Archive by Author

An Open Letter to Time

29 Jun

by Jess

An inappropriate roof

Dear editors,

I believe I may be unclear on Time’s editorial concept for opinion pieces. I was under the impression that they are meant to add something salient and insightful to national discourse, but Joel Stein’s column “My Own Private India” seems designed to highlight nothing but Joel Stein’s racism and his self-satisfaction about it. While I appreciate being warned that I should under no circumstances attempt to, say, respect or admire or interact with Stein in any way, I didn’t think Time’s journalistic mandate involved helping me steer clear of smug bigots. If you’re planning to give print space to everyone who is loathsome so that we’ll know to stay away from them, may I respectfully submit that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew? And if that wasn’t the idea, then what in God’s name was?

I confess I can’t fathom the string of editorial decisions that led to someone actually publishing this piece. Stein’s lack of self-awareness isn’t a big secret, but surely there are editors there who are supposed to keep him from embarrassing himself and the magazine. Did nobody at any point consider that “I have many racist opinions about people from India and I think these opinions are very funny” is not a Time-worthy thesis statement? I realize you’re not exactly the New Yorker (believe me, never have I realized that more keenly than I do right now) but “not blatantly and obviously racist” isn’t really a high hurdle to jump before something is considered publishable.

I suppose it’s possible that everyone on the masthead is under 20 years old, and that they therefore think flagrant racism is edgy and provocative. In that case, stay in school, guys! Don’t do drugs! And I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but racism is still a very present and destructive factor in our lives — in the lives of people like Stein, who allow their racial privilege to turn them into apparently irredeemable jerks, but more importantly in the lives of people like Stein’s Edison neighbors, who face his kind of hatefulness and disdain every day and in every aspect of their lives. Racism is edgy and funny like the Gulf oil spill is edgy and funny to a bird. You don’t get to have ironic distance on this; you’re soaking in it.



(Okay, that’s what I actually wrote to Time, but now that I’m presenting it as a blog post I would be really remiss in not also linking to this post at Sepia Mutiny, which sets a new standard for quality in spluttering outrage.)


Comme des Garçons

16 Jun

by Jess

This post is not really about the clothing label Comme des Garçons but I felt I should use their most garçon-y shoes for an illustration anyway. Also, I want these shoes.

Last Saturday night I went to a burlesque show with my parents. (Do you think this is the only blog post that’s ever started that way?) It actually wasn’t purely a burlesque show — by volume it was mostly a ladies-in-lingerie-playing-accordions show — but there was one really terrific burlesque dancer, Alotta Boutté. She had indeed a lotta boutté, and lo did she shake it all over the stage, which was really fun and engaging and had the crowd howling along. At which point my mom leaned over and said “the audience is all gay men. Why do they like this?”

To which of course the first proper response is “why do YOU like it?” since presumably my mom was not enjoying the performance on account of wanting to make tender love to Alotta. But I think in a general sense the answer is that people like burlesque performances even if they’re not sexually interested in the performer (Alotta is also fat, which is not everyone’s cup of donut juice) for the same reason they like drag shows: because the performance of femininity is interesting and exciting in a way that the obligation of femininity is really not. Femininity, when it’s not presented as a compulsory  accessory to female genitalia, is pretty fun! Bring on the boas and heels and costume jewelry, if perhaps not the pasties! Who doesn’t like glitter and makeup and flirting and shit?

Well, lots of people, of both sexes, obviously. But whether femininity is treated as a necessary chore or a shameful habit is generally based entirely on the content of your pants, not on whether you actually feel like engaging. And heaven forfend you think of it like something in between, to be dipped into or rejected depending on your mood — you know, given that so much of it has to do with what you wear and how you act, not whether your junk is an innie or an outie. The joyful transgression of burlesque and drag, which is joyful regardless of the audience’s sexual orientation or interest, is that it divorces femininity from femaleness. It’s transgressive because it’s disconnected from sexual orientation or interest, and also heteronormativity, fuckability, and often (or at least, quite plausibly) from vaginas — i.e. all the things that are usually considered to be associated with or mark you out for femininity-on-demand.

This also goes a long way towards explaining the rather curious reaction I had to the blog The Art of Manliness. I found the blog when Soc. Images featured its delightful collection of vintage men’s magazine covers (“chewed to bits by giant turtles!”) and I was instantly smitten. Manly purchase: Fedora! Manly workout: Odd object training! Manly skill: Facial hair maintenance! It was like they were curating and selling (and selling, and selling) a vintage-inspired version of masculinity that never really existed — at once elegant and artless, enlightened and retro-cool. I’ve always been a little more gallant in personality and butch in presentation than a lot of women, just on account of being a sort of big clumsy person who was deeply into tales of chivalry as a child (though I also do love makeup and flirting), so I found this highly stylized form of masculinity terribly appealing. Basically what I’m saying is that I’m very into manliness when it is all about buying really beefy purses.

And then they start in with the essentializing of women (and men), the solecisms about feminism (it’s great but it makes men so confused!) and the relentless heteronormativity. And just like that, it’s a blog for men — straight cis men, specifically — instead of a blog about skills anyone might need and presentation anyone could put on. (I mean, okay, I’ll never grow my own manly mustache, but I appreciate a meditation on its aesthetics as part of the general aesthetic the site promotes.) Suddenly, the performance of masculinity becomes a command performance — for men, for men only, for straight cis men most of all, and certainly to be accompanied by an equivalent compulsory feminine performance by the straight cis ladies on their arms.

This isn’t really about Art of Manliness specifically — they have their thing that they do, and clearly it’s an effective little industry for them. As far as gender-essentialist shit on the internet, it is on average benign, at best useful or fun, and at worst so far from the worst stuff out there that I have no interest in calling them out. But it is (again) about manliness qua “a particular code of presentation and behavior” vs. manliness qua “the way that men are supposed to be.” If masculinity is something that can be performed at will, just a name for one of the many types of style and deportment you can have in your beefy purse of tricks, sign me up. If it’s a privilege or a responsibility conferred by (and only by) the having of a penis, then it’s dragging everyone down, penis-havers and penis-lackers alike. Ditto femininity, with the bits reversed.

These are by no means new ideas, I should note (though please feel free to give me $500 for them, as there’s a beefy purse I have my eye on). I imagine people in the trans community have been writing much better about just these things for years. My blog reading and link knowledge have both atrophied in the last little while, unfortunately. But I think this idea needs to be downright mainstream. I’m not even talking about genderfucking here — I’m talking about the fact that it needs to become tautological that even straight, cis, activism-indifferent, not-at-all-subversive men and women get to pick and choose how they present themselves, for their lifetime or just for the day, and not have it dictated for them by what they’re packing in their chromosomes or their trousers. That gender is something you can fuck but also something you can just diddle, no commitment, no strings attached.

A positive discourse on masculinity, via comic books and etymology

6 Jun

by Jess

Amanda Hess has a reader who’s been repeatedly submitting requests for a “positive discourse on masculinity.” On the whole I find this idea pretty bankrupt — akin, as one other commenter brilliantly put it, to asking for a positive discourse on white supremacy. Ironically, though, I was thinking about it the other day while rereading the comic book series Preacher, which at first glance looks like a fucked-up perverted cowboy fantasy delighting in all the negative aspects of masculinity. Preacher is dark, very violent, blasphemous to the core, and not a little twisted, all of which figure into why I like it so much. Let me be clear, though: This is a very dude-ly comic, in the sense that it is full of the things that are usually considered to make something a “boy book” or “boy movie.” There are a lot of views of blown-open heads. One character is named “Arseface.” There are naked boobs, and vague homophobia, and lots of people fuck things that aren’t people. John Wayne makes several appearances. A punch in the jaw is pretty much the least violent fate you can hope for in this comic, and nearly everybody gets at least one. Literal emasculation is a repeated trope — actually, emasculation followed by suddenly having an awful lot of frustration that needs violent expression. But implausibly, Preacher, with its hard-punching, chain-smoking, John Wayne-loving cowboy of a hero, ends up having a lot to say about the pitfalls of manliness and the possible redemption of the concept.

Necessary backstory: the preacher in question, Jesse Custer (yeah, that’s his name, Custer), is railroaded into the church after a nightmarish childhood and a criminal adolescence. Both contributed to teaching him how to fight with almost superhuman skill, and also just be generally tough as a motherfuck. His girlfriend Tulip is equally as tough and particularly handy with guns. The other main character, Cassidy, is super-tough physically as well on account of being a vampire, but on a personal level he’s terribly weak, and he’s prone to bouts of drug addiction and binge drinking that lead him to be violent towards everyone around him including his girlfriends. And that’s what you missed on… PREACHER!

I’m not going to go too heavily into plot points because I like the series and think you should read it without too much spoiling, but I am going to jump straight to some events at the end. A couple salient parts: Jesse, after swearing to Tulip for the jillionth time that he will never again leave her behind to keep her safe while he goes off to do something dangerous, puts knockout drops in her water bottle so that he can… leave her behind to keep her safe while he goes off to do something dangerous. So yeah: lies to her face and drugs her. Chivalry! Plot point two is that Jesse, having found out about Cassidy’s secret douchebaggery, beats the snot out of him. Recriminations about hitting women figure in heavily. Then some other stuff happens and Jesse and Tulip eventually ride off into, I shit you not, the sunset on, I shit you not, a horse — but not until after Tulip walks out on Jesse for what he did to her, asks him point-blank whether honor and trustworthiness and keeping his word stop mattering when he’s talking to a woman, and tells him to take his “macho bullshit” and shove it. Oh, and Jesse learns to cry. Not joking. I know it doesn’t sound awesome but I promise that it is.

During the fight with Cassidy, Jesse tells him to “act like a man” — which means not hitting women, part of Jesse’s manliness code, but because of Cassidy’s particular situation (nothing enables addiction and violence like being unkillable and super-strong) also clearly means acting like a human being instead of an undead thing. What I think the end of Preacher is about is realizing that “acting like a man” is just an abbreviated version of “acting like a HUman.” Cassidy’s willingness to turn his preternatural strength against women who trust him is abhorrent, not only to some chivalrous code but objectively. But by the same token, Jesse’s fixation on protecting women — on protecting his woman, specifically — actually gets in the way of him treating Tulip with humanity or respect. Put them side by side, as they’re presented in the plot, and the implication is clear: Cassidy’s crime is not in hitting women, but in hurting defenseless people weaker than he is. Jesse’s gallantry is misguided because he’s trying to protect someone who doesn’t want or need it, simply because his code dictates that she must — and because she doesn’t want or need his protection, he’s forced to manufacture the weakness that would make her unable to object. Cassidy doesn’t “act like a man” — like a human, that is — because he is willing to hurt people who can’t defend themselves against him, or unable to stop himself from doing it. Jesse doesn’t “act like a man” because he’s too busy trying to act macho.

What manliness means for Jesse is being a straight shooter — protecting the weak and innocent, being forthright and trustworthy, and taking no shit from fools. But he finds that his “macho bullshit,” as Tulip calls it, actually gets in the way of his manliness. Because it makes him unable to resist protecting — and therefore deceiving and abandoning — a woman, even at the expense of treating her like a person and an equal. His masculinity impedes his humanity, and humanity was really what Jesse’s dream of being a real man was always about. One of the final images of Jesse in Preacher is of him riding a horse through a New York traffic jam to find Tulip, with tears streaming down his face because he’s realized that he fucked things up royally with his paternalism, pledging the “macho bullshit” has to go. He’s the cryin’ cowboy, determined to sort out decency from posturing. But the final final image of the comic is Cassidy, un-vampired, making his own pledge to act like a man. That is, to act like a human.

This is what a positive discourse on masculinity looks like: realizing that the positive aspects of masculinity are just decency and humanity, coopted by men as their personal invention. A code of honor where you help those in need isn’t the exclusive province of men; it’s the province of mensches.

My therapist was telling me the other day that “man” in Old English actually meant “person.” Both male and female humans got modifiers — “wer” for men, which stuck around pretty much nowhere except in “werewolf,” and “wif” for women, from which we get “wife” of course and also “woman” (wifman). I checked this out in the OED but if you don’t have access to that it’s all on Wikipedia.

The point here is that a) people who insist on “womyn” are being even sillier than you thought and b) “man” used to mean everyone, and then males were substituted for everyone. It’s an etymological origin story for the male as default. When did the word that meant “people” start meaning “people with penises”? Well, the OED starts showing examples that clearly distinguish between “man” and “woman” in the 13th century, though of course that’s not necessarily when the distinction began. Guess what else was arising around this time! If you said “the concept of chivalry as a code of conduct dictating protection of women,” award yourself something manly like a Bro Icing! (Which I just learned about last night, because I am old and it is awful.)

In other words, human decency became gender-specific and gender-codified around the same time that “man” did. Ideals about how people should treat other people turned into ideals about how males should treat other males and non-males, as though honor and decency were somehow man-specific values. A “positive discourse on masculinity” would have to acknowledge this, and acknowledge that the parts of the Man Code worth keeping are the parts that aren’t really about men at all. It would mean putting the “hu” back in “humanliness,” and giving the concept of human decency back to anyone who’s willing to act on it, not just those with the right genitalia. And it would mean talking about why men want to think that they invented civility and women are just its beneficiaries. It would, in other words, involve a lot of feminism. I think Jesse Custer could handle that.

Like rain on your wedding day

2 Jun

by Jess

I’ve just gotten around to reading the profile of Andrew Breitbart that appeared in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. For various reasons I don’t want to make this an overtly political space right now (I mean party politics — for some reason it’s become a political statement to say “women, non-white people, gay people, trans people, disabled people, and fat people are all people,” and that sort of “politics” will continue to appear), and I’m definitely not interested in doing a What I Hate About Andrew Breitbart post. I object to the type of punditry that amounts to a power trip, regardless of political content, and let’s leave it at that. But I was struck by his attempt to characterize House member and renowned civil rights activist John Lewis as a racist for walking in front of people who might sling epithets at him:

A few days later, Breitbart once again went after the Congressional Black Caucus. In a Big Journalism editorial headlined “2010: A RACE ODYSSEY—DISPROVING A NEGATIVE FOR CASH PRIZES, OR, HOW THE CIVIL-RIGHTS MOVEMENT JUMPED THE SHARK,” he wrote, “It’s time for the allegedly pristine character of Rep. John Lewis to put up or shut up. If you provide verifiable video evidence showing that a single racist epithet was hurled as you walked among the Tea Partiers, or you pass a simple lie detector test, I will provide a $10K check to the United Negro College Fund.” Breitbart also described the congressmen’s walk through the crowd, “in and of itself,” as an “act of racism meant to create a contrast between the Tea Party crowd and themselves.”

Let’s get this out of the way quickly, because apparently I can’t resist trying to hit the popinjay: Breitbart says that the racial slurs never occurred, because Tea Partiers have recording devices and someone would have taped them. Evidently, in Breitbart’s mind, members of a group that openly carries racist signs would be utterly shocked and bent on discrediting at all costs members of their own group who shouted racist things. Oh, but surely they know to keep it written and photographed, not vocalized: “This is 2010. Even a racist is media-savvy enough not to yell the N-word,” Breitbart says. If you read the article, in fact, you start to get a pretty good idea how a media-savvy racist behaves in 2010.

Anyway, but what I’m interested in is the part where talking about racist catcalls — or signs, or T-shirts, or, you know, policy positions — in the Tea Party means that you yourself are a racist. We see this a lot in discussions about race: If you even recognize racism, perhaps by trying to correct decades of injustice, you are the racist one! And in other discussions: If you try to carve out a space for women or refuse to be sufficiently impressed by [BONERS], truly, the sexist is YOU! It’s not just the “the real discrimination is you discriminating against me by not allowing me to discriminate against you in this one particular instance” argument, though that’s the one I see most frequently. There is also, for instance, the pervasive meme that Democrats are all secretly filthy rich and extravagant, and Republicans are all having seamy gay affairs, and Al Gore’s house wastes tons of energy. (Grains of truth, all, but let’s leave that aside.) Oh, and on a smaller scale there’s “you accuse me of trolling because I am trolling you, but you’re being so mean to me  — aren’t you the real troll here?” As a person with very little patience for bullshit arguments or silencing techniques, I see that one a lot too.

Certainly it’s both dramatically and intellectually satisfying when our enemies can be conclusively shown to be hypocrites, and I would hate to deny the world moments like the truly epic last quote from this article. But this fixation on irony makes Alanis Morissette’s version seem smart. Wanting your dissenters to defeat themselves is the very definition of intellectual laziness. If the best you can muster is “ah, but aren’t you doing the exact same thing you just argued against?” then it may be time to come up with an argument of your own.

Sometimes people don’t become what they hate. Sometimes they just become what you hate. That’s okay — you can disagree with people without needing them to also disagree with themselves! Self-contradiction is not the only way for someone to be wrong — it’s just the easiest way, and the way that requires the least commitment from you as an interlocutor. (After all, you never have to say “I think you’re wrong” if you can make do with “you think you’re wrong.”) If someone has a decent argument and puts in a smidgen of effort, they should be able to muster something beyond “well you did it too.” If they can’t, they’ve either got nothing or they don’t care enough to bother.

(My fellow logic nerds, of course, know that I could have skipped this whole post and just said “the tu quoque fallacy: fuck that.” Then I would not have had the opportunity to ramble about shit and get that Alanis Morissette song stuck in your head, of course, and what fun is that? But because I love Latin names for logical fallacies I do want to slide this one in there.)

How answers ruined Lost

24 May

by Jess

All the smart people I’ve talked to who liked the Lost finale have said the same thing: “It was emotionally satisfying.” No argument there. Everyone coming together, becoming enlightened about their importance to each other, seeing each other again after all their trials and in some cases long stretches of separation we never got to see — it’s not only what you want emotionally for characters you’re invested in, it’s also what you want for yourself and everyone you know. It’s the reconciliation scene, the love scene, the triumph over death, the final moment in the movie where everyone stands up one by one and slowly starts to applaud, all rolled into one.

I’m willing to allow a lot of space for the importance of emotional catharsis, which the Lost finale had in spades. I thought, for instance, that the historical absurdities of “Inglourious Basterds” were entirely justified by the way that the film provided illusory catharsis for something that, in real life, can never be exorcised. But I admit I’m hugely frustrated by the way that Lost presented itself as something that would be intellectually satisfying as well as emotionally — a much more difficult and rarer feat — and not only failed to pull it off but failed spectacularly. My sense, from the proliferation of “questions we need answered!” posts leading up to the finale and “questions we still have!” postmortems today, is that most intellectually dissatisfied Lost fans blame the failure on the writers not providing enough answers. I think it’s because they tried to have too many.

For a show like this to be intellectually satisfying requires a finicky balancing act, avoiding both deflationary answers and complete abdication of sense-making. The writers must show glimpses of patterns that hang together and suggest other patterns even larger and more luminous, but resist  spelling out what those patterns mean — implying wheels within wheels without showing the clockwork. TV usually can’t do it. Novels can — but novels also don’t have to deal with fan message boards shouting instructions between chapters, or characters getting booked by other novels and having to be killed off. Given the intense fan scrutiny and the vicissitudes of TV specifically and the serial format in general, it’s not a surprise that writers who have expertly layered five seasons worth of questions get panicky when faced with the need to start handing out answers. They perceive a demand — and no doubt it’s real — to provide answers that are not only concrete but significant, showing some kind of insight into the nature of the reality they’ve created and the reality within which they created it. It’s a lot to undertake.

But maybe they don’t have to. For my money, there’s not a single mystery that was explicitly answered on Lost that wasn’t more interesting when it was open-ended. It’s like Schrodinger’s cat, or the particles it’s meant to represent — until observed and pinned down, they exist in every possible state, but observation collapses those potentialities into a single certainty. When it was piling mystery on mystery, Lost was a mesh of patterns and possibilities, as strange events overlapped and resonated and made each other clearer or murkier depending on the interaction. But each explicit answer collapsed the wave form, knocking the wind out of a hundred furiously debated and rewritten theories. The creepy vertigo we got when we heard the Whispers wasn’t just from the eerie sound and camera work — it was also from our sense of the nearly limitless possibilities of what we were hearing. Were they ghosts? Time echoes? Some supernatural force controlled or projected by the Others? How did they relate to the manifestations and monsters and other mysteries of the Island? Turns out: they’re trapped spirits who did something bad and then died. Oh.

There is a way to provide answers that don’t fully collapse the wave form, but just direct and add savor to the questions. When we first heard the Monster described as “a security system,” the possibilities were fascinating. Was it animal or machine, or a little of both? Why did it look into your mind and then present itself as images from your past? I thought of Solaris, Stanislaw Lem’s novel about a planet that protects itself from human intervention by manifesting potential intruders’ deepest guilts and fears. Could the Island be manifesting the black smoke as a sort of immune response, an extremely sophisticated way of destroying invaders through psychological pain? Or was it more like a guard dog? And what was it guarding? Or was it trying to help them, not destroy them, as when one manifestation led Jack to water? When it was Yemi or Christian or Alex or the horse, that was clearly for some specific character’s benefit or possibly detriment — what, then, did it mean by becoming John Locke? The complexity of that web of patterns, questions, and suppositions touched off by this one hint is not done justice by the later, more specific answer (“Titus Welliver went down a log flume and came out as evil smoke”).

Attempts to offer answers — concrete answers, finished answers, answers that let you know in no uncertain terms what’s been going on all this time — always seem to end up as variations on “it was all a dream” or “God did it.” That’s what happened, famously, to St. Elsewhere. It’s also what happened to Battlestar Galactica and (to a disappointing degree) to Carnivale, which pulled off a masterful layering of clues and mysteries for more than a season before starting to lose the courage of its convictions. It didn’t happen to Twin Peaks, but it might have if the show had gotten its anticipated third season. (Maybe not — David Lynch is unapologetic about not offering recognizable answers, but he wasn’t the only person involved.) As it is, Twin Peaks is a nice example of what can happen when the show’s mysteries remain in a superposition, when the waveform isn’t collapsed by the weight of the answer obligation. Sure, the show managed to wreck itself in several ways in season two — the less said about James’ bike adventure, the better — but they never got a chance to take the wind out of our lofty theories about what it all means, and now they never will.

The trick when crafting a mysterious fiction (she said, having absolutely no expertise in fiction-making whatsoever and just being a pushy and opinionated consumer) is not trying to hand out satisfying answers but satisfying questions. But answers are what people clamor for, and the Lost writers, faced with that answer-lust, seem to have panicked. What they offered up was a pat bit of exposition that functions, insofar as it functions, only to explain the brand-new mysteries set up in the final season, shrugging off the earlier questions on which fans had built their beautiful network of theories. I’m grateful, at least, that they left those alone — it allows the uncertain story, the superposition story, to maintain a kind of independence and dignity. But the rush for a resolution — especially the resolution they chose — still feels like an act of desperation, introducing and immediately solving new mysteries in order to provide people with some kind of answer. If they couldn’t truly illuminate us, if they never really had a plan — and nobody seriously believed they did — the least they could have done was trust us to do some of the brain work, tracing connections and spinning out theories. A light touch instead of a heavy hand.

Noel Murray at the AV Club, who is a real TV critic unlike me (and who is less begrudging than I am about still loving Lost despite its many flaws), put it better than I could:

I like that Lost has dropped enough clues to its minor mysteries—just about anything to do with DHARMA, for example—that viewers can interpret them however they’d like. Why couldn’t women give birth? What was the deal with the statue? Those kind of questions are answerable, with a little viewer imagination and the details already provided. When the show spelled out its answers, it became painfully prosaic. When it was focused on keeping viewers stimulated and disoriented, it worked much better.

I’m not leaving last night’s episode saying “what about all the things they didn’t explain?” I’m wondering, what about all the things they didn’t need to? And will there ever be a TV show with the guts to refuse us final answers, and thereby let all the final answers be true?

What’s the condom too small for: your dick, or your ego?

21 May

by Jess

This guy's head is tiny!

The Washington Post had a story today on how District youth are complaining that the city’s free condoms are a) not Trojans and b) too small, because apparently they have a) brand loyalty and b) delusions. In response, officials have decided to stock up on Trojan Magnums, the kids’ status rubber of choice. The calculation, it seems, is that it is in the long run a better public health decision to give kids more expensive condoms they might actually use, instead of cheaper condoms they won’t.

That’s sound logic, as far as it goes, and there’s a lot of value (and a lot of challenges) to making safer sex the cool option. But is it really a good idea to give students the big condoms just to, you know, make them feel big? Because here’s the thing about condoms: they have two main characteristics, which are that they are a) not the most comfortable garment you’ll ever wear and b) REALLY STRETCHY. We’re not talking about penis Spanx here. You can roll a regular-size condom over your entire forearm. I sincerely doubt the condom itself is genuinely too small for a significant percentage of DC youth, though granted it’s tighter than wearing nothing. It’s the text on the label they’re worried about.

My guess is that their brand loyalty isn’t to the word “Trojan,” but the word “Magnum.” That’s a well-known, instantly recognizable big-size option, pretty much the only one that’s reliably available in drugstores. If Durex (the cheaper brand currently offered for free in DC) made a condom with “ENORMOUS COCK” printed on the wrapper, I’m sure the kids would forget about their Trojan preference. Because seriously, Trojans smell like a traffic accident. They’re awful. In fact, the one dude I know who genuinely has to use Magnums bitches about it, because they are frankly gross. They’re just the thing he’s stuck using if he has to buy condoms at the last minute and cannot get finely tailored cocksheaths from France or whatever you do when you need special sizes and don’t want to be stuck with the smell of screeching tires.

As an analogy: I wear an F cup right now, which means it is flamboyantly difficult to find bras that are even a little bit cute. If enormous beige armored granny brassieres became status symbols because they’re the thing that people with huge breasts wear, and all the little high school girls were going around in putty-colored boulder-holders because the coyly peeking-out industrial-strength strap advertised their nonexistent knockers, those would still be TERRIBLE BRAS. And I would still be stuck with them, because I actually DO wear a big cup size, and I would realize that only the people who have never actually needed those bras would be willing to put up with their total wretchedness just to send a signal that they’re well-endowed. And no matter how cool they became, it wouldn’t change the fact that they DON’T FIT MOST PEOPLE, who should be glad about that, because it means they have a choice about whether to wear awful bras.

Only, in this scenario, imagine that if you have insufficient breast support, SOMEONE GETS PREGNANT. Because actually, there are consequences to wearing a too-big condom, beyond just feeling roomy latex billow loosely on your genitals like Lawrence of Arabia’s robes. Namely, too-big condoms FALL OFF. (Granted, too-small condoms are more likely to break, which is why good sex education involves telling kids how to tell whether condoms are too small FOR THEIR PENISES instead of just too small for their social status.)

Sorry to get so cappy, but I find it profoundly frustrating that the cult of the big dick is so ingrained that it leads kids to request — and officials to grant, apparently — special accommodation they almost certainly don’t need. Obviously people should not have to wear condoms that pain them or risk breakage because they’re so snug, and it’s important for the health department to keep some larger sizes on hand so that people with non-standard bodies aren’t penalized (hee). But I’m very doubtful that a majority of DC young people are in desperate pain from having to wrap their genitals in something that YOU CAN PUT OVER YOUR HEAD AND INFLATE WITH YOUR NOSE.

A few months ago, Amanda Hess and I went to see a play called “Deez Nutz,” which was a collection of monologues and poetry intended to convey the experience of being a young black man in the District. It was very interesting, but to me the most interesting part was that every performer started his scene by taking off his shirt and doing 50 push-ups. Even in a context designed to interrogate masculinity and the demands it puts on young men in urban areas, each man established his strength and virility before (and, often, during) a performance that delved into the reality of his experience. It was like a charm against showing vulnerability. That’s what I see happening with the Magnum demand. It’s very unlikely that a significant percentage of young men in this city genuinely cannot use regular-size Durex condoms, either because of extreme pain or risk of breakage. It’s very likely that they have a lot invested in presenting themselves as Magnum Men.

That’s dangerous on its face — because too-big condoms really aren’t as safe, although it’s certainly true that they’re safer than condoms that get thrown out because they’re not manly enough — and it’s also dangerous in its implications, since the manly-man pose has all kinds of implications for violence and subjugation of women and other men (this week’s Sexist Beatdown gets into this in a brilliant way that I will hopefully write more on another time). The need for young men to present an almost outlandishly masculine face is something the DC health department should be addressing, not enabling. In the meantime, may I suggest that the city invest instead in custom wrappers reading “I’m Studly” or “Observe My Dominant Genitalia” or something?

How Sassy didn’t change my life

13 May

by Jess
A couple of years ago, Shapely Prose did a thread about “what would you tell your 14-year-old self?” I didn’t contribute at the time; I was probably choosing between hoary sentiments like “it’s not that important to convince boys to kiss you,” “it’s all right to be smart and all right not to show it in the expected ways,” and “for fuck’s sake you look FINE.” Now I know there was a shorthand: “Read Sassy.”

It’s not like I wasn’t aware of Sassy. I actually have an old picture of Laura, mugging it up with a cheeky expression and brand-new bright red streaks in her hair, that I captioned “Laura’s Sassy cover shot.” But really, I’m pretty sure I plucked that name out of the “generic teen magazine” slot in my brain just because she was being sassy at the time. I didn’t realize Sassy was actually the magazine that made girls like we used to be grow up into women like us.

There is of course a book called How Sassy Changed My Life, and because it is a book and I am a self-recrimination machine I am of course down on myself that I didn’t write it, but that is clearly just dumb mental habit because Sassy didn’t change my life. I wish it had. It probably would have, if I’d read it. But I wasn’t even fully aware of how different it was from YM or Seventeen until a few weeks ago, when someone sent thoroughly amazing mini-blogger Tavi Gevinson a bushel of back issues.

Tavi, who as far as I can tell is the only 14-year-old whose future self is not going to wish she could go back in time and give herself a good shaking, posted some scans and they are tremendous. The fashion is described as “anti-priss” and incorporates multiple non-mainstream forms of expression. The poses are self-consciously dopey. (In college, Laura and I would take pictures of our friend Lynne posing like that and say she was being a Delia’s model — little did we know Sassy had beaten us to the ironic-modeling punch by like six years!) The phrase “misogynist propaganda” is used. There is offhanded, no-big-deal feminist cultural critique and acknowledgment of white privilege. Daniel Clowes cartoon! Shitty poetry! DIY! And tell me you didn’t need to read this article when you were 14, and I will call you a damn liar.

I genuinely have no idea how I grew up to be the person I am without having read this magazine. I read YM, for chrissakes! I was desperately trying to figure out how to fit in, like all of us at that age, and I picked a magazine at random, and as it happened it was the “how my period leaked through my white skirt in front of a total hottie at the mall” one and not the “I performed an awesome poetry slam piece about my period at the coffee shop ” one. (Here’s Sassy mercilessly taking the piss out of YM. I cheered.)

And then six months later I didn’t read YM either, because I had decided that attempting to fit in was too bruising to my fragile self-regard, and instead I was going to feel very superior to anyone who even tried and especially anyone who succeeded. Imagine if I’d slipped off my high horse and fallen on a Sassy! Its driving principles — that there are important issues in the world that you should know about but clothes are fun too, that the need to impress boys is culturally constructed and not divinely mandated, that biting humor can be wielded more like a pen than a sword, that you can define yourself without accepting or rejecting everything the people around you value — were things I had to piece together clumsily over the next decade or so. I’m not saying I would have been like Tavi by the age of 14 or anything, but might I have gotten a head start? Missed out on some really epic missteps? Believed in myself more? At the very least, discovered feminism earlier?

I just realized that this is my second post for this blog where I wonder how my life would have differed if I’d had the right light to guide me. I guess I’m 30 and maudlin and wishing I could have my youth back to do it right this time. (I really thought this bit wasn’t supposed to kick in until menopause.) The truth is, though, that the self-centered version of the question — how could Sassy have changed my life? — is beside the point. The point is more about how the agents of change and the engines of oppression can look very much alike. The brilliance of Sassy wasn’t just that it was a delivery mechanism for stealth social justice ideals, but that it was also packaged as a teen magazine. In the confused kid’s identity production toolbox, magazines are the hammer — they literally tell you how to dress, what to value, who to woo and how. Sassy actually told you how to deconstruct the teen magazine, but did so while presenting itself in a familiar guise as a teen magazine — it was the anti-YM in YM clothing. This is actually, now that I think of it, a lot like what I was saying about the Beyonce video! I guess I am very impressed when feminism is a Master of Disguise.

So I guess the real question is, what’s doing that for girls now? (Come to think of it, it might be Tavi.) And how do we make sure it hits its mark?