Michelle Dean | The Nation


Michelle Dean

Culture and the arts in America, sliced and diced.

What Peggy Olson From 'Mad Men' Teaches Us That Sheryl Sandberg Doesn't

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in the Season 6 premiere of Mad Men. (AMC/Frank Ockenfels)

One of the pleasures of Sunday’s Mad Men premiere was watching Peggy handle herself with aplomb in rooms full of less-qualified, less-intelligent and overall less-competent men. The point the show was making was not subtle, and could in other hands have been accused of being too political, but Elisabeth Moss sold it to us anyway. Which figures: where Mad Men succeeds, it often does so on the strength of the acting rather than the writing. Just imagine if the actress playing Peggy was someone else. In other hands Peggy might be shrill, abrasive or just plain power-drunk. In Moss, you see a Peggy that has learned to modulate her soft tones and hard truths in a way that ultimately lets her win the day.

It all feels so timely; women bosses are key figures of the “zeitgeist” right now, for better or for worse. The coupling of Peggy this season with the ubiquity of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In would have been media-synergy enough. But add in the death of Margaret Thatcher (who, born somewhere and someone else, might have been a Peggy herself) to the mix and we’re up to our ears in online commentary about the nature of female leadership. And in the avalanche of “woman good” and “woman bad” analyses, how funny is it that the fictional character seems the most realistic?

Key to that realism is that Peggy still ran somewhat ashore in her success, at least to her new boss’s mind. After an entire episode in which he’s blithely enjoying himself on vacation during a client meltdown, he compliments Peggy on being “good in a crisis.” But he also tells her she should have sent everyone home once she figured out the solution to a problem late on New Years’ Eve. He even comes in to check on her, expecting chaos, but is pleasantly surprised (and possibly even turned on) by the fact that she’s flourishing. As Alan Sepinwall observes at HitFix, the sequence is clearly there to style Peggy as now being “the female Don Draper.” Who was, it bears remembering, not the greatest boss for Peggy herself, in the end.

The scene also bears another potential reading for me, one (forgive the armchair psychoanalysis) developed from what I gleaned as a flicker across Moss’s face. Viewed by a woman who has struggled to assert her authority in a work setting, Ted’s little reprimand is a reminder that what has always worked, and taken as unobjectionable, in Don—a leadership style that was demanding, in time and effort, if not exactly abrasive—would be seen in a wholly other way in Peggy. Namely, as too much.

This double standard was the subject of Lean In, which I read when it came out a few weeks ago and, I confess, found it wasn’t “for me.” But it wasn’t because I have lived a life of unbroken radical activism. My irritations with the book emerged precisely because I once worked in a professional office environment, albeit not in tech, that actually much more resembled Mad Men with its terrible office clothing. With that experience behind me, I just want a book that has more to say about the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t conundrum of being a woman asserting general authority in the world.

(Lest I be pilloried as one of the “haters,” let me point out that that I am not slamming on Sandberg’s motives so much as recognizing the constraints that one is under as a businessperson in an era where corporate honesty isn’t valued in business regulation. Too much naked honesty and she’d be subjecting a whole host of people to shareholder litigation as they fought over the veracity of her statement. There are charming priorities in American securities litigation, aren’t there?)

To be fair, Lean In did offer a catalogue of small aggressions in the workplace: men listening to each other first, women being relegated to the outer confines of the boardroom table. It is now something of a cliché to observe that these kinds of sexist gestures often feel like relics when seen on Mad Men. Let me add then that it’s equally frustrating to read things that keep missing the point: namely that if women are to get to power they have to shed their anxieties about likability and, not to put too fine a point on it, step on a few (likely male) heads. Sandberg did, of course, encourage women to “speak up.” But she wrote little about why or when that is admirable and her encouragements came out a little measured, at least to me. This is particularly so when she advocates working with men for workplace equality, which I found delightfully disingenuous. It’s not that men are hardwired to be jerks; it’s that, like anyone in power, men will guard their advantages in the workplace. It’s going to take a bit of storming the battalions, like it or not.

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As a television character, Peggy gets to offer us what Sandberg’s abstract “years of experience” cannot: context. We’ve known her for years now, her emotional development has been catalogued in GIFs and analyzed in countless blog posts. We’ve watched her get thrown under the bus by the men that surround her, and we know (especially as distanced viewers) the blustering games those men play often cover up deep insecurities. This context means that we can see the smaller calibrations she—and here I mean both Moss and Peggy—must make. Peggy accepts Ted’s criticism gracefully and thoughtfully; she deftly turns a client’s “solution” into a reason they should give her more time to resolve the problem. Peggy does it without compromising her smarts, without fluttery self-effacement and without needing to assuage men’s fears that women won’t “work with them.” And that makes her, Grantland’s Molly Lambert once put it, a successful woman in the boys’ club.

For all the proof you need, just listen again to the one line where Peggy says, “DEFCON 4 is better than DEFCON 3, I've told you that.” Note the annoyance in her voice. And note that it’s not cutting the man on the other end of the line the smallest bit of slack.

In some states, women's rights are hitting new lows. Read Katrina vanden Heuvel's analysis.

On Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

Roger Ebert receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, June 23, 2005. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

Yesterday, after the news about Roger Ebert broke, Chicago radio host Milos Stehlik reached out to Werner Herzog. Herzog and Ebert had been friends for decades, Ebert having been a great admirer of Herzog’s 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. From there it was nearly always a love-in, Ebert often writing tributes to the director. But it did not obviate Ebert’s critical eye. In one conversation at the University of Urbana-Champaign in 2004, Ebert told Herzog, “Your films expand me, they exhilarate me, they make me feel that you are trying to put your arms around enormous ideas.” He then added, “And at the same time there's a feeling of hopelessness. I think of Aguirre on the sinking raft, in the middle of the river, mad, surrounded by gibbering monkeys.”

To Stehlik, Herzog did sound a hopeless note. Of course, he said he had only heard the news of Ebert’s death a few minutes before. He was audibly upset; at the end of the interview he made a sound that could only have been a sob. He said that Ebert was among the “very last” serious writers about movies. He worried that the trend had shifted to celebrities, and celebrities only. There were a few others who wrote seriously, Herzog said, but “none of [Ebert]’s caliber.” “My question is, what do we do without him now?” Herzog said. “What do we do?”

Grief gets its own logic, I think. And I love Herzog, both his films and the way he thinks. The note he sounded is one he’s spoken about before, once joking in an appearance at the New York Public Library that he’d forced Ebert to watch The Anna Nicole Smith Show because it was “a monumental failure of civilization.” And no one really disputes that he’s wrong; it’s a difficult thing to keep talking about movies as objects of art in an age where most are cynical CGI-and-poop-joke extravaganzas.

But just to voice a small bit of hope: as someone who just read Ebert, who only watched him from afar, it seems to me that one of his great talents was not just sorting wheat from chaff. He was as much a popularizer as he was a critic, a person who did not spend his life advocating for one aesthetic preference over another as he just loved talking about movies with other people. He made it a popular pastime in a way the great idols of movie criticism like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris never attempted. All morning as I’ve been writing this the tributes have been piling up from young critics he encouraged and communicated with, but I don’t just mean his encouragement of professionals. He had a way of being a critic without coming across as high-handed or snobbish, and the liberatory power of that isn’t a thing to underestimate. Will Leitch, of New York magazine, wrote a few years ago that Ebert was, to him, a “glimpse of a better life: He was proof there was a ticket out.” It’s not an accident that a “better life” was one spent drenched in the culture, I think. And that glimpse should still be held out to everyone and anyone, no matter the pedigree.

In an age where the economics of cultural journalism are bottoming out, where professional book reviews compete with Amazon ones and everyone with a WordPress account can get their reviews listed on Rotten Tomatoes, a lot of critics do a lot of rather anti-democratic grumbling about the diminishment of taste. You know what they mean, but I’ve always thought that their target was wrong. If we’re going to find a way to have a meaningful culture in this country, the obstacle doesn’t lie with a growing number of people who are passionate about discussing the ins and outs of it. It’s with a corporatized cultural industry where the bottom line is so important that no risks are taken. Sure, some of the shlock sells, but much of it, from John Carter to The Host, fades out and dies a quick death. It does so because no one can find anything to say about it the moment they walk out the door.

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Ebert, I think, understood this. In that conversation with Herzog he also said, “I see so many movies that are all the same, they're cut off like sausages, you get another two hours worth and then you go home and you forget about them.” The point of Ebert’s criticism was to preserve the things that mattered to you, and forget all the ones that didn’t, the ones he generically dismissed with complaints like, “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie.” In the last years of his life, with his loss of the power of speech, he became an inspirational figure precisely because even in the midst of a lot of bad stuff he still saw the good. The best way to remember him, I think, would be to try to do the same.

It didn't take long for the University of Louisville to bank on an ugly injury to one of its basketball players. Read Dave Zirin's take

Is 'Game of Thrones' Escapist Enough?

Sean Bean plays Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark in the HBO series Game of Thrones. (AP Photo/HBO, Nick Briggs)

Game of Thrones is a pageant of a show, all velvet-curtain costumes and dye jobs that somehow never extend to the eyebrows. The accents are weird and randomly assigned, particularly the ones that are English by way of Denmark and New Jersey. And the CGI’s not all that different from the psychedelic drawings in 1970s cartoons. But somehow, every year, it rolls around just in time for people to feel like the real world’s a little much to handle, and we forgive its pieties and excesses for a few hours of entertainment.

In fact, it rarely feels like the ten hours we get each season are enough, and that feeling arises in spite of the amount of violence, exploitation, rape and suffering on the thing, which makes the daily headlines of life in America look like they were written by Captain Kangaroo. This season, whose prose analogue is the third book of the trilogy, A Storm of Swords, starts dark—the rotund and lovable Samwell Tarly running from one of the blue-eyed northern zombies they call the Others, or White Walkers—and will end darker. I won’t say a lot more, except to say that the first big twist comes three episodes in and things devolve from there.

In a way it’s all going according to plan. We are now mid-cycle in a fantasy epic, and that means despair. By the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Skywalker loses a hand and Han is encased in concrete. The Two Towers ends with Frodo injured and captured by orcs. In Westeros, each of the pretenders to the throne—and sundry other leaders—are scattered. Jon Snow’s among the Wildings, separated from his brothers in the Watch. Arya’s wandering alone, Daenerys is about to buy slaves on a grand scale to form her army. Catelyn’s being treated like a prisoner by her own son. Tyrion Lannister, the closest thing to a central protagonist the show has, has been scarred and deposed from any real power. “Now,” as an old green philosopher with big ears once said, “matters are worse.”

Tenth grade history classes are often taught that in bad times—specifically, the Great Depression—Americans prefer escapist entertainment. And you don’t need this blog post to tell you that we are indeed in bad times, with this ever-lagging economic “recovery” where stock indexes rise as people are coming up on four and five years of unemployment. But typically the escapism we once preferred was, as in the Great Depression, social-comment-free: musicals like 42nd Street and Anything Goes, superhero comic books or cutesy Shirley Temple pictures. Sprawling quasi-Hobbesian magical-realist epics about the nature of power and sex in society: not so much. Until now, when we wanted to escape, we reached for utopias.

Which, whatever else it might be, Westeros is not. Because George R.R. Martin has not finished his books—and as someone who greatly prefers the books to the show, I pray that he one day does—it’s hard to know if he’s going to give us a big, cathartic finale, destroy his Ring or his Death Star, so to speak. But it is hard to imagine how exactly that could come about. The difference between Game of Thrones and the other epics that Americans cling to is that in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings there is an identifiable enemy. The Empire, the Red Eye of Sauron: however much their evil has contaminated our heroes, the quest is clear. They must be defeated, and if at the very last moment something like Gollum has to intervene and bite your finger off to achieve that, no harm no foul. The mountain erupts and the Ewoks are ready to party. Even in the relatively even-handed Star Trek universe, the less well-defined “go where no one has gone before” quest held out the promise of new frontiers. The scales still come out for good over evil.

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In Game of Thrones, by contrast, there are a lot more people in play on the board. When I say Tyrion is the clearest thing the series and the book have to a protagonist, I am speaking of a character who appears in only a fraction of scenes. I am also speaking of one whose great sorrow is that he is being denied what he thinks of as his right to power (and its consequent yield of ladies) in a society organized along archaic patrilineal lines, not to mention a feudal class politics. Arya Stark, another of the candidates for heroine, is a better pick, but her path is swiftly leading her off the road to power, the gaining of which is the closest thing to a triumph the show makes available to its characters. But even our rooting for her comes because she is very young—the actress who plays her is just 13 now—and not necessarily because we feel she knows how to restore calm and order to a fractured society. Of course, there are other candidates for both hero and foe, but in a way that’s just it: power is so diffuse in Westeros that it’s hard to know how any one blow will be the one that decisively ends all the conflict. Daenerys might rule, Jon Snow might defeat the White Walkers. But the idea that any of this will lead to a better world feels naive and remote to the entire project of the show.

I’m not so much concerned, as some are, with what any of this reveals about Martin’s politics, or about those of the showrunners David Benioff or D.B. Weiss. Nor do I think, particularly, that the public’s love of Game of Thrones comes from a flat embrace of the political values of Westeros. (The joy many people take in Daenerys, I think, comes from her potential to subvert all those rules, in particular the one about being ruled by a man.) It’s more that the core of the show, with its—dare I say it—postmodern approach to power, represents a shift in how we are imagining alternate worlds.

And that strikes me as politically interesting. The German philosopher (and Marxist) Ernst Bloch argued, in his Principle of Hope, that the phenomenon of escapism was actually a good thing, in terms of encouraging social change. His thought, to put it in an oversimplified but nonetheless accurate way, was that no one ever started a revolution without a bit of hope. And as such, many utopian dreams and escapist fantasias were really about the articulation of the hope of a better world in a really bad one. But Game of Thrones, for better or for worse, isn’t about that. It is about choosing the lesser of evils, and the insistence on hope seems to have very little to do with it. Some people will applaud that, saying it gives people a more realistic view of how power works and change is achieved. But call me a dreamer, then: I’d rather have my prime directive and utopian Shire with its second breakfast, somehow.

When one part of the safety net rips, there’s recourse in another—sometimes. Read Bryce Covert’s analysis.

'Top of the Lake': The Most Remarkable Depiction of Violence Against Women on TV

A scene from Top of the Lake. (Credit: Sundance Channel)

Top of the Lake, which premiered last night on the Sundance channel, is a police procedural, a genre I often avoid, at least in its popular-network incarnation. (The Wire, for example, I obviously loved.) There is something that has always bothered me about the way these shows organize their plots around a particularly lurid read of violence in modern life and, in many cases, violence against women. This is not a matter of blood and guts so much as it is that the entire enterprise—the pretense that the cops are always well-intentioned and impeccably trained, indifferent to power structures and, to the last one, a maverick. Nobody on television suffers from less-than-diligent law enforcement. The victims are, often enough, flat, idealized girls who hardly seem human. They aren’t usually alive for long enough to acquire a personality. Sympathy for the perpetrator—or the cop dedicated to catching him—is the only room for real empathy in the narrative.

Top of the Lake isn’t like that. So you should be watching it.

In the first episode, which will be re-broadcast tonight and tomorrow, Detective Robin Griffin, played by Elisabeth Moss from Mad Men, has come back to her hometown in New Zealand to visit her possibly terminally ill mother. This is not an assignment she relishes, so when the local police outpost asks her to help out with a sexual abuse case, she quickly agrees to interrupt her vacation for it. The victim is a twelve-year-old, half-Thai girl named Tui (Jacqueline Joe). At first she seems like the same sort of hair-in-her-eyes, sullen victim you’ve seen on a hundred shows. But when Robin asks her to write the name of her rapist down on a sheet of paper, Tui writes: “No one.” And when she is sent home to her white father, Tui’s first instinct is to go for the guns. So when she vanishes, without the series ever needing to say so, it’s obvious that she did not go gently into whatever night was following her.

From there I’ll let you watch the show itself to see what, precisely, is going on. From the get-go it dedicates itself to something other than the ordinary Missing White Girl story that these sorts of shows traffic in. Even AMC’s occasionally brilliant (if ultimately terrible) The Killing fell right for that, female showrunner and all. In fact, Top of the Lake’s best forebear might turn out to be Twin Peaks, where it turned out that Laura Palmer was not just a prom queen. Tui is a fighter, it’s clear from the first episode, and a wary and piercing presence. Which isn’t to say that it must have been enough to save her from what happens, often enough, to young women with a secret adults want them to keep.

Or, at least, some adults: mostly men. The most remarkable moment in the pilot comes when Tui visits the feminist collective (and/or cult) which has set up on a property next to her dad’s, and the collective’s guru—played by Holly Hunter in a less-than-realistic grey wig—tells Tui that her stomach contains a “time bomb.” That sort of comment might seem hard to tell a twelve-year-old, and yet it is also just the thing to say to Tui at that moment, articulating something she clearly feels about herself. And given that this is the last scene before she slips away, it is an apt punctuation.

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The Crones (my name, not the show’s) may seem a bit caricaturish to people unused to seeing women over forty on television, at least without considerable intervention by surgeons and a diet of kale, yerba maté and pilates. But they aren’t so much satirical as kind of startlingly honest. “They’ve no longer got any hope of fitting into the world, so they’re kind of outspoken. They’ve fallen off the social edge of the world,” Campion told New York Magazine’s Vulture. “Their story doesn’t have a part for them to play, which is the unfuckables. They kind of know it, and it’s sad, but it’s also liberating.”

That none of the women in this show seem to have any illusions about the men they live with is, after all, important to how this mystery unfolds. The Scottish actor Peter Mullan is already drawing raves for his performance as Matt, Tui’s strange and violent father. In another kind of show he’d have a dramatic bullseye painted on his head, the one evil man in a pack of soft, pudgy and comforting dads. In Top of the Lake, by contrast, Matt’s just the one who is the most honest about his violent temper. A friend told me last night that she’d already heard the show joked about as “misandrist.” It’s certainly true that there’s barely a decent man in this show. All I can say is watch, and tell me that it doesn’t seem, to you as it did me, like there was more than a little truth in the fantasia. Especially in small towns.

For the latest realer-than-fiction police drama, check out The Nation’s exclusive coverage of the New York police union’s sign-on to the NYPD’s quota system.

'Veronica Mars', Amanda Palmer, 'The Atlantic' and the Depressing Economics of Cultural Production: Oh My!

A shot from the Veronica Mars Kickstarter video. (Credit: kickstarter.com)

Commentary on the propriety of “working for free” in the arts and other vaguely creative professions like journalism has been at an all-time high the last two weeks. In one ring, we have a working journalist who was asked to contribute, for free, to The Atlantic’s website. The man in question, Nate Thayer, reacted to this request with a blind fury that seemed at once righteous and frankly overwrought. He had evidently been cushioned from the realities of online journalism for some time. Requests to work for free are not new, and particularly not new from The Atlantic.Ta-Nehisi Coates himself pointed out that he had begun working at The Atlantic website for free, as a guest blogger for Matt Yglesias—marquee name though he is now.

Meanwhile, in the TED Talks–land of you-paid-how-much-for-that-ticket, the musician Amanda Palmer believes that artists should stop charging for their work. Instead, she says, they ought to “let” people pay them. Her argument, as Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon points out, is slightly stronger than the standard “people will pay for things they value” argument. Palmer thinks artists can guarantee monetary and logistical support, by reaching out, developing, and nurturing a community of devoted fans on the Internet. Twitter followers, her philosophy holds, will donate reasonable amounts of money, or couches to sleep on on tour. They in turn will then support projects that jittery corporate suits find too risky. She cites her own success as evidence that this model works, which last year saw her raise $1.2 million on Kickstarter for an album.

While Coates and Palmer differ somewhat in the particulars of their arguments—Coates makes a far better argument, one less driven than Palmer by bullshitty “inner creativity” talk—the animating philosophy is the same: If you make it, they will come. Which sounds like an insult to the people in their respective fields who have tried the same routes—the blogging, the Kickstarters, the Twitter feeds, the donated journalism—and ended up, well, somewhere south of $1.2 million and a gig at The Atlantic. Some people would say that the others simply aren’t talented enough to rise to the top of the crop, and of course in many cases that is simply one hundred percent true. But there are a lot of artists out there struggling right now—Nitsuh Abebe, at New York, wrote a great piece on the struggles of the indie-popular Grizzly Bear a few months ago—for reasons other than talent. If you talk to the kind of journalists who do valuable work—some here at The Nation—they will tell you that they find it difficult to do in this marketplace. And a Kickstarter with the label “I’d like to do hard-hitting journalism about poverty in America,” for whatever reason, is never going to do as well as one called “The Veronica Mars Movie Project,” which as of this writing has raised $3.2 million and counting.

It is tempting to blame the holes in the logic here on Lawrence Lessig and his followers. Don’t get me wrong; many of Lessig’s ideas about copyright and free culture are nothing short of brilliant. His legal theory, viewed in isolation from the real world, is a thing of vision and elegance. His dream of a robust public domain, with works that other artists can liberally borrow, steal from and build on, is a good one. The problem is, like many theories, this one has a hard time explaining how, in the midst of a revolution in the modes of cultural production, people are going to keep themselves in cat food, if you catch my drift. The success of Lessig’s thinking, the promulgation of his ideas, has occurred in a media environment that is still largely bound up with gatekeepers. Your Wordpress blog is just never going to have the cachet of even a guest-blogging stint at The Atlantic. And one still, generally, needs the anointment of a record company in order to get the kind of press and, hell, capital investment, that it takes to make one’s first albums a success. (Palmer herself was associated with a label until just three years ago.) And it sure helps to have three seasons of your TV show already produced and available for years on DVD to build the kind of audience who will gladly donate millions to keep you going.

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Therein lies the rub: In this sort of hybrid environment, where we still have gatekeepers, creators still need to leverage themselves with existing brands in order to break into the conversation. And even businesspeople who dedicate themselves to the arts are obviously capitalists. Sure, on one side, certain aspects of the Internet—piracy, yes, but also sheer volume of stuff to look at and listen to—are putting pressure on profits. But on the other side, in an atmosphere of growing noise, artists still need these businesspeople to give them legitimacy in the early stages of their careers, to float them reputational capital. That is why you see places like The Atlantic, a profitable institution, kick up only a minor fuss when it fails to pay people. Journalists still need the legitimacy The Atlantic can confer to stand out. And that is no doubt how the people who own profitable arts-related businesses justify their free-labor practices to themselves.

It is also why Amanda Palmer’s “model” doesn’t make much sense. It’s of course possible that, absent the support of a label at any point, she would still have become “alt-icon” that many people now claim her to be. But we will never know if that is the case. Even in her TED Talk, she says she first developed her “sense of direct connection” on tour with the Dresden Dolls, pre-Twitter, pre-Kickstarter, before any of us had heard of the word “crowdsourcing.” (I miss those halcyon days.) But it really is one thing to make friends with the captive audience in tiny, underground bars, and quite another to make them on the Internet. The latest Republican gaffe and cute-baby-animal video are tough to compete with, even if you are doing very good creative and journalistic work. And the way things are going, it’s tempting to just throw up your hands, get a regular old desk job and pass the hat for another glance at Logan Echolls.

The political economy of homecare work is also less-than-kind to the average worker. Check out three things that you can do to take action. 

What 'Oz' Owes To Early Radical Feminism

James Franco in a scene from Oz the Great and Powerful. (AP Photo/Disney Enterprises)

Glenn Kenny, a film critic friend of mine, notes at MSN Movies that the problem with this new Oz the Great and Powerful is that James Franco is grievously miscast as the Wizard of Oz. To me this was more or less clear from the trailer, Franco’s bumble-stoner presence an instant false note when placed in the same frame as the self-possession of Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz. (I haven’t seen the movie yet.) But the disparity of talent there only mirrors the way the Oz story has been structured, from the moment L. Frank Baum set pen to paper. As underscored by spin-off work like Wicked, the fact is, Oz has always been matriarchal. Which is not, in this case at least, a feminist utopia in the sense of being a place where women nurture each other right into Scandinavian social-democratic bliss. Instead, in Oz, as Alison Lurie once put it in The New York Review of Books, “Women rule all the good societies and some of the bad ones.” For every Glinda, you get a Wicked Witch.

There is, of course, other proof of women’s power in Oz than the rule of the witches. Dorothy’s male companions, literary scholars point out, are all robots and scarecrows and stuffed antelope heads. The Wizard himself is a disappointment. Ozma, the rightful ruler of Oz, is at one point a boy, but it turns out to be a spell disguising her true gender. What’s more, on some level the books were self-conscious about their denigration of men. At the end of the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the denizens of the Emerald City remark that “there is not another city in all the world that is ruled by a stuffed man.” But the narrator observes, “And so far as they knew, they were quite right”—implying that not all stuffing is visible on the outside, if you catch his drift.

Given that these are all early-century books, the progressiveness of it might seem remarkable, but then Frank Baum was unusually well-connected to one of the more radical figures in early American feminism. He’d married a woman named Maud Gage, whose mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage, was a feminist who worked alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But Matilda Gage was more than a simple suffragette or birth control activist; she was a philosopher and a theosophist as well as a historian. She believed in reincarnation, and developed an entire theory that “man” had suppressed traces of an earlier history of matriarchy, particularly among First Nations people:

These records prove that women had acquired great liberty under the old civilizations. A form of society existed at an early age known as the Matriarchate or Mother-rule. Under the Matriarchate, except as son and inferior, man was not recognized in either of these great institutions, family, state or church. A father and husband as such, had no place either in the social, political or religious scheme; woman was ruler in each.

She also wrote extensively on Christian theology and its role in the oppression of women. In particular, she was obsessed with witches and witchcraft, whose demonization she saw as irrational and devaluing of women long before 1990s-style Wiccans took up the call of recharacterizing witches as “wise women”:

Whatever the pretext made for witchcraft persecution we have abundant proof that the so-called “witch” was among the most profoundly scientific persons of the age. The church, having forbidden its offices and all external methods of knowledge to woman, was profoundly stirred with indignation at her having, through her own wisdom, penetrated into some of the most deeply subtle secrets of nature: and it was a subject of debate during the middle ages if learning for woman was not an additional capacity for evil, as owing to her, knowledge had first been introduced in the world.

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Biographers of Baum routinely declare that he borrowed the concept of the Good Witch wholesale from Gage’s writings, though none cite any particular admission by him that he consciously did so. But Gage certainly encouraged her son-in-law to publish the stories he told his children, a piece of advice she did not live to see carried out. She would die in 1897, three years before the publication of the first of the Oz books. So she never got to see how he ended up popularizing her ideas for generation upon generation of American children.

The good and bad witches of Oz, delicious campy parts though they might make for Hollywood actresses, are hardly role models, mind you. There are few American girls who looked forward to growing up as Glinda, much less the Wicked Witch of the West. But these character did, in some sense, open the options, ones we still struggle with over here in “Kansas” today, in that they got to rule whether or not they were perfectly good or perfectly bad. They did not have to conform to the kind of “likability” we demand of modern female leaders, because of their otherworldliness, perhaps. But having etched into your childhood some idea that women, too, could exercise raw power—it had, I think, to be worth something.

Despite years of protest, Katha Pollitt writes, Saudi women still can’t drive.

HBO, Renew 'Enlightened' Already!

A shot from Enlightened. (Credit: HBO)

There’s a moment, in the hopefully-not-final episode of Enlightened, which aired this past Sunday, when you’re not sure if Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe is about to go through with it. Go through with the corporate whistleblowing, that is. I mean, in a way the events were already out of her control. She’d discovered incriminating corporate documents; she’d handed them off to a journalist who was buddies with Noam Chomsky and Laurie David; and lawyers were on the phone with his editors. But there was a second in there, as she’s being marched into the boardroom for a chat with the CEO about the gathering storm, where you think: She’s going to lose it. She’s not going to be able to hold her own with a bunch of lawyers. Their expensive suits and lengthy self-justifications are just going to be too much for her, a woman of no importance, as they used to say, or at least rather indeterminate level of education and corporate savvy.

But boy, did she flip the tables on them.

This week we will likely learn whether Mike White managed to do the same for his show. There’s been a flurry of commentary from virtually everyone who writes about television about it, because by the time White began doing interviews emphasizing how in danger the show was of not seeing a third season, everyone went into blind panic. For a while I thought this show was best described as an acquired taste, a critic’s show; its habit of forcing the viewer into reflecting on first reactions—say, on the supposedly “annoying” habits of Amy herself—is going to be hard for people who want something other than thinking in their entertainment. (I say that genuinely, without judgment: I like lots of things whose chief quality derives from escapism.)

But watching the reactions this week, it became clear that the love of this show was not only cerebral, about “smarts,” and the more I thought about it the more it became true that I identified with “annoying” Amy. Now, “I relate to her” can be a really crappy way of justifying some particular piece of art. But I mention that I do because I think my burning, unbelievable desire to have a season three, in spite of a finale episode that so many people agree brought them “closure,” has a really personal dimension.

A thing I don’t talk about much because I now largely write for progressive sites is that up until about three years ago, I was a practicing lawyer, and I worked for a giant corporate law firm. It is fair to say, without going into it at length, that it was not the place for me. I had actually come up as a leftist and sort of lost my way somewhere in the middle of law school; I decided all I wanted was to come to New York, and did not think very hard about the method.

In my defense, I was in my mid-20s, and I was not American and they offered a visa, and the thing is, a lot of workplaces make it very easy to walk in and just, well, snooze for a while. The world becomes very small, just you and your desk and your boss and the e-mail he wishes you had sent ten minutes ago. You pick up pro bono projects, maybe, but after a year or so, especially if you have debt staring you in the face, it becomes hard to believe that you have any choice in the matter. These places have a way of saying to their people: you are stuck. Not to give any corporate-types too much credit, but in my entirely anecdotal experience this is why some talented young people, despite having strong backgrounds in public service before they walked into the skyscraper, begin to justify their fancy benefits jobs as anything other than personal financial necessity. If you can’t see your way out of the corner you’re stuffed into, you cope by deciding that the corner isn’t such a bad habitat, after all. And soon you begin to actually cling to it.

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So walking away from that, from admitting that years upon years of your life were spent in service of nothing particularly meaningful or helpful is, actually, incredibly hard. I was lucky in some ways, in that I was laid off. I didn’t force myself to make the choice to abandon practice altogether for another year. I was helped, considerably, in that decision by the fact that it’s a terrible market for lawyers now.

I don’t want to sound overly self-aggrandizing—I certainly did not blow any whistles, partially because I had none I could blow. But like Amy’s, mine was a decision about wanting to do something more meaningful with my life than these law firms promised. For me the key was leaving law altogether for journalism, and writing. And it’s certainly true that I am happier this way, but it has also been a minute-to-minute struggle to remember this—partially because freelancing is so precarious and partially just because the problem with meaning is that your personal stakes in doing well are so much higher. You agonize over every e-mail in a new and actually sort of horrible way. Because most paths to doing what you think is right are paved with self-doubt, you worry that your language isn’t inclusive, your analysis impenetrable, your information lazy. Living in this space is every bit as fraught with drama as the decision to get out of it, is my point.

Where this rejoins Enlightened is in the idea, which runs through some of those laudatory pieces about the finale, that Amy Jellicoe’s story reached an appropriate end. Perhaps I can’t offer any affirmation for this other than personal testimony, but not only is there a story in the aftermath, the uncertainty doesn’t end the second you walk out into the sunny world, having done The Right Thing. White said he wanted to give the season an upbeat ending and he did, but Amy hints at other parts of this experience when she tells her ex-husband, “I’ve been driving, and I don’t have anywhere to go.” One reason HBO ought to renew Enlightened is, of course, Mike White’s talent in executing all this. But another is that, in a very real way, Amy’s story—like mine—has a lot left to it. Everyone else can call that finale a wrap-up, but from my standpoint, it was another, subtler cliffhanger.

The Fight Over Seth MacFarlane Is a Study in Self-Confidence

Seth MacFarlane speaks at the 85th Academy Awards. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

At Jezebel, Lindy West writes about what a lot of us have been feeling this week in the fallout from Seth MacFarlane’s Oscars hosting gig. I found this particularly apt:

I am tired of trying to have an intellectual discussion about dog-whistle sexism in a culture where prominent politicians are still trying to grasp what rape is, and in a world where little girls are shot in the head because they want to go to school. Asking people to think critically about some hacky jokes from a dancing cartoonist? You might as well wear a sandwich board that says, “Yell at Me With Bad Grammar.”

All week I have been having trouble focusing on one subject to write about here because of this particular factor. It is not that the culture doesn’t, on a regular basis, offer up some new thing to complain about and criticize. Just this week alone we had MacFarlane and friends, who were quickly joined by the non-exclusive list of: the growing furor over Sheryl Sandberg’s apparent audacity in wearing expensive shoes while being feminist in public; some bizarre new fixation the media has on hating Anne Hathaway; a weird Philip Roth graphic that implies that Philip Roth should win a Nobel—which, by the way, is an international prize—because American writers, overwhelmingly male in this sample, think so; Mike White mentioning that his wonderful, amazing HBO series Enlightened is about to be cancelled, in part because “men aren’t interested in the woman’s story. They just aren’t.”

Every once in awhile someone writes a frustrated post about how some particular incident of this ilk is not important enough to require commentary. Which always misses what seems to me the clearer point: each time something happens in culture that reminds us of what a sexist, racist, heteronormative, classist world we live in, the pieces complaining about it are never really about just that one incident. They are motivated by an accumulated frustration because these things happen over and over again, and very little ever changes about it. At a certain point, it feels like you’re just presenting evidence to an empty courtroom.

Come to think of it, Americans just seem to be at a point—call it a legacy of Bush, but it probably has roots in earlier eras—where evidence and proof are beyond the point. Which explains why, if you like Seth MacFarlane, you must defend his “Boobs” song to the death as light-hearted satire, even in the face of people pointing out that said “boobs” were often seen in the context of rape scenes. If you think Sheryl Sandberg is incorrect as to what will properly advance women in the workplace, the only thing to do is write a column accusing her of beginning “the war on moms,” even though she is herself a mother, which likely means something else is going on.

You could say that all of these are only trifling examples of media-driven controversies. But then consider how much and at what considerable length something like the drone campaign has been written about, without eliciting really much public outrage or even measured discussion.

I spend enough time trawling the archives of old newspapers to know that, in some sense, ‘twas ever thus; the uninformed have always have megaphones and things get simplified for mass consumption. But when you are a progressive type, and operate largely from the evidence, i.e., by simply counting the number of men consulted about what Roth “deserves” (28) and comparing it to the number of women (5) and concluding that yeah, something is not right here… it’s challenging to want to bother. You find yourself instead fantasizing about moving to a Hawaiian island and swimming with tortoises.

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Of course like everyone else I know that’s just what people who want to uphold inequalities want: they want to tire their opponents out. In the feminist world they call it gaslighting, which simply means that the quickest way to shut someone up is to tell them that their perceptions of reality are simply incorrect. It works pretty well on women particularly, in my experience. Because I admit, as for myself, someone who has had ample enough confirmation of her right to speak (here I’ve got a Nation blog, after all), it is a continual struggle to believe that even when a man declaims that a thing isn’t sexist that I have a right to trust my own internal compass on the matter instead.

I can’t speak to other social cleavages on that score, but I can only imagine it’s the same. There’s something about soaking in a culture that has, for so long, been about What Straight White Men Think, that induces a sort of regretfully tenacious self-doubt. And that’s not even to get into the hours and days and weeks of men piling on, in the age of the Internet, to tell you you should not have even spoken in the first place. We’re about to hear a ton, in connection with the Sheryl Sandberg book (which I haven’t read yet, and shall appear on March 10) about the need for women to be more confident in pursuing their ambitions. But it’s always seemed to me that the problem starts somewhere before the workplace, somewhere in the signals that men send to women, that, as Rebecca Solnit once put it, “this is not their world.“

The signals can be as small, of course, as simply trying to “win” an argument with women who took genuine offense at MacFarlane’s antics. Which brings me back to Lindy West. Obviously I share her “sexism” fatigue, at least this week. I admired the way she made no reference to any fear that she has been too quick to judge MacFarlane or the rest of it. I have no problem with her decision to allocate her energies elsewhere. But the end result of these fatigues will, necessarily, be that no matter how ambitious you are, no matter how much the sexism or racism at hand matters to you, yours is another mouth that is shut, while a man extemporizes about his views on “strippers and hos” in the background. In other words: it’d be nice to see a few men accept that they, too, are part of women’s confidence problems.

Hide the women and children! The sequestration is coming. Read Katrina vanden Heuvel’s analysis.

The Very American Cynicism of House of Cards

Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey in a scene from the Netflix original series, House of Cards. (AP Photo/Netflix, Melinda Sue Gordon)

It took me a whole weekend, but fueled by Utz cheese balls I got through the entire run of House of Cards. That foreshadowing you’re detecting is exactly correct: I found it a slog. I think Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker was very right when she wrote in this week’s issue that it’s “elegant,” in terms of script and production value, and fairly aggressive in its message that it is a realistic sort of fiction we are watching. But “it’s a meditation on amorality that tells us mostly what we already know.” What we already know, in that rubric, is that politicians are corrupt, that power-brokering and negotiation are dirty businesses.

Kevin Spacey’s Congressman, Francis Underwood, spends much of his time reminding the naifs in his orbit of that. Not that there’s much innocence to go around in this crew: his wife (Robin Wright) is prepared to screw him over, the young reporter (Kate Mara) tells him pretty explicitly that she’s prepared to play his “whore.” The closest thing this show has to an idealist is the girlfriend of a drug-addicted senator who helps him cover it up, which in the rosiest view she does because she believes he’s one of the good ones. But even there, she barely peeps up when he sits silent at a committee meeting leading to a shipyard's closing that costs his district thousands of jobs.

This über-cynicism turns up in popular culture a lot. The trope of the corrupt political process is the plot engine of shows like Veep and even Scandal, as Nussbaum pointed out. (Homeland fits in here, too.) It also makes cameos in a number of other shows whenever they hit up Washington. It’s not necessary to be a naif here to notice, even accepting the obvious distance between fiction and reality, that this worldview matches up pretty closely to public opinion about the powers and pitfalls of government. For all the pomp and circumstance in America about the greatness of the Capitol, the high-flown rhetoric of State of the Union speeches, few people believe any more in government as a setting where political ideals are properly debated. Even back in 2008, the biggest dreamers in the Obama campaign positioned him as someone who would break up the bonds of corruption and dysfunction in politics. And in a way, the massive disenchantment among liberals that set in sometime about midnight on January 21, 2009, is only evidence that all along, the fear was lurking that this was not the panacea they’d hoped for.

There are, of course, other views. In popular culture, Aaron Sorkin’s entire existence is predicated on a high-minded, if also entirely self-aggrandizing, idea that somewhere out there there are men (and the clumsy-but-well-intentioned women who adore them) who are in power to do good. His unlikely comrade-in-arms, I think, is someone like Amy Poehler. Her beloved, if low-rated, Parks and Recreation stars her as a sort of mid-level functionary determined to make some small difference. Irony was draped all over this, at first, for comedic effect, but as the show went on it became hard not to respect her drive. And yet: these are the views that are typically attacked as liberal fantasizing, naïve and unknowing of true “human” nature, in a way that the other shows are not. Both present heightened versions of reality, but only one skews that way, in a lot of public reaction.

The idea that power corrupts, etc., has a powerful hold everywhere in the “real” world, of course. And yet, speaking as a Canadian expat, it’s always seemed to me to be much more concentrated in America. At least in terms of the baseline up North, it isn’t presumed immediately that “government,” as a category, can’t achieve anything. Or at least it isn’t presumed that the private sector automatically does things more efficiently or even just “better,” whatever that means. This explains, for example, why although there has been a Conservative government in Canada for years now, one that could rival your average Republican for pig-headed thinking, they have never been able to dismantle the public healthcare system. In spite of the ominous coverage it receives down here, that system is hugely popular, at the very least generally agreed by Canadians to be much preferable to the American hell of private red tape (yes!) and expensiveness.

These pop culture artifacts are of course only articulations of one of the great myths of American culture: that the problems in its politics are fundamentally about individual morality. Much as I enjoyed Lincoln, there is something of an anointment of secular sainthood to the hullabaloo surrounding it which comes off as the other side of the corruption coin. Put it all into the American love of a good show, and government becomes an operation of gods and devils, just like it is on television.

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As proof you need look no father than the persistent belief that if one ousts the one or two or, you know, 300 bad apples from government—every last one of those Francis Underwoods—we would be left with a system that is largely workable. And that is, as people from James Fallows to Lawrence Lessig to Ezra Klein would put it, balderdash. They all explain why it is in slightly different ways—all of course pointing to the money/lobbyist problem, though there are a lot of vague and undefined references to “partisanism” too—but they agree that the system is as broken as some of the people in it.

No one is denying that dramatizing a broken system is a lot harder than dramatizing a broken person. And I am not, of course, suggesting that the pessimism of Americans can or should be solved by popular culture alone, nor even that popular culture has any obligation to solve it, though perhaps Sorkin might agree with that. He would be well reminded that his attempts to instruct the media on how it should operate, with The Newsroom, have not gone down all that well. Didacticism is a tricky tactic for an artist. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask ourselves what lessons things like House of Cards, with its aggressive devotion to “realism,” are teaching us, anyway.

“Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius’s murder of Reeva Steenkamp is also a
misbegotten, fallen-hero-centered morality tale, Dave Zirin writes.

On the 'Anger' of Betty Friedan and 'The Feminine Mystique'

Betty Friedan. (Flickr)

I’ve been reading all the press surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of the Feminine Mystique. Not a piece goes by without mention that by all accounts Betty Friedan was not a particularly likable woman. That is not revisionism; people have been snickering about Friedan’s flyaways and outfits since her heyday, of course. All the way back in the early 1970s Nora Ephron was making light of Friedan in Esquire for despising Gloria Steinem, aping a jealous inner monologue: “It’s her baby, damn it. Her movement. Is she supposed to sit still and let a beautiful thin lady run off with it?” I come to you not so much to knock over that stereotype—to be honest, Friedan does seem a little unpleasant, what with her whole suspicion of the lavender menace and all—as to wonder whether we need to keep framing these things with the slight note of apology we do. Friedan was more of a woman behind the curtain than Glinda the Good Witch, sure, but how much longer are we going to hold women to the goalpost-shifting “likability” standard?

More disturbing than the criticism of Friedan herself is the way it has leaked into discussion of her book. I have been told by more than six or seven youngish writers on women and culture that they’ve never read it. I confess myself that I might not have were it not for the intervention of an undergraduate class on the cultural history of the Cold War. Some of that has to do with the unfashionability of the second wave, these days. It’s a bizarre feature of modern “young” feminism—the third or fourth wave—that even as we say that we are not like our forebears, further inquiry reveals near-total ignorance of what those forbears actually did, or said, or wrote.

Yet even for slightly older generation, the theme of these pieces revisiting the book is surprise. For them the distance between modern feminist sensibilities and Friedan’s is anger. Gail Collins, writing the introduction (excerpted a couple of weeks ago in The New York Times Magazine), summed it up as “a very specific cry of rage.” At NPR, Slate’s Hanna Rosin, speaking for the class, I suppose, is quoted as saying that, “We don’t write with that kind of anger and rage anymore.” And of course I understands that neither Rosin nor Collins meant to diminish The Feminine Mystique with this observation. And yet I kept wondering, wherever I encountered the observation, whether it wasn’t a problem that female anger still had the power to startle us into remarking on it.

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No one disputes that the vision that Friedan offered was “privileged,” and that the professional success of a certain kind of woman—one with a college degree and an eye on a co-op in Brooklyn Heights—has received disproportionate attention ever since. But if anything, the one part of her book that had potential for universal resonance was precisely the anger. It is an angry-making thing to live in a society that systematically excludes you from power, whatever the basis for it. Even now, in our “enlightened” age, it is an angry-making thing to listen to Republican politicians make idiotic comments about rape. And if there is a time and place where anger not only can and ought to be expressed, it ought to be in polemics about inequality, no?

And yet these days we feel such pressure to be polite about these things. Everything must be presented in measured terms. And while we insist on that, the marginalized people, who need better policies and laws, who need, simply, to be heard, have to seethe quietly in rooms by themselves. I don’t know about you, but personally I’d prefer to hear their versions of The Feminine Mystique. I’d rather they start the same kind of avalanche, with their angry yelling, than be told they have to be polite and “likable” to get any traction.

Jessica Valenti calls for anger—or, rather, the truth—in the case of Olympian-turned-murderer Oscar Pistorius.

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