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by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

As hashtag memes go, #YouHadOneJob (see also) seems like a lighthearted bit of fun. For the uninitiated: The hashtag is meant to collect instances of hilarious on-the-job fails:

Yes, I laughed. Then again, my sense of humor is such that an out-of-context roll of toilet paper on its own could also have that effect.

But the hashtag often gets used for more run-of-the-mill customer-service gripes, of the they-got-my-order-wrong variety. (I don’t wish to start a shaming cycle, so no specific links to those tweets. A glance at the hashtag will provide copious examples.) While these are indeed among the less clever uses of the meme, they’re not exactly out-of-place. After all, the butt of the joke is someone with a low-skilled job. More than that: Part of the joke is the job itself.

It’s supposed to be hilarious that someone’s honest-to-goodness job is lining up tiles properly or spelling a sign correctly; the ineptitude at the simple task is just icing. The “you” of the meme doesn’t refer to a readily identifiable worker (and thank goodness), but the implied worker would probably be – or perhaps was – fired for the mistake. On the rare occasions when it’s used to refer to a failure at a complex task, the joke falls flat, because clearly making a flu vaccine is not just “one job” in the sense the meme requires.

The question is, why this mean-spirited (if sometimes quite funny) meme, and why now? Aren’t we supposed to be living in an era of hypersensitivity? Why hasn’t the privilege of users of this hashtag been called out? (According to a few minutes of Googling, it has not.) Does #YouHaveOneJob tap into employment anxieties of those who are or have been un- or underemployed? Or is it just yet another example of the online quest for affirmation?

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Freddie recently complained about his Facebook friends sharing a jokey item that conflated “think[ing] Olive Garden is fancy” with being a racist. Freddie’s post title, and seemingly straightforward request, is, “keep your classism out of my antiracism.”

I share his sentiment, but am pessimistic about the prospects of separating classism from not just antiracism, but social justice advocacy more generally. It’s not that sometimes, well-meaning progressive sorts slip up and accidentally insult one group while helping another. Rather, it’s that a certain kind of chic progressivism (or pseudo-progressivism) has fused with class snobbery. The chance to engage in a bit of class signaling is a feature, not a bug.

We see this in so many arenas, the most obvious being a certain kind of anti-commercialism that seems to be about defending those who can’t afford flashy-fancy items, but is in fact about those who prefer discreetly high-end items (or better yet, experiences) looking down on those whose tastes aren’t so impressive. See: Black Friday. See also: the “basic bitch,” and Noreen Malone’s spot-on explanation. The thing these days is to sneer at the schmancy in a way that seems at first to be about supporting the underdog, but that’s in fact the opposite. “Gourmet” is no longer indicative of high-end, nor are designer logos. So you’re not actually taking the pro-underdog position of you prefer Bushwick farm-to-table to special-occasion restaurants (that may well cost less). A gigantic engagement ring, a McMansion, an SUV, these are the things one can evoke as examples of how “we” i.e. Americans over-consume, but the person ostensibly including himself in this first-person-plural actually has plenty of money, status, and whichever stuff does interest him. It’s simply not done to insult the actual poor. So all the classist energies have gone towards insulting this nebulous (and unless otherwise specified, white) middle class, all the while claiming to be concerned about the environment, labor, etc. Yet those remain, for others, true concerns. The difficulty is sorting out which is which.

We also see this play out in social-media issues-of-the-day discussions. Specifically, the “privilege” conversation, which is often, as we have seen, a way for those with the right manners and terminology to exclude everyone else. Class signaling and social-justice advocacy have, on Twitter and most especially on Facebook, started to look, at times, almost indistinguishable.

Object Lesson

Phoebe Maltz Bovy —  Sep 6 2014 @ 8:03pm
by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Arguing against feminists (but which feminists? more on that in a moment), Ann Friedman defends objectification within relationships:

Within a healthy relationship or sexual interaction, a little objectification is a good thing. Often, it’s a necessary thing. Even the most ardent feminist sometimes wants to feel physically appreciated and desired in a way that is separate from her other qualities. Without a little bit of objectification, every sexual encounter would essentially be gentle lovemaking with lots of eye contact. The sort of eye contact that’s deep and meaningful enough to convey complex messages like, “You really killed it at work this week, you make me laugh, and I love your hot bod.” It’s a nice sentiment, sure, but not exactly a headboard-banging night. Sometimes you just want to get laid.

Especially when you’re several years deep into a relationship, a bit of remove is often essential to getting it up. It can be hard to feel sexy when you’re thinking about the financial stress you’re under, or a parent’s illness, or your partner’s work, or any of the multifaceted aspects of your daily relationship. Focusing on bodies can provide a welcome disconnect. “There has to be an ‘other’ for there to be sexiness,” psychologist Marta Meana told Macleans last year.

All of that sounds reasonable enough, if not as contrarian as Friedman’s making it out to be. She opens her piece by declaring that there’s a feminist consensus that objectification is “bad.” But is there? There is, as she notes, some new research on men who “excessively” objectify their female partners. Fair enough, but who’s arguing against a sensible amount of physical admiration? There’s a feminist consensus, I suppose, that it’s bad to be treated as a sexual object in an inappropriate setting – that is, by your professor or boss, or by a man who’s traveled the length of a public bus just to let you know that he thinks you’d be prettier if you smiled.

And there’s certainly dissent among feminists when it comes to pornography. While I – a feminist, not speaking for all-the-feminists – agree with Dan Savage that the wife in the first letter here sounds… troubled, he might have at least acknowledged that there are ethical concerns about how a good amount of porn is produced, and that even a woman without tremendous “DTMFA”-worthy insecurities might be, I don’t know, miffed, if she really thought about how she stacked up, so to speak, against the women her partner looks at on the internet. But where’s the feminist who, if called beautiful or hot by her male partner, would cry sexism and run for the hills?

Friedman, then, is completely right about the value of objectification within relationships. I disagree only with her assessment of how much of an aberration that position could possibly be within feminism today.

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

In his NYT obituary of Joan Rivers, Robert D. McFadden refers to her as “the brassy Jewish-American princess from Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Larchmont, in Westchester County.” This jumped out at me, not just because “JAP” is a slur (which it is, but one could argue that it honors Rivers to violate PC), but because… Flatbush? Some of my family lived in more or less that part of Brooklyn at more or less the same time, and it seems an odd place to label “princess” country.

I made that point on Facebook, which led to a discussion about whether one must be born a “JAP” to be one, or whether one can, through scrappy hard work, deck oneself out in tasteless-but-expensive garb and become a princess in the derogatory sense. Can one ever earn unearned advantage? Is that a thing?

Which brings us back to the more general question of “privilege.” Can privilege be earned? Is the combination of talent, hard work, and luck that brings a handful of people from not-so-privileged backgrounds success enough to move such individuals into the “privileged” category? Or does the word specifically refer to advantage that’s the result of being born to the winning side of some systematic inequality?

That’s a big part of the conversation that’s emerged in the response to my earlier post, in which I took issue with Rod Dreher’s choice to call out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “privilege” when what Coates was describing – taking a French class as a successful adult, in a situation that wouldn’t have been available to him as a kid – seemed a fairly clear-cut case of earned advantage. Freddie deBoer takes issue with that assessment:

Of course Coates has been the beneficiary of unearned advantage.

It’s an unearned advantage to be born without crippling medical ailments. It’s an unearned advantage to be born male. It’s an unearned advantage to be born in the United States rather than in Afghanistan or Somalia. And so on. Is that what most people mean when they talk about privilege? Maybe not, but then another of the central points of privilege theory is that the privileges that are most profound tend to be those we don’t acknowledge. Besides: Coates has written at length about the benefits he had growing up thanks to his parents, and to being politicized by his father, a former Black Panther. That’s a classic kind of privilege, parental privilege, and one that absolutely matters.

Such talk will inevitably piss some people off, but it shouldn’t. The fact that Coates has been the recipient of great advantages compared to many people in the world doesn’t change the fact that he has also been faced, his whole life, with the disadvantage of living in a structurally racist society, or the relative disadvantage of his own economic circumstances compared to some others. The point is that “privileged” is not a binary category, and in fact essentially all people are some combination of advantaged and disadvantaged.

Despite a tone that suggests he and I are in stark disagreement, I basically agree with him on this. And he’s right that Coates, going the 2012 article I suspect he’s at least partially referring to, probably would as well. How anyone ends up where they do in life is always going to be some incalculable mix of effort and unearned advantage. One of the great flaws of “privilege” as a concept – and as deBoer notes, I’ve held forth on this topic quite a bit; if my ending was “underwritten,” it was out of a fear of length of the holding-forth that could ensue – is that it fails to account for the myriad unearned advantages and unfair (but often invisible) obstacles that don’t fall into any particular privilege framework. Is talent “privilege”? Is growing up in a dysfunctional but upper-class family a lack thereof? It’s always going to be possible to point to individual rich people who’ve had it worse than individual poor ones, individual black people who’ve had it easier than individual white ones, and so on. We can all point to people we know who are, on paper, more privileged than we are, but have struggled more than we have, and vice versa.

But this is only a problem when one tries to apply “privilege” to individuals. The concept works much better for describing society, because it’s about all-things-equal. While unearned, idiosyncratic advantages have doubtless contributed to Coates’s success, that doesn’t somehow tell us that white privilege (or white unearned advantage) isn’t significant in some broader sense. I suppose what I’m saying is that I’d be wary of taking this critique of privilege as far as deBoer does when he describes “a world of such multivariate complexity that we can never know whose accomplishments are earned and whose aren’t.” Yes, life is complicated, but it’s not that complicated. Are we really going to say that the Harvard legacy kid has precisely the same level of unearned advantage as the kid who got in thanks to hard-work-and-dedication-privilege?

Two readers address this question of systematic inequality more eloquently than I could, so let’s end with their observations. The first:

I think the critique of Coates’ essay regarding privilege misses a key component of TNC’s entire project. When you argue: “people often round up how easy those who have it relatively easy actually have it. I’ve heard variants of this that are about class, not race – where those who didn’t grow up with college-educated parents assume that those who did spent their dinners discussing Ideas, not squabbling over nonsense, or watching bad television.” You miss the key difference, in a way that Dreher does as well. TNC’s point (and he links repeatedly to the research backing it up both on Twitter and in the Reparations essay) is not that there’s some vague privilege in having grown up in one neighborhood vs another and that if only his family had been middle class he’d be different. It’s that structurally, a black child in a family that we would call middle class is vastly more likely to grow up in a bad neighborhood, attend worse schools, and have far more contact with actual poverty than a white child with the exact same family profile. That is the access to culture we’re talking about here. It’s not a vague sense that someone reads with a child or that mom and dad talk about books or whatever. It’s that for black families, being middle class isn’t enough. They will live in worse neighborhoods, they will have greater contact with poverty (and violence, and likely the police) and their outcomes will be constrained because of it.

That’s what’s actually more galling about Dreher’s response. It’s that he hand-waves away the research TNC puts forward with anecdotes about his family, and so he never confronts the structure of the argument at all.

And the second:

I suppose this list of qualifications – senior editor a respected magazines, writing for top publications, spending a summer studying French at Middlebury – is a set of markers of class and privilege. But consider this set of qualifications: tenured professor at one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the country, respected scholar with an international following, board member of a number of prestigious cultural institutions. Pretty upper class, right?

Of course, I’m describing Henry Louis Gates, who if we all recall was arrested in 2009 after being locked out of his house.

I’m neither a senior editor at a national magazine, nor a professor at a prestigious university, but if I’m ever locked out of my house, I don’t worry that a neighbor will call the police on me. Yet should that nonetheless happen, I’m extremely confident of my ability to explain the situation to the police and avoid arrest. And I’ll wager however much you like that Dreher is in the same position.

Here would be where I point out that this is white privilege – but I think “privilege” is not actually helpful, nor accurate. Rather, here is where I point out that this is in fact a question of class, that class has many components, and that alongside income, wealth, education, and profession, race is one of them.

Race is part of class, and I think a lot of the bitterness comes from the realization that however many achievements a black American may achieve in 2014, race often still trumps achievement as a designator.

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Like Bill McKibben, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on learning French with interest. I did so both because French, and because of how powerful and prescient I’d found his reparations article. I read this latest essay as a reflection on the ways that studying a highbrow, so-called universal subject can bring about deeper insights on more particular struggles. While I came to the piece with as good a sense as anyone of how studying French can impact Jewish identity (that being, in a roundabout way, the subject of my doctoral dissertation), I had very little idea of what effect it might have on black identity. But it seemed natural enough to me that it might have one. It didn’t, then, seem out-there to me that Coates would take the opportunity of describing his adult-ed French classes to segue into musings on the state of education for African-American children.

Rod Dreher has a somewhat different take. A part of Dreher’s critique of Coates makes sense. Another part of it, however, does not, and then there’s Dreher’s witticism in the comments to his own post: “The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that TNC’s essay amounts to ‘white supremacy ate my French homework.'”

The more I think about that sentence, the more I think that it expresses exactly the sort of breezily-expressed viewpoint – not quite racist (although I’ll leave that for readers of the race in question to decide), but definitively insensitive – that gives conservatism a not entirely fair reputation as… less than ideal, let’s say, when it comes to issues regarding race.

But first, the bit that made perfect sense:

Dreher takes Coates to task for conflating “white” childhoods with ones steeped in cultural capital. This is a common problem with “privilege” critiques – people often round up how easy those who have it relatively easy actually have it. I’ve heard variants of this that are about class, not race – where those who didn’t grow up with college-educated parents assume that those who did spent their dinners discussing Ideas, not squabbling over nonsense, or watching bad television. This gets at a problem I’ve long had with the word “privilege” – while the concept it refers to is sound, the word itself has a tendency to give the impression that anyone with one form of privilege is privileged in the colloquial sense, i.e. all-around advantaged.

On the one hand, it’s part and parcel of lack-of-privilege that you don’t know how it goes for the more privileged in whichever area. On the other, if the end goal is highlighting actual injustices, then it should be pointed out where advantages actually lie. It’s completely fair to point out that some aspects of Coates’ struggle with French are related less to racism than to his class background, or to the fact that he was older than his classmates. Next, the not-so-fair:

Then TNC goes on to draw some sort of black nationalist lesson from his summer at French camp, culminating in this line: “Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.” OK. Whatever. Reparations scholarships to Middlebury for all!

I snark, but honestly, the idea that the enormous privilege of spending a summer studying a foreign language at a verdant Vermont college should conclude with a resolution to become even more of a militant race man is depressing. Exactly whose house will TNC be burning down as a result of the tools he acquired this summer at Middlebury? François Hollande’s? I don’t get it. I seriously don’t. Seems to me that learning French as a middle-aged American can only do one worthwhile thing: make you more of a humanist.

Agreed that Coates doesn’t end on a particularly upbeat note, but why exactly shouldn’t studying French lead Coates to reflect on racial injustice? Because anyone who gets to go to a language summer school somewhere “verdant” should be so busy expressing gratitude that they wouldn’t even find the time?

Dreher proceeds to dig himself into a deeper hole in a follow-up post. “Ignore the author’s tendentious race politics,” writes Dreher, “and there’s a deeply human lesson in that essay.” Dreher, in other words, instructs readers to ignore the point of the essay. More frustratingly, he constructs a dichotomy between the black and “human” aspects of it: “What he discovered at Middlebury was not the effects of white supremacy, but the limits inherent within himself — limits all of us will eventually discover about ourselves, one way or another.”

Dreher seems oddly attached to the idea that Coates could only possibly have been talking about a universal experience – as if anything particular to Coates’ experience as an African-American was something that a better editor would have thought to take out. There’s a certain irony in this, given that Coates’ essay inspired Dreher, in turn, to discuss the particularities of his own upbringing.

Dreher remains committed to calling out Coates’ “privilege”… when what he’s actually calling out are achievements Coates has earned.

From his initial response:

He is part of the Establishment now. He writes for a well-respected national magazine, about things he enjoys. He takes summers to go to language camp to learn French. That’s great! Why is he such a sore winner? Feeling guilty about one’s privilege doesn’t mitigate it.

And the second:

He’s a senior editor at one of the most respected magazines in the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, he writes for top publications … and he has the luxury of spending his summer studying French at Middlebury. And is embittered because of circumstances in his youth, circumstances he attributes to white supremacy, he’s probably not going to ever master French, at least not to his satisfaction.

We should all be fortunate enough to have such problems.

I suppose Coates is privileged in the it’s-been-a-privilege sense. Unearned advantage, though, is a tough case to make.

Off With Their Heels

Phoebe Maltz Bovy —  Sep 1 2014 @ 10:48am
by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Rebecca Willis ponders the eternal question of why (some) women wear high heels:

We’ve heard it all before and it is, of course, a conundrum. Women say they feel empowered in heelsperhaps because they can look men in the eyewhen in reality they are physically handicapped by them. A lot of ink has been spent over the years trying to explain why we still wear them. To summarise: a high heel is sexual, changing the way we move, signalling passivity and availability. It’s misogynist, rendering women decorative and in need of a strong arm to hold. It’s a sign that we’ve escaped the prison of domesticityhave you tried doing housework in heels? And it’s a status symbol, as tallness is associated with privilege and good nutrition. Even so, many women, women with brains enough to understand that feet are a feminist issue, still want to wear heels. The long view may be that we’re going through a patch of cultural turbulence, but the close-up is that we really want that sense of lift. So for now let’s accept the existence of that desire, however ideologically unsound it may be. …

You have only to go to the chemist’s and stand in front of the shelves of gel insoles, corn pads, blister plasters and heel grips to see that footwear can be torture. And women are more tortured than men: according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, women are two to four times more likely to have hallux valgus (that’s bunions to you and me) and four to five times more likely to have hammer toes. If we could make ourselves immune to fashion and novelty, we’d be better off spending our money on a couple of custom-made pairs of shoes rather than lots of the off-the-shelf, one-shape-fits-all variety.

But what if this question is not, in fact, eternal? In a piece accompanied by a sketch by Konstantin Kakanias of fashion’s A-list in their preferred flats, Sadie Stein (NYT) announces a new, hobble-free era:

Today, all the old tropes and even the recent ones (Birkenstocks, Tevas, shower sandals) have been taken out of the box and made to look fresh and new. You can find driving moccasins, once an icon of staid WASPiness, bristling with ironic attitude, deck shoes in the farthest reaches of Brooklyn.

In the summer heat, urban women resembled Greek goddesses in strappy sandals. On runways from Marc by Marc Jacobs to Chanel, the look was bright sneakers and flat boots. Rather than teetering to their town cars, top fashion editors and stylists were suddenly able to hop on Citi Bikes or toodle through the Tuileries. From Lanvin’s laceless oxfords to the Row’s crocodile brogues, Marni’s tasseled loafers to riffs on Dr. Martens at Céline and Alexander McQueen — these are shoes you want to walk in. Nothing could feel more grown-up right now.

So, could this be it? If Fashion says heels are done, does that mean the next big thing will be higher heels than ever before? Most likely. But as a short, shoe-loving woman who was avoiding heels before it was cool, I vote for the flat-shoe trend to go on indefinitely (oxymoronic as that wish may be).

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Rebecca Mead describes the challenges Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard has faced as a prominent female academic:

At Cambridge [in 1972], the inequities of gender began to dawn on Beard. “Most of the people who taught us in the faculty were blokes,” she says. “There were only twelve per cent women among the students, and you thought, Actually, there is an issue here. You go into a dining hall of a men’s college, and everybody’s portrait was a bloke. Well, perhaps some female founder back in 1512, some lady who gave the cash—and everyone else was a bloke. For the first time I saw that, somehow, I was there as sort of a favor.” She attended women’s groups and joined campaigns to open the university further to women. The women of Cambridge were undertaking more personal voyages of discovery, too: in a drawer somewhere in Beard’s house is a plastic speculum that she acquired at one consciousness-raising gathering.

Beard left Cambridge in 1979, for King’s College London. She completed her Ph.D. in 1982; two years later, she returned to Newnham as a fellow. At the time, she says, she was one of only three women on the classics faculty, out of a total of twenty-six; before long, both of her female colleagues left. (Now there are roughly four men to each woman.)

That was then. Today, explains Mead, Beard is active on social media, and holds her own in an ongoing battle with the ubiquitous misogynistic troll contingent. Mead addresses the particularity of how Beard, whom “the Queen recently appointed … to the Order of the British Empire,” battles lesser names (or the altogether anonymous):

There is, [Beard] acknowledges, an irony in the imbalance of power: as a prominent scholar, she does have a voice, however unpleasant the threats to silence her may be. Most of her Twitter detractors are grumbling to only a handful of followers, at least until she amplifies their audience.

Mead’s article brought to mind a pattern I’ve noticed within feminism, which I’ve called the Second After Sartre problem, namely that of women who aren’t merely privileged but are major leaders of their age, who call out the obstacles that prevent them from achieving what their male equivalents can, or from doing so as easily. It’s in reference to… I’ll let LisaAppignanesi explain the story I’m referencing:

De Beauvoir and Sartre met in 1929 when they were both studying for the aggregation in philosophy, the elite French graduate degree. De Beauvoir came second to Sartre’s first, though the examiners agreed she was strictly the better philosopher and at the age of 21 the youngest person ever to have sat the exam. But Sartre, the future author of Being and Nothingness, was bold, ingenious, exuberant in his youthful excess, the satirical rebel who shouted, “Thus pissed Zarathustra” as he hurled water bombs out of classroom windows.

Being second after Sartre, when you should have been first, is indeed an injustice. Injustices that occur at the top – ones well beyond the First World Problem-ness of having-it-all feminism – are instructive (if even the most elite, confident women face sexism, perhaps sexism is actually a thing!), and of course it matters if the tippy-top of whichever hierarchy is open to all who qualify. But the trouble is that we end up hearing a wildly disproportionate amount about such injustices, because, well, who gives lectures at the British Museum? It can start to feel as if feminism is primarily about recognizing the achievements of the most accomplished women. That’s part of what feminism should be, but perhaps not quite so big a part.

See also (my grievances with) “mansplaining.” Rebecca Solnit’s article, “Men who explain things,” which more or less launched the concept, was about a man trying to explain to Solnit a topic she had just written a book about. That is… not the usual situation. More often, in cases where a man conflates maleness with superior expertise, the man and the woman know approximately as much (or as little) about the topic. Neither is likely to be a certified expert. What if a woman wishes to speak and she isn’t the world’s greatest genius? Men who fail to meet that standard have been known to say their piece.

This is my roundabout way of saying why I’m so curious about Roxane Gay’s writing. From Lucy McKeon’s review of Gay’s two new books:

Amidst Anne-Marie Slaughter’s talk of “having it all” and Sheryl Sandberg’s talk of “leaning in,” Gay’s Bad Feminist, a collection of essays of cultural criticism, offers a complex and multifarious feminism to answer the movement’s ongoing PR issues, its flaws and its failures. Gay’s is a feminism for the ignorant and misinformed as much as for the historically excluded and ignored. Analyzing a wide range of material—from 12 Years a Slave to the Sweet Valley High series, from the reality TV trope “I’m not here to make friends” to the gendered politics of likeability in fiction, from professional sports to Tyler Perry, from the fallout of mass tragedy to legislative control of women’s reproductive rights—Bad Feminist surveys culture and politics from the perspective of one of the most astute critics writing today.

Yes, the time has come for “a feminism for the ignorant and misinformed as much as for the historically excluded and ignored.” It couldn’t have come soon enough.