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Rose Petals

Phoebe Maltz Bovy —  Dec 20 2014 @ 5:17pm
by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

If Dan Savage gets to repeat his claim that women fantasize about rose petals, I’ll allow myself to reiterate my bafflement. From that recent interview:

PLAYBOY: What if someone asks what their partner wants and doesn’t like the answer?

SAVAGE: It happens all the time. Young women write me dish_rosepetals that they pressed and pressed their boyfriends to share their secret fantasies with them and then were terrified when they found out what those fantasies were—when it’s not “I want to fill the bed with rose petals and light a thousand tea candles in the bedroom.” That’s not a male fantasy. Girls tell me about Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice and romantic comedies and all that bullshit. I always tell my female young-adult readers, “Careful. If you press him about his fantasy, you’re much likelier to hear ‘a three-way with you and your sister’ than ‘a trip to Paris.’ ” Male sexuality is crazy, perverse. Men are testosterone-pickled dick monsters. We just are.

Now, I don’t have access to the skewed but substantial data set that is Dan Savage’s inbox. I do, however, have access to a sum total of one female brain, as well as female friends, as well as the sitcom-tame but getting-somewhere take on female sexuality that is “The Mindy Project.”

And I continue to have trouble believing that a significant number of young women would even consider sex amidst rose petals sexual fantasy, let alone the wildest one they could imagine. As for “a trip to Paris,” such a thing probably is more interesting to women than to men (see: Paris study-abroad participation), but is it anyone’s erotic fantasy? Are there really women who’d imagine that a man’s secret hope was to – budget and schedule permitting – travel with her to the French capital? Why would he have kept that a secret?

Later in the interview, Savage talks perfect sense: “Female sexuality is different, whether you believe sexual reserve and caution are biological or cultural or some combo of the two, which is what I believe.” Indeed. It’s hard to dispute that whichever mix of cultural expectation and hormonal wiring leads to men expressing more out-there desires. What I just can’t accept is the centrality of rose petals to female fantasy life. Something about that just doesn’t ring true.

(Photo by Flickr user -Reji)

Outrage And Privacy

Phoebe Maltz Bovy —  Dec 20 2014 @ 10:53am
by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

I want to second Michelle’s endorsement of the outrage year-in-review over at Slate. The item there that jumped out at me was Jordan Weissmann’s account of having played a large part in sparking a “cycle of viral outrage” against a Harvard professor who had “raged [in email] at a local Chinese restaurant that had overcharged him a mere $4 on a takeout order.”

Weissmann cops to a history of producing clickbait outrage journalism, but explains, “It’s something I feel ambivalent about as a writer.” He makes the case for what is, after all, his livelihood. Shaming bad behavior is maybe a good deed? Plus, these pieces apparently function for a place like Slate the way lose-weight-and-get-a-man ones do for women’s mags – they pay for the serious but tough-to-monetize pieces. He also insists that, in this case at least, his target is unlikely to suffer financially. (“And I doubt his $800-per-hour corporate consulting business is going anywhere.”) These are all fair points. But I came away from the essay unsure whether Weissmann had succeeded in convincing himself that viral outrage – that is, of the sort sparked by the ostensibly private slip-up of someone who isn’t in the public eye – is defensible.

The problem with the current media climate is that all outrage-bait is, in a sense, equal. The impact of a celebrity’s gaffe and of an ordinary person’s off day are both measured in traffic. And all such moments are becoming equally accessible. As Adrienne LaFrance notes, commenting on a Pew report, “While privacy once generally meant, ‘I assume no one is looking,’ as one respondent put it, the public is beginning to accept the opposite: that someone usually is.” Once content is out there, it all just sort of feels equivalent – the virally-famous maybe shouldn’t have become public figures, but once they are, no one thinks twice before commenting on them as if they were.

I suppose the Apple Store Lady is the example I keep coming back to because a few unpleasant-looking seconds of this random woman’s life made her the face, as the headline would have it, of “The First-World Problem to End All First-World Problems.” To go viral as the face of unchecked privilege, you don’t have to pass terrible legislation, or even to write an oblivious essay for Thought Catalog. All you need to do is live in a place where people have smartphones and be someone who isn’t entirely delightful every moment of every day. Or you can be a complete and utter saint and have your actions altered or taken out of context. In her installment in Slate’s outrage coverage, Amanda Hess writes, “With a few assumptions and a quick Photoshop job, even a black woman complaining about a white dude on the bongos can be framed as an emblem of white entitlement.”

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Emily Badger suggests chucking the word:

Even researchers don’t agree on what “gentrification” means, let alone how to identify it. (And this is to say nothing of its even more problematic derivative, the “gentrifier.”) … The definition matters… not purely for linguistic nit-picking, but because we seldom talk about gentrification in isolation. More often, we’re talking about its effects: who it displaces, what happens to those people, how crime rates, school quality or tax dollars follow as neighborhoods transform. And if we have no consistent way of identifying where “gentrification” exists, it then becomes a lot harder to say much about what it means.

Badger has me convinced, but I’d push further: “Gentrification” has taken on a life of its own as a lifestyle-section problem. The same language gets used to discuss concerns that a neighborhood has become unaffordable for poorer residents as to lament the fact that a favorite (pricey) coffee shop or boutique has closed its doors to make way for a chain store. NIMBY complaints hide out under the socially-acceptable – noble, even – guise of anti-gentrification advocacy.

This conflation of problems is not new, but when I read a NYT op-ed over the summer by a prominent restaurant owner, who was pointing out that because of rising rents, he may have to… change the location of one of his high-end Manhattan restaurants, I started to think that perhaps it’s gotten out-of-hand in recent years. Of course, The Onion was on the case in 2008, with its “Report: Nation’s Gentrified Neighborhoods Threatened By Aristocratization.” At any rate, Benjamin Schwarz addressed the phenomenon with great precision in 2010:

It’s entirely reasonable—in fact, humane—to argue that the state must ensure decent living conditions for its citizens (and God knows we are terribly far from that situation). But it’s a wholly different proposition to argue that, in the name of what [Michael] Sorkin calls “the protection of … the local” and to forestall “a landscape of homogeneity,” the state should create the conditions necessary for favored groups—be they designers, craftspeople, small-batch distillers, researchers, the proprietors of mom-and-pop stores—to live in expensive and fashionable neighborhoods or boroughs. That effort would ultimately be an aesthetic endeavor to ensure that the affluent, well-educated denizens of said neighborhoods be provided with the stage props and scenery necessary for what [Jane] Jacobs and her heirs define as an enriching urban experience.

So these are really two additional problems with “gentrification” – that it’s used by the rich to protest the arrival of the even-richer, and that it’s sometimes code for saying that a neighborhood has gone tacky, touristy, mall-ish, i.e. that it’s become more accessible. I’m not sure any of this is reason for scholars of urban planning to abandon the term, but the time has probably come to treat it with skepticism in magazine articles, social-media posts, and the like.

Sounds Vichy

Phoebe Maltz Bovy —  Dec 19 2014 @ 5:48pm
by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

My project for the holidays is clearly going to have to be reading as much as possible by and about Éric Zemmour, author of a bestselling French book about that nation’s decline, which we covered earlier this week. Elisabeth Zerofsky has more on Le Suicide Français and its significance:

Once Zemmour has identified the source of the rot at the center of everything, it is easy for him to unpack each successive social and legal development that whittled away at France’s glory. The legalization of abortion was a “collective suicide,” because the demographic heft of the French children who were never to be born amounted to “lost power, gone forever more.” The emergence of “triumphant homosexuality” is tied to “the decisive evolution of capitalism,” because Western capitalism has an insatiable need for consumerism, and “the homosexual universe, especially the male one, embodies the temple of unbridled pleasure, sexuality without restraint, hedonism without limit.” The sexual revolution led to a “feminine Bovaryism that is sanctified as a supreme value in relations between the sexes.” The normalization of divorce revealed the “paradoxical destiny of feminists to accomplish the dream of absolute irresponsibility, for which they railed against generations of predatory males.”

Zemmour goes on and on:

the rise in delinquency in the nineteen-eighties and nineties came mostly from “immigrant families that France had welcomed,” and has been so twisted around by the left that “gangs of traffickers, thieves, and rapists are sanctified, eternal victims of a neocolonial and racist order. What we call delinquency, they call victims; what we call victims, they call guilty parties.” And, of course, once de Gaulle was gone, France was faced with the choice of “bowing down before the American empire or drowning itself in Europe.”

The runaway sales of Zemmour’s book mirror the astonishing rise, over the past year, of Marine Le Pen, who is the president of the far-right National Front Party. The National Front’s first-place win in the European Parliament elections last May brought it out of the shadows—where it had hovered as a fringe movement since Le Pen’s father founded it, in 1972—and gave it the imprimatur of legitimacy. France’s two main political parties are in shambles. The right-leaning Union for a Popular Movement, immobilized by scandal and infighting, has just reinstated as its leader Nicolas Sarkozy, who was voted out of office as President of France in 2012. The left-leaning Socialist Party’s major problem is François Hollande, the most unpopular French President of the modern era, who has presided over a contentious split in his Party over the question of whether France’s economic troubles call for a move to the right.

What neither New Yorker piece mentions is that Zemmour is Jewish. Specifically, of Algerian-Jewish origin. I point this out not to conspiracy-theorize (as, I realize as I type, the phrase “… is Jewish” comes across, without context), but as a Jew myself, and – more relevant – as someone whose doctoral study focused on French-Jewish history and literature. I was especially surprised to see Zemmour’s Jewishness absent from Stille’s article, which delves deep into the connections between Zemmour’s writings and those of self-proclaimed anti-Semites of earlier eras. Stille also mentions Max Nordau, but refers to this major Zionist leader only as a Paris-dwelling Hungarian who wrote about decadence in the late 19th century.

It seems implausible to me that the New Yorker omitted Zemmour’s background out of ignorance, so this must have been an editorial decision. Perhaps – and I might be projecting – the trouble was that examining the relationship between Jewish identity and French nostalgist conservatism (not to mention the legacy of the Crémieux Decree) would simply take too long, because it’s so fascinating. Or maybe it’s that an American publication is projecting American ideas of Other-ness onto France – making Zemmour just another white guy. At any rate, while as a rule I think leaving out an author’s ancestry is fine, if someone stands accused of writing in the tradition of “authors like Édouard Drumont,” France’s most famous anti-Semite, it does seem relevant that the author in question is Jewish. What it all means, however, I’ll wait to weigh in on until after having, at the very least, read the book.

Masculine Energy

Phoebe Maltz Bovy —  Dec 19 2014 @ 9:41am
by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

I can’t stop thinking about Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart’s essay identifying with macho or misogynistic male authors and protagonists:

I’d always understood I was a she, and I never wanted to be otherwise. And yet somehow I was convinced that the disparaging things my male heroes said about women didn’t apply to me, not because they were untrue about females generally, but because I must not be the sort of female they were talking about. Being a strange kid helped—I had the overdeveloped intellect and underdeveloped social skills that precocious children of all genders seem to share. Since I was comfortable with being different, the masculine aspects of my personality were one more oddity among many. These oddities allowed me to nod comfortably along with sections of a novel where the author paused a moment to explain that women were like such-and-so, and then got back to the important parts, which had men in them. …

It took high school and part of college before I began to grow out of this mentality, but eventually I appreciated that the basic difference between me and other women wasn’t that they were dumber and more frivolous than I was. Dating other women helped—unlike straight men, lesbians aren’t allowed to get away with the assumption that they’re superior beings compared with the objects of their affections.

It also dawned on me, albeit slowly, that the rest of the world largely saw me as a woman like any other. I mourned this, wishing for the first time that I’d been born a boy so my combative conversational style and my impulse to dominate and destroy all comers could be met with approval, rather than dismay, from peers, teachers, and family members. But, I also recognized that the same disapproval and dismay was squelching the self-expression of women generally, not just butch lesbians.

While the headline reads, “A Lesbian Dilemma,” as Urquhart herself notes, there’s nothing specifically lesbian about the feelings she describes. Identifying with the man and not the woman in a story is, I suspect, a common female experience. That’s because – as comes up somewhere in the comments to the piece – male characters in fiction are just characters, whereas female ones are woman characters. Indeed, the sense that one is somehow different from all those silly females is its own meme: “other girls.” And one that’s readily obscured by contemporary discussions of gender identity. While there are certainly unique experiences of masculine identification among transmen, butch lesbians, and other gender-non-conforming biologically-female individuals, there’s also plenty feeling-the-guy among feminine-seeming straight women and girls. Remember Simone de Beauvoir’s famous line, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”? That’s what she was getting at.

And that sense of oneself as an agent in one’s own life isn’t merely something that can be experienced by a straight woman or girl. It can extend to a female experience of heterosexuality. I think back to my own experiences as a girl who knew from a fairly young age she liked boys. I remember experiencing my crushes the way I was told – from books, movies, society – that a boy who liked girls should be experiencing this. I’d think, gosh, he’s gorgeous. I wasn’t particularly interested in being thought gorgeous myself. I saw how being thought attractive would be useful for a crush to be reciprocated, of course, but it was never the main hope. The gaze that interested me was that of the protagonist. Was my gaze, then, a male gaze, or just a human one? Whatever the case, I had to learn not to pursue. Which can be a tough thing to unlearn later in life, in other arenas.

I have no interest here in delving into exactly how much of gender is socially constructed and how much comes down to biology. But I have some interest in mentioning a recurring theme on “The Millionaire Matchmaker,” a reality show about a high-powered businesswoman who sets up rich men with trophy wives. On the occasions when the client being set up is a (straight) woman, the entire project of the show will be to rid the “millionairess” of her “masculine energy,” which is off-putting to men, or at least to the hyper-masculine men that (surely) a woman would prefer. Now, these are not masculine-of-center women by any means. One, I believe, ran a hair salon, another a clothing company. They’ve got long hair, heaps of makeup – the Bravo usual. “Masculine energy,” in this context, means the will to run a company, to be a boss, to get things done.

It could well be that fewer women than men have the “energy” in question. But it seems unavoidably true that many women have experience learning to tone theirs down.

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Reihan Salam dissects the concept of white privilege, making reference to a piece I wrote on the concept of privilege generally. He agrees with me that privilege-checking as sensitivity-signaling is silly, and I agree with him that unearned advantage is very much real. Here’s Reihan:

Even white Americans of modest means are more likely to have inherited something, in the form of housing wealth or useful professional connections, than the descendants of slaves. In his influential 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White, Ira Katznelson recounts in fascinating detail the various ways in which the New Deal and Fair Deal social programs of the 1930s and 1940s expanded economic opportunities for whites while doing so unevenly at best for blacks, particularly in the segregated South. Many rural whites who had known nothing but the direst poverty saw their lives transformed as everything from rural electrification to generous educational benefits for veterans allowed them to build human capital, earn higher incomes, and accumulate savings. This legacy, in ways large and small, continues to enrich the children and grandchildren of the whites of that era. This is the stuff of white privilege. …

In Blurring the Color Line, CUNY Graduate Center sociologist Richard Alba argues that rapid aging of white America creates an opportunity for younger Latinos, blacks, and Asians. Even if whites want to hoard all of the most privileged jobs for themselves, they’ll have no choice but to open up competition to those with the necessary skills, regardless of race. But this process of opening things up, as WASPs did for southern and eastern European immigrants and their children in an earlier era, will go far more smoothly if we have a growing economy, which will give everyone an opportunity to climb the social ladder. If we instead have economic stagnation, we will see a fierce zero-sum contest for economic and political power, in which tribal identities—including white identity—will become more central.

I’d argue that this is exactly what we’re living through right now: If everyone’s wages were growing, and if everyone felt secure enough in their jobs to quit every now and again in search of better opportunities elsewhere, I doubt that we’d be talking quite so much about white privilege. We’d definitely talk about broken schools and mass incarceration and law enforcement policies that disproportionately damage the lives of nonwhites. Yet we might talk about these problems in a more forward-looking way, as formidable obstacles that need to be overcome by all Americans, not just guilty whites.

As I read him, what Reihan is saying is that the white-privilege conversation has emerged, paradoxically, because most white Americans – along with most non-white Americans – aren’t doing so great economically. A sense emerges that success (or just access to a living wage) is a zero-sum game. It emerges, that is, in all parts of society, except among the most entrenched of society’s haves.

There are, even in crap economic times, a handful of Americans whose central concern is that they have too much unearned comfort. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, these are the very same people who are directing the cultural conversation about social injustice. I could get into why – journalism’s barriers to entry explain a lot – but the point, for our purposes, is that that’s how it goes. And for those already accustomed to apologizing for their very existence, further privilege-acknowledgment comes naturally. For this set, racism of resentment isn’t just worthy of condemnation (which, of course, it is; resentment explains but doesn’t excuse), but altogether baffling.

Reihan’s commenter nomoreno puts it well:

My experience is that white people who prattle on about white privilege, actually do have privilege, usually middle class, parents paid for college, hetero, etc… The problem is they think all other white people are in the same situation and are shocked that not everyone is.

As does commenter MysticWav:

I’m fine with the concept, I just hate the term. “Privilege” implies something extra to me in connotation. The proverbial silver spoon. That’s not the problem we face. Whites don’t have anything that we don’t all deserve. What we have a problem with is people that are “Disadvantaged”. Ones that don’t have the things we all deserve.

The language matters because it influences how we react to the problem and how we think about the necessary solutions. One inspires reflexive resentment from white people, the other inspires reflexive sympathy.

Indeed. The problem with the term “privilege” – both the luxe the word evokes and the manner in which it’s all too often used – is that it frames questions of justice in terms of haves graciously offering up some of their bottomless reserves of have to have-nots. It may help some posh racists change their ways, but it’s of absolutely no use in convincing anyone whose racism is one of resentment.

“A Chick Who Can Hang”

Phoebe Maltz Bovy —  Dec 17 2014 @ 1:58pm
by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Flagging research supporting what women already knew – wearing heels to a bar gets male attention – Ally Fogg notes that his preferences differ from those of the men in that study:

For what it is worth (ie nothing), personally I’m more attracted to a woman who looks like she can drink me under the table then carry me home, making a sturdy pair of DMs just the ticket. I live in hope that one day the human race will view high heels with the same horror with which we view foot-binding. Women would be spared innumerable podiatric agonies and men would, I think, just about cope. Until then I shall content myself with the knowledge that I’m right and the rest of the human race is a bit daft.

I don’t want to be too hard on Fogg here, because he’s basically right about heels, and he at least has the decency to precede his explanation of his tastes with a disclaimer acknowledging their irrelevance. But reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the Amy Schumer sketch, “A Chick Who Can Hang”:


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The man who will have you know that prefers a woman without makeup, who’s casual and laid-back, who’s one of the guys is, at least in conversations among women, a well-established cliché.

As Schumer suggests, there’s the effortlessness many men rhapsodize about, and then there’s actual effortlessness, which consists of looking like a disheveled version of one’s usual self. The ideal woman is well-groomed, but has a shower-and-go beauty routine. She’s well-dressed, but never goes shopping. As Lauren Bans recently pointed out, that Schumer sketch works because “a supermodel going to town on a cheeseburger” is basically the straight male fantasy. (Well, the PG one, at any rate.) The perfect woman, then, is thin without dieting. Perhaps, too, she’s simultaneously in combat boots and heels.