“I’m visiting neighbors today because I’d like to share the good news from the collected works of Jacques Lacan.”
“Good morning. I’m wondering if I might offer you this copy of On the Origin of Species. I’d also be delighted to discuss some passages with you. “
“I understand that you’re busy right now. Is there a time that’s better for you? May I leave you with the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation?”
“Have you given any thought to your personal relationship with The Batman?”
“Have you accepted Gerhard Richter / Elvis Costello / Gandalf as your personal savior?”
Co-authored by Wesley Umstead.
The letter I just sent to Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger
Dear House Speaker Bolger,
First, I’d like to tell you how flattered I am that the Michigan House of Representatives has taken an interest in my uterus. It’s really sweet to know that you’re dedicated to protecting my womb and its contents from, say, doctors who would try to coerce me into an abortion, because maybe that really is a thing somewhere. And I totally understand how you might like to be able to pass laws concerning my reproductive organs without actually having to hear about my reproductive organs, or Representative Lisa Brown’s reproductive organs, or any female genitalia of any kind. Let’s face it: “vagina” is a pretty gross word. I don’t like it much either, to be honest.
But here’s the thing. I’m not sure that we can really talk about women’s reproductive health without talking about women’s reproductive parts, and I’m thinking that maybe women should be able to participate in that conversation. I’d like to suggest a compromise. Instead of telling Representative Brown to sit down and shut up and let the menfolk do the talking, you offer your colleagues a choice of friendly, utterly non-threatening euphemisms for all that stuff “down there”. To facilitate this compromise, I’ve prepared this list for you:
- Honey Pot
- Vertical Smile
- Pearly Purse
- Tunnel of Love
- Lady Jane
- Gentleman’s Pleasure Garden
- Nature’s Tufted Treasure
- Fancy Bits
- Mrs. Kitty
- The Downtown Dining and Entertainment District
- Naughty Bits
- Goody Wagon
- Cream Puff
- Magic Cave
- Her Majesty
- Hot Pocket
Please accept this list as my thanks for HB 5711, HB5712, and HB5713.
Our Daughters’ Bodies, Ourselves
My daughter, who is five, knows where babies come from. She knows what menstruation is. She knows the word “vagina” and we do not use any cute euphemisms for that part of her body.
My daughter sees my naked body all the time. This is partly because she doesn’t really get—or doesn’t really care—that I might like a little privacy when I’m dressing and undressing. But one of the reasons I don’t police my own privacy too much is because I want my daughter to know what a woman’s body looks like. I want her to know that my soft, roundish, un-waxed, basically healthy forty-one-year-old body is an acceptable shape for the female form to take. I don’t make my body a mystery to my daughter, because I do not want her body to be a mystery.
My daughter loves my body. Not too long ago, it was a source of nourishment. Once upon a time, it was home. It’s still a source of comfort. My daughter has no idea that my body should be anything other than what it is.
Since the day she was born, my husband and I have shaped our talk about her body to emphasize health, strength, and agency. When she was tiny, we praised her for being so big and strong. Now that she’s big and strong, we let friends, family, and strangers coo about her gorgeous eyes and amazingly long lashes, while we marvel at the powerful legs required to pedal a Big Wheel so fast. Our daughter’s body is not something for other people to look at and admire. It is hers, to nurture and use and enjoy.
I’m thinking about all this because, like a lot of my feminist fellow travelers, I was dismayed by the recent episode of Dance Moms in which girls between the ages of eight and twelve perform a burlesque routine, and the essay from the April issue of Vogue in which a woman describes putting her seven-year-old on a diet.
I don’t watch Dance Moms, so I can’t say that the mothers on that show are living vicariously through their daughters, but I have watched enough clips to know that they have basically abdicated responsibility for their children and accepted the authority of their dance coach. Given that “reality” shows are designed to create conflict and controversy, I feel confident in suggesting that the dance coach has embraced her own monstrosity at the encouragement of the show’s producers. If there weren’t actual children being hurt by her desire to shock, she’d be a rather compelling character. But she is hurting actual children, and her apparent desire to teach these children that they are commodities is repellent—and particularly perverse, since little girls who have worked so hard to become incredible dancers should be able to take some pride in and ownership of their achievements.
The Vogue story is even more troubling to me, because I really don’t think either the author or the publication intended to be provocative. Ostensibly a mother’s own account of helping her daughter to achieve a healthy weight, it’s actually a profoundly upsetting portrait of a woman trying to pass on her own dysfunctional relationship with food and her own body. It’s made all the more harrowing by the daughter’s resistance, and the mother’s steely insistence that new-won thinness is a kind of existential rebirth:
For Bea, the achievement is bittersweet. When I ask her if she likes how she looks now, if she’s proud of what she's accomplished, she says yes... Even so, the person she used to be still weighs on her. Tears of pain fill her eyes as she reflects on her yearlong journey. “That’s still me,” she says of her former self. “I’m not a different person just because I lost sixteen pounds.” I protest that, indeed, she is different. At this moment, that fat girl is a thing of the past. A tear rolls down her beautiful cheek... “Just because it’s in the past,” she says, “doesn't mean it didn't happen.”
My point is this: If we don’t want anyone else to own our daughters’ bodies, we need to be the first ones to teach our daughters that their bodies belong to them. We can care for them. We can nurture them. We can help them learn to make good choices by presenting them with healthful options. But we can’t own them. We can’t shape them. And we sure as hell can’t live through them. And if we want our daughters to be strong and happy in their bodies, we need to show them how to do that by being strong and happy in our own bodies.
Here’s the thing about women: They are, by their very nature, loose.
While men are like tempered steel—hard, unchanging, complete, perfect—women are in a constant state of flux. They are fluid, unfinished, always becoming. They are permeable, designed to be penetrated by men and inhabited by babies. They bleed without being cut.
Women are, obviously, dangerous—to themselves, to everyone else.
Women need fathers. They need husbands. They need careful governance and physical restraint, male-defined codes of behavior and the sheltering walls of the domestic sphere.
These ideas are as old as Aristotle and as current Rush Limbaugh’s attempted slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke. Critics—myself among them—have noted that Limbaugh’s attack had nothing to do with Fluke’s actual testimony, but this excellent piece reminds me that, yes, of course it does. A woman speaking as a public citizen is, in Limbaugh’s worldview, essentially the same as a woman making herself sexually available, and a woman who assumes her own sexual agency is, by definition, undiscriminating in her pursuit of partners. She is out of control.
Consider the word “slut” itself. When it entered the English language in the fourteenth century, it meant an untidy or slovenly woman, and we can still find it used that way in Victorian literature. But the shift from that sense to current usage was a minor one given that a woman who is sloppy in her housekeeping will, of course, be sexually sloppy as well. All female sins can be reduced to same one: a refusal to allow men to define and control female sexuality.
Or maybe it’s this: a refusal to accept that a woman is defined and controlled by her sexuality. When Limbaugh cast Fluke as a whore, he was putting her back in her place—the place where he wants her to stay, the place where he has the power to tell her what she is and what she should be. Limbaugh ignored the content of what Fluke had to say because the very fact of her saying anything at all was, as Bady points out in the aforementioned essay, a threat to his privilege. It is, in fact, a threat simply because it calls attention to that privilege (and, by extension, the privilege of the Congressmen who also chose not to hear Fluke speak). When men like Limbaugh call women sluts, it’s because they’re afraid of them.
They should be.
Sealing the Deal: The wet and wild world of selkie romance novels
It began with my friend Julie. At some point in our early adolescence, she started giving me her mom’s romance novels, helpfully dog-eared at the raunchy bits. My parents were into mystery and science fiction—my copy of Judy Blume’s Forever was probably the smuttiest book our house—so Julie’s supply of mass-market romances provided me with a welcome surfeit of sexually explicit scenes and situations.
Now, decades later, I know that the books I was skimming for words like “shaft” and “thrust” were a direct result of the awesome success of Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower. First published in 1972, this novel reinvented romance fiction by making explicit what had previously been decorously implied—which is to say, penetration. While there are still readers who prefer a chaste romance, and while there are still publishers happy to cater to this audience, sales figures for The Flame and the Flower made it abundantly clear that most romance fans wanted action, and lots of it. The book was a bestseller as a hardcover original—most romances debut as paperbacks—and more than four million copies had been sold by 1978. The Flame and the Flower is still in print. It’s even available in electronic editions.
Woodiwiss’ breakthrough provided the formula for pretty much every romance I read in the ’80s. As I worked my way through Julie’s mom’s castoffs and rummaged through neighborhood bookshelves during babysitting gigs, I encountered the same scenario over and over again: Naïve young woman experiences sexual awakening when she succumbs to older, very powerful man, while older, very powerful man is domesticated—but not in any way emasculated!—by aforementioned naïve young woman. True love and lots of intercourse. This is the formula that helped romance dominate bookselling. (Romance consistently beats every other category in consumer publishing, and the genre has, in recent years, proven itself recession-proof, continuing to grow even in a shrinking economy.) This is also the formula that inspired the pejorative “bodice ripper”—a reference to both the bosom-heavy art on the cover and the many garments torn from women’s bodies within—and earned the genre the enduring scorn of literary critics and feminists.
Indeed, if you’re not a romance reader, your perception of—and disdain for, perhaps?—the genre is probably based on the typical romance of thirty years ago. To be sure, there’s plenty to hate about the form Woodiwiss pioneered. The Flame and the Flower itself makes for difficult reading—and not because it’s intellectually challenging. The characters and conflicts are thin, insipid copies of prototypes by Jane Austen and the Brontës. (I am not alone in recognizing this: Scholars of the genre have long identified these nineteenth-century authors as the progenitors of modern romance fiction.) Heather Simmons, the protagonist, is like Jane Eyre without Jane’s intelligence, passion, and self-reliance. Innocence is a vital component—perhaps the vital component—of her appeal as a heroine, but her much-discussed naiveté manifests mostly as the most exasperating kind of stupidity. This line is not the best example of the aforementioned dynamic, but it’s probably the most (unintentionally) hilarious: “Her eyes traveled downward innocently to his pants.” Brandon Birmingham (the man with the pants) is, like Rochester, a hero in the Byronic mold—Heather even compares him to Satan—but he’s only like Rochester if Rochester raped Jane while under the impression that she was a prostitute, which brings us to the most troubling feature of the subgenre Woodiwiss spawned.
For more than a decade after the publication of The Flame and the Flower, rape-as-a-plot-device was a nearly ubiquitous element of the successful romance novel. The best explanation for this phenomenon is that it was more socially acceptable—within the pre-twentieth-century settings of historical romance, but also within the modern contexts in which readers were consuming historical romance—for a man to assault a young woman than it was for that young woman to willingly have sex. In a chapter devoted to rape in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan summarize the situation thusly: “[R]ape scenes gave the heroines permission to explore their sexuality without appearing to be sluts.”
I would like to say that I stopped reading romance novels when I realized how regressive they were, and that my budding feminist sensibility was shaped by my outrage at their persistent portrayal of women as victims, but that would totally be a lie. What really happened was that I could no longer take the tendency of romance authors to build a plot out of a stupid, easily avoidable misunderstanding that metastasizes. Also, I discovered Showtime After Hours Presentations, the nation’s premier source of softcore porn during my most hormone-addled years. My surreptitious reading was replaced by late-night cable viewing—with the sound turned way down to avoid waking my parents—and that was it for me and romance novels.
Until, one fateful day in 2008, when I got a call from my friend, Sarah. She was standing in line at a drugstore, and she had, on impulse, plucked a novel from the rack. “You have got to get this book,” she told me. The novel Sarah recommended was Sea Witch by Virginia Kantra, and, just looking at the cover, I knew that this was not the romance novel as I remembered it. There’s no passionate clinch, no heaving bosoms—no bosoms of any kind, actually—simply a lone woman, naked and viewed from behind, rising from the ocean beneath a full moon. The novel’s opening line is just as arresting: “If she didn’t have sex with something soon, she would burst out of her skin.” Clearly, this was a heroine who did not need a man to force her into sex. She just needed a man—as soon as possible.
The Comedy Stylings of Julie Kristeva: The Semiotic and the Symbolic
Setup: In this symbiosis with the supposedly phallic mother, what can the subject do but occupy her place, thus navigating the path from fetishism to autoeroticism?
Punchline: That indeed is the question.
Setup: The precondition for such a heterogeneity that alone posits and removes historical meaning is the thetic phase.
Punchline: We cannot emphasize this enough.
Setup: Although originally a precondition of the symbolic, the semiotic functions within signifying practices as the result of a transgression of the symbolic.
Punchline: Therefore the semiotic that “precedes” symbolization is only a theoretical supposition justified by the need for description
In Honor of National Poetry Month
8 Reasons Why I Hate Poetry
- It’s too short.
- Or it’s too long.
- It’s too fancy.
- Or it’s just words broken up into weird lines for no good reason.
- No dialogue.
- No narrative.
- No wizards, no space ships, no mystery-solving medieval monks.
- Performance poets. All of them.
I am not, nor have I ever been, wild about Disney. As a young animation fan, I much preferred the wiseass Brechtian theater of Looney Tunes to the prissy sentimentality of Disney movies and shorts. As an adult, I get very cranky about what Disney does to folklore (ask me about it some time!), and I find the princessification of girlhood to be profoundly upsetting.
So, when I decided to take my daughter to Disney World—pardon me, the Magic Kingdom® Theme Park—it was with some ambivalence. I was sure she’d have a good time, but I was reluctant to reinforce the idea that childhood fun should be licensed. Ultimately, I determined that one day of Disney was not going to irreparably damage my child.
Frances was about as excited as I thought she would be—which is to say, very. I was more appalled than I thought I’d be—which is to say, very very. I did not care for the “cast members’” habit of referring to every female as “princess”, and the little girls emerging from the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique all looked a little too JonBenét Ramsey for my comfort.
Frances, of course, wanted to dress up. I explained that the full princess regalia was too expensive for us, but that I would buy her one dress-up item, my treat. Frances tried on a lot of glittery shoes and a number of sparkly crowns before she decided on a pair of white gloves and a Tinker Bell purse.
As soon as we left the store, Frances asked if I would take the tags off her gloves and purse. I obliged, and she pulled on the gloves. Then she asked for the Tinker Bell mouse ears she had purchased earlier. She put the hat back on and arranged her hair.
Then Frances commenced to promenade down Main Street, waving. She had transformed herself into a costumed character. Frances made a special point of waving to all the small children, leaning down and smiling into strollers. Parents were delighted. Children were mystified. I was totally glad I took Frances to Disney World.
This might be my favorite photo from the trip. The mom is encouraging her kid to wave back at Frances. The kid herself is clearly thinking, “Why the hell should I?”, while Frances, true to her nature, remains entirely unperturbed.
A Letter to the Editor of GOOP
Many of the absolute best beauty products I’ve found come from regular French pharmacies. I always stock up on these items when I’m in France or ask friends to bring some back when they’re passing through. Below is a list of all of my favorites.
Dear Gwyneth Paltrow,
I’m always excited to see a new issue of GOOP in my in-box, and this week’s missive was exactly what I have grown to expect from you. Because you have given me so many awesome tips, I wanted to tell you about something you might now know about.
We have this thing now called “The Internet”(I’m kind of surprised that you don’t know about it, since you have a website and an e-mail newsletter and such, but maybe your assistants haven’t explained how all that stuff works?) One of the reasons why The Internet is great is because you can use it to buy things, such as 6 of the 9 items that you seem to think are only available in France. Instead of asking your friends to find room in their luggage for things like Avène Eau Thermale Water Spray and Klorane Gentle Dry Shampoo with Oat Milk, you could just order them from Amazon.com, Drugstore.com, SkinStore.com… Well, a lot of places, actually.
P.S. It’s true that Avibon is not distributed outside of France, but we have something here in the United States that seems to be virtually identical. It’s Retin-A. Maybe Dr. Fredric Brandt, or Dr. Jessica Wu, or some other celebrity dermatologist could write you a prescription.
An Open Letter to Anyone with a Time Machine, or Some Other Means of Traveling Through Time
Dear Time Traveler,
Recently, I found it necessary to remove both Pee-Wee Herman and Duran Duran from my Facebook news feed. Both posted just way too much, and nothing they had to say was ever interesting. It has occurred to me, though, that my 14-year-old self would be horrified to learn that her 40-year-old self would show such callous disloyalty to Pee-Wee Herman, much less Duran Duran.
So, should you find yourself in northeastern Ohio in 1984, and should you find a teen girl who looks pretty much like me but with asymmetrical hair and a bigger shirt, please do not tell her that I have removed Pee-Wee Herman and Duran Duran from my Facebook feed. I don’t expect that this will be a problem—I mean, it’s not like you want to waste all your in-the-past time trying to explain Facebook in the first place, right?