Michelle Dean | The Nation


Michelle Dean

Culture and the arts in America, sliced and diced.

The Listless Boredom of the Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola poses at the premiere of
The Bling Ring in Los Angeles, California on June 4, 2013. (REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni)

The Bling Ring, which opened wide in the United States over the weekend, is like most of Sofia Coppola’s other films: occasionally beautiful, freighted with never-quite-articulated existential angst and absolutely unsure of what it has to say. For an hour and thirty minutes, we are treated to the story of a group of teenagers from the LA suburbs who decide to rob a bunch of celebrity houses, get to do this quite a lot before they are arrested, and… that’s it. It’s not so much that one expected a moral treatise from this but that the movie’s refusal to comment on what it’s depicting makes it look asleep at the wheel.

The trouble with identifying the problem has been a theme of the press on the Bling Ring generally. Vanity Fair’s Nancy Jo Sales reported out the story; her fascinating book of the same title arrived last month. But even she is at a loss to venture a strong analysis of the phenomenon. The book is filled with half-musings: “I was surprised, as I started talking to people about this story by how many seemed to find what the Bling Ring did amusing or even kind of marvelous,” Sales writes. “It made me wonder if there was some kind of growing resentment toward the rich (a precursor to Occupy Wall Street sentiment?).” It’s hard not to throw the book down at faux-naïve moments like those, because yes, of course there is. Sales understands this, of course—her book quotes, in quick succession, both Michael Lewis and Glenn Greenwald—so her posturing grates, a bit.

Class is important here, but not in the usual way. It’s just as hard to style these young women (and one young man) as Robin Hoods as it is to feel sympathy for their victims. The Bling Ring stole from the rich and gave to themselves. And they hardly lacked for material necessities to begin with. Yet I don’t know that they acted quite out of the investment-banking-inspired plutocratic greed that Sales, and to an extent Coppola, suggest. These kids are, at best, a faint reflection of Gordon Gekko. What seems more likely to me is that these kids were bored, and this was a way of filling up an empty night. “Bling” just happened to be the solution they chose instead of the multiplex.

Giving it more reason than that would miss the point, somehow, to me. The crimes are remarkable not because they are particularly horrible but because they were committed with an extreme indifference. Disconnection is the dominant theme. Even when the kids speak in clichés—the trailer’s central joke is Emma Watson earnestly saying, “I may want to lead a country someday,” something her alter ego, Alexis Neiers, did actually say—they are, it feels like, trying on another outfit, committed to the theater of meaning rather than the experience of it. It is this same curious and apathetic ethos that informs shows like The Hills or Teen Mom or even Keeping Up with the Kardashians. And it all goes beyond mere bad acting, as you’d see if you watched the shows. They plod along like narcotics, and not the fun ones either.

Coppola’s film is not the only recent piece of art to seek to depict this. In literary circles, there’s a lot of chatter about a new novel, Taipei, by Tao Lin. Lin, who has been kicking around the web for some time now, has made his reputation based on his deliberate adoption of mundane prose and subjects. His books are plotted by way of gchats and the sort of distant, halting sexual encounters that seem to plague twentysomethings nowadays. For this, in some circles, Lin is a styled revolutionary. A New York Observer review recently placed him in “the literary tradition of Knut Hamsun, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert Musil.” The writer also says he’s like Proust. Coppola is often subjected to similarly formed praise, usually comparing her to someone like Stanley Kubrick, who was as fond of moral vacuums as she.

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But, fundamentally, the problem facing people like Sofia Coppola and Tao Lin is that their interest in the boring presents them with a very difficult task. Namely, that they have to depict boredom in an interesting way, which can end up defeating the purpose of showing us the bored at all. The gleeful producers of reality shows don’t have this problem. They can sex it up, as it were. But art about boredom, as they do it, is reluctant to keep things interesting, or shake things up with a strong take.

And you can have a “take,” here. After all, this boredom is not wholly apolitical. The other day The New York Times ran an opinion piece by an academic who has been studying the young working class of Massachusetts. She catalogues their reactions to their diminished employment prospects as apathy and disconnection. “Adulthood,” she concludes, “is not simply being delayed but dramatically reimagined along lines of trust, dignity and connection and obligation to others.” Those lines are definitionally political. They are about how you imagine the possibilities of yourself and society. That’s why it’s important to go beyond observing that we live in the kind of place where Paris Hilton’s clothing has the status of religious totems, and make art that, unlike Coppola’s, moves us in another direction.

Is Joss Whedon’s new version of Much Ado About Nothing serious art or just another commerical movie?

Joss Whedon and the Pop Culture Canon

A poster for Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. (Courtesy of Flickr user Nicholas Smale. Licensed under Creative Commons.)

A lot of people wring their hands about the disappearance of serious art these days, the fall of which they usually attribute to the sudden legitimacy of pop culture. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, which opened last Friday, is a pretty good counterpoint to that argument. It’s a piece of “high art” which recommends itself chiefly on the presence of pop culture talent—and niche pop culture talent at that. Oh sure, there are snotty English professors somewhere, I’m sure, sniffing that Much Ado is the Bard’s minor work, a flimsy little comedy about nothing, which is why these people can handle it. But they are wrong.

As with nearly all modern productions of Shakespeare, there are speeches in this Much Ado that drag, and a few false performance notes (the woman playing Conrade leaps to mind, too vampy by half). But there are also clever touches, a fair amount of laughs and some really quite extraordinary physical acting. Overall, the pace is quick and the point is to be exhilarated by the show. But also: to be thrilled to see the actors who play Wesley and Fred implicitly give their characters the happy ending that the Whedon scriptwriter denies. And then turn, as I did, to your seatmate as the credits roll and say, “I wonder what Alyson Hannigan thinks of this.”

That not everyone is going to know what I’m referring to there could be seen as saying a lot about The Way We Do Culture Now, as an Awl slug might put it. Joss Whedon’s is a peculiar talent, one I can’t see succeeding in an age before this one. His expertise is in mixing pop culture memes and references. Granted, the way he tosses them up is always an exercise in joy. (And yes, I say this in spite of his habit of making the audience love someone he’s just about to kill.) But you usually have to be somewhat in the know of what he’s talking about to “get” him. And sometimes even the most devoted fan won’t.

In that sense, I will cop here to not having been a particular fan of Whedon’s most recent production, The Avengers, which was made for a greater Marvel Comics kind of nerd than I personally am. The only piece of him in it that I truly recognized was in the comic timing of a certain Hulk Smash—the rest all too in-jokey for the likes of me. But I felt bad criticizing the film on that level; it’s not that I’m averse to pop-cultural in-jokes. Buffy and Angel were like quasi-religious texts to me, for reasons I won’t bore you with. The result is that I am able to, say, sing through the entire musical episode from memory. I have been known to sing to myself, as I leave the house in the evening, “Every single night, the same engagement.” I have firm opinions on which are the best seasons (second in terms of plot arc, third in terms of consistently good episodes). Also, if you give me a plot point, I can usually tell you the season and episode number. It’s just how I roll.

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But for a long time I was the only nerd in the room doing this. No longer. Now that we are all on the Internet, and can all lose days to binge-watching old television shows on Netflix, my kind is pretty much legion. The “pure” fans of Shakespeare? Much less so.

There are days, of course, where I worry about drawing that kind of cordon around the world. When I write about certain prestige cable shows, or some art house films, I know they have tiny audiences who all talk to themselves in prestige publications. The sections of the overall pie get even smaller if we start talking about books that are not written by Dan Brown. And if I let myself think too far down that path, I become, in the name of nothing less than leftism, one of the fuddy-duddies I opened this post with. My brain starts asking how on earth we can have a cohesive society if all of our dream-life—because that’s what the culture is, our dream-life—is running off down different, and often mutually antagonistic, roads. I don’t really care about whether the culture is “serious art,” of course, but I do worry about no one being in the same room.

But the thing I keep coming back to is that the cat is out of the bag there. All the people worried about the disappearance of a common canon are wasting their time trying to coax it back out from under the bed. And that’s not even to mention that that canon is old and mangy and racist and sexist and heteronormative and on down the line. It’s not that we have to put it down, of course—just feed it better, and let it get outside more, have a little fun. As I said, after all, it’s not just that Much Ado About Nothing is good; it’s that it’s pretty good Shakespeare. Especially the part—and here I won’t spoil you too much—where Whedon expertly parries one of those egregiously racist Shakespearean lines by framing the shot in just the right way.

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The Disillusionment of 'Before Midnight'

A shot from the trailer for Before Midnight. (Credit: Sony Classics)

What makes Before Midnight a “small film,” as a “commercial prospect” in the Hollywood sense, is that it is utterly unconcerned with that question. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) don’t act like the typical characters in a Hollywood romance. They do not have winking mannerisms. The only classical tropes of romance in the movies (this is the third in a trilogy) are the beauty of the actors, which as Michelle Orange observed is, er, inflected by the passage of time, and of the European landscapes they walk through in each film: Vienna, Paris and now the island of Messenia in Greece. For the rest, the style is rather talkier than studios like, and no one shows up for the finale in a tuxedo or a princess gown. In the minds of studio heads these are the kinds of things the (female) American audience demands in a real romance.

It’s important to distinguish what studio heads think from what real people think, of course. These movies are romantic classics to a lot of us. Even if they are, as A.O. Scott puts it, “Aristotelian bulletins from the field of Gen-X solipsism,” we are prepared to own it. And yet, I notice people complaining a lot more about this one. Not the critics so much, but friends who wanted something with less bickering. More genuine connection. In a brief sense, more hope, though not necessarily in the treacly, Hollywood sense.

The issue, from what I can tell, is that while the others were deeply romantic in that non-Hollywood way of theirs, in this one the belief in the redemptive powers of romance is at a low ebb. The premise of the first two films was that Jesse and Céline were meant to be together, but were separated by geography and certain accidents of chance. This one has a question mark hanging over the whole affair. Jesse announced, at the end of the prior film, that he was going to miss his flight, chucking his marriage and even his child in favor of Céline. This was about as romantic—and perhaps some curmudgeons might say, unrealistic—a gesture as you can get. But the new film opens with the fallout—Jesse reluctantly putting that child, alone, on a transatlantic flight back to America and Jesse’s bitter ex-wife, then turning his frustration into an “idea” about moving to America. The discussions more or less descend from there. Even in its most beautiful, relaxed moment, a seaside dinner party in a sort of cave, most of the discussants admit they don’t believe in people who are “meant for each other.” At which point Jesse and Céline look down as awkwardly as possible.

Personally, I liked the film’s refusal to accept that even the grandest romantic gestures turn out as well as we hope. It’s like that in real life, where often enough, we don’t get the chance to make the gesture in the first place. In recent days, Linklater has admitted to the press that actually, long ago, he had the kind of magical one-night encounter that forms the basis of Jesse and Céline’s romance. The woman Linklater met never saw the films, because she died in a car accident before the first one was ever released. He didn’t know that until recently, he says. He’d been hoping one day she’d see the films, and come out of the woodwork.

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That unhappy ending in real life seems to be coloring this latest film, I admit. There are times when Jesse and Céline’s fighting feels trumped up. Not that couples don’t have arguments they don’t need to have. But occasionally you can feel the actors gritting their teeth, willing the toxic dynamic to draw out a little further. The primary aggressor is Céline, and the lack of explanation for her issue with Jesse until quite late in the film makes her easier to stereotype as “difficult,” though she isn’t, particularly. There are moments, when she’s just resorting to the rote feminist lines, where you worry that these are just Band-Aids over plot holes, a problem with trying to stuff the feelings of nine years together into an hour and a half. Your worries are later alleviated, but they still leave the audience suspecting trumped-up charges, not by Céline so much as by the filmmakers—I include Delpy and Hawke in this—who need a conflict to keep the audience interested.

There are parallels to real life here, and not just solipsism either. When that last romantic movie came out, we had another sort of world to watch it in. 2004 was the depths of the Bush administration, andparadoxically (or perhaps not) the dark time enabled the heights of fantasy, and particularly of fantasies about hope, as a certain campaign slogan suggested. It stretched right out of the movies into politics. Unfortunately, out here in the realworld, we don’t have to force disillusionment; you’re all seeing the same headlines about the NSA that I am. The thing, you see, about Before Midnight’s disillusionment with romance is that it is the absolute truth, the (slight) problems all of execution, not conceit.

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Revolution, on Television and in Real Life

An anti-government protester raises her fist during a demonstration in central Ankara June 3, 2013. Reuters/Umit Bektas

There ought to be a word for the kind of irony that attends a culture convulsing over the massacre on the latest episode of Game of Thrones just as a blossom of real-life political dissent is appearing in Turkey, don’t you think? (Which isn’t even to mention that yesterday and today are the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.) One doesn’t want to scold people for paying attention to pop culture—as a person who writes about it, I would be a giant hypocrite if I did. But the way these two things have met in time at the very least raises the question: Why don’t we care, in quite the same way? I somehow doubt it’s because Americans haven’t the heart for real political conflict. Nor do I think the whole explanation is that Americans feel powerless. It’s not like any of us could have stepped in front of the sword that ran through Robb’s gullet on Sunday night.

Rather, I suspect it’s mostly the power of narrative that’s missing here. The truth is that most people have no idea what the story of Turkey is, and only the vaguest sense of Erdogan’s failings. This seems to go for the leftist friends we all have posting links to Occupy Gezi on Facebook; they see the word Occupy and know they support it, but called upon to articulate the precise problem, they refer to the link. By contrast, the ten or twelve episodes a year of Game of Thrones make Robb and Catelyn Stark practically our next-door neighbors. They get the advantage of names and faces and histories. It’s more affecting than the aerial shorts we get of crowds of protesters, who lack much impact other than their large, anonymous character.

Narrative reporting on foreign affairs—i.e., the kind of long-form piece that identifies characters and histories in the crowd—is awful slim in the US at the best of times. Instead we have the citizen journalism of Twitter and Facebook, which has its advantages in volume, and in the slightly more democratic makeup of the people who are bringing the news to us. But what it seems to lack is anyone drawing it together in a coherent whole, making it clear what all the human costs are.

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Perhaps it’s never possible to do this at the same time that the “revolution” is ongoing. Elif Batuman, at The New Yorker, points out that even within Turkey itself, the television is ignoring the matter. And yet: In Tiananmen, we had that iconic photo of the man in front of the tank to do it. It said: watch and learn. At the moment, I’d be happy if I could better accomplish the “watch” part.

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'Star Trek' and the Twilight of Idealism

A shot from the Star Trek trailer. (Credit: Paramount)

The new Star Trek, as you might have heard, is a mess, even, for some people, a travesty. The good people at io9 have done a fair job of exposing—in extreme plot-revealing fashion, so beware—the absurdities of plot and pacing in the latest iteration. What was once a quasi-meditation on the craze for perfection and the burdens of leadership has now become a sort of special-effects soup. The actors are as winning as ever—in truth I’m half in love with Chris Pine, whose Kirk at least lacks the priggishness of the Shatner iteration. But they are mired in a simultaneously pretentious and idiotic plot that can’t be saved by charm alone. You can blame JJ Abrams himself, or you can blame Damon Lindelof (the, uh, “mastermind” behind Lost), but the result is the same: the thing is a dud, Star Trek by way of the screenwriters of the famed art film Transformers 2.

True, you might need the devotion of a fan to get to a place of tragedy here; Hollywood’s ruining a franchise doesn’t rank too high on the scale of global injustices. And yet, the fans do have a point that goes beyond nerdery. When the first Star Trek remake came out, in 2009, Roger Ebert complained, “The Gene Roddenberry years, when stories might play with questions of science, ideals or philosophy, have been replaced by stories reduced to loud and colorful action. Like so many franchises, it’s more concerned with repeating a successful formula than going boldly where no ‘Star Trek’ has gone before.” Which again, to those of you who’ve always wondered about the magic of warp cores and the high-handed meditations about something called the “Prime Directive,” may seem like the complaint of a sucker. Except, I think, we all need a little suckerdom sometimes, particularly if we’re going to remain a place that still cares about science, ideals or philosophy.

I speak as a kid who was raised not on this original Star Trek crew but on The Next Generation, who will always prefer Picard to Kirk. (Hollywood, hear me now: there’s no reason to recast Patrick Stewart and try that as a reboot, okay? Don’t do it, man!) For reasons of budget, the show rarely had much by way of special effects, and other than the running joke that was the android Data, almost less humor. (Riker’s, uh, “wisecracks” didn’t count.) The thing that kept us all tuning in week after week though, I think, was the dream of it. The dream of travelling around, exploring “strange new worlds,” all under the auspices of a polity devoted to truth and justice, and one in which the citizens all believed, absolutely, and without question. It was a hokey, ridiculous, impossible dream. But it engaged me all the same, so much so that I still sometimes stream it on Netflix, while I’m cleaning house. It’s like a Buddhist meditation tape starring people in impossibly tight polyester outfits.

That might sound like I’m justifying pablum, though I suppose in a way I am. There is a tendency on the left to behave as though the real, serious matter of politics is entirely separate from culture, and particularly from popular culture. The nitty gritty of politics, either the baseball game atmosphere of elections or the dreary slicing up of policy solutions, is treated as the real stuff of social change. I don’t mean to suggest that it isn’t, but it has, for a long time, seemed to me that the left lost its grip on aspiration. That sounds vague, but what I mean is that the articulation of bigger, bolder, better things is no longer as much the priority as getting this bill through the Senate or that idea in front of a committee. Pragmatics have their place, but, they are not everything. Of course, we debate the interaction of vision and politics with respect to Obama, and endlessly argue over whether he’s lived up to the standard he set for himself in those speeches. But there is no larger sense that Americans ought to be articulating that vision to one another. In today’s public conversation, the greatness of the American political structure, or at least its immovability, is taken more or less for granted. There is no need for revision or even flexibility, let alone large-scale change.

There are, of course, many sources for that inertia on the big question. One of them is economics: the question of a more just society recedes into the background when you can’t pay the rent. Another is the corruption that grips political machinery: it’s hard not to be a cynic when you look at all the money in the vote these days. A third is that in this post–”axis of evil” age, there is good reason to suspect high-flown moral vocabulary in public life. But I would certainly add to those that another is that most of our art, such as it is—the art that reaches the vast majority of the country, the stuff that people construct their own dreams out of—is rather afraid of wandering too far afield from “reality.” And I don’t just mean those reality shows, either. I mean that vast aspirations are out of vogue everywhere. I mean that everything has become small and crass and a way to play the “game.”

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In this limited case, it’s the box office one. It’s not that the directors and writers don’t know what they do, I think. It seems a deliberate sort of decision that in the new Star Trek, the Prime Directive—which holds that the new cultures the crew comes across should not be subjected to undue interference—is little more than a pretext that allows for the cool special effect of the Enterprise underwater. The rule is an arcane holdover, the kind of thing that bold young men such as occupy the rebooted Enterprise will never listen to, if they want to have true adventures. Who needs world peace and humanitarian values, anyway, when there’s stuff to be blown up?

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Class and 'The Great Gatsby'

A shot from The Great Gatsby. (AP Photo)

There is one thing that Baz Luhrmann gets right about The Great Gatsby, and I think it’s unintentional. It has to do with the way that, turned at a certain angle, lit in a certain way, Leonardo DiCaprio again looks like the boy everyone I knew (I’m that age) grew up loving. The rest of the time, well, he’s still handsome, but he’s aged in such a way that it makes the features of his youthful beauty look a little ridiculous, in retrospect. The worry lines and stubble seem to be telling us that the beauty of that face was only a temporary, fleeting thing. I guess you could say he looks like a ruin of a movie star—a gorgeous ruin, but a ruin nonetheless. And ruin, I always thought, was what Gatsby was all about. Everything in the book is ruined: the old mansion he lives in, the love he has for his perfect woman, the business he runs, Tom Buchanan’s mistress and, more broadly, in the way your tenth grade English teacher taught it to you, the American Dream.

Luhrmann clearly disagrees that rot has any place in the story; he sparkles and spangles his Gatsby to the hilt. But then his interpretation seems to be the dominant one. Kathryn Schulz, in a well-argued piece in New York, pointed out that Scott Fitzgerald was always a bit of a hypocrite about class. In spite of himself, he sort of liked the rich, and she argued that Gatsby suffers from that. “As readers, we revel in the glamorous dissipation of the rich, and then we revel in the cheap satisfaction of seeing them fall,” she wrote. “At no point are we made to feel uncomfortable about either pleasure, let alone their conjunction.”

For this heresy, Schulz received some entertaining blowback: A.O. Scott, in The New York Times, called her a “showboating critical contrarian,” and Joyce Carol Oates tweeted, in apparent reaction, that “Hating ‘The Great Gatsby’ [the novel] is like spitting into the Grand Canyon. It will not be going away anytime soon, but you will be.” But in fact Schulz’s position has been around as long as Gatsby has. Here in The Nation, in a review of a 1926 stage adaptation of the novel, a critic began with a rant about Fitzgerald’s worldview,

Though granted just enough detachment to make him undertake the task of description, he is by temperament too much a part of the things described to view them with any penetratingly critical eye and he sees flappers, male and female, much as they see themselves. Sharing to a very considerable extent in their psychological processes, he romanticizes their puerilities in much the same fashion as they do…

I guess I just don’t know precisely what would separate Fitzgerald from Danielle Steel if this perspective were 100 percent true. Call me naïve, but I feel certain that prose style alone doesn’t bridge that gulf. There’s some other difference at work, here. When most people write about flappers qua flappers—these days, it’d be more like celebrities qua celebrities—it’s not quite Fitzgerald-esque. When Gatsby first appeared, in 1925, the reviewer for The Nation, Carl Van Vechten, said it was the character of Gatsby himself that embodied a new and bolder art for Fitzgerald than merely chronicling the activities of flappers.

The figure of Jay Gatsby, who invented an entirely fictitious career for himself out of the material of inferior romances, emerges life-sized and life-like. His doglike fidelity not only to his ideal but to his fictions, his incredibly cheap and curiously imitative imagination, awaken for him not only our interest and suffrage, but a certain liking, as they awaken it in the narrator Nick Carraway.

I confess I’ve always wondered about the last half of that common interpretation. Gatsby sympathetic? I think he evokes pathos, because he is the kind of person who cannot see how ridiculous it is, when Nick asks him where in the Middle West he’s from, to answer “San Francisco.” Because he thinks Daisy is some kind of grand romantic heroine when she’s just someone who, like everyone else in the novel, isn’t sure what she wants. Because he thinks he’s fooling anyone with all those big parties, the sign of someone with something to prove. But liking him? I’ve always been more in the interest and suffrage camp. Identifying with Gatsby would involve me wanting him to get what he wants. Instead, I just want him to want something else.

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Schulz argued that a higher-minded reading doesn’t map with Fitzgerald’s authorial intent, though I think one statement of his not considering the psychology of his characters is not a total guide. No one can say for sure, but I suspect it isn’t an accident that that “beautiful little fools” line really is nonsense, just as one example. It was, in real life, something Scott borrowed from his wife Zelda, who said it coming out of anesthesia after the birth of their daughter. The lush romanticism notwithstanding, there’s something about using that drugged fragment from a dream, the sheer unreality of it, that suggests on some level that Fitzgerald knows all his characters are caught in a set-up, deeply vulnerable to the incursions of a messier reality.

Another way to put this is that the thinness of the tragedy in Gatsby—all that deception not quite getting him the really-quite-imaginary girl—should be, for modern audiences, exactly the point. Of course you can’t have something that doesn’t exist. Which, I thought anyway until very recently, was what we all agreed about the “American Dream” he represented. That it was silly, and in the end a kind of hurtful delusion. That there was very little to admire in it when it manifested itself, as in Gatsby’s case, as a kind of greed that can only be supported by gangsters. But then, I guess, we live in a world right now where the gangsterism is forgivable, and the indulgences of the rich are things we want for ourselves. Some things, I suppose, really haven’t changed.

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'The Patriarchy Works in Strange Ways': On Being an Opinionated Woman

(Flickr/CC, 2.0)

On Wednesday night, I hosted a panel in New York entitled “Sharp: A Discussion of Women and Criticism.” I organized it because over the last few years, I’ve noticed that there is a distinct quality to the experience of being a somewhat opinionated woman, at least in public, and in print. And I wanted to talk to some of the smartest women I know about it. And given the abysmal byline counts one finds at VIDA, and the controversy over Wikipedia naming novelists who are women “women novelists,” and Deborah Copaken Kogan’s piece on her post-feminist life in letters right here at The Nation, there certainly seemed to be an appetite for the discussion in the sphere of books criticism, and even in the arts more generally.

I managed to convince quite the lineup to do the event with me. The other panelists were: Laura Miller (Salon), Ruth Franklin (The New Republic), Parul Sehgal (The New York Times Book Review), Kate Bolick (The Atlantic), Michelle Orange (The Rumpus) and The Nation’s own associate literary editor, Miriam Markowitz. I love all these women’s work. It was an honor just to have them all accept. And as it turns out, they all had some pretty insightful things to say.

We were going to bring you the audio, but technology somehow failed us and left us with a silent loop on the tape. To borrow another panelist’s observation on the snafu: “The patriarchy works in strange ways.”

So I offer my own takeaways below. Of course, we disagreed with each other on certain points. But there were some commonalities:

1. Whenever that VIDA time of year comes around, I always hear that it’s hard for editors to find good women writers, that we’re not around, that we don’t pitch enough. Yet I found there was an embarrassment of riches in that regard. There were a bunch of other women I could have (and should have) asked to be on this panel. Perhaps I just skew my reading towards women, but given that I usually read journalism without much regard to byline, I don’t think that’s quite it. Point being: why all these women aren’t fighting editors off with sticks is beyond me.

2. I asked all the panelists to talk about women critics “of the past” (“the past” being construed very loosely) that they admired. Kate Bolick raised the question of whether it wasn’t a kind of over-determined gendering itself to admire and relate to mostly other women critics. This had actually been a question bothering me while I organized the thing; were the women I asked going to be annoyed at being identified, explicitly, as “women critics”? (This has been one of the items at issue in the Wikipedia debate, with novelists more generally.) I can only be honest and say that yes, I am more interested in how women have navigated this position, because I think there is a distinct quality to that experience.

3. It would be good if we stopped confusing “equality” of perspective in this debate—in terms of sheer byline counts—with “sameness” of perspective. Parul Sehgal made the observation that women and people of color have something interesting to say about how power operates. Which, I think, does not quite reduce to other kinds of people being “better” critics than white men, but it does mean that more than white men’s perspectives are important, and even, dare I say, vital, to having the full range of critical conversation. It often bugs me that we call parity of bylines a “diversity problem.” In my opinion, it isn’t just “fairness” that demands the inclusion of more perspectives. It’s a problem of quality, too.

4. As far as representation goes, the problem isn’t just with the publications that assign writing. It also has to do with the way books are marketed today, Miriam Markowitz pointed out, and particularly how they are marketed to women. In the publishing world, it seems, women are still easily caught by images that evoke either feminine douche commercials (flowy dresses, fields) or ersatz Sex and the City ads (martinis and shoes). It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with any of these images, but the idea that they appeal to women wholesale has always struck me as misguided. Like everyone else, women tend to read books by authors they admire, or books that look interesting in the jacket copy, I assume. Though perhaps publishers have an army of book marketers who say otherwise.

5. There are two economies at work in the book world, Laura Miller observed: one where books are literally bought and sold, and the other where they accumulate prestige. And writers, even publishers, are often not good at articulating where “success” is allocated between them. To venture a slight criticism of the Kogan article which appeared here at The Nation, that tension was pretty evident in it. Kogan’s memoir, Shutterbabe, was a bestseller, but it was the treatment by critics that left her with a sour taste in her mouth. Except—and this is, I think, what critics hate to face sometimes—the truth is that a good book will long outlast the reviews.

6. Ruth Franklin noted that, in a way, all this VIDA stuff is much larger than just the book world. We live in a gendered society, and that is going to color how we talk about just about everything, books included. Which of course raises a sort of chicken-and-egg question. I guess my perspective on this is that diversifying the people who write for you is an easy, measurable thing to do in the face of a gendered society, in a way that, say, expanding a critical standard to embrace more voices in art is not.

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7. Michelle Orange offered that she felt that women often have a harder time establishing authority in criticism, citing Virginia Woolf on this point. Which I, personally, agree with. I spend a lot of time reading biographies of women critics along with their work, and I’m often struck by the kind of firestorms they can start by simply dissenting from the popular view, however skillfully or convincingly. I completely garbled a question about this at the panel itself, but to an extent it’s always seemed to me that the blowback you can get as a woman of fairly strong opinions is itself gendered. And concomitantly, as someone of color trying to make such a statement, racialized.

I’ve posted here about this before. It’s related to Rebecca Solnit’s famed “Men Who Explain Things” phenomenon, but somewhat distinct from it. The best way I can put it is in old left terms: sometimes just a claim to be able to say something of general application—say, to pronounce on the value of a book—is, consciously or unconsciously, received by those in power as a challenge to their authority. The thing about having the kind of power conferred by gender or race is that it becomes almost just a fact of the universe, a given, and someone mounting a challenge to that—saying, for example, that Philip Roth just doesn’t speak to your experience that well—can inspire, well, disproportionate surprise and consternation. I say this not to make women writers more intimidated, nor to tell anyone they shouldn’t give voice to that surprise. Just, I wonder if this particular operation of power ought to be more closely observed by everybody, and guarded against.

8. Pro tip for young men: No more pitching Martin Amis reviews. Full stop.

(That was said as a sort of joke for the panel but I would add: it seems to me to be good professional advice, insofar as [a] the editor has probably already assigned the Martin Amis review if she’s interested in the book; and [b] it seems to me always better to show an editor that you have a new or exciting perspective to offer, which a review of a very established literary novelist might not give you a chance to showcase.)

Is your world flat? As Tom Tomorrow illustrates, Detective Friedman is on stand-by.

'The Office' and the American Workplace

Scene from The Office episode “Promos.” (Tyler Golden/NBC)

The Office, which ends May 16, will take with it one of a precious few vaguely realistic depictions of working life off the air. Granted, the people who write about television haven’t been watching The Office for some time now. Partly that’s because Steve Carell left and partly because, I think, the longer we were in a recession, the less appealing an extended workday got. Either you’d lost your job, and the show reminded you, in slightly funnier form, of the life you’d once been leading. Or else, at a certain point, the drudgeries of the workplace had quit seeming all that funny.

Some of you will object that your workplaces were never anywhere near as full of character as the Dunder Mifflin paper company. Or, for that matter, the Wernham Hogg paper company that preceded it in the United Kingdom. To this contention I must present this story from my own experience: I once worked with a man who, apropos of absolutely nothing, purchased a lazy-boy chair and had it put in his midtown Manhattan office. At the time of this purchase, he was at best a rather junior employee. Everyone in the office began to wonder why he had purchased this chair, which suffice to say did not match the prevailing décor. In fact, we all referred to said employee as “The Chair,” basically forever after. It used to be a kind of sport to watch people walk down the hallway, glance casually into the door of his office, and come up short, realizing that yes, that was a recliner in that tiny office.

Then there was the employee with a slightly mysterious personal life who, when asked by the firm newsletter what his favorite place was, offered this reply: “Somewhere warm and deep.” We parsed that for weeks. It passed the time.

My point is that the The Office understood this sort of everyday absurdity. Sure, sometimes the storylines got a little wacky. But I was recently rewatching an episode in which Michael Scott (Carell) is explaining that he has brought everyone on a booze cruise because the office is just like a ship, and he is the captain, and it’s all a bit like Titanic (“No, I’m Leo DiCaprio, come on!”), and the sales department is the furnace, etc. And it dawned on me, watching it, how perilously close this is to a lot of the corporate pablum that is peddled, often enough, as “training exercises” in companies across America. The humor cut rather close to the bone. You don’t need to have your boss actually getting to the point where he screams “I’m the King of the World!” from a ship’s prow to see that.

It hasn’t been news, in America, that the conditions of modern work are unfulfilling, for a good half-century now. It’s a theme of the novels of Richard Yates, the classics like Revolutionary Road and Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. The deadening forces of advanced capitalism have been studied just as long, in books like The Organization Man. But the upshot tended to be doom and depression. This might explain why other classic workplace sitcoms—The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, Night Court—usually had some kind of meaningful work as the backdrop, accomplishing something important on the side of all their jokes. Or else, as in sitcoms like Designing Women or Newhart, the main characters were at the very least all really good friends, engaged in some kind of collective endeavor.

This is not true of Dunder Mifflin, where the co-workers were assembled more or less only for reasons of common employment. Nor is it really altogether clear what this company does within the context of the sitcom, though NBC’s marketing people created a whole website to describe the business. Instead, the entire appeal of the show was predicated on the sharpness of the satire.

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At first, in The Office’s American life, the show was rather too cutting for audience’s taste. But by the second season it was somehow managing to mix the satire with affection. It wasn’t so much that unlikable characters became likable; it was that they became recognizably human in their unlikableness. They began to look, in short, like people trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Which only amplified their resemblance to the real world of American workers. Out here no one is under the illusion that the bulk of the work they have to do to make a living is meaningful. And you have to laugh, sometimes, because you’d cry otherwise. That’s the ray of hope, the laughing. The thing that keeps you going to work, and also helps you keep a critical consciousness about the whole enterprise of paying the bills in America. In that sense, you could even say that Kelly’s doing a cheer routine about “B-A-N-A-N-A-S” or Dwight Schrute’s informing the office that he is “capable of physically dominating [it],” are small but crucial acts of rebellion. The only way you’ll ever want to change things is if you are high up enough to see the absurdity of them.

The Bangladeshi factory floor is a world apart from Dunder Mifflin. Read Elizabeth Cline’s take on last week’s disaster.

Crowdsourcing as Healthcare Policy: Can't We Do Better?

Zach Braff (right) and Donald Faison in a $2 million Kickstarter video. (Credit: Kickstarter.com)

Crowdfunding is becoming more and more a fact of life in America. A Kickstarter for Zach Braff’s latest cinematic effort appeared this week, and it did not kick up quite the excitement that the Veronica Mars film did a little while ago. Braff, as a celebrity and/or creator, simply doesn’t command the kind of worshipful fandom the show did, nor the sense of injustice that a premature cancellation of a good show can bring. Yet, as of this writing, Braff has amassed $1.7 million for his Wish I Was Here. And counting.

You don’t have to have any opinion at all on Braff’s oeuvre to raise an eyebrow at the priorities here. We live in a country where Social Security is about to go bankrupt and serious scientific and medical research has been kneecapped by the sequester. Yet every two-bit marquee name with a tenuous claim to artistry can simply wake up in the morning, create a new webpage and draw in this kind of cash. Sure, “donations” and “taxes” aren’t precise equivalents, and keeping Social Security afloat does not have the panache of Hollywood. Still: Is there no way to have some of that generosity creep into American attitudes towards social programs?

This question becomes particularly hard to avoid in an era when crowdfunding efforts have diversified to include healthcare. I ran across one, recently, that aimed to get the retired actress Karen Black cancer treatment. Then, in the wake of the Marathon bombings of last week, I saw another that promised to cover the medical and rehabilitative expenses of a man, Jeff Bauman, who became famous last week because of a gory picture of his being wheeled away from the scene, minus his lower legs. (He was also the man who identified the bombers to authorities.) And The New York Times this morning informs me there are others, for Celeste and Sydney Corcoran, a mother and daughter pair who lost three legs altogether, and Christian Williams and Caroline Reinsch.

I realize this sort of thing has a long tradition here. When I first came to America I used to express horror at the prevalence of the healthcare fundraiser, a phenomenon that is rather unknown in my native country. “Oh Michelle,” said a liberal friend dryly, “You’re being Canadian again. Where else, other than healthcare fundraisers, would this delightful sense of community come from?” A decade later, I’m more acclimated to it. I’m not interested in slagging on either the desperation of those who need the money, or the charitable impulses of donors themselves, who are just trying to make the best of a really bad situation. So please don’t get me wrong: if you can afford it, I encourage you to click on the links and donate.

But this is still all a bit unsettling. The prevalence of these sites tracks an enormous, and often politically untapped, groundswell of generosity in America. GoFundMe, a popular choice for medical expenses, raised over $30 million last year. Crowdsourcing sites overall approached $2.8 billion. I realize that’s a drop in the bucket as far as Social Security or Medicare are concerned, and yet it isn’t so small a drop that it’s beyond discussion. If there’s some way to get people to dedicate that money to other, greater goods, it’s worth discussing.

That is true not least because another of the metrics crowdsourcing quantifies is the way in which being injured in some particularly notorious way, or having a name people recognize, will get you money a lot faster. As I’ve argued before, it’s unfortunate, if not precisely tragic, that the proponents of crowdfunding models for cultural products understate the degree to which their success rests on a pre-existing brand. Social science on the results of crowdfunding efforts are limited, but they do suggest I’m right here. One recent study showed that Facebook friend numbers were positively correlated with successful ventures, as well as geographical location, though those were Kickstarter projects, whose appeal is somewhat less emotional than a “I need cancer treatment” one.

Within that rubric, it’s worth asking about the fates of the many people with medical problems in this country who will never have such a widely publicized platform on which to ask for the cash. No doubt geography already plays a role in the quality of healthcare one receives (this is also true in my native Canada), but the possibility that “brand” or number of Facebook friends are having a literal effect on the allocation of medical treatment really starts to turn my stomach. I further have a suspicion that somewhere in the insurance boardrooms of America the availability of crowdfunding is being explored as a reason to deny claims or raise co-pay ratios. And that’s not to mention that if it’s demonstrably true that someone can raise, say, $50,000 on the Internet for a necessary MRI, $50,000 starts looking like a reasonable price for one. Ethos creep is a problem here.

The solution is obvious to most leftists: move to a single-payer model of healthcare and a lot of the need to fundraise instantly evaporates, and along with it the ethical problem I’m describing. But absent Congress hopping on that this week, it’s worth asking if there’s some other way this financial voluntarism could be harnessed, politically, to get Congress to that place.

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After all, the unavoidable observation that comes out of reading appeals on these medical fundraising sites is the sheer desperation of a population without a meaningful social safety net. We all know the statistic that medical costs are the number-one cause of bankruptcy in the United States. We all know people who have had trouble getting support and appropriate resources. We also know that people are able and willing to make sure that their friends and neighbors do not starve in the face of calamities like these. The popularity of sites like GoFundMe, as I said, gives this a concrete and easily-referenceable form. The visibility it brings ought to get people thinking about how, other than the quick, individualized Band-Aid of the fundraiser, to solve this problem, right? It should be possible to use all these cries for help on the Internet as proof that things have to change at a large, system-wide level. Maybe that’s my Canadianness talking again. But it sure feels like a question worth asking.

Why did basketballer-turned-tycoon Shaquille O’Neal box-office-out the new film on political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jahmal? Read Dave Zirin’s take.

Race and Tyler Perry: Do We Really Need More Commentary From White People?

Lance Gross and Jurnee Smollett-Bell in Temptation. (Lionsgate/KC Bailey)

The plot of Tyler Perry’s latest film, Temptation, goes something like this: woman becomes unhappy in her marriage, decides to have an affair with a bad guy (after he borderline rapes her on a plane because Women Are Like That), bad guy is a drug addict, violent and HIV-positive to boot, woman ends up alone, diseased and unhappy, while her ex-husband finds happiness with a more virtuous woman. I mean, insert some weird chase scenes in a crappy pickup truck and some admittedly great costuming. But add on the downside bad acting (from no less than Kim Kardashian) and really terrible editing and I’ve mostly saved you the $14, if you were inclined to check it out. Probably you were already dissuaded by the terrible reviews in those places that even bothered to cover the film. Everyone seemed pretty convinced that the implication of the conclusion—that infidelity “deserves” punishment, and the punishment of HIV specifically—was complete hogwash.

And so comes an interesting meta-piece from the A.V. Club’s Joshua Alston on what he calls “white critics’ fear of offending the black community” in criticizing Perry. Alston is himself black. He writes that white—and frankly mostly male—critics who have been giving Perry too much of a pass until Temptation came along. Its awful politics on the borderline rape and HIV are what opened the space to trash Perry, Alston argues. Prior to that, as Alston described one critic’s experience, Perry’s work was treated as “a black thing” that white critics wouldn’t understand. So white critics resisted the urge to comment on Perry’s politics. Instead they’d criticize him—as I do above—for his bad art, on how sloppily his direction and dialogue are, for example.

I’m in lockstep with Alston on the matter of white criticism of Tyler Perry being often less-than-rigorous. I’d even take it further than he does. I can’t say, reading the coverage of Temptation Alston cites, that it felt that anyone but Lindy West really addressed the politics of women’s bodies in this film all that well, though Alston identifies the politics of women’s bodies as “the zeitgeist.” (I have a few women friends who write about rape and oh, I dunno, abortion, who seem to be having trouble getting white male zeitgeisty attention.) But I also agree when Alston explains that in practical effect, until Temptation, “criticism of Perry has been left to black critics and academics whose work doesn’t have the wide reach that mainstream white critics command, or the same ability to shape the dialogue about a film.” My logic just doesn’t follow him to the end that what this calls for is more white people talking about race, effectively appropriating the work those critics and academics have done for their own criticism.

For one thing, prior evidence suggests that even where the subject of, say, black women is taken seriously by these mainstream white critics, the result can be less than desirable. Take what David Edelstein of New York wrote about Precious, a few years back. First, he referred to Gabourey Sidibe’s face as “squashed” and her body as “transgressive.” Then, in the course of defending himself, he stuffed his foot further down his throat in observing that Sidibe had a “broad” body like, you know, Angela Bassett.

I pick on this example often because it was so egregious. But I don’t even think you have to believe that all critics would write things like that, or even that Edelstein meant badly when he did, to believe them indicative of cluelessness. It’s fair to say that it is understandable cluelessness. After all, the analysis offered by “mainstream white critics” is, actually, harmed by the bubble they tend to live in. If all the people you talk to and read share certain characteristics like race or gender, which for better or for worse, affect experience, you are going to end up with a blinkered perspective on anything. That said, if you live in thin New York, I guess it’s possible to call Angela Bassett broad.

I said I guess.

Anyway, there’s a name for this blinkering effect: it’s called “group polarization.” (Forgive the link to the often-wrong Cass Sunstein, but it is a remarkably clear exposition of the phenomenon.) And that goes for groups where the discussants are only men or only women, and only white or only black. And it spans every subject: Tyler Perry or Wes Anderson, Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, Toni Morrison or Philip Roth. The need for diversity in journalism, or literature or criticism is often presented as an abstract political obligation. But in fact it’s just a call for a better, deeper discussion.

So, putting it bluntly: the best way for white critics to comment on things like Tyler Perry is to get the hell out of the way most of the time. To listen and engage the work of people of other backgrounds. And then opine, in a way that thoughtfully engages other people’s work and tries to bring them into the conversation.

Let me put my money where my mouth is on that front. Latoya Peterson, at Jezebel and at Salon, has been writing about the problems with Perry’s work, as well as her ambivalence about discussing them in white spaces. So has my good friend and excellent critic Roxane Gay. Here is Ta-Nehisi responding to Spike Lee critiquing Perry. Here is Alyssa Rosenberg, who is white but who has for a long time been pretty good at incorporating diverse perspectives when she’s in cultural analysis mode. Their points aren’t all in agreement with each other, but reading all of them—rather than the white men Alston cites—one gets a much richer debate than white men seem capable of offering on their own.

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I get that Alston’s quibble is that some of these writers are either not “mainstream” or not “critical.” But actually Jezebel and Salon and The Atlantic are pretty mainstream, and the discussion of popular culture has, at this point, moved far beyond the realm of mere staff critics. And thank God, I guess I’m saying, for that. Why not just accept that the whole enterprise just needs more voices, and acknowledge the ones that already exist? Rather than continue to cement white men as the people primarily able to speak to the meaning of movies?

In rape tragedies, Jessica Valenti writes, the shame is ours.

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