ships: they were easily caught and stored, stayed alive for up to a year without food or water, and provided an abundant meat supply. They stacked hundreds of tortoises in their holds, and decimated the populations. Meanwhile errant rats, tucked away belowdecks on whaling boats, disembarked into the islands and found they had a macabre taste for tortoise eggs and baby tortoises. The recovery work continues slowly today, as scientists work to re-engineer and re-introduce into the wild new offspring of tortoise species unique to each tiny island—while eradicating the problematic rats.

He's showing off

He’s showing off

Another instance: the land iguana, lazy and (again) fairly large and slow-moving. Native Galapagos iguanas were fine when they didn’t have competitors for food in the arid landscape they called home, but the introduction (by humans) of foraging goats, pigs, and donkeys destroyed the ready availability of low-lying vegetation, and the land iguana population on the island of Santa Cruz dwindled rapidly. Over the last few decades, aggressive anti-goat, anti-pig, and anti-donkey campaigns have restored the iguanas’ livelihood and numbers (and have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of wild pigs, goats, and donkeys).

This is the story of so many wilderness areas around the globe: a constant tug-of-war between destruction and preservation, unintended alteration and carefully considered rehabilitation. Humankind tends to be klutzy when we come to our environment. We can’t help it. We rarely realize what we’re doing while we’re doing it. And, perhaps most importantly, our cultural consciousness of what we’re doing and if it’s good, bad, or neutral is always in flux.

If you zoom out on a place like the Galapagos—zoom out millions of years—some big questions come into play. By protecting the land and animals, are we stopping the inevitable progress of time and evolutionary tough love—or just halting it? Is reversing what we see to be human damage to a pristine environment a smart move, or are we nearsighted by our own good intentions?


Tagus Cove, a popular stopover for whaling ships

Blah blah. These are the philosophical debates around environmentalism, and I’m hardly the first person to articulate the questions. But I think I know what my answers are—for myself, anyway.

In the end, the value to me of stalling time is not to keep the animals around forever. That’s neither our place as fallible humans nor within our ability (again, fallible humans). The value to me of is in keeping us actively engaged in the process of awareness: of understanding how delicate and how changeable each element of our own environments can be. And I don’t mean environment as in just “nature” out “in the wild.” I mean environments in all their complexities of our everyday urban jungles: the relationships, the interactions, the fields of energy. (Yes, I’m going all new-age on you.)

If we are nostalgic for a past that we messed up, it can often be recuperated. It just takes time and effort (and there will inevitably be new consequences to the changes we make). The process of fixing what we’ve broken acts as a reminder that nothing—but nothing!—lasts for very long, if at all.

Here’s the thing: land iguanas have no idea how lucky they are to have ample food to graze on once more. The unusual part about being human is that we know just how good we have it, just how much we miss things we’ve lost, and just how lucky we are to get them back.

So yeah, it would be chill to be a land iguana, and it would be fun to splash around as a sea lion. But being a human? That might be the coolest animal of all.

Marine iguanas everywhere

Life’s a beach for the marine iguanas.

Confessions of a 22-Year-Old Directioner (Part 3)

And finally, what you’ve all been waiting for: Part 3. (Read Part 2 and Part 1 for the full fangirl trifecta experience!)

So, the “This Is Us” movie. Sure, some scenes are cringe-inducingly forced. (Really, Morgan Spurlock, you send the boys camping in the forest in Sweden, tell them to pitch tents and build a fire, then arrange them in a beautifully-lit semi-circle and have them discuss their pasts and futures together? Really?) And when one of the moms gets a life-sized cut-out of her son for her home, that’s just weird.

Forever in the spotlight.

Forever in the spotlight.

Then Zayn buys his mom a house, and she cries as they talk on the phone, and you can tell he’d rather the camera weren’t there for that particular conversation. (#TeamZayn, and this is why.)

Then Harry tells us about his first kiss up against a tree in a field near his home (“Steamy,” he says with a lascivious wink, playing the camera for all it’s worth), and an old lady at the bakery he used to work at pinches his bum. “I’ve still got it,” says an apron-clad Harry as he sells a pastry to a customer, and his kindly former coworkers indulge him with laughs.

Then the boys practice songs together before a show and they’re actually serious about it, you can tell, they care. For a second it feels like a real documentary. These cute, talented kids didn’t finish high school and this is their only shot at improving their middle-class lives and they’re going to do it as well as they can, damn it, for as long as they can, and if that means being the crushes of a global tweenage generation, they’ll do it, and if it means being physically attacked by rabid fans, they’ll deal with it, and they’ll have fun with it. It could be much worse. They could have ended up not being friends, as Niall mentions. (But now they’re “basically brothers.” *cue exasperated eyeroll*… but then again they are basically brothers, so the cliché is forgiven.)

Then they’re onstage performing, doing that joke-y choreographed dancing they do so well (but “we don’t dance!” they insist), crooning sweetly into the mics, my 3D glasses making Harry’s lips look utterly kissable to lonely old me.

(And after the show, when the cameramen are off-duty, I in my infinite 22-year-old wisdom know just what’s going down that we don’t see onscreen: Harry’s getting trashed in a skeezy club with models, and Zayn’s sleeping with his fiancée, and Niall’s making out in a dark corner with some anonymous hot blonde. Louis and Liam I imagine as casual stoners who throw parties in their lavish London flats while hanging with their pretty girlfriends. The rest of the time they play a lot of video games.) Somehow the fact that the boys live in this weirdly liminal fantasy space, appealing both to the young and the not-still-young, staying clean and freshly-shaven for the studio execs while throwing a cheeky sidelong wink at the hot secretary, makes them all the more lovable. I do like a good bad boy.

And yes, I went home and bought their album on iTunes. I’ve been listening to it on repeat ever since. (Especially this song.)

Critics can go ahead and call One Direction (and its movie, and its music, and its brand) a capitalist invention, a trite teen sensation, a talentless product of reality TV all they want. In the end, the accusations are mostly true. That’s what what makes the 1D boys so fascinating, so irresistible. They’re a fairytale come true, 21st-century-style. (And let’s remember that the most important qualities of the princesses were always their looks. Don’t try to tell me that Cinderella impressed Prince Charming with her witty banter while twirling across the ballroom, or that Sleeping Beauty’s light snores were indicative of her compassionate character.)

Is it selling out if both sides are in on the dirty little secret?

As long as Zayn keeps staring into the camera like he’s staring into my soul, I don’t even care.

Confessions of a 22-Year-Old Directioner (Part 2)

Buckle up kids, cuz here comes Part 2.

To recap: One Direction is a classic case of cultural co-production, thanks to its rabid fans.

But that’s not to say that the boys of One Direction have been complete non-agents in making their way to stardom. On the contrary, it’s because they are so (instinctively, one assumes) savvy to the wants and needs of their fandom that they manage to keep up the fame and hysteria. Or maybe it’s more this: their popularity has stemmed not from the music or the image so much as the boys themselves—their authentic-seeming group dynamic, the genuine quality of their friendship, the cuteness and irreverent style that was the same in their first outings on TV as it is today. They look polished and styled now, but we fans grant them that privilege. We want them to be dolled up, because they earned that right. Celebrity suits them, so we don’t begrudge it; we celebrate it. Vicarious success.


All grown up with their own smoldering GQ covers.

Compare to, say, Lady Gaga—the ultimate performance artist, whose image is pure artifice. Or Miley Cyrus, grasping for publicity as publicly as possible. Justin Timberlake, who grew up into a talented and respected artist (and whose personal life seems just as airbrushed as his public appearances). Similarly, Beyonce, who can be revered as all that is holy, but never truly related to (I mean, NO ONE looks that good without makeup). Katy Perry cuts candy-sweet hits like clockwork, yet you get the sense she’s more a vehicle for Top-40 moneymakers than a person. Rihanna is real—and clearly doesn’t give a fuck. (Critically “good” artists also often fall into that category.) Bieber’s outgrown his fans. I could go into Kanye, Jay-Z, Macklemore, or any current radio mainstays, but I think you get the point: stars are often too contrived or too disconnected, too artificial or too wholly individual, too poised or too eccentric, to tap into the very sincere and voracious cravings of the tweenagers.

I’m not trying to say that One Direction is perfect… although let’s be real: that is the way my bias falls. I’m just trying to say that they happen to occupy a space that isn’t easy for most performers today to fit: they’re just as relatable as a tween could want, just as “normal”—but the stardust of celebrity and talent, and the glamour of the success and glory they’ve achieved, makes them all the more attractive. Who can resist a rockstar, after all?

Especially when that rockstar is only up there rocking out because you supported him and made him big?

Especially when that rockstar could totally be in your math class. (I like to think that Harry bears a striking resemblance to my personal high school crush—who, as it happens, was my freshman Physics lab partner.)

More interestingly, they’re just enough older than their fans that they’re always pushing the envelope. Their tattoos are transgressive (and ever-increasing). Lyrics like “Tonight let’s get some / and live while we’re young” or “I wanna stay up all night / and do it all with you” are blatant sexual innuendos. Frankly, One Direction is safe sex for tweens. They’re the awakening. The pictures and videos of the boys are as intimate as the girls are getting with anybody, and that intimacy is sacred. When Harry “dated” Taylor Swift, a million girls cried into their pillows, and were secretly pleased when they broke up because Taylor “wasn’t sexual enough” for Harry. Rumors abound of some of the boys being gay—with each other, with others—and their undeniably homoerotic, chummy, affectionate on-screen (and candid) play only serves to complicate and validate those rumors. (I have to think that the gender & sexual identity mashups in the Best Song Ever video are a kind of inside-joke reflection on all that talk.)


True bromance.

Not that this bothers most of the fans, who may call themselves “Mrs. Styles” in their Twitter handles, but support the Harry-Louis relationship rumors. I’ve done my share of comment-trawling, and frankly, most girls seem to think there’s enough love to go around, no matter who’s dating who. There’s a lot of defense of the boys’ decisions. It’s sweet, really.

Meanwhile, Zayn got engaged to fellow X-Factor alum and girl band member Perrie Edwards just last month. Mini-Mick-Jagger Harry’s been snapped hitting up Le Bain nightclub in NYC and going on dates with It-girl-cum-British-model Cara Delevingne, while in interviews his half-joking bandmates make him out to be a ladykiller. In a bad mood, cherubic Niall was filmed in an airport saying something about “c*nts.” The boys don’t hide the fact that they’re growing up (and getting wilder) any more than they hide their dimples.

Alas, besides the gratuitous shirtless shots and some flashes of boxer briefs, the “This Is Us” movie washes out all that fun, complicated dirt. The sense is that Simon Cowell doesn’t want to get in trouble with the moms. There isn’t a single mention of girls (or boys), sexuality, drinking, drugs, or even the tattoos that they’re constantly collecting while on tour. In short, all the stuff that makes One Direction “edgy” by squeaky-clean boy band standards (and, to be frank, makes the guys seem like the real 20-year-old dudes I know, who make the occasional bad decision) is sanitized out of the official cut, save for the lecherous lyrics. Bummer for me, but I guess that’s a calculated move to keep the most lucrative portion of the fan base around.

That is, 1D might be growing up in their free time, but there’s always a new cohort of middleschoolers to add to the expanding fandom, and Niall’s got plenty of baby-faced years left—I mean, he just got his braces off!


Confessions of a 22-Year-Old Directioner (Part 1)

Guys, I’m a One Direction fan. There, I said it.

I went alone to their movie, “This Is Us.” I didn’t tell anyone (except for Facebook, of course) that I was going. Hell, I could barely look in the eye of the girl checking tickets.

And you know what? I loved that movie, every single minute of the ridiculous 3D extravaganza of it. I smiled for two hours. I laughed. I sighed. (I didn’t cry, because the story of One Direction is a story of happiness & puppies & sunshine & butterflies & daisies, so there was nothing to cry about.) ((Except when Zayn almost cried, because, Zayn!! but I digress.))

Yes, it was a two hour propaganda piece, a commercial for the band and their pop-rock-hit-machine music. But damn it if they aren’t adorable. And damn it if their music isn’t insanely, foot-tappingly catchy. And double-damn it if that movie isn’t a pretty piece of entertainment, all told.

How, you might be asking, did it come to this? How did a (fairly) normal, (seemingly) smart Yale-educated young adult end up as a self-identified Directioner? (In my defense, it is the “best fandom in the world” according to the boys, so at least I chose a high-caliber group.)

I’ve been puzzling this out myself quite a bit over the past few weeks, ever since my 1D fever set in, and frankly I think we’re giving the group less credit than they deserve. Here are reasons that everyone should be a 1D fan:

(1) They’re like the boys in high school with the big personalities who you always wanted to hang around with but were too shy to talk to except when you had to be lab partners in class. (What, this didn’t happen to you too?)

(2) They’re hot in a skinny-British-boys-with-tattoos way. And there’s a different look for each of your different moods, from slightly angsty to happy-go-lucky!

(3) Their voices are not bad at all, and each of them are different. (Harry = husky rocker; Zayn = R&B crooner; Liam = musical theater; etc.)

(4) Did I mention they’re adorable?

(5) And they totally ham it up for the camera.

(6) And, as the movie makes pretty clear, they’re not entitled Hollywood brats—they’re just dudes who would’ve ended up as a firefighter or a factory worker (Liam) or selling croissants out of the local bakery (Harry) if fame and fate (in the form of Simon Cowell) hadn’t stepped in.

(7) BONUS: great British accents (and an Irish accent, in Niall’s case). And who DOESN’T love a British accent?

OK, so I admit, all of that is pretty superficial. But there’s more.

(8) One Direction is a band that is a properly contemporary product, is completely self-aware of this fact, and fully cooperates with the conditions of its creation. (#culturecriticSWOON, right?!)

Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson all auditioned individually for the UK’s popular “X Factor” reality TV show in 2010, a singing competition kind of like “American Idol” (including the Simon Cowell component). They were all cut fairly early on—and then Simon, using some kind of sixth sense of celebrity, brought them all back on the show as a single unit; as that nineties throwback, the classic five-piece boy band.

Irresistible, right?

What pretty punims!

Subconsciously, Simon was tapping into something pretty profound: teenagers (as explained in my previous post) work well as groups. The social dynamic of a teenage band plays well off of itself, feeding its own cultural field. And in the perfect feedback loop, a generation of tweenage girls fell in reality-TV-era love. (What is the TV screen but a porous barrier after all, and one that we are now used to crossing with ease?) They took to professing their love in the best, loudest, and most lasting way they knew how: via Twitter and social feeds. Internet, meet tween culture and its stupendously powerful hive mentality. If teenagers are bad at individuality, tweens are even worse; and fueled by the reinforcing mechanism of the interwebs, the excessive, all-encompassing fandom of One Direction became nothing short of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And the direction of One Direction (don’t mind the pun) was, similarly, outlined by the fans that made the band… before the band could even really make itself. It was the girls who voted One Direction through the competition, even though the group ultimately came in third in the show. Most third-place finalists in reality TV fame competitions fall into anonymity just as quickly as they rose to insta-fame. But One Direction was a brand, not a name. And it had loyal customers—loyal customers who had inextricably tied their identities to the success of the boys, to the message of a modern-day boy band, to the image and sound of the group. They hadn’t even released a single, but they were already a guaranteed success.

It was these fans who made One Direction’s continued existence inevitable, and the continuity of their look and sound similarly predetermined. More than any other age group, these girls had access to and free time for imagining the One Direction world they wanted to build and live in. They had the emotional vulnerability to fall for five perfectly-proportioned British almost-boyfriends (I mean, have you met tween boys lately? They aren’t exactly heartthrobs), who existed just out of reach on the other side of their active Twitter handles and outtake videos.

In other words, this is a classic case of cultural co-production. The product is the world’s first billion-dollar boy band.

(Case in point: this epic fragrance ad, below, which is basically everything you need to know about 1D and their fan base, condensed into one minute of nonsensical but strangely alluring pseudo-sexual imagery):

STAY TUNED FOR Part 2 AND Part 3—because I literally cannot stop with the 1D lovin’!!!

On teenagers (& the field of cultural agency)

The other day I went to get a smoothie at a popular downtown smoothie bar in Santa Barbara. I (stupidly) went during lunchtime on a weekday. School around here has just started, and the place was packed with teenagers from the nearby high school.

Five years ago I would have thought that these kids—long-legged super-tan girls in their tiny cut-off shorts and Converse, guys in their skinny jeans and tanks and sun-bleached hair—were totally cool. They would have intimidated me, even as I was one of them (minus the long legs; I’ve always been short).

They still intimidate me.

What is it about adolescence that remains mysterious and foreign, even once we’ve gone through it? I knew I was like them once; I wore my eyeliner like that, talked in those shrill tones, clustered just as they did in a giggling group of five, each girl so careful of the way she stood. What changed about me? When, exactly, did I grow up? And why do teenagers now seem like an impenetrable and opaque species, their motives and thoughts distinct from anything I can now imagine, yet everything they do so clearly dictated by a group dynamic, each one of them hardly distinguishable from the rest? More importantly, would I have ever actually worn shorts that tiny at their age?

These are questions for the ages. I often wonder if I had been born at a different time how different I, too, would be—how much place and technology and fashion and cultural assimilation play into my personality, and how much of it is something I developed for myself. Or maybe everything we call “Self” is a reaction to the outside force of culture; nothing, after all, can be created in a void. I don’t know. I don’t feel like delving into the nature-nurture debate today.

Instead I was looking for the easy way out: a good quote to illustrate and theorize my thoughts. So I flipped open my boy Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production and landed by chance on this gem:

“It would be futile to search for the ultimate foundation of this ‘fundamental norm’ [‘cultural legitimacy’] within the field itself, since it resides in structures governed by powers other than the culturally legitimate; consequently, the functions objectively assigned to each category of producer and its products by its position in the field are always duplicated by the external functions objectively fulfilled through the accomplishment of its internal functions.”

Lost? That’s fine. Breaking it down, we have “teenagers these days” = the “fundamental norm” that creates “cultural legitimacy” within the field of adolescence —in other words, they are the producers and, simultaneously, the product of the field that they are positioned to act within, their functions both limited and dictated by their very identity as teenagers. (That is, they accomplish the “internal function” of “being teenagers” by fulfilling the “external function” of “looking like teenagers.”)

That was fun!

No, really, it explains a lot. The opacity of adolescents is a cultural identity production/performance—a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will. Teenagers seem weird to those of us who are no longer teens because we are, well, no longer teens. We no longer live and act in their field of cultural production. Comparing myself to the girls in the smoothie shop isn’t comparing apples to apples, or even apples to oranges. It’s apples to, I don’t know, stuffed animals. Different fields, different categories, different purposes, different everything. And difference, we know, is scary. That’s what’s so intimidating.

The lesson being: we move ceaselessly through invisible but all-powerful fields of cultural constructs as we age, changing and growing as we move from one to the next, shedding selves and taking up new ones to fit the space we enter into. Sometimes we fit comfortably; sometimes it’s a squeeze. Either way, it’s not always under our control. (At least not until we get older, have access to a broader variety of fields, and can choose where we want to situate ourselves. Teenagers in small towns don’t generally have that luxury.)

Not that I’m excusing the teenagers for anything. I will never tolerate up-talking.

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.


(…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!)

On “the bling ring”

Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” is not fun to watch.

Maybe it’s because it’s based on real events: many of the lines are taken from actual recordings. This group of teenagers actually stole over $3 million of clothes, jewelry, cash, and drugs from the L.A. homes of celebrities. It actually happened, as absurd as it seems.

Maybe it’s because we know how it ends: the kids get caught and arrested.

Maybe, though, it’s mainly so disturbing to see because it’s unflinchingly true in its depiction of kids these days—myself included. We may not be thieves, but is our self-aggrandizing self-branding any less criminal in its shallowness?

In one scene, Emma Watson and her cohort of pretty young things sit at a booth in a glitzy downtown club, messing around with their phones and taking the occasional duck-faced selfie as they down their bottle service. Their smiles flash on and off with the cameras. To us in the movie audience, their studied aloofness comes off as uncomfortable boredom. They don’t talk, except to say “You look hot” or “Oh my god, there’s Kirsten Dunst” or “Get your drink in the pic!”

And the next day? “You were SO drunk last night.” A character uploads the pictures to Facebook and smiles: that was fun—or so it looks, in its digital encasement. Smoking cigarettes at the beach, they look less “cool” than “teenager-trying-to-be-cool”: the ripped jeans, exposed abs, careful poses. In dialogue, the vocabulary doesn’t develop much beyond “sweet,” “sick,” “wow,” “I’m down.” Neither do the characters.

None of us want to think that we are like these kids: that we would steal with impunity, play with other people’s money like a toy, treat the law like a school rule we can nonchalantly break. But Coppola reminds us that it’s not what they did, but who they were, that is most chilling. The characters never develop because there isn’t anything there to begin with. The movie isn’t a parody of this California subculture because there’s no substance to draw from. Instead it’s a straight-up reflection: this is what your life looks like, because all you care about is what it looks like. You live in an echo chamber of pretty things. Better Instagram it.

Most critics have emphasized the celebrity-obsession that the movie highlights, but the “celebrity culture” wasn’t what hit me (even with the documentary-like clips of paparazzi footage and TMZ news items and Facebook feeds). No: I squirmed in my seat because I’ve had those empty conversations, felt that hit of joy from looking at the Facebook pictures, struck those same poses while reclining in a club’s booth, drink in hand. On Instagram the next day, we look good, and our social network feedback loops reinforce what a fun time we had.

So why isn’t “The Bling Ring” fun to watch? Maybe it’s because just like the kids in the movie, we weren’t actually having fun.