Sunday, February 18, 2018

Anatomy of a troll: why the yoga pants story is a Work of Art

Some texts demand close readings, and none more so than today's NYT op-ed by Honor Jones, "Why Yoga Pants Are Bad for Women." First, we have the author: not, as some surmised, a pseudonym. But it's the piece itself that I can't put aside. By design, no doubt, but, just, wow. Nearly a thousand comments! (Including from the requisite dude who doesn't care about fashion, doesn't care so much that he simply had to comment on a fashion article. Maybe several variations - haven't combed through all 910.) A nerve was, as they say, hit.

As a traditional op-ed, it's... not the greatest. It's not urgent, not topical, not consistent, but *is* mean-spirited. The premise - "Whatever happened to sweatpants?" - falls apart instantly, upon noticing that lots of people these days do indeed wear sweatpants, just not on the elliptical machine because they're too warm for that activity. 

As a trolling, 2018 NYT op-ed page installment, however, it is magnificent. I have this compelling, inexplicable need to pinpoint why. Here goes:

Feelings journalism:

"I got on the elliptical. A few women gave me funny looks. Maybe they felt sorry for me, or maybe they were concerned that my loose pants were going to get tangled in the machine’s gears. Men didn’t look at me at all."

What we're getting, to be clear, is not a report on something that happened. We're getting the author's feelings about others' feelings about her, as she imagines them. Projection, in other words. Like the original viral (also New Years-ish-themed!) yoga-class hate-read (the one in xoJane), we have a story built around one person's private anxieties, but presented as if offering the views of actual other people. I don't do yoga - maybe it lends itself to this? At any rate, feelings journalism is outrage-bait, because the reader immediately sees through the rhetoric and is like, you don't actually know what these other people are thinking, hmm!

A forced feminist thesis:

"It’s not good manners for women to tell other women how to dress; that’s the job of male fashion photographers."

This is, I think, the key to the text. Jones is making a feminist case for women telling other women they're dressed all wrong. Because... well, because it's a woman saying it, and because it's kind of like high heels, except it isn't. The problem - which is to say, the genius - is that yoga pants aren't uncomfortable, or some sort of tax on being a woman. They're just... leggings, give or take, which more men would wear if this were socially acceptable. "We aren’t wearing these workout clothes because they’re cooler or more comfortable. [...] We’re wearing them because they’re sexy." 

Except, are we? If this is the Very Enlightened Feminist Case Against Yoga Pants, why does Jones refers to them as "pants that [...] threaten to show every dimple and roll in every woman over 30"? Is the issue that women shouldn't try to look hot at the gym, or - and how exactly is this feminist? - that women are trying and failing

But the over-30 addition is just part of the sinister genius of the op-ed. How many NYT readers (or others who come across the article) are women, over 30, who own stretch pants? Add to that trillion the men with opinions on stretch pants on women of various ages and physiques, and there you have it.

Sartorial side note: there was a time when leggings showed everything, but the technology has improved, which may explain why women are all wearing yoga pants these days.

#MeToo, misunderstood:

"We felt we had to look hot on dates — a given. We felt we had to look hot at the office — problematic. But now we’ve internalized the idea that we have to look hot at the gym? Give me a break. The gym is one of the few places where we’re supposed to be able to focus on how our bodies feel, not just on how they look. We need to remember that. Sweatpants can help."

This brings up an interesting angle: Why not concentrate your spending - and your primping - on gymwear? Maybe we've finally gotten it right - office clothes can be purchased for not much money at H&M or Uniqlo or whatever (black slacks, navy sweater, done), whereas the outfits worn in the setting that's both me-time (or me-time-adjacent) and a place where it's (relatively) OK to flirt (again, compared with at work; caveat that I've never actually belonged to a gym, and have no idea) are the ones you really save up for. Maybe leggings should cost more than blazers! In the name of work-life balance!

But what we're looking at here is, it's like the ukelele video. Choosing to mention the need to look hot at work, in a piece not really about that, but offering up only an ironic "problematic" as commentary, is... problematic! Which is, I think, the point.


"Frankly, I’m annoyed by the whole booming industry around women’s exercise..."

Is this an article about women wearing the wrong thing to the gym, or about it being wrong to be at the gym in the first place? 

Personal-finance judginess:

Telling people they're paying too much for X is just always always always irritating. You can't know that someone with $100 yoga pants didn't save up for those, or that this is somehow evidence of financial irresponsibility. Also? There are a whole lot of cheapo leggings out there, so the fact that a woman is wearing stretchy pants doesn't mean she's wearing those stretchy pants. And sales exist, as do thrift stores. As do people who quite simply knowingly pay a lot for workout wear because they want to, what's it to her???

The 2016 election:

"Pantsuits had a moment, back in 2016. I think women are ready to give them another chance."

Hillary! No troll is complete without the opportunity to spark a Twitter debate over whether Bernie would have, if given the chance, won.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The Good, the Bad, and the rest

It's becoming something of a truism, even among those who support it, that #MeToo needs to make room for nuance. Once the question moved beyond whether Harvey Weinstein was the worst (I mean, clearly?), it started to be clear that the way ahead couldn't be declaring half the population equally the worst, let alone extending that worst-ness assessment to all women who fail to get it right on a proper schedule.

Unfortunately, there's a pronounced lack of nuance on the ostensibly pro-nuance side. Not always, but... often. Arguments against purity politics have this way of overstating exactly what happens when otherwise progressive types disagree on one point or other. The reality is bad enough; there's no need to claim it's worse than it is. (Unless that claim has become your brand; more on that in a moment.)

Witness this, one of the good (if not Good) parts of Katie Roiphe's notorious Harper's essay*:

Part of what bothers many of the people I talked to is the tone of moral purity. As a culture, we seem to be in the midst of dividing ourselves into the flawless and the fallen, the morally correct and the damned.
Yes. Also yes:
To hold a lot of opposites in our minds seems to be what the moment calls for, to tolerate and be honest about the ambiguities. If we are going through a true reckoning, there should be space for more authentically diverging points of view, a full range of feelings, space to hash through what is and is not sexual misconduct, which is an important and genuinely confusing question about which reasonable people can and will disagree.
And yet, where's the nuance in this pro-nuance manifesto? Roiphe dwells on "thought policing," and tends towards hyperbole, to put it mildly. (A New Republic article guilty at most of being a bit of-the-moment and preaching-to-the-converted has, to Roiphe's ears, "the friendly yet threatening tone of a low-level secret policeman in a new totalitarian state.") She leads with the refusal of her sources to speak on the record, concluding that this is because questioning conventional feminist wisdom on #MeToo leads to banishment. Which... how could it, when so many high-profile backlash pieces have appeared?

How could Roiphe conclude anything greater from the reticence of her sources, when as she herself acknowledges, hers was an unusual case: Justified concern that her piece would be outing the identity of the "Shitty Media Men" document's creator, along with widespread knowledge of where Roiphe stands on this issue, meant that she wasn't simply a reporter looking to see which opinions were out there. To speak to Roiphe on the record meant something beyond the usual risk of having one's words quoted out of context. Nuance here, I should think, would require proportionate annoyance or anger at male misbehavior as well as a proportionate response to progressive sanctimony, which is not in fact totalitarianism.

And yet, and yet, while witch-hunt rhetoric overstates the case; confuses matters; and has this way of presenting the very powerful as the only real victims... there is an expected stance on everything (and everyone) these days, and if you don't agree to it, you risk something. But what, exactly? 

That's where it gets tricky. The fear of being ostracized often exceeds the reality of that threat. The pain caused by being called garbage on Twitter - and please please please read Katie Herzog on this phenomenon - can exceed the power of the 20 people who've just declared you the worst. 

There's a psychic toll from a culture where you're Good or Bad, and forever at the risk of slipping into the wrong category. Yes, even if you're someone who in theory stands to gain clicks or book sales from causing controversy, but goodness knows, especially if you're not. Also! Given what writing pays, it's, not a long shot that someone who stands to gain clicks, even book sales, from controversy could also lose their livelihood from the same.

As I see it, the goal here shouldn't be praising nuance for its own sake. It's that a Good vs Bad framework leaves a vacuum for the (genuinely) Bad, as well as for qualm-less profiteers prepared to embrace Unapologetic The Worst status in exchange for such things as Patreon income or the US presidency.

*My other, sleepily-expressed thoughts on the piece:

-Yes, it's odd that someone not used to using Twitter is claiming expertise on Twitter, and yes, it's possible to read too much into individual tweets, but no, it's not inherently bad journalism to treat public tweets by professional writers as writing they have done, and to quote it and respond to it.

-Why couldn't the piece have been what it at first seemed like it would be about, namely about how women somehow wind up the ones held accountable (in this case, via purity-politics demands) for men's misbehavior? (Already - I promise - a somewhat controversial stance.) Why the men-are-the-real-victims direction?

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Skincare overanalysis overanalyzed

A writer questioned the skincare craze, and Twitter - OK, a good % of the women writers I follow on Twitter, plus a couple of early, quick-take articles backlashing the backlash - let this writer know that she'd been way off. Easy for a young woman (the writer is, apparently, young) to write something like that! And it's sexist to dismiss pursuits just because women enjoy them! And dismissing skincare as evil toxic chemicals is anti-science! Can't anyone have fun?

There were problems with the original piece, most notably the choice to snark at the skin quality of skin-routine-havers. That said, the response - or, rather, the skewed version of it my 34-year-old self was getting - struck me as overshooting the mark. Or maybe not that exactly - more like, the flaws of that specific article segued a bit too easily into a defense of skincare itself. Which... maybe doesn't need defending? Or maybe does? Gah!

To write about skincare (which I've been doing, here and there, for... long enough that my age is showing), you sort of have to situate yourself. If I say I'm meh about skincare, but don't say who I am, I'm a clear-skinned 20-year-old with no stressful life events to speak of. So allow me to gaze in the mirror and offer you a glimpse of My Skin, as of January 30th, 2018:

Now that I'm ancient and live in the arctic, I use a facial moisturizer. It's this one. For soap, this one. I also own, but never remember to use, a foaming face wash from Japan via Markham. I do not - should, but I don't - wear sunscreen in winter, in Toronto, under my giant hat-and-hood combination. In summer, yes - it's a Vichy stick. Because I wear makeup - eyeliner, sometimes mascara, concealer, sometimes that Glossier eyebrow mascara because who am I to judge - I also use eye makeup remover. Which is... it, I think? Where this puts me on the maintenance-ness spectrum isn't so clear.

Why I don't have (much of) a skincare routine is less about having good skin (more on that in a moment) than about having complicated hair. There's only so much time and $$ I'm willing-and-able to throw at looking like the best-looking 34-year-old 5'2" woman I possibly can. I chose hair, or maybe hair chose me. Between a natural hair texture described in countless essays by my fellow Ashkenazi ladies (who rarely mention their ethnicity in these pieces, lest that lead down the sinkhole of discussing what "Jewish" hair can mean, when not all Jewish women have it, I know, I know) and an immature devotion to dyeing my hair all different ways, there's just sort of a lot going on, hair-product-and-equipment-wise, at any given time. That means various conditioners and hair products in rotation, plus a recent trip to a salon to (this is embarrassing) fix the ombré I thought I could do myself but as it turned out, no. (My hair, for the record, isn't orange-tipped anymore.) Plus a hair dryer, hair iron, plus a somewhat-coveted hair-iron brush thingy.

Point being: I'm in zero position to tell other women a) that I'm sure their skin looks just fine, what are they worrying about, or b) that skincare, because I don't personally get much out of it, couldn't possibly be fun. I don't like how I look with unstyled hair. I also enjoy doing my hair! Both! Self-hatred? Self-care? Self-something; I'm quite certain no one else is losing sleep over what my hair is up to.

So it's partly a hair thing, but also... I suppose I do think skincare is - for me - fairly pointless. Not pointless because I have no complaints in that area - other stuff too, but most saliently, I'm 34! and I look 34! and our society demands women look under 25! I do not lead a stress-free existence! - but because I'm not convinced any intervention I could afford, and feel OK with, would do anything other than cause breakouts. I don't doubt that there are interventions that would remove every enumerable feature that makes me look 10 years older than I did 10 years ago - how could I doubt this when half the storefronts in my part of Toronto sell just that service? It's that I'm cynical and am convinced the women whose public personas have them looking flawless from $10 serums may well use those serums but look the way they do for other, more expensive (injectable) reasons.

(If I find I'm looking a bit pale and are-you-feeling-ok, I'm so easy-breezy that I don't use glow-inflecting skincare products... but instead go with the obviously much nobler option of a Charlotte Gainsbourg for NARS Multiple stick. Obviously. And - need this be stated? - if in ten years my home resembles a Shoppers Drug Mart parapharmacie aisle, never mind any of what I just said...)

What gets to me about skincare, then, isn't skincare routines themselves (which, again, I get it, even if I don't get it), but the increasing conflation of this one thing with conventional femininity, and more specifically, with a sort of humility. There's this odd shame in not going in for this, in not treating your skin as an ever-perfectable part of yourself. It's as if, if you're not really into skincare these days, it's because you think you're all that, or, conversely, because you don't value yourself enough to establish once and for all, and on your own face, what exactly is a retinoid.

To which one might say, skincare fans aren't asking others to care if they don't! Which, argh, it's tricky. Yes, it's annoying when non-hobbyists, in any area, make a bit thing about their indifference. But it's also the case that baseline expectations on what normal self-presentation requires can ramp up, and that there's this whole industry demanding that women, well, ramp up. And if the only thing that can be said about skincare routines is that it's rude to insult those who have them - which it is - where does that ramping-up stop?

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Remember the Food Movement?

Sara Mojtehedzadeh and Brendan Kennedy's Toronto Star exposé of a Toronto-area bread factory is great journalism. Great for so many reasons, but here's a less-obvious one: it's about the factory, not the imagined consumer of factory-produced bread. It's not that there isn't any connection made in the piece between factory conditions and consumption, but it's an aside, early on: "These may well be the croissants you eat for breakfast." The point of the article is not to make you, the individual possible-croissant-consuming reader, more closely examine your breakfast choices. It's about labor conditions and - as the headline "Undercover in Temp Nation" suggests - the structure of today's economy. That bread is an everyday item we're all familiar with is a way of bringing the reader in. The essential, though, is what happens in the factory where Mojtehedzadeh works undercover:

No one tells me where fire extinguishers or exits are. Another temp confides she didn’t buy safety shoes, which cost the equivalent of a day’s wages. She makes it through the screening anyway. 
The story is about injury, death, and shady business practices at bread factories. The implicit fix the article demands involves changes to, and increased enforcement of, labor law. There's no suggestion whatsoever that the source of the issue is the modern consumer, demanding bread produced in a factory. No cultural archetype posited as The Bad Croissant-Consumer, to be shamed either for being fancy, bourgeois, and croissant-nibbling, or, conversely, for being lower-class and not getting an artisanal-enough croissant (or for having processed carbs to begin with). Nope, the (correct) assumption underlying the piece is that people of all sorts eat packaged bread; that eating is a necessity; and that the issue is how the people producing that bread are treated. It's a story about consumer products, but not about consumption.

It's my sense that ever since the 2016 election, the food movement - and with it, the more general movement to consider individual (posh) consumer choices the ultimate political act - has been kaput. Yes, food is still political. But the thing where status as a good person hinged on choosing spelt over quinoa, or avoiding winter asparagus, that thing is, for better or worse, over. (Better because it was silly, worse because it's a sign of dire times that silly preoccupations get forgotten.)

It feels like ancient history, but there was a time when I felt a bit guilty about my grocery habits. Not for sometimes overspending on cheese (that I still sometimes do, and still feel guilty about), but for ignoring The Rules. Rules laid out by various prophets: Use only the freshest, most local, most seasonal, or else. Or else what? The concern was always a bit vague, but very much rooted in something ethical.

It wasn't 'clean eating' (which persists, as the euphemism for dieting it always was), but this arbitrary dividing line between real food and fake, where authenticity was measured by inconvenience. Inconvenience, and something a bit more sinister, but always between-the-lines: certain food could be trusted (sourced ingredients), whereas other food - in particular, ethnic food - could not. Everything, to be trusted, had to be served to you by a white, flannel-clad, bearded hipster, at a place with farms listed on the menu. This excluded all dining establishments and grocery options falling under the category once problematically referred to as "ethnic." Oh, but Scandinavian food, that was OK. (Gee, I wonder why the food movement as it once was feels passé?)

While the writing itself would often be in the third-person plural, it was clear that a "we" including food writers weren't buying packaged food at supermarkets - those other people were. "We" were spending 60 hours a week sourcing ingredients at Berkeley farmers markets, at Cobble Hill fishmongers (and to be fair, it is a good fishmonger). Except who were "we," anyway? Much was made of food and privilege - of how not everyone is able to live off kale and locally-sourced squab or whatever. But of those who could, how many ever were?

There was also this eternal pre-food-movement mother, the one who foolishly fed her kids supermarket foods, and who didn't value time-consuming food prep the way her son (there, generally, there was a son) the food writer would. Remember that? That was something.

Individual ingredients were declared problematic, the way individual celebrities (and internet randos) are these days. Everything was scary, in this semi-/pseudoscientific way. Tomatoes sprayed to look red, and farmed salmon treated in some way to be pink! Did you know that asparagus came from Chile? Did you? Exposés about how packaged food was engineered to... taste good, a fact presented as if inherently sinister.

From the prophets trickled down an aesthetic, but an aesthetic you could ignore at your own risk - if properly trained, you would think a Rules-meeting diet was the most delicious. There was no subjectivity to this, no possibility that anyone might actually honest-to-goodness prefer certain packaged foods to fresh, or value time over from-scratch preparations. Genuine nutritional concerns (why is sugar added to so many packaged foods?) mixed with aesthetic ones (much of locavorism), as well as ones that were clearly pointing the way to worse eating habits.

When I thought about this rationally, The Rules made little sense: wasn't it a better idea to eat less (or no) meat, rather than locavoring one's way through traceable steak dinners? Wasn't purism re: local/seasonal inhibiting vegetable consumption, if it left grocery-shoppers feeling guilty for buying the only vegetables actually available to them, for months on end, or at all? But most of all: if there were issues with the food system - there were! there are! - why was the proposed solution a change in individual consumer behavior? I found the whole thing irritating at best, pseudoscientific as well as casually sexist and xenophobic. But it still, somehow, led to this nagging sense of guilt, one I can't say has entered my mind in ages.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The pre-Moment moment

I'm thinking of a time that seems long-lost, but was really just a few months ago. The moment before The Moment. During that age, a vision of sex-positivity had emerged that seemed - in practice but not on paper - distinctly focused on giving straight men things they'd always wanted, and had indeed once had, before pesky feminists got in the way. Specifically: sex-positivity meant open relationships (for men; extended to women only if the men in question go for that), sexual adventure, threesomes (with two women). Anything-goes in theory; in practice, anything the people in society with the power over how things go demand. The freedom to be sexual, as long as being sexual involved being that model from that music video, being quoted as saying your latest photographed nudity was about empowerment.

It could seem, then, as if a pre-feminist men's utopia was just getting recast in new terms. As long as antiquated - that is, gendered - language (the "philanderer," say) was studiously avoided, we (intentionally vague "we") were expected to forget about who - for all sorts of reasons, including culture and economics - generally winds up in which role, who's the powerful, who's the passive or screwed-over. As long as there was a nod to the existence of individual women making the most of the new order, as long as there was the occasional Guardian story about a woman with ten boyfriends, that was - or was meant to be - enough.

For me, this all culminates with a Savage Lovecast call, from the immediate pre-Weinstein/#MeToo moment: A young man called in to say that a middle-aged male college professor of his had just asked out his female friend, a recent college grad. Eww! was the caller's thinking. She's just 22! (Or 21. Or 23. Something like that.) The caller was distraught because he'd considered this prof a real intellectual hero. How could A Great like professor whatshisname do something so crude, so tacky, as to ask out a girl he's friends with?

Dan Savage's answer - about consenting adults, the "campsite rule" (Savage's wise suggestion that in age-gap relationships, the older partner leave the younger better than they'd found them), and the possibility that there's something in it for the younger partner as well - struck me as technically right but... incomplete. Yes, there was something up with the caller, with his notions about sexuality (why wouldn't a prof exist as a human being, outside the classroom?). Yes, a 22-year-old college graduate is an adult, not a (college) student, and as fair-game for an aging prof to hit on as a random 50-year-old, 90-year-old, etc. And yes, it sure did between-the-lines seem as if the caller wanted to date his same-age friend, and was squicked out not so much by the prof but by the mere fact of another man hitting on the woman he wanted for himself.

But was that the end of the story? Consenting-adults - well, potentially consenting, assuming she returned his interest - and therefore, no one's business but theirs?

There seemed to be a missing piece: There, to my ears, something not great about the situation, but what? What language was there for describing a situation at once OK and not OK? OK as in, yes, consenting adults, we should wish these two people (assuming the woman was interested) all the happiness in the world. Not OK as in, a clichéd scenario like that, playing out for the trillionth time, points to unpleasant things about sexism and power structures. It's OK that this prof asked out this former student; no one's individual, consensual relationships should be judged on the basis of whether they further a progressive cause. But it's not OK that 'powerful older man pursues much-younger woman' is the love story. Which, look, it is, whether it's being celebrated or condemned. Not the only one that's out there in the world - hardly! - but the only one that reliably, and across genre, sells.

A letter to an advice column is always going to be about real people, but also archetypes. And think of it like this: How many Great Genius professors - recognized as such by students of all genders, are middle-aged women? But also (and this gets at why the story was squicky): How many male students must deal with the anxiety of not knowing whether their (female) professors are helping them as educators, or are after something more?

Now what we have is pushback that goes... not too far, exactly, but in sort of the wrong direction. Is it predatory that a pushing-50 movie director has started dating one mid-20s woman after breaking up with another? Is it sinister that a 30-something male comedian was even going on a date with a 20-something female fan in the first place?

I don't think it makes a drop of sense to use the language of abuse to discuss consensual relationships that evoke, by their mere existence, broader unjust structures. But maybe don't ignore those structures, either? Maybe don't treat it as sex-negativity - or as evidence that women just plain don't experience desire because hormones - to mention and challenge the existence of these structures.? I don't know exactly which language is necessary, so platitudes about nuance and middle-ground and so forth will, for now, have to suffice.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The straight-lady non-bleakness manifesto you have been waiting for

What is female heterosexuality, in the age of #MeToo? It strikes me that we're stuck, as a culture, in "an evening that a woman in her early 20s spends with a man in his 30s." Time stands still at that specific life stage, at the moment when a straight (or straight-relationship-having) woman is out in the world, very desirable to others but not quite sure what she herself wants. Also, I suppose, in a specific cultural situation - the young woman is probably either a college student or a recent grad pursuing a glamorous profession, but still at the very lowest rungs. The wide range of women's romantic experiences (real or imagined) that don't fall into that framework are ignored.

Once the ubiquitous Story shifted from Weinstein and the truly vile (or, in a way, even before), it became this odd thing where entertainment narratives about powerful men seducing sheltered women got reinvented as something for everyone to be very concerned about, even if the genuinely very-concerned are a handful of earnest feminists on Twitter, and 99.99% of those following these stories are titillated or just entertained. How much of the Story is about a collective sense that the disappointing-and-worse encounters experienced by early-20s women of a certain class are among the more dire feminist causes has to do with a (justified I think!) sense that they matter, and how much is about the fact that this demographic of women plus this topic will get clicks?

But beyond this, there's a piece missing when it comes to how female sexuality itself gets discussed. There is, of course, the focus on consent, which is both necessary and something that can make it seem as though female heterosexuality consists of sometimes agreeing to what a man has suggested. Add "enthusiastic" to "consent" and what you get is a woman very happy to have said yes to acts suggested by a man, a man who had, initially, shown interest in her, before she'd had a chance to think about him either way. There's increasing understanding about the need to go beyond mere consent, which is a start. And I think B.D. McClay is onto something when she examines why female desire gets left out of the equation:

The problem is that you can't say yes in a world in which your yes is presumed until someone gets a no, just as you can't say no and be understood if no is the only word you're permitted. You can't express desire to a partner who can understand your desire only in terms of acquiescence.

There's a challenge, though - a couple of them, actually - as long as this topic stays in the realm of arguments. First has to do with the sheer bleakness of female heterosexuality as presented even in opinion-writing I agree with (or have, for that matter, written myself.) It's not clear what to do, in opinion-land, with the existence of female desire for men. Is it a real pity? How can it be, when it is, for so many women, a source of so much joy? Or, at least, for some women. For a non-zero number of women, is the most I could state with absolute confidence. Which... gets, in turn, to the problem with any conversation about what it means to be a member of an enormous category such as 'straight women.' What does it mean, then?

For some women who so identify, straightness doubtless is about not feeling drawn to women sexually, and just sort of going along with convention - boyfriend, husband, settling down. For others, it's closer to what (some) gay men experience, and involves intense desire for men. (A sort of wiring that doesn't magically disappear upon encountering male awfulness of the #MeToo variety.) For others still, somewhere in between, or something else entirely. There's also a range in how affected individual women are by cultural scripts. It's possible to receive all those many cultural messages about who has which role, who wants what, and then go ahead and just... not live your life like that.

But I - like everyone else I suppose - have trouble believing my idiosyncratic thoughts about everything don't have broader political applicability. And really, wouldn't it be better if The Moment assumed that female heterosexuality consisted of something more than hoping the men life throws at you aren't terrible? Wouldn't recognizing I mean really recognizing the existence of women's desire for men - including for men who may not desire them back - help out in terms of banishing, once and for all, the foolish, dangerous myth that with enough persuasion (or force), any woman would want to have sex with any man? It couldn't hurt, is all I'm saying.

Friday, January 12, 2018

How to teach French if you are not and never will be Inès de la Fressange

A decade ago, I began teaching French classes. Also began teaching, period. I was 24, and arrived at the role petrified. I was, most importantly, Not A Theater Person. Language-teaching, I learned, was a performance, above and beyond how teaching is generally. How was I going to do this?! How was I - someone who had applied to history grad school but gotten into French grad school instead (long story), who had not specifically sought out the job of French teacher but who had somehow landed on the track where studying French history involved funding gained through teaching conjugations - how was I going to not just teach conjugations but do so in a way that would wow an audience? That anxiety sorted itself out easily enough, and more quickly than I'd have guessed. I just sort of go into teaching mode, not sure exactly how I do this, but it happens. All that my natural non-theatricalness means is that I need to sort of zone out in a chair for a while after doing so.

But my big anxiety, early on, was that I'm not French. Not a native French speaker, but also, not French. At NYU, it was my impression that there was a lot of value placed on being French. (Why did I have this impression? Neurosis, maybe, but also: A professor once told me how good the French was of one of my classmates... a classmate who happened to be - as we both knew full well - French. As if my own then-deficiencies in ease with the language could be fixed, if only I followed that classmate's example.) French classmates with perfect French and shakier English were (or this was my impression) revered for the thoroughness of their Frenchness. Ease in English was like white sneakers (pre-Phoebe Philo): not chic.

I, meanwhile, was in a bit of a bind. I'd gotten into grad school on the basis of being good-enough at the French itself and stronger on writing papers in English about texts I'd read in French. But all attempts at improving my non-nervous-breakdown-having while speaking French were impeded by the fact that I associated the language with an unrealizable goal: being and having always been French.

This sense of failure as a non-French person manifested itself most dramatically in my feelings re: teaching. While the job title was TA, it was always either teaching or co-teaching a course, and here was my big fear: What if a student asks me something I don't know? There's nothing like fixating on this, and more specifically, fixating on how if this were to happen, it would be the end of the world, to guarantee that when students would ask me about words I did know, and I'd freeze and suggest they consult the dictionary that they were ostensibly meant to use in class in cases like that regardless. (The great "poubelle" incident of 2007. How do you say garbage can? How indeed.)

It's only in the past year or so that I've come to realize the following: There are advantages to teaching a language as a non-native speaker. I know, I mean I know, that French proficiency is a skill that can be learned. I know that there's no shame in arriving at French not knowing the gender of new-to-you nouns. And I know that it's entirely possible to communicate in French while still sounding identifiably, to a knowledgeable ear, like a non-native speaker of the language. Yes, pronunciation is important. But the end goal - at least in most French language classes - isn't to turn everyone, no matter their ear, into one of the handful of people who can speak a foreign language and genuinely convince everyone, including the Académie Française, that this language was their first.

I credit this revelation to a bunch of things, but partly to the fact that I'm now teaching French in Canada. There's no expectation here that someone teaching French - native speaker or not - is from Europe as well as give-or-take Inès de la Fressange. That, and working in a French department in a bilingual country means I'm actually using French, at work, to an extent I never was at NYU. In any case, these days, when I teach French, I no longer feel the emotional need to apologize to the class for having not grown up in the 7th Arrondissement.

Monday, December 25, 2017

"Kantaro"'s surreal relatability

I have a new favorite television program, and by "television" I mean Canadian Netflix. "Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman," which I'm somewhere in the middle of, tells a story at once universal and highly specific. The highly specific first: it's about a Japanese businessman who gets his sales visits (to bookstores) done as quickly as possible, so as to try desserts in cafés near wherever those visits happen to have taken him. When he arrives at the dessert place, a mildly NSFW but ultimately more suggestive than literal scene ensues: eyes rolled back, syrup splashed, and then, inevitably, his head transforms into the (main ingredient of the) dessert in question. After each visit, he writes on a pseudonymous blog about the culinary experience.

The drama comes from the possibility that Kantaro will get found out at work for slacking off while on the clock. Much suspension of disbelief is needed, because a) he's the best salesperson, so maybe they don't care that he's eating a snack here and there, even if snacking for him evidently requires table service?, but also b) dude could just, like, schedule his blog posts, so it's not obvious where and when he's posting, with the times and places lining up with his sales visits.

So fine, this much is specific: we are not, all of us, Tokyo salesmen with distinctive eyebrows, who reach heights of ecstasy when eating traditional Japanese bean-based desserts.

The universal: who doesn't use Yelp or Google Maps or just a knowledge of whichever area to go eat the most delicious thing near whichever work task? Who doesn't get a doctorate in French in order to eat market cheese and croissants and other delicacies readily affordable even to a grad student, the trick being just to get to Paris in the first place? Who wouldn't choose to live and work near a dreamscape Toronto East Asian food corridor, with a Japanese convenience store in the back of a ramen shop, an H-Mart, and (at least) two amazing izakayas? Who doesn't order a bowl of scallion noodles at a Shanghai-style restaurant and then feel the need to recite exactly what is making the food so exquisite?

I can't quite imagine being as thrilled as he is (or to be honest, thrilled at all) about the prospect of a melon-flavored shaved ice, but replace "melon-flavored shaved ice" with "crema bomboloni" and I see where he's coming from. What makes Kantaro so great is, he's not a foodie in the sense of, he's sharing photos of food on social media for status purposes. He's genuinely thrilled with everything he's eaten, to the point where you're sometimes a little worried about him, and wondering if he should maybe keep a KitKat or something on hand, if the cravings are too much.

In some sense the show isn't even about food - it's about the tension between fun and responsibility, and about the way having just enough time to go do something makes whatever it is that much more enjoyable. In a really boring sense, it's a show about time management - the way that if you're trying to get something big accomplished, it's paradoxically easier to have a routine than to have all the time in the world. Except... it's totally about food.

Which brings me to maybe my biggest question about the show, which is whether Kantaro ever eats... meals. Anything savory? Ever? Or does he have regular meals but feel indifferent to them?

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Why 'Ban Men' is not the answer

When Dan Savage declares himself "done with men" in a recent column, it would be a stretch to take that literally. (If nothing else, he is a man, and can't be done with himself.) But when straight or bi or otherwise somewhat-into-men-identified women make declarations along those lines, this is taken seriously. (As in the letter Savage is responding to!) Being done-with-men is... it's not a thing, exactly, so much as an ambient mood. Every day, a new story emerges about another of those men. Men in positions of power being awful. The stories are so plentiful that today, a man I'd actually encountered, in person, in a professional situation, is on the list. (I'd thought I was sufficiently out of the loop that this couldn't happen, but a brief brush with media-stuff is apparently enough.) And if you yourself are not a man, you do have that option, in the abstract at least. No men, none, done with them.

The zeitgeist, then, seems headed towards a world without men - as a dream, if not, of course, a reality. As a millennial, feminist woman, one who has authored countless think-pieces, a New Yorker living in Toronto, a woman who owns a Glossier highlighter for crying out loud, I'm the target audience for women-only spaces, but also for a very modern sexuality that allows women to just sort of opt out of men. Ban men! Men are the worst. I know I should agree to this. And I don't lack for personal experience of certain men - men I knew personally, men in public spaces - being the worst. But... yeah.

That women - some women? most women? - seek out sex with men, seek out sexually charged interactions with men, find men desirable, have partners who are men (without finding their partner's gender a drawback) becomes this lost detail. That a woman would actually want men, and would admit to this, at a time like this, is... passé? problematic? It's an admission that can be made, if at all, with a regretful tone, with this sort of, ugh what a shame, this can't be turned off. That there's any sort of positive joy in attraction to men is taboo.

The "joy" aspect might seem like a side note: What does the female pursuit of pleasure have to do with the far more pressing concern of female victimhood? (Worse: it may come across as nostalgia for old-time office 'flirtation' of the sort that consisted of what is today rightly understood as sexual harassment.) This is why it's important to see that women's desire for men and sexist oppression are intertwined. The expectation of female passivity in hetero relationships is what gives us the rom-com narrative - repeated in real-life (if embellished) examples such as newspaper wedding announcements - where a woman was indifferent to some man in her life, until he pursued her and persuaded her to get past her apathy or even revulsion. Also the pick-up artist myth that every woman is a strategy away from consent.

Female heterosexuality is understood - as I've mentioned before, likely on WWPD - not as a sexual orientation but as a lack thereof. As conventionality. As basic-ness. As agreeability. Which, I mean, I see how it can look that way - the curious privilege, as a woman, of wanting the gender one is expected to want is that one gets to play-act that role - but a moment's reflection on how teen girls (who are for various reasons that would themselves be a post largely exempt from those expectations) respond to heartthrobs suggests that straight and bi women are, yup, attracted to men.

If we were to acknowledge that women want, and more specifically, that women have desires other than being thought hot and available while 22, by men at least two decades their senior, that would... well, that would be at least as dangerous to patriarchy as the conceptual banning of men.

While there may be differences in exactly how men and women - as well as those of varying testosterone levels - experience desire, it's a mistake to imagine (or to infer from the trans man's testosterone anecdote in Savage's post, a story I'd seen somewhere else recently as well - maybe The Rebel Sell?) that women could take or leave the people they're drawn to. It's a mistake - or a fantasy? to think of female desire as the desire for, at best, a very special friend. It's a dangerous mistake, because it leads to a mistaken understanding (see also) of exactly why it is that the villain in nearly all of these cases is a dude. It leads to imagining the reason there are male but not female Weinsteins is that men, but not women, want. As versus that societal power dynamics are such that (some) men are led to believe wanting=getting, while all women are aware that wanting and acting on it entails risk. Risks of all sorts - of violence, of unwanted pregnancy, of ruined reputations, this is all old news.

But there's another risk, which is of falling into the category of... undesirable. The Woman is meant to be constantly rebuffing advances, not pursuing and - some of the time - getting shot down. A woman who pursues is one who has made peace with the fact that not everyone finds her attractive. Whereas a woman who doesn't pursue? She can live in the belief that the world's straight men are divided between those who definitely want her and those who are simply too respectful (or intimidated, or busy with work...) to express their desires for her. If pleasure, for women, involves being thought desirable, then what joy could there possibly be in verifying that the hot guy who hasn't given you the time of day is, in fact, not interested? How could the slight chance he is interested make pursuit worthwhile, if the whole point is to be thought beautiful, which would rather have to happen unprompted.

All of this - and personal bias, fine - is why I think The Conversation needs to incorporate, and not brush aside as distasteful or irrelevant, the fact that many/most women desire men. If anything, we'd all be a lot safer if that were better understood.

Monday, November 27, 2017

When croissants sell out

There is nothing that better convinces me a pastry will be amazing than learning that it will be near-impossible to acquire.

Recently, when on the Yelp page for a different bakery, I saw a review mentioning that the really good croissants were from somewhere called Tasso. Tasso? How had I not heard of this bakery? From the moment (a good long while ago at this point) I knew I'd be moving to Toronto, I've been keeping track of the eternal best-croissants-of situation. I thought I'd tried all downtown contenders, as well as some from further afield. While the baseline croissant standard is quite good (much better than, oh, say, New York), they sort of peak at Nadège or Bistro Normandie. From photos available online, and reviews, it seemed as if Tasso might be on another whole level. The real Parisian deal, but somewhere walkable (or TTC-able) from my apartment. How had I not known??

Here's how I hadn't known: it's only open three times a week, from 8:30am until they run out, which can be... not long after. It's also not near where I work, live or used to live, so there's no reason I'd have ever happened to pass by. (It's on a street I've been on maybe twice, both times to go visit an urban farm.) Convenience-wise, this was not so far from trying to go and get a croissant in France itself. But I was up, I was curious, so finally, today, I went.

I arrived and didn't see any sign indicating the name of the bakery. Instead, what I saw was a line. A San Francisco line. Not a November-in-Toronto line, or at least not one for something other than sneakers. (Young men regularly camp out all night in front of sneaker stores here, in all seasons.) But there was enough of a crowd, and not much else around that it could be for, that I deduced this was the place.

It was the place, all right. I got in/on line (which is it in Toronto? I'm trying to acculturate), between two families that knew each other. There was no Canadian politeness on any front in terms of either they or I moving position, as the whole thing is croissant scarcity, and everyone was very on edge about the possibility of the place running out. The man in front of me was telling the people behind me that one time, they ran out of kouign amanns at 8:35. So clearly I was going to need to order one of those. The woman behind me was saying that she no longer recommends the place to people she knows, as it's getting too popular, but not too popular as in too mainstream (I've just finished reading The Rebel Sell, so I feel obligated to point this out) but as in, someone else might get the last croissants. I felt sort of bad, being this interloper from outside the neighborhood, from America, even, which somehow makes it worse.

The people standing near me seemed to think the place was about to sell out. (Again, not sell out as in, like what some 6th grade classmates of mine were very concerned was happening to Green Day. Sell out of pastries for the day, or, rather, the week.) Others kept leaving with these big paper bags full of pastries. Why so many? That did it - I was going to get multiple pastries, too, if I wound up getting any, that is.

My turn came, and I could see... a bunch of things, really. I noticed a sign they put up when they're "almost sold out," which is amazing. I noticed that there's no seating - it's take-out only, but does serve coffee. An unusual choice in Toronto, to be sure. But mostly I noticed the pastries. Exquisite. Not over-hyped in the least, by the look of them.

Having now tried them (croissant and kouign amann), I can say that they are indeed the best in the city (barring any extra-secret bakeries open only ten seconds a week), easily as good as Parisian ones, and better than any in New York. The plain croissant has that flawless middle-of-croissant dough that I've basically only ever encountered at Le Boulanger des Invalides Jocteur, aka the best Paris bakery, which has sadly closed. This means... what does it mean? It means I now need to get up early on at least one weekend day and take some pastries home on the subway. In a very ambitious version, this gets incorporated into an early-morning jog. But the damage that could do to the pastries themselves might not be worth risking it.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Recommendations, "they were fresh when they were frozen" edition

-"Le Meilleur Pâtissier." Much as I wanted to love "The Great Canadian Baking Show," much as I like it and will totally keep watching it, a Guardian piece about global Bake-Offs led me to what I'm just going to declare the best of the bunch: the French one. Predictably? Yes. It seems at first like the usual cozy, homey, hygge (?) set-up, except the assortment of random French (and Walloon) contestants, with varied day-jobs, all turn out to be exquisite French pastry chefs. The level is something else. The harshness, for me, a graduate of two French programs, familiar. (Not cruel, but unapologetic about the search for perfection. The French answer to Paul Hollywood, Cyril Lignac, seems more than up to the task. Everything is just pushed a bit further, with the contestants making more complicated things, and the judges giving more detailed feedback than in the British original, and a whole lot more than in the Canadian one. The show has also solved the problem of combining French cultural consumption with times of the week when I'm keen to relax, and not to catch up on spillover novels purchased here and there, for possible dissertation-related reasons, but not gotten around to. 

-The Toronto public library card. With access to the university library, and a whole lot of books I own that I need to catch up on, I'm ashamed to say I only just got this. But the card is not just for the library - it also allows access to all sorts of movies and TV shows. Thanks to socialist Netflix, I watched a curious 1967 CBC documentary about the Six-Day War, with a (stated; it had to do with sources) perspective so pro-Israel that even I went hmm on occasion. The Canadian angle - which kept taking me by surprise - meant, among other things, that Israel was referred to as being around the same size as the Niagara Peninsula. 

-The Danforth. The part of Toronto I live in - Yorkville - is convenient for work, has worked out surprisingly OK (by expensive city standards) rent-wise, but is very much the rich-person going out district by night, with assorted super-expensive boutiques, car dealerships, cosmetic surgeons, assorted non-surgical beautification offices, etc. There's a Whole Foods, and the Kebaberie (and more specifically, the lentil soup at Kebaberie), but otherwise, not much, or really, not much for me. Which means weekend trips to other areas. Often "other areas" winds up being, near the old neighborhood, so either the Kensington Market or West Queen West, both of which have more going on, but take forever to get to. The Danforth, however, is one short-enough subway ride away, and has... stuff. As in, bookstores (one of which had my book!) and a Japanese café, but also a French bakery whose specialty is - bear with me - pastries shipped in frozen from France and baked in the shop. That may not sound promising, but the croissants and flan, at least, defrost magnificently.

-J-town as day trip. I'd wanted to try an udon place that's effectively inaccessible on the weekend subway, so - as planned - I took a weekday subway to it over fall break. The noodles were good, maybe not good enough for that long of a subway ride, but the advantage of having taken the train to the end of the line was... I was right there on the bus route to J-town, the Japanese strip mall! This entire trip took forever, but is the sort of thing I enjoy tremendously, especially when (apologies to the NJ years) it doesn't involve me driving. The kitchen is now stocked with all the necessary Japanese pantry items, and - for better or worse - I now know that the best (bread) bakery in the city is very likely Bakery Nakamura. It might be more efficient to learn how to make raisin bread than to attempt that trip again any time soon, but given the likelihood I'll figure that out, seems like another trip may be in order.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Fall break, fantasies and realities

All semester long, I'd known something was coming up called "fall break." I knew it mainly as the reason planning syllabi would get tricky around that week of November - some of my classes have their "Week 9" before the break, others after, which seems entirely normal to me now, but which I found mega-daunting at the time. It's hard to say what I imagined fall break would consist of. Going somewhere? No - it's not a vacation. But maybe something like leisurely catching up on work? Getting dressed and going to a coffee shop, rather than determining that more work gets done if I just stay in dog-walking sweats and work during the non-poodle-stroll, non-classroom hours at home, in those? There was also the more ambitious variant of this, which also involved profound levels of reading, writing, socializing, and attending cultural events of all kinds.

I suppose I hadn't realized quite how busy this term would be, nor had I (fully) anticipated that every practical life-thing that couldn't be done during the semester would more or less have to happen this week. So it's basically a work-week, but without the physical act of being in class, and thus with more hours to work with.

But I must have absorbed - along with that inexplicable desire to own-but-not-wear highlighter makeup - those millennial mantras about self-care and reclaiming one's time and so forth, given that I decided, what must have been a few weeks ago, to preempt the likelihood that the week would be entirely sensible. I did this by making two reservations, both for Tuesday (that is, yesterday). The first was for a soba weekly pop-up night, on a night when I normally teach. The second: a full-on hair refurbishment, with cut and color and everything. (Well, those two things.)

Tuesday Of Break became this thing lingering in my mind as the day of bliss. Rather than scrambling from one task to the next, making 5pm 'lunch' out of various snack foods I keep in my office (bulk-purchased seaweed snacks from the Korean grocery store are now finished),  I'd be turned into a balayage'd Pinterest lady, eating at Toronto's answer to Sobaya. Rather than quickly grabbing whichever caffeinated drink also has the most sugar at the coffee shop near my evening class, I'd sit, all serene, drinking tea, say, somewhere inconvenient, just because I could.

It seemed maybe not the best omen for the week when, over the weekend, the man who runs the soba pop-up called to say there's an issue with the buckwheat and could I go instead next Tuesday, which... I cannot. (Maybe in December, I said, and oh, I meant it!) It wasn't about the soba - which is, obviously, far worse news for the soba-sellers than for this aspiring soba-consumer - but what the soba night represented. Everything seemed to be very much not falling into place, serenity-now-wise. I could already see how the hair appointment might also be a bit above and beyond (I'd gotten greedy!), and might also have to be cancelled. Between this and the time change gloominess, etc., etc., I was feeling mighty sorry for myself. Or however one euphemizes that mood in hyperaware, 2017 terms.

And yet, somehow (OK, I know how - it involved taking like my fourth-ever Toronto taxi ride) I made it to the hair salon, on time and everything. It was my first time going to the salon in question, but I was put at ease immediately by the presence of a wonderful, napping dog. While I don't look radically different, I think the ~balayage~ and haircut improved matters tremendously. If nothing else, I now look like someone who had the time, on one recent occasion, to be refurbished. At least as importantly, I came away from the experience feeling very time-reclaimed, and more than ready to spend the rest of fall break either working or (we all have our things) taking tremendous amounts of public transportation to the Japanese strip mall and udon restaurant in the sort-of-suburbs.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The elusive Birkin fit

For the last few weeks, I've had this notion of finding a pair of vintage Levis-or-similar jeans. I'm almost certain I got the idea from the Aritzia website's denim category called "Better Than Vintage." The mere concept struck me as both wasteful (I am 34) and poser-ish (I am also, in some sense, 14). Why not actual vintage, if that's what you're looking for? After all, Instagram is chock-full of French women (such as) in incredibly flattering, by all accounts real-vintage pairs. These women live in France, where vintage US denim has almost got to be harder to find than in Canada, yet they seem to have figured this out.

The plan seemed straightforward enough. I knew, from past trips to vintage clothing stores, where in Toronto the racks full of vintage jeans could be found. And over the course of two recent outings, a brief one to Little Portugal and the Kensington Market, and a more extensive (-feeling) one to Parkdale, I saw them all. OK, not all, but it sure did start to feel that way. I can't say I tried them all on because it was clear from just glancing at them that they would not fit. Not fit, that is, because these were men's jeans. I am a 5'2" woman. While there's no law that says people of my gender and physique can't wear men's jeans, the aesthetic fact is that we cannot do so and have the jeans in question be fitted. The chances are already slim-so-to-speak that a woman my height and general appearance will look like this (or, to put this in slightly more realistic terms, this) under any circumstances, but putting on a pair of large men's jeans seems not to further the cause.

The place with the best selection as well as a useable dressing room was probably In Vintage We Trust, in Parkdale. Even there, they were all too big, except for I think one pair that was too small in the way I remember jeans often being too small in dressing rooms of my youth, before stretch denim became ubiquitous. That is, too small in the waist, hips, etc., but sort of cartoonishly enormous through the legs. A fit that's uncomfortable and unflattering at the same time, and not in the modern-silhouette sense. No matter which pair, what size and shape the circa-1998 label promised, it looked like if Elaine Benes had put on Jerry's jeans.

The fantasy of perfectly-fitting vintage jeans is a complicated one. On some level, it's like all clothing fantasies - about having a flawless-by-society's-harsh-standards physique and looking amazing, especially from certain angles. But it's also a branch of the broader effortlessness dream. The idea is half that you're someone who had all the time in the world to try on evvvvery last pair until you found the one made for your body (that is, a leisure fantasy), half that you just happened upon these ones that fit you great because you're you and you're the sort of person who falls ass-backwards - literally, in this case - into good luck. It goes beyond high-end athleisure, which, while also taking its appeal in part from exclusivity, is nevertheless accessible to everyone under a certain dress size and with $90 to spend on leggings. Finding form-fitting non-stretch pants, with no consistent sizing, is a challenge of another order. Thus the carefree, 'They're vintage!' one is meant to utter to one's Instagram influenced fan base. Easy-breezy.

The unseen effort, I suspect - for there's always some - is that these jeans have been altered. Given that the pseudo-Jane Birkins of Instagram are if anything slimmer than I am, that these jeans fit me wrong in the way that they did suggests to me that these other women are getting their jeans altered. Altered, that is, in width. Not hemmed - nothing so short-person and pedestrian. No, I mean taken in, in the legs especially, so as to fit like the new, stretch-having jeans, while somehow being all-cotton. I have now Googled it and it's apparently a thing. It's not that all the effortless-chic Parisiennes have spent hours in the equivalent of Parkdale (in the Marais, as I wistfully recall) combing through used menswear. Who has the time?

But I think it was the leisure aspect that appealed to me about this quest. The dream wasn't so much the jeans themselves as the afternoon or evening I'd have, trying on as many as I felt like, and stopping for a coffee along the way. Neither my weekdays nor weekends have been conducive to that lately. Imagine having the time to sort through a pile of jeans that made their way to a Toronto vintage shop and find ones that just happened to fit me right!

Then when, yesterday, I declared that I was free to spend Saturday afternoon just trying on all the jeans, all of them if I so chose, I was promptly reminded that trying on a heap of ill-fitting pants is not actually a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Reminded, too, that a jeans quest sparked by a practical-ish need - the fact that my light-denim pair was falling apart and becoming generally unwearable - would not be answered by purchasing a pair of pre-owned pants of any kind. So I full on gave up, de-romanticized the quest for jeans, and spent approximately two minutes trying on and purchasing these, which will do the trick.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Yes, I guess, all women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ugh-ing in unison

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Red Sweater(s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Hi from Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 28, 2017

On just reading about Justin Trudeau for the articles

What does "sexy" mean to you? What does the word evoke?

If you're wired any way other than standard-issue hetero dude, there's an awfully good chance your answers to those two questions will not be the same. The word "sexy" evokes young blonde women with large breasts. And yet, people who meet that description - and images of the same - do nothing for me. How can that be? Does this mean I'm... sex-negative?

I've been vaguely following the discussion around Hugh Hefner, who has died, and who was - I am now learning, this is not something I'd ever given any thought - apparently not just a tame-ish middlebrow pornographer but also a social liberal in some important and before-his-time ways. What does it all mean?

Sexual liberation without feminism is not sexual liberation for all. It's sexual liberation for men. Mostly for straight men. When women push back against male sexual liberation, this gets mistaken for prudishness, when what it oh so often is, instead, is a lack of interest in... women, or women presented for a male gaze. Or sexual acts involving a man and two women, at the man's suggestion. (Our society's default where Sexual Adventure is concerned.) A lack of interest, that is, in the things straight men tend to/are expected to find sexy, paired with a visceral understanding that a good number of things men find sexy aren't the greatest for women. (As it would go, for men, were women in charge.)

Ours is a society already centered around male desire generally, straight male desire especially. More to the point, it's one centered around men - their needs, what's convenient for them - in general. So abandoning rules, unless intentionally done with feminism in mind, means giving further freedom to men, while decreasing that of women. It's not always zero-sum, thank goodness - the pill seems a fine case of everyone benefitting - but it sure can be. 

The mistake is to think differences in male and female interest in sexy-as-society-defines-it are rooted primarily in an asymmetry of desire, rather than an asymmetry of power. To imagine that men lust, women lust after push-up bras and, later, eye creams that might make them look lust-worthy.  

Remember that we are living in the era of the Savage Lovecast and nuanced, mature conversations about cuckold fantasies, but also that of "cuck" as (revived) insult. Of consensual post-monogamy arrangements and Very Modern (ostensibly) gender-neutral forgiveness of dalliances, but also of Trumpian men-can-do-whatever, women-not-so-much. We are not living in gender-neutral times, no matter what pockets of doing-its-best enlightenment might suggest. This means we haven't the slightest idea how male and female sexuality would differ without all the cultural constraints that are most definitely still in place.

Let me put it another way: Is a magazine featuring sexy photos of men, plus serious articles, even conceivable? A niche one for gay men, perhaps, but one with a mainstream or presumed-female audience? Because it's not that women just aren't visual creatures. Looking at photos of attractive men, being aware of attractive men, this is absolutely understood as a part of female heterosexuality, but one to be outgrown. In a woman, sexual desire - for men, maybe in general - is seen as incompatible with seriousness. Incompatible with maturity. Thus - maybe? - why so much of the recent feminist move to reclaim female heterosexual desire (reclaim it, that is, from the assumption that it's merely the desire to be desired) has centered not merely on younger men but on boy bands and teen idols.

The (misguided) thinking is that mature female sexuality - once you age out of caring about Jordan Catalano or One Direction or whatever - is about flexibility, malleability, being agreeable. Thus the refusal, on the part of... society? too many men?, to ever really believe a woman when she says she's straight or - for that matter - gay.