The Real Life of Writers

You think writing’s a dream job? It’s more like a horror film

A new poll reveals that 60% of Britons long to be an author. It can be a good life, for sure – but could they handle the insecurity, loneliness and paranoia?

by Tim Lott,

A YouGov poll that has just been released rates being an author the most desirable job in Britain – with 60% of people saying they’d like to do it for a living. This is a 24% higher than those who want to be a TV presenter and a remarkable 29% higher than those who want to be a movie star.

The mind boggles – or it would if authors didn’t spend a good majority of their time assiduously, and at tedious length, trying to avoid cliches. The fact that people fantasise about being an author only proves how little they know about the reality of the job – or how under-read they are in one of the greatest of that profession, George Orwell.

It was Orwell who wrote this description of the novelist: “All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon which one can neither resist nor understand.“

This is not a view of writing that occupies a great deal of space in the popular imagination. On the contrary, authors are seen as rather serene, noble characters, licking their pencils, perpetually looking out the window for inspiration – which always comes – and floating in a bubble, enjoying an Olympian perspective on the world, not bound to the nine to five like the rest, but picking beautiful sentences out of the air like passing butterflies, which they trap and affix decoratively to the page.

If only it were like that. Some writers do, I admit, talk up the delights of creating fiction. All I can say is, I have been writing books for nigh on 20 years now – and it has not been out of choice but for exactly the reason that Orwell describes – “driven by some demon which one can neither resist nor understand”.

I have on more than one occasion longed for a different way of making a living, a hope that I understand now is entirely in vain, as it is my only marketable ability.

I have enjoyed modest success, winning a few prizes, being shortlisted for a few others, and at times – now long gone, along with the book industry that existed then – pocketing generous advances from publishers. And it cannot be denied that being a writer has a lot of compensations.

Writers get to lay out their vision of the world, which, for some reason, feels important to them – although, as Orwell also observed, this may be indistinguishable from the baby’s cry for attention. At the best moments, their work flies above craft into art. They are held in popular esteem, it is true. And they control their own time to a far greater extent than most wage slaves. Staring out the window also certainly come into it – a lot.

However, as I emphasise to the fledgling writers who come and attendmy Guardian Masterclass courses, writing novels for a living is hard – unimaginably hard, for those who have not tried it. I cannot imagine that it is less complex than brain surgery, or, indeed, the proverbial rocket science. To master dialogue, description, subtext, plot, structure, character, time, point of view, beginnings, endings, theme and much besides is a Herculean labour, not made more appealing by the fact that you always – always – fail.

Any author will agree with the statement that a work of art is never completed, only abandoned. And, as perfectionists, we always fall well short of our goals. We live with failures, even when we are successes – because we have the whole weight of literature standing behind us, mocking us with greatness and shadowing us into insignificance.

Being a writer also involves a tremendous amount of rejections – all the prizes you felt certain to be shortlisted for and weren’t, all the ones you were shortlisted for and didn’t win, all the TV and films rights that were bought for your books and never made, all the copies that you didn’t sell.

Meanwhile, you have to deal with the envy of watching your rivals – and authors see rivals everywhere, however much they deny it – being apparently more successful than you (naturally, you don’t pay any heed to the invisibly large majority who are less successful). Writing is not a convivial, supportive business – as John Dos Passos observed: “Writers are like fleas, they get very little nourishment from one another”.

It is frequently lonely. It is insecure – and not just financially insecure, but because the fact that you have written one good book is no guarantee that you will be able to write another. It plays havoc on relationships – because most writers are extreme introverts, who, when in the middle of a work, barely notice the rest of the world exists. When you are successful, you can quickly become vain and narcissistic. When you are not, depressed and despairing.

If people think I am lucky to be an author, I understand why. I do feel I will leave some kind of small legacy behind me when I go – a body of work that amounted to something. I know it counted for something, because I still get letters about my books thanking me for them, and appreciating, in some way or other, the light the reader felt I helped shed on their world. It is, I still believe, a noble profession, and there is nothing – given my limited range of talents – I would rather do.

But if I were honest, if I were offered the possibility of swapping with George Clooney, I don’t think I would hesitate for long. In fact, even a taxi driver – standing towards the bottom of the YouGov poll at 13% – often seems more appealing.

Writing is not a choice, it is a calling – and for me, one that extracts a price that people who imagine the glamour of the job never quite grasp. It’s just as well – if they did they might never start.

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Jane Austen trivial pursuit, expert edition

Ten questions on Jane Austen

The plot of which Austen novel relies on the weather? Where does Wickham have a tryst with Georgiana Darcy? And which character says ‘I hate money’? Accuracy is Austen’s genius, and asking specific questions about her work reveals its cleverness

by John Mullan, The Guardian, May 18 2012

Jane Austen portrait

Jane Austen’s admirer Virginia Woolf said that “of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness”. It is a brilliant insight. The apparent modesty of Austen’s dramas is only apparent; the minuteness of design is a bravura achievement. But it cannot be shown by some grand scene or speech. Accuracy is her genius. Noticing minutiae will lead you to the wonderful interconnectedness of her novels, where a small detail of wording or motivation in one place will flare with the recollection of something that happened much earlier. This is one of the reasons they bear such rereading. Every quirk you notice leads you to a design. If you ask very specific questions about what goes on in her novels, you reveal their cleverness. The closer you look, the more you see. Try these 10 questions.

Who marries a man younger than herself?

Age matters very much to characters in Austen’s novels: think of Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion, unmarried at 29 and approaching “the years of danger”. The age of a young woman (but also a man) determines her (or his) marriage prospects. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas is 27 when she snares Mr Collins, her age spurring her to waste no time when he heaves into view.

“A woman of seven and twenty … can never hope to feel or inspire affection again,” declares Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. She is, however, an absurd 17-year-old: judgments of what is inevitable at any given age are invariably ridiculous failures of imagination. Lady Russell in Persuasion thinks that Charles Musgrove would not have been good enough for Anne Elliot when she was 19, but once she is 22 and still unmarried, he becomes quite a catch, so quickly does a young woman’s bloom fade. Yet Lady Russell is usually wrong about things, and at the ripe age of 27 (that number again) Anne gets the man she loves.

Charlotte Lucas feels all that age pressure. In hooking her husband she becomes the only woman in all Austen’s fiction to marry a man younger than herself. For Mr Collins is introduced to us as a “tall, heavy-looking young man of five-and-twenty”. Many admirers of Pride and Prejudice think of Mr Collins as middle-aged. In the 1940 Hollywood film the role was taken by British character actor Melville Cooper, then aged 44. The trend was set. In Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC adaptation Mr Collins was played by David Bamber, then in his mid-40s. In the 2005 film, the role was taken by a slightly more youthful Tom Hollander, then aged 38. Adaptors miss the point by getting his age wrong. His solemnity and sententiousness are much better, much funnier, coming from someone so “young”. Middle-aged is what he would like to sound, rather than what he is. His youth emphasises Charlotte’s achievement, with little money and no beauty to assist her.

Who says: ‘I hate money’?

It has to be a bad person, for anyone who professes not to care about cash must be lying. It is Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, a youthful but accomplished hypocrite, who announces her antipathy to lucre. A few chapters later she tells Catherine Moreland, in preparation for dumping James Moreland in favour of Frederick Tilney, “after all that romancers may say, there is no doing without money”. In Sense and Sensibility, another mercenary young woman, Lucy Steele, talking of Edward Ferrars, tells Elinor Dashwood: “I have always been used to a very small income, and could struggle with any poverty for him.” It is the purest cant. Lucy is ruthless about money, a fact nicely illustrated by her stealing all her sister’s petty cash from her before eloping with Robert Ferrars. We should not forget that idealistic Marianne Dashwood shares this supposed scorn of wealth with these two calculating girls. When Elinor and Marianne debate the importance of money in the company of Edward, Marianne reacts indignantly to Elinor’s declaration that happiness has much to do with “wealth”: “‘Elinor, for shame!’ said Marianne, ‘money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned.'”

When Marianne is burbling about the “remarkably pretty” upstairs sitting room at Allenham (just right, she is thinking, for a lucky wife), she regrets its “forlorn” furniture. All it needs is to be “newly fitted up – a couple of hundred pounds, Willoughby says, would make it one of the pleasantest summer-rooms in England”. The casual extravagance of this – all the worse as it is the imagining of wealth that will come only when Willoughby’s aunt dies – should stop us short. The two lovers have been thinking of spending twice Miss and Mrs Bates’s joint annual income in Emma on soft furnishings for one room. Austen’s attentive first readers would surely have come close to despising Marianne when they heard her saying this. It is further proof that those who declare themselves above caring about money are those who are most governed by it.

What is Mrs Bennet’s Christian name?

We never know. Nor do we know the forenames of other Austen ladies: Mrs Dashwood, Mrs Allen, Mrs Norris, Mrs Grant, Mrs Dixon, Mrs Smith. A few husbands call their wives by their first names. In Sense and Sensibility, John Dashwood calls his ghastly wife “My dear Fanny”, though she addresses him as “My dear Mr Dashwood”. In Emma, Mr Elton flaunts his use of his wife’s Christian name. “Shall we walk, Augusta?” he says to her in front of the group at Box Hill. It is almost ostentatious. “Happy creature! He called her ‘Augusta.’ How delightful!” says stupid Harriet Smith, after first meeting the vicar’s monstrous new wife. Her exclamation indicates that the Eltons are behaving in an unusual, perhaps modish, manner. Mr Elton’s flourishing of “Augusta” is made the more repellent by Mrs Elton’s mock-coy revelation that he wrote an acrostic on her name while courting her in Bath.

Yet it is not simply “wrong” to use your wife’s Christian name. In Persuasion Admiral Croft addresses his wife as “Sophy”. This is at one with his breezy good-heartedness, and a sign of the couple’s closeness. Such is his uxoriousness that, as he struggles to remember Louisa Musgrove’s frothy name, he frankly wishes that all women were called Sophy. Meanwhile his wife addresses him as “my dear admiral”. He is one of those men (Mr Palmer, Mr Bennet, Mr Weston, Dr Grant) whose first name remains undeclared.

The mere use of a person’s Christian name is electric. In Sense and Sensibility Elinor overhears Willoughby discussing the gift of a horse with her sister and saying, “Marianne, the horse is still yours.” It can mean only one thing. “From that moment she doubted not of their being engaged to each other.” A woman who lets a man speak her name has given him a special power. But it is even rarer for a woman to call a man by his first name. Mr Knightley asks Emma to call him George, but she won’t. “Impossible! – I never can call you any thing but ‘Mr Knightley’.”

Why is Mr Perry getting a carriage?

The plot of Emma turns on Frank Churchill’s “blunder” in mentioning the likelihood of Mr Perry, the local apothecary, “setting up his carriage”. Frank knows because of his secret correspondence with Jane Fairfax, and is therefore in difficulties when asked by Mrs Weston how he found out. The news is telling. Mr Perry is evidently making so much money from the hypochondriacs of Highbury that he can accede to his wife’s desire for a carriage. The Austens themselves owned a carriage for a year or two in the late 1790s but then had to give it up. It would have taken an income of about £1,000 a year to make a carriage affordable, well beyond most genteel households.

Mr Perry can use his carriage to make his lucrative house calls. The “intelligent, gentlemanlike” practitioner is a kind of therapist, whose business is humouring his clucking patients. He is first seen tactfully failing to contradict Mr Woodhouse’s absurd opinion that wedding cake is harmful. He agrees that it “might certainly disagree with many – perhaps with most people, unless taken moderately”. Though “all the little Perrys” are soon seen “with a slice of Mrs Weston’s wedding-cake in their hands”. Their father is a man who makes his handsome living from echoing the prejudices of his clients.

Frank Churchill later tries a joke about Mr Perry’s earnings, suggesting that if a ball were to be held at the Crown instead of at Randalls there would be less danger of anyone catching a cold. “Mr Perry might have reason to regret the alteration, but nobody else could.” Arch-hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse replies “rather warmly”, deeply offended at the suggestion that his apothecary relishes minor ailments: “Mr Perry is extremely concerned when any of us are ill.” Yet he is getting a carriage because he has battened on the hypochondriacs of Regency England.

Who is wearing mourning?

Lots of people. Near the end of Emma, Mrs Churchill’s death makes it possible for Frank Churchill to marry Jane Fairfax. When Frank meets Emma after the announcement of his engagement, he is smiling and laughing on this “most happy day”, but suited, we should realise, all in black. We are not told this: Austen’s first readers would have “seen” this garb, and registered the clash of official sorrow and private happiness.The deaths of close kin required a period of full (or “deep”) mourning – in which clothes were predominantly black – followed by an equal period of “second” or “slight” mourning. Austen’s own letters to her sister are full of chat about adapting clothing to mark the death of this or that relative. On hearing of Mrs Churchill’s death, Mr Weston shakes his head solemnly while thinking – Austen cannot resist telling us – “that his mourning should be as handsome as possible”. His wife, meanwhile, sits “sighing and moralising over her broad hems”. Austen’s satire is entirely tolerant.

At the end of Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford and Mrs Grant begin a new life together, clad in full mourning because of the death of Dr Grant. Their mourning is not grief. We take it that, even in their black clothes, they are delighted to be rid of an irksome impediment to their sisterly friendship. Austen likes us to notice how official mourners fail to grieve. In Persuasion, Captain Benwick is “in mourning” for Fanny Harville’s loss, which means not just that he is sad, but that he is actually wearing black, as the Harvilles are likely to be. Anne learns the story of their shared tragedy, but then their clothes would already have made her curious. If we do not see these clothes we lose something, for Captain Benwick must either eschew his mourning dress while paying his attentions to Louisa Musgrove, or court her while wearing it. Either possibility gives special force to Captain Harville’s later exclamation to Anne: “Poor Fanny! she would not have forgotten him so soon.” Mourning dress is, after all, donned in order to stop you escaping from the memory of the dead person.

Where does Wickham have a tryst with Georgiana Darcy?

By the seaside – where else? The near-seduction of Mr Darcy’s sister is staged with the help of the perfidious ex-governess Mrs Younge at Ramsgate, on the Kent coast, where, we infer, Georgiana Darcy is at Wickham’s mercy. Only her brother’s last-minute arrival saves her. It is dangerous by the sea. Austen had something particular against Ramsgate, where her sailor brother Francis was stationed in 1803-4. In a letter to Cassandra in 1813 she refers to a friend who has decided to move to Ramsgate and exclaims: “Bad Taste!” In Mansfield Park, Thomas Bertram boastfully describes his flirtatious behaviour in Ramsgate with the younger Miss Sneyd, whoever she be. On arrival in the town, he and Sneyd find “Mrs and the two Miss Sneyds … out on the pier … with others of their acquaintance.” “Mrs Sneyd was surrounded by men,” he recalls. Sex is in the air in Ramsgate.

Feckless Tom Bertram is a haunter of seaside resorts. Returning from Antigua, he does not dutifully come home to his mother and siblings, butgoes to Weymouth. Later in the novel, Julia Bertram accompanies Mr and Mrs Rushworth to Brighton where she meets up with Mr Yates, with whom she elopes. Brighton is truly dangerous. Lydia Bennet meets Wickham there and elopes with him. In Austen’s novels, seaside resorts are places for flirtations and engagements, attachments and elopements, love and sex. And honeymoons. In Sense and Sensibility Lucy Steele marries Robert Ferrars and they go on honeymoon to Dawlish in Devon. Emma (who has never seen the sea) and Mr Knightley, once engaged, plan a “fortnight’s absence in a tour to the sea-side” following their marriage. You might say that once Emma has truly discovered love she is bound, at last, for the seaside. It will be by the sea that she and Mr Knightley begin a sexual relationship.

Who marries for sex?

Austen’s stories rely on an acknowledgment of men’s sexual appetites, which explain why that “truth universally acknowledged” – an affluent bachelor’s desire for a wife – is in fact true. There are several men in Austen’s fiction who “want” a wife for reasons beyond financial calculation. Mr Collins wants one; Charles Musgrove wanted one. The former hoped to please Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but surely had other reasons. The latter, having been turned down by Anne Elliot, rationally opted for her younger sister. We might surmise that a desire for sexual release motivated both “young” men, and that early 19th-century readers would have understood this. In Emma, Mr Elton, the Highbury vicar, is “a young man living alone without liking it”. That last phrase carries a weight of meaning. Only a wilfully innocent reader could think that he yearns for a wife just to choose his fabrics and argue with his cook.

Austen’s narratives depend on our imagining male sexual needs. Catching us wondering how Mr Palmer in Sense and Sensibility, an intelligent but ill-natured man, could possibly have married a woman as idiotic as Charlotte Jennings, Austen lets Elinor reflect on the puzzle. “His temper might perhaps be a little soured by finding, like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman – but she knew that this kind of blunder was too common for any sensible man to be lastingly hurt by it.” It is an extraordinary judgment, for Mr Palmer is paired with a fool for the rest of his days. Elinor has seen this happen often. His error has been his yen for “beauty” – or, we might say, “sex appeal”. At this stage of the novel, Charlotte Palmer is heavily pregnant (though he is scarcely able to talk to his wife, he does have sex with her). Perhaps her advanced state of pregnancy means a temporary denial of conjugal solace. More reason for his grumpiness.

Why does Robert Ferrars marry Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility? All the evidence is for a process of sexual intoxication that Lucy, who has “considerable beauty”, manages with great skill. He marries her “speedily” because he wants her. She trades on sexual allure (not mere bluff – we are explicitly told of the “great happiness” of their honeymoon). Mr Bennet’s choice of Mrs Bennet has also been sensually determined. In the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice, his joke about his wife not accompanying his daughters to meet Mr Bingley lest he “like you the best of the party” has a hint of ruefulness. As a young man he was “captivated by youth and beauty”. Having made his mistake, he must live with it. And after all, we can infer that Mr and Mrs Bennet have carried on an active sex life well into middle age as, “for many years after Lydia’s birth”, Mrs Bennet is sure that they will eventually have a son.

What does Captain Benwick say in Persuasion?

Nothing worth telling us. There is a special group of Austen characters who may talk and talk, but never get a word of their speech quoted. Captain Benwick is a member. On her first evening in Lyme, Anne gets him for company and finds that, though initially “shy”, he has plenty to say, notably about his “taste in reading”. Soon he is talking about poetry and repeating the chunks of Scott and Byron that he has got by heart. He has found out the lines that seem to dignify his own love-lorn feelings. Keen to avoid the conversation of Captain Wentworth, Anne spends most of the evening with Captain Benwick. He is full of quotations himself, but says precisely nothing that the author thinks worth quoting.

The next day Captain Benwick seeks Anne out and he is soon talking again, disputing over books. Captain Harville is grateful to her for “making that poor fellow talk so much”. The sense is delicately given that Anne is becoming the victim of this previously silent man who has so readily discovered the consolation of talk. As the party walks along the Cobb for a last time before leaving, “Anne found Captain Benwick again drawing near her”. He is going to talk and recite some more, but Austen does not tax the reader with what he says. Her heroine’s response is charitable: “She gladly gave him all her attention as long as attention was possible.” Not enough attention for any of his words to lodge.

It feels like Austen’s private joke about a man who recites rather than converses. When Charles Musgrove returns from Lyme he tells Anne about Captain Benwick talking. “‘Oh! He talks of you,’ cried Charles, ‘in such terms … His head is full of some books that he is reading upon your recommendation, and he wants to talk to you about them … I overheard him telling Henrietta all about it.'” He keeps being talked about as talking, but his own words are kept from us. So, in some odd way, he never fully exists.

Who has the shortest successful courtship?

Among Austen heroines, it is Catherine Moreland. Northanger Abbey being the shortest of Austen’s novels, its love story is also the most rapid. The novel is full of haste – from the progress of Catherine and Isabella’s friendship, through John Thorpe’s boasts about the speed of his travel, to Colonel Tilney’s constant impatience and hurry. (Northanger Abbey has more precise times of day than any other Austen novel.) The time between Catherine’s arrival in Bath and her departure from Northanger Abbey is only 11 weeks: a brief acquaintance on which to base a married life together. Briefer still, as during those 11 weeks Henry Tilney has spent some time away at his parish, leaving Catherine at Northanger Abbey with his sister. Having elicited such a speedy proposal from Henry Tilney, Austen reassures us by telling us that he and Catherine in fact marry “within a twelvemonth” of their first meeting – not much less than the year allowed Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy between their first encounter and their nuptials.

Other characters are speedier than Catherine and Henry. Mr Elton, wounded after being rejected by Emma, goes to Bath and writes to Mr Cole just four weeks later to announce his engagement to a woman he had never met before. Charlotte Lucas’s notorious advice in Pride and Prejudice is to be as speedy as possible. In order to fix Mr Bingley’s intentions, she tells Elizabeth, Jane Bennet “should … make the most of every half-hour in which she can command his attention. When she is secure of him, there will be more leisure for falling in love as much as she chooses.” A lengthy courtship has no advantages: “It is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.” The shortest courtship imaginable is indeed Mr Collins’s of Charlotte, lasting as it does from dinner-time to night-time of a single day, all of it spent in the voluble company of others.

Which novel’s plot relies on the weather?

All of them. Austen is a genius with the weather, making it the very principle of chance entering her narratives. Sense and Sensibility is kicked into life by a misjudgment about the weather: Marianne goes walking on the Devon hills with her younger sister Margaret, convincing herself that “the partial sunshine of a showery sky” bodes well. Marianne’s “declaration that the day would be lastingly fair” is utter folly, revealed when “a driving rain set full in their face”. Fleeing for home, Marianne trips and is rescued by the handsome Willoughby. It might seem a fortunate accident, the beginning of a romance, but Marianne’s determination to delude herself about the weather bodes ill.

The weather variously throws lovers together or separates them in each novel, nowhere more decisively than in Emma. Our heroine is contemplating the possible pairing of Mr Knightley and Harriet Smith. The world is narrowing. “A cold stormy rain set in” – unseasonal for July. “The weather affected Mr Woodhouse,” requiring Emma ceaselessly to be attentive to him in order to keep him “tolerably comfortable”. The evening of rain lengthens out like the long prospect of her future days with only her father for company. But then “the wind changed into a softer quarter; the clouds were carried off; the sun appeared; it was summer again”. Mr Knightley arrives and, while Mr Perry consoles Mr Woodhouse for his weather-induced indisposition, he walks with Emma in the garden.

At the critical moment in their conversation, he offers a revelation and Emma declines to know it – she dreads him speaking lovingly of Harriet. They reach the house but she decides to “take another turn”. A benign climate blesses their exchange, and he can tell her not that he wishes to marry Harriet, but that he loves her. It is the walk in the sudden fine weather that allows for Mr Knightley’s proposal, unpremeditated before he discovers the occasion. The shrewd reader will regard the final betrothal of Emma and Mr Knightley as inevitable, from the moment we know that he is the only person ever to find fault with her. But the best comedy recruits chance, and the lucky change of weather in Emma is there to let us imagine how it might have been otherwise.

3630,Jane Austen,by Cassandra Austen

Posted in anglophilia, history, jane austen | Leave a comment

Why adolescence lingers… why love stabilizes

From Why You Truly Never Leave High School

New science on its corrosive, traumatizing effects.

By Jennifer Senior, New York Magazine, January 20, 2013


Not everyone feels the sustained, melancholic presence of a high-school shadow self. There are some people who simply put in their four years, graduate, and that’s that.

But for most of us adults, the adolescent years occupy a privileged place in our memories, which to some degree is even quantifiable: Give a grown adult a series of random prompts and cues, and odds are he or she will recall a disproportionate number of memories from adolescence. This phenomenon even has a name—the “reminiscence bump”—and it’s been found over and over in large population samples, with most studies suggesting that memories from the ages of 15 to 25 are most vividly retained. (Which perhaps explains Ralph Keyes’s observation in his 1976 classic, Is There Life After High School?: “Somehow those three or four years can in retrospect feel like 30.”)

To most human beings, the significance of the adolescent years is pretty intuitive. Writers from Shakespeare to Salinger have done their most iconic work about them; and Hollywood, certainly, has long understood the operatic potential of proms, first dates, and the malfeasance of the cafeteria goon squad. “I feel like most of the stuff I draw on, even today, is based on stuff that happened back then,” says Paul Feig, the creator of Freaks and Geeks, which had about ten glorious minutes on NBC’s 1999–2000 lineup before the network canceled it. “Inside, I still feel like I’m 15 to 18 years old, and I feel like I still cope with losing control of the world around me in the same ways.” (By being funny, mainly.)

Yet there’s one class of professionals who seem, rather oddly, to have underrated the significance of those years, and it just happens to be the group that studies how we change over the course of our lives: developmental neuroscientists and psychologists. “I cannot emphasize enough the amount of skewing there is,” says Pat Levitt, the scientific director for the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, “in terms of the number of studies that focus on the early years as opposed to adolescence. For years, we had almost a religious belief that all systems developed in the same way, which meant that what happened from zero to 3 really mattered, but whatever happened thereafter was merely tweaking.”

Zero to 3. For ages, this window dominated the field, and it still does today, in part for reasons of convenience: Birth is the easiest time to capture a large population to study, and, as Levitt points out, “it’s easier to understand something as it’s being put together”—meaning the brain—“than something that’s complex but already formed.” There are good scientific reasons to focus on this time period, too: The sensory systems, like hearing and eyesight, develop very early on. “But the error we made,” says Levitt, “was to say, ‘Oh, that’s how all functions develop, even those that are very complex. Executive function, emotional regulation—all of it must develop in the same way.’ ” That is not turning out to be the case. “If you’re interested in making sure kids learn a lot in school, yes, intervening in early childhood is the time to do it,” says Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University and perhaps the country’s foremost researcher on adolescence. “But if you’re interested in how people become who they are, so much is going on in the adolescent years.”

If humans really do feel things most intensely during adolescence, and if, at this same developmental moment, they also happen to be working out an identity for the first time—“sometimes morbidly, often curiously, preoccupied with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are,” as the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote—then it seems safe to say this: Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.

Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines. All were different roads to adulthood; many were undesirable, if not outright Dickensian. But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults. They were not sequestered as they matured. Now teens live in a biosphere of their own. In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.

Something happens when children spend so much time apart from adult company. They start to generate a culture with independent values and priorities. James Coleman, a renowned mid-century sociologist, was among the first to analyze that culture in his seminal 1961 work, The Adolescent Society, and he wasn’t very impressed. “Our society has within its midst a set of small teen-age societies,” he wrote, “which focus teen-age interests and attitudes on things far removed from adult responsibilities.” Yes, his words were prudish, but many parents have had some version of these misgivings ever since, especially those who’ve consciously opted not to send their kids into the Roman amphi­theater. (From the website of the National Home Education Network: “Ironically, one of the reasons many of us have chosen to educate our own is precisely this very issue of socialization! Children spending time with individuals of all ages more closely resembles real life than does a same-age school setting.”)

In fact, one of the reasons that high schools may produce such peculiar value systems is precisely because the people there have little in common, except their ages. “These are people in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status,” says Robert Faris, a sociologist at UC Davis who’s spent a lot of time studying high-school aggression. “There’s no natural connection between them.” Such a situation, in his view, is likely to reward aggression. Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-­denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—­rather than the subtleties of personality. “Remember,” says Crosnoe, who spent a year doing research in a 2,200-student high school in Austin, “high schools are big. There has to be some way of sorting people socially. It’d be nice if kids could be captured by all their characteristics. But that’s not realistic.”

The result, unfortunately, is a paradox: Though adolescents may want nothing more than to be able to define themselves, they discover that high school is one of the hardest places to do it. Crosnoe mentions the 1963 classic Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, in which the sociologist Erving Goffman very devastatingly defines the term in his title as “a trait that can obtrude itself upon attention … breaking the claim that other attributes have on us.” For many people, that’s the high-school experience in a nutshell. At the time they experience the most social fear, they have the least control; at the time they’re most sensitive to the impressions of others, they’re plunked into an environment where it’s treacherously easy to be labeled and stuck on a shelf. “Shame,” says Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, “is all about unwanted identities and labels. And I would say that for 90 percent of the men and women I’ve interviewed, their unwanted identities and labels started during their tweens and teens.”

Out of all the researchers who think about high-school-related topics, Brené Brown may be the one whose work interests me most. Since 2000, she has studied shame in pointillist detail. She’s written both academic papers and general-interest books on the subject; her ted lecture on shame was one of the most popular of all time. Because that’s what high school—both at the time and as the stuff of living memory—is about, in its way: shame. And indeed, when Brown and I met for breakfast this fall, she told me that high school comes up all the time in her work. “When I asked one of the very first men I ever interviewed, ‘What does shame mean to you?’ ” she recalled, “he answered, ‘Being shoved up against the lockers.’ High school is the metaphor for shame.”

The academic interest in shame and other emotions of self-consciousness (guilt, embarrassment) is relatively recent. It’s part of a broader effort on the part of psychologists to think systematically about resilience—which emotions serve us well in the long run, which ones hobble and shrink us. Those who’ve spent a lot of time thinking about guilt, for example, have come to the surprising conclusion that it’s pretty useful and adaptive, because it tends to center on a specific event (I cannot believe I did that) and is therefore narrowly focused enough to be constructive (I will apologize, and I will not do that again).

Shame, on the other hand, is a much more global, crippling sensation. Those who feel it aren’t energized by it but isolated. They feel unworthy of acceptance and fellowship; they labor under the impression that their awfulness is something to hide. “And this incredibly painful feeling that you’re not lovable or worthy of belonging?” asks Brown. “You’re navigating that feeling every day in high school.”

Most of us, says Brown, opt for one of three strategies to cope with this pain. We move away from it, “by secret-keeping, by hiding”; we move toward it, “by people-pleasing”; or we move against it “by using shame and aggression to fight shame and aggression.” Whichever strategy we choose, she says, the odds are good we’ll use that strategy for life, and those feelings of shame will heave to the surface, unbidden and unannounced, in all sorts of unfortunate settings down the road.

Like among our future families, for instance. Brown says it’s remarkable how many parents of teenagers talk to her about reexperiencing the shame of high school once their own kids start to experience the same familiar scenarios of rejection. “The first time our kids don’t get a seat at the cool table, or they don’t get asked out, or they get stood up—that is such a shame trigger,” she says. “It’s like a secondary trauma.” So paralyzing, in fact, that she finds parents often can’t even react with compassion. “Most of us don’t say, ‘Hey, it’s okay. I’ve been there.’ We say, ‘I told you to pull your hair back and wear some of those cute clothes I bought you.’ ”

And it’s not just the bullied who carry the shame of those years. Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes (subsequently transformed into the movie Mean Girls), points to the now-legendary Washington Post story that ran last spring, which documented Mitt Romney’s escapades as a prep-school ogre: pinning down an outcast and cutting his hair; shouting “Atta girl” to a closeted boy when he tried to speak; leading a teacher with poor eyesight into a set of closed doors. Years later, one of the victims carried that pain with him still (“It’s something I have thought about a lot since then,” he said). But even more telling, she notes, was that Romney’s co-conspirators in thuggery felt so awful about their misdeeds as boys in 1965 that they talked about them openly, on the record, as grown men in 2012. “To this day, it troubles me,” Thomas Buford, a retired prosecutor, told the Post. He carried around that shame for almost half a century.

In the fall of 2011, Tavi Gevinson, the 16-year-old force behind the web magazine Rookie, solicited a wide variety of celebrities for advice about how to survive high school. Among the wisest essays came from Winnie Holzman, the creator of My So-Called Life. “In high school,” she wrote, “we become pretty convinced that we know what reality is: We know who looks down on us, who is above us, exactly who our friends and our enemies are.” The truth of the matter, wrote Holzman, is that we really have no clue. “[W]hat seems like unshakable reality,” she concluded, “is basically just a story we learned to tell ourselves.”

There happens to be a body of contemporary research that suggests Holzman is right. Adolescents often do take a highly distorted view of their social world. In 2007, for instance, Steinberg and two colleagues surveyed hundreds of adolescents in two midwestern communities, asking them to decide which category they most identified with: Jocks, Populars, Brains, Normals, Druggie/Toughs, Outcasts, or None. They also asked a subsample of those kids to make the same assessment of their peers. Then they compared results.

Some were predictable. The kids who were identified as Druggies, Normals, or Jocks, for example, tended to see themselves in the same way. What was surprising was the self-assessment of the kids others thought were popular. Just 27 percent in one study and 37 in a similar, second study in the same paper saw themselves as campus celebrities. Yes, a few declared themselves Jocks, perhaps just as prestigious. But more were inclined to view themselves either as normal or none of the above.

Faris’s research on aggression in high-school students may help account for this gap between reputation and self-­perception. One of his findings is obvious: The more concerned kids are with popularity, the more aggressive they are. But another finding isn’t: Kids become more vulnerable to aggression as their popularity increases, unless they’re at the very top of the status heap. “It’s social combat,” he explains. “Think about it: There’s not much instrumental value to gossiping about a wallflower. There’s value to gossiping about your rivals.” The higher kids climb, in other words, the more precariously balanced they feel, unless they’re standing on the square head of the totem pole. It therefore stands to reason that many popular kids don’t see themselves as popular, or at least feel less powerful than they loom. Their perch is too fragile.

It’s also abundantly, poignantly clear that during puberty, kids have absolutely no clue how to assess character or read the behavior of others. In 2005, the sociologist Koji Ueno looked at one of the largest samples of adolescents in the United States, and found that only 37 percent of their friendships were reciprocal—meaning that when respondents were asked to name their closest friends, the results were mutual only 37 percent of the time. One could argue that this heartbreaking statistic is just further proof that high school is a time of unrequited longings. But these statistics also suggest that teenagers cannot tell when they are being rejected (Hey, guys, wait for me!) or even accepted (I thought you hated me). So much of what they think they know about others’ opinions of them is plain wrong.

Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of Utah, did a well-known pilot study at McLean Hospital a few years ago asking teenagers to look at a picture of a face and identify the emotion they saw. Every adult who looked at that picture—100 percent of them—saw fear in that face. Not the teenagers. Half of them saw anger or confusion, even sadness.

It was a really small study. I wouldn’t necessarily read too much into it. But its results sum up the entire high-school experience, in my view: mistaking people’s fear for something else.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote that high school “is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.” And it is, certainly, in the sense that it’s the last shared cultural experience we have before choosing different paths in our lives. But for years, I’d never quite understood why high-school values are so different from adult ones. In fact, whenever I spoke to sociologists who specialized in the rites and folkways of this strange institution, I’d ask some version of this question: Why is it that in most public high schools across America, a girl who plays the cello or a boy who plays in the marching band is a loser? And even more fundamentally: Why was it such a liability to be smart?

The explanations tended to vary. But among the most striking was the one offered by Steinberg, who conjectured that high-school values aren’t all that different from adult values. Most adults don’t like cello or marching bands, either. Most Americans are suspicious of intellectuals. Cellists, trumpet players, and geeks may find their homes somewhere in the adult world, and even status and esteem. But only in places that draw their own kind.

Robert Faris puts an even finer point on this idea. “If you put adults in a similar situation”—meaning airlifted into a giant building full of strangers with few common bonds—“you’d find similar behaviors.” Like reality television, for instance, in which people literally divide into tribes, form alliances, and vote one another off the island. “And I think you see it in nursing homes,” says Faris. “In small villages. And sometimes in book clubs.” And then I realized, having covered politics for many years: Congress, too. “It’s not adolescence that’s the problem,” insists Faris. “It’s the giant box of strangers.”

As adults, we spend a lot of time in boxes of strangers. “I have always referred to life as ‘perpetual high school,’ ” Paul Feig wrote me in our first e-mail exchange, later adding, when we spoke, that his wife’s first order when she landed her Hollywood dream job was to go fire her predecessor. Brown tells me she frequently hears similar things from men in finance—as a reward for outstanding quarterly earnings, they get to pick their new office, which means displacing someone else. (The corresponding shame led one to consider quitting: “I didn’t sign up to terrorize people,” he tells her in her latest book, Daring Greatly.) Today, we also live in an age when our reputation is at the mercy of people we barely know, just as it was back in high school, for the simple reason that we lead much more public, interconnected lives. The prospect of sudden humiliation once again trails us, now in the form of unflattering photographs of ourselves or unwanted gossip, virally reproduced. The whole world has become a box of interacting strangers.

Maybe, perversely, we should be grateful that high school prepares us for this life. The isolation, the shame, the aggression from those years—all of it readies us to cope. But one also has to wonder whether high school is to blame; whether the worst of adult America looks like high school because it’s populated by people who went to high school in America. We’re recapitulating the ugly folkways of this institution, and reacting with the same reflexes, because that’s where we were trapped, and shaped, and misshaped, during some of our most vulnerable years.

High school itself does something to us, is the point. We bear its stripes. Last October, the National Bureau of Economic Research distributed a study showing a compelling correlation between high-school popularity—measured by how many “friendship nominations” each kid received from their peers—and future earnings in boys. Thirty-five years later, the authors estimated, boys who ranked in the 80th percentile of popularity earned, on average, 10 percent more than those in the 20th. There are obvious chicken-and-egg questions in all studies like this; maybe these kids were already destined for dominance, which is why they were popular. But Gabriella Conti, an economist and first author of the paper, notes that she and her colleagues took into consideration the personality traits of their subjects, measuring their levels of openness, agreeableness, extroversion, and so forth. “And adolescent popularity is predictive beyond them,” she says, “which tells me this is about more than just personality. It’s about interpersonal relations. High school is when you learn how to master social relationships—and to understand how, basically, to ‘play the game.’ ” Or don’t. Joseph Allen and his colleagues at the University of Virginia just found that kids who suffer from mild depression at 14, 15, and 16 have worse odds in the future—in romance, friendship, competency assessments by outsiders—even if their depression disappears and they become perfectly happy adults. “Because that’s their first template for adult interaction,” says Allen when asked to offer an explanation. “And once they’re impaired socially, it carries forward.”

Yet even the most popular kids, the effortlessly perfect ones, the ones who roamed the halls as if their fathers had built them especially in their honor, may not entirely benefit from the experiences of the high-school years. In 2000, three psychologists presented a paper titled “Peer Crowd-Based Identities and Adjustment: Pathways of Jocks, Princesses, Brains, Basket-Cases, and Criminals,” which asked a large sample of tenth-graders which of the five characters from The Breakfast Club they most considered themselves to be, and then checked back in with them at 24. The categories were “immensely predictive,” according to Jacquelynne Eccles, one of the authors. (Criminals were still most apt to smoke pot; male jocks still had the highest self-esteem.) But one datum was interesting: At 24, the princesses had lower self-esteem than the brainy girls, which certainly wasn’t true when they were 16. But Eccles sees no inconsistency in this finding. In fact, she suspects it will hold true when she completes her follow-up with the same sample at 40. “Princesses are caught up in this external world that defines who they are,” says Eccles, “whereas if brainy girls claim they’re smart, that probably is who they are.” While those brainy girls were in high school, they couldn’t rely on their strengths to gain popularity, perhaps, but they could rely on them as fuel, as sources of private esteem. Out of high school, they suddenly had agency, whereas the princesses were still relying on luck and looks and public opinion to carry them through, just as they had at 16. They’d learned passivity, and it’d stuck.

Whether it’s for vindication or validation, whether out of self-punishment or self-­appeasement, many of us choose to devote a lot of time revisiting our high-school years. That’s the crazy thing. In 2011, the Pew Research Center found that the largest share of our Facebook friends—22 percent—come from high school. Keith Hampton, a Rutgers sociologist and one of the researchers who did the analysis, says this is true for college- and non-college-educated Americans alike. In fact, Hampton suspects that Facebook itself plays a role. “Before Facebook, there was a real discontinuity between our high-school selves and the rest of our lives.” Then Mark Zuckerberg came along. “Social ties that would have gone dormant now remain accessible over time, and all the time.”

Maybe that’s what ultimately got me to that nondescript bar near Times Square last fall. Until Facebook, the people from my high-school years had undeniably occupied a place in my unconscious, but they were ghost players, gauzy and green at the edges. Now here they were, repeatedly appearing in my news feed, describing their plans to attend our reunion. And so I went, curious about whom they’d become. There were the former football players, still acting like they owned the joint, but as much more generous proprietors. There were the beautiful girls, still beautiful, but looking less certain about themselves. There was my former best pal, who’d blown past me on her way to cheerleaderhood, but nervous in a way I probably hadn’t recognized back then. I was happy to see her. And to see a lot of them, truth be told. We’d all grown more gracious; many of us had bloomed; and it was strangely moving to be among people who all shared this shameful, grim, and wild common bond. I found myself imagining how much nicer it’d have been to see all those faces if we hadn’t spent our time together in that redbrick, linoleum-­tiled perdition. Then again, if we hadn’t—if we’d been somewhere more benign—I probably wouldn’t have cared.


Love makes you strong: Romantic relationships help neurotic people stabilize their personality

Science Daily, May 9, 2014

Psychologists from Jena and Kassel (Germany) found, that a romantic relationship helps neurotic people to stabilize their personality.

It is springtime and they are everywhere: Newly enamored couples walking through the city hand in hand, floating on cloud nine. Yet a few weeks later the initial rush of romance will have dissolved and the world will not appear as rosy anymore. Nevertheless, love and romance have long lasting effects.

Psychologists of the German Universities of Jena and Kassel discovered that a romantic relationship can have a positive effect on personality development in young adults. Researchers report on this finding in the online edition of the science magazine Journal of Personality. The scientists focused on neuroticism — one of the five characteristics considered to be the basic dimensions of human personality which can be used to characterize every human being. “Neurotic people are rather anxious, insecure, and easily annoyed. They have a tendency towards depression, often show low self-esteem and tend to be generally dissatisfied with their lives,” Dr. Christine Finn explains, who wrote her doctoral dissertation within the framework of the current study[0]. “However, we were able to show that they become more stable in a love relationship, and that their personality stabilizes,” the Jena psychologist says.

The scientists have accompanied 245 couples in the age group 18 to 30 years for nine months and interviewed them individually every three months. Using a questionnaire the scientists analyzed the degrees of neuroticism as well as relationship satisfaction. Moreover, the study participants had to evaluate fictitious everyday life situations and their possible significance for their own partnership. “This part was crucial, because neurotic people process influences from the outside world differently,” Finn explains. For instance, they react more strongly to negative stimuli and have a tendency to interpret ambiguous situations negatively instead of positively or neutrally.

The scientists found that this tendency gradually decreases over time when being in a romantic relationship. On the one hand, the partners support each other, according to Christine Finn. On the other hand, the cognitive level, i.e. the world of inner thought of an individual, plays a crucial role: “The positive experiences and emotions gained by having a partner change the personality — not directly but indirectly — as at the same time the thought structures and the perception of presumably negative situations change,” Finn emphasizes. To put it more simply: Love helps us to tackle life with more confidence instead of seeing things pessimistically straight away.

The scientists were able to observe this effect in men as well as women. “Of course everyone reacts differently and a long, happy relationship has a stronger effect than a short one,” Prof. Dr. Franz J. Neyer says. He is the co-author of the new publication and chair of Differential Psychology of the Jena University. “But generally we can say: young adults entering a relationship can only win!”

For Christine Finn the results contain yet another positive message — not only for people with neurotic tendencies but also for those who suffer from depression or anxiety disorders: “It is difficult to reform a whole personality but our study confirms: Negative thinking can be unlearned!”


Experiencing the Thrill of Young Love Makes You Less Neurotic

by Callie Beusman,, May 12, 2014

Ah, the transformative power of love: that lovely phenomenon of two hearts beating in tender unison, metamorphosing this bleak and mundane world into a reality that’s actually pretty chill. According to a new scientific study, this is a measurable psychological occurrence that actually happens, and not something that the romance-industrial complex invented to trick you into seeing Endless Love in theaters.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Personality, being in Young Love (i.e., a romantic relationship when you are between the ages of 18 and 30) can have a positive effect on personality development; specifically, it’s linked to a decrease in neuroticism. As Dr. Christine Finn, one of the study’s lead authors, told Science Daily: “Neurotic people are rather anxious, insecure, and easily annoyed. They have a tendency towards depression, often show low self-esteem and tend to be generally dissatisfied with their lives.” According to her findings, however, such people “become more stable in a love relationship, and that their personality stabilizes.”

The study followed 245 couples for nine months, interviewing them individually at three-month intervals in order to evaluate both relationship satisfaction and degrees of neuroticism. They also had both partners evaluate fictitious everyday life situations re: their possible significance for their own partnership. Neurotic people tend to interpret ambiguous stimuli negatively and react more strongly to negatively stimuli, but the scientists found that this tendency decreases over time in a romantic relationship.

… In short, LOVE GIVES US THE POWER TO FACE THE WORLD WITH CONFIDENCE. Love is a splendid thing, love can change the way you apprehend the world, love can make you unlearn your negative thought-tendencies, etc. And here I thought I stopped sending my boyfriend psycho texts because I had just gotten lazy.

Posted in history, talkinboutmygeneration, young adult psychology | Leave a comment

Marilyn as reader

What Was In Marilyn Monroe’s Personal Library?

by Jen Carlson,

There are plenty of photos showing Marilyn Monroe in her glamorous Hollywood attire, but there may even be more of the sex symbol… reading. Even a dip in the shallow end of Monroe’s candid video footage and photo archives will show you that side of her, and now you can see what books the former Mrs. Arthur Miller always had her nose in.

According to OpenCulture, when Monroe died in 1962 she left around 400 books behind, “many of which were later catalogued and auctioned off by Christie’s in New York City.” Now on LibraryThing you can get a look at 262 of those books—her collection included Ulysses by James Joyce, Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie, The Roots Of American Communism by Theodore Draper (a risky title to keep around given that whole FBI thing), The BibleHow To Travel Incognito by Ludwig Bemelmans, The Little Engine That Could, and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. She also had a number of books that spoke to a more domestic life, including The Joy of CookingBaby & Child Care by Dr. Benjamin Spock, and one guide to flower arranging.

Upon the release of Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters in 2010, Sam Kashner wrote in Vanity Fair:

“Several photographs taken of Marilyn earlier in her life—the ones she especially liked—show her reading. Eve Arnold photographed her for Esquire magazine in a playground in Amagansett reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed her, for Life, at home, dressed in white slacks and a black top, curled up on her sofa, reading, in front of a shelf of books—her personal library, which would grow to 400 volumes. In another photograph, she’s on a pulled-out sofa bed reading the poetry of Heinrich Heine.

If some photographers thought it was funny to pose the world’s most famously voluptuous ‘dumb blonde’ with a book—James Joyce! Heinrich Heine!—it wasn’t a joke to her. In these newly discovered diary entries and poems, Marilyn reveals a young woman for whom writing and poetry were lifelines, the ways and means to discover who she was and to sort through her often tumultuous emotional life. And books were a refuge and a companion for Marilyn during her bouts of insomnia.”


Marilyn Monroe: Avid Reader, Writer & Book Collector

by Stephen J. Gertz,

She had a personal library of over 400 books. She loved  James Joyce, Walt Whitman, and poet  Heinrich Heine. Saul Bellow and Carl Sandburg were literary heroes. Truman Capote and Isak Dinesen were friends.

And she was married to playwright Arthur Miller.

Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe, edited by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, will be published October 12th by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Within we learn of Marilyn’s intellectual quest.

As Sam Kashner, writing for Vanity Fair, relates:

“Several photographs taken of Marilyn earlier in her life—the ones she especially liked—show her reading. Eve Arnold photographed her for Esquire magazine in a playground in Amagansett reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed her, for Life, at home, dressed in white slacks and a black top, curled up on her sofa, reading, in front of a shelf of books—her personal library, which would grow to 400 volumes. In another photograph, she’s on a pulled-out sofa bed reading the poetry of Heinrich Heine.

“If some photographers thought it was funny to pose the world’s most famously voluptuous ‘dumb blonde” with a book—James Joyce! Heinrich Heine!—it wasn’t a joke to her. In these newly discovered diary entries and poems, Marilyn reveals a young woman for whom writing and poetry were lifelines, the ways and means to discover who she was and to sort through her often tumultuous emotional life. And books were a refuge and a companion for Marilyn during her bouts of insomnia.”

Her marriage to Arthur Miller, the era’s shining intellect (she idolized men with brains), began happily enough and its first few years were amongst Marilyn’s most rewarding. She fit in well with Miller’s intellectual circle.

Indeed, Kashner notes that “attending a luncheon given by the novelist Carson McCullers for the writer Isak Dinesen. Marilyn was gay and witty in this company, easily holding her own – her vitality and innocence reminded Dinesen of a wild lion cub. She became friends with writer Truman Capote and met some of her literary heroes, such as poet Carl Sandburg and novelist Saul Bellow, with whom she dined at the Ambassador Hotel on the occasion of the Chicago premiere of Some Like It Hot. Bellow was bowled over by her.”

Yet Miller perceived things quite differently; he was embarrassed by her when with his friends. She discovered this in a diary entry of his; he was “disappointed” by her. She never overcame her sense of betrayal by Miller; she only felt more unworthy, a theme that ran as a poisoned thread through her life. 

Her love of books was genuine, and if it seems that she lost no opportunity to be photographed while reading it was only a desperate need to be taken seriously as a human being and as a thinking, intellectually curious, down-to-earth  woman with something extra beyond her obvious physical charms that motivated her; she should be forgiven. The magic castle of Hollywood and her image had become a prison and she did what many of the incarcerated do to keep from going insane. She retreated into the private world of books  and explored her thoughts and feelings as a diarist and journal-keeper.

An emotionally fragile woman, it is in photographs like the above that Monroe’s intelligence shines through her eyes. And as we readers know, the world is never better than when sitting down, comfortably in a robe, lost in a good book. Cares melt away. I suspect that she was never more content than when in the company of books. They don’t betray. They won’t wound you.

A list of books owned by Marilyn Monroe, auctioned at Christies, New York

Posted in hollywood, vintage | Leave a comment

Mad Men masculinity

Don Draper’s sad manhood: What makes “Mad Men” different from “Breaking Bad,” “Sopranos”

Modern men aren’t allowed the narcissism of “Mad Men” — but Don Draper’s not exactly a ’60s guy, either

AMANDA D. LOTZ, Salon, April 11, 2014


“But what about ‘Mad Men’?” I’ve been asked this question more times than I can count in the last seven years. It comes up any time I mention working on my book, “Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the 21st Century,” which examines many of the cable dramas that can be found on television schedules alongside “Mad Men,” but excludes Don Draper and crew. “Mad Men” may be a 21st century television show, but Don Draper is not a 21st century man, and the changes in how men are valued are brought into stark relief when considering Don in comparison with his 21st century contemporaries.

“Mad Men’s” 2007 debut places it chronologically in the middle of the trend of male-centered serials — a subgenre notable for serially structured storytelling that explores the whole life of its male protagonists. “The Sopranos” arguably initiates the form in 1997, and a succession of series including “The Shield” (2002), “Nip/Tuck” (2003), “Rescue Me” (2004), “Californication” (2004), “Dexter” (2006), “Sons of Anarchy” (2008),”Hung” (2009), “Breaking Bad” (2008) and “Justified” (2010) follow as noteworthy examples. The absence of shows that attend to both the home and work lives of male protagonists prior to “The Sopranos” and the speed by which the male-centered serial became an identifiable subgenre are astounding. Though men have always been prevalent on television and commonly characterized to have both professional and domestic roles, very few series explored stories in both spheres with near equivalent depth until the early 2000s.

Many have described these as shows as about “antiheroes” to acknowledge how the shows’ protagonists are not the unequivocal heroes common among television protagonists past. But these characters and the struggles the series depict are most interesting for the aspects of male identity that are revealed as heroic, and this is where Don Draper is clearly a man of another century. Where Don grapples with how to be Don Draper, 21st century protagonists such as Walter White, Jax Teller and Ray Drecker are fundamentally unsure about how to be men.

Modern men aren’t afforded nearly the narcissism allowed “mad men.” Don is largely indifferent to the loss of his family following his divorce from Betty, and is motivated by the ego affirmation achieved professionally. The journey of the series may be Don’s quest to fit the man he thinks himself to be into the circumstances he finds himself within, but this sense of misplacement comes from his disavowal of his own past and his choice to claim another’s identity. His crisis is not a struggle with the masculinity generally affirmed by ’60s culture.

In contrast, the narrative journeys of protagonists set in the 21st century depict men struggling most desperately to restore or maintain families. A central component of their identities is the importance they place on being a good father, though this is shown as challenging and is achieved with limited success. Far from kings of their kingdoms, these men are fallible and make missteps.

The difference of contemporary masculinity is most apparent in the dealings 21st century protagonists have with their fathers or men of their fathers’ generation. Though Don easily assimilates the masculinity of the more senior Roger Sterling, who indifferently moves through a caddish succession of wives and women and whose most intimate link to his daughter is through his checkbook, 21st century protagonists exist in constant tension with their progenitors. Contemporary protagonists realize the legacy of masculinity offered by their fathers is bankrupt, and though they know they must be a different kind of man, precisely how to be a 21st century man often eludes them.

Even outside the male-centered serials, contemporary television is rife with men embodying masculinities very different than those who have come before. Changes in norms of masculinity first became apparent with the “new men” of the 1980s. But these men — consider the cast of “thirtysomething” as an indication — were arguably how we might imagine men changed by feminism to be. But with little fanfare, television men changed a lot in the following decades, so that equitable, companionate marriages now predominate across broadcast and cable, drama and comedy. NBC’s family drama “Parenthood” features three generations of men struggling to figure out and become the men they are expected to be, while ABC’s “Last Man Standing” features Tim Allen reinventing his role as a family man 20 years after the debut of “Home Improvement.”  The role may return Allen as a patriarch, but he is not easily categorized as patriarchal. As Mike Baxter, he is openly ideologically conservative, and yet can be argued feminist in many respects.

Though “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” have garnered extensive press attention and devoted — if demographically narrow — fan bases, none of these series nor their contemporaries have been considered as evidence of changing gender scripts in the way shows such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Murphy Brown,” “Ally McBeal,” “Sex and the City” and “Girls” have drawn discussion and dissection as emblematic of the zeitgeist of female identity. What would it take to see, really see, men, as men, on television? Does it matter that stories full of men embodying worlds changed by feminism can be found across scripted television (though reality TV largely remains a vestige of a previous era)? How is it that the conventions of masculinity and male identity could have changed so much without accompanying discussion of these challenges, or even a significant panic?

From the fashion, to the politics, to the men themselves, there is no doubt “Mad Men” provides a glimpse of the ’60s. But one of its greatest contributions is to make clear just how much what it means to be a man has changed.

“Interesting. I do see a lot of differences in the shows. But I think you’d need to consider Don’s relationship with Sally a bit more fully, because that relationship is the key motivator to resolving his crisis. Throughout the series there have been major moments involving her and involving Don seeing himself through her eyes. She’s moved from making him rummy French toast to loathing him without really knowing him, and he’s deeply affected by that. Mad Men is hitting on a huge theme in defining modern fatherhood: as children age and expect more than a dad who is a dashing figure coming home from the city, do fathers reject facing their own failures because they can see themselves through their children’s eyes and start anew with a new batch of kids (Don hallucinated Megan pregnant while on the Sunkist trip and said as much) or do they man up and become both better and known? What would be a more post-modern exploration of masculinity than that?” – Deb Rox

“You ignore Don’s indifferent upbringing, and his need to compensate for being an unwanted child.  At least speak to what is shown in the series, in many evocative scenes:  the child who helplessly endures and as an adult, must mask any sense of caring for himself or anyone.  Don Draper the Mad Man lived in a society that refused to acknowledge the extent to which one’s past impinges on one’s present; if we fail to acknowledge (much less deal with) our past life, we fail to free our psyches of that past, which will, therefore, continue to exert power in our relationships and lives.  Sure, many of us want to leave the past behind; but we have to acknowledge and honor its power.” – lincolncat


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Marilyn, fifty years later

Inventing Marilyn


Anyone who thinks the story of Marilyn Monroe doesn’t warrant such attention doesn’t know much about it.
By Caitlin Flanagan,, February 20, 2013

Thump—it landed on the doorstep last summer like an abandoned baby: the newest biography of Marilyn Monroe, a bouncing 515 pages and obviously loved. Tucked between its covers were 51 pages of footnotes, an 88-person list of interviewees, a four-page guide to abbreviations and “manuscript collections consulted.” Had it found a forever family? Sadly, no; it had been left at yet another hateful group home. After some mild bureaucratic processing—its publicity materials and padded mailer confiscated and tossed in the recycling bin, its well of familiar photographs perfunctorily ticked through—it ended up on a shelf crammed with other Marilyn bios, some tall and lovely and filled with pictures, others squat and densely written, a few handsomely published and seemingly important. It would have to find its place.

But before any actual reading could begin—how quickly Marilyn herself had taken to serious books, and how quickly she’d abandoned them—real life had to be attended to, and it was the busy season: the summer months that begin with the anniversary of her birth and round with that of her death.

The new biography, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, is the work of Lois Banner, a historian at the University of Southern California who writes that she was propelled toward her subject because it had never been tackled by someone like her: “an academic scholar, feminist biographer, and historian of gender.” The book took her 10 years to write, which is about how long it takes to read, albeit for the best possible reason: it is rigorously, at times obsessively, well researched. More appealingly, Banner’s academic orientation did not preclude her from going native. In the course of her work, she joined a Marilyn fan club, became a major collector of the star’s artifacts, contributed to a fund that paid for a new bench outside the Westwood crypt, and published a coffee-table book devoted to items from Marilyn’s personal archive. For those of us who love Marilyn, The Passion and the Paradox constitutes an invaluable resource, a compendium of the latest discoveries, a settling of long-festering questions, and a thoughtful and thorough revisiting of the subjects we love most. For the general reader, however, the book will be overwhelming and impossible. How can a civilian be expected to care about the details of a real-estate deal that led to the 1910s development of the Whitley Heights tract in the Hollywood Hills? An introductory note is addressed, casually, to those “familiar with the biographical tradition on Monroe”; indeed, it is this tradition itself, more than any freshly excavated facts about the life, that demands a reckoning. Serious books about Marilyn number in the high hundreds, possibly the thousands; together they describe not just the transformation of a poor California girl into an international sex symbol but also the posthumous transformation of that sex symbol into something shockingly urgent, completely contemporary, and forever bankable.

Two years ago, moviegoers were made aware of an obscure account of a brush with Marilyn. The Prince, the Showgirl and Me is the diary of a young Englishman who signed on as an assistant for a Monroe film shooting outside London in 1956. A minor bit of business, it contains some wickedly apt observations—the author was the son of Lord Kenneth Clark—among them this hideously precise description of the young man’s first glimpse of the star: “She looked absolutely frightful … Nasty complexion, a lot of facial hair, shapeless figure and, when the glasses came off, a very vague look in her eye.” The experience became the movie My Week With Marilyn, the critical success of which was grounded not just in Michelle Williams’s much-admired portrayal of the star but also in the general assumption that the source material provided something rare and therefore precious. Certainly there can’t be many firsthand reports of private time spent with an unguarded Marilyn Monroe? In fact, there are too many to count. The “Marilyn and me” genre is a significant one in this field; to have once teased the woman’s hair or hand-waxed her car was justification for running a few eager pages through the typewriter and seeing if anyone would bite. That the deeply personal revelation vouchsafed to the nearest stranger was her preferred mode of pleasantry eluded her confessors: each thought that he or she had been specially selected as kindred spirit; each felt anointed as a person of particular understanding of the mysterious and private woman. There are Marilyn memoirs written by her cook; her masseuse; her call-girl neighbor; the half-sister whom she met as a teenager; Lili St. Cyr’s fifth husband, who claims he brought the two women together in a three-way; Lee Strasberg’s jealous daughter; several of the photographers who shot her; men who claimed to be former lovers; former husbands—the list is endless. She lived in the days before the nondisclosure agreement became commonplace in Hollywood, and the trail of “As I remember her” dispatches (many of them legitimate, some of them surely hoaxes) reveals as much, to say nothing of the hundreds of detailed interviews granted over the years to players big and small. But this is just one branch of Marilynology. Also to be considered are the doorstop biographies and the pop bios, the luxe books of photographs and quotations, the novels inspired by her legend, the “What can it all mean?” reveries. Hers is the original True Hollywood Story, and that writers keep writing it and readers keep reading it, that studios keep optioning it and adapting it, that magazines keep telling it, while all around the world millions of people do their part to keep it alive—all of this reminds us that the life was not mere, that the scope of the legend is not preposterous. Anyone who thinks the story of Marilyn Monroe doesn’t warrant attention doesn’t know much about it; at every turn and in every moment, she was doing something either to align herself with an important part of the culture or to impress herself imperishably upon it.

Marilyn Monroe was baptized by Aimée Semple McPherson, analyzed by Anna Freud, befriended by Carl Sandburg and Edith Sitwell, romanced (if you can call it that) by Jack and Bobby Kennedy, painted by Willem de Kooning, taught acting by Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg, photographed by Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. She managed—on the strength of limited dramatic talent and within a studio system that paid no attention to individual ambition—to work with some of the greatest directors in movie history: twice with John Huston, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks, and once each with George Cukor, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Laurence Olivier. She was the first Playboy centerfold and one of the first women to own her own production company; she was a nudist and a champion of free love long before these concepts emerged into the national consciousness. She maintained a deep association with the American military that, all on its own, lent her a mythic stature. When the Second World War broke out, she became both a teenage war bride and an actual Rosie the Riveter (long days spent working in the fuselage-varnishing room of the Radioplane plant in Burbank); her first cheesecake photographs were taken in the spirit of “morale boosters” for the boys overseas; her famous appearance in Korea—wriggling onstage in her purple sequined dress, popping her glorious platinum head out of the hatch of the camouflaged touring tank rolling her to the next appearance—remains the standard against which any American sex symbol sent to entertain the troops is measured. She was the first celebrity to talk openly about her childhood sexual abuse, a kind of admission that has become so common today that we hardly take notice of it. But to tell reporters in the 1950s that you had been raped as an 8-year-old—and to do so without shame, but rather with a justifiable sense of fury and vengeance—was a breathtaking act of self-assurance.

Few adults have had less impetus to become serious readers—her people rarely ventured beyond Science and Health; a studio doctor once diagnosed her as dyslexic—but she tried again and again to read the great books, holing herself up in bedrooms with Dexedrine and champagne and willing herself through Antigone. She may have rarely finished the volumes she attempted, but she thought reading was an important and ennobling enterprise, and she gave it her all. When she died, her possessions included—along with a famously meager assortment of battered kitchen utensils and down-at-the-heels Ferragamos, a broken Golden Globe, some pottery and serapes she’d hauled back from Mexico with the vague idea of decorating her last house in the hacienda style—an astonishing collection of books. She had Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, Robert Frost and William Blake, a book on snobbery and the 1836 album of the Garrick Club. She was the stroke-book queen of the 1950s, stretched nude and willing on red crushed velvet, and yet she was the Hollywood actress most interested in intellectual life and in intellectuals, committing herself to method acting and psychoanalysis, plugging away at Crime and Punishment, and marrying (I don’t mean to imply she had some kind of native genius for all this) Arthur Miller. She loved dogs and cats and children, and all her life she had the foster child’s animal craving for family, so she was forever inserting herself into other people’s stable households—moving in with her drugs and her sexual eagerness, her kitten sweetness and her blinding anger, her father fixation and her nighttime wanderings—and wreaking havoc on them. With the trembling lip and laughably bad line readings of her earliest days, she should have been washed‑up from week one. What would she do, an early pal earnestly asked her, if 50 percent of the experts in Hollywood told her she didn’t have any talent? “If 100 percent told me that,” she replied, “100 percent would be wrong.”

And then, just like that, a few months after her 36th birthday, she was gone—the brilliant platinum head yanked back down the hatch forever. Never has death been so good for the back catalog. Billy Wilder was correct in the one compliment he reliably paid her: she really did have perfect timing. Almost as soon as she’d choked down the last of the Nembutal, the culture took a sharp turn away from everything she seemed to represent. Think of it this way: at the time of her suicide, the Rolling Stones had just played their first gig; Timothy Leary was two years into his experiments with LSD; and the Vietnam War was about to turn a pinup girl’s visit to the troops into a sexually reactionary act, so there would have been only a slow, ugly death coming for her if she hadn’t cashed out when she did. The next few years made a mockery of women like her, banishing them to television variety shows and gag roles: the bottle blonde with the chinchilla stole and the sugar daddy, stuck like a La Brea Tar Pit mammoth in the hardening pastel Bakelite of ’50s populuxe. Only a veterinary-level dose of barbiturates stood between Marilyn and a second callback for Eva Gabor’s role on Green Acres. Maybe she even saw it coming: “Please don’t make me a joke,” she is supposed to have said, not long before the end.

And so began the hibernation of Marilyn Monroe, starting off with a New York Times obituary printed the day after her death that clearly understood she was a phenomenon—the “golden girl of the movies”—but casually listed her measurements as a relevant matter of public record, marveled at her “flesh impact,” and mentioned by name only four of her movies: one she’d been fired from, one in which she’d had a tiny part, one that was apparently significant only because it had led a deranged Turk to slit his wrists while watching it, and one bona fide stinker, which she’d caused to go $1 million over budget. In essence, the obituary correctly identified her—as Gloria Steinem, conducting a very different bit of business, would also later identify her—as a minor American actress.

And so she slept, the minor actress, while the country began its forgetting of her and DiMaggio’s roses wilted, week after week, out in the Westwood sun. Elizabeth Taylor ballooned into sexual irrelevance and Eva flattered Arnold the pig, and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” offered up a kind of sexuality that seemed, on the surface of things, completely foreign to the one Marilyn had purveyed. Better, too, that she missed the moldering decline of those with whom she had been young: Joltin’ Joe putting on a cardigan and turning into Mr. Coffee; Jane Russell tugging at her giant Playtex bra as the full-figured gal; Arthur Miller becoming even more Arthur Miller than ever. Time passed and passed, until the strange and wonderful year of 1973 rolled around, and Marilyn Monroe was located by the strangest search-and-rescue team in history: Norman Mailer and Elton John.

Mailer appoints himself, in Marilyn: A Biography, the “psychohistorian,” which was one of the few job openings available on the project, given that he had brazenly—and, as it would turn out, scandalously—farmed out the role of actual historian to Fred Guiles, the author of the one significant biography that had been published since the star’s death, Norma Jean. That book is an old-school movie-star bio, and a generally excellent one; what a pity that it’s rarely read. Nonhysterical, unburdened by the notion that the subject was anything more or less than a Hollywood star with a singularly interesting life, Norma Jean is mostly right on the big things while always fascinating on the small ones. It was written at a time when many of the players were not yet wary of the press, and were in fact eager to tell their stories. Come across some interesting fact about Marilyn Monroe’s life nowadays—that her first groom’s white jacket got splashed with tomato soup at the reception, or that her mother used to pick her up from her boardinghouse on the weekends to go to Gay’s Lion Farm in El Monte—and nine times out of 10, you can trace it back to Guiles. Or, as Mailer would have it, Guiles’s work is “of much estimable value for verifying the events of her life,” surely the loosest interpretation of the term verifying on record. “The final virtue of Norma Jean,” says Mailer, “is that a great biography might be constructed on its foundations.” What is a “great” Marilyn biography? One that dwells on the similar letters in the subject’s name and his own (“If the ‘a’ were used twice and the ‘o’ but once,” he ponders, they would spell out his own name, “leaving only the ‘y’ ”); that vets the nutty possibility that she had been killed by the Kennedys, in a sort of single-Nembutal conspiracy theory; and that stirs everything together with a heaping helping of Norman Mailer deep-think:

In her ambition, so Faustian, and in her ignorance of culture’s dimensions, in her liberation and her tyrannical desires, her noble democratic longings intimately contradicted by the widening pool of her narcissism (where every friend and slave must bathe), we can see the magnified mirror of ourselves, our exaggerated and now all but defeated generation, yes, she ran a reconnaissance through the Fifties, and left a message for us in her death, “Baby go Boom.”

In short, Mailer’s book was brilliant stuff because, in its incomprehensible badness, it performed a bit of wizardry: it turned the life and times of Marilyn Monroe into weighty material. In her New York Times review, Pauline Kael writes that Mailer “pumps so much wind into his subject that the reader may suspect that he’s trying to make Marilyn Monroe worthy of him, a subject to compare with the Pentagon and the moon.” It’s the moon-size Marilyn, brought to us by the periphrastic bard of Provincetown, whom we have inherited.

For its part, “Candle in the Wind,” in which Elton John inhabits the lyrics of Bernie Taupin, performed the next important bit of work: repackaging Marilyn as someone deeply relevant to young people—not just a moving-picture idol from their parents’ drippy, musty past, but someone whose life was a blank canvas of unjust suffering onto which angry teens could cast their own ’70s-size collections of slights and sorrows. Taupin has said that the inspiration for the song came from a remark he heard after Janis Joplin’s death—that she was like a “candle in the wind”—but he had probably also read the Guiles book, a chapter of which is called “Goodbye, Norma Jean.” The song evokes a particular emotional state, one familiar to readers of, say, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. It celebrates the aching ardor that a certain kind of gay man can feel for a beautiful, tortured woman, whose plight is to be dependent sexually and emotionally upon the often brutal and brutalizing force of straight-male lust. The song has a coherent inner logic, even if it doesn’t match up with the facts of Marilyn Monroe’s life. Nobody else set her on a treadmill, and nobody else created the superstar she became; full credit for both achievements goes, deservedly, to Marilyn, who worked as hard for fame as anyone who’s ever achieved it. But it’s the suffering itself that matters; it’s the idea of some shadowy malevolent force sending a delicate soul on a dark journey that was the appeal of the song and that was the true birth of Marilyn Monroe as one of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time.

Just don’t watch the movies! She has her moments in The Misfits, and she does something interesting and often affecting in Bus Stop—but no one could call those great films. And there’s an awful lot of rotten tomatoes in the oeuvre, pictures she tried her best to save but didn’t know how. Have you ever seen her wandering around in Niagara, with her pastel suits and zombie stare, like a My Little Pony on Thorazine? Or mewing her kitten mew in The Seven Year Itch? But all is redeemed with Some Like It Hot, which I first saw a very long time ago and which converted me forever.

When I was 13, I owned a copy of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which my sister had given me as a Christmas present, and a copy of Marilyn: A Biography, which friends had given my parents as a gag gift and I had promptly liberated from the coffee table, not seeing it as ridiculous at all, but rather as deep and tragic and life-changing (the book’s ideal reader, it turns out, is the 13-year-old girl). I can remember sitting on the nubby brown couch in the living room, listening to “Candle in the Wind” over and over, and turning the pages of the book to look at all the portraits of my new heroine: the ballerina sitting, the Something’s Got to Give nudes, the preposterous pictures from her early teenage years, when she didn’t look any more beautiful than I did, which was not very beautiful at all. Maybe there was hope for plain girls everywhere; maybe magic could happen to anyone. So I was already enchanted, already on the road to losing my heart to her, when I came home from school to an empty house one day, clicked on the TV, and lo and behold: Some Like It Hot.

She was at her worst making that movie: late as hell, unprepared, incapable of remembering her lines, sick from pregnancy, and tanked up on vodka and pills, all the time willing to tease and taunt people until they were on their last nerve. Billy Wilder told Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon that they’d better keep their fingers out of their unmentionables whenever they were on camera, because “anytime she gets it right, I’m going to print it.” But it’s the only movie she ever made that fires on all cylinders: a perfect script, co-stars who were better than she was, a role that let her play dumb without in any way giving a dumb performance. The part also came with a sad past, as had so many of her signature roles, but this was the only past set in the midst of not a drama but a comedy, which was a fair approximation of the whole Monroe enterprise: It’s been a kick in the head, this sorry life, but why not have another drink and laugh about it?

This was also the movie that most directly benefited from her association with Lee Strasberg, because for once in his life the old windbag gave an actor a specific bit of advice about a particular role, one that could carry her through the whole picture. The reason Sugar Kane latches on so quickly to Josephine and Daphne, he told her, is because they’re nice to her; they want to be her friends. The defining aspect of Sugar’s existence is her terrible loneliness, the raw injustice that such a sweet and trusting person should be cut off from human friendship and affection. From the minute she first encounters Curtis and Lemmon, who do not mean her well, she turns to them; she’s like a pure light pouring over the screen, her radiant happiness at their friendship an illuminating force. “I got a cold chill,” said the first man who ever saw Monroe on film, the cameraman who shot her first screen test. “This is the first girl who looked like one of those lush stars from the silent era.” More than any other role she ever played, Marilyn Monroe was Sugar Kane: manipulative and kind, innocent and mercenary, madcap and melancholy, and most of all desperately lonely. I remember watching her that school-day afternoon and falling a little bit in love with her. “She was so seductive,” Strasberg’s son said of her, “that she made you feel like you were the only person who could save her.”

That was Marilyn Monroe’s shtick and her truth, and it’s still selling books and calendars and posters, still filling up Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. She was the girl who always got the fuzzy end of the lollipop, the abandoned baby and the mean foster kid and the woman who took off her clothes for the camera when she felt like it. I drive past the old Hollygrove orphanage two or three times a week, and usually I don’t give it a second thought. But sometimes I think of that 9-year-old girl, dropped off screaming but forced to stay, and I think of the astonishing fact that somewhere between Hollygrove and the Hollywood Studio Club, which she moved into at 20, she dried off her tears and stopped believing in the realities of this ugly old world, made up her own set of rules and played by them. If 100 percent of the men in movies told her she had no talent, she decided, 100 percent of them would be wrong.


Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by LOIS BANNER

Reviewed by Tom Carson,

The exasperating possibility that Marilyn Monroe was trivial is plainly an idea doomed to never get much traction in American culture. In the half century since her death after ingesting too much Nembutal at age thirty-six —  her final pratfall, or was it suicide? Could it have been. . . murder? — she’s probably put in more time getting pawed by theorists on posterity’s casting couch than any actress in history. 

For Monroe’s interpreters, it’s never enough to view her as touching, pitiable, gallant, an unprofessional pain in the keister (she was), or even just sexy, her cramping but vivid onscreen calling card. No matter who’s doing the decoding, she has to be made to represent something. And that something has to reverberate, even though the cost to her humanity sometimes doesn’t seem all that different from the way Hollywood used to treat her. 

And so much for airing my prejudices. I just figure I’m better off acknowledging that I didn’t approach Lois Banner’s billowy, often irritatingly preening, but ultimately engrossing Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox with the mind vacuumed perfectly free of invidious prior assumptions that reviewers are supposed to aspire to. Still, when Marilyn’s the topic, who can?

Banner’s intent isn’t as unprecedented as she affects to think. She wants to rescue Monroe the “trickster” — self-aware parodist of her own allure, overlooked pre-counterculture rebel, manipulator rather than prisoner of her image, and so on —  from her old gig as a victimized sex object, thereby transforming her into the icon for women she once was to men. In vogue since Madonna turned “empowering” into the ultimate cliché in gender studies, this sort of reclamation job, as Banner herself notes, represents a 180-degree turn away from the attitudes of 1970s feminism’s leading lights. With other priorities in mind — e.g., convincing the rest of us that sexism really existed — they were inclined, you could say, to throw out the interview along with the centerfold. 

That Monroe was a parody of midcentury pulchritude isn’t in much doubt. Banner’s contention that it was a conscious and witty one isn’t unilluminating, particularly when she traces its origins to Norma Jeane’s — as she was then — 1946 attendance at a performance by female impersonator Ray Bourbon. “[She] liked Bourbon’s humor; she saw how comedy could be created by exaggerating gender roles, playing with femininity as though it were a masquerade. It was a lesson she would never forget.” Still, that last assertion begs for some kind of documentation, which — as is often the case when Banner makes this kind of claim — isn’t forthcoming. 

The same goes for the aspect of The Passion and the Paradoxthat’s snared the most advance attention — that is, Banner’s revelation of Marilyn’s lesbian tendencies. Somewhat surprisingly for the time, Monroe did acknowledge having them, and yet — the usual Hollywood rumor mill aside — there’s no real evidence she ever acted on them. (Her intimate and somewhat murky dependence on acting coach Natasha Lytess is the best card Banner has to play, but it’s far from conclusive.) Yet that doesn’t stop our biographer from increasingly treating her own guesswork as fact, culminating in the flat statement near the book’s end that Monroe “preferred [my italics] women as sexual partners.” Restraint isn’t her specialty.

Monroe’s sex life with men, which was voluminous, leaves Banner’s analysis riding madly off in all directions. At times, she pushes the argument that Marilyn’s promiscuity came out of a “free love” philosophy that serenely blended sex with friendship, making her a suitably valiant avatar for sexual revolutions to come. Yet at other times, her sexuality is variously — and  somewhat more convincingly — depicted as neurotic, compulsive, and either helpless or calculating. All these behaviors, as Banner notes, fit the pattern for a victim of early sexual abuse, which Marilyn was. All this exemplifies the conflict between propagandizing for Monroe as a symbol and trying to understand her as a human being. 

Banner also doesn’t seem to know all that much about movies, aside from Marilyn’s own. I’m not sure where she got the idea that film noir “was an outgrowth of post-World War Two anxiety over the Cold War,” a description that much more soundly fits 1950s sci-fi. It’s silly to say that Cinemascope spectacles like The Robe were made “for conservatives,” as if that were a category separable from the huge audience for biblical epics at the time. Elsewhere, she tries to make Monroe out as a pioneer in taking control of her career by forming her own production company, but that was hardly uncommon as the studio system’s iron grip turned more butterfingered. Even Jayne Mansfield had one. 

Banner’s most annoying tic is that she can’t stop boasting. “I am the first to describe. . . Significant among my discoveries. . . Revealing and analyzing [Monroe’s] multiple personas is a major contribution of mine to Marilyn scholarship. . . I was drawn to writing about Marilyn because no one like me — an academic scholar, feminist biographer, and historian of gender — had studied her. . . Throughout my book I present a new Marilyn, different from any previous portrayal of her.” This kind of rodomontade clutters her book’s prologue to the point that you  wonder how you’ll stand spending 515 pages in this woman’s company, and the self-congratulatory tone keeps recurring later on. By way of a bonus, she fills us in on another reason for her affinity with Marilyn: “Blonde and blue-eyed, I had her body dimensions and won beauty contests.” Oh.

Throughout the book, her theorizing about Monroe’s significance can feel like all chalk and no blackboard. But the good news is that Banner is hardly the first writer to misjudge her own gifts. Whenever she gives her various agendas a rest and just tries to absorb us in Marilyn’s never uninteresting life,Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox gets a lot better. The research has depth, and the choices about how to use it often have bite. The portraits are vivid. Best of all, Banner’s ample use of fresh and often piquant detail brightens up even the most familiar parts of the story. 

Actually, nearly all of it is familiar, thanks in large part to Marilyn herself. Few stars before her had been so ready to treat fame as an ongoing psychiatry session about a  traumatic childhood. Brought into this world minus a known-for-sure dad by a Christian Scientist mother whose mental instability (and, possibly, resentments) plunked Norma Jeane into no less than eleven foster homes, she was married off at sixteen to a dumb but kind lug named Jim Dougherty — the equivalent, in the sexual history of the twentieth century, of early Beatles drummer Pete Best. That their wedding was attended by half a dozen of her foster mothers evokes her topsy-turvy upbringing in a nutshell. 

Then Jim went off to war in the Merchant Marine, and photographers with an eye for cheesecake began flocking around. (Banner’s brisk explanation of the difference between fashion and pin-up models — and why Marilyn, ill suited for one, was ideal for the other — is a nice piece of quickie cultural sociology.) In 1949, one of them shot the famous nude calendar pics that marked the dawn of Marilyn-the-icon and threatened her future at 20th Century Fox once it became known, some years later, she’d posed for them. Incidentally, it’s kind of a bummer to learn that one of the funniest things she said at the press conference that salvaged her budding career — asked what she had on during the shoot, she answered, “The radio” — was a canned line thought up by columnist Sidney Skolsky. But with the nudie calendar safely turned to her advantage, 1953’sGentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionairecemented her box-office appeal while defining the blonde-ditz persona she came to lament. 

Banner is often at her best when she’s assessing the men in Monroe’s life — all substitute father figures, to be sure, but also likely to end up tormented if not emasculated when they got recast in her mind as oppressive ones, something they inevitably did. Joe DiMaggio, the New York Yankees legend who married Monroe in 1954, eludes Banner to some extent, not least because to say that verbalization wasn’t his thing is an understatement. But she’s shrewd anyway about how marrying DiMaggio immunized Marilyn from her mottled past: “Whatever sins Marilyn had committed, Joe’s reputation for virtue cancelled them.”

On the other hand, Monroe’s third and final hubby — playwright Arthur Miller — rates a full-scale, fascinating, frequently unpleasant portrait. Among other acts of caddishness, he had a habit of leaving nasty things he’d written about her lying around where she couldn’t fail to read them: an early version of his play After the Fall, a journal entry reading, “I’ve done it again. I thought I was marrying an angel, and find I’ve married a whore.” (That he was capable of thinking in such categories may remind some of us of our preference for Tennessee Williams as a dramatist.)  Yet since he prized his dignity above all else, it’s hard to stay completely unsympathetic to his distress at being reduced to a glorified gofer even as he strove to turn his wayward wife into St. Marilyn in his screenplay for The Misfits, her last completed film. Both of them, as Banner puts it, were “idealists trying to discipline and refine their emotions as well as narcissists promoting careers that could easily go sour.”

Unsurprisingly, the Kennedys — with whom Marilyn’s legend will be entwined until doomsday — do not come off well. After decades of obfuscation, it’s now widely accepted that she had liaisons with both Jack and brother Bobby. It’s considered possible, at least, that the latter if not the former played some role in precipitating her death. Forty years ago, Norman Mailer’s speculations in his huff-puffing Marilyn that she’d been knocked off to hush her up were universally derided, but clearly times have changed. 

Banner’s version of what might have happened on or just before August 4, 1962, is an orgy of hypothetical conspiracies mixed up with some intriguing circumstantial evidence and too many cooks to keep straight, not to mention an ill-mannered digression that takes swipes at a fellow gumshoe on the trail. It’s not quite clear whether she actually believes Monroe’s death was murder or Bobby was involved. But it’s interesting to learn that DiMaggio did think the Kennedys were culpable in some way. 

Was Monroe a good actress? Might she have become a great one if the studio had cast her in the dramatic roles she craved instead of pigeonholing her as a comic sexpot? Depending on your point of view, those questions are either vital or gloriously irrelevant. Whatever she had — and it may come down to the simple fact that, faults and all, she was a magical camera subject — I’m reasonably sure we got most of it. 

Discounting those heartless enough to suspect it would have been the funniest movie of her career, nobody sane can feel much regret that she never got to play the part she lobbied hardest for: Grushenka, in The Brothers Karamazov. Those lumbering adaptations of classic novels were the bane of Hollywood at midcentury, and Some Like It Hot — the greatest movie Monroe ever appeared in — is for good reason more remembered. 

Even granting that defense lawyers have lots of leeway in making their case, Banner’s idea that Marilyn’s troubles on the set of more than one movie were due to her “perfectionism” — pitched  too high for even Billy Wilder or Otto Preminger to appreciate, apparently — is risible. Making movies with her was hell, for the simple reasons that she kept showing up late, disrespecting her co-stars and directors, and flubbing even her simplest lines. Her Brobdingnagian drug intake didn’t help. Why insist that she was somehow in control when every anecdote suggests that she’d have been flummoxed by the difficulties of running a Wendy’s franchise in Sheboygan? Far more intriguing is Banner’s notion that she might have been a better actress in private life than she was on the screen. 

It would make better sense to argue that Monroe’s faltering style ended up adding a provocatively human, troublingly vulnerable — and, yes, proto-feminist — dimension to otherwise coarse and sexist one-joke roles. But that Kim Novak gambit has nothing to do with the kind of conscious innovation that lit-crits call agency. In her review of Mailer’s Marilyn, Pauline Kael suggested that Monroe — far from being the last of the classic movie stars — prefigured Andy Warhol’s amateurish zombies. Translation: even her modernity was involuntary. 

However — and even though I don’t think it was Banner’s intent — I do owe her for crystallizing an unease I’ve always felt about Monroe’s appeal. The way Shirley Temple’s name keeps cropping up as a point of comparison had me recalling the legendary trouble Graham Greene got into in the 1930s for remarking on the erotic side of Temple’s cutesy posturing. Twenty years later, Marilyn wasn’t Temple grown up so much as a far more infantile and helpless — but permissibly desirable — caricature of childhood. The effect is sharpened by how often her screen persona seems one step removed from abject panic, if not terror. Far be it from me to wonder if American males at midcentury were harboring some secret mass fantasy of sublimated pedophilia. All the same, making the ultimate sex goddess out of someone whose consent wasn’t informed on the best day of her life may be enough to give us the retrospective creeps.


Marilyn Monroe was exploited in life, in film and in print. Here, finally, is a book by Lois Banner, that does not sensationalise her erratic and exotic life, but reveals her as the damaged, childlike and lost feminist she was, says Tanya Gold.

Marilyn Monroe was a construct and it is hard to write about her without sounding like a drug addict or a rapist, which is probably what she wanted. It is typical to begin a piece about her with something like, “I’m not enough of a hack to write about Marilyn Monroe but…” and then dive into the myth. The most important facts are: she was a brilliant comedian who mocked the sex doll manqué that was American ultra-femininity in the Fifties, even as she was its greatest incarnation. She was (effectively) an orphan. She was ambitious. She was kind-hearted. She was pornographic. She was a drug addict. She died at 36, and she may have been murdered because she threatened to expose JFK and his brother Robert, both of whom she was sleeping with; if not, she killed herself. This is the chaos the biographer finds.

The Passion and the Paradox is an excellent book, because it does not exploit the woman whose clothes fell off; it is a book one can read without self-disgust. Lois Banner is a feminist and historian who manages to write about Monroe without drooling, weeping or turning it into a movie. Anthony Summers’s 1985 biography was riveting, but it was film noir and it was called Goddess. (It should have been called “Addict”.) This is a detailed narrative that does not scream with hyperbole, or moan with lust. It is much sadder than that.

Who was she? An abandoned child, says Banner, alternately driven and heartbroken. She quotes Elia Kazan, Monroe’s lover: “The talent, the genius, is the scab on the wound, there to protect a weak place, an opening to death…” Her mother, Gladys, went insane when Marilyn was eight. She never met her father, who was probably a man called Stanley Gifford; when she was older, she used to telephone him, and Gifford’s wife would scream and hang up. (On his death bed Gifford claimed her, but the reader always wants to say to Monroe’s men – not good enough, too late.) She lived in orphanages and with foster families (some gave her God, others groping). She says she was raped when she was eight, and she was not believed. She married at 16 and left when she discovered the camera and a job where she could, with the cracked bliss of Electra, call her lovers “Daddy”.

It is fascinating watching Monroe look for recognition, which she thought was fame. She shifted, manipulated and slept her way to it and she always found new families to replace the one that never was. For Banner, Fifties Hollywood is a grotesque place; after reading, I wanted to go there, and burn it down. This is why Louis B Mayer hated the movie about movies Sunset Boulevard and told its writer, Billy Wilder, “You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” It nails the sexual exploitation. Monroe didn’t want to be “an erotic freak… a celluloid aphrodisiac”, but they wanted it, and she complied, with a dreamy compulsion that terrified her friends.

A studio executive told a journalist: “We have a new girl on the lot, with something unusual. Instead of sticking straight out, her tits tilt up.” Then he sent for Marilyn and pulled her top up; Marilyn, the journalist said, “never stopped smiling”. She had her revenge, though – once famous, she dragged ghoulish (female) acting coaches on to the set to maim (male) directors, and she was always late.

She married and divorced two famous men – Joe DiMaggio, the baseball player, and Arthur Miller, the playwright. DiMaggio had her followed for the rest of her life; Miller called her, with unforgivable simplicity for a public intellectual, a whore. He didn’t write about her for years – maybe this is why? By this point, death seemed inevitable, because Monroe’s attempt to redeem herself, to be, at last, wanted, had misfired. Fame is not a substitute for a coherent self, and Monroe, no matter how much she tried, never found one; being the hottest woman in cinema was just another act of self-evasion.

Drugs took her further away, and although Bobby Kennedy was at her home the day she died, I think she overdosed. Some people don’t need to be murdered, because the job is done in childhood. All this Banner tells coolly, making the case for Monroe the feminist, because she named her sexual abuse and stood up to the studios. I think this is true, even if she was broken; as her co-stars in Monkey Business said, she was “half child, but not the half that shows”.


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A (critical) look back at SATC

DIFFICULT WOMEN: How “Sex and the City” lost its good name

BY EMILY NUSSBAUM, New Yorker, July 29, 2013


When people talk about the rise of great TV, they inevitably credit one show, “The Sopranos.” Even before James Gandolfini’s death, the HBO drama’s mystique was secure: novelistic and cinematic, David Chase’s auteurist masterpiece cracked open the gangster genre like a rib cage, releasing the latent ambition of television, and launching us all into a golden age.

“The Sopranos” deserves the hype. Yet there’s something screwy about the way that the show and its cable-drama blood brothers have come to dominate the conversation, elbowing other forms of greatness out of the frame. It’s a bias that bubbles up early in Brett Martin’s otherwise excellent new book, “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ to ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” a deeply reported and dishy account of just how your prestige-cable sausage is made. I tore through the book, yet when I reached Martin’s chronicle of the rise of HBO I felt a jolt. “It might as well have been a tourism campaign for a post-Rudolph Giuliani, de-ethnicized Gotham awash in money,” Martin writes of one of my favorite shows. “Its characters were types as familiar as those in ‘The Golden Girls’: the Slut, the Prude, the Career Woman, the Heroine. But they talked more explicitly, certainly about their bodies, but also about their desires and discontents outside the bedroom, than women on TV ever had before.”

Martin gives “Sex and the City” credit for jump-starting HBO, but the condescension is palpable, and the grudging praise is reserved for only one aspect of the series—the rawness of its subject matter. Martin hardly invented this attitude: he is simply reiterating what has become the reflexive consensus on the show, right down to the hackneyed “Golden Girls” gag. Even as “The Sopranos” has ascended to TV’s Mt. Olympus, the reputation of “Sex and the City” has shrunk and faded, like some tragic dry-clean-only dress tossed into a decade-long hot cycle. By the show’s fifteen-year anniversary, this year, we fans had trained ourselves to downgrade the show to a “guilty pleasure,” to mock its puns, to get into self-flagellating conversations about those blinkered and blinged-out movies. Whenever a new chick-centric series débuts, there are invidious comparisons: don’t worry, it’s no “Sex and the City,” they say. As if that were a good thing.

But “Sex and the City,” too, was once one of HBO’s flagship shows. It was the peer of “The Sopranos,” albeit in a different tone and in a different milieu, deconstructing a different genre. Mob shows, cop shows, cowboy shows—those are formulas with gravitas. “Sex and the City,” in contrast, was pigeonholed as a sitcom. In fact, it was a bold riff on the romantic comedy: the show wrestled with the limits of that pink-tinted genre for almost its entire run. In the end, it gave in. Yet until that last-minute stumble it was sharp, iconoclastic television. High-feminine instead of fetishistically masculine, glittery rather than gritty, and daring in its conception of character, “Sex and the City” was a brilliant and, in certain ways, radical show. It also originated the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television: ladies and gentlemen, Carrie Bradshaw.

Please, people, I can hear your objections from here. But first think back. Before “Sex and the City,” the vast majority of iconic “single girl” characters on television, from That Girl to Mary Tyler Moore and Molly Dodd, had been you-go-girl types—which is to say, actual role models. (Ally McBeal was a notable and problematic exception.) They were pioneers who offered many single women the representation they craved, and they were also, crucially, adorable to men: vulnerable and plucky and warm. However varied the layers they displayed over time, they flattered a specific pathology: the cultural requirement that women greet other women with the refrain “Oh, me, too! Me, too!”

In contrast, Carrie and her friends—Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte—were odder birds by far, jagged, aggressive, and sometimes frightening figures, like a makeup mirror lit up in neon. They were simultaneously real and abstract, emotionally complex and philosophically stylized. Women identified with them—“I’m a Carrie!”—but then became furious when they showed flaws. And, with the exception of Charlotte (Kristin Davis), men didn’t find them likable: there were endless cruel jokes about Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), and Carrie as sluts, man-haters, or gold-diggers. To me, as a single woman, it felt like a definite sign of progress: since the elemental representation of single life at the time was the comic strip “Cathy” (ack! chocolate!), better that one’s life should be viewed as glamorously threatening than as sad and lonely.

Carrie Bradshaw herself began as a mirror for another woman: she was the avatar of the New York Observer columnist Candace Bushnell, a steely “sexual anthropologist” on the prowl for blind items. When the initial showrunner, Darren Star, and his mostly female writing staff adapted Bushnell’s columns, they transformed that icy Carrie, pouring her into the warm body of Sarah Jessica Parker. Out popped a chatterbox with a schnoz, whose advanced fashion sense was not intended to lure men into matrimony. For a half dozen episodes, Carrie was a happy, curious explorer, out companionably smoking with modellizers. If she’d stayed that way, the show might have been another “Mary Tyler Moore”: a playful, empowering comedy about one woman’s adventures in the big city.

Instead, Carrie fell under the thrall of Mr. Big, the sexy, emotionally withholding forty-three-year-old financier played by Chris Noth. From then on, pleasurable as “Sex and the City” remained, it also felt designed to push back at its audience’s wish for identification, triggering as much anxiety as relief. It switched the romantic comedy’s primal scene, from “Me, too!” to “Am I like her?” A man practically woven out of red flags, Big wasn’t there to rescue Carrie; instead, his “great love” was a slow poisoning. She spun out, becoming anxious, obsessive, and, despite her charm, wildly self-centered—in her own words, “the frightening woman whose fear ate her sanity.” Their relationship was viewed with concern by her friends, who were not, as Martin suggests, mere “types” but portrayals of a narrow slice of wealthy white thirty-something Manhattanites: the Waspy gallerina, the liberal-feminist lawyer, the decadent power publicist.

Although the show’s first season is its slightest, it swiftly establishes a bold mixture of moods—fizzy and sour, blunt and arch—and shifts between satirical and sincere modes of storytelling. (It’s not even especially dated: though the show has gained a reputation for over-the-top absurdity, I can tell you that these night clubs and fashion shows do exist—maybe even more so now that Manhattan has become a gated island for the wealthy.) There is already a melancholic undertow, full of foreshadowing. “What if he never calls and three weeks from now I pick up the New York Times and I read that he’s married some perfect little woman who never passes gas under his five-hundred-dollar sheets?” Carrie frets in Episode 11. In a moment of clarity, she tells Miranda that, when she’s around Big, “I’m not like me. I’m, like, Together Carrie. I wear little outfits: Sexy Carrie and Casual Carrie. Sometimes I catch myself actually posing. It’s just—it’s exhausting.”

That was the conundrum Carrie faced for the entire series: true love turned her into a fake. The Season 1 neurotic Carrie didn’t stick, though. She and Big fixed things, then they broke up again, harder. He moved to Paris. She met Aidan (John Corbett), the marrying type. In Season 3, the writers upped the ante, having Carrie do something overtly anti-heroic: she cheated on a decent man with a bad one (Big, of course), now married to that “perfect little woman,” Natasha. They didn’t paper over the repercussions: Natasha’s humiliation, and the way Carrie’s betrayal hardened Aidan, even once he took her back. During six seasons, Carrie changed, as anyone might from thirty-two to thirty-eight, and not always in positive ways. She got more honest and more responsible; she became a saner girlfriend. But she also became scarred, prissier, strikingly gun-shy—and, finally, she panicked at the question of what it would mean to be an older single woman.

Her friends went through changes, too, often upon being confronted with their worst flaws—Charlotte’s superficiality, Miranda’s caustic tongue, Samantha’s refusal to be vulnerable. In a departure from nearly all earlier half-hour comedies, the writers fully embraced the richness of serial storytelling. In a movie we go from glare to kiss in two hours. “Sex and the City” was liberated from closure, turning “once upon a time” into a wry mantra, treating its characters’ struggles with a rare mixture of bluntness and compassion. It was one of the first television comedies to let its characters change in serious ways, several years before other half-hour comedies, like “The Office,” went and stole all the credit.

So why is the show so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind? It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior. Certainly, the show’s formula was strict: usually four plots—two deep, two shallow—linked by Carrie’s voice-over. The B plots generally involved one of the non-Carrie women getting laid; these slapstick sequences were crucial to the show’s rude rhythms, interjecting energy and rupturing anything sentimental. (It’s one reason those bowdlerized reruns on E! are such a crime: with the literal and figurative fucks edited out, the show is a rom-com.)

Most unusually, the characters themselves were symbolic. As I’ve written elsewhere—and argued, often drunkenly, at cocktail parties—the four friends operated as near-allegorical figures, pegged to contemporary debates about women’s lives, mapped along three overlapping continuums. The first was emotional: Carrie and Charlotte were romantics; Miranda and Samantha were cynics. The second was ideological: Miranda and Carrie were second-wave feminists, who believed in egalitarianism; Charlotte and Samantha were third-wave feminists, focussed on exploiting the power of femininity, from opposing angles. The third concerned sex itself. At first, Miranda and Charlotte were prudes, while Samantha and Carrie were libertines. Unsettlingly, as the show progressed, Carrie began to glide toward caution, away from freedom, out of fear.

Every conversation the friends had, at brunch or out shopping, amounted to a “Crossfire”-like debate. When Carrie sleeps with a dreamy French architect and he leaves a thousand dollars by her bed, she consults her friends. “Money is power. Sex is power,” Samantha argues. “Therefore, getting money for sex is simply an exchange of power.” “Don’t listen to the dime-store Camille Paglia,” Miranda shoots back. The most famous such conversation took place four episodes in, after Charlotte’s boyfriend asked her to have anal sex. The friends pile into a cab for a raucous debate about whether her choice is about power-exchange (Miranda) or about finding a fun new hole (Samantha). “I’m not a hole!” Charlotte protests, and they hit a pothole. “What was that?” Charlotte asks. “A preview,” Miranda and Samantha say in unison, and burst out laughing.

The show’s basic value system aligns with Carrie: romantic, second-wave, libertine. But “Sex and the City” ’s real strength was its willingness not to stack the deck: it let every side make a case, so that complexity carried the day. When Carrie and Aidan break up, they are both right. When Miranda and Carrie argue about her move to Paris, they are both right. The show’s style could be brittle, but its substance was flexible, in a way that made the series feel peculiarly broad-ranging, covering so much ground, so fleetly, that it became easy to take it for granted.

Endings count in television, maybe too much. “The Sopranos” concluded with a black screen: it rejected easy satisfaction and pissed off its most devoted fans. (David Chase fled to the South of France.)

Three years earlier, in 2004, “Sex and the City” had other pressures to contend with: while a mob film ends in murder, we all know where a romantic comedy ends. I’ll defend until my dying day the sixth-season plot in which Carrie seeks respite with a celebrity like her, the Russian artist Aleksandr (Mikhail Baryshnikov), a chilly genius she doesn’t love but who offers her a dreamlike fairy tale, the one she has always longed for: Paris, safety, money, pleasure. It felt ugly, and sad, in a realistic way. In one of the season’s, and the show’s, best episodes, she saw other older women settling (Candice Bergen) or falling out of windows (the hilarious Kristen Johnston, who delivered one of “Sex and the City” ’s best monologues: “When did everybody stop smoking? When did everybody pair off? . . . I’m so bored I could die”). The show always had a realpolitik directness about such social pressures; as another HBO series put it recently, winter was coming.

And then, in the final round, “Sex and the City” pulled its punches, and let Big rescue Carrie. It honored the wishes of its heroine, and at least half of the audience, and it gave us a very memorable dress, too. But it also showed a failure of nerve, an inability of the writers to imagine, or to trust themselves to portray, any other kind of ending—happy or not. And I can’t help but wonder: What would the show look like without that finale? What if it were the story of a woman who lost herself in her thirties, who was changed by a poisonous, powerful love affair, and who emerged, finally, surrounded by her friends? Who would Carrie be then? It’s an interesting question, one that shouldn’t erase the show’s powerful legacy. We’ll just have to wait for another show to answer it.


What I learned from my “Sex and the City” parody account
After some time tweeting puns in her voice, I realized: Carrie was a nightmare!

by DANIEL D’ADDARIO, Salon, November 3, 2013

I’d had a love/love-to-hate relationship with “Sex and the City” since I first watched it all the way through in college. (I never had HBO growing up!) Unlike classically-crafted sitcoms like “Friends” or “Frasier,” the series isn’t pleasingly formulaic in a way that comforts the viewer before bed; it’s jagged and arch and withholds the sorts of pleasures that TV can provide. Characters spend long periods miserable and alone; episodes just end at the 30-minute mark without any resolution and without any lessons learned. Protagonist Carrie, obsessed with her one true love, the callous Big, makes the same mistakes over and over; her best friends are each, for some time, trapped by their own unbending personality types (respectively: status obsession, obsession with work, refusal to commit). On the occasion that there is any sense of closure, it’s only temporary — episodes will end, say, with Carrie meeting her three best friends at a café and saying some folderol about how friends are the only thing one can count on in this crazy city, but her loneliness and emptiness hasn’t magically lifted. For all that “Sex and the City” is stereotyped as a comfort-watch for Moscato-drinking sorority girls, there’s something edgy and chilling about it, as noted in a recent reappraisal by Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker.

The only constant over six years was itself alienating: the show’s reliance on Carrie’s narration, full of elliptical, strange puns compounding upon themselves. (This provides a healthy sampling: rhyming “vasectomy” with “the man next to me,” a former couple “needling” one another segues into a character’s acupuncture appointment.) The narration was, at times, the only explicitly comic element of the show.

A year ago, a writer friend and I began summarizing our problems of the moment in emails to one another using the language of the narration — an argot in which actual logic takes a backseat to quick segue and to cringing wordplay. Carrie found solace in punning on her problems even when the problems were very real. Writing like her seemed like a good way to get at the Big and the little dramas of our lives; a way to glide over the surface of things that were complicated and upsetting using a coded language and then moving on to the next plotline.

I don’t know where the idea came from to create what I have to acknowledge up front was an extremely stupid novelty Twitter. I was watching the show on my iPod at the gym one morning, having exhausted all recent podcasts, when it floated into my head vaguely. What if the characters still existed and took into account recent news developments — just as the show, which ran from 1998 to 2004, would pun on the rise of “Survivor” and the growing indispensability of cell phones? The first two “Sex and the City” movies had entirely abandoned the show’s awareness of contemporary New York in favor of fairy tales for an audience that had misread the show as optimistic. What if a third movie kept the strange puns in service of a story about the way we live now?

And just like that, a novelty Twitter account was born.

I followed a few friends and started writing tweets putting the characters into conversation with current events as well as a half-dystopian vision of the present day. As I write this, I am just as aware as you are, reader, of just how frivolous this is, but it was an opportunity to play with words according to a very proscribed format — the Carrie monologue — and to burn off extra creative energy and the frustration of any true “Sex and the City” fan with that show’s tics: Carrie’s puns as vehicle for delivering solipsistic wisdom about herself. The account was an homage to the show and probably the meanest thing I could have done to it.

I kept it up for a while — but, over time, there was only so much even the most elastic “Sex and the City” reality could tolerate. I’d already made jokes about Carrie getting jobs at Gawker and at Vice; was an offhand joke about the Huffington Post’s pay policy worth giving her a third new-media gig? And esoteric humor about Arianna Huffington and Nintendo fans’ so-called “Year of Luigi” wasn’t exactly the sort of stuff Carrie would be concerned with, because I’d so quickly burned through all of the actual facts about what 2013 was like.

Not that it really mattered; the account was growing rapidly (peaking at around 13,000 followers). I got covered on Jezebel and got the opportunity to make a longer version of my script for Vulture. I was incredibly flattered by the attention — who wouldn’t be? But Carrie’s voice was speaking a little too loudly in my head, spinning every headline I read in the newspaper into a pun. To my mind, the most emblematic moment of the series is when her desperate friend Miranda, a harried new mother, admits she doesn’t have a vague idea of what to do; Carrie cuts her off and says she doesn’t have “a Vogue idea” how to fix her piece for a fashion magazine. Imagine actually trying to inhabit a voice that hyperaware of every word around you and simultaneously that eager to drown out the conversation with a new pun so as to avoid acknowledging anything serious.

Carrie, a character who’d always charmed me even as I acknowledged her flaws, was a nightmare!

I’d done a radio interview about the account where they asked me to read a few tweets aloud, and they sounded so inane coming out of my mouth; I was grasping at turning just about anything into a pun about sex — just as Carrie did. This had been fun, but there’s a reason “Sex and the City” took the rest of the year off after each season.

And I couldn’t help but wonder — when does a novelty Twitter go from novel to twaddle? That’s when it hit me: It was time for a breakup.

I decided impulsively to end the whole thing. It seemed a little too esoteric (not to mention too tied up in other people’s intellectual property) to get me a book deal, and besides, spending more time working on self-consciously laborious puns wasn’t what I most desperately wanted to do. I wound the whole thing down with a stream of tweets giving each character some sense of closure: Charlotte was about to discover the art of Lena Dunham, Samantha to act out the plot of “Contagion,” Miranda died (she was always the writers’ least favorite character — remember when they made her eat cake out of the garbage?). And Carrie finally got back together with Big, who was now a bitcoin miner.

I don’t know that I necessarily learned anything from this other than quite how much more I could be doing with what I’ve always thought of as a very busy schedule. But when, in a few months or years, I finally feel down to watch “Sex and the City” again, I’ll be sympathetic with Carrie’s puns, knowing as I do that she, more than anything, wants attention. She may be comically out of touch, from a 2013 perspective, with modern technology, but she’s no different from anyone on social media.


A warning to a new generation of women — don’t let ‘Sex and the City’ ruin your life

Julia Price and Julia Allison,, March 11, 2012

Martinis. Manolo Blahniks. Fabulous Park Avenue apartments and, of course, the word “fabulous” itself. HBO’s six-season run of “Sex and the City” had women moving to Manhattan with visions of finding their own Mr. Big, a brunch-happy power foursome of girlfriends, a career that lands them on the VIP list of every hot event and, of course, a closet full of designer accessories.

Now a new generation is ready for brainwashing, as the CW Network is filming a prequel called “The Carrie Diaries,” starring 18-year-old AnnaSophia Robb as female fantasy action hero Carrie Bradshaw.

But I wonder if fans know that rent-controlled apartments like Carrie’s are as hard to come by as a good-looking, well-adjusted single guy over the age of 35. That “Sex” can be read as much a tragedy as a comedy? Will they be OK using their Prada stilettos to kill the cockroaches that might scuttle across the kitchen in their fourth-floor walkup?

They might be . . . at first. Both of us moved to New York City at age 22 and trust me, we were “sooooo Carrie Bradshaw!” We had all the energy in the world to network, hustle, apartment search on Craigslist again and again and again, and of course there’s dating; the patience to go out with guys who brag about getting a table next to John Mayer at Pink Elephant and expensing their thousand-dollar liquor tab on their JP Morgan accounts (hey, it was 2006).

We would tolerate these guys because of the free group-dinner invites where we shared a meal with young wannabee Tory Burches, Noah Tepperburgs and, of course, five Ford models. Why? We were so eager to learn this world; anxious to suck it all in. It was NEW York and OMG we were like totally “Sex and the City”!

The parties were fabulous and walking up to entrance of the hottest club to find the velvet rope pulled back as soon as the bouncer’s facial recognition associated you as an important person, well, that was power! And feeling special in a city of 8 million people is pretty badass.

But this power high becomes like a drug. If you want to be in the scene, you’ve got to stay in the scene. We had to go out nearly every night just to maintain being considered for these invites. The drinks, the cabs, the clothes — pretty soon you’ve maxed out your credit cards.

Want four friends that get together every week for brunch? Dream on. Every woman comes to New York to be Carrie. No one wants to be Charlotte, Miranda or Samantha. You do the math: Clubs full of Carries, all hanging out with each other, all holding forth, no one really listening. Often the biggest fantasy of “Sex and the City” wasn’t the apartments or the lovers — it was the friendships.

Once the initial excitement of living in the Big Apple dies down, it suddenly becomes clear how hard it is to purely exist, let alone thrive.

There are the tangibles that are fairly obvious. Carrying groceries up four flights of stairs, dealing with hellish landlords, watching a neighbor throw a mousetrap (dead mouse included) right out the window.

Less talked about is the way the city eats at your soul. At 22, the world is your oyster. At 25, the 40-year-old investment banker is looking over your shoulder at the next 22-year-old. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, but how many really do? And even if you’ve “made it,” you’re met not with accolades but glares. A city with “new” thrives on impatience and jealousy; sometimes you feel like everyone’s an intern or a has-been.

And guess what — Mr. Big doesn’t leave his wife.

New York City is f – – – ing exhausting. Sounds obvious, but we wonder how many women who moved here in the last 15 years learned that lesson the hard way, who have ended their “Sex” fantasy not in syndication but one step away from the sanatorium? Probably more than would care to admit it.

“Sex and the City” may have been responsible for our move to NYC at 22, but long before we hit 30, we were ready to get out. We made the move to Los Angeles this past October, and it’s been positive in every way.

We used to get stressed about how everyone seems so much more relaxed out here, but now we’ve become those same chill West Coast people. Why? Because it’s easier. Turns out you can get the same amount of work done, but people know how to switch off. They know how to get outside, take hiking meetings, dedicate time to people. There’s a creative energy flourishing that seemed to be stifled in New York.

So a warning to the next generation of Carrie acolytes. Treat “Sex and the City” like “Star Trek.” A strange new world you will never visit except on TV.

It’s safe to say that we’re settled comfortably in the less-fabulous city of Los Angeles. Well, for now anyway. If you know of any apartments . . .


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Tout le monde est très “Brooklyn”

Brooklyn: The Brand


By STEPHEN METCALF, T Magazine, New York Times, March 17, 2013

How the borough — with its local, back-to-the-basics lifestyle — morphed from landmass to global phenomenon.

BETWEEN BROOKLYN’S heavy-industrial past and the slinging of its first craft cocktail, about the only item in the world branded “Brooklyn” was an Italian chewing gum, called, brilliantly, “Brooklyn,” and subtitled “La Gomma del Ponte.” (Its long-lasting taste supposedly brought to mind the borough’s famous bridge.) Now, of course, you can’t travel to the bottom of the South China Sea without first passing through “the Brooklyn of the Malacca Strait,” or some equivalent nonsense. A preliminary list of places championed for (accused of?) “Brooklynizing” includes sections of Nashville, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and somewhat more alarmingly, Paris, London, Stockholm and Berlin.

What could this even mean? One of the first uses of the term “Brooklynize” I dug up came from a 1920 Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Bulletin. There, to “Brooklynize” was an Orwellian euphemism, for fitting young immigrant labor to stultifying factory routine. These days, of course, it indicates precisely the opposite: the conversion of nature into use value on the daintiest scale possible. Raw stuffs are now distilled, brewed, butchered, jerked, creamed, chutneyed, waffled, taffied, chocolatiered, all by hand, all within the confines of Kings County. For every Vert de Massy waiting to be brined, a steampunk stands at the ready.

To the extent “Brooklyn” now designates more than a mere landmass, it means: small-batch production, urban husbandry, period facial hair, a fixed-gear bicycle, “Girls.” But “Brooklynizing” is different from “Brooklyn.” “Brooklynizing” is the exportation of these culture-pages clichés to fresh landmasses. This would be mildly intriguing if the phenomenon were limited to, say, the Gulch section of Nashville (which, let’s face it, was probably not the Bozart’s fertile crescent before the first baristas arrived). But previously well-credentialed hipster enclaves are now “Brooklynizing” as well. I swear I’ve been hearing about the raffishly un-Californian charms of the Silver Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles for 20 years. Surely Silver Lake featured locally sourced mâche, and remotely sourced Oberlin grads, long before Brooklyn began rebranding every semi-employed young person in its own image.

And the phenomenon hardly stops there. Brooklyn is “the center of cool for Swedes right now,” according to a recent blog post, which reported on young Nordics’ obsession with anything Brooklyn-branded — cycling caps, beer, indie rock ‘n’ roll, you name it. In fact, the 25-year-old Brooklyn Brewery plans to open its first international outpost overlooking the Stockholm harbor this year. Paris, meanwhile, has kept up its capacity to inspire incredulity, this time by embracing anything that can be plausibly labeled “très Brooklyn,” particularly food trucks. There is a Brooklyn Diner in Dubai, a Brooklyn Restaurant in Malaysia, and Gorky Park in Moscow features a trendy snack kiosk with the word “Williamsburg” emblazoned across its top in the Latin, and not the Cyrillic, alphabet.

The point being, many areas currently undergoing “Brooklynization” — Canal-St. Martin in Paris, the Kreuzberg section of Berlin — were teeming and weird, justly magnetic urban neighborhoods already. Isn’t there a simple issue of chronology here? The scrambled lineage becomes considerably less baffling once you realize that “Brooklynizing” is a state of being wholly liberated from the mundane inhibitions of space and time; a fact driven home by the observation that everything we now associate with the word “Brooklyn” actually originated 10 years earlier, in Portland, Ore.

It may strike you as improbable, but I am not trying to be snarky (“snark” still being the only thing locally sourced in Manhattan). “Brooklynization,” after all, represents a serious attempt at repudiation: of Manhattan, of course, whose nosebleed real estate prices pushed the creative class out to Brooklyn in the first place; but also of the logic of globalization, and its elevation of an international elite with no ostensible connection to either specific places or the making of physical things. If the old battle cry of youth authenticity was once Never Sell Out, the new one is Never Scale Up. Here, though, is where the story gets a little complicated, for standardization and homogenization are the gods of capitalism, and they are jealous indeed.

One especially rapier critique of the phenomenon came from Justin Moyer, a musician whose article in the Washington City Paper decried Brooklyn’s ability to suck bands away from far-flung regional music scenes, and toward Williamsburg. Moyer likes Brooklyn well enough — but, as he sees it, Brooklyn has created an atmosphere of creative convergence so intense, so self-aware, so encyclopedically pop-literate, that all its resulting music begins to sound the same. When everyone speaks Brooklynish, everything takes on the accent of Brooklynish.

Brooklyn is no longer the home of Luddite dignity within an urban context; it is the very idea of Luddite dignity within an urban context. Brooklyn, the specific landmass, is where The Local goes to be sanctified, and made ready for export: to Nashville, the Mission and Silver Lake; to London, Paris and Berlin. It is the sound of Local going Global. Such are the wages of contemporary life, I suppose. We reach out for reality, and no sooner do we brush it with our fingers than it turns into a brand.


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New young-adulthood


Trendspotting: New Adult

by Sarah Wethern,, February 21, 2013


Let’s face it, teens today can’t see their futures as easy. On top of their everyday pressures — struggling with new feelings for some peers, maintaining grades, exploring their own interests and increasing individuality — they also have to worry about the economy in ways teens just ten years ago didn’t have to. Back then, summer jobs were available, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles had more established jobs and secure futures. The economy changed all of that in a blink of an eye, and who can say if that level of prosperity will ever come back? Teens are growing up with more uncertainty than ever before.

That uncertainty is playing out through pop culture in many different ways. In the area of books, you might have heard the term “New Adult”. Liz Burns of A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy has a long list of definitions and links to other posts that can give you a rundown of this increasingly popular publishing trend. To quote Liz:

“So, it seems to me that “New Adult” has characters from 18 to 29. It’s people in a time period that is after the perceived safety and narrowness and  intimacy of high school — and by intimacy I mean, having a physical place where everyone goes and shares lunch times and has common experiences of classrooms and lunch times. I say perceived, because that’s not always true.”

Liz has an entire series of posts dedicated to New Adult if you are interested in pursuing this topic in more depth. But many books branded as New Adult portray young adults — I would hesitate to classify the characters as teens, even if some of them are eighteen or nineteen years old — and their struggles, but, based solely on the few NA titles I have read, they are most typically located in a college setting. Where are the reflections of experiences of those young adults who do not have the luxury or option of heading to college right after graduation? Or those who might not want to go to college? Where are the characters that haven’t grown up in some kind of middle class background? People of color are also being left out of the New Adult category.

This problem plays out in another pop culture arena, television. In the popular HBO show, Girls, college graduate Hannah Hovarth is finally facing adulthood after her parents stop paying for her rent and other needs. But what kind of adulthood can she have with few job prospects in a tight job market? There is no doubt that this show examines a type of young adulthood specific to a privileged background.

New GirlTwo Broke GirlsGirls, and Comedy Central’s Workaholics all showcase the sometimes aimless and protracted transition into adulthood that is being tackled by young people today.  Again, there are definite holes in whose stories are being told and explored. As much as I love pop culture, it is so easy to forget that what has become popular is often overshadowing the experiences of most people. Such is life viewed through media.

So how does this all relate back to teens? In many ways, these are the types of experiences teens may be facing soon. Having to live with parents for a lot longer, putting off that move to total independence in adulthood, struggling finding a job. These images on the screen and in the books that make their way into libraries share only a small and particular portion of the trials today’s teens are facing. But there’s no doubt that young adulthood is quite different in 2013 than it was in 2003 or 1993.

We’re only seeing the beginning of this emerging trend. The success of Girls is spawning new shows and yes, probably more books in the same vein. But they need to move beyond, much as I hate to say it, the middle class, white, early-twenty-something experience. Where can we find resources for authentic range of new young adult experiences? How can librarians better showcase those to the teens they are serving?

Comment by Liz B — February 21, 2013

First things first –thank you so much for linking to my series of posts about New Adult.

Second, there is a fascinating look at GIRLS versus Showtimes’ SHAMELESS at The Nation: in terms of the socioeconomic status of Hannah versus Fiona, and I wonder, would Fiona’s narrative, in print, qualify for “New Adult” ? Why or why not?

Next, I’m really curious as to the actual readership of the books falling under New Adult (whether or not the pub/author calls it that). Basically, is this really “teen readers” or is it post-teen readers? Is this something to be working on with adult ref staff because the readers are, say, 21? Is it readers who love all the best about YA but are not themselves teens?

My bottom line: I don’t think NA is a good name; I don’t think it should be its own genre/bookshelf; but I do think it’s telling us what certain readers want in books, and for that reason, it’s good to pay attention.


What ‘Girls’ and ‘Shameless’ Teach Us About Being Broke, and Being Poor

by Nona Willis Aronowitz, The Nation, January 17, 2013

Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls and Emmy Rossum as Fiona in Shameless.


Post-recession, we often blur the distinction between the downwardly mobile and the permanent underclass—especially when wringing our hands over what will become of millennials, many of whom entered the job market just as it was weakest. Here’s an easy way to tell them apart: both are struggling, but the former has a safety net. One has the luxury of moving back home or tapping their college networks for a break; the other faces diminished earning power, a dramatically more precarious job market, and sometimes homelessness—often without any help from parents.

Watching the season premieres of HBO’s Girls and Showtime’sShameless this past Sunday put the contrast in stark relief. The two main characters, Girls’s Hannah and Shameless’s Fiona, are both penniless twentysomething women finding their way through big cities, but they live in completely different worlds. Hannah’s infamous humiliation is that she relied on her professor parents for rent money for years; Fiona’s deadbeat folks have left her to raise her five siblings alone. Hannah struggles to find a job worthy of her college degree; Fiona juggles several gigs at a time, leaving no time to even finish high school. In other words: Hannah is broke. Fiona is poor. And never the twain shall meet?

Maybe not. The funny thing about Hannah and Fiona is that they have pretty much the same job. Hannah works at a coffee shop and Fiona is a cocktail waitress (though that’s just one of Fiona’s many gigs). In context of the modern economy, it’s not hard to picture the two rubbing shoulders. As the service sector grows and the opportunities for the middle-class shrink, young people of all classes find themselves making minimum wage together, and our class distinctions are getting more complicated as a result. Retail and food service are where the post-crash jobs are—the US economy is expected to create 18 million more service sector jobsby the end of the decade—so it’s no surprise that 16 percent of bartenders now have a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, the median net worth of householders under 35 fell 37 percent between 2005 and 2010. Youth unemployment is higher than the national average, but of the recent graduates currently employed, 43 percent of them are at jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree.

Still, none of this means we’re in a classless melting pot; each group’s expectations belie their upbringings. Hannah and her friends, all college grads, are indignant about their dwindling job prospects, while Fiona isn’t surprised that her dreams are deferred. Despite her smarts and work ethic, she’s been shoveling shit to put food on the table for years now, sometimes quite literally. In this Sunday’s season premiere, we find out Fiona has scored a job cleaning up sewage for $18 an hour, the holy grail in her working class neighborhood—but she gets laid off by the end of the episode. And unlike Hannah, Fiona is staring down a monster property tax bill and an endless grocery list. It’s still as hard as ever for the working class. While the “privileged poor” are getting a rude awakening, at least they have a buffer.

For the most part, both shows are stuck in the old model of strict class segregation. In Shameless’s universe, you’re either rich and smug or poor and righteous. Hannah mostly interacts with her own kind, and when her free-spirited friend Jessa suggests to her fellow nannies that they all join a union, it’s played for laughs rather than inspiration. But in the real world, the labor movement may indeed benefit from the class mixing that’s already going on. Last year, when I reported on a group of young, mostly educated, mostly white kids trying to organize the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s in the Twin Cities, I spoke with Macalester College professor Peter Rachleff. He compared the organizers to certain Occupy kids who are “entitled,” “aware of their rights,” and have a safety net in case they get fired. I met a young woman who was galvanized by the realization that her middle-class aspirations may end up being pipe dreams. “What are the real dreams that we can actually accomplish? Fucking building a union,” she told me.

Compare this mentality to that of the working class employees I spoke with at Walmart last month, when reporting forThe Nation on the workers who did not join the strikes, many of whom were terrified about retaliation or just happy to be making money at all. These workers are also hanging back from organizing at places like Burger King, Domino’s and Target.

I later discovered that the Jimmy John’s organizers had trouble convincing people like Fiona and the Walmart workers I met—workers with families and health problems and no backup plans—to join a union. But this is slowly changing as major unions like SEIU invest in these fights and workers reach their breaking point. Rachleff predicts that “as these jobs become less transient, people of all socioeconomic classes may be more vested in making it a better experience.” And as the recession’s fever pitch recedes into the past, a larger number of young people will come to terms that they’ll have these jobs for a while. Eventually, both groups may realize they have nothing to lose by working together.

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The Opt-Out / Lean-In Flipflop

Quitting Your Job to Be a Full-Time Mom Is Probably a Bad Idea

by Erin Gloria Ryan, Jezebel, 8/08/13

Leaving a high powered job to pursue your true June Cleaver stay-at-home-mom smiling-serenely-while-scrubbing-the-grout-in-pearls vocation sounds like an untenable fantasy from jump — like those shoes that were supposed to make your butt look good without exercising, or frozen s’mores (they whole POINT of S’MORES is to be hot. Jesus Christ). But the too-good-to-be-true stay-home siren song was too seductive to resist for many quixotic families — and now women are finding out the hard way that by opting out of their careers at the height of earning power, they’re opting in to a host of unexpected frustrations.

A decade ago, the New York Times magazine ran a cover story featuring several smug, wealthy women who were super duper happy that they’d quit their alpha jobs to focus on taking care of their families — you know, rich people reflecting fondly on decisions they were able to make because they were rich.

”I don’t want to be on the fast track leading to a partnership at a prestigious law firm,” says Katherine Brokaw, who left that track in order to stay home with her three children. ”Some people define that as success. I don’t.”

”I don’t want to be famous; I don’t want to conquer the world; I don’t want that kind of life,” says Sarah McArthur Amsbary, who was a theater artist and teacher and earned her master’s degree in English, then stepped out of the work force when her daughter was born. ”Maternity provides an escape hatch that paternity does not. Having a baby provides a graceful and convenient exit.”

(Yeah, well — if you have a husband who makes a lot of money, it does. Or, if you’re poor and have a kid and you suddenly realize that more than the entirety of the income you’d earn from your low-paying job would go to pay for childcare and you were forced to stay home as a result. But I digress.)

A lot has happened between the 2003 OPT OUT REVOLUTION: Kanye West started making albums, iPads started being A Thing, and the economy took a massive dump all over everyone’s best-laid financial plans. In a piece for the New York Times magazine (Read it. Sh just read it), Judith Warner finds out what became of those satisfied stroller pushing women in the original Opt Out Revolution story. Spoiler alert: it’s not all sitting cross legged on a carpeted McMansion floor whilst wearing $120 yoga pants. It’s bleak.

One woman featured in the Times story in 2003 — who was also interviewed for 60 Minutes — is now divorced from her primary-earning husband and is working part time to support herself while she lives in an apartment that looks out onto a parking lot. Others felt bored and unfulfilled with their full-time momhood and gradually threw themselves into volunteering (which is exactly like working except you don’t earn money). One grew to resent her husband’s expectation that she clean up after him while he’s off earning money. Many tried to re-enter the workforce after their kids were old enough to be embarrassed of them only to discover that the new jobs available to them came with significantly less status and only a fraction of the income of the jobs they left. Some were forced to try to earn money after their husbands lost work only to bump up against a significantly lowered glass ceiling. Jobs were lost. Marriages strained. Yoga pants likely discarded.

“Opting out,” heralded as revolutionary only a decade ago, looks downright foolish in retrospect. First, because quitting your job to take care of the kids because you wanna relies on two completely unreliable entities — a high-earning spouse and the economy — in order to be anything but a risky venture at best, and a spectacular failure at worst. If, say, the money earning spouse dies or runs away with a 19-year-old French au pair, the opter is forced to replace the earnings or pursue spousal alimony, thus remaining dependent on the earning spouse. The one with the money isn’t similarly screwed by losing the opting out spouse; they can simply use the money they’re continuing to earn to hire a person to perform many of the duties that the stay-at-home spouse performed. (Sure, a nanny isn’t the same as a mom, but plenty of kids who had nannies grow up to refrain from pleasuring themselves in their neighbors’ gardens or serial killing; it’s much easier to raise children with the aid of the nanny than it is to live comfortably without the aid of income.)

Things look even worse for the Opt Out Revolutionaries if the rosy economic picture goes to hell, as it did for many Americans in 2008. In those cases, having two incomes would have hedged against microeconomic disaster, and as many women who “opted out” found out, leaving a career isn’t like putting a bookmark in it and setting it down. It’s like having to start over again, and this time the book is written in a different language.

Secondly, “opting out” just doesn’t seem like it would gel, personality-wise, with the sort of hard-driving high earner the Times magazine piece profiled a decade ago. Does it make sense that a person who derives a sense of self worth from earning a lot money and wielding a lot of power would also get their jollies changing diapers?

If opting out was so obviously risky and so obviously doomed to be less successful than the Pepsi revolution, then why did so many women do it? According to the Times piece, we can’t blame the husbands; most were supportive of but not insistent upon their wives’ initial decision to leave the workforce. It’s not that women “don’t want to” rule the world, as the initial Opting Out Revolution piece suggested; if they didn’t want to rule the world, Opt Out Moms wouldn’t feel compelled fill their empty plates again, and they wouldn’t feel frustrated that they weren’t able to resume kicking ass and taking names when they were done packing lunches and signing permission slips.

So, why did women buy into the fairy tale that if they quit their jobs, everything would be hunky dory? Because American corporate culture is outdated and inflexible that participation in it has become incompatible with how many people feel it’s best to raise their families. As Warner points out in the JK About That Opt Out Revolution piece, smartphones and computers and whatzitgadgets have all but shackled workers to their employers, and the expectation of constant availability means that the demands of corporate employment keep people from fully engaging with their families even when they’re not “supposed” to be working. A number of women cited in the Times piece say they dropped out of the workforce because they thought it was a healthy decision for their marriage and their kids, but it seems that a healthier decision for everyone involved would be if companies allowed parents some flexibility — telecommuting, more flexible hours, actual goddamn time off to be a real person outside of dronehood.

Fox News et al has long touted the notion that the reason women lag behind men in earnings is because they’re making choices like the once-christened Opt Out Revolutionaries did (in fact, here’s some bullshit from just this week). But the reality is that the women who left their great jobs to Mom around full time did so because it seemed best for their individual families. Fox News is right that women are free to work themselves to death just as freely as men now, if they want. But once they become mothers, corporate culture pushes them to leave the workforce and then punishes them for doing so.

Throughout Warner’s piece, the women trying to Opt Back In speak repeatedly of regret. They regret leaving their jobs, they wonder where their career could have gone. But regret isn’t exclusive to those who opted out. Regret is a luxury afforded to people lucky enough to have choices. The real tragedy of the women who opted out isn’t that they made the wrong choice; it’s that they were forced to choose at all.


After the Opt-Out Revolution, Asking: How’s That Working for You?

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