Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What happens in Cambridge

Normally, a Harvard news story causes my eyes to glaze over. These stories receive a lot of attention in the press generally, and fascinate whichever subset of my Facebook friends went to Harvard, but their broader interest - for those who've never so much as applied to Harvard in any capacity - is doubtful. It might have some - if there's some bigger story hinted at - but if the stakes hinge on exactly what's happening at Harvard, it's like, why does the algorithm think I want this information?

If this is also your attitude towards Harvard stories, you should push past this and read about Michelle Jones's near-admittance to their history PhD program. Also Heather Mallick's response. It's an upsetting and compelling story all around; I'm really just going to look at it from one side-note but I think important angle: admissions.

It can seem, to rejected applicants, that US universities are looking for against-all-odds narratives, and turning away kids who've had it easy. (I discuss the notorious Suzy Weiss 'humor' piece in the book.) This is not the case. It's easier to get into elite colleges if you're super-rich and your parents will buy the school a gym. There's this odd dynamic where privileged-ish kids think they're being rejected for being insufficiently tragic, when in fact it's far more likely to be because they're insufficiently rich and well-connected. I'm thinking here more about college admissions, but maybe this applies, a bit, to grad school? Maybe?

At any rate, where college is concerned, there's this sort of track where a handful of students from poor backgrounds get to attend elite schools, but often only in exchange sharing (sometimes very publicly) their inspirational stories. (While the NYT scholarship program itself sounds great... does the NYT readership get the familial dirty laundry of well-off applicants? OK, of the ones who don't opt to be profiled in the lifestyle section?)

The stories need to be PG-rated tragedy, though. Again: inspirational. Nothing that would be a liability. The narrative has to involve the family being a mess, but the applicant him- or herself being a sweet, somewhat nerdy kid who's basically like the other incoming freshmen, but with less money and more character. Even more of an innocent, where ordinary teenage misdeeds are concerned, than an equivalent posh kid.

When colleges reject applicants who come across as privileged (voluntourists, proud SUV owners), they're not making it harder for the privileged to get in, but, rather, penalizing moderately posh applicants who didn't (couldn't?) pay for a tutor to tell them not to write their admissions essays about a vacation... while happily admitting the very rich. Similarly, a different route to admissions is about obstacles-overcome, but not really. Some obstacles, ones that in no way tarnish the image of the applicant. It can't be a faux-obstacle, but it also can't be something that makes the applicant seem like the source of the obstacle.

A grad school applicant who had murdered her own child? This is a liability obstacle. It's also - with the full picture of this student's background, and how she came to be pregnant in the first place - a depressingly unsurprising outcome of life circumstances about as tragic as they come. Hers is an inspirational story in some respects, but not in the way that works as a sound byte, or for all audiences, because - as is so often the case when obstacles are overcome - it's messy, and upsetting, and not just inspirational. And so we arrive at the other end of admissions hypocrisy - maybe not an intentional, cynical hypocrisy, but a hypocrisy all the same.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"Lady Bird" and the value of a pumpkin-spice soundtrack UPDATED

The Guardian review of Greta Gerwig's ah-mazing new movie, "Lady Bird," opens with an interlude about men. The reviewer - also a man, which is no crime - first congratulates Noah Baumbach on the "smart career move" of working with Gerwig (who is also his-as-in-Baumbach's partner), both because Gerwig is talented and because she offers insights into how it goes for the ladies: "He realized that without her voice, he would be yet another guy in his 40s trying to speak for women half his age. (Woody Allen would do wise to follow a similar path.)"

That intro is a disclaimer that suggests the reviewer will not get the movie itself, or not entirely. (A man certainly could get this movie, and this reviewer does, in places. Girls have, since forever, been identifying with protagonists of male coming-of-age movies.) Which is - and I say this as a tremendous compliment - a girl movie. It's a movie about being a girl. I related to it in the visceral way I did, not because I have any familiarity with what it's like to have the precise adolescence depicted - I was never a small-town girl dreaming of the big city, nor a Catholic school student, etc. - but because oh my goodness. Having just mentioned two facts about the movie clear from the first minute or so, it's spoiler time...

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Must be nice

The expression "they took our jobs" evokes, what, that South Park episode? Nativist resentment? That's assuming the "they" in question are immigrants. What if "they" refers elsewhere?

Twice recently on Twitter - once antagonistically, once not - I've seen this topic pop up. What interests me is the question itself, which is when someone should or shouldn't take a prestigious internship, or fellowship funding for a creative pursuit, or for a grad program, or... you get the idea. When is a job not just a job, but economic redistribution?

Because the answer clearly isn't never. Sometimes, money of that nature does or should take need into account. College scholarships come to mind. Specific jobs programs. Beyond this, though?

As appealing as it might be to aim for need-based employment - in spirit, if not in practice, because how on earth would this be enforced* - it seems like it would invite any number of unwanted consequences. If the truly independently wealthy - people who've inherited or been given so much money that they don't need to work - did the honorable thing and either didn't apply for internships/fellowships/grants or - because surely even the fancy are allowed ambitions - handed back any money they won, then... great? (Would they, though? Are the independently wealthy handing their far more substantial corporate salaries, in full, over to charities?)

It gets much trickier when you get into this other caste of supposed rich people with no need to work: adults currently - or potentially - dependent on their parents or partners. Compared with adults who have neither option, these are... adults with options. But what are those options? The parents scenario can involve things like - to give a not-that-uncommon example - not coming out because if you did, your parents would cut you off. Or parents who want to give and give and give, and do, but really shouldn't, because they're not actually rich enough to support their 30-year-old child's journey through a fourth graduate program.

The partner one has its own issues. There's the extreme (but, again, not-uncommon) case of people staying in abusive relationships for financial reasons. But there's also the precariousness angle - a partner could leave, or lose their job, and then what? Is this gendered? Sure can be! The notion that a woman with a higher-earning male partner doesn't need to work is bad news. Deeply bad news, in that it extends not just to women who do in fact have partners who fit that description, but also, as an assumption, to women as a caste. If women are viewed as people who do/should/surely must have rich husbands, why pay women an equal amount? Why pay women at all?

Point being: There are the people - and this would be most adults - who need to work to live and it's that simple. Then there are the handful who don't - how nice for them. Then there's this not-insignificant group of people who could - under temporary or precarious conditions - not work, but who would be risking something in giving up on employability. And I'm not keen on the implications of declaring that set part and parcel of The Privileged, and announcing, for example, that a stay-at-home mom is entitled for seeking a return to the paid workforce.

*As in, how would anyone force rich people not to take jobs (whereas the state can, in theory, force rich people to pay higher taxes, which is the way this should actually be dealt with), but also as in, how would employers measure need? Or how would that happen in a non-exploitative way? Employers can and sometimes do exploit desperation, but will, in other situations, reward the already-posh. But this notion that redistribution is going to come from employers seems mighty unrealistic.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

A most sophisticated trip to the Eaton Centre

Who is Inès de La Fressange, and why does her name being on an item of Uniqlo clothing make a person ("a person") that much more intrigued by it?

For reasons stemming from the timing of poodle-grooming and the necessity of a TTC day pass for this, I had an excuse yesterday to check out Inès de La Fressange's new line at Uniqlo. I realize this isn't the most exciting use of the one true weekend day of a long weekend, but it seemed like it would be relaxing. Which I'm going to have to say it was.

To be clear, I know exactly who Inès de La Fressange is, or as much as is possible from having read various La Fressange profiles over the years, retaining dribs and drabs. She's very tall and thin. French. A former-and-current model - not young, but so French that she gets to embody glamor at any age. But I doubt the idea is to appeal specifically to whichever subset of the population has read these profiles. It is, I suspect, her name - French and aristocratic, but with Inès suggesting a still more cosmopolitan sophistication.*  It costs 75 euros to have her name on an otherwise nondescript t-shirt. A sinkhole investigation finds a whole Fressangian merch empire akin to the part of Hudson Bay where they sell everything, including all these random wooden paddles, in the store's trademark stripes. No La Fressange paddles, I don't think, but door stoppers, dog leashes...

What does La Fressange's involvement entail? Presumably she's not personally stitching together each garment. Has she designed them? (She's evidently designing something.) Does she serve as muse for a Uniqlo designer (maybe?), or does she get a catalog to look through and say whether or not she approves of whichever style having the stamp of La Fressange? How do they decide that Fressange-anointed items should cost $10 more than their regular-Uniqlo equivalents? If still - and pardon this most peasant of observations - less than, say, Aritzia, which was what brought me there in the first place.

$50 plus tax later and I'm the owner of dark red thick-wale corduroy miniskirt that has Toronto winter (by which I mean fall) practicality written all over it. I'd like to think La Fressange would approve. I also kind of think I once saw her on the street in New York, and that she smiled at La Caniche, but it's possible some other tall, French-looking woman did this.

*Wikipedia tells me her full name is Inès Marie Lætitia Églantine Isabelle de Seignard de La Fressange - the capital "La" explaining why her last name isn't just "Fressange" but rather "La Fressange," which is spectacular - and that her grandmother was part of a French-Jewish banking family, which makes Inès herself vaguely Jewish, which makes me basically Inès de La Fressange.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Blueberry bagel as subtext

So. Lots of the people on the cultural appropriation is wonderful bandwagon, or adjacent liberal but anti-"PC" bandwagons - and who are at this very moment being called out for their white obliviousness on that topic - are Jewish. This has been the case for the last however many rounds of this topic. Best as I can tell, it's true in the US and Canada alike. What does it all mean?

-The ungenerous interpretation: The Jews in question are white, middle-class or well-off, and but for this one marginalized quality, Jewishness, would be raging alt-right white supremacists, as versus contrarian liberals. They feel as they do because they're white; their Jewishness is incidental. And after all, Jews are also well-represented among this set's critics.

-A more generous interpretation: Those with a liminal, intermediary, ambiguous identity - Jews, but also, to varying degrees, white women, gay men, non-black POC - have unique insights into how it goes for the oppressor and the oppressed. Even if they're not announcing their Jewishness, and instead opining as white people critical of 'identity politics', it's relevant.

-The sympathetic interpretation: Jews have long been oppressed, still are, especially by the newly-revived neo-Nazi movement, but a left framework refuses to acknowledge this one form of oppression makes some Jews feel excluded from the broader anti-oppression struggle and be sort of like, screw you, left and right. (Subtext: 'We never got a chance to complain about the dreadful things done to bagels.') But then you have to choose; some choose the right, whether out of a sense that the left is worse-for-the-Jews or for whichever other (esp. baffling in light of this GOP administration) reasons.

-The meta interpretation: I keep thinking about Item 3 from Bret Stephens's (yes, how apropos) advice to those who "aspire" to write op-eds. It is, in effect, to avoid nuance. That this is what the style does indeed demand means opinion-writing can't ever quite reach the subtleties of opinion-having. A stance that places you on a culture-wars team sells better than one that does not. (I'm still amazed that I got the opportunity to write a book that's critical of privilege discourse, but not team-anti-identity-politics.) To really get into the subtleties of how Jewishness impacts an experience of whiteness, this is something that needs... introspection? A separate study of its own, one not in op-ed format?

As might be obvious (?) I lean towards all of the above. I don't think the answer here is to say that well actually, white opinion-writers A, B, C, etc., are Jewish, both because they're still also white and because the listing of the Jews, no matter the motivation, can feel like a sinister activity. But not mentioning that A, B, and C are Jewish somehow feels - to me, a white Jewish writer a few notches to their left - like missing something important.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The beginnings of thoughts

-The post-decency presidency. He's not just unconcerned with niceties on some liberal-arts-seminar level. It's this elaborate performance of, how would a person act if totally OK with being awful? And the answer is, unsurprisingly, not great. 

Because oh. my. goodness. Say what you will about virtue-signaling. Roll your eyes, if you feel like, when acquaintances with no personal relationship to a tragedy, no news or help to share, post about how they find it sad. But if your job is president of a country, then even if your mind is on which flavor of potato chips to next eat, you really do have to at least pretend to care. Ideally you would care, but given who the president is, that's exceedingly hard to picture happening.

All I can think is, Trump won on a platform of opposing political correctness broadly defined - not just of-the-moment hypersensitivity and progressive Tumblr excesses. Not just baseline, mainstream-etiquette rejection of overt racism and sexism. No, it goes further. It's about rejecting whatever check most of us but especially politicians are meant to have on selfish and tone-deaf impulses.

Which, look, if his thing were that he said what popped into his head, had no concern for niceties, but had good policies, and diverted the energy that might have gone to platitudes and PR towards improving things, then... fine? But no, this is not what he was doing. This was never what he was going to do. He's dispensed with niceties and put, in their place, awfulness.

-The White Lady, post-post-election. (Chapter 4 is on this but I wrote it - like the rest of the book - pre-election.) Anne Helen Petersen's essay and much of the Taylor Swift continues to exist content. Also: Chelsea Clinton continues to exist content. Louise Linton's #designerboasting, Paris Hilton's canine McMansion. The lady who opened a fancy-Toronto-neighborhood-named but also appropriative bar in Brooklyn. Marie Antoinette.

As always, there's the question of, how much of ugh-white-ladies is anti-racism and/or anti-oligarchy, and how much a form of ugh-women-in-general but with a progressive-seeming veneer? It would seem to be a case where speaker identity matters. When a white man - I don't care how sure he is that he's speaking As An Ally - declares white women the worst, particularly a straight white man who likely has a romantic history (real or desired) in which white women play a substantial role, I have to wonder. Whereas when a woman of color - especially, in the US context at least, a black woman - makes what are in principle the same points, I'm ten trillion times more likely to think there's something there.

But this still leaves the question of whether it's on the whole a positive development that Bourgeois White Lady Awfulness has become such a thing in the culture. How much is it a necessary corrective to the idea (an idea someone may in fact hold, maybe?) that the real racism or classism is sexism, i.e. that rich white women of the Louise Linton persuasion are, because women, just as oppressed as, say, trans women of color? And how much is it just a new way of sparing rich white men - that is, the people with the most power, but oh, not the most luxurious privilege, just, you know... power - their comeuppance?

-Sam Sifton or maybe the NYT on behalf of him crowdsourcing female authors. A response tweet that one got - and that I'm now not finding - with someone's spreadsheet listing books they'd read, with the authors' gender and race also noted. The necessity of feeling allowed to like what you like (and of having some space where you consume whatever you consume, without an audience), but also the advantages of being... thoughtful? intentional? when, as a critic, you're deciding what to promote. Which is a different thing. And which is what a summer reading list in a big newspaper consists of. The whole thing didn't begin with online activists digging up a Goodreads account.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

As yet unanswered: what brought "Meghan" to the back room in the first place

If there were ever a question that feels of another (recent) time, it's the one about whether it's offensive for straight women to go to gay bars. A time when same-sex marriage was not legal, making (straight) bachelorette parties in gay bars not just out of place but unthinkingly cruel. Also, maybe, a time when gender and sexual orientation categories weren't quite as fluid as they now are, in some quarters.

And yet, here we are. Kind of. The latest installment of this oddly persistant topic began with a somewhat all-over-the-place think-piece by Rose Dommu, in Out. Dommu was arguing that "in 2017, women can go anywhere we want to!", gay bars included.

Most of what Dommu says is harshly phrased but seemingly uncontroversial - bachelorette parties behaving badly shouldn't be in gay bars, but not all women are bachelorette party participants (or, for that matter, straight, cis; from between the lines, seems Dommu herself is describing straight, cis women as a group she's not a part of). Also: men, even gay men, should not say cruel things about women as a group. Agreed! The only remarkable thing about the piece is Dommu's insistence that it's misogyny for a gay man not to want to have semi-public sex where women are present. ("If you can't dance to some shitty house song or go down on a stranger just because a woman is in the room, you need to examine what that says about you, not call for that woman's removal.")

 Is it a violation of consent to demand access to a space where there's implicit consent among members of a particular gender? I'd think yes, kind of? But what do I know - it had honestly never occurred to me that the fact that it's 2017 would have any bearing on whether women should expect an enthusiastic welcome at gay male sex clubs. I don't believe Title IX covers this.

I learned about the story from the latest Savage Lovecast. Dan Savage interviews Alexander Cheves, about his response to Dommu. So, two men discussing whether or not a phenomenon (excluding women from gay bars) is sexist, which isn't great, but at the same time, the 'right' of women to go to gay male sex clubs seems an absurd thing to make one's cause. Cheves and Savage discuss an incident where a woman inadvertently (or so she claims?) stumbled into the sex-club back room of a gay bar, got groped (most likely, as Savage and Cheves speculate, by someone who, in the dark and given the context, thought they were groping a man), freaked out, and then got the back room (but not the bar itself) shut down.

The discussion is a fascinating (to me) case study of what happens when there's no clear answer to who falls where on a privilege hierarchy. It's a great privilege talking-past: For Dommu, gay men are part of this privileged category, men, and thus in a position of exclusionary privilege when deciding women can't enter their establishments. And for Cheves, straight women fall into their own privileged category, straight people, and are showing up at gay bars out of a sense of straight entitlement. Which is closer to what's happening, but which is also, I think, missing the point.

Cheves ends his piece with the sentence, "Check your privilege at the door." He's able to arrive at that clear-cut explanation - that this is simply about straight privilege and queer spaces - by changing the terms of the debate from the ones Dommu (messily) laid out. That is, he responds not to Dommu's point about women, of all sexual orientations, belonging anywhere, but instead addresses the question of straight people generally demanding access to and control over queer spaces generally, with straight women this barely-differentiated subset of The Straights.

Writes Cheves:

There are cultural zones for certain demographics that are intentionally exclusionary — not out of hate, fear, or prejudice, but because everyone deserves space, and you must respect it. Straight women: If you don’t like this, go literally anywhere else in the world. Wherever you go, you can be assured that there will be straight people there.
Which... look, he's right, Savage is right, straight women should not be shutting down gay sex clubs because of our delicate, sex-negative lady-sensibilities nor holding bachelorette parties at gay bars (which is evidently a thing, if not one I've ever encountered so much as anecdotally), even in areas where same-sex marriage is legal. But is it really true that all space except gay bars is safe and welcoming for women? In the whole world? Which... Cheves would seem to get, in that he references "straight male violence against women" in the previous paragraph.

I guess what I'm wondering is, does straight entitlement explain why "Meghan" - the name Cheves gives to a straight cis straw-woman - is at a gay bar in the first place, if not as a guest of a gay male friend? Or rather, does it fully explain what's happening there?

It's curious how straight womanhood gets discussed - in this conversation and others - not so much as a sexual orientation but as a sort of absence thereof. As the desire for convention, for stability, for social approval. It's readily forgotten that it's the desire for men. Straight women are imagined to have no desire apart from the desire to be desired. Not to be all ridiculous here but: Think of the meme. Women are either the nagging girlfriend or the unattainable object of desire. The sometimes humiliating but ultimately powerful role of protagonist goes to men. It's not that the meme Is Sexist, but rather that it only works because everyone knows these tropes.

So why are these straight ladies in gay bars? Here's a theory! They're there to look at men. Not men they consider pets or zoo animals. Men they consider... men. To look at men without being looked at by men. Also, perhaps - and this is all speculation, not the results of, like, a bachelorettes-at-gay-bars survey - out of a certain degree of identification with gay men. This, to be clear, is an explain-not-excuse.

Human beings are complicated; a straight woman who's by all accounts cis might still identify with desire as gay men are understood to experience it - a desire for men, for a particular man, that's not linked up with a desire to be a people-pleaser. This is merely a subset of how cis women can - for reasons having zilch to do with gender dysphoria - will sometimes, in all sorts of contexts, wish they were men. This is something I've tried and it feels like failed to explain here various times over the years (!), so rather than explicitly linking to posts from 2011, 2012, I'd suggest reading Rebecca Solnit's excellent new essay on more or less this topic.

But yes, it's true: A straight woman who sees herself as belonging - physically or just symbolically - in gay male spaces, even ones that are bonkers for her to expect a welcome in, is revealing oh so many unchecked privileges: her identification with maleness is nothing compared with what trans men experience, but also, and more to the point, she's missing that it's not actually an easy-breezy party to be gay in our society. She's missing that she could be open about her crushes growing up, her boyfriends later on. She's missing that her desires conveniently - at times annoyingly, but mostly conveniently - line up with societal expectations. She's ignoring that the reason gay male sexuality is viewed as so separate from white picket fence land is that gay people were, until five minutes ago - and socially, to some extent, still- prevented from having that outcome.

Her privilege, agreed, it is showing. But her choice to exercise it in that way is - if there's anything to my theory - rooted in a lack thereof.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

In 2017, are there still blogs?

Hello again, blog readers. I blog to you from a coffee shop, in a country led by a handsome liberal-minded leader. I hope your 2009 is going well.

If I were to give you recent updates of my day-to-day life, you would hear a detailed account of syllabus-planning and IKEA-furniture-building. Are you me? If not, you may not find this compelling. So instead, some links:

-Sarah Ditum on the at times overestimated role of women in organized white supremacy. Pair with Tanya Chen's story about racist bots posing as "basic white girls."

-Kat Stoeffel on feminism pre- and post-election.

-Penelope Green found a woman who's "paying $3,499 for a 212-square-foot room" on the Lower East Side, "which comes with a terrace and four roommates." A correction notes that the room is not, as originally stated, 65 square feet.

-In further exorbitance: French presidents sure do spend a lot on makeup! Presumably no-makeup makeup. As is the French way.

And in the self-promotional realm:

-I discussed what happens when the White Ladies called out (by other white ladies) for doing anti-fascism wrong are white Jewish ladies, for TNR.

-Soon after arriving back in Toronto, I did a TV Ontario book interview, with Nam Kiwanuka. Who was fantastic. This was my second-ever TV appearance, the first of which was when C-Span came to a book event. I was - and doubtless seem - terrified. The program aired last night; there's also a book excerpt accompanying. It's the book's afterword, which I - although yes, I would think this - find relevant to our times.

-New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni interviewed me for his column. No big deal, things like that happen to me all the time. (They do not.)

And finally, some Toronto and non-Toronto recommendations:

-The new Sud Forno, near the Eaton Centre. Custard bombolone heaven.

-Kintaro Izakaya. Current contender for best restaurant in Toronto, according to the very subjective izakaya-centric rating system WWPD adheres to.

-Riverdale Farm. Specifically, the sheep.

-That new HEMNES dresser. Enormous and life-changing.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Other writers

Other writers live in New York. If you, too, live in New York, then other writers live in a specific Brooklyn neighborhood. If you live in that neighborhood, then other writers live in Manhattan, in townhouses or Classic Sixes they were handed upon reaching majority.

Other writers are three years younger than you are.

Other writers have held beautiful-person jobs, which they write about more eloquently than you ever could.

Other writers got there by connections.

Other writers had the gall to not get there by connections.

Other writers are raising five kids which actually makes them better at managing their time, would you believe it.

Other writers are friends with other other writers and make this known on Other Writer Instagram.

Other writers have secret family money.

Other writers definitely don't have secret office jobs.

Other writers are sent Glossier products for free.

Other writers' eyebrows don't even need those products.

"As if it were nothing"

I knew Taffy Brodesser-Akner's feature on the status of the diet industry in an ostensibly post-diet culture would be brilliant before I started reading it, given author and angle alike, and yes, it sure was. Diets are passé, but eating less to lose weight is not. If you'd ever wondered about how that's supposed to work (I had! I had wondered this!), you need to get to it.

It's a deeply reported piece, as well as a personal one. Brodesser-Akner leads with the reported, not the autobiographical, but it's hard to picture a story working at the level it does if it were written by a journalist, however talented, who lacked personal experience in that area. The personal angle comes through most clearly in the conclusion:
A skinny woman was eating a cupcake and talking on her phone, tonguing the icing as if she were on ecstasy. Another skinny woman drank a regular Dr Pepper as if it were nothing, as if it were just a drink. I continued walking and stopped in front of a diner and watched through the window people eating cheeseburgers and French fries and talking gigantically. All these people, I looked at them as if they were speaking Mandarin or discussing string theory, with their ease around their food and their ease around their bodies and their ability to live their lives without the doubt and self-loathing that brings me to my arthritic knees still.
I've read through a handful of the piece's nearly a thousand comments, which was enough to see I was not the only reader to wonder about the "ease" Brodesser-Akner says she witnessed. It seems possible, I think, both to respect her response to seeing thin women eating non-diet foods, and to question whether "as if it were nothing" is an approach to food our society ever really allows women, of any size. Which is something she argues, or at least suggests, elsewhere in the piece, when she writes, "A woman’s body isn’t neutral. A woman’s body is everyone’s business but her own."

What that conclusion describes might be called thin privilege - that is, the blithe indifference of the thin to the struggles of those for whom every bite is fraught. But is thin privilege, in that understanding, something all or even most thin women have ever experienced firsthand? Is it the typical experience of slimness?

Let me be clear: In a society that stigmatizes being fat, it's advantageous not to be fat. In one that valorizes thinness, it helps still more to be thin. If you're someone who has never had to wonder if you'd fit in an airplane seat, or if the store has a large enough size, if a doctor has never suggested you lose weight, you probably can't get what such experiences are like, and may have never even considered them. If I were privilege-categories dictionary dictator, that would be Thin Privilege.

But how many thin people - how many women especially - experience "ease around their food and... their bodies"? Is that thin privilege? Once you include people who were once fat but are currently thin due to tremendous effort, and once you add to those the ones who'd be not-fat regardless but remain thinner still due to (yup) tremendous effort, you're talking about a whole lot of... effort. (See Alana Massey's excellent essay on this phenomenon.) Some of that effort crosses the line into diagnosable eating disorder territory. That which does not will nevertheless often take up huge amounts of time and mental energy that could be going absolutely anywhere else. Throw into the mix women whose thinness is the result of stress or illness - here, see Maris Kreizman's - and you've got quite a lot of women who absolutely reap the unfair advantages of thinness, but maybe don't experience thinness as "ease."

I point all this out not to say that well actually, thin women have it worse, or even as bad. Certainly not. Rather, it's that because these two things - societal weight obsession and sexism - are intertwined the way they are, they're that much more difficult to dismantle. In theory, "wellness" and so forth might have proven a great equalizer, reminding that you can be living well, or not, at any size. As Brodesser-Akner's piece makes painfully clear, it's done nothing of the kind.

Dieting has long been the default (not universal, but yes, default) state of women's food consumption, as well as an activity engaged in by women and men who - because society has deemed them fat - are trying to lose weight. The concept of "clean eating" manages to somehow merge existing fatphobia with a purity requirement extending to all women. It's not a chipping away at thin privilege. It's the worst of both worlds.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Assorted thoughts because it's pouring outside

-When men wait in line once a week to see which new clothes a store has in stock, it's not about stuff. It's an experience. (Is Ruth La Ferla tongue-in-cheek here? Her sources, at any rate, don't seem to be.)

-Working from home may be associated with coffee shops but the afternoon coffee is almost inevitably leftover coffee from the morning carafe, over ice.

-Another budget tip (forgive me but I was, until three days ago, paying rent in two cities): Lululemon Run Club. What it is is, you go to one of the stores at a designated time and have... well, what you have is track team practice, minus the track meets. The fee is the same as for high school track practice (assuming a public school): free. No, you do not need to wear Lululemon to participate, although I have done so, both because that's the make of my non-disintegrated shorts and because it somehow feels like a nice gesture. If you need a kick to go running - which, in Toronto at least, with its absence of obvious running paths, I do - it's just the thing.

-There is a Lena Dunham controversy. Probably another since I started typing this.

-There is also curvy wife guy. Basically a man who's some sort of Inspirational Influencer Ted-talk-giving beacon of Positivity posted to Instagram that he's always liked shorter, curvier women than are on the covers of magazines (i.e. the vaaaaaast majority of women; dude has always liked women) and is Not Ashamed to admit that he loves his short, curvy, cellulite-having wife. (He mentions her butt cellulite in the post.) It went viral - if I'm getting the timing right - first with encouraging responses (his wife is among the post's vocal supporters), then with variations on WTF.

I'm embarrassed to admit I find this story incredibly compelling. Why? Is it because at a formative age, the "neg" was a big topic? Because of how similar dude's line is to the thing where men (Jewish or not) admit to actually liking Jewish women? Because it's yet another fine example of body positivity being a conventionally attractive young woman in tight clothes? Because it's a window into a whole non-poodle use of Instagram I find hard to comprehend at the best of times? Because it's hilarious to think of equivalently not-actually-flattering things a woman could say about a male partner's physique? Because dude seems to have confused body positivity (which is about how people, girls and women especially, see themselves) with his own coming to terms with liking a body type that is... what women tend to look like, give or take? Is it - as Sarah Ditum suggests - the "low expectations" angle, that is, how he wants to be congratulated for... loving his wife?

What I keep coming back to is, it's that he presents himself as someone who could have married a supermodel, but only after reckoning with his unusual preferences and becoming A Feminist was he willing to pursue his dream of partnering with a merely attractive woman. That's the premise of the post - that not-a-supermodel was a choice he made, as versus the reality for nearly all humans. That, or his premise is that all men could be partnered with supermodels (something an unfortunate number of men perhaps do believe). Either way, it's a heck of a starting point.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Supermodel vs. Schlub

Recently the following Twitter exchange made the rounds, with a comeback that has won praise from at least two people I follow: Chrissy Teigen - model, actress, social media personality (nearly seven million Twitter followers), wife of John Legend (marital status relevant to the tweet at hand) - tweeted, "I have a best selling book, great boobs, a family I love, am literally eating pasta on a lake in Italy and I married rich." This (since-deleted) tweet was not gratuitous self-congratulation. Rather, it was in response to another tweet, from a now-locked (but one might infer, Trump-friendly) account with 314 followers, suggesting that getting blocked by Trump on Twitter was the high point of Teigen's otherwise pathetic life. Her point? Yeah, not so much.

One response to the episode is that Teigen sure told dude. Another: this was a punch down. Supermodel vs. Schlub. Presumably the fact that dude's account went from public to private in the course of my writing this blog post has something to do with him being inundated with negative attention from Teigen's numerous supporters. Teigen had been personally insulted, but only one of these two people was in a position to instigate a Twitter pile-on against the other.

There's a third possibility, which I'm getting to...

Versions of this dynamic, involving people with platforms but not Teigen-level celebrity, play out on Twitter all the time. Someone behind an account with relatively few followers (or - as in a case I'm thinking of, just one follower) will say something fairly garbage, directing their women-should-serve-men, their all-lives-matter, at someone with a large platform, who is also personally (as in, identity-categories-wise) impacted by the issues at hand. It won't be report-worthy abuse, but it will be on the cusp. The speaker will be, individually, quite powerless, but will be speaking in defense of the powerful.

What are the options of the marginalized-but-platform-having party? Should they just take it silently, missing an opportunity to show what oppression looks like in action? (That was certainly my response to a wave of Twitter harassment I received, just before it became the thing to RT one's harassing mentions.) Retweet but with a screenshot? Obscure the account name? Quote-tweet and mock the idea but not the person? Quote-tweet with a 'look at this idiot'-type message? How responsible, if at all, should they feel for subsequent harassment the last of those might inspire?

And what's the threshold, once we're talking not about real influence but just... disparate follower counts? I had few qualms reacting to tweets from a dude (I think?) who thought he'd dug up something really nefarious when he went to the Wikipedia page for the Israeli flag and learned it had ~Zionist~ origins. As if this was some sort of discovery. My aim, in sharing the tweet (which had already been RT'd - favorably, I would guess from the context - by SlutWalk Chicago, which was how I'd found it in the first place) was to point out the abysmal level at which a conversation supposedly about "Zionism" was taking place, with craptastic consequences for Jews, regardless of position on Israel. Does it matter that flag dude and I have follower counts in the same general range, and are neither of us even Twitter-famous?

Or was I, in calling out bigotry-tinged stupidity on Twitter, part of the problem of how one just can't say anything these days, and therefore the Reason Trump Won TM? I felt a twinge of guilt for sharing it. Guilty, that is, not because I doubted the importance or correctness of calling out that (consequential) foolishness. Guilty for taking pleasure, even a little bit, in doing so.

If we take a step back and return to what the Teigen-and-troll back-and-forth was actually about, we see that the president is blocking people on Twitter. The same president who uses his Twitter account to do things like announce a ban on transgender people in the military. If Teigen chooses to use her platform to draw attention to the absurdity and general disastrousness of the Trump presidency, isn't that... good?

The third option, then, involves - sorry, this is not very exciting - taking things case-by-case. A norm that says it's always bad and inherently harassing to publicly tell someone they've said something offensive, if you have more of a platform than they do, effectively eliminates social media's capacity for righting wrongs. It is a good thing about Twitter, say, that there are people from marginalized groups with power on there (sometimes elsewhere, too!), who are able to expose and push back against all manner of horribleness. Meanwhile a norm that every misstep needs to be called out by everyone who sees it, however tangentially involved, just leads to the kind of awful Twitter pile-ons where self-proclaimed allies battle it out with one another, ostensibly On Behalf Of, and they may each and every one of them mean well, but ultimately for their own entertainment/posturing.

Put another way: blanket rejection of call-outs - when it extends to people who a) are actually impacted, and/or b) were personally insulted and are replying to the person who personally and publicly insulted them - is purity politics in its own right.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The French Girl vs. The Frenchwoman

Despite thinking the whole thing is silly - and despite knowing, about as much as any American could, that the whole thing is nonsense - I've never quite been able to avoid falling for the whole Frenchwoman thing. I get - and have long since gotten - that the entire thing is based on a myth. It's subtly racist, classist, and more. It essentializes French women, who are real people, not objects for Anglo tourists to gawk at as fashion references. I know - believe me, I know! it's what my degree is in! - that there's more to France than ballet-flat shopping.

And yet.

The women in the posh parts of Paris do have great style. Yes, this is circular - "great style" is defined, in much of the world, as looking like a rich Parisian woman. But I was reminded of this last year, when I was back in Paris for the first time in several years. Gosh but did these women look fantastic. How boring of me to think this, but there it was.

I left feeling inspired to dress like the women I saw there... all the while realizing that this would have to involve clothes purchased elsewhere (because my Canadian dollars add up to 1/16th of a consignment blazer), and that once assembled by me, once on me, nothing particularly Parisian would result. It's not as if taking inspiration from French classmates and professors during grad school (one, in particular, of each, now that I think of it) left me looking Parisian. But was that ever the point?

My thinking is, the appeal of looking like a French woman is really two different things, depending on your age. When I was younger, it was about the gamine look. Not that I ever looked all that gamine - I was, and am, the wrong build for "gamine" - but the idea was to look understated, elegant, not trying too hard. It was a way to look nice but not sexy, which, day-to-day, especially when you're in your early 20s, has its practical advantages. "Gamine" is also a way of tricking yourself getting excited enough about dressing in work attire that shopping for that sort of clothing doesn't seem like a chore, or like a reminder that you're no longer a young person. (Without the myth, without the belief that you're somehow channeling a New Wave actress, you're just a grad student buying used J. Crew ankle-length slacks.)

As I got closer to 30, Frenchwoman style started to be something else: the promise of getting older but not, I suppose, giving up. To me, at almost-34, it seems like a way to look good that doesn't involve trying to look younger. Which is immensely appealing because looking younger is not a thing that's going to happen. Not for any of us. While French women hold no secret where DGAF-ness about aging is concerned (witness the skincare industry of that country), there does seem to be a thing where women of all ages look glamorous. It's an aspiration, even if the reality is, I'm an American with the collection of sweats (school-name-bearing and generic) to prove it.

This is what I think is happening: Younger women and even teen girls in that bit of Paris dress what would seem in the US (and, as I understand it, the UK) to be sort of middle-aged, but the look works for them. Older women dress... exactly the same as younger women, and it works for them, too, at least as well. There isn't, in those neighborhoods, much of a youth culture, at least where clothes are concerned, but nor is there an assumption that The Elegant Uniform is for daughters, not mothers or grandmothers.

My own vision for Older Frenchwoman Chic, for the look I aspire to/to age into/to wear if I can sustain Effort for long enough, is a bit different from the gamine uniform. Fewer Breton-striped shirts. More... black boots? Skirts rather than cutoffs? How far this project goes beyond my imagination, we shall see.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Notes on a gray, almost Parisian Saturday in Toronto

Just now, a lost laundry card turned out to be in the pocket of some laundry-day jeans all along. Crisis averted! Which is, I guess, the theme for the week. If everything that I'd feared had gone wrong, large and small, had done so, this would have been a different Saturday indeed. One not as devoted to the dual goals of living in non-squalor (as in, unpacked and with furniture) and trying to dress more like a glamorous (not gamine; these are different) Parisian.

Today began with a run, and by "run" I mean what was, according to Google Maps, a short jog to the St. Lawrence Market, but which took a long time because I'm still worn out from - yes - a Lululemon Run Club run earlier in the week. (Joining a gym seemed too expensive, so the fancier-sounding but free option it is.) This would have been better to do early in the morning, before the market itself got incredibly crowded. (I'd chosen sleeping in and reading a short story in the New Yorker, about graduate fellowships.) But we now have a lot of Ontario-grown cherries, which came in a pretty basket declaring their provincial origins.

I was still on a noble-and-efficient kick for a little longer, able to sustain interest in getting the apartment reasonable-looking for long enough to vacuum and put some more pictures up, but not quite long enough to find and sort out delivery for a dresser. Still, it's now sort of... civilized here. We can have people over now, with somewhere for them to sit and everything. Which is more than can be said for the last few places we'd lived.

Then came the poodle-centric diversion of taking Bisou to a dog run. There aren't any nearby, so this is a bit involved, and requires taking advantage of Toronto's dog-friendly (off-hours) public transportation system. The run we went to is in the same park as the Allan Gardens Conservatory, which turned out to be pretty spectacular. (And very Midsomer Murders. Orchids!) Right there in the middle of Toronto, all these tropical plants! Cacti! Also: koi! turtles! We took turns, because (very understandably) the conservatory does not allow dogs.

There was something else after. What was that? Oh yes... shoessss. With the help of my more-French-than-I-am spouse, I decided upon a pair from Gravity Pope, in the final sale aka absurdly gorgeous shoes at reasonable prices section. But... too small! And it was the last pair!

Turns out another branch had them in (what I think will be) my size, so in 7-10 days, I will be Inès de la Fressange, crossed with Charlotte Gainsbourg, with a bit of Isabelle Huppert thrown in. I have a whole vision for these shoes, involving black tights, which... look, it does not get hot out in summer in Toronto, at least not this summer, so I might as well wear this outfit before parka season arrives.

Friday, July 21, 2017

New to Downton

Have made it into Season 2 of a show everyone watched a million years ago (why hello again, Canadian Netflix), and can say the following:

-It's like Upstairs, Downstairs but also not really. At first I thought this was going to be distracting, not least because maid Anna (played by Joanne Froggatt) looks so much like Jean Marsh's Rose, and has very much the same kindly personality. But the show is different. Sillier? Campier? Less subtle (esp. re: the horrors of World War I, which thus far I think Upstairs, Downstairs conveyed more effectively)? But on the whole, good and addictive in the same general way. It took me a bit longer to get into, but now it's like, will this be a Downton night? Will it? 

-The big difference? And the point of Downton? The Dowager Countess. Maggie Smith. Her scenes are everything. She's always in the wrong, but you root for her all the same because she's a friggin' Dowager Countess and her conviction of her own superiority feels about right.

-That's a very big house. And almost certainly not furnished through a mix of IKEA Etobicoke and Toronto Craigslist.

-Thomas isn't half bad! If a sort of terrible person. Not sure I buy bland Matthew, however, as the love interest, although I guess the point is that he's an heir. But really, owning Downton seems like more trouble than it's worth.

-The marriage-plot stuff is the dud in an otherwise compelling net of plots. I don't care at all who Mary, the eldest daughter, marries. Which is maybe the point - Mary herself doesn't seem to be losing much sleep over this, either.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Obvious in retrospect: Some things to know before writing a book

As with most life advice, this batch of highly subjective suggestions could readily be condensed to: we all care about our own stuff more than anyone else does. This (yes, clichéd) realization can be disappointing, or liberating, as in other arenas.

Below, a mix of what I wish I'd known, and what I had known but isn't self-evident. It's all in one way or another variants of the meta-advice above:

-If you're fortunate enough to have anyone other than yourself interested in your book, and for your book not to completely disappear into an abyss upon publication, you will be asked two questions most often: Why that title? Why that subtitle? Those are likely to be the two aspects of a book that had the most editorial and marketing input, meaning that the literal answer is a behind-the-scenes conversation of no interest to anyone outside publishing.

While it's certainly important to be able to explain (and to like) your title and subtitle, what you need to do find a way to turn the title question into a book question. Which is, after all, what it is.

-Writing a book doesn't change everything. You don't suddenly emerge in a black turtleneck, with a coterie of acolytes. No one is awestruck - or, if you've already been writing professionally for years, terribly surprised - that you're now an author. Unless you're 22, one of the main questions you'll get will be, "Is this your first book?" And this will be a reasonable question, not a prompt to dissolve into a puddle of self-criticism for having not published one while still in your 20s. But it is cool to see your book in a bookstore, and to have, you know, written a book. (Did I go visit mine at the Eaton Centre - again - over the weekend? Yes.)

-Here's one I was aware of (largely thanks to Emily Gould's essay on the topic), but that falls very much into the not-self-evident category: You will still need to work during and after your book's publication. Google your favorite (famous, even!) writers and note that they too have jobs, at the very least teaching writing at colleges. If your aim is to support yourself solely from writing, a book (or ten) won't hurt, but writing is unlikely to be your job.

-In addition to whichever paid work you're doing, you'll wind up engaging in mostly-unpaid work to promote the book. The more professional promotional help you have, through a publishing house - and I've been tremendously lucky in that department - or otherwise, the more such work you may wind up with. The work can be anything from radio and video/television appearances (which I've done, and which are terrifying at first but a lot of fun) to a self-funded book tour (which I did not have the self-funds for, but which could well be useful.) The part that is (generally) paid is if you do freelance writing related to the book. And on that note...

-Having a book out does not automatically equal leverage in the writing world. If you want a higher fee for a freelance piece than was your rate previously - if you want any fee for one - you still have to ask. If anything, unless you're super-famous, having a new book out might be that much harder on the freelancing front, with editors assuming book publicity is payment enough. (You know how everything costs more once the word "wedding" is uttered? It's kind of like that.) Be advised: Book publicity is not payment enough. 

-Criticism will be more memorable than praise. If someone writes on Goodreads that your writing style is awful (can you tell that I'm writing this item shortly after seeing that comment?) you will never be more convinced of the accuracy of anyone's assessment of anything, ever. Deal with it privately however you see fit, but take Goodreads's advice and don't, like, engage. It's for readers to decide what they think of your book! Probably best not to engage on Twitter at all, but I confess to not having always been able to restrain myself when it's along the lines of 'I haven't read this book, have no plans to, but it says X which is awful' and you - having written it - know it doesn't say X and... yeah. Best to just leave it, I think, even in a case like that.

-Whatever you imagined it would be like to have written a book, it won't be exactly that. My two big book-related fears - that the book would vanish unnoticed, and that it would be read as an Ann Coulter-esque right-wing tract rather than the intra-left critique it is - have, thankfully, not happened. Nor, I suppose, have any of the fantasy versions. One involved everyone with the means to do so buying ten copies and my retiring, at age 33, to a villa in Santa Barbara. Another, a reception that - I realize now but hadn't always - is reserved for the sort of non-fiction books where mere proximity to the tome makes a person seem cooler, more glamorous, more with-it in some informed but not too controversial way.

The other... is trickier to explain. It came from seeing how it goes for fiction-writers, where chances are, those around you will react positively or not at all. And yes, I'm going mainly by some anecdata-affirming advice given by Mallory Ortberg aka Dear Prudence: "Generally, if someone has written a bad novel/short story/fan fiction, they will not be told 'You have written something bad.' They will be met with silence, and politeness, and unreturned emails." If you write a novel - or, for that matter, a dissertation - you'll at the very least get responses along the lines of, 'that's nice.' If you write a non-fiction, opinion-driven book called "The Perils of 'Privilege,'" maybe you don't get quite that response. Which is a longwinded way of saying, I don't really know what it's like to have written A Book. Just to have written that one.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Settling in, déjà vu edition

Before moving from Toronto about a year ago, our big - as in, physically big - concern was our furniture. We didn't have much of it, and storing it would cost more than the furniture itself. So we sold most of it on Craigslist. We have now come full circle in that regard. 

While we did wind up back at IKEA for immediate needs (almost a year without a dining table makes me put that into the "need" category), we'd held off on bookcases because it didn't seem urgent, and seemed wasteful (environmentally if not cost-wise) to repurchase so much IKEA, so soon. And then... if you have books, and want access to them, you need a place to put them. A near-year without bookcases made me read... less? Differently, at least. The bookcase-less-ness was starting to really get to me. It just seemed wrong.

And so, what had at first seemed like an inessential, to deal with when we got to it, started to seem very, very urgent. A quick browse of a couple furniture shops on Queen West reminded me exactly why we'd wound up at IKEA the last time - behold, an array of $700 bookcases less attractive than the Billy. A halfhearted search for a Toronto version of Housing Works - that is, a thrift store with good, reasonably-priced furniture - led me to conclude that this is either not a thing here (so much "consignment") or not one you can just find with a few Googling attempts. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I am deeply acquainted with this website

So much Craigslist furniture! And at a certain point, so familiar. I know the teak bookcase in the storage unit. The table with the map painted on it. The various round-backed furniture, built for homes without corners, and thus unsellable. The name-dropped Scandinavian designers who maybe are worth knowing, but not when you're in shelf-desperation mode. Oh, and the bunk beds photographed in a room that strikingly resembles a prison cell. And how can I forget? The kitchen cabinets photographed with someone's 1970s dad in front of them.

Why were we even doing this? We don't have a car, nor interest in doing our first-ever Toronto driving as a first-ever U-haul rental. But on some level, I remembered the ottoman. The gorgeous velvet ottoman that an office across the street from our last place was for some reason selling on Craigslist, and that is the only furniture from then that we held onto. You really just need to be able to lift whatever it is, assuming two elevator buildings or houses near each other. (We did carry a street-purchased bookcase to the top floor of a Brooklyn walkup, but that was close to a decade ago.)

On the cusp of giving up, we saw a couple of bookcases very much like the ones we'd sold, but not so much so that they might be the exact same ones. They struck me as being a readily carry-able distance from our apartment. That they most certainly were not, but the seller kindly agreed to drive us-and-them, which meant we could buy both, which... We have bookcases! Two identical ones! This actually happened! 

An hour or so in, it of course seemed like the bookcases had always been there. Totally normal. Why wouldn't an apartment have bookcases?

Friday, July 14, 2017


When that much-mocked NYT Style article about Donald Trump Jr. - you know, the one with him looking wistful, in flannel, on a tree stump - appeared, I couldn't believe my luck. My book had just come out, and here was this perfect example of the phenomenon that motivated me to write the thing in the first place. For here was a man who had benefitted from absolutely everything - rich, white, male, etc., but also Trump's son, and the one who shares his first name at that - but whose self-conception was so thoroughly that of the underdog. A scrappy, misunderstood everyman. And how did he make that case? By presenting himself as uncomfortable with city life, preferring the simple country life. A preference that manifests itself as incredibly high-end-sounding hunting trips all over the world, the likes of which make the hunts the aristocratic families on British TV shows go on to seem positively low-key. But does Donald Jr. see it that way? Didn't seem like it:

“For some people — you see that in New York a lot — they go hunting once every other year and they talk about it at a cocktail party for the next two years until they do it again,” Mr. Trump said in an interview. “For me, it is the way I choose to live my life.”
Rather than (accurately) presenting his hunting hobby as a highbrow diversion, he uses it as evidence that he's a man of the people. That his Manhattan childhood was somehow authentically American, in a way that more typical middle-class urban childhoods (without second homes or even, in NYC, first cars) are not.

Donald Jr.'s self-presentation as Mr. Ordinary - set against a backdrop of millions of not especially posh Americans getting cast as out-of-touch elites, just for living in cities - struck me as the epitome of the right's embrace privilege discourse. To be privileged, for the right, isn't about being rich, white, male, and well-connected. It's about whether, on "Frasier," you'd be more a Niles or Martin Crane.

(I have an unfinished thought about the relative indignation caused by Donald Jr.'s safari slaughter and - sorry, I know I said I wouldn't bring this up, but here we are - Lena Dunham rehoming and still financially supporting a rescue dog she adopted but couldn't properly handle.)

All of this was back in March, before this summer's big Donald Jr. revelation. There's sitting on a stump like a decadent aristocrat and being generally unpleasant, then there's colluding with Russia to get your father elected president of the US.

When something is indefensible on that level, the excuses are bound to be pathetic. And the excuse that 39-year-old Donald Jr. is a "kid" is plainly ridiculous. (I'm about to turn 34, and while I wish youth extended that long, I'm confident it does not.)

The question I'm stuck on is how much the ridiculousness of the just-a-kid excuse is about white male privilege, how much Trump privilege, and how much the two can even be disentangled. And yes, I'm thinking of the Bustle piece headlined "The Defense Of Donald Trump Jr Reeks Of White Male Privilege." In it, Dana Schwartz writes:
Don Jr. might be, by all accounts, an idiot. But then he’s also a 39-year-old, grown-ass man idiot. This enormous benefit of the doubt is conferred upon him thanks to the tremendous privilege of being rich, white, and male.
Schwartz gives examples of white women and people of color getting torn apart for far less, and of young white men getting relatively generous treatment. All true, and all very important to point out. (One white man she mentions, Brock Turner, has long struck me as an unambiguous case of privilege in action.) My concern is that there may be a downside to attributing gentle treatment at the level received by Donald Trump Jr. to his broad demographic categories. Why a downside? Because most 39-year-old white men wouldn't experience anything close. They'd have it easier than their female and non-white equivalents, but not on that scale. If we instead limit this to rich white men, we're getting closer, but... I still think what Donald Jr. can get away with is closer to what Ivanka the First could, than to the experiences of rich white men generally.

My issue with the framing is, it becomes all too easy to point out - and be right! - that typical white men aren't quite as privileged as Donald Jr., and in doing so, to dismiss the very real injustices that exist in the general (non-Trump) population.

Then again, Trumpism is certainly about the fantasy of being the sort of white man who could get away with anything, and that's a fantasy with disproportionate appeal to white men, very much including ones for whom that'll never be the reality. So, who knows.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Reports from the largest apartment in the world

Because I'm apparently a big fan of living in neighborhoods where I can't afford anything nearby, I'm now a resident of Toronto's Yorkville. It's Toronto's Upper East Side. Its 16e arrondissement. Its Gold Coast. Super duper posh. 

Despite this - or maybe because stodgy is less desirable than trendy - the rent in this apartment is lower than in the one from two years ago, in Toronto's hipsterfied garment district, as well as (apparently?) lower than the citywide average. The plusses of the area are grocery-shopping and a short walk as a commute. The minuses: restaurants are too posh for even special occasions, and this persistent sense that I've somehow returned to my childhood neighborhood, except in a (slightly) different country. 

The plusses of this apartment are, I mean, where to begin? It's huge! (OK, it's a large, well-laid-out one-bedroom.) It has new, working appliances! It doesn't have odd building rules like the last Toronto place. Fine, the downside is that laundry's down the hall, rather than in the unit, but... if you grow up in a NYC building where laundry's in the basement, and spend much of adulthood needing to go to another building to do laundry, down the hall is just fine. Did I mention I live in a palace? I live in a palace. 


The main thing that strikes me about Yorkville specifically, on a day-to-day basis, is the sheer number of establishments dedicated to beautification of one form or another. Cosmetic surgery in so many varieties, including something called fat-freezing. Or of not cosmetic surgery, cosmetic dermatology. (Which, as 34 looms, I'm sure I'd benefit from, but I have neither the money nor the inclination.) If not that, then various forms of hair, teeth, and quasi-surgical facial refurbishment, at an above-and-beyond level. Everything, that is, but nail salons - those exist in Toronto, for sure, but seemingly not at the level they do in New York. 

What I can't figure out is whether there's especially a lot of cosmetic enhancement happening here, or whether it's just more out in the open. That is, big signs, big photos of the taut and line-free promised results. Is Toronto - where everyone's in a parka for much of the year, and where it never seems to go above 80 degrees - the butt lift capital of North America? Or do the US cities I'm familiar with (and to be fair, I've barely seen Miami or L.A.) take more of the Parisian discretion-but-it's-totally-still-happening approach? 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The hoagies of privilege

Now that I'm neither blogging professionally nor working on a book partly about internet controversies, I know I can skip stories of the moment. I can see that Lena Dunham (!) rehomed her rescue dog (!!!) and decide to just let that one sit. It's not that I don't have, within me, 7438297423 words on Lambygate. I've just made a conscious choice not to put my energies towards bringing that potential document into existence.

However! I can't let the David Brooks sandwich story be. Short version: People on the left - liberals, leftists, progressives - might be annoyed at Brooks here for the wrong reasons. Or not exactly the wrong reasons - more like, they're only annoyed, I suspect, because it's a David Brooks column.

Before I go further with why I think this, let me backtrack and remind/explain what I'm referring to: David Brooks's latest NYT column is a quasi-endorsement of the Richard Reeves argument that the trouble with America today is that upper-middle class people don't know they're rich. Brooks, like Reeves, is right that the wealthy but not super-rich try really hard to keep their kids at least as well-off as they are. And Brooks has been on the limousine-liberal-hypocrisy beat for ages, one for which there is always a steady stream of material, so he chose wisely.

Where things go wrong: Brooks takes the privilege-awareness aspect of Reeves's argument - the one that was, at least, only a framing devise in his otherwise reasonable op-ed - and insists upon it:

I was braced by Reeves’s book, but after speaking with him a few times about it, I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.
By "informal barriers" he means cultural capital. Taste, in the Bourdieusian sense:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
This is the passage that led to all the #trending mockery. Haha, said left-to-liberal Twitter, David Brooks thinks it's elitist to eat deli sandwiches! Or: David Brooks thinks elites know what striata baguettes are, when who knows what that is!

Here's Brooks's conclusion, which interests me more than the sandwich specifics:
We in the educated class have created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible. The rest of America can’t name them, can’t understand them. They just know they’re there.
This is... a "privilege" argument. It is the "privilege" argument. Brooks is saying not just that cultural capital exists (which, yes), but that it is actually the most important form of capital. He's saying that the subtle (ahem) distinctions - "hav[ing] the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality" - are the stuff elite status is really made of. Which is - I believe, and argue in The Perils of "Privilege" - missing the point. In the absence of capital-capital, cultural capital doesn't do a heck of a lot. And insisting upon specific giveaways - especially food and drink - never works, because kale and lattes and whatever came after those have long since made it out of whichever Park Slope or Berkeley corridor of artisanal luxe. It's an appealing argument, because cultural capital is a thing, and feels like a revelation when you first learn about it. But ultimately, money - and race, gender, etc. - matter a whole lot more than ingredient expertise.

Where have we seen this flawed idea before? The left! On the left - except in some newly-prominent pockets of the socialist left - it's been one big mutual privilege-accusation-fest for the past decade. Everyone's secret, not-admitted, subtly-expressed privileges were forever being revealed by people just as privileged. That was blog comment threads! It happened offline as well! Until... I don't know, maybe until Trump, or maybe David Brooks's latest column, progressive discourse often involved fancy people accusing one another of recognizing gourmet ingredients, or making ostentatious statements about not recognizing them, so as to suggest a scrappy past. This certainly also existed on the right - Charles Murray's "bubble" quiz! - but it sort of was progressivism, in a much deeper sense.

So yes, it was some mix of a relief and just bizarre to see a progressive consensus around the notion that structural inequality matters more than cured-meat classification. I can only hope that sticks. I'd like to think this means (my fellow) progressives actually get why the salami argument was wrong, and weren't just mocking a David Brooks column for its own sake.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Can we *please* stop asking if Jews are white?: a ten trillionth blog-attempt at explaining anti-Semitism

Missed a whole lot of news cycles due to the move, but it seems the question of whether (pale-skinned, usually but not exclusively Ashkenazi) Jews are white has stuck around. Yes, I was weighing in on this before it was... not cool exactly, but you know what I mean. (It's in the book. It's in the WWPD archives. It's in the dissertation. It was, prior to this, already the subject of plenty of attention, scholarly and otherwise, from others.) For that reason, I feel a bit done with the topic. But... I'm not thrilled with how it's getting explained, nor with how I've previously explained it. So, here goes:

It's understood, on the left, that there are various axes of oppression. Yes, they intersect, but trying to superimpose one axis onto another doesn't work. That is: to understand sexism, you don't ask whether women - all women, as women - are disabled. To understand homophobia, you don't ask whether gay people - all gay people, as gay people - are women. You have to look at each form of discrimination in its own terms. Not in isolation - some women are disabled, some gay people are women, and this impacts how they experience sexism and homophobia, respectively - but in its own terms. By which I mean: It's not necessary to claim that sexism exists solely and primarily as a form of some other type of discrimination in order to believe that sexism is real and really a problem.

So. To speak of Jewish difference as a question of whether Jews - all Jews - are "of color" is to make an analogy. It's to insist upon an analogy. To do so is to be left with two answers: Either we're people of color, and therefore oppression against us counts, or we're white, so any claims we make of being oppressed - certainly in cases where the oppressors are themselves people of color - fall under the old "reverse racism" rubric, which is to say, don't count. Or maybe there will be some middle-ground position, where Jews wind up classified as not quite white. More nuance, same terms.

All these possibilities fail to get at the truth, which is that most American Jews are white, and anti-Semitism exists. Yes, there's such a thing as racial anti-Semitism, which overlaps in some ways with the racism that exists against people of color. (See also: Islamophobia, which ostensibly isn't racism, but which has a tendency to impact even secular people of Muslim heritage, or those of other faiths who are perceived of as Muslim.) But anti-Semitism can't be understood simply as bias against groups according to their relative non-resemblance to Scandinavians. Anti-Semitism is not now and has never been about Jewish non-whiteness, not-quite-whiteness, or even, as a 19th century European would have put it, Jews' "Orientalness." It's about Jewish Jewishness.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

A vivid imagination

There's a Twitter formulation that involves summoning one's followers' imagination: Imagine being so stupid/evil that you'd think this thing that I disagree with. This is not an Against "Imagine" Tweets post, so much as an attempt to figure them out.

Like any rhetorical strategy, "imagine" can be more or less helpful, depending the context. Some viewpoints really are incomprehensible, or so craptastic that calling them incomprehensible is basically a way of calling them evil and nonsensical at the same time. A recent clickbait trolling piece about how tough it is for white men - and about how white men specifically deserve credit for preventing Nazism from taking over the world (!) - got "imagine" responses on and off Twitter, which seems... more than fair. Bonkers plus hateful gets an "imagine." That seems right.

Still, "imagine" is not, in most other cases, a formulation I can get all that enthusiastic about. As a rule, why present regular-level wrongheaded opinions as inconceivable? They're just... wrong. Wrong, but not inexplicable. "Imagine" cuts off the possibility of an explain-but-not-excuse. Of a type of understanding that doesn't necessarily imply empathy. It puts up a wall, not simply against generous interpretations of dissenting viewpoints (which... not all viewpoints deserve generosity), but against the type of comprehension that can be helpful in arguing against an idea, or, say, useful for creating a fictional character.

Take the following "imagine" tweet:

"Imagine being so fragile that you're triggered by gender neutral bathrooms"

This is, on the one hand, an implied argument (one I agree with) that gender neutral bathrooms are necessary for many trans and gender non-conforming people, so cis people wary of them need to get over it. On the other, there's the "imagine" angle, which prompts the reader to... well, to do what, exactly? To divide the world into the good people, who can't even imagine how someone could think otherwise, and those other people, whose sentiment is not just wrong but unimaginable

Taken literally, if not as plausibly intended, the "imagine" formulation prompts... imagination. And yes, I could imagine a woman (cis or trans) not wanting to share public restroom facilities with cis men. I can even imagine - not support, not agree with, just imagine - a cis woman existing who did not want to share a bathroom with trans women, "imagine," again, being key here. To "imagine" not the same as 'I can sort of see their point.' It's not devil's-advocate. It's just... X is a view that's out there, I'm familiar with it, I can wrap my head around its existence. To imagine a view in no way precludes finding it misguided or even abhorrent. It's not neutrality. 

Let me put it like this: I can imagine that some people are anti-Semitic misogynists. I'm a Jewish woman. I'd obviously prefer it if anti-Semitism and misogyny didn't exist, but I've encountered both, including in the linked-up variety. I'd rather, frankly, if I could find the existence of people with those views unimaginable. Point being, I'm not trying to virtue-signal my own superior imagination (which I don't even think I have). I'm saying that I think it's a pretense that any of us can't imagine views we disagree with, or even despise. 

Imagines, to be clear, aren't necessarily progressive. They cover a wide range of topics and points on the political spectrum. A sampling:

"Imagine being religious unironically"

"Imagine fleeing to a country as a refugee, being taken in, set up and sent to college only to whine about how awful the country is online."

"Imagine giving a fuck about the founding fathers."

"Imagine being so USA-centric that the only form of slavery you accept the existence of is the kind that was made illegal in 1865."

Oh, and there's even an overtly racist variant:

"Imagine being such a brainlet that u believe 'Diversity is our strength' when literally all statistics, from social-economic prove otherwise"

"Imagine," then, is a way of implicitly faulting others, not for thinking something you don't think, but for being able to wrap their head around the existence of those who do. And... I'm not sure what to do with this.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Canada diaries: home decor edition

It's almost Canada Day! Canada 150, that is, as the ubiquitous paraphernalia reminds. With partial internet and a sort of eternal move in progress, I'm only partially grasping what this all means - why it's problematic (beside the obvious), why it's delightful, which events to attend, which to take note of because of public transportation diversions. I hear there's an enormous rubber duck, which sounds odd, and thus worth checking out.

What happened today, Day 5? Another round of practical matters attended to. A certain poodle had her annual checkup and vaccinations, culminating (I think?) in our dog being wished a happy Canada 150. We then went to a nice but very curated housewares store, where we bought a couple small items but not the $150 shoe rack, pretty though it was. Next up, if not immediately because who has the stamina: Canadian Tire. Thanks to that stop, we now have a lamp for the part of the apartment that needed one, as well as a vacuum that wound up being urgently needed to deal with the fallout from the world's worst-packaged - if otherwise perfectly adequate - lamp. (How a lamp could lead to a snowstorm of crumbled styrofoam, who can say, but it did.) Unfortunately they were sold out of most of the Canada-themed goods, so I will have to content myself with the keychain I got in Chinatown that has the flag on one side and a moose family on the other.

In further $hopping: Muji, because I have A Vision about clothes storage, one involving minimalist bins that also function as a nightstand. Wasn't sure how many to get, but think I'm now one further clear plastic bin away from perfection. I think they're meant to go in a unit of some kind, but not if you're going for the home decor look called dorm minimalism.

The best thing about the new place has to be that it's... livable. For too many reasons to get into, some more sensible than others, we never really settled into the New York apartment, nor put the time in necessary to find a fully furnished and dog-permitting and less-than-a-year-lease-allowing place, if indeed such a place existed in our budget. The fact that we can now both sit down in the living room, and not just on one small sofa, is helpful. As is having a dining table. (The New York place has/had a counter and admittedly very comfortable tall chairs.) The aim with this place - both in its splendid table-having-ness and its proximity to supermarkets - is to avoid the dreaded convenience eating out. And we're on the cusp of being at the point where we could (imagine!) have people over. Two dining chairs away, to be precise. We're getting there.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Two homes

Returning to Toronto what feels like months ago, but what was really just Monday afternoon, I wasn't sure what to expect. I only vaguely remembered what the apartment I'd been very enthusiastic about renting would be like. And the city itself had felt, while I was in New York, like a past life. One I was feeling sort of nostalgic for, so it's good to be back. New York and Toronto are both home. Temporarily in the literal sense of the two rents (not indefinitely, but for the moment, yes), but both also feel like home. I don't know if anywhere else I've lived ever did. Princeton, maybe, but only after I learned to drive. Maybe.

A diary of my re-emigration follows:

I couldn't sleep Sunday night because omg moving, so Monday's a blur. I remember purchasing and consuming some English muffins. That's very nearly it, which leaves several hours unaccounted for. Unpacking? But without a dresser to unpack into? Who knows.

Tuesday had more of an agenda, anchored by a much-anticipated IKEA delivery. We also went to Service Canada, which is like the DMV, except there's a screen playing that tells you, in English and French, that if you travel with your exotic parrot, this may pose bureaucratic obstacles. I had not anticipated a wait, nor brought reading material, nor set up internet on my phone, because who knows, so I'm now deeply acquainted with French instructions for not falling victim to phishing, or in Canadian French, hameçonnage. I think Tuesday was also the schleptastic visit to Bed Bath and Beyond, for, among other (unwieldy) things, a coffee maker still very much in the box. My arms are still recovering.

Yesterday, meanwhile, brought the not dissimilar experience of Service Ontario, which was so efficient that I was able to make it to a morning haircut appointment on time, which addressed a very fried ombré situation. While it was not the first priority, the haircut was about as urgent as anything of that nature ever can be. That plus painted nails and I feel fabulous. While I don't doubt that I'd benefit as much as the next person from the remarkable array of cosmetic enhancements on offer in downtown Toronto, I have the tremendous ~privilege~ of such a disheveled starting point that I can undergo beauty treatments so tame that an 8-year-old could undergo them without the NYT Style section writing about it, and still appear to have had A Makeover.

And boy did the makeover continue! Today I was interviewed about The Perils of "Privilege" for Canadian television, which was a lot of fun. While the morning began with a not especially glamorous bus ride, I was soon in a makeup artist's chair, for what I think was my first time ever. I think I now know how I should have been doing my makeup all along? (I should be wearing taupe eyeliner, not jet-black, I'm learning, some 15 years later than I should have.) More on the interview itself once it airs later this summer!

Oh, and somewhere in that mix, we set up a bunch of IKEA furniture. We must have done this, given that I'm typing from the small part of this enormous Ektorp that a miniature poodle has decided I should be allowed access to.

It feels good, so good, to be back. I'm not sure how much of the tremendous sense of relief I feel at this precise moment - and have, since arriving - has to do with knowing that I'm now a permanent resident of a country with universal health care and Trudeau rather than Trump, and how much is that I'm pleased to be, at last, staying put for the foreseeable future. I am preferring Toronto to New York more dramatically than I'd have guessed, but this may have less to do with one city versus the other than with my if I may say so myself brilliant idea to choose an apartment building largely on the basis of proximity to a supermarket. I may never get off this couch, now that the poodle has migrated back to her own bed, but if I do, it will almost certainly be grocery- or taupe-eyeliner-related.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


Under normal circumstances, I make a point of being Team Stuff. I am principle-of-the-thing in favor of taking pleasure from browsing and god forbid sometimes even purchasing physical objects. Now, however, I'm simultaneously on the lease for two apartments, in two different cities. Having two homes is a glamorous situation when intentional. When unanticipated (long story involving American and Canadian logistics), it's more like an expensive, if temporary, pain in the neck. Not dire, thankfully, but not inconsequential, either. (My desire to take up kickboxing, say, fluctuates, but is, as I type, at maybe an all-time high.)

Various situational factors have combined to completely change my relationship towards stuff. On the one hand, I can't imagine even wanting new clothes. The mere thought of packing - and of two rents - leads me to enumerate all those items that seemed so necessary, and to which I so brattily, in some past version of myself, felt entitled: Four sleeveless blouses. A romper and a jumpsuit. A blazer and a trench coat. All purchased, needless to say, Before.

While I know I'm a quick Google search away from reminding myself that my clothes-purchasing rate is unimpressive cost- and quantity-wise by the standards of the average Western woman, and while some of these purchases (no, not the romper) were the pretty straightforward result of under-packing initially, the sense of shame I feel when thinking about having gone to stores and bought myself stuff is sort of intense. While I confess to having replaced an old and broken $50 pair of sunglasses with a new and not-broken pair of the same over the weekend, my impulse to treat myself is at nil, and has been for the past couple months. Which is bleak. Situational, which is something, but bleak all the same.

It's not, to be clear, that the inability to go and buy myself whatever Uniqlo has new for summer is the biggest problem anyone has, or the biggest one I have, even just as it pertains to this rather craptastic situation. But I am basic and ridiculous and it's something I notice all the same. I experience one kind of self-loathing for having shopped, and another for feeling even at all bad for myself for not being able to do so now.

On the other hand, I will soon - finally - be settled. Or settled-ish. Settled for at least a year in a specific apartment, and indefinitely in a specific city and country. Which means... I'm not even sure what to call it. Decorating? Me?

In the immediate future, it means assembling (helping my spouse assemble) IKEA furniture, and otherwise stocking a new apartment with such urgent home decor accents as olive oil and laundry detergent. But I can finally - finally finally - have a vision for a space. Ancient history for many 33-year-olds, I realize, but a first for me. All previous places I've lived as an adult have either had dorm furniture of one sort or another, or the haphazard result of Brooklyn street-furniture and panicked IKEA, which is, let me just say, a very different beast from thought-through IKEA.

I dream - dream! - of purchasing a jewelry stand, and knowing I won't have to find a way to bring it on an international move. (Of purchasing jewelry itself? Ugh, nope.) Maybe even clothing storage purchased with aesthetics a liiitle bit in mind. (It is for the best that there's no Container Store in Toronto, because if there were, oh boy.) The same don'tspenddon'tspend impulse guiding my current not-shopping will still be present, but balanced with the need to, you know, not have all my clothes on the floor. All sorts of decorating inspiration picked up, inadvertently, from Japanese and Scandinavian poodle Instagram, is going to be channeled into, I don't know, bins or baskets, or selection of armchair cover. (Oh, did I mention an armchair is finally happening?)

The not-so-distant-future-oriented shopping that, look, has to happen whether I enjoy it or not is the cheerier reason for aggressive non-shopping now. I'm really looking forward to checking out this shop on Queen West that sells practical items for apartments. So I guess this means I'm still Team Stuff. It just means the Facebook ads for cool-girl athleisure are wasting their time with my account.