Hazlitt Magazine

The State of Black Mourning

For the past five centuries being black has meant collectively experiencing grief in ways that the rest of society does not understand and cannot fully comprehend.

Lead Me On

Both holy and wholly her own, Amy Grant was the soundtrack to my rebellion. When my church rejected her, what I heard was, “You can’t be a believer and a woman who wants more.” 

Free the Roses

On the bloom of spectacular decline.

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Lead Me On

Both holy and wholly her own, Amy Grant was the soundtrack to my rebellion. When my church rejected her, what I heard was, “You can’t be a believer and a woman who wants more.” 

My older sister Jessie and I loved to dance in the living room to Amy Grant’s 1991 hit single “Baby, Baby.” Hopping around on the salmon-colored carpet as the hot Texas sun streamed in through the bay windows, we’d coo, “Baby, baby, I’m taken with the notion, to love you with the sweetest of devotion.” We synchronized our actions. Swinging our arms like they were cradling a baby and thumping our hands over our hearts. “Baby, baby, the stars are shining over you and just like me I’m sure that they adore you.” We spun and held our hands over our heads, wiggling our fingers, like twinkling stars in the sky.Homeschooled and raised Evangelical, we were sequestered from the world. We had no way of knowing it, but that year, every young girl was dancing to “Baby, Baby.” The song was a hit on both Christian and pop music charts, making Grant one of the first successful crossover artists. But I didn’t listen to pop radio. My siblings and I weren’t allowed to. It wasn’t considered godly. Instead, we danced alone on salmon-colored carpet, feeling like we were the only girls in the world—just us, Amy Grant and the thumping of our hands over our hearts.“Baby, Baby” was the first hit single from Grant’s Heart in Motion album, which was released when I was just nine years old. I idolized her, crimping my stick-straight hair every Sunday to mimic her moussed up curls. Grant rose to Christian stardom in the 1980s as a girl with a guitar from Tennessee, singing simple songs about Jesus. But by the early ‘90s, she was dressing in leopard print and singing about love, and not just the kind one had for their Lord and Savior. She was both holy and wholly her own. Grasping at success, reaching for something more than what she’d been given—Amy Grant was the soundtrack to my rebellion.[[{"fid":"6700196","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Amy Grant - Baby, Baby","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]*During our morning Bible reading, I sat with my siblings at the kitchen table, our seven little faces popping up over the oak surface that was crusty with the remains of breakfast. Devotionals happened right before we began our day of homeschool. There, our mom read to us from the Bible, lingering over lessons she thought we needed. “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.” And: “Do not return evil for evil or insult for insult, but give a blessing instead.” (We fought a lot.)Another common lesson was from Philippians 4:8. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”There were many things not covered in this category of “excellent or praiseworthy”: the word “butt,” for example, or the covers of magazines that our mother flipped over in the checkout aisle of grocery stores, huffing to the shrugging teen clerk. “How can this be appropriate for children?” Before she hid them we saw patches of flesh, sultry lips, although other times there were soldiers without arms or legs. The Gulf War was happening, but we didn’t know—the news was not one of those “such things.”It also applied to the books on ghosts and witches I frequently snuck out of the library and hid behind the potted plants. “These are not good things,” my mother said, whisking a Goosebumps book from under my pillow. “These are things that will let the devil play with your mind.”Most importantly, this verse was applied to music. There was little music that met the Philippians standard held fast by the adults in our life—my parents, my Sunday school teachers and the parents of our friends. The music that was allowed was mostly classical, though there were also contemporary Christian artists such as Petra, Twila Paris and Michael W. Smith, and a few secular exceptions—The Eagles, The Beach Boys, Carole King and James Taylor. These were holdovers from my parent’s pre-Christian years. Little pieces that they couldn’t let go of.“You don’t have to sing the name of Jesus to be a holy song,” my mom told us as we danced, polishing mirrors and dusting lamps, to “Little Deuce Coup” on cleaning day. “But you do have to sing about good things.”My mom was a musician. She gave music lessons to other Evangelical kids from our church. As we sat in a circle around my mom and her guitar, we learned “I’ll Fly Away,” “The Old Rugged Cross” and “This Land Is Your Land.” The parents of the other children must have been blissfully unaware of Woody Guthrie’s socialist agenda, but my mom knew. I know she knew. I asked her about it years later and she laughed and winked. “Socialism? It was just a song about America, just a lovely song.”And so, even after the leopard outfits, after Grant’s divorce and her complete embrace of pop music, after she was banned from Christian book stores and all the other God-fearing homes around us, we still listened to her music. My mother knew about the controversy, but the music remained, slipping through the dissonance between the world she wanted to create and the world that was.*Six years before Heart in Motion, when she was only twenty-five, Amy Grant released Lead Me On, an aggressively mainstream album. The album was her first crossover success, due in part to the spunky rhythms and the soft pop melodies. The cover of the album shows Grant with big hair, jamming out in jeans, a modest blouse and a cougar print jacket. It’s so aggressively normal, the pictures could be photos from your ‘80s-themed nostalgia party.It was a deviation from her earlier albums, with their quiet songs about Christ and praises to the Lord. By contrast, the lyrics in Lead Me On rarely mention the name of God. For many Evangelicals, this fact alone was akin to Peter denying the Lord all three times. Add in her sultry eyes and a shoulder peeking out from an ‘80s-styled sweatshirt, and the album caused ripples across the jean-jumper, Bible thumper crowd.That year, in Rolling Stone, Grant recounted nude bathing on the beach and confessed that she wanted to be more than just a Christian singer. “I mean, everyone’s got something to say,” she said, “but I feel like I have something really good to say. It makes me want a lot of people to hear.” And it was this, her simple desire to be heard, that made them ultimately kick her out. “How could she be a Christian?” Adults and my older sister’s friends would say in church. And what I heard was, “You can’t be holy if you are a woman who hungers for more.”For a pop star in the 1980s, this was all tame. Madonna was burning crosses and singing about being “like a virgin.” Pat Benatar was calling love a battlefield, and it’s safe to assume that her idea of a battle was not a fight to keep herself pure for marriage. And of course, Annie Lennox was strutting about, looking like a man (grab your pearls). For the rest of the world, Amy Grant was the patriarchy—her soft pop tunes were what other women rebelled against. But for a girl home-schooled and raised in a conservative Evangelical community, Amy Grant might as well have been Andrea Dworkin—radical, aberrant, and frustratingly idiosyncratic.*After we had polished off the post-church lunch of brisket and rolls and the kids had gone off to play kickball, while the mothers cleaned up the dishes, I often lingered to hear the fathers talk. They discussed theology, what was happening a few miles away in Waco, which Clinton was the anti-Christ and the dangers of Amy Grant.“She’s compromised her Christian witness,” our pastor said, wiping brisket grease from his lips. “She is dressing immodestly and she is putting fame before Christ.”I was insulted and immediately felt defensive, but I knew better than to say anything. The last time I had asked this pastor a question about the nature of God, he laughed, patted my head and said that the job of a woman was to “just believe and submit.”I understood in that moment that by wanting to defend Grant, I had failed, but that perhaps I wanted to fail. I wanted to be good, but I also wanted to be heard. I wanted more than to just believe and submit. When you aren’t allowed to speak, you try on the words of others. For so many years, Amy Grant’s songs were my voice.From then on, when I found myself sent to my room for mouthing off, for questioning, for reading Goosebumps, I’d shove my face in my pillow and cry, dramatically sobbing out the words to “Father’s Eyes.”I may not be every mother’s dream for her little girl.Grant goes on to sing that despite her failings, she has the eyes of her Father, God—eyes that find the good in things, eyes that find the source of help, eyes for love, compassion. It’s a sentimental song. But that sentiment gave me the hope that perhaps I wasn’t all bad. Perhaps, I too could be redeemable.*That summer I was nine, my older sister had her friend Esther over to play. Esther’s parents were followers of Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles, now made famous by the Duggars. Esther always wore skirts and her hair was long. She’d once told me that my short bob was a sin. When my sister went to put on “Heart in Motion” so we could teach her our choreography, Esther left the room crying. Our mom came back with Esther and explained that her parents didn’t want her listening to Amy Grant. Amy Grant was a sinner. She was compromising herself for her ambition and she was too “worldly.”I remember rolling my eyes at Esther and her tears. “Does everything have to say the word God to have God in it?” I said. Esther cried harder and my mom called Esther’s mom and had her picked up.Esther’s parents and our pastor weren’t the only ones criticizing Amy Grant’s worldly appearance. In Christian circles, “worldly” is shorthand for being of the world. In Romans 12:2 the apostle Paul encourages Christians not to “conform to the patterns of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Many Christians interpret this invective as a call to eschew popular culture. When Cabbage Patch dolls were popular, many of my friends weren’t allowed to have them. Same with Teddy Ruxpin and listening to New Kids on the Block. Engaging in popular culture, we were told, was like shaking hands with someone who has a cold—just by being near them, you risk exposure. And for the faithful, it’s not your immune system at risk, it’s your mortal soul.Only I wonder, thinking of us little girls dancing between the sunbeams on the salmon-colored carpet, if our bodies aren’t more complicated than just a simple input-output system dueling between good and bad. There on the carpet I see us—our bodies both awkward and full of grace. We’d leap and then fall, little bruises we never even noticed forming and healing all on their own. Tiny little scars, rug burns and scrapes, we’d wash in the bath that night and wonder how we got them. We were always bumping into things—bruises and freckles colliding on our bodies, evidence of days lost in sunshine and forts built out of sheets. Hours spent spinning and dancing to music we barely even understood. Those seven layers of epidermis holding in the entire universe of ourselves as we danced, thumped and fell in a little room that was both our whole world and only the very beginning of it all. So how can it be that just one thing corrupts or one thing saves? Perhaps our wounds and our healing are the result of many things seen and unseen, the ordinary miracles of falling and leaping up happening without us even noticing. Music at that moment was just an accessory of our joy. We couldn’t understand the backlash.Grant didn’t either. In an interview with People, Grant noted dismissively, “Christians can be sexy. What I’m doing is a good thing.” In response to the backlash over her flirting with a handsome man in her “Baby, Baby” video, Grant told Woman’s Day, “The whole thing just seemed very boring to me. Besides, shooting the video was a blast. It is fun to flirt if you’re a happily-married woman.”The video is very boring. In it, Grant wears modest clothes: a pair of shorts that fall mid-thigh, a dress that looks like it was plucked from a catalog for Fundamentalist Mormons. She laughs and does the chicken dance with a man. At one point they lie on the floor and roll a ball to one another. If that is a metaphor for something awful, even now as an adult, I’m not picking up on it.Grant’s 1998 song “What About the Love” feels like a partial response to the criticism. She sings of a meeting a preacher who tells her to deny sin, pray for forgiveness and tithe. In response, she wonders if that is the answer, “just the letter of the law?” The song is fast-paced and earnestly plaintive. “What about the love?” she asks in the chorus, a line that is repeated over and over.*That same year, in response to the uproar over Amy Grant’s worldliness, the Dove Awards—the Grammys for the born-again—redefined eligibility by defining what it meant to be Christian music. The songs had to be based on the scripture, Christian testimony, clearly influenced by a Christian world view and/or an expression of praise to God.Amy Grant’s best songs didn’t qualify by those standards—when it comes to Christians, even songs about heterosexual and monogamous relationships aren’t holy enough. I imagine stern-looking men sitting in a room, trying to decide how many times a song has to mention Jesus before it is holy enough. Five times? Six? What if they only mention God and not Jesus? Does that mean they are not born again? Does that make them Catholics? What if they’re Unitarian? What then? They open the Bible, parsing out scripture to find the answers they hope they are hidden in there. They use the Old Testament laws of sacrament like a secret code for translating the foreign world they find themselves in.What was behind the desire to take a girl with an unruly mop of curly hair and a jubilant enthusiasm for music and faith and make her into public enemy number one? What makes any of us into enemies? In my more petulant moments I believe only that it was because she was the bearer of a vagina and dared to be human. But in my better moments, I know that it is the grasping fear of someone holding onto the pieces of the things they understand, afraid to have to let them go and have nothing left, only that deep blackness that faith tells us to face but the laws of religion seek to control.I know this because I too hold onto my tiny pieces of knowledge, constructing small unstable worlds until they are toppled. What fragile worlds we create that they can be destroyed by smiling girls and their curly hair. How powerful those girls must be to destroy our worlds. Both things are true. The worlds we create crack, bleed, and contradict, and in those fissures, somehow women live. But dissonance is not an easy place to live and so, in 1988, the rules were changed. Old lines reinforced. Territory marked. This is what it means to sing about God, they said, and quantified it for us all.1998 was also the year Grant got a divorce. For many Christians that was it. In their eyes, Amy Grant was not a Christian anymore and she never could be. A girl in my youth group, whose parents let her listen to Amy Grant, told us that perhaps Grant’s husband had been abusing her. There is little evidence to support that accusation. But I understand where her parents were coming from. That was, after all, the only “good Christian” reason for divorce. Maybe they wanted to exonerate her. Maybe they wanted to protect us. But few Christians in our circle tried to defend her.There was speculation that she had been having an affair for years with Vince Gill, the man who would become her second husband. This rumor still circulates. Often-cited evidence for this theory are the lyrics of the Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant song, “Faithless Heart,” which talks about temptation and adultery. I often wonder why Michael W. Smith never faced this same scrutiny. Why is this song not evidence of an affair he had? The answer is obvious—he was a man, his job was a worship leader.Like Grant, Smith also tried to become a crossover artist, releasing “Go West, Young Man” and working with Jim Brickman on “I Will Be Here for You.” But he wasn’t as successful. Maybe that’s it: Amy Grant was a beautiful woman, she was successful, she didn’t hide her ambition, and she didn’t apologize for making a modest dress look sexy. She did more just believe and submit.*Like Grant’s, my revolutions were as equally bland as they were radical. I went to a college that was Lutheran, not Baptist. I watched the Vagina Monologues, I skipped school to play tennis and read The Communist Manifesto. I smoked cigars when I was eighteen, I said the word “fuck” a lot. I know, I know. I kissed a boy I barely knew at a concert. But most revolutions happen in inches. They might appear small but they are no less fundamental. Amy Grant became the vehicle through which I was able to see myself as something more than the lines of orthodoxy that had been drawn around me. Grant was a woman with ambition, true, but she was also a girl who just wanted to sing about her faith and her God, and somehow wound up inside a revolution. I felt that way too. I was just a girl who wanted to read books, and somehow that forced me into a fight I hadn’t bargained for. What we both learned was that finding joy always seems to be a political act for the women pursuing it.Today, both Grant and I have a home, we have husbands and children. It is so conventional and boring. Sometimes, as a married woman, I flirt with waiters. And yet, last year, I tried to reach out to some of my friends who were in the same homeschool group as me back in the early ‘90s. Almost all of my outreach went unanswered. Finally, a girl responded. It was Esther, the girl whose parents refused to let her listen to Amy Grant at our house.“I’m concerned,” she wrote, “about your life and the choices you’ve made. They seem so far from God.” I didn’t really know how to respond, so I didn’t. What could she have meant? The blue streaks in my hair? The profanities I dropped on the internet? Sharing links that advocated for universal health care? Or maybe the fact that I wear skinny jeans and lipstick and drink whiskey and still say “fuck” a lot. I’m sure there is a reason. But I am also sure that, again, I’ve stumbled upon the lines of someone’s orthodoxy. The pieces of the known that they are holding onto, afraid of letting go. I know because these things are my little convictions—these profanities my dogma, my hair a tenet of my belief. And life is full of colliding creed.I am not the first girl who has lost and then found herself in the lyrics of a song. And I won’t be the last. Everywhere, even now, little girls are dancing on living room rugs, twirling and thumping their chests to music. Who knows what those songs mean to them? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. Maybe the words will help them synthesize the disparate pieces of the world that they hold in their wiggling, dancing fingers. Maybe each chest thump will kick-start a small revolution in their hearts.
‘This Brave New World Has Some of the Worst Aspects of the Old Way of Doing Things’: An Interview with Doree Shafrir

The author of Startup on gender inequality, tech culture and the shifting world of journalism. 

In the fall of 2006, Doree Shafrir started writing for the now-defunct Gawker, a media site that came to life at the dawn of online journalism—shifting standards for how stories were produced and ushering in a new age of media consumption. Shafrir, now a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed, lived in New York for almost a decade, where she "worked for startups, wrote about startups, had a lot of friends who worked for startups."In her debut novel, Startup, Shafrir draws on her experiences from both the online journalism industry and the startup scene in New York to illustrate the current state of tech startups and the strange symbiosis between app-developers, venture capitalists, and tech reporters. The novel, a satire, is eerily on-point in its illustration of this universe—especially when it comes to gender dynamics.Hope Reese: Your novel illustrates the frantic pace of online journalism today. Can you talk about your own experience of this? And is there something specific to tech journalism that separates it from the media industry as a whole?Doree Shafrir: The first time I really experienced this was when I started working for Gawker. We had quotas for how many posts we had to do a day—I think I had to do six posts a day. Some of my colleagues had to do like ten or twelve posts a day. It was a lot more aggregation at the time, but still, that's a lot. It was just this sort of constant frantic-ness. Once you'd finished something, it was, "What are you going to post next? When is it going to go up? Are we late on this?" There was a lot of pressure to have stuff up quickly.Is it worse in tech journalism, specifically? I mean, I don't think it's better. It's something that is endemic to online journalism, certainly. One thing about tech journalism is that it is a pretty insular world, in the same way that a lot of other areas of journalism, like music journalism or political reporting, are. You know all the people in your world, and I think there's just a lot competition within each circle.If you had to give advice to someone entering a career in journalism, like the character in your novel, Katya, do you say, "Okay, go compete, and you have to be fast”? How do you navigate that world if you're twenty-four years old today?One thing that we're seeing now is the industry is changing really fast. When I started at Gawker, the shift from print to online was still not complete. Obviously, Gawker was always just digital, but there was still this question: How long will Internet journalism be around? How much do we have to invest in it? So it wasn't taken very seriously by a lot of companies. A lot of websites were considered second-tier, and for people graduating, there was still this idea that going into print journalism was more prestigious.Of course, that all changed pretty quickly, and you're seeing a similar thing now with video. There was a lot of skepticism about video. People thought it wasn't serious, or that online video wasn't ever going to be invested in as much as TV was. All things that remind me a lot of what people were saying about online journalism ten years ago.Companies are laying off people who are only writers, saying that they're going to concentrate on video. That's something that's been set in motion. It's just really important for young journalists to learn as many skills as they can, whether it's audio or video. The days when you can get away with just writing are going to be over pretty soon.And as someone who is just a writer, I see a world where I could be writing my own demise, but that's just reality right now.What made you set the story in New York? What's unique to that city's startup scene versus Silicon Valley?So, for one, I lived in New York for about nine years and worked for startups, wrote about startups, had a lot of friends who worked for startups. When I wasn't working for startups, I definitely considered myself startup-adjacent, and so pretty well versed in that world.I also thought it was a fascinating world that no one had really captured in fiction. So much of the pop culture around tech is centered on Silicon Valley, which makes sense because it is the epicenter––but Silicon Valley is also a place where tech is the only game in town. New York has this burgeoning tech scene, but there are so many other well-established industries in New York. Startups don't quite yet have the same social capital that, say, Wall Street or fashion or even media do. So I wanted to explore that tension a little bit.Do you watch the HBO show Silicon Valley? I've heard people in the tech industry say they can't watch it because of how on-point it is. Your novel is similar—it really captures the startup scene so well.I really enjoy Silicon Valley—I think it's so smart and funny. But it started as a very incisive satire, and now it's kind of hard to tell who they're satirizing. So much of the tech world in San Francisco and Silicon Valley loves the show—they even have cameos on it. It's like, what is the relationship between the "real world," and the show? And who is the show targeting?So, who is your book targeting, would you say?My book is targeting the startup world as a whole. And, particularly, men in the startup world. It's also targeting hypocrisy overall, whether it's coming from a man or a woman.People in Silicon Valley like to say that they "move fast and break things," and I want to show how that maybe isn’t the best way to conduct yourself. And there's this idea that what they're doing is just for the good of humanity, which can mask some not-so-great behavior. And that this supposedly "brave new world" has nonetheless taken on some of the worst aspects of the old way of doing things.You describe this "team spirit" workplace culture that demands coworkers engage in things like sunrise workout raves and pole dancing classes. How does this compare to what work was like when you were in your twenties?It seems like my younger coworkers are all friends, and they're always meeting up. There are always emails going around of like, "I need a new roomie." I know that some of them live together, some of them date each other. It just does really seem like their personal and professional lives are just completely one.That's not the way that I need to spend my time. But now there are more people at BuzzFeed who are in their thirties, even in their forties—and there's not the expectation that I need to participate in that kind of stuff. But if I were on another team where people were a lot younger, and the participation in these, let's call them "extracurriculars," was expected, I might feel alienated.Do you think this is a generational thing, or does technology have an impact on it? Tech enables it, no question. Instagram feels very aspirational to me. Tumblr is the place where you might go to be sad, but Instagram is the place where you go to show off all the great things in your life. I think that it's definitely exaggerated by social media.I think people do age out. A big reason the character of Sabrina in the novel feels so alienated is because she has two kids and a husband who's not particularly helpful, so she has to be home at six o'clock every night to relieve the nanny. So not only does she have to leave work earlier than all of her colleagues, but she can't go out with her colleagues after work. So there's a difference in lifestyle that has made it so that she really can't participate on this level with her younger co-workers, even if she really wanted to.Even though in New York, like you were saying, there is this extended adolescence, eventually a lot of people do get married and do have kids, and their lifestyles do change. So I think getting older does mean that you're probably not participating in these events as much as you used to.In Startup, everyone is constantly using apps, like a Tinder for apartment rentals, many I'd never heard of. Did you make them up? If so, some of the ideas are brilliant!Any that are not immediately familiar to you are ones I made up. That being said, several times, what has happened since I finished the book is I've seen stuff about apps that sound very similar to apps I made up. So it just kind of says to me that A, there are no original ideas and B, I wasn't that far off in my making up of these apps.You explore socio-economic status in the startup world. Can you talk about that?New York is really expensive to live, and yet a lot of young people want to live there. So it can be confusing as a young person to look around and to see your friends, who you know probably don't make more than $40,000, maybe $50,000 a year, and think, "Huh, that's weird—they have a one bedroom apartment in Williamsburg. How do they afford that?"There are these moments when you realize that your friend is an heiress, or has well-off parents who are paying their rent. It gives people this leg up, and they feel they're just entitled to it, but it makes it so much harder for everyone else. If you're paying student loans and you're not getting help from your parents and you are making $40,000 a year, how are you living? How does that affect your quality of life? How does that affect your mental health? How does that affect the kind of jobs you can get? How do you feel when your friend whose parents who are paying their rent invite you out to dinner and they choose a really expensive restaurant because they can just put their share on a credit card, and you don't have a credit card?Also: you always are jealous of the people who have more than you. From the outside, Sabrina is doing fine. She and her husband own an apartment in Park Slope. She has a job, her husband has a good job. They have all the trappings of a typical upper-middle class life in New York City. But all she can think about is her very successful friend from college who has a brownstone, and gets obsessed with her friend from grad school who wrote a best-selling series of books and is also super rich. There are always going to be people who have more than you, so one thing that I finally learned when I was in New York is that it actually will bring you down and impede your own success if you are just constantly letting that stuff get to you. It can really get to you. But if you're just always focused on other people you're not going to work on yourself.Same with the Katya character. Katya definitely sees herself as this scrappy outsider who went to public school, got a scholarship to NYU, lived at home. And certainly she is from a middle-class, even working class background—but she also has privilege that she doesn't always want to acknowledge.People are often blind to their own privilege, no matter where they land on the spectrum.In the novel, you illustrate two workplace relationships that turn romantic or sexual. What makes this kind of thing different in the digital age?I wanted to show how intertwined the personal and professional lives of people, especially people in their twenties, are now, and how a lot of those boundaries get blurred. And I wanted to show how there is a lot of this confusion, I think, especially in these companies that don't have HR departments. HR is often the last department hired, so you can have a 50- or 100- even 200-person company with no HR department—and stuff's gonna happen when there's no one there to say, "Hey, this is not supposed to be happening." I think that leads to a lot of confusion.I've certainly witnessed enough situations where an older editor is behaving inappropriately with a younger writer, and there's a power imbalance that, sometimes, the younger writer isn't fully aware of, or thinks she's in control of—and she's really not. I wanted to explore that.There's a scene in the novel, in a meeting full of men, where one guy says they're living in a "male-hostile moment." It’s a hilarious term—did you make it up?I did. Certainly, if men are having those conversations among themselves, I have not been privy to them—that's kind of what I wanted to get at, that this is just a conversation amongst men, and they feel very free to say things that you and I would be horrified by, and challenge. But everyone in that room is like, "Oh yeah, totally, totally, nail her."You see sentiments like that expressed on Twitter or Reddit—you know, men re-conceiving themselves as victims. I wanted that to be an aspect of the story, too. How the men in this story know that Mack's behavior reflects badly on the company, but they're not really saying that what he did was so terrible. They're just like, "The optics of it are bad, this is a bad moment for a white guy to be accused of sexual harassment, so you gotta kind of chill." But the actual actions are not really condemned.In light of recent allegations about discrimination against women at companies such as Uber and Google, the story feels especially timely.When I started it, the two big sexual harassment in tech things that were going on were the Whitney Wolfe Tinder lawsuit and the Ellen Pao Kleiner Perkins trial regarding a gender discrimination suit she filed against her then employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. I was kind of like, well, these situations are a bit at the forefront of my mind, but there was a part of me that was like, "Hmm, this book might feel dated by the time it comes out."So on the one hand, it's great to feel like the book is very of the moment and exploring new themes and issues that people are really talking about right now. On the other hand, it is really fucking depressing that this book is so of the moment. Why is this stuff still going on? This is crazy to me.I obviously had no idea that these sexual harassment allegations at Uber or any of these other places would come out and that people would really be talking about gender discrimination and sexual harassment in check and that it would still be such a hot-button topic. But when are we going to figure this out? Come on.
The State of Black Mourning

For the past five centuries being black has meant collectively experiencing grief in ways that the rest of society does not understand and cannot fully comprehend.

On March 15, 2014, my cousin Masud Khalif was murdered at a restaurant two blocks away from the building at the Scarborough intersection of Markham and Lawrence we both once called home. His killer later used Masud’s height, weight, and black skin as reasons he believed my cousin was a threat to him. This is how he justified killing him.Masud was my first cousin, but he felt more like an older brother to me. We grew up together. We went to the University of Toronto together. We spent endless nights together bullshitting our way through essays only a few hours before their deadlines. We shared friends, and countless memories. I actually almost always hated referring to him as my cousin, because he was so much more than that to me. When he would threaten ex-partners of mine or give me money whenever I was broke (which was almost always), he was like my protective brother. When we spent nearly every weekend together out and about downtown, trying to forget the stresses of our studies, jobs, or home lives, he was like my friend. He was always great for a guaranteed laugh.The last night I spent with Masud, we spoke about our futures. He told me that despite all odds, he was going to become a lawyer. He said this with a tone that was so matter-of-fact: you knew it would happen because he wanted it to happen. I always envied how bold and courageous he was, and how adamant he was about not letting anyone in this life tell him who or what he could be. There he was, a black man who didn’t let imposter syndrome dictate his destiny.In that same conversation he also spoke very matter-of-factly about my future: I was going to be a writer, and a good one at that. I was twenty-four years old at the time, with one degree under my belt, working as a personal assistant, and confused about who I was or where I was headed. I always dreamed of being a writer but didn’t know how that could happen, and it meant everything to me that he had hope for something I had completely given up on. There I was, a black woman who let imposter syndrome dictate her destiny.That night we ended a five-hour evening together with a grand hug. He told me why I was his favourite cousin. We exchanged some laughs and said “I love you” a few times before I watched him walk down the pathway of my house and onto the street.I felt uneasy.Two years later, in March of 2016, I walked up to a small podium in a York University lecture hall in Toronto with anxiety swimming through my body. I was there to give a keynote speech for the Black Futures Now conference. I had decided earlier that day that before I presented my speech I would ask everyone to take part in a breathing exercise. The room was dead silent, but the audience gave me warm smiles when I asked them to join me and breathe.Collectively, we inhaled in for ten seconds, telling ourselves that we were “breathing in the new.” Before releasing our breath, we told ourselves that we were “getting rid of the old.” We did this twice, and then I began my speech.I learned this breathing exercise during therapy in 2014 while I was in the process of mourning Masud. After the brutal murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both black men shot by police officers last year, I wanted us to practice this exercise together. I believe all black folks—today and for the past five centuries—are in a state of mourning.*A week after Masud’s death, I leaned on the hood of my car and watched a group of men place his body into a grave. I don’t remember what I was thinking at that exact moment, nor do I remember what went through my head when I touched his dead body for the last time at a Scarborough masjid, a few blocks north of the building where we grew up.For three months after Masud’s death, I had no real control over my thoughts or emotions. I would find myself crying at the grocery store while searching for ripe avocados because a Lorde song reminded me of that time we had dinner in my living room, arguing about what to play next. I found myself outside movie theatres frantically following tall black men, thinking they were him.I found myself doing things to my body and health I never would have imagined doing before. I thought things I had never considered thinking before. I flew on planes a lot for work that year, and for the first time, I felt no fear each time the plane would push off the ground—because I wasn’t afraid to die. “If it happens, I’ll see him again,” I would tell myself in every moment when a healthy, normal person would feel concern for their life. But “health” is a normative term, and I did not feel “normal.”After two months I found a therapist, and on a week-to-week basis, he taught me how to breathe again. I never felt like I was doing it right. I began writing, actively, for the first time in my life. After two months of breathing exercises, I quit my job, canceled my lease, and used my minimal savings to book a trip to Somalia. I had never been to Somalia, and didn’t know how to speak my mother’s tongue, yet I was convinced that it was a practical idea to move there. Months of depression had consumed me. I desperately needed to get away.*A janazah is a three-day period of mourning Muslims observe before we bury a loved one’s body. The first day of Masud’s janazah, my friends sat with me in a staircase in the building where Masud and I grew up. They were there for me—like black women always are for their kin and community—but they were also there for themselves: they too had lost a friend. One told me it would take a year of mourning before the pain would stop: one year for anniversaries, birthdays, and memories to pass. She said that by the one-year anniversary of his passing it would begin to become easier.So I counted for 365 days.Each day I searched through social media, calendars, text messages, and emails to remind myself of that particular date one year prior, and figure out where Masud had been. Did I hear from him that day? Did we hang out? Did I wake up to his loud steps in my downtown apartment?I would actively take a walk down memory lane each day. I would smile or laugh at our memories together before I would spend the night crying myself to sleep.By March 15, 2015—one year after Masud’s passing—I realized my friend was only partially right. When you are mourning, the pain doesn’t go away. It never does. But after some time, it eases: you learn how to live with it, but never fully escape from it. The only significant change I had noticed after one year of mourning was my breathing: the anxiety attacks began to decrease, and I found myself controlling them better than I was able to before.So here I am now, three years after Masud was killed. I’ve slowly figured out how to peel myself off the ground and continue to live life. But every so often I find myself back there again. Glued to it. Because mourning never ends. You learn to wear it everywhere you go.*Jermaine Carby. Dionte Green. Mark Carson. Dontre Hamilton. Eric Garner. John Crawford III. Michael Brown Jr. Tanisha Anderson. Tamir Rice. Jerame Reid. Tony Robinson. Phillip White. Eric Harris. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Jonathan Sanders. Sandra Bland. India Kager. Andrew Loku. Alex Wettlaufer. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Too many more.When we see the faces of these men and women on our screens and their names in headlines around the world, behind each of them is a community of people—mothers, sisters, fathers, grandparents, friends, and loved ones—only beginning this process of mourning. They are experiencing a change in their breathing patterns. They will spend the next few days, weeks, months, or years learning how to breathe again.I asked that group at York to do the same breathing exercise I have done since Masud was killed because, in the wake of these unjust slayings, I believe these families are not alone in their loss. And I don’t believe you need to know a black person who was murdered intimately in order to mourn their loss. I believe you just have to be black. And I believe that outside of "improvisation, transcendence and resilience," the DNA of black people for the past five centuries has involved an intimate relationship with death and mourning. It’s an invasion of our collective spirits and ancestry.During the Jim Crow era, on average, thirty-nine black people were lynched per year in America, and during the worst year of that period, that number rose to 161. In 2015 alone, 258 black people were killed by United States police officers. The threat to black existence and black life has never ended, thus black mourning hasn’t ended; and so long as the conditions remain that ensure black people will die for or because of their blackness, so too will black suffering. Hundreds of black women across the Americas, in this moment, are suffering: they are reflecting on how they birthed, raised, loved, and then buried their children. Hundreds of black women are trying their best to learn how to breathe again.In the words of James Baldwin: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”When we as black people turn on our television sets and see a police officer chokehold a father to death for selling “loosies,” or shoot and kill a young black boy for playing with a toy gun in a park, we collectively experience a pain that the rest of society does not understand and cannot fully comprehend. They feel saddened while we mourn our humanity. We watch these visuals that are broadcasted endlessly and everywhere, constant reminders that we live in a society that believes our humanity does not matter. We carry the pain of those dehumanizing visuals and cries of “I can’t breathe” with us through our workdays and into our beds before we sleep. And the pain of every video or story of these inhumane slayings piles up. It piles up until we forget how to breathe.These statistics do not take into account the black trans women, queer, non-binary and non-gender conforming folks who are murdered at alarming rates, whose deaths are never publicly recognized or collectively mourned, whose names rarely penetrate the public consciousness. Even the “data” aren’t available for those who demand statistics: there are no existing accurate public resources that provide the numbers of how many queer and trans black people go missing or are murdered in both Canada and the USA.*The reality of being a black person in the Americas is to live with a consciousness of being a black subject in a world of white power. I am so hyper-aware of perceptions of my blackness that when I consider demanding better service at a restaurant, I know that to the outside world I am embodying the “angry black woman,” so instead I choose to keep my mouth shut. I am aware when I walk into stores that I am under surveillance, that my black skin summons it, and so I police my own actions before someone else does. I am aware that my skin is enough for me to face employment and housing discrimination, just as I am aware that my black skin can lead to economic racism, higher charges of interest rates and fees. I am aware that as a black woman in Toronto, I am three times more likely to be carded by police than anyone else. I am aware that my black skin not only criminalizes me, it dehumanizes my life.I am aware that because my black skin is enough to get me killed, people will spend more time deliberating why I deserved death than they will mourning my life.I am hyper-aware that my blackness is a social uniform that functions to alienate me. My blackness is the object of images, language and ideologies that are pre-determined and constructed because of my social uniform. In the words of Frantz Fanon, “I am over-determined from without.” It is the fact of blackness.*But, for as long as black people have existed here, we have known improvisation, transcendence, and resilience. We continuously mobilize and strategize to challenge the system that works against us in efforts of finding black liberation. For as long as we have existed here, we have formulated black liberation movements: The Black Liberation Army, The Black Arts Movement, The Black Panthers, The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, The Nation of Islam, and now Black Lives Matter. But we must be honest with ourselves about what black liberation has often looked like in the past and today: patriarchal, heteronormative, classist, cis-gendered, with a destructive focus on the humanization of black masculinity. We teach each other that black identity is singular, thus not inclusive. Our discussions of the dehumanization and invisibility of black life do not include the alarming realities of transphobia, homophobia, poverty, patriarchy, or mental health.A fight for black liberation will not succeed without love, support, compassion and, most importantly, understanding and (re)learning. Our black liberation movements will never fully succeed so long as we maintain heteronormative, cis-gendered, ableist, classist, and patriarchal agendas. The validity of black life is not just about black men. We must be actively aware of our own privileges as we continue to combat the ongoing oppression against black people everywhere.Black men must learn to actively understand how they contribute to a culture of patriarchy.Black cis-men and cis-women must learn to actively understand how we contribute to transphobia.Black heterosexually identified folks must learn to actively understand how we contribute to a culture of homophobia.We must stop allowing our collective definition of blackness to be understood as singular, because it is not. There are no binaries in blackness. There is a multiplicity. There is infinity. And we must honour that. Learning to breathe again means learning to breathe together.For as long as we continue to live under a state that actively chooses to disavow our humanity and believe that we do not matter, black death and black mourning will remain an agonizing reality. It will continue to chip away at our sanity, our livelihood, our families. This is how you slowly die here—if you are not killed first. With every new name that we learn of, every face that becomes painfully imprinted into our memories, we must remind ourselves that we matter—all while remembering how to breathe.Portions of this essay were originally delivered in the speech at York University that is mentioned in the piece.
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
‘Trump Has Allowed a Different Public Face to America’s Morality’: An Interview with Eden Collinsworth

Speaking with the author of Behaving Badly about the spread of misinformation and what drone strikes and clever robots have to teach us about the future of ethics.

Last month, I spent a week in Cuba, much of it based in Havana, the first time in a long time I’d travelled completely untethered from the Internet. Toward the end of our trip, outside the Museum of the Revolution, we struck up a conversation with a man from Atlanta, who wore an army-green field hat and a Che Guevara t-shirt and was clearly very excited about being in the city. He said he’d wanted to visit while visas were still available; he didn’t think Donald Trump would keep diplomatic relations open for long. I made a passing joke about all the possible things the president could’ve done since I last checked the news—five days seemed like plenty for a full-blown autocracy to settle in. “Well, Trump tore up the White House,” the man offered. “He said Obama bugged the White House and then he tore it up trying to find the bugs.”Okay, so: not quite. But there was precisely nothing about this scenario—not Trump thinking it, not Trump saying it, not Trump turning over chairs and ripping down golden curtains with his own tiny hands—that struck me as implausible. I’ve lost my capacity for astonishment. And I can’t begin to blame that on Trump alone: Though he may be a spectacular model of egregious behaviour, he’s hardly the only guy dispensing with decorum. Expecting a standard of conduct from politicians, businesspeople, celebrities, judges, athletes, academics, or rush-hour subway commuters now seems ludicrously quaint.It’s tempting to be sullen, or to throw up your hands, or to ask, as author Eden Collinsworth does, “where does one find solid moral ground on what is proving to be the porous bedrock of our 21st century?” but to mean that just as a rhetorical question, punctuated by more throwing up of hands. Give Collinsworth credit, then, for striving instead to find a meaningful response. In Behaving Badly: The New Morality in Politics, Sex, and Business, she canvasses a whistleblower, an army general, a Holocaust survivor, a prime minister, a video-game designer, a murderer, and Margaret Atwood—among others—to better understand how we can make moral choices in what she terms an ethically flexible age. Danielle Groen: When Barack Obama would address bigotry or nationalism or limitations on speech, he had a habit of saying, “That’s not who we are.” There’s an implication that citizens share a sense of morality. I thought we could begin with where that morality comes from.Eden Collinsworth: That’s exactly where I started. My sense is that morality is an inner voice, and it’s basically what tells you not to do something, even though it’s not illegal, or you won’t be caught. I grew up with a certain sense of morality instilled by my parents. I’m perhaps one of the last generations where that occurred. My son is now a young man. I’m confident he’s utterly decent, but that’s not so much the moral values I instilled in him as it is what’s shaped his life in his twenty-seven years. There have been these profound changes, in technology especially, which have given a younger demographic more of a 360-degree view of morality. We’ve never been so connected. Here you are in a different time zone. Here I am, in London, where it’s raining outside. I can walk down the street and call someone in China. That said, we are still grappling with this instinct to retreat into what we know. In all of my travels writing this book, it seemed increasingly clear to me that we operate in cultural, socio-economic, and sexual silos. No matter how sophisticated we think we are, we fall back on that as a control panel.But that panel isn’t necessarily fixed—fifty years ago, homosexuality was a criminal act in Canada; last year, our prime minister marched in pride parades across the country. Are moral shifts inevitable?I think the most dramatic change in my lifetime has been the moral attitude toward sexuality. There’s definitely been a paradigm shift. I don’t think that’ll retreat. I believe it started in the courts but very quickly wove into the cultural fabric. There’s no doubt in my mind that—at the risk of sounding condescending as heterosexual—it’s been normalized. What I grapple with as a woman is why there hasn’t been an equivalent momentum with women’s rights. That’s so beyond me. I can’t quite figure that out.Well, a man who bragged on tape about committing sexual assault now sits in the Oval Office. What happens when there don’t appear to be consequences for behaving badly?I’ve been based in New York a great deal of my life. Virtually everyone from New York is from some other place. That’s the deal. I’ve heard obscenities and vulgarities, but I’ve never heard a racial attack. Recently, I got on the subway for an appointment uptown. I was seated, because I got on downtown; all I saw were legs and disembodied voices. Somebody inadvertently shoved somebody else, who confronted the person. The exchange turned racial almost immediately. What the man said was, “Go back to Africa.” I’d never heard that before. Maybe he’s always felt that, but now he’s allowed to express it—it’s been normalized because of the atmosphere propagated by Trump. It weaves into the fabric. It becomes acceptable. That said, with the tape, I think something mattered more than that. The fact is that people have lost jobs. Those jobs will not come back. I don’t care how many walls you build or what you promise. But if somebody promises you employment and a salary cheque, who cares what he says on a bus?But those jobs won’t come back. And we’ve seen a bunch of major developments in the past year that hinged on misinformation. The Brexit campaign lied about how much money the UK gives the EU. Trump lied about pretty much everything, whether it’s crime rates or immigration vetting or not cutting Medicaid. Does morality rely on a shared set of facts?That’s a fascinating question that speaks to a deeper question that is almost rhetorical: What do you want to believe? If you want to believe something, you’re determined to believe something, then there is a different method of receiving and generating news that can feed that now. I think the only thing that will change that attitude, frankly, are results. He’ll either get the results or he won’t.How much do you imagine you’ll have to talk about Trump while promoting this book? And did his victory challenge any of the ideas you had about moral behaviour?Truth be told, the book was scheduled for June and moved forward. The publishers asked me, “Would you please revisit the sections where you’ve written about politics and Trump in particular?” The situation has absolutely allowed a different public face to America’s morality. For whatever reason, he was a change agent. I think technology—24-hour news stations and social media—had a great deal to do with it. It enabled it. The fact is that, until Trump appeared on the scene, there was always pushback. Whether it was the church saying, “You shouldn’t say those things. You shouldn’t even think them, but you most certainly shouldn’t say them.” Or academics saying, “That’s incorrect. That’s not right.” Whether it was society in general or your parents—it doesn’t matter anymore. Those things were said and as a result it’s now acceptable to say them publicly. And social media invites participation where everyone feels, right or wrong, that they have a say.But in collapsing that distance between the powerful and not-so-powerful, social media creates an opportunity for people to call out questionable or unethical actions. It also informs the way we communicate and our ability to be empathetic. Even when you and I are speaking, I’m sensitive to and aware of the tone of your voice. Sometimes there’s hesitation, sometimes there’s enthusiasm. I don’t think we’re born empathetic; the only way that comes to be is by interacting with people in real time, usually in front of you. Those abilities and aptitudes are like a muscle. The more abstracted you become, the more you fall back on your own prejudices. It all moves forward so quickly. You become angrier more quickly. There’s no subtlety or way of measuring a reaction.Any discussion of whether advances in technology encourage us to behave in ways we otherwise wouldn’t makes me think immediately of Anthony Weiner, a man who seems constitutionally incapable of not sending women pictures of his penis. Without the technological tools, though, wouldn’t his need for approval, or his propensity for risky behaviour—pick your explanation—just find another outlet?I suspect he would have found a different outlet and it probably wouldn’t have had the same audience. He would’ve done something. He sounds frankly pathological. On a slightly less dramatic or repulsive level, I do think one behaves differently given the technological resources. Men tweet things to women they wouldn’t necessarily say to their face. People accuse people of things they wouldn’t necessarily say in person. I think there’s no doubt about it.You mentioned problems of abstraction. What about in combat? If we take humans further and further from the battlefield and let drones do the killing for us, do we create a moral distance from our actions? That’s the question that many people have. Are you making killing too easy? I spoke with Eric Zimmerman, who is a game designer. He talked about the magic circle. It’s where the game takes place, and you understand that the way you operate within this magic circle is not the way you operate in real life. What happens when warfare becomes the magic circle? From what I understand, the young people who are operating the drone equipment on the launch end come with a history of using these video games. They literally have the eye and agility for it. It does abstract you. But from the research I did, I promise you the people who are launching these drones don’t get a free lunch. In other words, they have problems and guilt. It’s not as if they walk away feeling like it’s easy.Or like it doesn’t carry consequences.I think they’re very much aware if they’ve killed people.I’ve suddenly been hearing people cite climate change, resource scarcity, or overpopulation as reasons they’re hesitating to have a child. Is there a moral responsibility to think about where the world is heading before having a baby?I don’t know. I’ve reproduced once and that was enough. It’s very expensive and exhausting. I don’t regret it for a moment. I think that if there’s a moral obligation, it’s to stick around and try your best to sort it out. It comes down to decency and indecency. I’ve traveled all over the world and lived everywhere under very different circumstances. I don’t need an interpreter or a priest to recognize what kindness is.Can that kindness be programmed into robots? Can morality be standardized? One has to put it in perspective. While we’re arguing the pros and cons, technology is moving forward. It’s the same with making babies. We can put a moratorium on altering genes, but guess what? In China, they’re going to do what they’re going to do. We might be thinking one way about robots, but in another country they’ll be programming robots in a different way. That said, it’s going to be quite a while before robots get to the point where they’re operating in ways that aren’t programmed by human beings.But some of the technology that’s being discussed, whether it’s five or fifty years from fruition, is bananas. It stretches belief and comprehension. Is there a danger that the conversations around the ethics of that technology will be limited to the people who happen to get it?I agree with you entirely in terms of that concern. The people who are inventing the future of technology, and as a result have so much impact on our lives, are very removed from the people who will take full advantage of the technology. All this technology is coming from publicly traded businesses. The first obligation of the CEO of a company, especially if it’s publicly traded and owned, is to its shareholders to increase value of the stock. It’s not altruism.That’s scary. I find myself scared a lot.Me too!I’m scared about what strikes me as a moral failure in response to the refugee crisis. I’m scared about robots stealing my job. I’m scared that it doesn’t matter if robots steal my job, because we’ll soon have made the earth too hot for anyone to live. How do I get through that fear?You keep thinking, this can’t get any worse, and then actually it does, or it gets worse in a different way. What I can say is that if you look for something where you feel as though you’re making a difference, that changes things. For me, it was to join the board of Relief International. You take a step back. I don’t know about the rest. I know one has to believe in the best, otherwise you just crawl under a rock. Come out from under the rock. It’s very bad for your complexion.
Free the Roses

On the bloom of spectacular decline.

“I mean, there’s no work involvedin being a rose, it seems.As soon as God looks out the window,he creates the house.”— Rainer Maria Rilke, Les Roses“Can we complete ourselves like roses do?”—Rainer Maria Rilke, Les RosesA guide to making roses bloom on a specific date, for a special occasion, is divided into four elements: timing, technique, hedging your bets, and considerations. Addressed to home gardeners in San Francisco, the guide minus context is one of the two most applicable advice columns I’ve read this year, the other being an op-ed in the Washington Post encouraging Chelsea Clinton, for the sake of her “political future,” to “disappear.” For me a garden seems unlikelier to have than a political future. Still, I am interested in how roses live. I find out, for instance, that the first auroral blooms in the International Test Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon arrived by the end of March, as they did last year and the year before and as they did not in the years before that, when the seasons had order. Gardeners talking to newspapers are sometimes concerned, knowing that a backlash to the early warmth, a frost in mid-April, can blight a rose before it fully lives. By summer the bloom cycles are easier to control, and begin when the gardener “deadheads” the roses, inducing new life; when it is warmer the blooming season is longer, which sounds ideal. Not so, explains an Australian rose grower, saying that a shorter hibernation means “the roses are being put under more stress.”This delicate internal clock is one thing that makes the rose a dread metaphor for romantic love, and for years, in fact for the first decade of my sexual life, I refused to accept a single stem from a single new lover. Timing was at the heart of my superstition, which I expressed as a resistance to clichés. Yet the week I got engaged to a man I had known for a month, I paid a studio visit to the artist Scott Campbell, whose main medium is tattooing, and who demonstrated a homemade, prison-style tattoo gun by inking, on my ankle, a classic long-stemmed rose from his repertoire. Things that were sudden also felt right to me at the time, and forgetting that I had not planned to get a tattoo, or that I would not have a picked a rose for myself, I stipulated only that Campbell draw it with thorns (no trope is more personally irritating than that of a woman who, in love, becomes defenseless). Four years later, the petals retain the impression of a velvety rubescence, despite being inked in plain black.I feel like, what’s the point of a rose? Does the rose need a point?* * *Maybe my tattoo has fostered a frequency illusion, but I swear that the traditional flowerage, in traditional red, is a trend gone strong. Over a dozen or so seasons, the rose has cropped up as a motif or ingredient in runway and off-runway fashion, organic and “natural” beauty products, fragrances for people under the age of 34, and certain romanticizing strains of reluctantly contemporary art. A beloved museum show of 2016, held at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, was Alex Da Corte’s “Free Roses,” named for a dream of buying all the roses from a roadside flower-seller and giving them away. One of my favourite people is a painter, Sam McKinniss, who mixes carmine and white over silver to make livid roses reminiscent of Fantin-Latour, and if I could have any new sculpture, it would be the one by Jesse Darling involving an artificial bloom at the neck of a plastic one-litre bottle, an IV bag filled with anti-freeze, hooked on a bungee cord, and a homemade, ersatz gun, all wired together to look like a dish from an anarchofeminist cookbook. On social media, whether the feed is primarily aesthetic (Instagram), socialist and literary (Twitter), or aesthetic and literary (Tumblr), I see bright or dark red roses “everywhere,” where they used to be shunned: they are your grandmother’s and your mother’s roses, now embroidered on satin bombers or black leather winklepickers or handbags, enamel-pinned on totes and blue denim jackets, printed on slipdresses, plucked from the nearby bodega and posed in a “selfie” or still life (to me a still life of one’s posessions is also a kind of “selfie,” my least favourite word) that is taken on a rose-gold iPhone 6, the lens smeared a little with face oil for an ad hoc soft-focus glow, a picture that seems to say, “Funny. Red roses for me.”Those are the words said to have been thought by Jacqueline Kennedy on the Love Field in Dallas, Texas around noon on November 22, 1963, when she and John F. landed and she was handed a bouquet. The state’s official flower is a yellow rose, so yellow are the roses given to visiting dignitaries, but on the second day of the President’s visit there was a city-wide shortage. Red was the next-best colour. A field called love. A wool bouclé suit in Mattel Barbie pink, originally designed by Chanel but reproduced by a Seventh Avenue tailor, a Polish Jew who immigrated to New York City in 1952, so that the First Lady could say it was “made in America.” The script by Noah Oppenheim for the Pablo Larraín film Jackie contains, in place of her thought, “a beat, as she eyes the crimson blossoms,” before she is dazed into smiling by the noise of the crowd. (Henry Green, in his 1946 novel Back, shows a soldier coming home with one leg, having lost the other “for not seeing the gun beneath a rose,” a worst-case definition of sub rosa that the dead Jackie might have appreciated. Darling’s afore-described sculpture, Gun I (2014, remixed 2016), puts it similarly.) Hours later she will begin to be grateful for the crowds, the photographed evidence for her refusal to see “Jack” as a casualty, which he is in a strict sense. Nothing’s heroic about dying in a convertible. Yet the rain had gone, the sky was clean and bright, the weather in essence was prepped for a celebration to which the witnesses had invited themselves, and so as a symbol or catalyst for the loss of “our freedoms,” few events are so endless as Kennedy’s death. Red on a sunny day remains unreal.[[{"fid":"6700106","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"800","width":"1200","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]JackieJackie, as played by Natalie Portman, appears like we’ve never quite seen her, a figment inferred from two startling, frangible images on historical record: the wife holding a man’s head together in a seat “full of blood and red roses,” as she’d later recall; and the widow coming home still stubbornly dressed in red-splattered pink, as if declaring her consanguinity with the man who hadn’t lately shared her bed. “Let them see what they’ve done,” said Jackie in life as in the film, though she did not know who “they” were. Everything she wanted was borrowed, even her flair for a tragedy. She was sure in her misapprehensions. She may not have remembered that it was Mamie Elizabeth Till who declared, eight years and three months earlier, that the funeral of her teenage son would be open-casket and open to press, saying, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” Today at the Whitney Museum there is a painting by Dana Schutz of Emmett Till in repose, ripping the sight from its time and making it more awful and fresh than any black-and-white photograph. I found it impossible to look closely at the face of the boy as seen by Schutz, and kept refocusing on a big vermillion rose she affixed to the casket, a rose, not found in the photographs, that begs the interpretation: here is a Catholic ex voto, as ornate and fetishistic and tacky as anything Catholic, for a martyr who deserves to be made canonical, to be hung in museums. Considering the trendiness of roses, I felt the gesture gave credence to another reading: here is a white artist who has noticed black death for the first time as a trend in the news. I wondered, irrelevantly, how the early Christians would have reacted had the daughter of a Roman centurion learned to make woodcuts, and done the cover of Foxe’s.By coincidence or not, the year Jackie dodged a bullet and tried to make John F. a martyr was also the year Jessica Mitford, the English aristocrat turned socialist and journalist stateside, published what remains our best dissection of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. Mitford describes a vast coalition of florists whose profits depend heavily on people dying for others to grieve, and whose spokespeople refer to funeral announcements that say please omit flowers or in lieu of flowers, please donate to charity as being “derogatory to flowers.” She finds the President of the Society of American Florists expressing the gravest fear, that “funeral directors, as well as florists, are in danger of being swept away along with sentiment and tradition.” A little swept away himself, he wasn’t remiss: sentiment at large could be seen as embattled by common sense and matters of survival, as when Lynn Anderson sang, “I beg your pardon / I never promised you a rose garden,” and also by something strange to common sense, which we call the contemporary. A 1966 profile of Cy Twombly in Vogue, showing the artist at his Roman palazzo, noted that in “certain quarters, where it is assumed that avant-garde American artists should live in avant-garde American discomfort,” he was “suspected of having fallen for ‘grandeur,’ and somehow betrayed the cause.” Two years earlier, Twombly had shown “Nine Discourses on Commodus,” an immediate response to Kennedy’s death in which gored and dripping roses, paired up like entrance and exit wounds, figure huge; and had been dismissed as a messy, reactionary, basically irredeemable classicist by those in favour of material austerity. His detractors, like the artist-critic Donald Judd, believed they saw the future in the spirit of minimalism, but Twombly saw through the future to the spectacular decline, and turned out to be right.[[{"fid":"6700116","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"688","width":"1350","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Cy TwomblyIn the fall of 1986, the President, who was Ronald Reagan, proclaimed the rose to be the “national floral emblem” of the United States of America. After that the bloom came pretty quickly off the symbol. “I hate roses,” Twombly told Vogue in a second profile, this one at a Gaetan villa, in 1994. “Don’t you? It’s all right if you can hide them in a cutting garden, but I think a rose garden is the height of ick.” Vogue must have concurred, because by the time of my white suburban prom in Southern Ontario, a chronotope not rife with sophistication, everyone knew a corsage or spray of roses was embarrassingly formal, too dressy, overdetermined. A chill girl wanted a silver heart necklace from Tiffany, and later in the 2000s, living under the shared aesthetic of Marc Jacobs and Sofia Coppola, she wanted hand picked bunches of daisies and a white iPod loaded with post-punk. Long-stemmed red roses were about as welcome a gift as an Andrea Bocelli CD, and were used to signal melodramatic irony (see: American Beauty, a movie that can only be rated relative to nighttime soap operas) and to make, depending on the audience, a fun game or borderline mockery (or both) of heteromantic ideation (see: the central schtick of The Bachelor).“We both know it’s not fashionable to love me,” sings Lana Del Rey, proudly, on her 2015 album Honeymoon. Were Lana’s brand of Americana to have its own flag, it would be a print on satin, not silk, of the opening shot in Blue Velvet. A film by David Lynch, released the year Reagan issued the proclamation about the rose. A white picket fence against the sky with the red double blooms, a visual on the phrase “newly patriotic.” Newly hip, too. Lana and I both know it’s trendier now to be a bit unfashionable. What she calls “my mother’s suburban glamour” and I call the “lil’ bourgeois aesthetic” entails a somewhat wishful, somewhat wry interest in signifying the deluxe, in looking like the return of the middle class to cul-de-sacs on golf courses, to white-cloth restaurants and daytime gin in midtown. Roses by other names include: rhinestone clip-on earrings, long nude nails, marabou mules, blouses buttoned all the way up or black lace bodysuits. Wristwatches with gold faces and leather bands to match slim gold-tipped cigarettes. Eyeshadow to match light blue jeans, high-waisted and cropped to make ankles sexy. I personally know five women under the age of 34 who own wool bouclé skirt-suits, and none of them live in the White House. These are women who have never been called “young ladies,” who have uneasy permalance relationships with corporate employers, who have breakfast at Duane Reade instead of Tiffany’s, and who, if they get married, do not then expect to be happier.These are not all white women, I should say, but I should also say that my ideas of “suburban” and “middle class” were formed in whiteness and by trying to fit in. Ditto my sense of what’s fancy. To my friend Durga, whose family moved to Canada from India before she was born, roses smell neither rich nor sweet but neutral. To my friend Tara, who moved with her mother to Canada from Iran in her teens, rosewater is an ingredient slightly less common than sugar. I recently got entranced with a video in which Princess Nokia, a Nuyorican recording artist in the Bronx, makes her own rosewater facial mist with fresh petals, agua de Florida, and water to steam, poured into a dollar-store spray bottle. (“Most flowers have a gender identity,” she explains, unscientifically. “Roses are like the most female.”) Her tender, easy process gave me the meaning of “self-care,” a concept that hadn’t previously appealed to me, as it sounded like phoning and ordering flowers to your own bedside; when I saw it in practice, not exactly as preached by Audre Lorde, it looked akin to the kinds of (in)activity our mothers called “relaxing” and “mindless,” the face masks in front of the television and the forty-minute bubble baths. Self-care seems better when it means something like “tending your own garden.”* * *There has been, for like a hundred years, a heady socialist overtone to the subgenus Rosa. “Bread and roses,” the titular line in a 1911 ode by James Oppenheim to the American women’s movement, became a famous demand at worker’s strikes and a trade union’s motto (histories differ as to whether the union organizer Rose Schneiderman, who demanded bread and roses in a speech the same year, inspired or was inspired by Oppenheim). In the winter of 1912, women led a massive two-month textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, chanting, “Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too.” Those who are needy are also, and equally, desirous. This is a message so basic it should never have gone out of style.The thinker and writer Jacqueline Rose, in her recent book Women in Dark Times and elsewhere, argues that the Polish, Jewish, and Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was a moral and sensual force and a changeable spirit who thought “passion—like politics—was a question of freedom.” Nicknamed “Red Rosa” as she climbed to prominence in Germany’s Social Democratic Party and “Bloody Rosa” after she broke ranks and was imprisoned for radical actions, she was described by comrades as “tiny, fragile” and “selfless” and by the prosecutors who imprisoned her as “rootless.” The image stemming from these descriptions is of a gift rose in crimson, her leaves and thorns lightly intact, living her shortened life in a vase on a pedestal. Obviously this is more romantic than accurate: Luxemburg, who has also been described as one of the twentieth century’s best thinkers, believed in spontaneity and permanent change and identified mostly with birds. Her view on the Russian Revolution was romantic and accurate at once, as like a Brontë heroine rushing to love, she could see it was doomed but believed in it anyway (or meted her belief according to the measure of its doom, depending on your reading of her mind). Rose sees the conflict between Lenin and Luxemburg in psychoanalytic terms, saying that while Lenin fixated on the size of a problem, Luxemburg laid fingers on the deeper cause, or the inner meaning, and so was “offering a counter-erotics of revolution.” Assuming she cared for her namesake flower, this revolutionary, this determined internationalist, would have been disturbed to find the rose a symbol of state and national pride, or of a woman’s welcome possession by a lover.Luxemburg wrote in a 1911 article, “Peace Utopias,” that the war-and-peace dialectic in capitalism, responsible for an expensive international arms race that was supposed to end and be ended with “world peace,” was proof that “the roses of capitalist profit-making and class domination also have thorns for the bourgeoisie, which it prefers to wear as long as possible round its suffering head, in spite of all pain and woe, rather than get rid of it along with the head on the advice of the Social Democrats.” (Eventually it would be the Social Democrats who, two months after the end of World War One, had Luxemburg executed for her Communism. Remember the Queen of Hearts? “For painting my roses red / Someone will lose his head.”) From prison, where she spent time with prostitutes, Luxemburg wrote a sweeping piece of literary criticism in which she cast the crown of roses a little differently, fashioning an answer to Tennyson’s old “rose of womanhood” in a passage on prostitution in Russian literature. Unlike his English and French counterparts, says Luxemburg,“the Russian artist … dignifies the prostitute and rehabilitates her for the crime that society has committed on her by letting her compete with the purest and loveliest types of womanhood for the heart of the man. He crowns her head with roses and elevates her, as does Mahado his Bajadere [in Goethe’s poem ‘Der Gott und die Bajadere’] from the purgatory of corruption and her own agony to the heights of moral purity and womanly heroism.”It’s funny how many contradictions elicited by the rose, bred by its infamous symmetry, can be addressed by saying that the rose both has and is currency. Used as legal tender by seventeenth-century royals in Western Europe, today roses are used by sex workers online to euphemize pay, as in “300 roses per hour.” Roses in emoji form are also used, on Twitter, to signal membership in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a left-wing populist organization whose ranks have nearly tripled in the last six months, and whose agenda is more or less set against global capital. Because some of the Democratic Socialists are also members of a partly fictitious, partly metafictitious group known as “Bernie Bros,” there are liberals who think the rose emoji is to the left or the sometimes-called “alt left” what the frog emoji is to the Breitbartians (a longer word for barbarians) of the “alt right.” The idea here, if there is one, is that the rose is a cover for the stench of rank masculinity, but to think that any one group, even if it were male-dominated, could usurp a symbol so classic and storied is ridiculous. Before, during, and after Pepe, a green frog signifies little beyond the princely delusions of laughable men. A frog does not speak to human dignity. A rose still does. When a friend texts me a rose, she is saying not to worry about my worth.As for what it says about my political or more personal nature that I prefer the newer rose emoji, thorny and dissolute and darker, visibly dying, I don’t feel like explaining it. Frankenstein said it best in The Bride of Frankenstein, iterating to his creator that yes, he understands his fate, knows which side he’s seen to be on: “I love dead,” he says. “Hate living.” I love cemeteries for being and for remaining the only solid grounds, whereas everything else solid, as you may have heard, melts into air. I love the way Twombly painted dead heads of empire in the Sixties, and the way Nobuyushi Araki, the Japanese photographer, answered an interviewer who asked how he made old-fashioned flowers look hot: “Why do they come across as erotic? Because I shot them.” I love when Lana wishes she were already dead. I know what Jacqueline Rose means when she says “capitalism cannot hide its ugliness from the world (periodically revealing that ugliness is simply the obverse of its inhuman powers of endurance).” Ugliness may be human, and more original than beauty; beauty lapses easily into cliché, but then suggests that clichés, the good ones at least, begin as efforts to describe the irreducible. I would love to buy roses to watch them die. I don’t buy them. I would never be able to throw them out.
‘You Write Your Way Into a Certain Kind of Clarity’: An Interview with Paul Auster

Talking with the author of 4 3 2 1 about unfair criticism, being haunted by what-ifs, and the stuffy conventions of modern American fiction.

4 3 2 1 feels a bit like Paul Auster going to 11. His latest novel is something of a maximalist interpretation of his lifelong fascination with happenstance, metafictional gamesmanship and American mythology. It follows the life of one boy, Archibald Ferguson, in four different configurations: spurred by the fate of his father’s furniture and appliance shop, each version of Ferguson is left to spiral out into an entirely different life, finding his own path from New Jersey youth to—well, it depends on the Ferguson, really.Though it has lost the genre play of Auster’s early work, it has replaced it with something like sociopolitical grandiosity. 4 3 2 1 is, in a sense, [sort of] the ultimate American tale: beginning with an immigrant who bumbles his way through the processing centre of Ellis Island, it is a kind of oblique testament to the potential of the American endeavour. You really can be almost anything in this land, or at the very least be a lot of different variations on the same basic story.With the drumbeats of history and politics marching each of the four Fergusons along, Auster takes us through almost every aspect of a Jewish New Jersey adolescence, every possibility, joy, horror, heartbreak, erection, ecstatic triumph and cruel disappointment of a young man growing through midcentury American tumult. It is a hearty scratch for anyone who has ever felt the itch of what if, a deep dive into the rocky, capricious, chaotic waters of life—and then it comes up for air and dives back down three more times.*David Berry: One of the Fergusons becomes a writer—well, I guess they all become writers in some capacity, but one becomes a novelist—and he describes the experience of his first review as, “five satisfying tongue kisses, a friendly pat on the back, three punches to the face, one knee to the balls, one execution by firing squad, two shrugs.” You seem to get your share of criticism these days; how has it been to wade back into the responses to your first book in six years?Paul Auster: First novel. I wrote three books in between. I don’t know why everyone says that: it’s not as though I was twiddling my thumbs the whole time. But I don’t read too much of it. I’ve gotten some very nice responses. Some very awful responses. That’s pretty typical for me. It’s nothing in between: it’s either love or hate. What can I do? I’m a target. People are gunning for me. I find it ridiculously stupid, unfair— they don’t read my work, but they have an opinion about it. Other people are more open-minded: they see what’s there, and they respond to it. There seem to be some reviewers who want to say what the book should be, rather than what it is. It’s as if someone was to say, “Well, Ulysses, it’s so boring. Why isn’t Leopold Bloom planning a bank heist for that day? That would be much more exciting.”To think that this one could have had four bank heists. But I’m curious, then, about what is there: what drew you to this conception of a novel of multiple timelines, or parallel lives, or whatever you might want to call it?Number one would be this eternal fascination with “what if?” I’m always playing out possibilities of what might or might not have happened. But I think, deeper than that, was a thing that happened to me, which I have written about: when I was 14, a boy was struck by lightning next to me, and killed. That has haunted me all my life. And it has certainly changed who I am. That experience—but I wasn’t even aware of it when I started. So much is happening in the subconscious. You write your way into a certain kind of clarity. It starts as a blurry muddle of mess, and then it starts to take on definition.The experience of writing a book might be like that, but what about that actual experience, of almost being hit by lightning? You’ve talked about it before as an important event in your life, and I feel like you could trace that through a lot of your fiction, the idea of this sort of happenstance, random occurrence. Did you have anything like that realization at the time? I mean, it’s literally a bolt out of the sky, showing you how random things can be.No no no no no. It’s something that sneaks up on you over the years. I distinctly remember, after it happened, it never occurred to me to think, “If it had been five seconds later, it would have been me.” That never crossed my mind until years later. Because somehow, an event is an event. You take it for what it is. It’s only on reflection. This book in its entirety is almost all that reflection. Remember the conversation that Ferguson 4 has with Noah, his friend/cousin, about the two roads: You have to get to an appointment, and there’s the main road and the back road. You can’t really know if you’ve made the right decision, because you can’t be in two places at the same time. And he says that’s why we invented God, because he can be all places at the same time. These are the kinds of things that have always interested me, so I decided to play it out in a big book.I think those what-ifs are always appealing to a certain kind of person. Although I think, in a strange way, thinking about those actually makes me feel more like a determinist. Thinking about all the things that could have been different, that were maybe just happenstance, makes me think about the ways they were actually kind of causal. I think of it almost in the Guns, Germs, and Steel sense, the way all these little things shape outcomes: if you go far enough back, I find it easy to think, “Well, what else could this really be.”I’m not so sure about this. In my previous novel, Sunset Park, Lorenzo Michaels, the novelist, is having a conversation with his friend, and talks about wanting to write a novel about things that didn’t happen. There are many wars that could have happened, but didn’t happen. A lot of huge wars that stupidly could have been avoided—the Cuban Missile Crisis being one that didn’t happen, Iraq being one that did, for no reason. It was built on lies that the Bush administration told the American public, and has destroyed a whole country, a whole region, and we’re still paying the price for that blunder. But it didn’t have to happen. Another what-if: what if Ralph Nader hadn’t run for president? Or what if the Supreme Court hadn’t been the political hacks they were and given the election to Bush? What if Gore had been president? He never would have invaded Iraq. So likely there’d be no ISIS today. No so many things. It just so easily could have come to pass that way. I can’t believe in this determinism. It doesn’t make sense. It’s just how things fall out. They don’t have to be that way.Right, but I think that sense of spiralling out you’re talking about, that’s what sort of trips me up. To keep on the 2000 election: sure, if those judges had decided a different way, we don’t get ISIS. But maybe you wouldn’t have been on the court, in a position to make that decision, if you weren’t the kind of person who would have decided that way. You wouldn’t be Ralph Nader if you weren’t the type of person to run a more or less hopeless presidential campaign. The tendrils seem so vast in every direction I almost feel like you have to assume it worked out that way for some particular reason—not in the sense of, like, God ordained it, but maybe just something like, “Well, it started in this position.”I think what I want to say about the lightning experience is this: anything can happen at any moment. Period. At any given moment things don’t have to happen the way they do. It’s an accident. An accident by definition is something that doesn’t have to happen. It’s not necessary. It’s a contingent fact. The only necessary things that have to happen, I suppose, is that we’re born and we die. Everything else is a contingent fact.Speaking of contingent facts: since this is a novel, and you’re not literally God, there are a fair amount of concordances between the Fergusons. They’re all writers, of a kind, they all end up dating or interested in the same woman, and so on. Is there something essential about a character, in your mind, when you set down to create one? As soon as you started this character with parallel lives, are there just certain ways he had to develop?Had to develop?Okay, fair. Was more likely to develop?I thought so. They all share certain things. An ability at sports, a love of music, they all share an interest in literature, film, art of all kinds. They’re all erotic beings, they care about that part of their lives—as most of us do. Nearly everyone I’ve known does. Some people more than others, I suppose. All given to a kind of inwardness. Those are what I would call the genetic traits—the nature-nurture debate, which is what you’re trying to goad me into talking about. On the other hand, having lived with these boys for so long, I tend to think about the differences.Well, speaking of those, is there any degree of wish fulfillment in a novel like this? Like Ferguson 4 says, that god-like ability to be everywhere at once, even well beyond the normal abilities of a novelist to be wherever it is he wants to be?That had never occurred to me. I guess you could say it’s the wish fulfillment of a writer who can tell it different ways. We’re always telling things one way, even when we’re making them up. I kept finding them, to be honest: the book is largely improvised. It just kept occurring to me as I was doing it, the feeling that I was finding material just hovering above the page on my desk. I’d plan certain things out, but they just never seemed to go that way on the page. I had many more characters and stories I wanted to deal with, and it always became much more streamlined than I thought it would be.The things that happen in any given moment. That does make me wonder: you start the book with a joke, though it’s something like the foundational joke of the family. Without giving it away, is this sort of the ultimate response to the capriciousness of life—you just have to laugh about it?Is that a joke? At times it feels like a joke. I don’t know why I began the book with that joke. I hadn’t heard it until about two years before I started writing the book. But I knew the tone, right from the beginning, which is why I started with the joke. I wanted it to have the feel of legend. According to family legend, he arrives in New York January 1, 1900, and supposedly walks on the street and buys a tomato, thinking it’s an apple. Since when do they sell tomatoes on the street in New York in January? It’s all a blur of conjecture, legend and myth. You have to understand the humour in all this, too. There’s a jocular sense of storytelling. Even the references of the gods, from time to time. It only seems like a realist novel. I think it seeks to break all the rules of how Americans write fiction. I’ve always been writing against them. I’ve never tried to join that club. I’m not in it. I don’t want to be. I don’t want to write the way people wrote 100 years ago. It’s getting tired.
Everything I Know I Learned From Vanishing

Apparitions usually appear to one person at a time. If you want to be otherworldly, keep moving.

Boarding schools have an entire vocabulary attached to them, idioms that come with the territory. There are locations that, visited at night, mean you are having sex. There are coded nicknames for teachers, for classes. For drugs. One phrase at my school was "stress leave," which meant that the demands of being unspeakably privileged had become too much for you. The reward for this panic was a week-long break at home (where, it must be noted, you still had to do homework). Stress leave meant you were freaking out, in any of the infinite and predictable ways that teenagers freak out.I took a stress leave in eleventh grade. Stress seems a quaint term for what I was experiencing: self-loathing so deep and anguished it was almost beautiful, like the magnificence of a nuclear explosion seen at a distance. In a not-quite-suicidal way, I wanted to disappear. For a week, I could. Stress week.Those seven days allowed me to test run what it would be like to not exist. My universe was so small—my school, my friends, my Facebook page—that leaving it completely was as simple as my mother bundling me into her silver Volvo and whisking me away. Death was as simple as sleeping in a different bed. Rebirth was a fresh, white bathrobe. I disappeared.Controlled vanishing has been my M.O. ever since. Reflection is my most serene state, and to shrink back and observe the blank place where I once stood is the closest I can come to purity. It’s the most potent route to understanding that I know.*The next year, I disappeared again. I went to a new school and, although it was a disaster, it happened in a vacuum. I learned early on to diversify my personal failings. I realized that the more varied the people who saw me hurting, the less fixed the image of myself as someone fallible would become. It was in my interests to make sure these people did not know each other and could not corroborate their evidence. I developed a taste for fresh starts and the sweet gloss they cast over me. Apparitions usually appear to one person at a time. If you want to be otherworldly, keep moving.Frequent moving is motivated by a desire to both escape who I have been as well as know who I am. Moves are supposed to clear me of memories, like emotional exfoliant. They are meant to actuate change, but I change steadily, never dramatically (the way I want to). The only thing that has really transformed is this: after years of fearing that I might become irrevocably sad and curl inwards like a burnt piece of foil, I now know I can weather any storm. The nature and frequency of these storms, however, is constant. I get depressed, I think often (but not lustily) about death, then I move.New cities let me start from zero. New cities are razed ground where I expect perfect plants to grow. I call this freedom. But that's not quite right, the haunted are never free. Neither are the hunted.And today, we are all hunted, or, at the very least, we are searched for. I realize that disappearing is impossible as long as I insist on posting pictures or tweets, but that is the beauty of my situation. I can’t disappear; but I can exist in as many places as possible. I show up on the screens of people I once conversed with, or haunt the geo-tags I used to occupy in real life. I have a complicated relationship with social media; the success-mongering of my peers makes me feel sluggish, but I love the digital ooze that I can leave behind. I want to be traceable. And isn’t it amazing how the ugliest creatures leave such a beautiful, glistening wake?Still, there is something immaculate about disappearing today, something supernatural. Think about how we describe hookups who dematerialize, they “ghosted.” I’ve always talked with my friends about the allure of men who don’t have Instagram, they are the closest thing to Byronic heroes we millennial girls will ever get. In a world where we are constantly, compulsively asserting that we exist, disappearing is the last stunning act.But disappearing acts are good for more than airs of mystery, they force the people who care about you to show their hand. It always occurs to me, in an eddy of my brain, a place where beer cans and lost shoes gather and spin: how can you know who will bother to chase you unless you run?*The week I went away from school, I ate and cried and did many, many hair masks. My hair was so moisturized each strand was like a yogurt tube. I also received a Facebook message from a boy I hardly knew who I thought was very handsome. I forget what it said, but it amounted to, "I noticed you are gone." My heart felt like a bit of skin caught in a zipper.That time and every time since, disappearing has been a challenge I throw out to all the people who populate my world. Which one of you gets it? It doesn't matter if I’m waving or being swept out to sea, my silhouette is receding steadily onto the horizon, and I want you to notice. But know this, seeing is the least you can do. I’m really checking if you’ll swim after me.Sylvia Plath, in her poem “Lady Lazarus,” imagined reaching the brink of death and coming back nine times. Each time she is stronger, and there is always an element of enhancement that comes with disappearing. Lady Lazarus says, "Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air." I know that I become less silly and scarier with every disappearing act. My image grows stronger, more distinct. It’s true of everyone. Magicians are simply men in top hats until they disappear: when they do that, they are magic. Fathers are fathers until they are gone, then they are myths.*Disappearing appeals to those painfully ill at ease with themselves, or those unable to reconcile who they are now with what they did then. Disappearing is the magic of the disassociated. It's the charm of the confused. I sometimes think of it as softened heartbreak.A certain amount of capital is required to vanish into thin air: which is why accountants can only do it after stealing their clients’ money. This is also why the gaps between my vanishing acts have grown longer.I have found other ways to disappear, methods that don't require switching continents like they are cell phone service providers. I sit in dark theatres alone. I deflect acknowledgement. I dump friends. I stop talking.The first time I disappeared, I did it to test my world, like the science experiments I’d performed in class. Crude trials, removing one element to understand its effect on all the others. In high school, I wanted to know what remained the same after I was gone. What was real? Vanishing was a way to gauge my own importance in a flash. Today, I disappear to understand which parts of my life are immutable. What comes with me when I go, and what is the top hat I leave spinning on the stage? What words and phrases are mine alone, and not the product of my company? What does my voice sound like without the interference of memory?All I really know I learned from vanishing. And anyone who truly loves me knows this: I will make sure you love me enough to chase me when I’m gone.
Dressing Like Ladies

Clothes are an evolving expression of the selves we want the world to see—that’s what makes them so powerful. But, as women, it’s worth asking: who are we wearing them for?

Last year, I started to lose hours to online shopping. I’d scroll and click through everything, all stores, all styles, hoping for a whisper of guidance. I compulsively bought a blouse, sunglasses, too many jumpsuits.I’d excitedly track their shipment, then let the clothes linger in their boxes and their bags, the fantasy of what they could be and could make me punctured against the reality of their arrival. More often I bought nothing. I simply imagined me in those clothes, preforming what it meant to be a woman, to be the most alluring version of myself. I craved that one item of clothing that would make me want less. That would make me.I’d done this so many times before—this game of make-me-believe. It started when I was a tween, faced with the awkward prospect of buying a training bra at our suburban town’s newly opened Wal-Mart. With a tattooing heart, I defiantly reached for a three-pack of sports bras instead, deciding they would flatten, spandex me square. These high-cut bras were my subterfuge, a denial of a body I didn’t want. After that, I crafted a wardrobe of Adidas pants, XXL golf shirts, and anything else I thought could help me keep the me I wanted: a girl whose body remained a girl’s, straight and smooth as long grass.Even after I grew accustomed to the idea of breasts, I remained gawky. My clothes turned black, destroyed and held back together with safety pins. My clothing was a cotton fortress. It lied for me: here is a teen girl who is tough and not afraid of her own body or yours, so back the fuck off.In my early twenties, I turned once more, this time toward a budding professionalism: pencil skirts and low heels, uncomfortable slacks and blouses that modelled after a look I thought of as Adult Woman. The self-imposed rules of my latest un-chic configuration required I mostly opt for clothes I thought were both boring and sure to make me miserable. The way I dressed myself in those years was not an expression of my identity, but a uniform of the person I thought I should be: responsible, reliable, a projection of bland competence.It couldn’t last. The sameness I saw in the mirror each morning wasn’t comforting, as I’d hoped it would become, but suffocating. I wanted something more. As Sheila Heti concludes in the introduction of Women in Clothes when pondering what a woman demands from her personal aesthetic: “I think she wants to be unique among women, a creature unlike any other.”Clothing is an instant projection of who we are—or truer yet, who we want to be. For girls and women, especially, it tends to be how we’re categorized and assigned; how we’re minimized and fawned over; how those around us decide to ration their respect. Consider our years-long mania over Hillary Clinton’s suits, or the ink spilled in the U.K. over Theresa May’s shoes (a real late August 2016 headline in the Telegraph: “Theresa May reveals her shoes are the 'greatest love' of her life and that she dislikes her nose”). Consider the way we scoff at certain clothes on certain bodies, mutter “slut” and “trash.” Consider one of the modern myths women are plied with: that a Little Black Dress will make us perfect.*It started with a red dress. Then pink gingham with scalloped edging. Orange plaid button-down. There was a yellow wrap-around skirt with striped piping, a sailboat stitched at the corner. I’d bought it for my 29th birthday. My favourite was a green day dress with polka-dot pockets. Second favourite: a turquoise frock with roses, thrifted from a rundown Goodwill on Parliament Street in Toronto. Then there was the sentimental: My mother’s purple polyester with faded orchids and a broken strap, my first foray into the past. The assembly closed on a neutral note. A brown skirt from a second-hand store in Toronto’s west end. White, from small-town Ontario.I don’t remember how I hop-scotched through the blogosphere to vintage fashion, but I do know why I loved it, immediately. Vintage clothing was so different from the clothes I’d bought before, those cardigans and wrap dresses draped on skinny mall mannequins, and yet it was effortlessly, beautifully composed—all things I wanted for myself. If my earlier wardrobes cycled through a deep yearning to hide myself, to fit in, to belong, then vintage clothing was what, I thought, would allow me to access the still deeper part of myself that wanted to stand out. As Heti writes: “The most compelling women are the ones who are distinctive, who are most like themselves and least like other women.” If I could figure out how to dress most like myself, perhaps it meant I could—finally—also figure out how to be the me I wanted: a compelling woman. The type of woman everybody still thought about after she left the room. Hushed in awe as they hid behind palms, complimenting her Look.I collected vintage like a stamp fanatic, like an old man who idled over coins and war memorabilia—pursuits that have always struck me as masculine. I was obsessed. I hunted across the country, collecting vintage at Frenchys in New Brunswick, along Queen Street in Halifax, at a thrift shop in Drumheller, outside of Alberta’s Bad Lands. I even crossed the border, picking up a paisley house dress in Salem, an orange skirt with giant pockets at a pit stop on the way back to Toronto, the perfect pair of high-waisted shorts in Boston.When I broke my leg so badly I couldn’t leave my bed for months, I cajoled my then husband into journeying out for me. He Facetimed me through the aisles of Value Village, pausing patiently at my direction, plucking out promising finds, rescuing them from a crush of shrunken T-shirts and sweaters gone lopsided. When he returned home, I greedily grabbed at the bags of musty clothes, inhaling the familiar, pungent perfume of used and discarded, imagined what new lives I’d give these lucky garments—and myself. I had clothes I never wore, but appreciated, a connoisseur of Peter Pan collars, wiggle skirts, novelty patterns. I’d take them out, admire them, then tenderly place them back inside The Closet.Like a true collector, I always wanted more. My closet burst with colour, lace, pearls, sequins, full skirts, poofs upon poofs. I could squint and pretend my clothes were cupcakes, macarons, meringue—stacked sugar-laced sweets behind a patisserie glass. I dressed like candy and soda shops, episodes of Leave it To Beaver rendered into pastel Technicolor. I loved these old clothes for their possibilities. Wearing them was like slipping into the skin of another woman. One who was more glamorous than me, more sophisticated, definitively put-together and in control. I ushered this woman forward in time, then tried my best to become her—if I bought enough, learned enough. I spent hours watching YouTube tutorials and reading vintage blogs searching for inspiration. During this time, I perfected pin curls, winged eyeliner, a red lip. This woman I’d conjured was beautiful, something that was acutely important to me, even though I didn’t want it to be.Whenever I opened my closet door during the years of my vintage obsession, I’d feel a rush. Each morning, I’d brush my fingers across the neat rows of fabric, delicate as a lover, thrumming with the anticipation of a first kiss. What would I be today? I owned so many clothes by then—all vintage or vintage reproduction, mostly from the 1950s and ’60s—that the closet’s rod bent under the weight of my feminine acquisitions. Colour-coded and hung together, they resembled a fat and drooping rainbow.*Then, in early 2015, my now ex-husband and I separated. Unable to afford my three-bedroom apartment on one salary, I had to downsize to a smaller space. There was no way I could take all my clothes with me. Unable to part with everything, I rented a storage locker and promised myself I could fill three suitcases and two wardrobe boxes—tall, unwieldy makeshift closets that still could not hold everything I owned. The rest I would donate. By the time I was done sorting everything into “keep” and “toss” piles, my bedroom floor looked liked melted cake, punctured soufflés, unicorn tears. When I later taped the boxes that would go into storage, my stomach panged with grief. I felt like I was at a funeral. I’d hollowed out my identity, the one I’d so tightly stitched to these mid-century clothes. In the first few weeks after I moved, I constantly reached into my shrunken closet for phantom items.I’d deliberately, painstakingly crafted A Look. It was one that, I realize now, was perhaps less me and more a good mimic of a Stepford Wife. Once cleaved from me, I reflected on what it meant to dress like an old-fashioned housewife, a proper lady—always exact and constrained. Why did I like it so much? It was an uncomfortable line of inquisition. Part of me was defiant. Said to hell with it. It was my damn body, I could wear whatever I wanted. But I knew that was too easy. I wasn’t dressing passively. I wore vintage, at first, because I wanted that thing women aren’t supposed to want for themselves: to be seen. How much of it was really on my own terms? I worried it didn’t fit with my feminism, whether I could talk myself into believing it did, or whether it even mattered. Donning the clothes of women’s repressive past didn’t mean I supported it, or secretly yearned for it. If women could reclaim the word “bitch,” couldn’t we also reclaim pearl necklaces and lace gloves?I mean, at least that’s what I told myself. I was newly self-conscious of my once perfect pompadour, my full petticoats, my swing shoes. I didn’t step inside a vintage shop for months. And yet, my wary avoidance solved nothing. I didn’t stop caring what I looked like more than almost anything else in the world. I didn’t suddenly slip back into my own skin, happy and satisfied and confident. Despite myself, I still wanted. Wanted to find that one perfect dress, perfect lipstick, perfect pair of shoes that would, a la Cinderella’s fairy godmother, stop the wanting and transform me into the best version of myself. The sparkly flawless version.Clothes are an evolving expression of the selves we want the world to see—that’s what makes them so powerful. But, as women, it’s worth asking: who are we dressing for? Before I boxed my clothes and gave them up to cardboard tombs, I thought that answer was, finally, myself. Yet, left with the scraps of my carefully curated wardrobe I wasn’t so sure. Shrouded in my leftover, but flawless, cocoon coat, I still felt undressed, vulnerable. Still knew that I hadn’t yet achieved style—fed that naked, gluttonous wanting enough that I felt right when I stepped outside my apartment into the morning blush. Sated it so that I could leave the house and not think of myself as mirrors, a person or object in which others see themselves reflected. I wondered what a fullness like that would feel like. Speculated whether I could buy it.*Shortly after my separation, and the unfolding of my personal style, I stuck a Post-It note to my work computer, quoting Dress A Day blogger and author Erin McKean: “Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female.’” (It’s often misattributed to former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland.) Unmoored from The Closet, I wanted to remind myself that I didn’t need it—that I could move through the world free of charge, just as easily in a T-shirt as full circle skirt. McKean’s quote is from a longer blog post called “You Don’t Have to Be Pretty.” In addition to reminding women that they don’t owe attractiveness to anyone, she also wrote that it’s okay to be pretty, to want it as a quality for yourself. Less meme-ified is this second part: “You don’t owe UN-prettiness to feminism.” Beauty is not the most important thing, she adds, but it is “pleasant, and fun, and satisfying, and makes people smile, often even at you.”I’m less rah-rah about that last part, mostly because I’m uncomfortable with how badly I want it to be true. Lodged within me, I contain twinning ouroboros of middle-finger feminism and the deep, unwelcome desire to have people smile at my appearance. I crave approval. I crave a feminism that tells me it’s okay to be this preoccupied by beauty. That can split this fixation down the lines of empowerment, like a seam, dividing it away from what I know to be true: that there’s a history here. I crave a clearer answer. A prescription that could cut through centuries of socialization and arbitrary beauty standards and a world that tells women the thing they should be most concerned with is their appearance. I don’t disagree with the obvious solution: that whatever a woman wants to wear is a feminist choice if she believes it is. But I struggle with how this works in practice. Even more so when I’m dressed like a Southern debutante or, perhaps, a layer cake.Vintage clothing from my era of choice—the ’50s and ’60s—is undeniably pretty, even sexy. Yet, it is so in a way that’s almost always juxtaposed against, or derived from, its demureness, its lady-like nature, its idea of the era’s perfect woman. It’s all lines in the sand of who a woman can be. In its original context, this beautiful, constrictive clothing was designed as a specific, instructive way to perform femininity. It’s easy to forget such garments were intended to remind women of their functionality as human beings; to shoehorn them back into their homes; to return them to the binary roles of wife and mother. Unlike the factory work wear of the 1940s—clothes that echoed women’s first widespread independence—this tight apparel, with its rows of back buttons and its many suffocating layers, was intended to be put on with assistance. Its makers assumed women had people (well, men) around to help them dress. In fact, it demanded it. Knowing this, the heavy-lidded bedroom phrase “do me up” seems a lot less alluring.Wearing vintage clothes in modern times attracts unsolicited, saccharine comments—ants to an ice cream puddle. In the years I wore it, I heard from men who wished more women dressed like ladies. From men who told me I looked high school student young, sweet, adorable. From men who commended my proclivity for dresses, praised my sartorial politeness. From men who asked to watch me try on clothes, who gave me their seats, who told me they remembered when. The whole vintage scene is saturated with “wholesome” vibes that reinforce the exact gender role divides I can’t stomach. In 2012, for instance, TLC aired a one-hour special called Wives with Beehives. It followed four twentysomething women around southern California as they integrated every aspect of mid-century living into their lives—from ancient work-out gear and incessant waist-minding to happy days spent baking, cleaning, and generally rejecting any career other than wife. (It’s worth mentioning that one of the main subjects later said that, while her love of vintage is real, much of the show was contrived, meant to make the women look ridiculous. “I was,” she wrote on her blog, “just a pawn in their game.”)Actually, for the first time since the 1960s, the number of stay-at-home moms is on the rise. These yesteryear-idealizing women are far from alone. What’s just a nod to neat waistlines and kitsch houseware for some has turned into a cartoonish pursuit to return to a time where “Women were women, by golly!” for others. That this was a time before feminism existed is sometimes exactly the point. Some of the most influential homemakers, including one blogger I used to follow, who’s so busy these days she has staff writers, have mottos like, “I believe sweatpants are never the answer” and “You are the CEO of your household.” Many of these women love Jesus, love their husbands, love their babies. There’s nothing wrong with any of that—except that it all seems to come from a place of wanting to make ourselves, and our worlds, smaller, more palatable. It’s not a coincidence that finishing schools have made a resurgence. While men return to simpler times with axe-throwing, women get etiquette lessons.I know not every woman who wears vintage has slid back into yes ma’am times. The vintage blogosphere is big and feminism is a controversial topic. Many vintage wearers wish the topic could be retired: it makes them feel good, so who cares what it used to symbolize? Feeling good about ourselves as women in an avalanche of media and marketing messaging that tells us not to, argue these women, can be subversive and empowering in itself. It’s a fair point. As Iris Marion Young writes in her essay “Women Recovering our Clothes:” “Patriarchal fashion folds create a meticulous paradigm of the woman well-dressed for the male gaze, then endows with guilt the pleasure we might derive for ourselves in these clothes.” She adds that, “Misogynist mythology gloats in its portrayal of women as frivolous body decorators.” In other words, we cannot win. We have to work on stepping outside the sewing box. To, as Young argues, recover our clothes. And in doing so, ourselves.But how do you reclaim something that was never designed for our enjoyment in the first place? Another feminist scholar, Kaja Silverman, suggests we switch lenses: “Retro provides a means of salvaging images that have traditionally sustained female subjectivity, images that have been consigned to the wastebasket not only by fashion, but by ‘orthodox’ feminism.” She adds that vintage inserts the wearer into a “complex network of cultural and historical references” and that it’s the modern woman who gives the clothing its reference point. So, we subvert vintage by putting it on tattooed bodies, by stepping outside of capitalism and buying used, by taking hints of days past and proudly making patterns in bigger sizes than our 1950s or ’60s counterparts ever imagined. In a way, argues Silverman, it allows women to acknowledge that its “wearer’s identity has been shaped by decades of representational activity, and that no cultural project can ever ‘start from zero.’” If we look at vintage like this, it becomes a way to topple the male gaze—to actively wear our clothes with meaning.I’m into all this, but hesitant. Hesitant because still so many vintage-clad women I know and see online embrace the back-in-the-day values. Certainly not all and maybe not even the majority, but enough to make the issue muddied. Hesitant because I don’t know why we all do it, dress like Mad Men, tsk at the women who don’t. Hesitant because, though I don’t want to admit it, I have my own tiny, mewling voices—kittens of protest. They remind me that while I wore only vintage for good reasons too—to dismiss modern beauty standards, to keep fast fashion out of landfills, and simply because I like it—my best, truest, most awful reasons were not progressive at all. These reasons knock around in my chest like mismatched buttons in a jar. That wanting. To be pretty. Not for myself, but for everyone around me. To be met with a smile that says, you look how a woman should. You are pretty. You have made it. There’s worth here.I don’t want to discount how happy these clothes made me. I just mistrust all the other reasons I tell myself why.*I have no idea how to dress myself any more. I will readily tell you that I still wear the vintage items I have left. Last spring, I even bought an old denim jumper from the ’70s, shapeless and cool. More and more, I mix them with modern wear; less and less, I look like I stepped out of an old catalogue. I know, in so many ways, it’s not the clothes that are the problem, but the meanings I gave them. The way I idolized them. The way their makers wanted them to be idols, little gods of chiffon, cotton and lace. Prayers on bodies to make us so, everything right. This new mix-and-match is my own, small way of declaring ownership and intention over my clothes, my body, my appearance. But more than one year into my separation, I still hadn’t unpacked the boxes of my most prized vintage. I haven’t donated the rest either. They sat stacked for a year in my storage space, a visual and dusty reminder that I’m trying but have reached no satisfying answer.One weekend, during the fading days of summer, I left my house in an outfit I’ve tried on in the safety of my bedroom many times, but have never before worn outside. It fits my new philosophy: thrifted, voluminous, high-wasted Kelly green shorts, a navy tanktop, silver sandals. It’s an outfit that rolls my back fat into dumplings, showcases the softness of my long legs, spotlights my too broad shoulders. It was a look that didn’t camouflage, didn’t apologize, did not embrace the word “good.” But for a moment, I felt amazing, the double exposure of who I am and who I want to be united. After that, I stopped shopping online as much. There have been no new versions of myself delivered to my mailbox. What I’ve really stopped doing is daydreaming myself into a better woman—if only I have those clogs, that Oxford shirt, that sparkly bodysuit. I unsubscribed from every newsletter that arrived in my inbox laden with sales, deals, new trends, promises. I’m reformed. I want to be. Like, I just want to be. I want to close reach into my closet, pull out something to wear that day and be happy. That is the new dream: that I will be me. And a dress will simply be a dress.
Makeup Is a Language of Resistance

Where I grew up, feminine boys were cautionary tales. I couldn’t explore my identity and remain a model queer boy, a boy who fits in.

The first makeup I ever wore was pixelated. The lipstick: two bands of fuchsia. The mascara: a thicket of lashes styled thin and charcoal black. The eyes: bejeweled, with patterned purple and gold gemstones stretching from the bottom of my nose to the top of my eyebrows. All of it, pixels.I used my first Snapchat makeup filter in secret, on the bottom floor of my high school library, behind a bookshelf where I knew no one would see. But even the isolation couldn’t stave off my fear. As I swiped through the various filters—the dog ears, the rainbow mouth—to the bejeweled makeup I'd seen a friend use earlier that day, I felt something building inside of me, something that turned my stomach. In my head I was already writing my apology—I’m sorry, it was a mistake, it won’t happen again. Sitting there, in the hush of the library, I felt delinquent—that by trying on even virtual lipstick I was breaking some sacred covenant I’d made with society, one premised on conformity.The fear existed for the same reasons it always had: because I’d been taught to hate men with makeup, because I didn’t want to make myself a target, and, most fundamentally, because I knew I couldn’t have it both ways—I couldn’t explore myself and remain a model queer boy, a boy who fits in. But this time, there was also something new, a feeling so small I almost didn’t notice it—a glimmer of excitement.I took a breath before I tapped the bejeweled makeup filter, and then I watched as it spread across my face: the mascara, the lipstick—emblems of femininity that I was finally letting myself claim.If this were a movie, here I would zoom in on my features, fear giving way to glee as I realized that I liked this makeup. I liked how it looked. I liked how it felt.Now, rewind one year, two, ten, twelve—past the day the word “faggot” first made my skin scrawl, past the crushes on other boys I convinced myself were platonic, past the fear of fashion-forward clothing and high-pitched voices. Rewind until I am a boy sneaking into my mom’s clothes closet while she’s on the phone downstairs, running my fingers along her dresses and shoes, then opening up her makeup cabinet and staring at it all—the balms, the blushes, the powders, the highlights. Rewind until I am looking at my face in the mirror, longing to put on just a dash of lipstick, but somehow already knowing I shouldn’t.Freeze the image there. Go split screen: to the left, myself as a six year old imagining how wearing lipstick would look; beside it, me twelve years later, using that Snapchat makeup filter for the first time. Then, slowly, let the faces converge: bright eyes on tired ones; clear skin on slight stubble; hope on wonder.*Where I grew up, feminine boys were cautionary tales. I remember in elementary school you couldn’t wear a bright pink or purple shirt without sustaining a barrage of slurs, whispered between breathless laughter. Even before I understood what words like “fag” meant, I was taught that the people they described were two things: men who were feminine, and therefore men who were repulsive.TV, which as a kid I took as a universal truth, pushed this thesis further. There, feminine men existed to shock. On crime shows, they were presented alongside drug dealers and fetishists, agents of a strange, perverted underbelly. On sitcoms, they were joke fodder. Feminine males existed, in other words, as the antithesis to normal—as viewers, we could feel more secure in who we were because at least, we told ourselves, we weren’t like that.In movies, too: think of Billy Madison’s lipstick-wearing Danny McGrath, who makes lists of people he intends to kill; or Edward II from Braveheart, whose ineffectiveness is tied to his effeminacy.The trope of male femininity as a proxy for weakness and psychopathy extends to stories as classic as Little Red Riding Hood, where the wolf’s awfulness is heightened by the fact that he wears women’s clothing, and continues through classic films such as Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs, whose depictions of crossdressing serial killers have fed into homo- and especially transphobia.This creates a special peril for queer men, because, according to a mid-20th century study by Daniel Levinson, a primary driver of male-centered homophobia is the equation of homosexuality with emasculation. As Paula S. Rothenberg notes in her book Race, Class, and Gender in the United States, “gay men have historically played the role of the consummate sissy in the American popular mind because homosexuality is seen as an inversion of normal gender development.” Belief in such an inversion has led to the repeated depiction of feminine men as unhinged. They are weak or violent or disgusting, we can say, because they aren’t sufficiently masculine.Though this idea impacted all queer men, feminine men were most easily targeted because they either lacked or had forfeited their ability to pass for straight. In pop culture, they became easy villains.In his 1968 memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, Quentin Crisp describes how the fear of male femininity manifested itself in law enforcement, claiming that the police targeted feminine men. “Boys arrested for soliciting were found guilty before they had spoken,” he says. “If they did get a chance to say anything, the sound of their voices only caused the presiding magistrate to increase their sentences. I think the boys were right in assuming that they were being condemned for effeminacy.”The trope of the deplorable feminine male became so damaging that when gay activists began their efforts to assimilate into mainstream society, they specifically distanced themselves from it. It is no coincidence that in 1973, at the same time LGB people began attaining successes, such as the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, fashion among queer men shifted from a “fairy” look to a more masculine aesthetic centered on tight jeans, plaid shirts, and facial hair. In her book Transgender History, Susan Stryker argues that “it is possible to trace the current ‘homonormativity’ of mainstream gay culture (an emphasis on being ‘straight-looking and straight-acting’)”—in other words, on masculinity—to this period.Around the same time, LGB groups distanced themselves from the transgender community, which was deemed unpalatable to the general public, even though trans women of color, such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, initially sparked the gay liberation movement. After flirtations with radicalism following the Stonewall Riots, many gay and bisexual men decided that to be accepted, they had to look and act agreeable—and that meant an embrace of masculinity.Certainly, this didn’t ensure their safety—no queer person is ever truly safe—but then, as now, perceived masculinity offered queer men a refuge from the worst abuse; feminine men, who can’t “pass,” have always posed a threat in a way their masculine counterparts have not. Which is why the prospect of wearing makeup has long terrified me.As a gay kid who was born mere months after DOMA became law, and who turned eighteen the same year the Supreme Court affirmed the right to marry, I have seen how quickly homophobia erodes. In my small Connecticut town, my childhood spent learning to hate people like me melted into an adolescence in which I came out to relative ambivalence. But that newfound acceptance is conditional—my existence is validated only when I act like, talk like, dress like everyone else. Being queer is different than being queer and gender subversive. The former we’ll allow as long as you don’t flaunt it: don’t talk about your desires, don’t hold your partner’s hand in public, don’t dress like the opposite gender. The latter is disgusting, despicable—a threat.When Instagrammer Skelotim gained popularity for matching his makeup to popular snack food wrappers, the social media site started taking down his photos because they’d been repeatedly flagged. Many people were offended to see a man in colourful makeup. And last year, when a BuzzFeed writer decided to try on makeup for a week, he noticed that many men ignored him. “I’m used to walking around making eye contact, nodding, smiling, and receiving eye contact, nods, and smiles in return. But every man at work who I don’t know (it’s a big office) looks anywhere but at my face,” he wrote. Later, at a turnstile, a man bumped into him and said, “Watch it, faggot.”Even early this year, after Maybelline announced that popular Instagrammer Manny Gutierrez would become their first male spokesperson, the move was decried as a “symptom of a decaying culture.”*There is a public performance to queerness that is often neglected. Since before middle school, I learned that to be safe, I needed to excise any femininity in myself—to moderate my hand gestures, to wear plain clothes, to lower my voice when I talked. (The possibility that I might be able to render myself invisible is a privilege that many transgender people and queer people of color are not afforded.)And this, I realize, is roughly what activists did in the 1970s, and what media coverage of the LGBT community continues to do today, which is to present only the manifestations of queerness we deem most acceptable. Notice how ads that include LGBT people invariably feature well-dressed (and overwhelmingly white) couples with typical gender presentations, or how popular slogans like “love is love” and “same love” work because they emphasize our uniformity with the rest of the society. Similarly, coverage of trans people, actress Laverne Cox has noted, centers on “cisnormative beauty standards” attained only “in certain lighting, at certain angles.”It is acceptance by conformity, and as a result living publicly as a queer person can become a constant negotiation: Is this pushing it? The fact that I’m non-binary isn’t impacting my friendships, but what if I start wearing a completely new style of clothing? People won’t mind me going to the movies with my girlfriend, but is it too much if we hold hands? Or, in my case: my parents accept my sexuality, but will I shock them if I walk out of my bedroom one day clad in fuchsia lipstick and green eyeshadow?We love to teach kids the importance of self-exploration, but there’s an unspoken limit: once you drift beyond the predetermined, “acceptable” zone of inward scrutiny, what first made you charming—your brazen individualism, your eagerness to explore—instead perverts you into a danger. Part of growing up queer, I think, is the repeated confrontation with these limits. As a kid, you are taught homo- and transphobia as a baseline, and coming out therefore becomes more than just a process of disclosing your sexuality or gender. It is also the process of unraveling your internalized prejudices, of giving yourself permission to do all of the little things you grew up avoiding—in my case, things like buying my first purple shirt and letting myself speak in my normal, slightly high-pitched voice. But I’ve always known not to go too far. I’ve always known the limits. For me, that has primarily meant one thing—no makeup.In our society, queerness is a burden: one that many people are now willing to take, but barely. Add on any more weight—be a queer man with makeup, a queer woman in a tie—and it all comes crashing down.*My attraction to makeup returned because of a boy.In this case, the boy is a popular Instagrammer, no one I’ve met in my real life, and he wears magenta lipstick and gorgeous green eyeshadow. He’s attractive, I’m not going to lie. But he also seems so free: so brazen, so brave, so unashamedly him. I forgot, I realized, how good makeup could look on a boy. More: I forgot how happy a boy could be with makeup on. I’ve been so conditioned to associate male femininity with ugliness that I didn’t think it could be anything else.Soon after, I remembered the way I used to envision makeup when I was younger: as a kind of social art, a bridge between your inner and outer selves; as a type of decoration that enlivens your appearance, adds some flair to an otherwise empty face.I remembered this, and at the close of my senior year of high school, I watched my desire to try on makeup grow. No longer just trivial, it tugged at me. Just wear a little lipstick to prom, it said. A little blush to graduation. Just to see how it looks.I started dropping hints to friends, too. “When we’re out of college and move in together, you should teach me to do makeup.” Or: “Before the end of the year, I’m going to wear eyeshadow to a party.” It was a quiet longing, and there was comfort in indulging it: setting vague goals for myself, imagining a day when I could leave my room clad in brightly coloured makeup.But I was still afraid. In the barter economy of public queerness, it felt like a weight too heavy for most people to accept.So, I turned to Snapchat.*For those unfamiliar, Snapchat traffics in ephemera. Photos dissolve seconds after they are opened; conversations on the app take on a detached quality. No one remembers what was said, or what pose was struck, three, four selfies back. When you receive a new photo, it is like the conversation is beginning all over again.It also boasts a vast catalogue of filters—digital decorations for your face—and it is these I have begun to use and send religiously. Many are for comedy: a cyclops, a pacifier, a unicorn, a viking. Filters that distort your face: double the size of your eyes or nose, curl up your lips, bloat your chin. In a way, that kind of self-parody is cathartic, and it lets us disentangle ourselves from the perfectionism of social media. Instead of posting only the most glamorous photos of ourselves, as on Instagram, on Snapchat we can revel in our imperfections.Many of Snapchat’s filters are also makeup-related, and these introduced me to a kind of makeup-wearing intermediary: on the app, I could try on makeup without the full risk of wearing it in public.I have used Snapchat’s digital makeup filters often. Red and black and pink lipsticks; mascara and eyeliner and coloured eye shadow. Selfies at different angles, different poses. Over the last half year, I have taken these pictures and sent them to friends with increasingly little shame, and I like how their compliments feel.One friend replied, “You need to wear this to school!” When I opened that message, I grinned. Already I felt my fears of makeup unraveling.Snapchat is safe, I think, precisely because it is transient: I can try on new looks and get reactions from friends, only to have it all evaporate, half-forgotten, within a few minutes. For all my friends know, my use of makeup filters constitutes just another example of self-parody, like those unicorn filters I love so much. There is no public risk, no reason to fear: it was the best way—and, for me, perhaps the only way—to ease into a new look I had once been taught to hate. These filters became a kind of premature introduction, a way of telling my friends, Next time you see me, this is how I might look. The stakes were low, and low stakes were freeing.*Historically, this is not new. Queer people have long carved out semi-anonymous spaces to explore themselves, their genders, and their sexualities in times of hostility. In 18th century England, queer people escaped to covert social gatherings known as molly-houses, where they often took on attributes typically ascribed to another gender. Men wore gowns, petticoats, high-heeled shoes, and masks; some painted their faces, and others tried on rouge and eye makeup. Their lives took on a duality and their safety depended on balancing self-exploration in the molly-houses with uniformity in the outside world. Those who slipped up—those who accidentally dressed or spoke with too much femininity in their day-to-day lives—were, according to one historian, “abused or blackmailed.”A similar phenomenon has followed the rise of drag kings and queens, whose use of makeup and atypical clothing allow them to explore the boundaries of who they are from places of relative safety. And perhaps it is here that makeup has taken on its special significance for queer people. Makeup became part of a larger concert of liberation, a challenge to social norms policing dress and voice and gender and love. As Arabelle Sicardi writes, “This processing of potential, pushing past the point of expectation of who you have to be for other people to reach who you want to be for yourself — that’s beauty, gone queer. Because queerness is sexuality, yes, but it’s also an identity that implies resistance and reaching for something else.”For queer people, makeup is a language of resistance. We are told again and again that the way we use makeup is wrong: that it is disgusting, unsuitable; that it is reflective of the ugliness inside of us.For men, wearing makeup—or any emblem of femininity—has historical associations with depravity, and putting it on is therefore as dangerous as it is freeing. Such an embrace of the self in a society that demands uniformity is a powerful act, precisely because it forfeits any passing privilege that comes with an invisible identity. From the first dash of fuchsia lipstick, you are on display.I was well aware of this when, on a Friday night in September, I borrowed a friend’s lipstick and mascara and wore makeup to a party for the first time. I did it because I felt safe: it was dark, and few people could see, and now that I live on a liberal college campus, I worry less when people discover I am a queer boy with an interest in femininity. And I liked it. It felt odd, this extra weight on my skin and eyelashes, but in the best, most thrilling way.Over the last few months, I’ve repeated this process. On multiple occasions I’ve worn makeup to late-night parties, more self-conscious about the fact that it was sloppily applied than about the makeup itself. I’ve started watching makeup tutorials on YouTube, too. And through those, I’ve found a subculture of makeup-wearing queer boys, from Patrick Starrr to James Charles, who recently became the first CoverBoy. Now my college dorm room is home to an assortment of eyeliners, lipsticks, mascaras, and eye shadows.But the fear hasn’t left, not really. In October, when I wore purple nail polish for a day, I felt the stares. Many people, it turns out, were encouraging, but the idea of being watched unsettled me. I took the nail polish off that night, after a driver who was stopped at an intersection called me a slur.When I wear makeup, my passing privilege evaporates. I become the kind of queer boy long scapegoated in books, TV shows, and movies—the feminine male who refuses to conform.
‘We Need Art to Remind Us of What is At Stake’: An Interview with Emily Robbins

The author of A Word for Love on Syria, how we reveal ourselves through language, and love as a place of tension. 

Emily Robbins may not have become the writer she is had she not lived for a time in Syria. She stayed with host families on a Fulbright Fellowship, and one of her host fathers was a writer—the first professional writer whom she got to know well. Just before her arrival, he'd lost his job for criticizing the Syrian government. The gravity of the fact was not lost on her—it taught her that words hold power and that writing can have consequences.Robbins lived in Syria between 2007 and 2008, approximately three years before the beginning of the first anti-regime uprising that would eventually lead to civil war. Her deeply affecting debut novel, A Word for Love, takes place in Syria at roughly the same time. Its lead protagonist, Bea, is an American exchange student who has travelled to the country to read The Astonishing Text, an ancient manuscript said to contain a love story so stirring it brings its readers to tears. But the text remains elusive, so she spends her days practicing Arabic and becoming increasingly entwined in the lives of her host family. The father becomes more involved in rebellious activities, while Nisrine, the family’s maid, falls in love with a Syrian policeman—a circumstance that leads to violent confrontations. As Bea watches Nisrine’s clandestine relationship grow, she learns how different languages can both close and create cultural gaps while at the same time reveal new facets of love she never knew existed.Here, Syria is more than a war-torn nation—it’s a site of longing, love, and intellectual rigor. Robbins’s fascination with linguistics (she speaks at least three languages and has worked as a translator) further permeates this story. The roots of Arabic words, Bea teaches us, add layers of meaning to each utterance in the language. And as she listens to Nisrine speak about her family, Bea hears subtle shifts in conjunctions that lend crucial insight into the maid’s psychology.I went into this interview with thinking that we’d discuss primarily A Word for Love, but soon it became clear that Robbins’s affinity for language was just as thought-provoking.Amy Brady: With conflicts in Syria growing even more violent and fractious and the refugee crisis becoming even more critical, A Word for Love feels extremely timely. What drew you to this setting and why did you choose to set the novel at the onset of war instead of in its midst?Emily Robbins: I started writing A Word for Love before the war began. When the first protests broke out, I was six months into the novel and felt utterly inspired by the bravery of the men and women who were standing up to their government. I wanted to share these feelings with those around me, but I lived far away in St. Louis, and so writing became a way for me to return in my mind to Syria, a place that I loved and that was quickly changing. It became something I turned to in hopeful and then difficult times.As this war wages on, I think it is easy to see Syria only for its violence. But, Syrians and foreigners who have lived there can tell you it is so much more than that. I think we need art and literature that is set in Syria before the war even more now, to remind us of the country's rich history and beauty, and the bravery of its people; to remind us of what is at stake, that if we lose Syria we risk losing all this.Given the current war in Syria, I admit that I was surprised to discover that A Word for Love is much more about love than violence. What led you to this focus?I am a lover of love stories; and, because I lived in Syria between the ages of 21 to 23, many of my early loves happened there. I have never thought of Syria as a violent place, and so it didn't occur to me to write a story that focuses on violence. To me, love is a place of tension: in a first love, so much is at stake even in the smallest interactions, and therefore it can reveal so much. In love, words matter so much (we hang on our lover’s every word) and also so little (who cares about words? Let's kiss!). So for that reason, because I’m interested in exploring the many sides of cultural exchange and of language, love seems like a perfect fit.Bea is an American exchange student in Syria. Is Bea you? While I don't feel that I am Bea, it is true that I was a foreign exchange student in Syria (over the time I was there, I lived with two different families) and that one of the families I lived with also employed an Indonesian maid. From her, I learned almost everything I know about Indonesia; her love for her country gave me a love for a place that I have never been. Navigating my role in this family was difficult and left me with more questions than answers, and I think out of those questions came the seeds of A Word for Love.For someone who studies languages, Bea is often quiet, preferring others to speak for her. Did this tension between silence and language prove difficult to write about?One of the most challenging parts of writing this book was growing Bea's voice. She’s understated in her feelings, and so figuring out how to stretch her voice to encompass what I wanted to say was not easy—that is, if you want to convey an emotion, with a narrator like Bea, that's not always something you can do outright. So, she made revisions difficult. For a while she was so difficult that I tried writing in third person, but it lost something when I removed Bea's voice; it was a good life lesson for me: what is difficult is often also necessary.Does The Astonishing Text really exist? Have you seen it?No, it doesn't! At least, not in the form that it does in the book. However, the story of Qais and Leila, which the text tells, does exist—it is a famous love story in both Arabic and Farsi, and people really do know it and love it the way I grew up loving Romeo and Juliet. I first read a version of Qais and Leila in my Arabic class-reader. That is how well-known the story is—it is even taught to foreigners, and I loved it for the way it played with language from the first.Apart from that, written Arabic is well known for its beauty, and as an art-form. The idea of The Astonishing Text takes inspiration from Arabic calligraphy artists, and also from the illuminated Islamic texts of the past, which recognized that a written word can also be art. I really have seen Arabic words fit onto a grain of rice. All this—the story of Qais and Leila, and my own love of illuminated texts and calligraphy, combined with the question, what is fluency? create The Astonishing Text.Language plays such a complex role in this story. Your novel tells us that there is not one, but ninety-nine words for love in Arabic, and later, language comes to signify (to Bea at least) shifts in other people’s emotional states. What draws you to linguistic study?Language has always fascinated me, perhaps for how we reveal ourselves through it, and also for the gap between who we are in our head, and what we sound like out loud. Before I was a writer, I studied Anthropology; because of this, I have always been interested in the battles we fight through speech. Since the age of eighteen, I have learned three languages by immersion, (the last being my husband's native Portuguese), and so as a result, I have spent many years of my adult life in various states of speechlessness, struggling with meaning, and trying to find the right words to express myself. Because learning to think in a new language takes away some of the intuitiveness of speech, it can also allow us to step back and examine what else goes on beneath a sentence; where the tension lies, both in the words and the room. Unexpected sources of tension are useful for writers.When you are learning a new language by immersion, then it really does take over your life. You are only as interesting, and you can only think and understand as deeply, as your vocabulary in this new language will allow. Learning languages gives us so much, but in the moment it can also feel very limiting. So, I suppose to write a book about a foreign exchange student, I had to include language. It marks the limits of her world.In what ways do you think the act of switching between languages—either in speech or in writing—shifts how we perceive the world around us?I think it helps us know our limits; learning other languages helped me to love my own; to value how easily I could slip back into English.Learning Arabic especially opened up my world to whole other ways of making meaning. In gaining knowledge of Arabic, I gained a new alphabet, new shapes to make on a page, new sounds. And Arabic's grammar is so complete and so graceful. Arabic words are made up of three-letter roots; from those roots, you can make many, many words which all trace their history back to those three letters, and so are in some way related. Learning about the relationship between words in Arabic changed the way I looked at words in English. In this way, it had a profound effect on my writing.Arabic, sadly, is an unusual choice of language for many Americans to pick up. What inspired you to learn it?I had a cousin who was passionate about studying Arabic before me. I started learning it because of her. And then, very quickly, it became a language whose structure and patterns resonated with me, and which I loved.Does your translation work affect your writing? Or vice versa?I feel like in many ways A Word for Love is a work in translation. Certainly, it takes up questions of language and meaning that a translator grapples with. It includes a poem in translation. But apart from that, in many ways it is a very loose retelling of an Arabic story—Qais and Leila. Of course, re-telling and translation are often two separate arts today. However, they haven’t always been so separate. To me, many of the questions this novel deals with are a translator’s questions, including: What will Americans reading about Syria understand?When I lived in Chicago, I was an interpreter—that is, an oral translator. I have also translated poems, but those are mostly for myself (though one translation made it into A Word for Love). Reading Arabic has been a great influence on my writing. However, one of the things I love about interpreting (not literary translation, which is its own art form) is that unlike writing fiction, I don't have to think about what to say: someone else comes up with the sentence, and I switch it to a different language. Interpreting is a break from having my own ideas.Do you read any Syrian authors? Which would you recommend?My favorite poet is Syrian—Nizar Qabbani. He wrote beautiful, beautiful love poems, which remind me a little of Pablo Neruda. Khaled Khalifa is also a wonderful contemporary voice. I also want to mention two new voices who are not Syrian, but are of the region and deserve a hearing. Basma Abdel Aziz’s novel, The Queue, came out in English last year, and it is one of the strangest and most incredible novels (and translations!) I’ve recently read. Abdel Aziz is Egyptian, not Syrian, but her novel takes place in an unnamed, parallel world, and its subjects—dictatorship, revolution’s aftermath, love—speak somewhat to Syria’s current situation. Also, a book called We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled is due out in June. It is a compilation of hundreds of interviews with Syrians, conducted over the course of many years by Middle East scholar Wendy Pearlman. Wendy is a brilliant scholar, and these interviews are larger in scale than any other project on Syria I know of. Needless to say, I am eagerly awaiting it.How did your time in Syria shape you as a writer? I lived in Syria at a very formative time in my life, and I lived with brave people. They shaped much of my idea of what it is to be a good person in the world, and an adult. One of my host fathers was the first writer I ever saw at work and knew well. And so, he taught me something about how one goes about becoming a writer. He had lost his job for criticizing government policies in his writing. It was a lesson to me not only in how one writes for a living, but also in the power of words and their consequences.Living in Syria also shaped me as a writer, because it turned my attention to small details (the different ways there are of cutting vegetables, the uses of various kitchen sponges, what everyone wore) in order to fit in. Because fitting in is in the details, foreigners often become attuned to small moments of daily life. In that way, I began practicing looking at the world with the eye of a writer—one whose fictional world is also made in the details. Once I began looking at life this way, it was hard to stop.
Smurfette’s Roots

In her original incarnation, the only female Smurf reminds me of all the assumptions I’ve had to navigate about my sexuality and sense of self as a Jewish woman.

When we were kids, my brother collected plastic Smurf figurines. While they were all fundamentally the same (blue body, white pants and white hat, except for Papa Smurf, who sported a red hat and white beard), each had different accessories based on their archetypal traits. Vanity Smurf held a mirror and had a flower in his cap; Handy had a hammer; Brainy had little glasses and a book tucked under his arm.And then there was Smurfette. Different figurines depicted her engaged in a variety of activities, but it was always her: Blonde hair and a flowing white dress. Long eyelashes painted on. The only female of the clan. Fought over, lusted after. Chaste. Perfect. Pure.Critics have noted the many social problems with Smurfette as a character: how she perpetuates a virgin/whore paradox; how, as the only female in a society of men, she tokenizes women’s identities and sets them up necessarily in relation to the dominant patriarchy. There’s even a fan theory that argues Smurfette was created to assuage homophobic fears among consumers of the comic and confirm for them the heterosexuality of the Smurfs (well, maybe not Vanity). In short, Smurfette is, as the saying now goes, problematic.God, how I wanted to be her.But Smurfette didn’t begin her life as a pure fantasy object. Initially, she was conjured through the magic of the evil wizard Gargamel, forged out of clay in an attempt to incite chaos and destroy the all-male Smurf population, a golem sent to infiltrate a peaceful community rather than protect it. And according to the official blurb that appears on almost every site hawking Smurf collectibles, she was originally a brunette with “a big nose and wild hair.” Smurfette, it turned out, at least at first, looked a lot like me. That is to say: Jewish. No wonder she spelled such trouble for the men of Smurf Village.*The “evil brunette” is a well-worn archetype, if not always articulated as such: Snow White’s Evil Queen, Maleficent, Catwoman. Even when Snow White is herself portrayed as brunette, there’s something more severe about her nemesis’s locks—hooded, widow’s peaked, framing a sharp face full of hate. And while these women are wicked and dangerous, it’s not lost on us, even at a young age, that they carry a deep sexual power: the Evil Queen seducing the Huntsman to kill for her, Catwoman afflicting her enemies with a crippling desire that fogs their mind before she destroys them.But if the evil brunette is ubiquitous in children’s stories and comic books, Smurfette, introduced in 1966 by the Belgian artist Peyo who created the Smurfs eight years earlier, seemed to piggyback not only on age-old anxieties about female sexuality, but specific stereotypes of Jewish female sexuality at a time when the world (and particularly Europe) was still reeling from a confrontation with its own dark demons of prejudice and hate against that particular community.I didn’t grow up in mid-century Europe, but I was still hyper-aware of Smurfette’s origins, perhaps because, from a very young age, I could sense that the world saw my sexuality as a dark-haired, Jewish woman in a way I couldn’t control. As early as middle school I was made aware that my wild hair, big nose and big ass were signals to men that I must be a particular kind of sexual being. While my more culturally ideal-looking peers (blonde, thin) collected the most ardent admirers, I got the lion’s share of lewd comments, the bulk of off-color jokes, a higher-than-average number of ass-grabs in the hallway. Not that any young girl is immune to inappropriate behavior from young men, but it seemed as though, by looking the way I did, I was tacitly signaling complicity in this sort of aggressive sexuality.That perception has persisted into adulthood. I’ve been called “feral” by strangers on multiple occasions, been told by more than one man that I “couldn’t control myself” sexually when I was doing nothing more than sitting next to them. One man not otherwise prone to conspiracy theories or ghost stories once told me—scout’s honor—that evil spirits were casting a spell on him, forcing him to be sexually aroused by me, while I sat fully clothed in a chair across the room. It’s enough to make a girl wonder if she doesn’t actually possess some occult power no one told her about after all.That popular description of Smurfette goes on, after mentioning her “big nose and wild hair,” to say that she “didn’t originally look like much.” It’s a strange addendum to such a specific description—implying, of course, that she wasn’t particularly attractive to men, the “much” toward which women are expected to strive. The sentence contains the entire paradox of the stereotypical-looking Jewish woman’s sexual identity: we’re told at every turn—by the media, by our peers, both men and women, by art—that our femininity is “less than” while simultaneously hearing that we are heightened sexual beings. It’s as though to keep the rest of their women pure, they must keep a subset of them dirty, a place to put their angry desire.*Our “whiteness” cannot be discounted in this calculation. Not all Jews are white, of course, but the predominant western notion of the Jew as a “white other” is the primary one underlying Smurfette’s identity (she was dark-haired, yes, but still blue, like the other Smurfs). It’s a complicated identity shared by millions of Jewish women since the Diaspora scattered us throughout Europe; we integrated into the local populations, had babies, and became “white,” but never quite. The Atlantic addressed this complicated question last November in an article teasing out the historical and cultural assumptions and challenges to Jewish whiteness. The article was met with much anxiety by people on all sides of the question, from Klansmen such as David Duke, offended that the question was even up for debate (“NO—JEWS ARE NOT WHITE!” he tweeted), to Jews and others who feared that simply asking would lead down the familiar slippery slope of dehumanization. But it would be disingenuous for a Jew not to acknowledge the tension between our undeniable white privilege at this point in history and the tenuous and provisional basis upon which this privilege has been granted. As Jewish women, our “whiteness” and “otherness” are part and parcel, conjoined sources of both titillation and trickery. Our beauty, even when palpable, is at root a deception—a spell cast by a sorcerer, a poison perfume, a hoax, a con, a lie.Schindler’s List is a difficult movie to watch at almost every turn, but as a Jewish woman who has grown up with that unnamed sensation that our bodies are a battleground for men’s darkest desires, the brutal sexual assault of Helen Hirsch in the film is both validating of something we’ve known and felt our whole lives and chilling in its stark representation of the very real danger of that hunger. The Nazi Amon Goeth in one moment expresses his desire to “reach out and touch” the object of his desire and, in the very next, denies her personhood. “Is this the face of a rat?” he asks as he tenderly pulls her hair away from that face. And then, as he is about to kiss her—to violate her, but with such tenderness—he stops. “You Jewish witch. You nearly talked me into it.” Not with her words, for she has been silent, but with her mere existence, with her seductively slight “otherness” that made him wonder, what would it be like? What dark power might I unleash in her? In myself? And then, for nearly causing him to succumb to that power, he beats her.The ironic truth of Helen Hirsch (a composite of two different maids who served in Amon Goeth’s home), of those evil queens and comic book villains, of Smurfette, is that they are all fictions created by men, either within a story itself or through its telling. They are created out of the fears and desires of men, and in their creation become a justification for imposing those fears and desires on real flesh and blood women. I’m not criticizing Spielberg for reinforcing this belief by showing it on screen—holding a mirror to this dark reality is an unavoidable part of making art about it—but it’s telling how many YouTube videos you can find of montages of Amon Goeth’s and Helen Hirsch’s scenes from the movie set lovingly to music. They all contain his abuse, yes, but they linger, too, as Goeth himself does, his hand on her breast, his mouth close to hers. As though what we are watching is a kind of unconventional romance rather than sexual violence.*As Gargamel prepares the magical potion from which he will conjure Smurfette, his incantation begins:Sugar and spice but nothing niceA dram of crocodile tearsThe tip of an adder’s tongueHalf a pack of lies (white of course)That she is made of the same primary ingredients (sugar and spice) as a “natural” woman, but is somehow devoid of the all-encompassing “niceness” that such ingredients would otherwise engender, is the cornerstone of the deep anti-Semitic allure of the Jewish woman. She looks like a woman. She feels like a woman. But her tears are fake and her words are lies (but white, of course, to mask their deception). She is no true woman, and for that she must be punished.But Gargamel overshot in his calculations for that original big nosed, wild haired Smurfette. She messed with the Smurfs’ stuff, was sexually aggressive, yelled—the Smurfs found her more annoying and repellant than alluring. This, too, is an outcome Jewish women recognize: on the other side of the coin of the overt sexualization we face is the anxiety we provoke for being too strong, too confident, too loud, too bold. Often, whether or not men will let us get away with this brashness has to do with how easily they can sexualize it, so the Nanny gets a pass while Roseanne doesn’t, despite the fact that both exhibit those stereotypically Jewish woman’s traits: the sarcastic humor, the bossiness, the obnoxious laugh. Perhaps if Gargamel had just made Smurfette a touch more zaftig, his plan would have worked.But Papa Smurf saw through Gargamel’s scheme and, with his own powerful magic, transformed Smurfette into the coy, beautiful, button-nosed blonde we all know and love today. Gargamel might have preyed directly on the Smurfs’ fears of the other, but Papa Smurf, in transforming that other into something inert, innocuous, something “same,” told them they were right to have been afraid in the first place.
Once More With Feeling

On the afterlife of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, what makes a show resonate for two decades, and why we re-watch television. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a prime-time teen soap about feelings and vampires, premiered twenty years ago this month, and we're still talking about it. We brought together a group of long-time fans to discuss why the show, despite its problems, still resonates two decades later. Haley Cullingham: Why don’t we start by sharing our favourite episode of Buffy and explaining why we love it.Morgan M Page: My favourite episode of BTVS has got to be “The Body.” I didn’t think too much of this episode, in which Buffy’s mother dies suddenly of a brain aneurysm, beyond being emotionally moved when I originally watched it, but a few years after it aired my own mother died of a brain aneurysm. Re-watching that episode over the years has been cathartic to say the least. It’s also one of the episodes in which the writers were pushing at the limits of the supernatural/action formula Buffy was built on. Joyce, Buffy’s mother, doesn’t die because of a vampire, she dies from natural causes. There’s no music. It’s tense, wrenching, and you can’t look away. For all her strength, Buffy is left powerless in the face of overwhelming loss.Josie Torres Barth: Yeah, that’s where the series really starts to get dark, when it seems like Buffy’s superhero powers aren’t really going to be able to solve every problem. I think in contrast, my favorite (sorry, I’m American) episode probably has to be the finale (“Chosen”), especially in our current political context. I re-watched it recently, and Buffy’s speech at the end, where she explains that her power is going to be split amongst all of the potential slayers of the world and asks the girls if they’re ready to be strong, had me ugly crying. All throughout the series, Buffy’s power has been a burden to her, and incredibly isolating. She’s a superhero, but she’s incredibly alone in that. So, the metaphor at the very end of the series, where every girl with the potential to become a slayer is one, is maybe the best kind of ending for a feminist superhero story.Lauren McKeon: I think that “Chosen” has to be a close second for me, for all the reasons you stated—it’s uplifting in its own way, and also in a way that most of Season 7 wasn’t. But, my ultimate favourite episode is “Once More With Feeling.” I remember not knowing what to make of the musical episode when I first saw it. This was pre-Internet days (for my house, anyway) and my best friend and I used to call each other during every commercial (like the nerds we still are). We were so confused: Like, are they really going to sing the whole episode? But, as I grew up, this was the episode I kept re-watching. I think there’s something beautiful—well, beautiful and sad—about the idea that some experiences are difficult to express. You have to feel them, sing them, dance them out.Sarah Hagi: I wish I could have a more original answer to this, but “Hush” is my favourite episode by far. I think this mostly has to do with how I watched it at a very young age when it originally aired. It was the scariest thing in the world to me for years, and it wasn’t even just the monsters, The Gentlemen, but just thinking about how awful it would be to not be able to speak like Tara in that one scene. Watching it again as an older person upon my first full viewing of Buffy, I was blown away by its ambition as an episode. I mean, the message is obviously a heavy handed one about communication, etc. but I think it’s for sure the most scary episode of television I’ve ever seen.JTB: I was really hoping someone would say “Once More With Feeling.” It’s definitely my favorite stand-alone episode.MMP: There’s so much to be said about “Once More With Feeling.” Lesbian orgasm songs! The mustard and fire hydrant micro-songs! The fact that it manages to bring in every single theme from the preceding five seasons.[[{"fid":"6699906","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"221","width":"500","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]JTB: And it turns out Giles can sing. That made me a little uncomfortable.LM: I had the most ridiculous crush on Giles after that episode. It still makes me uncomfortable, ha.MMP: Giles and Tara were the only ones who could really sing, and I guess Spike, too. But didn’t we know Giles could sing already—he’d done the whole musician backstory, coffee house singer thing before, no?JTB: Yeah, I just didn’t know I’d find it so attractive.SH: I hated “Once More With Feeling” so much. SO MUCH.MMP: Oh my God, tell me more.SH: The songs were stupid and did not age well. None of them could really sing that well… I hate musicals. It was just embarrassing.JTB: That’s what I was going to ask—if you liked musicals. They’re very much the kind of thing you’re either a fan of or not (as I think we saw with some of the people who got a lot of enjoyment out of hating on La La Land recently), but if you’re not a musical person, I don’t think it’s going to work for you!SH: I’m not a huge fan of musicals... But I know it’s so dear to everyone’s hearts so I’m not actively a hater, usually.JTB: I respect you for coming out publicly with such an unpopular opinion.MMP: Going back to Sarah’s point about “Hush,” though—that is such a stunning episode. The extremely limited dialogue was again one of those attempts by the writers to push against formula. It’s these stand-out episodes that take Buffy out of being just a teen supernatural comedy and situate it as one of the progenitors of the current “diamond age” of television.JTB: It’s interesting that silence in “Hush” seems to serve a similar purpose to singing in “Once More With Feeling”—it forces the subtext into text. These kinds of genre-bending experimentation aren’t just for their own sake, but they really develop the plot and the characters’ relationships.LM: Plus, “Hush” was one of the only episodes that genuinely terrified me when I first watched it.SH: I’ll never forget watching it for the first time with my brother and us being like, “holy shit, these things will kill us one day!” I think they were one of the best demons (they were demons right?). My second favourite scary was the one that only Willow was able to see in Season 7.[[{"fid":"6699911","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"140","width":"245","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]JTB: Ooh, that thing that peeled off people’s skin and ate it while singing a sing-song rhyme about peeling off people’s skin and eating it?SH: YES! I still think about it and my skin crawls. How it slices up Willow’s skin and eats it. So good.MMP: Everything about Season 7 is my fave. I think it’s the best season of the series, as a whole, and also some of the most thoughtful TV writing of that time period. But yeah, the skin-eating—yikes!JTB: I’ve really appreciated S7 recently. I’ve started to see the whole battle at the end of the world as a very relevant contemporary metaphor for American politics. I’ve had something of a hair-trigger cry reflex recently, but there’s another speech Buffy gives that had me sobbing at my sink washing dishes. I keep this on my computer desktop and look at it when I’m feeling especially shitty.[[{"fid":"6699901","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"844","width":"844","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]LM: I rewatched this episode recently, too. After I got back from the Women’s March on Washington. Chills. It’s also especially eff yes when you consider the context of this part of the season—Buffy is still dealing with Joyce’s death, and Spike’s attempted rape (about which I still have many feelings). It’s really where the show starts to push at what it means to be a superhero, to feel alone, to be vulnerable. And, also, strong.HC: The attempted rape from that season brings up something I wanted to ask all of you about. A few of you have mentioned elements of the show that kind of aged with you, almost—episodes you didn’t appreciate as much originally and then ended up loving. But I feel like any re-watch of an old TV show reminds you that there are some things that were handled really badly. I think Buffy was always thought of as progressive, but there are a lot of moments that today read as extremely problematic when you re-watch…JTB: It’s SUPER Orientalist. All of the mystical bad things come from “dark” foreign places, especially in the early seasons.SH: I think yes, it was so Orientalist. Another thing that bothered me was how WHITE it was. It is so, so white.MMP: Yeah, I think that’s one of the biggest critiques of the show. I mean, we had Kendra—the only major Black character in the beginning, but she was quickly killed off in order to serve the storyline of the white protagonist. And she was also written in a very “exotic” sort of way—she speaks with a Jamaican accent, but if I remember correctly they don’t specify where she’s from.SH: I don’t necessarily think they would have changed that if it had come out now. TV is still pretty white—I guess it’s just disappointing from a show that was progressive in so many ways. As a Black woman (lol, I knew I’d say this at some point) it made it almost hard to feel as empowered as I see my white friends.JTB: They got a little diversity in the final season with the potentials, because there were just so many of them, but I don’t see why Sunnydale High wouldn’t have students of color. (It’s in California!) Was this how all TV looked in the ‘90s?MMP: It’s how all TV looks today, too, though.LM: Another terrible Buffy episode: Does anybody remember when they did the Thanksgiving episode? It was even lauded at the time for dealing with Indigenous issues, but I couldn’t even make it through re-watching (all the many times I have re-watched the series). I think by “dealing” TV critics maybe meant ... extremely racist?MMP: That episode is definitely hard to watch with today’s eyes. I think the writers thought they were trying to be subversive, but that just meant cracking jokes about genocide. Uncomfortable to say the least.LM: Yes, it definitely feels like they caricaturized an entire culture.MMP: On another topic—I don’t know about all of you, but it seems impossible to avoid talking about how powerful Buffy was to watch growing up as a young queer/trans person. Do any of you have feelings about this, or just me?HC: I think Buffy must have been the first show to introduce me to the concept that sexuality could be fluid, and it was definitely the first show I saw deal with sexuality in a way that wasn’t black and white, if that makes sense. But then ... when you re-watch, there are a lot of not-great gay jokes. I don’t know.MMP: Yeah, I feel like Andrew especially was essentially a running gay joke.JTB: It’s interesting that you say “fluid” in terms of the show’s portrayal of sexuality, Haley, because the last time I watched it, one of the things that struck me was how Willow emphasized that she was “gay now” so many times, where it almost became a running gag. It almost seems to devalue her relationship with Oz, which felt pretty real to me. Combined with the show’s discomfort with the implication of Faith’s bisexuality—like it was part of what made her bad and mysterious—it’s interesting that they didn’t offer that as a possibility for Willow.HC: Morgan, can you expand a little on what about it felt powerful to you?MMP: Well, when Buffy originally aired, it coincided with my whole “coming out” / “transition” process. And then suddenly one of my favourite TV shows had a gay main character, Willow, who was not immediately killed off or written off the show. I remember when Ellen came out on her show so vividly and how it was almost immediately off the air afterwards. But here comes Buffy, where a character can come out, have a relationship, and also be a bad-ass witch and brainiac who is integral to the show. That was a game-changer in terms of TV representations of LGBT people—even if it was done somewhat clumsily with the “gay now” thing as Josie mentioned.JTB: Although that also seems like a realistic representation of teenage identity formation. She wants people to know! I loved the way that the show used discovery of her magical powers as a metaphor for discovery of her sexuality ... which is why it got kind of weird when the metaphor switched, and suddenly magic is ... an addictive drug, I guess?LM: It also felt important at the time that the show really explored how much in love Willow and Tara were, and showed (as much as they could, anyway) what that love looked like. At the time, that was so, so groundbreaking—even if it doesn’t always seem that way when we watch it many years later. It validated teenage me.JTB: I feel like I should mention at this point that I didn’t watch the show when it was first on the air. I wasn’t allowed to (religious parents), and I’m not sure that I would have ... it seemed kind of scary. But I think it wasn’t just the witches and vampires, but also the way that the metaphor allows them to show things like burgeoning queer teenage sexuality that may have scared parents like mine.MMP: It seems like a lot of people have come to Buffy after the fact, which I guess shows how enduring its metaphors are for many women and LGBT people (the primary demographics of its fandom).HC: It was really interesting, around the twenty-year anniversary on March 10, to see SO MANY people talking about it. This probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did, but growing up, my sister and I were the only people I knew who watched it. It was definitely more loved than I realized.LM: The anniversary also took me by surprise. Like, I couldn’t believe that it was already time for it to have an anniversary. I think that’s because I did watch it when it first aired, and I return to it during every crisis moment in my life. Even though it’s so tone deaf in certain episodes now, it sort of parachutes me to a safe mental space. Buffy deals with shit; I deal with shit watching her be bad-ass.[[{"fid":"6699926","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"150","width":"250","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]MMP: Maybe we could all talk a bit about Buffy’s legacy—both personally for us, and perhaps also for TV and writing as a whole?HC: I think, for me, the personal element has a lot to do with metabolizing feelings. Buffy was a show that was really good at depicting the idea that even identifying what you were feeling and expressing it could be challenging, that sometimes (like in the skin-peeling episode) you could feel like you were in a different place than the people around you, not seeing the same thing. I think that’s a big part of why I also return to it during moments of crisis. In terms of the wider legacy, even though the show’s feminism was exclusionary and limited in a lot of ways, it did have an impact in terms of feminist representation, I think. Albeit a narrow one.JTB: I think what you’re talking about is the way that the show used metaphors so brilliantly. High school feels like being at war! Sometimes when you sleep with someone, he turns into a monster! It could be ridiculous (and I guess at times it was) if it wasn’t so well handled. In terms of the show’s effect overall...I’m in TV studies, and Buffy was one of the shows that really introduced a generation of scholars to taking television seriously. (I heard New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum talk recently, and she said that Buffy got her interested in TV criticism.) And I think it’s pretty under-valued for its contribution to the development of modern TV narrative (what we in the biz call “complex TV”). Buffy was one of the first shows to really get the balance between deep mythology and small character-building storylines right. The X-Files tries this, but usually you get either a monster of the week or plot development in an episode. In Buffy, it’s all happening at the same time.SH: Yes, speaking of metaphors and Buffy. I just recently found out that "Beer Bad" (which I think we can all agree is the worst episode) was actually written to be funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy which explains a lot.[[{"fid":"6699916","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"256","width":"499","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]JTB: That’s hilarious. I’m not surprised that Joss couldn’t find it in him to produce a convincing after-school special about the dangers of drinking.MMP: Wow, I had no idea.HC: Feds to studio: you can show three more stabs and an evil department of government officials if you remind the teens that drinking could mean you die in a fire.JTB: Or else just really, really embarrass yourself with a truly terrible hour of television.LM: It was such a heavy-handed approach, too, to what the show actually did really well—and what makes me return to it again and again. Which is writing about failure, and particularly women’s failure, well. We see Buffy (and Willow, Cordelia, Anya, etc.) all make truly devastating mistakes, but the show never strayed from showing us that’s what made them (and makes us) human (even when they were actually demons!). It always feels so refreshing to me that Buffy can be strong, but also vulnerable and sometimes so, so wrong. And that the show lets us see her fail and then find her way back to herself again.JTB: That’s a great point.HC: I also think Anya is one of the most underappreciated television characters of all time.JTB: So ridiculous, and so great. Her love of capitalism is my favorite Anya detail.LM: Bunnies!JTB: She has some really perceptive thoughts about humanity, though. She’s not just comic relief, Anya really gets us.LM: She does. And it always breaks my heart a little when they show her trying to connect with the rest of the Scooby gang and they always seem to brush her off.SH: Anya was underused in a lot of ways and definitely the best addition to the show. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like her at first but I cried so hard at the end.HC: Between the left-at-the-altar storyline and her death at the end there was definitely a lot of terrible things happening to Anya that didn’t maybe feel totally necessary?JTB: I was so mad at Xander for leaving her at the altar. Getting married was his effing idea! And then thinking that they could just go back to how things were before he LEFT HER AT THE ALTAR? Grow up, Xander.MMP: In a way, though, Anya being left at the altar was the only thing that could have happened. She became a vengeance demon after being betrayed by men, spent a thousand years punishing men who betrayed women, and then when she tried to give another man a chance, of course she was betrayed. We don’t want her to be. We root for her. But in the end, this betrayal is the central point of her character. It would’ve been too easy and expected for the writers to give her a happy ending, one in which finally there is a man who treats her well—the lesson here is that women are always betrayed by patriarchy, I guess, and the only way forward is to overthrow it as Buffy does by giving the power of the slayer to all the slayerettes in the world at the end of “Chosen.” Anya has become more and more one of my favourites over the years, especially because of her deep longing to be loved and find a place in the world, and now I tear up when I watch the series finale (I mean, for a lot of reasons, but I truly bawl over Anya).[[{"fid":"6699931","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"160","width":"160","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]HC: This is going back to something we talked about at the very beginning, but I wonder if it’s true of all shows that people continue to love like this that a group of people talking about it would each have a different favourite episode? That’s interesting to me, that there’s no consensus with Buffy re: a best episode, best season, best character etc.JTB: Yeah, that is interesting, because it seems like there are similar shows (Veronica Mars, maybe) where there is One Best Season and everyone agrees what it is. I think it speaks to the way that Buffy is many things to many people.LM: Yes, I don’t think we all experience it the same way. I think it also goes back a little bit to when we watched it, and how/what we were dealing with at the time. So much of my Buffy watching experience is so connected to my teenage years, and how I was discovering and experiencing a lot of the same self-doubts and stumbling self-growth. Minus literal demons.JTB: I know that I have experienced the same season differently at different points in my life—as my obsession with S7 here would seem to indicate. I think if you’d asked me what my favorite episode was six months earlier, Haley, I probably would have picked something else. Maybe that’s what gives it such lasting appeal? It’s very much about growing into adulthood, and so each season has a different stage of that growth.LM: Totally. And, like you, I’ve come to be more and more obsessed with S7 the older I am. There are things I couldn’t connect with when it first aired—the themes of being alone and being connected that the show played with a lot—that now consume more of my thoughts about the political climate, yes, and also my personal feminism.JTB: Season 7 is about the responsibility of the individual against all the horrible forces in the world. Maybe it’s just about adulthood?SH: I would love to know if your favourite things about Buffy have changed over the years. I love knowing how the show has evolved with people.HC: One thing that’s definitely changed for me over the years is that, when I watched as a teen, I was unsurprisingly obsessed with the romantic relationships, and now it’s the non-romantic relationships on the show that I care about most: Buffy and Giles, Buffy and Dawn, Buffy and Joyce, Willow and Xander, Giles and Willow and Anya, both of which were such interesting contrasts to his relationship with Buffy. For me, the most beautiful moments of the Buffy-Joyce dynamic are when Joyce is in the hospital. I thought they did a good job of factoring Dawn in, but also really reminding us about how Joyce and Buffy were a unit of two for so long. And Joyce and Giles’s dynamic is always really great—how they kind of dance around that closeness, resent each other sometimes, have that one episode where they have sex on the hood of a car. They made it exactly as awkward and complicated as it should be, instead of being like “here we are, Team Adult unconventionally united in the raising of Troublesome Teen.” I think the fact that every dynamic on the show is given an element of complexity (I think they lost that a little in later seasons) is really great.It also always strikes me on re-watch how absolutist my teen sense of right and wrong was. Now, I like that the show has shades of grey. Except for when Dawn agrees to kick Buffy out of the house in Season 7. I think that remains a huge writing mistake that seemed to happen just so Spike and Buffy could have a platonic pull out couch sleepover? Everyone else would totally turn on her but Dawn wouldn’t.MMP: I actually think Dawn turning on Buffy made a lot of sense—Dawn is a teenager, sibling relationships are always complicated, and if Dawn hadn’t turned on her they never would’ve gotten Buffy out of the house and given her her Dark Night of the Soul.JTB: I think what has really changed for me is my own level of emotional involvement in the show! As I said before, I didn’t watch Buffy when it aired, and it took me a while even after I first saw it to really get it. I had a boyfriend in university who was a real Whedonite, and he sat me down and basically wrote a syllabus for how we were going to watch Buffy. I think I was kind of resistant to it at the time because it was both really popular but also sort of nerdy, and I wasn’t totally comfortable with that part of myself yet. (I’d just come out of being a real nerd in high school, and I was living in New York and writing a thesis on avant-garde film and trying very hard to be cool and about Serious Art.) It wasn’t until after I started to study popular culture and confront some of my own assumptions about what it meant for a show to be popular, or to have an obsessive fan base (and how those assumptions rely on gendered stereotypes) that Buffy really started to mean something to me. And now I’m writing a dissertation about horror and gender and television. So, David, if you’re out there—you were right.LM: Definitely in high school I was more invested in the romantic relationships, which don’t hold my interest as much now. (Though I definitely would love to see a modern Buffy shut down a Tinder bro.) Or at least, they’re not why I keep returning to BTVS. Now I connect more to the way the women in the show rise up from falling face first—often literally, but emotionally, personally, too—and just keep fighting. For each other. For the world. For themselves. We could use more of that now, I think. (And definitely less of Buffy’s white girl feminism—because, as we’ve discussed, the show is unforgivably white. I recently re-watched the season with Faith and Buffy and the mayor’s sidekick vampire, Mr. Trick, who’s Black, even makes a joke about it when he arrives in Sunnydale.)My feelings about Spike seeking (and getting) a soul after he tries to rape Buffy have also changed. Talk about metaphors! I like how they show Buffy working through flashbacks and being unable to truly confront what happened with Spike, whom she trusted. So true to the complex and complicated reaction of a real post-assault experience—there are so many feelings, mental and visceral, to wade through and digest. I like that the show lets us see that, and see that these flashbacks can shatter even the physically strongest of us. I like less that Spike’s redemption becomes a bigger part of the storyline in S7. And that we’re supposed to accept it’s somehow better that he only tried to rape Buffy. (And what about the creepy stuff with him and the Buffy Bot?!) It’s not that I don’t believe redemption is possible. I just don’t think it’s that easy, and that it’s dangerous to tell young women and men that it can be. Now that I’m older, and less invested in ‘shipping Buffy and Spike, I’ll always be uncomfortable with how the show not only kept him as Buffy’s love interest, but positions him as the only one who truly understands her—because he suffered and was alone in that suffering. But he also came back and forced Buffy to basically work with him, the dude who tried to rape her, every day so he could do penance and feel better about himself or whatever. Like, that wouldn’t be a distraction when you’re trying to save the world. So, y’know, why don’t we talk about that?MMP: Buffy has definitely evolved with me over time—I think in high school I was mostly, like Haley, interested in the romantic relationships, and in the supernatural elements. But as I’ve gotten older, I feel like I get a lot more from Buffy about what it means to have power and what it means to live through and overcome trauma. Buffy and the Scoobies are constantly dealing with extreme trauma, whether from supernatural things like monsters or from all-too-real issues like sexual violence. And the show let you see how painful that is, the ways it impacts your behaviour, and the long term ramifications. And then it showed how you can get through it. Like Lauren said earlier, it’s a show about women failing, but it’s also a show about women clawing their way back to life—even from the literal grave. Moving through my twenties, which were full of traumatic events, I think I revisited Buffy a lot because I needed someone to show me that there was a way through even in the most apocalyptic circumstances. Buffy saved the world a lot—but she also saved a lot of us, as individuals.[[{"fid":"6699921","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"576","width":"1024","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]