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Suspending our disbelief

24 Jun

by Laura

I hope the sexual assault allegations against bizarro world president (and real world Nobel winner) Al Gore are untrue. There are two reasons I hope this:

  1. I have long admired Al Gore and would feel terribly sad to find out that he committed sexual assault; it would change my view of him forever.
  2. I hope that the alleged victim was not sexually assaulted.

Look: reason #2 is way, way, way more important than reason #1. #1 is about my personal disillusionment; #2 is about the bodily autonomy of another human being. If that woman is making false accusations, then I am glad for *her* that they are false, because that means she wasn’t assaulted. (Though I’d be worried that she’s suffering in some other way if she decided to make up something so guaranteed to be a media nightmare.) If she is making true accusations, then Gore should be brought to justice, as should all sexual assailants.

Culturally, we have invested a lot of mythology around Gore. We hope that these allegations not true, because we hope that someone with great political integrity would also have great personal integrity. But that’s just a hope, and the kneejerk reactions of many in the media (ahem, Steve Kornacki) are about privileging the word of a famous, powerful, rich white man automatically over the word of an anonymous, relatively powerless, and relatively nonwealthy woman. I don’t know who is telling the truth here, but that means I am withholding judgment — not assuming that my wish to see Gore as a heroic figure gives me some higher truth that can’t be disproved.


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.

Ironic sexism is so passe

27 May

by Laura

The blogosphere

Okay, look, if all we do here on BBH is support the continued writerly existence of Tavi, I will feel we have done good in the world. Because seriously, just look at how this girl writes. She makes me proud of all girls, in a Willow-slayerizes-all-the-potentials* way.

Also, Terry Richardson: total dickbag. He is The Biggest Loser of fashion: pretending to be ironically commenting on cultural norms when he is in fact simply perpetuating them in the clearest way possible.

As Tavi notes:

I’m not writing all this because I want to embarrass him in an immature, spiteful, gym locker room prank kind of way. I’m writing it because it has to be written about and I want other people to write about it because he has to know that next time he tries anything along those lines, people will write about it. Then maybe he will stop doing it.

Who needs Slayers when we’ve got Tavi?


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?

The eye of the beholder

17 May

by Laura

This woman is not beautiful. I mean, obviously.

Clearly a loser in the game of beauty

That’s what Fox News says! Rima Fakih (aka Miss USA 2010) is the beneficiary of “the whole PC society” that has promoted a Muslim American in a bikini at the expense of nice white ladies in bikinis. Apparently the crowning of a Muslim Miss USA is a sign of the end times to some conservatives; our all-American beauty pageants are promoting a pernicious form of affirmative action that says that women of color can be just as pretty as white women. What nonsense, am I right?

Even queer women who vote in polls on the internet know that very thin white women with long hair and slightly open mouths are the sine qua non of beauty. Especially if they are wearing no pants.

Obviously, this post has so far been a petty exercise in sarcasm. There’s something profoundly absurd in complaining that your meaningless contest to rank women according to extremely strict patriarchal beauty standards failed because it didn’t pick your idea of the prettiest woman. Clearly. But the idea that a woman who looks like Rima Fakih needs any extra help winning a beauty contest is even more astonishing. It reveals, to quote the brilliant Silvana, that

we were all the victims of a sick joke. A despicable charade where so much is demanded of women, so much compliance and poking and prodding, so much effort to make ourselves beautiful and radiant and perfect, so much forcing of square pegs into round holes, just so we could meet it all, do it all, get close to the apex of perfection and still be worth nothing.

Apparently Rima Fakih is also suspect because she once won a faux stripping contest in which she wore substantially more clothing than she does in the above photo, which is officially commissioned by the pageant. In other words, here is a woman who has devoted herself to the male gaze so effectively that she is both a prize fake stripper and Miss USA — but in so doing, she has revealed too much of her own effort, since the only way you win at the beauty game is to hide all the effort you put into it. As a woman of color, Fakih’s effort is always visible, because current beauty ideals are racialized. Thus we get notable minds such as Fox’s Gretchen Carlson (herself a former beauty queen) complaining that the Miss USA contest is rigged. Rigged, I tell you!

Look: there are no contests that are not rigged for somebody or other. And most of them are rigged in favor of people who are already winning. The world of official beauty is so damnably narrow that Rima Fakih is seen as an obvious outlier by some people, who either don’t realize or don’t care that they are revealing themselves as stone cold racists. And it’s so damnably narrow that I’m tempted to celebrate Fakih’s win as a thumb in the eye of the beauty standards, even though she looks like she stepped right out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog.

You might have heard of the current MoMA exhibit of performance artist Marina Abramovic — and if you haven’t, bear with me for a sec. I haven’t seen this exhibit in person (though Jess has!), but it has resulted in a photo gallery of many, many people gazing enraptured at Abramovic’s face. When I first saw some of these photos online, I was mesmerized, too, because I had forgotten that faces could be so different. Of course I see people in my everyday life who look very different from movie stars and models, but I’ve been trained — and you have too — not to look at them too long, not to spend time gazing at their not so beautiful faces. Abramovic’s work, by contrast, features a concentrated gaze that is available to anyone who wants it (and for some, that is apparently an intensely emotional experience). And it turns out that people are really wonderfully diverse in their beauty, not because of some affirmative action of sentiment but because that’s what people look like.

Holding contests to rank women on an absolute scale of beauty is an absurd exercise, the sole purpose of which is to enforce a certain ideology of beauty. Of course, for the Rima Fakih haters, that’s not a surprise, but rather the acknowledged goal, and that’s why to them crowning a Muslim woman as Miss USA, no matter how nubile and light-skinned she may be, is an outrageous and obvious offense. If white people can’t even win beauty pageants hands down, then how can they keep convincing themselves of their natural superiority to all people of color?


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?

So damn easy to love

10 May

by Jess

Laura: i like that beyonce does subversive stuff while doing sexy dancing with her amazing body
Jess: like gaga!
Laura: yes!
Jess: they are a perfect pair
Laura: they should get married
Jess: even though i didn’t like telephone that much
Laura: though i suppose jay z wouldn’t like that
Jess: oh who cares what he thinks
Laura: yeah, he can suck it
Jess: he can have 99 problems and a bitch is two

We didn’t have cable when I was a kid, which I thought was because it cost a lot, but was really because my mom figured I would be glued to MTV 24/7, and she didn’t like me watching all the booty-shaking vids and getting body image problems. She was right in some ways — I mostly wanted to watch The State, Beavis and Butthead, and 120 minutes, and I got much bigger body image problems from her having me on a diet all the time, but there was definitely a near-constant stream of blatant, unexamined objectification going on in most of the videos being aired.

There still would be, I assume, if MTV played videos anymore. And with the sound off, Beyonce’s latest would fit right into that tradition. The Divine Miss B never once puts on pants with anything that can accurately be called an “inseam,” and spends much of the video either gyrating, weeping, cooking, or scrubbing. By those lights, not a very feminist moment, by golly. But… ok, watch the thing:

To me, the lyrics here throw the visuals into sharp, subversive relief. She sings about “making me so damn easy to love” by being beautiful and classy and dirty in the bedroom, sure, but the explicit conclusion is: “I’m clearly lovable, so what the hell is YOUR problem?” And in light of that narrative — “I’ve done everything that’s supposed to make a woman desirable, and you still don’t love me, so in the end I’m terrific and you’re a chump” — you start seeing the rictus of a smile while she’s doing her hula girl moves. The trappings of femininity are all over the video, but they’re cast as fruitless attempts to ensnare a guy who doesn’t appreciate either canonical desirable-woman accoutrements (“I got beauty, I got class / I got style, and I got ass”) or intelligence and independence (“Don’t have to ask no one to help me out / … / Keep my head in them books, I’m sharp”).

Is it a little maddening that the bulk of the song is still a checklist of feminine ideals? Is it stone cold infuriating that a woman with pipes like Beyonce’s still has to take her kit off to be a big star? You bet it is. There’s only so subversive you can get while still getting widespread acclaim — Beyonce is a woman of color, which breaks the usual bombshell mode, but she’s still thin, beautiful, light-skinned, and European-featured, and she’s still making it clear that she scrubs the floor in hotpants for the sake of her man. But what’s new here is that it’s a song about what’s wrong with the man that he doesn’t appreciate her. There is no point at which she wonders if she ought to be more beautiful, more obedient, more scantily dressed. If it’s not quite a feminist song, it’s worlds more feminist than most of what’s out there at this level of fame. And that very fact makes it subversive — it sneaks a new idea (that the femininity checklist won’t get you loved, and that the problem might be him and not you) into an antifeminist culture.

Okay, I’m talking like a big thinky blogger, but full disclosure: my reactions to this video are not entirely intellectual. The first thing I said to Laura when she showed it to me was “I wish this had come out eight years ago” — that is, when I was in a relationship with a guy who not only didn’t appreciate me but essentially exploited me. Not incidentally, he also made me feel like there was something deeply wrong with me for not being both more satisfying and more satisfied. It was in his interest for me to never think to answer “why don’t you love me?” with “maybe you’re just plain dumb” — that wasn’t going to get his back rubbed, his apartment cleaned, or his dick sucked. He kept me from making the connection by keeping the focus on me not being beautiful, smart, obedient, or levelheaded enough to keep him happy. (Oh, and also by making me feel, and basically telling me I was, more or less insane.)

So I’m not just having a strict feminist reaction here — by those lights, there’s not a pop song in the world that passes. I’m also thinking about what this song would have done for me when I was buying so hard into the hype. Hortense at Jezebel just wrote a terrific post about how much Tragic Kingdom buoyed her out of her angst as a teenager — I can’t say I feel that way about No Doubt, although I was also 15 when the album dropped, but I definitely understand how an anthem can be the thread you follow out of a very dark place. I remember how I felt about Lush’s “Ladykillers” when I was a teenager (“when he’s nice to me, he’s just nice to himself”) and about the Golden Palominos’ “I’m Not Sorry” after a different emotionally abusive relationship — that “oh!” moment, that sense of a second pair of eyes opening wide inside your head. I could see this song waking women up and guiding them away from what’s destroying them.

This guy hasn’t even lived in the same country as me in five years, and I still wonder what I could have changed that would have made him love me. Last night I went to a coffee shop a few blocks from where he used to live, to watch my exceptionally beautiful and talented friend Acacia play a show. Acacia is a very impressive person, both naturally gifted and extremely skilled at her craft — plus she’s very pretty, plus she has in the past been very well-endowed in the particular areas this guy fancied (I mean, talent also, but mostly I’m talking about boobs here). So at about the point of drunkenness where I get maudlin, I was sitting there watching her rock the fuck out on a Patty Griffin song and thinking “what if I’d just been this good at something, what if I’d only looked like her? What if I’d basically tried this whole relationship, only as Cacie?” Can I repeat that this started in fucking 2002, and I still think this way after two cocktails? The answer I came up with was “well, in that case he would have just been a complete dick to Cacie, and I could never tolerate that.” But the only reason I could get to that conclusion was that he has been gone for five years (and I am in therapy). The right kickass anthem might have jump-started the process, maybe even given me a clue back when he still lived here and I really needed it. And this one, as ubiquitous as it is, could never have flown under my radar.

So really for me, the question of whether this song succeeds from a feminist perspective is peripheral to the question of whether it can actually help women. The fact that Beyonce’s success is built on her adherence to beauty ideals and general semi-nakedness as much as on her talent is important — of course it is. The fact that women’s worth still gets boiled down to “omg boobies!” is a big part of why I bother writing about shit in the first place. But my analysis of this song is based first and foremost on the image in my head of some lost and despondent 22-year-old belting it alone in her car while she drives away at 3 am from the apartment of a man who only wants her for what he can get from her. “There’s nothing not to love about me. There’s nothing not to need about me. Maybe you’re just not the one… or maybe you’re just plain dumb.”