Guilt, Realism, Dessert: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Kaci Beeler‘s FOOD PORN exhibition goes up today as part of the Fusebox Festival; in fact, she will have already started painting the 12-hour mural at Salvage Vanguard by now. I interviewed Kaci for CultureMap Austin, but had to cut out so many juicy bits—Kaci’s porn habits! Kaci’s next project! Kaci’s education as an artist! Kaci on Disneyland!—that I decided to run a longer version of the interview here.

Of course, there’s no room in the article or the interview to talk about my friendship with Kaci, the weird circumstances under which we met (five people crushed into a Honda Civic on a 13-hour road trip to Marfa), the role she has played in my getting to know Austin the second time around, and above all, my continual amazement that I could have so much to learn from a woman nine years my junior. In fact, before I interviewed her, my next blog post was going to be about how impressed I am with the younger women that I know. It’s nice timing to have done this piece just when I was thinking a lot about Lena Dunham, another young multi-talented woman with an exciting career ahead of her.

——

ME: So can you talk about your subject matter?

KACI: It’s been Austin through dishes that I particularly love from local establishments. . . . It’s been dessert recently. I just felt like I wanted to cover more desserts or something.

ME: What drove you toward desserts?

KACI: I think it’s just the textures and the colors and the softness of desserts, or something about that . . . just the lusciousness. Piles of sugar in different forms. And I just think that the savory stuff is beautiful, but I found the desserts even more compelling to try and capture. Just from a personal enjoyment standpoint. I was drawn to those images more than the savory dishes, though I like both. I was going to do a cheeseburger series, but then I put that on hold.

“Cupcake from Hey Cupcake! Trailer,” 10″x10″, oil on canvas

ME: Next year.

KACI: Yeah! [Laughs.] Maybe.

ME: You mention texture and colors, so those are visual aspects that you as a painter are interested in, in terms of technique. But you also said, the lusciousness, the piles of sugar, the delightfulness of the dessert. I wonder if you’d talk a little bit more about what is it thematically that speaks to you about the desserts?

KACI: I want to create beautiful objects, and I think that that is the quickest pathway to that goal.

ME: Because desserts are the most beautiful objects?

KACI: For me. And they’re kind of cute, and I have this sort of cute aesthetic that I’m interested in. But there’s something more to it, I guess. There’s that idea of things being kind of sinful and feeling guilty about it. I definitely have my own set of guilt about eating, and I try not to eat a lot of sugar lately. But I always felt really drawn to that, to drawing desserts, almost so much so that I can’t articulate it well . . . When I was a kid I drew little pictures of ice cream cones and pie slices and banana splits and cake and stuff like that, all the time, on the edges of my papers in school. And every time I saw something . . .  like little fake food, I always liked miniature food. I had a dollhouse, and I would make, out of clay, little food dishes and such. And I don’t—it’s just weird, I don’t know. I think every artist has some kind of image or something they’re obsessed with, and then they sort of use that as an inspiration. And I think this is what I’m obsessed with right now, in a way.

ME: It’s funny you bring up the word “guilty” because the exhibit is called “Food Porn.”

KACI: Right.

ME: And you talked just now about the association of desserts with guilty eating, like something that’s wonderful and desirable but also that we feel guilty about, and that everyone has their eating issues. But it’s funny to link it directly to porn.

KACI: Do you want to know why it’s called that? I actually call it that because other people have said that my paintings were food porn to them. And it was said enough times and suggested, that I was kind of like, I can see that. I sort of love that implication. In a way it’s fun. It’s a little naughty.

ME: What does it mean to you?

KACI: Just indulging in the image of food and the idea of it, but without actually having it in front of you.

ME: Ah, okay!

KACI: You know. Like pornography. [Laughs.] You don’t have it, but you can imagine it, I guess it opens up your imagination to your fantasy of pie eating, or whatever.

ME: Not to be crass, but you don’t actually get to, like, taste anything when you’re looking at food porn . . . but I think for most people, regular porn . . . there is a kind of . . . participatory aspect.

KACI: [Laughing] I don’t actually indulge in pornography. So maybe I’m even more removed from that or something.

ME: I love the realistic capture of the textures next to each other. You talked about the softness of the desserts, but they’re often on a plate, or they’re next to a chair, or a shiny surface, with a strawberry, there’s so much to work with there.

KACI: I feel like, going from one to the next one, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over, because every one has different challenges. Sometimes the colors are super diverse within one piece, like this one [“Cupcakes from the Hey Cupcake! Trailer”] but then sometimes the colors are very similar, liek in this one [“Mini Cream Puff and Lemon Meringue Tartlet from Whole Foods Headquarters”], where it’s a very simple pallette. And I like playing with that, with the subtlety with the textures and things.

ME: There’s actually a lot more texture than you would think!

KACI: That’s what I find really fascinating about doing representational realism. Your brain takes in a lot of information very quickly and sort of generalizes it as you go through life, and you think, that’s white, that’s brown, that’s whatever. But then when you start looking at it, it’s very subtle. And to really capture the form of it takes a lot of study of color . . . I enjoy seeing if I can make the form come out of nothing.

“Coconut Cake from Dolce Vita,” 10″x10″, oil on canvas

ME: So for you is realism mostly about technique? Is that the excitement for you, the challenge in technique, or is there something else about it that you really love?

KACI: That’s a good question. I think technique is the key to that, or at least I really enjoy the technical side of it. Which has its own . . . subset in the art world, of people thinking it’s not good enough, to focus on technique without anything behind it. But I’m just drawn to copying things, or mimicking things, or trying to see my way through an aesthetic. I feel like I like to do that with the theatrical work I do, is take things I like and re-appropriate them in a new way. And I think that’s why I’m drawn to realism in art. I mean, maybe it’s just what I was exposed to whenever I went to art museums as a kid or something. The Dutch works, great opulent serving trays filled with . . . it’s just so . . .

I think that realism in art can make you see something in a way that you actually can’t in real life, even though it’s mimicking real life. I think that the paintings that I make look better, often, than the actual thing itself looks. Whether I’m slightly manipulating it, or it’s just filtered through a camera and then filtered through my eye and then filtered through these soft oil paints . . . Some people argue, why paint that if you could just take a photo of it. But I think the end result is very different from a photo. And if you hold the reference photos up to the paintings, there’s very many little differences, it doesn’t look the same. Even though people think the paintings look like photos, if they saw the photo, they would realize that it’s not the same.

ME: Speaking as a person who enjoys representational realism, in art and literature, I think I can say that one of the things that’s most pleasurable about it as an audience, as a viewer, is seeing the way that all the visual information that we process very quickly in order to resolve objects into known objects, having that information separated out for you in a painting. Being able to see your technique in putting together these images to make them look as close to the real thing as possible is very pleasurable for us. It’s like we’re getting to see through your technique in a way. And your technique is all about, well it looks to me as if a great deal of it is about breaking things out and seeing things—instead of seeing them as a whole automatically, sort of seeing them in pieces and components. Is that right?

KACI: Yeah! And deciding what to highlight and what to downplay in any given image. And what is my eye drawn to that I then want to emphasize.

ME: The farther you stand back the more photographic it looks. But even looking at it, really the real pleasure for me is to see that line between something that looks photographic and then to see it suddenly blur into colors, or suddenly not look photographic. Does that makes sense?

KACI: People have said that before. I can totally see it, because it’s not perfect, and you can see the brushstrokes pretty easily. Or I’ve decided, eh, I’m not going to make that logo look a certain way, or something. And if you look closely enough you realize, oh, it’s not quite right. But yet it’s right enough at times to where you get a real sense of the place or the look of it.

“Mini Creme Puff and Lemon Meringue Tartlet from Whole Food Headquarters,” 10″x10″, oil on canvas

ME: Yeah. One reason this one is so successful [“Cupcake from Hey Cupcake! Trailer”] is that the sense of place is so vivid. I mean anybody who’s been to South Congress can really see this, it looks so familiar. Even the type of sunlight that’s filtering down, the way it’s flashing off of the food truck. But also it seems like another part of what you do here is about focus? It has to replicate the feeling of lack of focus in the background, for example . . . It calls your attention as a viewer to the quality of the visual information that we take for granted, so I think that’s cool. It’s also yummy looking.

Why are there no people?

KACI: It’s not about people. [Laughs.] . . . I feel like images of people are very compelling. When I do graphic design for shows, I always want there to be people in the posters. I think people are drawn to looking at people. So if there was a person in here, you’d be distracted by it . . . Although there have been some interesting things happen because of people. For instance there’s this one painting [“Blackberry Cobbler Ala Mode From Threadgill’s”] where Roy [Kaci’s husband] was wearing a red shirt, and he was sitting across from me, and it reflects it in this fork, and in the table, here.

ME: That’s really cool!

KACI: I really like that about this one.

ME: Do you ever have bites taken out of the food?

KACI: I thought about doing that, and then I decided not to. I wanted it to be whole. As if the viewer or someone who’s looking at it felt like it was waiting for them, and not tainted by some other person in some other story.

ME: I like that, it goes along with what you were saying about the desire that you have as a viewer for the object itself. It has this—for me, desserts are so aesthetically pleasing because they’re perfect. They’re like a perfect little world that you’re gonna destroy.

KACI: It’s like this beautiful little thing that’s been given to you! And especially when it’s packaged in a very personal, one-single-little-serving kind of way. And I like that! I mean that’s why so far I’ve just been painting slices of cakes and not a whole cake. . . . Sometimes I put the fork or the spoon, this utensil you’re very comfortable with, right there next to it, so you kind of get an idea of scale. And it feels like it’s waiting.

ME: That’s true. These two that I just saw, the utensil is on the same side, it’s on your side. It’s like, this is your dessert, and there’s your fork, and you’re going to pick it up and take a bite.

How long has realism been your tool of choice in painting?

KACI: I mean I’ve done other styles, for sure. But how long. . . I guess, when did I get serious about making work? I’ve always been very serious. Since about seventh grade or something, I was just trying. For a long time as an artist you are incapable of making the things that you want to exist. Because they say that your taste grows faster than your ability does, when you’re doing any kind of art work. So you have an appreciation for things before you can actually make them. So it takes many years of going, I’m gonna draw this thing! And then not really knowing how to do it, and starting it, and being disappointed with the outcome, and then over time slowly building up the skill.

But I guess realism is something that I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve done illustrations, I’ve done comics and graphic novels, but the thing that gave me the most pleasure in the finished product was realism. And I think maybe that’s—I had a lot of guilt in the past about that, being, like, not good enough for the art world, for an artist. Because it’s like, “That’s commonplace,” you know, “That’s typical” . . . But then I just decided at one point, fuck it, I’m just gonna make what I want to make, because I only have this one life and I’m not gonna sit around waiting to figure out something that’s not what I want to do, just because I think it’s not going to be well-received. And then once I started doing just what I wanted, just purely what I wanted, then people were really overwhelmingly positive about it.

ME: You’ve now said the word “guilty” twice in reference to these paintings.

KACI: I know, I’m totally guilty about it!

“Blackberry Cobbler Ala Mode from Threadgills,” 10″x10,” oil on canvas

ME: First it was guilt over the desserts, and now you’ve said that in your artistic past you had feelings of guilt about loving realism. So do you think those two are related?

KACI: It’s totally related! It’s actually something I almost don’t even want to admit, because I feel like it’s like some form of cowardice or something. . . But when I went to this Vermont Studio Center residency, a lot of artists would talk about certain types of art that people were making as “wall art” or “photo-paintings,” as a derogatory way of speaking. And I did sort of feel the old guilt that I had had before seep back in, and now I think I still feel that way. . . . But I’m trying to become okay with continuing to follow what personally interests me, and not getting mixed up in this other hype about what a person should be pursuing based on what’s been pursued before.

ME: What do you think has been the biggest learning experience for you? As far back as you want to go, for your artisitc life.

KACI: Do you mean as far as technique, or an epiphany?

ME: Whatever, to you, seems . . .

KACI: I jumped around different majors in college before I ended up in art. I think it was another thing where I was avoiding it out of a sort of guilt factor. But then I missed it too much, and so I ended up returning to it. I’m always trying to balance the theatrical things, the things I want to do performance-wise and the things I want to do visually, because they don’t often overlap, and you’re often forced to choose. So for a while I was an acting major, and then I was in set design, and then I finally moved into art, which I am super grateful for. And then when I was buckling down and working, I very much was trying to do it all as best I could even if I didn’t enjoy the medium or the form, and I think a lot came out of that. I feel like I came out of that with actual skills. And it felt good. People always say, oh an art degree, good luck making use of that. And I’d been told that before . . . and after . . . and during . . .

ME: People are the worst.

KACI: Yeah, they’re really the worst. [Laughs.] Well-meaning naysayers, is what I call it. But then I was like, no I actually have skills that I can use. So that was one great period of growth. It seems obvious, but it was very true. And then another one was that I had this great painting professor at St. Edward’s named Hollis Hammonds, she’s an awesome lady. And she was the one who told me, “Your whole goal as an artist can just be to make beautiful objects.” And that was when I really finally felt permission to make what I wanted. She said that, and that took a little while to sink in, but she was very supportive of what I wanted to do. I think that a lot of the professors at St. Edwards were very supportive of helping you to enhance what you want instead of building you into this tortured artist soul that you find this dark piece of yourself and then put that on the canvas.

ME: So what you don’t want to do is this dark tortured corner—but what do you think you do want?

KACI: I’m really happy in my life right now, I’m really having a great time in Austin. I want to make pieces that really engage the viewer and give them something they can enjoy. Because I think so much in life is really unenjoyable, in some aspects. There’s a lot of terrible things out there, and I don’t want to put any more tortured things in the world. I don’t even want them to be too challenging for people. I think there’s enough of that. I make the work that I would want to walk into a gallery and see. So before I started it, that was the kind of thing that would draw me. Something that was really well done realistically, and very—not overly happy, I mean not like the colors are super saturated. But I guess they are really happy.

ME: They may make people happy. Or they may make people hungry. . . . What about the feeling I get, when I see your painting, of wishing that I had the object instead of the copy? And feeling almost a little bit teased?

KACI: Oh yeah! I think that’s another unintended side effect of the work that a lot of the people have said. They also felt teased. But then I was like, Go get it!

ME: It’s in Austin!

KACI: It’s in Austin! And if you’re looking at it, you’re probably in Austin. And if you’re not, you should come here anyway!

ME: In Austin you are probably best known as a performer. As an improv performer, and an operator of the Hideout. But you also have this whole identity as a visual artist, and not everyone that knows you casually may know that about you. Is there a big disjunct between those two personalities? How do they get along with each other?

KACI: They are different and I think it’s important. One is done mostly totally alone, and one is done surrounded by lots of people. But they have things in common, I keep finding over time. . . I’m an extravert, so I really like being around people, so I was more easily drawn into the theater things. . . .Whereas with visual work, it’s very much me making time for it, me pushing myself to buckle down. To go into work, to create a deadline, to create a goal. . . . I do graphic design and stuff and commissions, and that helps sometimes, but that’s—I get overwhelmed with all of them. Time with people and different projects, and, like, dealing with those different personalities. I do like to then take some time out and focus on just me and what I want. Being alone and working on this thing, and just working really hard, so much that I hate it, I hate what I’m making. And then I have to go away from that and get back to being around people. I think I need both of those things really bad. I think without one of them the other part would suffer for it. . . . It makes a little hard to identify myself when people ask me what do you do? Who are you? Because it’s like well . . .this, that, and this and this sometimes, and also this.

ME: Do you have a next project?

KACI: I was particularly drawn to Dutch portraiture, and one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is a series of self-portraits done in the Dutch style—very glossy and clean—but taking in more of my theatrical interests. Basically costuming myself like famous female archetypes or characters from well-known plays and films, and getting good photographs of these things, but then painting them in the Dutch style. Very much trying to convey emotion, but with the emotions and aspects of these characters through myself filtered through the style of painting.

ME: Wow.

KACI: It’s really ambitious.

ME: It’s awesome.

KACI: I’m really drawn to it somehow, and it seems even more self-indulgent than anything . . . But I honestly want to make these paintings convey these different characters as best as possible, so some of them very light, frivolous and fluffy, and some of them very dark, depressing, weighed-down. Like Lady Macbeth. Versus Ophelia.

ME: I was just going to ask who your top five were. What characters made you want to do this, did any just pop to mind instantly?

KACI: I was thinking about the little girl in the Bad Seed.

ME: [Freaking out.] YES!!!!

KACI: And also something like Ophelia, the idea of an ingenue. But then also Lady Macbeth, or some total fucking bitch, some crazy bitch. . . .Because I do this acting work, and you very much get cast as you look. I mean, I would never be cast as Lady MacBeth, ever. But could I convey that?

ME: You get the chance to.

KACI: This is what I want to do. I don’t know I’m very excited by this project, and also I find it a little daunting.

ME: That sounds really awesome. And it won’t be all cupcakes this time.

KACI: No. I can’t imagine an instance of cupcakes.

ME: Not even one cupcake?

KACI: Yeah, somehow all these people are also holding food.

ME: I meant metaphorically, like personalities. Like you’ve got the Bad Seed, Lady MacBeth . . . .

KACI: Who knows what I’ll do when I’ve done more of the research? Have you ever been on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyworld or Disneyland? There’s these really great portraits. You go on this elevator and then it slides down to take you down to where this ride starts. But while the elevator is going down, a narrator starts talking about the house. And every painting looks really cutesy and nice, but as it goes down, the painting changes, and it becomes these evil portraits. A little girl looks really sweet, but then she’s holding a bottle of poison. Or somebody’s standing there really nicely, but then they’re on a wire or tightrope over a pit of alligators, and it looks like they’re gonna fall off and be eaten. I think that was in my head a little bit, the idea of some sort of narrative within a portrait.

WHAT I WISH I HAD SAID: I can’t wait to see what narrative emerges from your series of self-portraits, and I hope it involves alligators.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , ,

Reading Fiction Again, This Time for the Ladies

When I asked Jennifer Egan last week if she’s faced any challenges as a woman writing, she answered, “I feel like I’ve been absolutely lavished with praise and reward. I’ve been overpraised and over-rewarded. That doesn’t mean there are no problems for women writers, that’s for sure. But it means that I’m probably the least equipped to analyze them right now.”

Fair enough; the woman just won a Pulitzer Prize. The thing is, I can’t imagine a post-Pulitzer Jonathan Franzen telling an interviewer that he’s been “overpraised and over-rewarded.” I take at face value her statement that she’s never been aware of lesser treatment. But her deflection of praise in the next sentence says volumes to me about the attitudes we have all internalized, to varying degrees, about “women’s fiction”—whether written by women or for them.

This fantastic article by Meg Wolitzer, “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women,” appeared earlier this week in the The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Like so many things I vehemently agree with, it is brilliant (ahem). Wolitzer has articulated many of the things I’ve been preoccupied with—not to say obsessed with—of late, and she says them with a great deal more knowledge and experience of the contemporary literary scene than I can hope to have.

Not only am I not a published author, but let’s face it: I don’t even read much contemporary fiction. Here’s the story of how that happened, and how I plan to fix it.

In 2001 I lived in Portland, Ore., in a wonderful Boston marriage with my best friend from high school that lasted exactly one year. With no television and no other friends, we cocooned ourselves in a spinsterish fantasy of near-constant knitting and weekly trips to the Portland Public Library. In addition to reading a backlog of authors I “felt I should know,” I made a point of checking out new novels in hardback, often spending months on a wait list for hot titles. Every Sunday I pored over the New York Times Sunday Book Review, coffee cup in hand, taking mental notes on what to look for on my next trip to the reading room downtown.

These outings, which often followed lazy breakfasts at the French creperie down the street, were superb. The fiction, however, often left me cold. Perhaps Henry James is the culprit: I began reading him for the first time in Portland, and there’s nothing like racing through Portrait of a Lady, Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl in a matter of months to convince you that contemporary fiction is mostly bunk. Having sampled a wide swath of critically acclaimed contemporary authors that included Zadie Smith, Rick Moody, Mona Simpson, T. C. Boyle, Ian McEwan, and Thom Jones, I felt underwhelmed. My grunts of annoyance while reading frequently prompted couple-ish interactions with my roommate—she would gently suggest that I stop reading, and I would refuse, instead throwing the book down, fuming for a while, and picking it back up again, determined to fight it out to the bitter end. (My husband may think that my tendency to get irrationally angry over other people’s writing began with the internet, but my friend could tell him differently.)

By the time I entered grad school, I felt that modern fiction had let me down. Despite a few tiny treasures I discovered along the way (the short stories of Jane Smiley and Helen Simpson, for instance), the writers who spoke most to me had been at it for a long time: Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, and even John Updike (exactly half of whose books are lovely and the other half of which are total crap). Satisfied that I had given contemporary authors a fair chance, I spent the next seven years on a diet of novels written between 1700 and 1960, from Tristram Shandy to Middlemarch to Peyton Place. In and out of the classroom, I cultivated what I considered to be the most useful type of book knowledge: literary history.

It was useful, and extremely pleasurable as well. It feels good to like something that is old and difficult. And now I can converse with the three other people in the universe who not only read Clarissa but enjoyed it.

Older novels have the advantage of having been curated by the passage of time. You don’t have to like Ulysses (I don’t) to recognize its dazzling technical achievements and crucial influence on twentieth-century literature. Additionally, over the past 40 years literary scholars in academia have done us all a great service in uncovering hundreds of fantastic and indispensable texts by women, minorities, and other marginalized populations. While the playing field has been leveled somewhat by these valiant canon warriors, the struggle for greatness is still essentially Darwinian, and only the very best of the recovered literatures will survive into the next century.

Contemporary fiction is bound to suffer by comparison with these survivors. Even the most talented and passionate current critics will never have the advantage of observing a book age over a hundred years. Will Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm be read in 2090? (God, I hope not.) Will Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections be more famous for its beautiful portrait of family life, or for the Oprah scandal that surrounded it? History tells us that the critics of Henry James’s day preferred the work of the largely forgotten and inferior author Walter Besant. The Don DeLillos, Cormac McCarthys and, yes, Jennifer Egans of our day might just turn out to be Walter Besants after all, literary-historical footnotes to more lasting works.

Despite this, literary history is happening right now, and in my opinion it’s happening around women. The persistence of categories like “chick lit” and its more respectable cousin “women’s fiction” testifies to lingering inequalities in a canon that is being formed even as I write this. In addition to Meg Wolitzer, authors like Judith Krantz, Jennifer Weiner, and Jodi Picoult have drawn attention to the subtle disparagement of women in the literary scene.

(I wish I could add Jennifer Egan to that list, but after interviewing her, I can’t. Though brilliant and generous, Egan is not the outspoken advocate of women in literature that I so desperately wanted her to be after reading Look at Me way back in 2001. My article on Egan is currently looking for a publisher, knock on wood, but if I can’t sell it I will post it in a few weeks and you’ll see what I mean.)

This is all to say that if I am serious about exploring women’s role in shaping the novel, which I apparently am, the time and the place to read is now. More women are writing novels than ever before (or are they? I’ll do the research on that), and I want to play my small part in discussing them, celebrating them, and, when appropriate, canonizing them. While I can’t predict whose fiction will outlive us all, I can advocate for those authors who take women’s experience seriously, and especially for those female authors whose work runs the risk of being ghettoized, marginalized, or simply ignored.

In point of fact, I think that as a woman who has been given a highly public platform, Egan is better equipped than anyone to address these issues. I can’t banish the suspicion that Egan’s well-deserved Pulitzer for A Visit from the Good Squad was won partially on the strength of her dexterity in representing both women’s and men’s voices—a skill that has developed alongside her growing critical acceptance. When female writers transcend gender in this way, they are seldom praised specifically for reproducing a masculine point of view; rather, their work is praised as having “universal themes.” By contrast, when male authors choose to write exclusively from a woman’s perspective, they are often praised for their ability to mimic a woman’s point of view, but not for “universal themes.” A woman’s point of view, after all, isn’t considered universal in the literary world any more than it is in the real world.

One last observation: every devoted reader has experienced the heartbreaking moment when you come to the end of your favorite author’s oeuvre. When the writer is dead and gone, there will be no more first-time reads ever again, which in itself is a reason I should start cuddling up to the ones who are still living. A dead writer is never going to grant me an interview, either.

I have higher hopes for the contemporary female authors I admire most. That’s why I’m going to start calling them up and asking them these questions.

Tagged , , , , , ,

On Women’s Culture and Literary Cockblocking

Last week I dropped a flippant one-liner on Facebook about wanting to write a piece of novelist fan fic wherein Jennifer Egan beheaded Jonathan Franzen in a gladiatorial spectacle. People seemed to enjoy that comment, and someone told me I should write the story, and I did. Reveling in the silliness of the premise, I also tried to honor the sentiment behind my original comment. The actual beheading was more of a punchline than an event.

Immediately after posting it and sharing it on Facebook, I felt overwhelmed by a mix of pride and terror. My first action was to hurriedly comment that it was written in the style of The Hunger Games. This was not true at all, though the books had undoubtedly been on my mind. It was my way of simultaneously disavowing the violence of the story and beating to the punch all the imaginary readers in my head who would think it was derivative. Like lots of women, I have a habit of prefacing my words with the phrase “I’m sure this isn’t very original, but . . .” and punctuating them with an apology for excessive feeling.

So I’ve been thinking about why I wrote the story, and the uncomfortable amount of rage I’ve been feeling lately—as in, my whole life—about women. Or specifically, being a woman in a patriarchy, with all the constant threat of violence and ridicule and just being ignored that it entails.

It’s wonderful of the Grand Old Party to wage a war on women right now, in a way. It seems to have kicked a lot of Americans in the gut, not to mention the womb. Now no one can pretend that misogyny is dead, that women are truly treated as equals to men, that the goals of the women’s movement were achieved long ago in the fuzzy past. It’s a mystery to me how anyone who’s been alive through the last four presidential administrations, which is about how long I’ve been noticing presidential administrations, could think that in the first place. But now that no one can deny that men in high places are trying to reassert control over women’s bodies and silence their voices, I feel a strange relief at the thought that now the battle is actually on.

The skills I bring to this fight are reading and writing and critical thinking. I’m not an activist, to my shame, or a lawyer, thankfully for everyone, or a policy maker, except in my nightmares, or a documentarian, which sounds hard. As a reader, writer, and former grad student, I’m fixated on the softer misogynies that create the climate in which the overt misogyny can thrive. To my mind, the relationship between creative production and structural inequality—between stories and legislation—is no less troubling for being indirect. It’s just harder to quantify, because it happens in our off-hours, when we read and watch movies for pleasure, during our playtime, as it were.

Here’s a story about playtime. My niece and her twin brother just turned eight years old. At the age of three my niece started refusing to wear pink. At six, she demanded a boy’s haircut. Without knowing the complicated thoughts that take place inside her intelligent little brain, I can only imagine what would compel a girl who has a twin brother to make these choices. Could it be that she noticed, as soon as she was old enough to notice things, that boy stuff was just valued more than girl stuff? That she was encouraged to play with trains, maps, and other stereotypically boyish toys, which we progressively think of as “unisex”; but that boys were not encouraged to play with dolls, kitchen sets, and other stereotypically girly toys? Can she really have noticed at the age of three that things associated with girls were not considered worthy of little boys’ attention? In case you don’t think that’s likely, here’s another story: when she was four or five years old, she announced during play time that she didn’t want to be a princess, because princesses just sat around waiting to be rescued. She wanted to be a knight instead.

A recent trip to Disneyworld acquainted her with the consequences of this attitude. In a land of princesses, my niece was mistaken for a boy more than once. She can only have felt deeply ambivalent, or whatever the 7-year-old version of that looks like, when the waitress dressed as Cinderella came back around with an embarrassed smile on her face to offer her a fairy wand instead of the sword she had been “mistakenly” given at the door. It’s not always easy being a knight.

The stories we tell affect our cultural beliefs about women. And, to get to the point, so do the stories we tell about those stories.

Because even after they’re all grown up, boys still don’t want to play with girls’ toys, which is what Jonathan Franzen fatally expressed in that decade-old gaffe on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. (Well, fatally for the Jonathan Franzen in my story, anyway). Franzen starts off by acknowledging the well-supported fact that women are the primary readers of novels in America:

 So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator . . . I continue to believe that . . .

It’s easy to misread this quote as Franzen denigrating a certain class of Americans. Elitist Author Knocks Beloved Talk Show, Calls Oprah Watchers Dumb. Perhaps it would be too much to expect the next sentence to be something about how great it is that someone is buying American novels at all, thereby keeping Franzen in tweed blazers. But in the next sentence, Franzen not only fails to acknowledge the value of his low-brow, Oprah-watching female audience, but actively reveals his craving for their low-brow, football-watching husbands:

. . . and now, I’m actually at the point with this book that I worry . . . I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience, and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now in book stores that said, “If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women and I would never touch it.” Those are male readers speaking. So, I’m a little confused about the whole thing now.

Boys won’t play with girl’s toys, and this is “confusing” to Franzen. (It’s not confusing to me, but whatever.) He cites direct, anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon. He is careful to point out that this is male readers speaking, not him. He cites the evidence.

He doesn’t mention whether women approached him at these book signings, or what they said if they did.  He expresses no interest in his potentially vast pool of female readers, in their potential reactions, in whether they will identify with his well-written female characters. He only expresses concern over the fact that their having bought the book will drive those men in line away. Not concern over the noxious sexism their comments revealed, but over the possibility of losing them altogether. The fact that women were reading Jonathan Franzen’s book wasn’t ever going to make them look more intelligent or perceptive. It made the book look like it was “for women,” and therefore unreadable by men. The role of female readers in this narrative can be summed up in one word: cockblockers.

In a really great 2001 interview in BOMB Magazine, Franzen told writer Donald Antrim that The Corrections was part of a general turn away from masculinist modes of fiction currently in fashion and toward the domestic fiction associated with—you guessed it—Edith Wharton. He said this to Donald Antrim, a highbrow postmodernist author who exemplified the style Franzen was rejecting. Franzen is a sensitive intellect despite that ludicrous Wharton article, and I believe he meant what he said. But that is what makes his other words, spoken in conversation with the most recognizable and respected female voice in National Public Radio, so disheartening. Somehow it’s always worse when a smart man says it. It’s more of a betrayal. It makes you feel so hopeless.

There are plenty of worse types of oppression for a woman than being told you’re not valuable as a reader of Jonathan Franzen. Like all women, I know women who’ve been raped by strangers and acquaintances, women who’ve been bullied and harassed at work and on the street, women who’ve been physically threatened on first dates and by live-in boyfriends, women who’ve been passed over for promotions or discovered their pay was not commensurate with their male peers. This is not any one man’s fault, and it certainly isn’t the fault of poor old Jonathan Franzen, who does not have an Oprah-like sphere of influence, no matter how many NPR interviews and New Yorker articles he botches.

But the crimes of misogyny are propped up by the culture of misogyny. And the culture of misogyny is perpetuated by literary fiction as much as by sitcoms and television ads, by The New Yorker as much as by Maxim. The culture of misogyny is perpetuated by smart, creative, well-intentioned, and fundamentally good people, as well as by Rush Limbaugh. I don’t really want to chop off Jonathan Franzen’s head, obviously. But as a woman watching the contemporary literary scene I was for a long time afraid even to be invested in (hence my retreat to dead authors in grad school), I confess I do want to see women get their comeuppance. When Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize last year for A Visit from the Goon Squad, I had very complicated feelings about it, including delight, of course, but also sadness that her earlier, more female-centric novels had never pulled the critical attention that her novels that explored men’s experience did.

Franzen’s Freedom was published in 2010, and Goon Squad won in 2011so that particular gladiatorial spectacle was not to be. But a girl can dream.

The Custom of the Country

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Franzen and Egan hadn’t exactly been starved before the fight, but, as was the custom, they had been fed on a parsimonious diet of lean proteins, just enough to keep a corrosive hunger burning in their bellies without actually weakening them.

Or, so he explained to her over the murmur of the crowd. In the stands, a thousand men were quietly explaining the rules of the game to a thousand women sitting next to them. How the prisoners would be fed a single slice of bread just before the games began, spiking their blood sugar after the long fast. How they had been sequestered in soundproof cells for months, able to hear only the sounds of their own voices.

This was not as difficult for writers as it would be for other people, he explained. In fact, many writers expressed the opinion that their months in the cell had been very productive.

“Ian McEwan claims to have written most of Atonement in the cell. Or”—he grimaced—“claimed, I guess.”

“I think he wrote that book just to prove he read Clarissa.” The professor paused to consider her own statement. “Do you think he’s really read Clarissa?”

The man laughed. “Does it really matter? Has anyone actually read Clarissa? We still get what he’s doing, replacing the actual rape in Clarissa with a false accusation of rape that ruins a man’s life. Which is just as violent.”  The professor didn’t say anything, so he elucidated. “It’s subversive.”

The professor shifted on the hard bench and opened her program. “Why do they do the interviews right before the fight?”

“Well obviously they can’t do them afterward.” He grinned. “Not both of them, anyway.”

“No, I meant, I don’t understand why there are interviews at all.”

“Come on, it’s our one chance to see these guys be completely honest for once in their lives. Maybe for the last time. They haven’t been eating or sleeping much, they haven’t spoken to anyone in months, and they’re about to face the opponent for the first time. They forget there’s even going to be an audience. They say the craziest things, not realizing that any little slip up might cost them their fan base. Which could cost them everything. It’s so—raw.”

He sucked his lower lip a little in anticipation. She felt it too, but would have been embarrassed to show it so publicly. The more typical attitude was one of suppressed bloodlust—eyes darting nervously behind square-rimmed glasses, blazers creaking over shifting shoulder blades, throats fluttering under artistically draped scarves.

She had been avoiding the obvious topic of conversation, but since it was already being discussed in low voices all around them, she decided to bring it up first.

“Who are you rooting for?”

“Does it really matter?” he asked again. “I’m sorry, I know she’s your favorite author. But she’s pretty scrawny.”

It was true. In a boatneck t-shirt you could spot her clavicles a mile away. “So is Franzen.”

“Plus, she’s older than she looks,” he continued. “Did you know she’s 50?”

“Franzen is 53!”

“Sure, but you know what they say—women get older, men just get more distinguished.” He laughed. “No but seriously, it’s true. That face has helped her career a lot up until now, gotten her a lot of extra attention. But looks don’t last forever. And in the ring, she won’t have makeup artists to prepare her for her close-up.”

The professor didn’t feel like arguing the point, and besides, it did seem pretty hopeless. The two might be evenly matched physically—Franzen was not exactly a paragon of physical prowess. But he was demonstrably more aggressive than Egan. Just look at the way he went on the offensive in ’96, preparing the canon for The Corrections even before he had finished writing it. Taking back the tradition, the commentators called it. And his bold refusal to accept a marketing advantage that would have boosted his readership by millions, because those readers were women who watched daytime television—that was a masterstroke. People might not like him, but he had always generated the buzz he needed to stay alive. And he wasn’t here to make friends.

He did have glasses, she reminded herself, a definite handicap. The committee never allowed contestants to get fitted with contacts for the ring. The thought was that any author who had chosen to wear glasses instead of contacts their whole life had almost certainly done so in the hopes of benefitting from a more intellectual public image—a strategy whose efficacy had been proven time and again by the number of bespectacled contestants over the years. To let an author jettison the image that got him to the ring in the first place would be unfair, to his fans as well as his opponent. So if Egan could knock off his glasses early on, she might gain an enormous advantage.

On the other hand, there were rumors flying around that the glasses were an affectation, that Franzen had first donned them to appear more interesting to girls at Swarthmore. This rumor was unlikely to be true, and was probably originated by Egan supporters trying to undermine Franzen’s image. However, Franzen fans—or “frans,” as they called themselves—had spread the rumor with glee, gloating that if Egan got close enough to knock off the spectacles she’d be in for the surprise of her life. The professor couldn’t help but shudder at the thought that it might be true. She abruptly closed the program and tightened her jaw.

“Hey, you gonna be okay?” He put his hand on her elbow and leaned in. He really did love her a little bit, even years after their one unsuccessful date had shown that there was no hope of a romantic relationship between them. The concern in his voice touched a guilty place in her conscience, as she remembered his shattered look at the restaurant.

She reminded herself that he had been reluctant to read Jane Austen because the plots weren’t “universal” enough. “I’m fine. I think the interviews are starting.”

The Jumbotrons above the stadium came to life, lighting up the twilight with images of typewriters colliding in midair and leather-bound tomes bursting into flame. The crowd erupted into cheers as the loudspeakers began booming out chamber music laid over a heavy backbeat, then hushed as a face appeared on the screen: the master of ceremonies, with his long, literary face and his theatrically nerdy bow-tie. Opening the ceremony with a few tepid jokes, he directed the audience’s attention to previews of next year’s fight, introducing a montage of possible contestants that included the dapper Alan Hollinghurst, Man Booker winner Julian Barnes, and Irish underdog Emma Donoghue. From the way the camera lingered on Donoghue’s fluffy red hair and childishly makeup-free face, the professor was willing to bet that she would make what they called “the shortlist.”

Just as the crowd began to stir restlessly, the announcer’s face appeared again, and the camera began the crosscutting of the two interviews. The interviews were supposed to be broadcast live from their cells, a fact the announcer enthusiastically repeated every thirty or forty seconds, but nobody really believed they weren’t edited down to the most sensational bits, perhaps even rearranged to appear more in sync with one another. Egan and Franzen were shot cinematically in director’s chairs against a black background, each turned slightly in toward the center of the screen, so that when the camera cut back and forth it looked like they were facing off.

Franzen, perched tensely on the canvas edge of his chair, was first. The interviewer asked him whether he had been writing anything in his cell.

“I’ve been working on a piece about Edith Wharton,” he answered, blinking owlishly.

Sounds of interest and surprise wafted up from the audience.

“You know, I’ve always thought that she’s very hard to sympathize with because of her wealth. She was probably the most privileged American writer ever.”

“Interesting,” said a female interviewer’s voice from offscreen. “Do you have any evidence to support that statement?”

Franzen shrugged impatiently. “Well no, Carrie, I’ve been locked in a cell for four months. I’m going off what I remember from a conversation I had with Gary Shteyngart at a cocktail party. But even if it’s not true, I’m sure it’s basically true.”

“So you’re saying she was a bad writer because she was rich?”

“Well I’m not really talking about her writing in detail. I’m more talking about her as a person, about how maybe if she had been prettier, and not so rich, she would have been more sympathetic. Or the rich thing doesn’t really matter, but prettier. Like Jackie O., or Grace Kelly. Or—” The audience held its breath. “Or Jennifer Egan.”

The camera cut immediately to Jennifer Egan gazing placidly toward the center of the screen from the other direction. She did indeed look beautiful, although the strong horizontal lines in her face were sagging a bit here in there with exhaustion, or possibly resignation. She wore the nautical striped top that she was so often photographed in. “Jennifer,” the offscreen interviewer’s voice asked, “what is your make-up routine like? Do you use a primer?”

Egan smiled graciously, her thin lips barely turning up at the ends. “I usually just wear some tinted moisturizer. They let me bring it in with me because it was already in my purse.”

“Wow, unbelievable. What a complexion. Okay, can you give us a sense of what your method is like? Do you think that it’s harder for you as a woman?”

“Well, writing isn’t easy for anyone. But I do work hard, yes.”

“I meant the competition. Will it be harder for you as a woman?”

Egan squinted her eyes a little bit in thought. Then she shook out her blond hair and said, “I don’t think so. I did track and field at UPenn.”

The camera cut back to Franzen, who had removed his glasses and was rubbing his eyes with his thumb and middle finger. “I don’t want to kill anyone. Christ, I can barely handle clearing the mouse traps in the attic.” The audience laughed sympathetically. He pulled his hand away, shook his head as if to clear it, and blinked his eyes open. The professor could feel her companion leaning forward, straining along with the rest of the audience members to discern some sign of imperfect eyesight. The glasses were on again in an instant, and a moan of frustration rippled through the crowd.

“Carrie, I honestly don’t know if I can do it. She is a human being, after all. And so gracious. She’s never been anything but kind to me.”

“Do you think she’s a good writer?”

There was a pause during which the only sound was that of audience members anxiously fiddling with their laptop bags.

“I think A Visit from the Goon Squad had universal themes.”

The camera cut back to Egan, who was staring somewhat blankly off into the distance. After a moment, she seemed to recover her sense of purpose, and her gaze refocused on her interlocutor offscreen. “That’s an interesting question. I think . . . I think he’ll be well read in his lifetime. None of us know, after that. None of us has any right to know. I write a lot about celebrity, not literary celebrity, but the kind of manufactured celebrity that we see in our culture. And I think . . . there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked, or wanting to be the best.” She looked up, and then she smiled and laughed at the ceiling, and the crowd seemed collectively to catch its breath. A few audience members began weeping. The professor listened closely. “But will either of us be remembered? Not for me to say.”

Shortly thereafter, the screen went dark, and the audience, unable to pretend indifference anymore, began to stomp and chant for the tournament to begin. The contestants were given their slices of bread, or, as a few men in the know were telling the women next to them, their carbohydrate shots, which is how they were doing it this year for the first time. They were released into the arena, Franzen in a sweater vest over a maroon button-down, and Egan in her signature boatneck top with navy horizontal stripes.

The fight didn’t last long. Jennifer Egan beheaded Jonathan Franzen fairly quickly, and, after a brief glance around the crowded stadium, walked out of the arena with a fatigued look on her face. A thousand women cheered and went home with plans to apply to graduate school and write their dissertations on Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston. A thousand men remained very quiet on the car ride home. The professor resigned and became a writer. Her friend resigned as well, but for different reasons. Jonathan Franzen’s essay on Edith Wharton was published posthumously in the New Yorker, and when people read it, with tears in their eyes, they thought how much better it would have been if he had at least had access to Wikipedia.

Tagged , , , , ,

Team Johanna: the Hungry-for-an-Alternate-Ending Games

[spoilers ahead]

Love this Bitch article by Kelsey Wallace about “complex masculinities” in The Hunger Games:

Yes, obviously Katniss is badass and I’m psyched to see a strong heroine get some much-deserved attention, but what really struck me about the Hunger Games trilogy was its complex portrayals of masculinity, embodied by the characters of Gale Hawthorne and Peeta Mellark.

I’m Team Peeta all the way, but I think Wallace doesn’t quite capture just how complex Peeta is as a character – how passive-aggressive and even manipulative he can be, in that “it’s okay, I’ll just love you from afar, don’t pay me any mind” kind of way. But I’m thrilled that she acknowledges some of the lesbian subtext in a brief parenthetical:

. . . Katniss also chooses a feminist marriage. One where she can hunt and Peeta can bake, and they can share parenting responsibilities. It’s a feminist YA fan’s dream! (Well, within the confines of this heteronormative narrative, anyway—maybe feminist fanfic can give us an alternative ending where Katniss and Johanna run away together and start their own radical zine library, though.)

Thanks to Summer McDonald I’m basically convinced that Katniss is gay, or mostly gay anyway, though not too gay to settle down with Peeta in a post-traumatic marriage that is NOT this feminist YA fan’s dream. I think by the time Katniss gets through with all the book-three trauma, she’s not exactly ready to “blossom” in any direction, gay or straight. Her life with Peeta is all about the comfort he was always able to give her, starting before they had even met, way back in her childhood, where he provided for her in a way that her mother couldn’t. There’s a strong motherliness to Peeta. He’s a nurturer. (And he also likes bossy women, perhaps because his own mother was an unpredictable c-word with a nasty temper.)

Anyway, I’d like to think that in a perfect world, or even a slightly less completely horrible world than what The Hunger Games becomes, Katniss and Johanna would indeed have run away together, and Katniss could eventually have gotten over her whole I’ll-never-love-anyone-but-my-sister thing, and Johanna could have gotten over her whole I’m-angry-about-being-beautiful thing, and they could have had Prim over for tea sometimes, and maybe even Gale and Madge once they discovered they were in love, and Peeta . . . well I don’t know, Peeta would probably stay a lonely sad-sack bachelor, or maybe eventually he would have fallen for Prim, Little Women-style. Anyway THAT’s my feminist YA fantasy ending. (Did I mention that in my head Johanna looks like Keira Knightley from Bend It like Beckham? So throw in a darker-skinned actress, which is how Katniss should have been cast in the first place, and now my fan-fic does double-duty as Bend It like Beckham fan-fic. Mission accomplished!)

Two shell-shocked vets helping each other to not cry hysterically every single day do not a successful feminist marriage make. That’s all I’m saying.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Austin’s Transgendered Icon Is Dead

Leslie, he of the hot pink panties and the tricked out shopping cart, is dead at age 60. I’ll have more to say about this later, but for now I just want to marvel over the fact that one of Austin’s most revered icons was a homeless transgendered man.

From the Austin-American Statesman:

Usually dressed in ankle-snapping ladies’ heels and a thong, Cochran was a fixture in Austin, particularly downtown, the Sixth St. entertainment district and South Austin. He became known around the world as a key example of the city’s populace embracing and celebrating its freaks. Albert Leslie Cochran eventually ascended to the highest rank of celebrity, joining the few known by one name only.

We’ll miss you, Leslie. Summertime on South Congress won’t be the same without you.

Check out this awesome photo gallery from the Statesman.

Tagged , , , , ,

Bust a Move

Dance Dance Party Party, 2011

If you live in Austin and you’re female, you might want to check out my CultureMap article on Dance Dance Party Party, an all-women’s dance group that meets on Sunday nights. (That’s right, EVERY SUNDAY NIGHT, ladies. We are straight-up serious about getting down.) 

The original DDPP group in New York came up with this delightful motto: “No booze, no boys, no judgment. (Legwarmers optional.)” But as I say in the article, it makes us sound a bit like a convent, or at least a fitness retreat. The original slogan is fantastic, especially the “no judgment” part, but the “No . . . no . . . no” format increasingly sounds to me like a series of prohibitions – almost a judgment in itself. When what we really want is to make a space where certain prohibitions that sometimes keep women from enjoying themselves are lifted, and we’re free to go nuts.

So, our new slogan is “Bust a Move, Break a Sweat, Be Yourself.” Legwarmers are still optional, of course.

Tagged , , , , ,

DIY Martyrs, I Mean Mothers

Jess from Sprachbund In Austin wrote about this in a blog post way back in 2008, relating her experiences as a DIY mom to the Judith Warner book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety:

Judith Warner also claims that the mothers who are really facing the challenges of unrealistic expectations are those born between 1956 and 1972, i.e., in the wake of the 2nd wave women’s movement. But as a woman born in 1976, I think my generation is doubly judged. Not only do voices from the mainstream admonish us with “You finally get to have it all, career and family, so why are you whining?”, but there’s also the whole do-it-yourself hippie/hipster counter-culture movement that differs from Martha Stewart mainly in aesthetics and the politically-correct provenance of raw materials. Otherwise, I think DIY culture can be freakishly backwards. When I read an article in BUST or a similar magazine on knitting stocking caps for all my friends for Christmas, I’m sorry, but I feel like running to Target and buying everyone striped socks made in China. And this mentality carries over into counter-culture mothering, best exemplified by “Mothering” magazine, which I prefer to call “Martyring”. “Mothering” magazine seriously makes me want to wretch, despite the fact that many of my beloved family and friends are subscribers. I’d elaborate, but first I need to go finish harvesting my own baby food while my 5-year-old breast feeds in her hemp cloth sling. And that’s after I take her to a drum-circle that comes from a culture my country is neo-colonizing. Barf. [post here]

This is obviously the reflection of a woman who is in the throes of birthday-party planning for a 5-year-old. I would love to hear more thoughts on how mothering ties into the DIY/craft culture expectations of women of our generation. It’s interesting that she ties it into “neo”-colonization, too – in my article, my editor took the adjective “white” out of my list of self-descriptors, but I thought it was pretty important. Any women of color want to chime in on their relationship to DIY? Mothers? Women outside of my age group?

Tagged , , , , ,

File under “Do-It-Herself”

Please check out my article on DIY culture and women’s labor in CultureMap Austin and CultureMap Houston:

[. . . .] I can remember a time when I didn’t know that “antique” could be a verb, but weeks after earning my PhD I was antiquing everything in sight, barely pausing to ask myself how I had become this person.

At least I’m not alone.

[ . . . .]

If these women are anything like me, they go to Pinterest for DIY porn: heart-shaped elbow patches, vases crafted from fire extinguishers, tiny pies you bake right in the apple. They are irresistibly drawn to light-drenched photographs of knitted iPod cozies and snow globes made from jelly jars.

The women who make these crafts seem to live in a fulfilling world of vintage aprons and children’s birthday parties, rainbow-themed and miraculously unsticky, far from the grueling demands of the workplace. In this domestic paradise, everything is beautiful, everything is clean, and every detail testifies to a woman’s loving, unpaid labor. [full article here]

Tagged , , , , , ,

Women’s Work and Craft Culture: An Interview with Emily Matchar

[You can read my article about women and DIY, which uses quotes from this interview, here.]

I first found Emily Matchar’s website, New Domesticity, in the aftermath of my DIY-wedding-related frenzy. Now, three months after getting my PhD in English, I handcraft greeting cards, raise chickens, make my own marshmallows, and fantasize about abandoning my academic job search to become a DIY wedding planner. I emailed Emily because I was curious about her take on the gender politics of DIY, and she emailed me back that she could relate to my situation: “I had my own ‘WTF am I doing?!’ moment while up at 3 a.m. hand-stamping wedding invitations to save $100 on printing costs, while neglecting a work deadline that would have netted me way more.” After she sketched out the basic history of the DIY movement, from Kathleen Hanna to Martha Stewart, we started getting down to how contemporary DIY culture affects women’s lives.

Faux mercury glass candle holders, in process.

ME: You talk about your own relationship to DIY. Did that change over the course of writing the book?

MATCHAR: I think it probably confirmed some things that I thought, which was that DIY, when it goes beyond a hobby level, is really counting on people undervaluing their labor, and women undervaluing their labor in particular. This sort of domestic DIY is very much a women’s movement. It’s hard to know what conclusions to draw from that, because it’s not like, oh poor you, you’re doing DIY, you’re spending too much money! But there’s a sort of growing extreme DIY ideology of simple living or radical homemaking, this sort of idea of, why would you work in an office to make money to buy things that you can make yourself? That’s the driving ideology behind some of these extreme DIY movements, and I think ideologically that’s so flawed. Because, one, there are a lot of reasons to work besides making money, and two, it’s a question of how you want to spend your time. Yeah, I would rather make all my own bread to avoid having to work on an assembly line. But would I rather bake my own bread to avoid having a potentially more fulfilling and socially important job? And there’s very much, in this ideology, a very heavy strain of “working sucks,” and the workplace is terrible. It often seems like it’s just irredeemably terrible for women, and that it’s a feminist act to reject it and do things yourself. And I’m pretty wary of that.

ME: That’s really true. I talk to my friends about this all the time. Second-wave feminism was so predicated on getting out of the house and having a meaningful career, which, thank god, right? But there seems to be among women of my generation this kind of irritation with, why isn’t work fulfilling? For 90 percent of men, their jobs are not super fulfilling either. But I feel like women of my mindset and political inclinations view it as something that is going to be super fulfilling intellectually and psychologically and emotionally, and most of the time, let’s face it, it just isn’t that. But when you bake bread, you really feel an incredibly strong connection to that work. 

But why housework? Why does it have to be women’s work, why does it have to be girly crafts, why does it have to be baby clothes? What is it that we crave about that stuff? Why does it have to be weddings? Why aren’t we building shit? DIY is also a hardware store thing. So why is it that the things we make have to be these stereotypically gendered things, do you think?

MATCHAR: Well I mean sure, there are tons of women who go to the hardware store and build houses, but you’re right, it’s not part of this whole aesthetic. I think for girly stuff, there was already a pre-made script for that. And these are the kinds of things that women make, women make baby hats, and women do their wedding invitations and calligraphy and stuff like that, so there’s much more resources and learning available. I think when women officially started to reclaim this stuff as a feminist act, the very idea of it being so traditionally feminine was appealing. Hey, this was denigrated because it was traditionally feminine, so let’s do it. These are areas of life that have a sort of natural space for DIY – like a wedding, you’re making all this stuff, having a party, it’s a big transition. That said, there is a fair amount of DIY that sort of has nothing to do with that . . . I know lots of women who make IPod cases. And, you know, tampon holders.

These vintage pillboxes with homemade lip balm were my bridesmaid gifts.

ME: Okay, but the cute aesthetic is so predominant in DIY. I’ve recently had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with a lot of women in their early twenties, and cute is just what they do. They make their own stuff because that’s what cool, and to me, there does not seem to be a trace of irony, or if there is irony, their relationship to it is completely different than mine. I don’t think it would occur to them to be like, why am I spending my time doing this? Why do I like cutesy things? Where did that come from? These are smart, well-educated, and often super successful and self-confident women who have just grown up with the assumption that baking cupcakes is a really cool way to spend your time. Which it is! But it seems like kind of an unquestioned assumption, whereas women closer to my age got into it via ironic appropriations of women’s culture. When did that shift happen, I keep trying to figure that out.

MATCHAR: That’s a huge question. I don’t know exactly how that happened or to what degree it has happened. I’m 29, and when I was 18, it would never have occurred to me to make cupcakes, I would have thought that was really, like, embarrassing.

Or really girly . . . I would have worried that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. For the longest time that was one of the reasons women didn’t do that stuff, because it was denigrated as girly and there was a lot of sexism toward it. Women shied away from it because they wanted to be taken seriously. And then there was that reappropriation. I think now if you’re 18, you have the privilege, and that’s wonderful, of not having to worry that if I wear, you know, glitter cupcake earrings people won’t take me seriously.

ME: But do you think that’s true? Does it really not undermine their ability to be taken seriously in the world? Speaking to my friends who are in careers, they still have to scrap for every piece of respect they can get, do you know what I mean? 

MATCHAR: I think you’re totally right that yes, women still have to work hard to be taken seriously, and not being too stereotypically girly is part of being taken seriously. It’s just a luxury of growing up now that they don’t realize that, because it’s much more subtle, so that you grow up thinking, sure I can do cupcakes. And yeah, you will run into, a little bit later in life, people who aren’t going to take you seriously. But also I worry a little bit about just the sort of . . . how to phrase this . . . the . . . not to knock cupcakes, and we use cupcakes for so much symbolism beyond their actual meaning. But there is this idea that like . . . There’s a disillusionment with the workplace, which is something that I write about in my book, and there is this very strong idea that if you make something smaller and simpler, it’s more fulfilling. And the whole idea that a wonderful career for a woman is having a cupcake bakery.  I’m not saying it’s not. I mean if you’re a serious baker, that seriously wants to be a baker for life and you know what that entails, good on you. But the idea that that would be a cultural ideal.

Embroidering handmade cards is my favorite way to ruin my eyes.

I have so many friends, women who are in really hard careers that are sometimes very stressful, sometimes very disappointing, and who go, “God, I wish I could just start an Etsy shop and just knit all day,” or “I just want to start a bakery.” And I’m like, but you don’t really! Which I get, and people should do whatever they want to do. But the idea that work is hard and demoralizing, and that it’s maybe better to focus on the small things, is a little bit of an insidious cultural thing right now. I see a lot of people on blogs say, you can’t reach for too much. One of the ways people always introduce themselves on blogs is you know, my name is Anne, and I like pink cardigans and kittens and copper teapots. And there’s something very childish about it. And I’m not criticizing the people individually, but just the idea that you’re the sum of your whimsical interests. Does that make sense?

ME: So, do you have a magical answer for me about whether I should stop doing DIY and invest all my time in starting to earn income for my family?

MATCHAR: Well, how broke are you? [Laughs.] I mean you know basically as long as people are doing it for fun, and fulfillment, or people are doing it to make money but they have a very concrete goal in mind, and they have a very good idea of how that actually works, that’s great. I think it’s when we get into the slightly delusional space where we’re like, oh, we’re saving money. You are saving money, but at a really big cost of time. So as long as you’re enjoying growing all your own vegetables, and it’s not taking away from your ability to earn a living, if you, say, had to move somewhere else, or your vegetable garden got eaten by bugs . . . when you start going, well I’m spending three hours a day gardening and raising chickens,  and therefore  I don’t have time to do other things. I think that’s probably not a solid financial plan. But most people figure that one out pretty quick. You should check out that book Make the Bread, Buy the Butter [by Jennifer Reese]. She talks about that exact topic.

ME: I definitely need to check that out. In the mean time, don’t forget to look me up on Etsy. I have some great handmade cards.

Tagged , , , , , , ,
Advertisements