Songs for the Struggling Artist


The Death of Gatsby and the Scene

Around about the time I was coming of age, my hometown was becoming a scene. Our hometown band was about to hit the mainstream and art was seeping out of every corner of the place. There were plays in bars, on the street, in art galleries. There was an artist who sold his paintings for $3 and also painted the walls and restrooms of restaurants all over town. His work was everywhere. It was a heady moment.

Into that heady moment, stepped a man who my friends and I called Gatsby, because he was always dressed up like a 1920s gentleman. He had an air about him – a man out of time. I live in New York City now, and here you’d never notice this guy. He’d slip into some faux speakeasy and you’d just think – oh sure, one of those – but then, there, in my hometown, this guy was highly visible. It was a scene then and Gatsby quickly took his place at the center of it.

I was part of the scene, too. I was in a play at the art gallery with the man who a couple years later became a rock star. I was in the play in the writer’s apartment. I was in the legendary production of Hair that happened in the ROTC building. I hung out at the restaurants where the cool hung out and I was in the Three Penny Opera featuring the hip alt bluegrass band as the orchestra. I played the old mother, at age 19 – but still. I was in it. I was there. But somehow I wasn’t really included most of the time. And it wasn’t just that I was young. Many girls much younger than me were seen on the arms of the cool guys, at the cool parties, on cool guys’ retro motorcycles. They were cool chicks.

Then, I didn’t understand why I wasn’t more IN the scene. I mean. I wrote poems, too, just like all the fellas. I played guitar. I was ALSO obsessed with the Beat poets. I also wore vintage clothes. (Hats especially! I was the one in cloches and such. I had a hot pink feathered one for special occasions.) I was doing so many of the things the cool guys were doing – not because I was trying to be cool but because that’s just where I was at. And yet…Gatsby never spoke to me. He probably didn’t know my name.

Decades later, in this era, I heard that Gatsby has been shot and killed by his girlfriend. The community heaved in grief. Many people I care about were devastated. There was a great mourning for the man and also the scene of which he once was a big part. It is beautiful and awful and nostalgic and odd and endlessly captivating.

I want to be clear that the facts of this case are more or less in and they are tragic and sad but I’m not here to talk about the facts of this case. What I feel the need to unpack is my own journey with both the news and the history of the scene and how they intersect.

My first response to this dramatic circumstance was to mourn with those who were close to him, to mourn the symbol and the past he took with him. I immediately assumed that the dominant perception that his girlfriend was crazy was correct and that that was the whole story, because that’s what those closest to him thought.

But then the podcast I’d just finished listening to (Believe Her) came to mind, in which a young woman had shot her abuser, an outwardly gentle man who none of his friends could imagine hurting a fly but who routinely assaulted his girlfriend and posted his assaults to Porn Hub. I didn’t want to assume Gatsby was somehow involved in his own murder but I also could easily imagine how he could be. I didn’t really know him after all.

And once I’d thought it, I couldn’t help searching for evidence in one direction or another. I looked first at my own experience with him – one wherein I was invisible, one where he spoke to my friends who looked like models but not to me and I recognized a pattern of behavior I have seen over the years in other people. Those who don’t see women as people are historically the most dangerous. I just read this article about the court case around the Shitty Media Men list and writer Claire Vaye Watkins says, “I am saying a sexist negation, a refusal to acknowledge a female writer as a writer, as a peer, as a person, is of a piece with sexual entitlement.” This is what raised my antennae.

Gatsby had a reputation for dating a lot of young waitresses. In a small city, dating young waitresses is like dating models in a big one. It reflects an interest in aesthetics beyond other characteristics. And again, I want to be clear. I did not know this man but it was easy to extrapolate, to guess, to wonder.

Approximately 30% of the women in prison for murder are criminalized survivors – that is they defended themselves and the state locked them up. Not a lot of women kill for no reason. The latest news suggest that this woman did. But I couldn’t help noting other factors that made me nervous about just assuming things were as they seemed. Gatsby’s girlfriend was a 38 year old circus performer. He was a 53 year old finance professional. There was a disparity of age, finances and experience that suggested a power differential. Gatsby had a gun collection – one of the guns was the murder weapon. So, I guess he had a loaded gun collection? Or at least a bullet collection alongside the gun collection? Maybe lots of kind gentle men you know own a lot of guns – but in my experience, a man with a lot of guns is a man to be wary of. So – Gatsby’s crazy girlfriend murdered him with one of his many guns.

And it is awful. It is. But it was wild to watch a community of people – many of whom I used to know – unravel around the situation.

Apparently other women had noticed that it was mostly men who were openly grieving his loss. Other women wondered, aloud – un-like me, if there could be more to this story than “crazy girlfriend kills partner.” One woman leapt to the defense of the grieving men saying they were probably more feminist than a lot of women she knew. And probably that is true for her and I’m sorry she knows so few feminists but sorry, no, this would not be true for me. A lot of these dudes, though I have a lot of affection for them, aren’t demonstrably feminist. They’re maybe not actively sexist but I’ve not seen much feminism from them.  Granted, I hang out with mostly feminists these days so my bar is high. Just being a mostly nice guy doesn’t qualify you in my book. These guys were the scene back then and despite being a lifelong and active feminist, I would never have made the mistake of mentioning it to this crew at that time. Maybe things are different now. I hope so.

The community – the one from the past and the one of the moment – were sort of running into each other and from my distant post in NYC, far away from this, from my hometown, from my own nostalgia for that bygone Gatsby era, I felt as though I were watching a community car wreck in slow motion. There were a lot of heartbroken Gen X and Gen Jones men in incredible wrenching mourning for their friend and a lot of Millennial women trying to sort through the mess – some loudly making assumptions, some defending, some grieving, too.

Was Gatsby a gentle man or a closet abuser?

The man was cool and very visible. So a lot of people had opinions. In the True Crime podcast version of this story, we’d hear from all of them and decide for ourselves what we think. Having not had any contact with this guy in decades, I have no idea. He was an icon in a small community. That comes with some baggage, I imagine.

This is the thing, though, that I keep returning to. I hung out with some of these guys in the apex of this heady movement in the 90s. Some of them saw me and some saw past me. They didn’t think I was cool but women weren’t really at the forefront of this scene. They were barely in it at all.

There were some cool chicks around though. The cool chicks then were a different sort of girl. A lot of them were very vulnerable in some way. I went to the house of one of these guys one time and when we got there, there was a girl in his bed. He told me she’d just run away from home and had nowhere to go. She was in high school. He was in his 20s. There was a lot of this sort of thing in those days. The cool chicks drank a lot and smoked like chimneys and now I realize that they were likely also processing an abundance of previous trauma. A girl like that might finally go “crazy” in her 30s. A lot of these guys wanted to “help” these girls. But they also wanted to have sex with them and I’m going to guess that sometimes these things did not sensibly go together.

Where do I fit these memories in the True Crime podcast version of this story?

What I keep returning to was how uncool I felt myself to be among a lot of fellas who were into a lot of the stuff I was into. As a young woman, I was not IN the scene. But now I know what it feels like to be seen as an equal, to be genuinely cool to my fellow artists – to have a mutual artistic experience. The scene was a boy’s club. In those days only cool chicks were allowed. I literally cannot recall a single identifiable woman from this scene. This is not to say that they weren’t there. I don’t remember everything. I didn’t know everyone. But I was on the look out. If there’d been a woman to look to in this movement, I’d have locked on like a lobster.  My sense is that women just weren’t really included as visibly as the men. If you were a woman in this scene then, I’m sorry I didn’t see you either.

This has happened throughout history in arts scenes. Remedios Varo was a surrealist. She was at the salons. You can see her included in Exquisite Corpses. You can see her work on their themes. She was in it. But read a book on Surrealism and she might only get a passing mention as Benjamin Péret’s lover. She was IN that scene but never seen as an equal part of it.

She and Leonora Carrington made their own scene in Mexico City, I think. They may not get a chapter in the Art History textbooks like the male Surrealists do – but they built their own world, where they weren’t the girlfriends of the cool guys – but the center of a magical realist world.

It feels like, scenes are for men and the cool chicks who hung around them. Being part of a scene that was once a genuine SCENE was exciting. I do have tremendous nostalgia for that moment in time but it is accompanied by a strange lacuna. On reading the newspaper article about Gatsby and the scene, I had the strange sensation of having been there but always just out of frame. The play in the writer’s apartment that Gatsby sent a typewritten note about? I was in that play. I was kind of the center of it. The band that Gatsby promoted? I was in those audiences a lot and I was in that musical where they were the orchestra. I’m there but not there. That’s what it was like to be in the scene then. I could stand, center stage, sing my heart out and still be entirely invisible.

It turns out that the crazy girlfriend shot Gatsby in his sleep. She shot him with his gun, called the police and began livestreaming. It’s an awful situation. The end of the True Crime podcast is just sad. It’s just really sad. All it is is sad. But ultimately this is not about Gatsby. Just like The Great Gatsby is not really about Gatsby, is it? It’s the world around him. It’s the scene.

And you know something? F Scott Fitzgerald was in a scene. Maybe he WAS the scene. But my favorite writer of the period, Dawn Powell, was born the exact same year and wrote truly remarkable novels and plays that were well received at the time and never felt herself part of the scene. Not Fitzgerald’s scene and not the theatre scene, which Powell longed to be a part of, as well. (Read her diaries for lots of these sorts of moments.) She was so much not a part of scenes that her work went out of print for a very long time. Meanwhile, no one gave a damn about The Great Gatsby when it first came out but the scene grew in retrospect and now few American students can escape reading it.

Of course, I long to be a part of a scene again but I want it to be one where women are full artistic participants and not just the cool chicks at home in an artist’s bed. Thinking about Gatsby sent me down a lot of paths I haven’t visited in a while and I see them a lot differently than I did decades ago. A scene shifts in the rearview mirror – it gets both a glow and a sharper focus.

I learned about Gatsby’s death a few hours after I wrote about meeting Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I’d been thinking about one of the most famous art scenes in American history and about what it was like to be a woman trying to just be seen by someone from it for a moment. I was patronized by a man who hung out with the Beats but was so confident in his position in a scene that he preferred not to be called a Beat poet. There was a chiming quality of these two things for me. These were highly visible men in artistically exciting times and just out of the frame, just a little blurry and off to the side, I’m sure there were many women who longed to be seen, to be heard, to be in the scene for real and not just there and out of focus.

Good night Gatsby. Good night Ferlinghetti. Rest well gentlemen. I’m so sorry for the loss of your loved ones. You made an enormous impact on a lot of people.

Now –

Ladies? Y’all want to start a scene with me?

What was it like to read The Great Gatsby in Italy in 1936? What was THAT scene like?

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotifymy websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Gluttons for Our Doom
August 20, 2022, 11:38 pm
Filed under: Gen X, music | Tags: , , ,

You will likely not be surprised to learn I was crazy for the Indigo Girls in my youth. When I learned to play guitar, it was Indigo Girls’ songs that I particularly focused on. I didn’t learn the entire Nomads, Indians and Saints songbook but I got pretty close. In those days, we bought songbooks. There were no chords on the internet since there wasn’t much internet.

Somehow in the last couple of decades, I’d lost track of what the Indigo Girls were making (along with almost every other band I used to be into – I don’t know what happened. I blame digital music and aging, I guess.) so I thought I should catch up. I added all of their albums from the last era to my “New Moment” playlist on Spotify, which is where I put all the music I want to make sure I listen to. Since there’s a live album in that mix, I’ve been hearing some old favorites in addition to new songs. Some of them I’m hearing differently now. “Prince of Darkness” popped up and I thought, “Damn if this song doesn’t sum up the Gen X experience!”

The Indigo Girls themselves are not (technically) Gen X. They’re both Gen Jones, the OG X-ers by a couple of years, but this all makes sense somehow. They’re who we looked up to growing up. The Indigo Girls first major label album came out when I was in high school and “Prince of Darkness” wasn’t on the radio but it was a favorite for me and many of my friends.

My place is of the sun and

This place is of the dark

And I do not feel the romance

I do not catch the spark.

And the real Gen X kicker:

Someone’s got his finger on the button in some room

No one can convince me

We aren’t gluttons for our doom.

This line was always meaningful to me. It was always THAT moment in the song – the one you’d wait for.

But it strikes me now that while this concern was meaningful to my peers, this idea was not ever present in EVERYONE’s youth. There was a lot of doom talk in those days. Movies, TV shows, TV movies. There was a very popular poster of the mushroom cloud over Japan that folks hung up everywhere. As a kind of memento mori, I guess?

War Games is a fun movie about possible nuclear annihilation and we were so convinced the Russians were going to come for us that Sting had to write a song about the Russians loving their children, too. The world seemed full of people who were greedy for doom. That’s how it felt in the late 80s – and damned if it hasn’t come back around. The nihilistic Supreme Court has rolled back Roe v Wade and gun restrictions and many other things that helped keep doom at bay – but here it comes.

For the first time, the generations behind us are worried about nuclear annihilation and Russia is a serious threat again.

Are we gluttons for our doom?

The thing of it is – and I think this is the thing other generations don’t understand about Gen X – that song is actually about finding ways to live in a dark world. We may be gluttons for our doom but we “try to make this place (our) place” and our “place is of the sun and this place is of the dark.”

But our place is still of the sun. I think that’s what people miss about us as a generation. We seem cynical and nihilistic but we’re actually weirdly hopeful. We know our place is of the sun, even as no one can convince us we aren’t gluttons for our doom. We will not be a pawn for the Prince of Darkness. We try real hard not to be a pawn for anyone, when it comes down to it.

I think most Gen X-ers can handle the contradiction of living in a world hungry for its doom and still seek grace and light wherever we can find it. We’re practiced at that double vision. Over on the Gen X subreddit a few months ago, a younger person asked us how we dealt with the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation in our youth. They were starting to panic about what Putin might do as the war in Ukraine heated up so they asked us, the generation who has some practice at threats like this, what we did to not go off the deep end. It was a weirdly hopeful thread. There was some snark, of course. But also lots of earnest words of advice for someone stuck in an anxiety that was new to them and old for us. We may be gluttons for our doom but we’ll help someone out of the darkness if we can.

It occurs to me that younger generations might not be able to identify a mushroom cloud. This one is from a test at Bikini Atoll in 1946. Apologies for triggering everyone else with this tool of terror.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotifymy websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Is This a Dragon Zeitgeist?
July 5, 2022, 10:49 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, feminism, Gen X, Imagination, podcasting, writing | Tags:

As many of my readers will be aware, back in 2018, provoked by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, I wrote a piece called “I Am a Dragon Now. The Fear of Men Is My Food.” A few months after that piece went around, elements of it poured themselves into a piece that became The Dragoning, an audio drama podcast. The podcast came out in the spring of 2020 and Season Two just launched.

I’m taking you through this timeline because here, in 2022, an award winning author has published a novel called When Women Were Dragons, in which there is an event known as The Dragoning. A friend sent me a review of this novel because it sounds an awful lot like my piece. Not identical, of course, but close enough to be uncomfortable.

Has, bestselling author, Kelly Barnhill STOLEN my idea? I doubt it. I suspect dragons were in the air and we both reached for them. I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea about ideas. She unpacks this notion in Big Magic. This is her theory that ideas just sort of float through the air and they visit whomever they think will realize them. The ideas visit lots of artists at once, just to be sure they are born. My guess is that The Dragoning was in the air and it chose both me and Kelly Barnhill. I got the idea out faster but Barnhill will spread it wider.

It is slightly uncomfortable, of course, to find that something that came from my brain also appeared in another person’s brain – and a woman who is exactly my age, no less. It’s like the idea was flying around in 2018 and was like – “I need a 44 year old woman to take this and run with it” and maybe it wasn’t even just me and Kelly Barnhill. Maybe there are a dozen more 48 year old women who were visited by the dragoning fairy four years ago.

Is it possible that Barnhill consciously or unconsciously lifted this idea from me? Like maybe she read the blog, which did go pretty viral, especially among Gen X women and thought, “I can imagine a world based on this!” And off she went. It is possible. Same thing happened to me! But, do I think she STOLE this idea from me as every novice writer is always convinced will happen to them? I do not. I’ve read Barnhill’s work. She has no shortage of imagination. She’s not out here trying to steal anything. She doesn’t need to. Her brain makes up lots of neat stuff on its own. She does not need to steal. I’m incredibly confident in her ability to make up her own magic.

But I do find myself in this incredibly awkward position of finding my own work slightly less google-able because someone else, with a much larger platform than me, has written a work with my title in it. They got Naomi Alderman, who wrote one of the most exciting books of the last few years – The Power, to write a review of it in the New York Times. Naomi Alderman is ALSO 48 years old. It feels like all the girls in my class are writing magical feminist speculative fiction and they all joined a club so they’re getting together and hanging out and I’m all by myself over here, quietly declaring I was here with this first.

The other thing that sucks about this is that the only way to find out if Barnhill’s work is somehow derivative of mine is to read it and I don’t feel I should, even though I know I’d enjoy her writing. I loved her novels for young people but I don’t want to mix up the waters. I don’t have any plans to write a third season of The Dragoning but I’d like to have the option and I don’t want to unconsciously take on a different writer’s dragons. So I guess I just have to wonder about it – or wait for my friends to read Barnhill’s book.

I feel like I want Barnhill’s book to be a success because maybe a rising dragon tide could lift all dragon boats. But I’m also not looking forward to being overshadowed by an established writer, who has an agent and an editor and all the trappings that come along with success. I’m proud of my work and it would be very painful if the spotlight shining on that award winning author just cast me further into the shadows. That’s why this is complicated. I am reasonably sure we’re all just part of a zeitgeist in a world where women long for the power of dragonhood, while we watch our rights and hope disappear. But the zeitgeist doesn’t feel great. Maybe just because I’m not in the club.

I’m obsessed with this Paolo Uccello painting from 1470. I love that this woman has the dragon on a leash, like she’s walking it and the knight looks like he’s giving the dragon a COVID test.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotifymy websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Want to help me be part of a club?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

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Context Is Everything: A Gen X Look at The Lost Daughter

There’s a little bit of a conversation happening in feminist circles around the movie The Lost Daughter, written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I felt it was my duty, as a feminist on the internet, to watch it. I didn’t really think I’d have anything to SAY about it necessarily but I like to be informed and it turns out I do have something to say. Funnily enough my thoughts are probably more Gen X related than feminist related, though. I suppose at its heart it’s Gen X feminism that’s gotten under my skin.

The movie takes place in the more or less contemporary moment (though not precisely, as it is a covid-less world) and Olivia Coleman plays a 48 year old woman. When the movie flashes back to her twenty something self, it is to about twenty years ago, though it has a vague sense of being in the 90s. The character wears foam earphones, like back in the day. The song she tells us she loves is the Gen X anthem of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” The context of the film says, “This is a Gen X woman.” But very little of this makes sense. Like, I guess a Gen X English woman could go crazy for “Livin’ on a Prayer” but it’s odd. It would mean something in real life. I don’t know what it would mean exactly but whatever it means doesn’t add up to the person in the movie.

Look, I, like the character, am also 48 so I may be overly tuned in to the specifics of this woman who is meant to be my age – but I would be awfully surprised to meet a woman my age who grew up in Leeds, became a passionate and respected academic translator of English poetry into Italian AND her favorite song was “Livin’ on a Prayer.” I’d need a whole movie to explain how that could be. Honestly.

Also – one of the central events of the movie  is just so weird and out of generational character that it would need another movie’s worth of explanation to make it make sense. In the movie we learn that Coleman’s character has two daughters in their mid to late 20s – which means she had them in her early 20s. This would be extremely unusual for a highly educated ambitious Gen X woman. Certainly there are Gen X women who had their kids young, no doubt. But it is incredibly rare in a character like this one. Most Gen X academic nerds would wait years to have their kids. And to have TWO kids so young? Again, as an ambitious academic? One, I can buy. That’s a mistake, probably. Two, seems crazy. Like, I need an explanation for it, or I’m going to spend the whole movie confused. Which I did.

Anyway – (and this is a spoiler so skip ahead to the * towards the end if you want to be surprised)

SPOILER FOLLOWS:

 

– when her kids are five and seven she leaves them, whole cloth, never to be seen again until three years later. The movie tries to make this understandable but it’s just – weird.

As my Gen X friend, with whom I discussed this, said, “There WAS child care in the 90s.”

Like – leaving their kids is just not something I’ve ever heard of anyone doing.  Tempted? Sure. Kids’ll make you crazy, I’m given to understand – But to just leave? When divorce, joint custody, childcare and blended families are all options that are on the table? She leaves her family for a rewarding sexy professional life. Seems like a nice life she’s leaving them for but the choice is super weird. Gen X moms know how to work it out. We grew up with working moms. The work/life question really isn’t this giant a conflict for Gen X moms. It still sucks. Don’t get me wrong. But it’s not so extreme that leaving for years at a time makes any sense. Our conflicts in this arena are much more subtle, more nuanced. We didn’t have to flee the people we love to have a life of the mind.

The thing that seems important to recognize is that this film is based on a book by Elena Ferrante – who writes about the specifics of Neapolitan women in earlier eras with razor sharp analysis. I haven’t read The Lost Daughter – but I’ve read her Neapolitan quadrilogy, with which it would seem to have a lot in common. I’d imagine they are set in similar time periods. I assume, from the structure of this film, that the book takes places decades ago. I know from the articles about it that it is concerned with both the mom character’s Neapolitan background and the bits of that she shares with her fellow tourists in the group. I assume that the main character, Leda, is of an entirely different generation. I can probably even guess which one. Based on the choices she makes and the desperation she feels and how limited her scope is – I’d say she’s a contemporary of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. These are women so backed into corners they feel they have no other choice but to stick their heads in the oven or permanently walk out the door.

These choices are perfectly readable in a time of extreme oppression. And I’m delighted to realize that the 90s were not a time of extreme oppression. Gen X women did actually have choices in the 90s. If we wanted to study Italian poetry, we did it. It’s not that extreme, actually. So this character just seems like she has a need for some medication and a good therapist, at the very least. This story, as told in the film, makes no sense. But – if I just sort of overlay the events on to say, the 1950s or early 1960s– with a bunch of Neapolitan roughs – it all falls into place. Context is everything.

Let’s do some math. Let’s assume this film is set in this current moment. So – this character is my age, right? Which means she probably graduated from college in 1995. Her eldest child is 25 – so she had her two years after she finished undergrad so that’s 1997. The character is a serious academic so she must have gone on to get a masters, probably a PhD. Did she get pregnant while she was in grad school? Probably. Unless she’s supposed to be in grad school at the point when we first meet her? And that old guy is her advisor? I don’t think so – because a well regarded scholar wouldn’t be citing the work of a grad student. She’s published somewhere. She had her two kids somewhere in the middle of getting a PhD and getting published. I’m not saying that’s not possible – but it is pretty unlikely in the late 90s. At the point when we meet this character, her kids are 5 and 7 which means it’s around 2002.

This Gen X mom abandoned her kids in 2002. It’s not 1957. It’s 2002. There WAS childcare in 2002. Again, not great childcare- but childcare. Also, there were cell phones. I got one in 2002 and I was very late to the party. AND – as my friend pointed out there was feminism. There was serious feminism. I’m sorry but you couldn’t be a serious scholar in this era without some encounter with feminism. It’s a whole field of scholarship and no Comparative Literature scholar could get through academia without a serious grounding in it. I’m not saying every academic in this era was a feminist but to not have any relationship to those issues at all in this era? Sorry. No way. You’re either in the game or you’re Camille Paglia and no one’s going around just translating a bunch of male poets in 2002 with no awareness of what feminist scholarship would have to say about it.

But set in the right context – in, say, an era that had problems “that had no name,” like what Betty Friedan was talking about, and when second wave feminism was really just strapping on its boots, sure – it all would make total sense. We would, in fact, root for a character to get out in that context. This character would be a singular person up against the tide of her culture and her time and we would have her back.

I mean – the thing is, both feminism and childcare had been around for decades by the time this character leaves her kids. A lot of Gen X kids were raised on both of those things. Many of our mothers were feminists. Many of them were working mothers who sent us to daycare. Our parents got divorces when things didn’t work out. And it was fine. Not a big deal. But this film somehow lives in a world where there are neither Gen X feminists nor Baby Boomer feminists or Millennial or Zoomer feminists for that matter. This is probably because it’s based on a book that takes place so long before.

Do Gen X moms fantasize about leaving their families and disappearing for awhile? I’m sure they do but fantasizing is very different than doing – and the choice to chuck it all, just generationally, doesn’t make sense. I feel like a lot of Gen X moms waited to have kids so we wouldn’t feel the need to abandon them.

 

*SPOILERS COMPLETE

Is the film well done? It is actually. The performances are excellent; Coleman is always amazing and Gyllenhaal has done extraordinary work. I loved how the eroticism of the character’s work was palpable and exciting. There’s an artful quality to it all – but it’s just weird. And not in a good way.

As Nylah Burton said, in Bitch Magazine,

“We need more messy female characters, but “messy female character” does not have to mean illegible female characters. Sometimes the two are mixed up. Confusing the audience about who a character is at their core doesn’t endear us to them or make them feminist heroes;”

Making Coleman’s character specifically Gen X makes things that would have been legible, absolutely opaque. The good news is that this movie makes me see some incredible progress that has been made over the years – that Gen X women are actually more together than I’d have thought.  

I feel like you could MAKE it make sense – with another few hours of story and context and explanation. Just the way I’d need another movie to figure out how a working class Gen X academic woman from Leeds ended up a big fan of Bon Jovi, I need another movie to make this movie make sense. It might be an interesting story but it would take a long time to explain.

I mean, this is a pretty Gen X look. I can’t argue on that point.

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Circles of Gen X Friends

Someone in the Gen X subreddit proposed a “dating” app for making Gen X friends. I expressed my enthusiasm for it, saying it appealed to me because most of my Gen X friends have moved out of NYC. Someone replied that they still had a lot of Gen X friends in NYC and I did not respond to that person with a hearty sarcastic, “Well good for you! Aren’t you a lucky one?” Though I wanted to.

I did not say, “I guess most of your friends didn’t move to NYC to chase their theatre dreams or their art dreams or their music dreams or their poetry dreams or their film dreams or their dance dreams and I guess everything worked out for your people, huh?”

Now I don’t mean to imply that stuff didn’t work out for my friends. They moved here to follow their dreams and then they followed them to other places. They run theatres in their hometowns or their adopted cities. They have poetry programs and dance companies around the world. They make movies in their native mountains. They make paintings and sculptures of their new neighborhoods. They bring their big city dream-following perspective to young people in far flung spots. It’s working out for them.

But the fact of those folks leaving does mean that any community that formed when we all moved here has been scattered and lost. I imagine that this happens to every generation at some point. Everyone moves to NYC like they’re going to be here forever and then they leave after a handful of years. I guess that’s the norm. Contrarian that I am, I moved here like I was only going to stay a year and here I still am, over two decades later. I miss the leavers and need to find (or reconnect to) more stayers.

That’s why a Gen X “dating” app for friends sounded really good to me. That’s why (prior to the pandemic) I wanted to be invited to your party. That’s why I joined multiple book clubs. That’s why I joined a knitting/crochet group, even though I am VERY BAD at crochet. I will tell you – in every single instance of attempting to make friends in this city – I was always the lone Gen X-er. Every single time. So, sure, this random person on Reddit may still know a lot of Gen X-ers who live here but they probably travel in much different circles than I do. Maybe they’re high-powered lawyers or over-committed doctors. Maybe they belong to the Yale Club or Soho House and hang out drinking martinis with fancy people. That’s nice. Sounds like fun. I used to hang out at Dojo where you could get a whole carrot-ginger dressing-covered dinner for less than $5.  It’s harder to find Gen X-ers here, in general, and even more challenging to find some who would have felt at home on the St. Mark’s Place of yore.

It’s not like I don’t have any Gen X friends here. I still have quite a few. It’s just that I used to have a community of Gen X friends, or rather, communities. Two decades ago, I had circles of friends. I had theatre friends, music friends, circus friends, education friends, college friends, Shakespeare friends, random friends, friends from my home state. There were circles that intersected and some that never would. I have lone friends now. The communities have gone off to more hospitable climates but one lone friend usually remains. Often, I am that lone friend.

Also, the friends I still have here are New Yorkers and therefore usually impossibly busy. Most of them are also parents so they don’t have acres of time for galavanting around NYC with the childfree likes of me. It’s not that no Gen X-ers are here. It’s just that they are busy and the social nets of our communities have vanished and so we stand a vanishing chance of just happening to be in the same places together at the same time.

So maybe I don’t need a Gen X friend app. I need a Gen X circle creating app. It’s not that all the dream followers have followed their dreams elsewhere – some of us are still here – it’s that the communities that formed around those dreams have dissipated and there’s no good way for those of us whose circles have vanished to build new circles.

Frankly, I think it’s a problem that this city spits out as many artists and dream chasers as it does. It may be good for the places it spits people back into, but it is terrible for the artistic life of this city.

We lost artists from multiple generations this last year and a half. The city failed to support most of them in their darkest hours and now we’ve lost them, probably forever.

Most Gen X artists already left when they were in their 30s and now most Millennials are in their 30s (the eldest ones are turning 40 this year) and what with the abysmal way this city supported its artists recently and the inevitable waves of NYC spitting out its dream followers, I think there’s bound to be an exodus in the next decade. Maybe I’ll be in it, who knows? (Unlikely, where would I go?)

Will Gen Z artists and dream-followers even bother coming here? If they do, I hope this circle dispersal doesn’t happen to them, too. I read recently that we know a city is dying when young people stop moving there to chase their dreams. I’m not loving the prognosis for NYC that way right now. Maybe let’s get that circle app going, pronto.

****

In case you’re new here, I wrote a whole series about Gen X a few years ago. It starts here and expands in many thematic directions. Or you could search the whole range of Gen X writing here.

Just a circle of Gen X childfree friends galavanting around the city like we used to. We’re going to go get a soy burger at Dojo after.

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The Intersection of Capitalism and Patriarchy Is a Killer
July 25, 2021, 9:40 pm
Filed under: art, Gen X, Visual Art | Tags: , , , , , , ,

TW: Suicide

You know how certain roads just seem to be extra dangerous? At some intersections, you see heaps of flowers and other tributes to people who were lost there. Governments attempt to put up traffic lights or stop signs but some of those intersections are just relentlessly dangerous.

The places where patriarchy meets capitalism are like that, metaphorically speaking and they seem particularly dangerous for Gen X men.

The day I watched the memorial service for my Gen X actor friend, I also saw an obituary for a Gen X visual artist. Both of these tributes paid homage to the generosity of their artistry, the dedication to their crafts and both seemed to suggest that these men just never really figured out a way to effectively make decent money.

To say I relate to this problem is an understatement. I also have never cared much for material things and also have never really solved the problem of capital. And yet I have not even been tempted to throw myself into a river as those men did. I’m not saying this is why both of those Gen X men ended up this way. We can’t know that. In at least one case, severe mental illness was also a factor but I was struck by this commonality between us all and was reminded of the year when I devised a show about money. In having conversations with my peers about money and all the baggage that came with it, I learned that a lot of the men felt an intense pressure to provide, even as they were following their dreams. There was a different quality to their ambitions to make money. Their manhood depended on making a substantial amount of it. They had a little patriarchal demon on their shoulders at all times demanding that they provide. Or maybe there were two demons – one a patriarch and the other a capitalist and they just goaded one another along, degrading a man’s self-worth until he ended up at that treacherous intersection.

The thing is, even though I have a similar relationship to money and success as these guys, I feel fairly certain that no one would mention it in my obituary or in a eulogy. As a woman, it’s not that big a deal, I think. If I’d managed it, the world might be impressed but not managing it is weirdly expected. (That may be one of the reasons it’s not working so well for me.) That men have to suffer so profoundly if they don’t somehow make capitalism work for them is the intersection with patriarchy. Patriarchy defines manhood and success and it uses capitalism to keep its men in line.

The visual artist we lost sounded like a kind man. He drew hearts in chalk all over the city. There are testaments to how his drawings gave people hope in a dark time. This is a beautiful thing to do. He ought to have been rewarded, honored for his service, given a grant to continue it. But no ones gives grants for stuff like that. A grants committee would have laughed such a project out of the room.

But he couldn’t figure out the unsolvable problem of how to capitalize on a work of service and perhaps saw no way to go on. A project like that is not a commodity. It’s not for sale. It shouldn’t be. And an artist shouldn’t have to starve while he creates things that are truly for the greater good. The thing is, I’ve known quite a few artists who died at the intersection of patriarchy and capitalism. Some leaned into capitalism and some ran from it – but the result was the same. It’s heartbreaking every time.

I don’t know whether this is a peculiarly Gen X problem or if we ought to start keeping an eye on Millennial men now just in case. Maybe it’s just part of middle age? It feels like our generational antipathy to selling out and/or working for the man, as well as our propensity for questioning authority might make this intersection especially dangerous for our generation – but I can’t know for sure.

But I do know that smashing the patriarchy would do a lot of men as much good as it would women. When I fight for the end of patriarchy, I really am fighting for men, too. For some of them, it is a life or death situation.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Tricksy Feminists

In college, we made a show called Roar! The Women’s Thing! Live Girls On Stage! which I started thinking about after reading Fleishman Is in Trouble.

I was just going to write a quick little review of Fleishman Is in Trouble for Goodreads but then I started thinking of that show and what we were trying to do with it, which was going to need some explaining, and then I started thinking more about the novel, which began to make me mad and voila! – blog post.

I’ll start with this show. I made it during a guest semester I took at a state university. I’d spent three semesters at Sarah Lawrence College and while my education was aces, I was longing for a social life, so I decided to take a break from my progressive elite education and go to some parties (as well as classes, sure) in Virginia for a semester. That transition was a kind of a feminist wake up call. I’d gotten used to a place where feminism was a default position and I was absolutely shocked by the retrograde patriarchy still in place at this state college. I joined a rebel feminist group and we decided to make the show, to give the place a real consciousness raising because whooo boy, did it need one! We put “Live Girls On Stage” in the title because we were worried about preaching to the choir and we hoped we’d bring in a few frat bros by suggesting we were a burlesque show rather than a feminist collective. We thought we were pretty clever. We put paper dolls of Barbie dolls on our posters. We thought that we’d change the world with or little feminist variety show. I’m both very proud and very embarrassed by this venture now. I’m bringing it up because of this little Live Girls trick. Did it work? Of course not. Though we did sell out, which was better than most of my subsequent feminist work. But I’m thinking about it because I feel like there’s something similar at work in Fleishman Is in Trouble.

I read this book because it was advertised to me on the Guilty Feminist podcast. It was billed as an hilarious feminist novel. That’s catnip for me. Of course I was going to read an hilarious feminist novel.

You may, at this point, not be surprised to learn that I found this book to be neither hilarious nor particularly feminist. They Live Girls Onstaged me and I fell for it. I don’t blame the Guilty Feminist podcast. They need advertising dollars as much as anyone and I can imagine how this happened. Someone on the marketing team thought this book was kinda feminist and googled all the places they might be able to place some feminist ads and the job was done. But, oh, oh, did I feel like a frat boy who thought he’d come for burlesque and got a bunch of show tunes and sketches instead. I’m going to give you some spoilers now – or really a spoiler. One might call it the twist of the book. If you want to skip these next seven paragraphs to avoid this reveal, please feel free. I think knowing what’s coming might actually improve the experience of reading it but…it’s up to you.

The book begins with the story of a man who is in the process of divorcing, dating and doctoring. It is a bit how I imagine a Philip Roth or John Updike novel. (I’ve never read either as I am not at all interested.) It’s the story of a wealthy man on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who often feels he is not wealthy enough. He describes himself as a hero of a dad and his ex-wife as a useless soul-less social climber, who disappears on him. It’s all narrated by his female friend, who used to work at a men’s magazine so she’s practiced at getting into the heads of men.

Then, about three quarters of the way through, the narrator of the book runs into the ex-wife and we get a sense of the time-line we just experienced from her perspective. Surprise! She’s not the monster her husband made her out to be! The book finishes with a kind of alliance between the women and a little rant about how bad marriage and middle age can be for women and then the narrator takes a taxi back to her husband, from NYC to the suburbs of NJ.

I THINK this is being marketed as a feminist novel because it tricks us into thinking it’s a man’s story at the top and then TRICKSY! It turns out to be a woman’s. And the guy who seemed like a sort of good guy is kind of a dirtbag. SURPRISE! You’re NOT seeing Live Girls Onstage like you thought! It’s a consciousness raising instead! It’s Tricksy Feminism, trying to convert the unconvertable. If those frat boys only knew what it was really like to be a woman, they might not be such sexist pigs!

If we get men to read a story about a man, they’ll keep reading to learn about a woman’s perspective of the same stuff!  We’ll sneak some women’s issues into that Phillip Roth novel! We’ll raise their consciousness without them even knowing! Tricksy!

But the thing is – none of those issues that the woman face are dealt with in a particularly feminist way. None of them ever rallies together with other women to make a change. They deal with sexual harassment and discrimination. They deal with sexist and dehumanizing medical treatment and generally struggle with some old school Simone de Beauvoir Second Sex shit. But no one seems to know that feminism exists. It’s a weird world without any real social movements. It’s a world where someone experiences overt sexism and no one will name it. Feminism isn’t just women having lady problems. It’s a social movement in which people work together to make our world more equitable. This book had nothing to do with that as far as I could see.

For me, the book was mostly largely about rich people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan having a lot of privileged problems. Was it compelling? Sure! It’s very well written so you couldn’t ask for better fiction about the ennui of a particular kind of privileged life. If you want to know about the inner lives of women who choose their pilates classes based on maintaining social ties, look no further. You’ve found your book. Even the women in this book, in the middle of realizing all the betrayals of sexism and such, never get beyond themselves to even consider attempting to make a change. They don’t have a feminist awakening. They don’t decide to organize. They don’t start to examine their own privilege – not their racial privilege, their economic privilege, not their abled privilege, none of it. If there’s any feminism in the book at all (and I’m not convinced there is) it is not intersectional.

I keep thinking of the end of the book when the narrator takes a taxi back to her house in New Jersey from NYC. I think it’s supposed to be a romantic gesture? But all I can think of is how expensive that taxi ride would be and yet it’s not even a whisper of a thought for this character.

Roar! The Women’s Thing! Live Girls On Stage was a sophomoric feminist show. I was literally a college sophomore when I made it. I’m fairly certain we didn’t change anyone’s mind and only expressed a bunch of things that were hard for us (mostly white) ladies. It was a little tricksy but mostly harmless and possibly a fun night out. I feel like Fleishman Is in Trouble is similar. A little tricksy, mostly harmless and a fun read. The trouble is in the marketing. There were live girls on stage but they really weren’t what I had in mind.

I’m about the same age as the characters in this book so I have a sense of the world they grew up in. I know there was feminism in that world, for example and it’s clear to me that characters that don’t have their feminist awakening until their 40s are characters who ignored or rejected feminism in their youth. If you’re not discovering sexism until your 40s, you’re late. You’ve very late. I mean, get to the party when you get to the party but you are very late.

But one thing I know about the party from our collective college years is that in some places, the party was already in full swing, had already evolved and was searching for ways to grow and the party at the other college was just getting into gear. It was in its sophomore stages and needing a jump start. When my friend and I would walk into our Sociology of Women class at that state college, our teacher would say, “Here come the radicals!” And let me just say, as much as I enjoyed that greeting, I was VERY FAR from being a radical then. (“Couldn’t we do it in a nice way? But I don’t want to upset anyone! I don’t want to take anything away from anyone! I just want a teeny tiny itsy bitsy bit of equality, please. If it’s not too much trouble.”) Anyway – what I’m saying is that it’s all relative. At Sarah Lawrence, I was a pretty run of the mill every day sort of feminist, at the state college, I was a radical. Maybe for the characters in Fleishman Is in Trouble, this sort of naming of women’s issues IS radical. It’s first stage feminism. It’s late to the party feminism but fine, I guess.

Yes. This is the poster. Yes I still have it.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

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You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Would I Go Back to the 20th Century?

There’s a Reddit question I can’t stop thinking about in which someone wanted to know what life was like in the 20th Century because they were born at the top of the 21st and couldn’t imagine it. They particularly couldn’t imagine life without the internet. They asked those of us who’d been around for the previous century if we would go back to the way things were before.

Would I? Would I give up the internet and my mobile phone? Would I surrender my laptop? Sometimes I think I would. I started writing this outdoors at my local coffee shop. Just as I was finding my groove, the woman nearby got on her phone and started talking about her family life very loudly. I would give that up. I really would. People have always talked to one another in coffee shops – but there’s something about the private phone calls in public spaces that I still find jarring, even though they’ve been around for a couple of decades. Would I give up my phone? My text messages? My personal voice mail? To just have a clearer distinction between public and private space? I might. I really might.

I don’t want to get all Grumpy Old Man here and start droning on about back in my day. But back in my day we didn’t have cell phones and we didn’t have the internet. We had to go to the library to look stuff up and we liked it! We loved it! Nah. I mean. We did go to the library – and we did love the library but being able to just look stuff up with a thing we keep in our pockets is amazing. I remember when I first got a computer that would allow me to dial up and use the internet. My grandmother asked me why I was so thrilled, why I found it so amazing. I remember explaining that it was like having the biggest library in the world in my apartment. I was a little overwhelmed by it, truth be told. What should I look up when I could look up anything?

I think this must have been RIGHT at the turn of the century. I’d just moved to NYC. It was an exciting moment. The future was in the air. But it also wasn’t really the future yet. I was still sending my friends and family letters then. In the mail. Receiving letters was unremarkable but it was also, in retrospect, special.

Sitting down to read a letter was a quiet moment, separate from the hum of life. It was an occasion. There are still letters I remember reading because I remember the rock I was sitting on, the chill in the air or the feel of the paper. No email has ever been as special as even the most banal letter.

When we first got email, it was a thrill. We got email my senior year of college, something I’d been wishing for since First Year. I had a hot email romance with a friend of a friend at another college that eventually taught me a swift and important lesson about chemistry and the massive power of projection over internet communication.

But even so, I was so so excited about email. I didn’t have it after graduation but two years later, I got a Hotmail account. I was on tour at the time and every so often we’d find ourselves in a place that had internet access and the only person I remember emailing was a Canadian improv guy I’d had a little romance with in Edinburgh during the festival. We were very excited to expand our communication beyond postcards and I remember finding a library with computers in some college town that could help me do that. The first few years of digital communication for me were very romantic. Mostly literally.

I find this hilarious now because email has become such an onerous burden. No one finds email romantic. I bought a book called The Tyranny of Email because it so aptly described how I felt about it by then. A few years ago, I turned off all visual and sound notifications for email because I noticed I was having a stress response every time I heard/saw it. (Actually, I turned off the sound when someone ELSE’S email dinged a notification like mine and I had a stress response.) There was a period in which I had to imagine putting on armor before opening my email, so stressed out it made me.

The same sort of journey happened with the phone, actually, now that I think about it. Back when there was nothing but a land line, I’d get excited when the phone rang. We’d race to answer it, sure it was some good news. At the sound of it, I’d think, “Finally! My big break!” Now, when my cell phone rings, I think, “Oh no. Who is that?” And yet there is rarely a mystery; their name is on my screen when I look at it. If it’s a friend or family, I feel relief – but generally, it’s just trepidation I get from my phone. Is this due to the technology? I have no idea. Maybe it’s just me becoming more anxious and cynical in my 40s. But I wonder. And yes, I would give up my smart little phone to be excited to answer a phone again.

That feels like the crux of the changes for me, the journey from cool fun romantic new technology to tool of anxiety and/or oppression. I signed up for Friendster and MySpace because they seemed fun. They were cool new ways to interact with people. I posted my music on MySpace which was a convenient way to share it without having to pay for the cost of CD duplication. Facebook was exciting and fun at first! Look at all these people I lost touch with, now back in my life! It’s like a high school reunion I didn’t have to pay for! It was all so much fun until it really wasn’t anymore. It all goes from fun to compulsion so fast. I remember a fellow theatre maker telling me she couldn’t sign up for Facebook because she didn’t have time for it. Then came a point where she had to join because everyone else was there, if only to promote her work. That’s why I’m still there – even though the days of sending each other digital flowers is long gone.

The thing I miss most about the previous century is just a fuller sense of being present with people. When we were together, we were just together. We were with the people we were with. If we wanted to be in touch with someone who wasn’t there, we had to find a telephone, or send them a letter, or just stop by their house. These days, whenever I sit with someone, I’m sitting with them and the thousand people they’re connected to by the device in their pocket.

I remember sitting on a rock on top of a hill that my friend and I had climbed and she was thinking about getting a cell phone (because it was starting to become necessary for the theatre biz) but she was worried about it. She was concerned about being on call everywhere, about being always available, that her life would be constantly interrupted. I said that was silly – she could always just turn it off if she didn’t want to hear from anyone. But she was right. She got a phone anyway at some point and at some point so did I – but she was right to have been worried about that. Just turning it off is not a solution for most people. Not in this ever connected world.

But we can’t, individually, just not have a phone or not be connected. This is how we live now. If you want to be a part of the community of humanity, this is how we’re doing it. I’m grateful for a lot of the benefits of this new world. I’m able to maintain relationships with people around the globe. I can share my work widely and without gatekeepers. I have developed all sorts of technical skills I never imagined possible. And all this has probably made important progressive social change possible. I wouldn’t want to give that up.

But – if someone came to me with a Time Machine and said I can take you back to the previous century and you can just live there if you want, I might do it. (I mean, I would like to see a lot of other times, too. Can we go traveling first? Also, I’d probably really miss my loved ones, so can I bring them? And…this fictional time machine fantasy may be getting out of hand at this point.) It would take me a long time to readjust to going to the library and writing letters and meeting people in person, but I think I was happier then. It might be worth the loss.

Our internet was out for about a week last year and it was a nightmare, of course. So much of our lives depend on it. When you’re not on it, you feel like you disappear. But that’s because everyone else is on it, and you’re left out. Back when there was no internet (or really, when the internet was only for the privileged few) it was just quieter. Everything was just quieter. You weren’t missing anything. You just did what was in front of you. The world was more local.

So, yes, I do miss it. But I know we can’t go back. We can only go forward. So I suppose I’m looking forward to the next development in technology – the one that will feel romantic and exciting before it becomes compulsive and oppressive. And then maybe, maybe, we’ll get past this sort of adolescent stage with our devices and find a way to really be present with each other again. I hope we can figure out how to be quieter, even with the whole world in our pockets.

This pocket watch is apparently from an Arctic expedition at the beginning of the 20th century.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

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South Park World, or, Learning to Like the Boy Stuff

In 1997, I was touring the country with a Shakespeare company. There were 8 men and 4 women in our troupe and because of that gender imbalance, it felt a little like living in a fraternity. For a life-long feminist like myself, it was a pretty big challenge. I mostly stayed quiet and kept my feminist killjoy thoughts to myself.

I’m thinking about this today after reading Lindy West’s essay about the South Park guys. She’s a bit younger than I am so South Park was a thing she grew up with and a show that had a particular kind of impact on her generation. I was introduced to South Park while I was on tour with the fellas in 1997. It was a video cassette of a short cartoon that somebody had gotten from somebody and we watched it on the company VCR. It was this underground, almost contraband, video.

I didn’t love it. It felt sort of mean spirited and homophobic and it was a world of boys. But I was living in a world of boys and they watched this video cassette so often, it became an oft quoted part of the culture. By the end of the year, I had a real affection for those potty mouth boys – the ones on South Park and the ones I was working with.

Then that little underground cassette got picked up by a network and become a TV show. I watched it sometimes, in part, because it reminded me of being on tour and it made me feel like an insider and also because I’d sort of come to like it. And I want to talk about my liking it because the liking isn’t uncomplicated. It wasn’t neutral. I think it says something about culture in general.

I was thinking about how a lot of things I like, I like because to like them made me part of the group. In this case, in this company, it was a bunch of fellas and a few women who knew how to hang with a bunch of fellas. They knew how to be cool with the dudes. That is not a skill I had picked up anywhere – being the feminist killjoy that I was – so it was something I had to learn on that tour. Laughing at the same jokes is a big part of it, I discovered. You learn to find things like South Park funny as a way to survive. But what I can’t stop wondering about is what it would have been like if that tour group’s gender numbers were reversed. What if there were 8 women and 4 men? Would the men have learned to laugh at the Kathy and Mo show? Would they have giggled at their dramatization of Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Got their Periods”? Would they have adapted to our jokes the way we adapted to theirs? I don’t know. And the reason I don’t know is that I was never IN the reverse position. I was never in an acting company that was mostly women. I directed a lot of shows that were like that but I’d have to ask my actors how that was. I don’t know.

I did go to a college with a 1:3 ratio in favor of women. I bemoaned it at the time but thinking about the South Park effect, actually makes me very grateful for that imbalance. It makes me curious about the experience of some of the men I know who went there with me. Are there things they like because they adapted to the environment that they wouldn’t have responded to in other circumstance? Like – did they all become big Ani DiFranco fans when their friends at others schools turned up their noses?

The thing of it is – most of culture in the 90s was men’s culture. Most things were for the fellas with a couple of rare exceptions. You could either get on board or be seen as the feminist killjoy. South Park was no exception to that. (Are there any girls on South Park? All I can think of are some moms and a pretty offensive take on Winona Ryder.) I was struck by the way Lindy West described South Park’s aesthetic; It sounded quintessentially Gen X. I hadn’t thought of South Park that way before – but the irreverence and nihilism is classic “whatever” energy. It’s also classic Gen X misogyny and in retrospect, I’m sorry I ever laughed at it. But I learned to laugh at it. Which in a weird way gives me a kind of hope in this world where people still debate if women are funny. It gives me hope because it’s clear people can adapt to the group. The group can change. We can laugh at more expansive things and things that AREN’T cruel. We can learn to laugh with an entirely new group.

I learned from West’s essay that South Park has been on for Twenty Years. TWENTY YEARS of Kenny getting killed. (I assume. I haven’t watched in maybe 18 years so I don’t know how things have changed.) When this show went on the air, we were having a pretty big cultural conversation about how we talked to each other. We were learning that there were kind and unkind ways to talk about one another’s identities. A lot of people hated this conversation and there was a lot of railing against political correctness. South Park showed up in the middle of that conversation and farted.

And now we’re in the middle of the same conversation twenty years later, though we use different words and South Park is still farting the place up.

Like, maybe it was funny in 1997 when we were all very serious about hyphenating our identities or whatever – but once you’ve farted in a serious room once, the joke is of over, guys, Now you’re just stinking up the place while the grown-ups are trying to solve things like violent insurrections at the capital. And speaking of violent insurrections supported by Republicans, it turns out the South Park guys are Republicans. Right now. Or at least as of Lindy’s publication date in 2019. Honestly, I was surprised – not because they said or did anything to suggest otherwise – it’s just that Republicans don’t tend to be funny.

But I guess the thing is – those guys haven’t really been that funny since I saw them on a VCR in 1997 surrounded by a bunch of fellas. So I guess it makes sense. I guess it makes sense.

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