A Girl Like You Doesn’t Have Time for this Nonsense

Because self-parody is a thing, y’all.

A comedy musician (musical comedian? I don’t know how people identify sometimes) changed the way I listen to love songs. Seriously. Bo Burnham’s song “Repeat Stuff”  points out how vague love songs are, so that multiple girls can see themselves in the song:


Oh, girl, I hope you don’t think that I’m rude
When I tell you that I love you, boo
I also hope that you don’t see through
This cleverly constructed ruse
Designed by a marketing team
Cashing in on puberty and low self-esteem
And girls’ desperate need to feel loved…

I love my baby and you know I couldn’t live without her
But now I need to make every girl think this song’s about her
Just to make sure that they spread it like the plague
So, I describe my dream girl as really really vague,
Like…


I love your hands ’cause your fingerprints are like no other.
I love your eyes and their blueish brownish greenish color.
I love it when you smile, that you smile wide.
And I love how your torso has an arm on either side
.

After I first heard this song, I started paying way more attention to other love songs. What do the songs actually say about their loved one or ideal partner? And I found that Burnham was right—almost every song keeps it very vague. But this was just a “huh, interesting” type of thing until I found Maroon 5’s “Girl Like You.”

“Girl Like You” is “Repeat Stuff,” only it is taking itself seriously. And doing so many more things wrong besides that.

“Girl Like You” is the vaguest, most half-assed song I have heard in my whole life. And I’m counting the really bad songs that I wrote in my teen years. This is worse than 15-year-old Moody Elle. (and I’m just counting the Maroon 5 parts. The version with Cardi B is technically a remix, and since Cardi B is talking about herself, it’s actually quite specific. Also, Cardi. What are you doing? Do not help out these sad little white boys. Stop.)

So here is what I know about the girl that Maroon 5 is singing about by the end of the song:

She maybe smokes a cigar/marijuana combo called a Backwood, she may or may not be sick of Adam Levine’s shit, she “loves fun,” and she may or may not be a better DD than Adam Levine. That is it. The song is called “Girl Like You” and the listener learns next to nothing about what the said girl is like.

Here are the lyrics that get repeated over and over:

Cause girls like you

Run around with guys like me

‘Til sundown, when I come through

I need a girl like you, yeah yeah

Girls like you

Love fun, yeah me too

What I want when I come through

I need a girl like you, yeah yeah

Yeah yeah yeah

Yeah yeah yeah

I need a girl like you, yeah yeah

Yeah yeah yeah

Yeah yeah yeah

I need a girl like you, yeah yeah

The word “yeah” is more common than information about the supposed main subject of the song. Somehow a song called “Girl Like You” still manages to be all about Adam Levine and his own self-hatred. And probably his dick. I’m suspecting at least part of this song is about his dick. This song is basically everything that Bo Burnham is talking about—everything is carefully selected so that any “girl” listening can imagine herself in the title role, and can imagine herself being the one to somewhat “save” the self-effacing Adam Levine from his shitty life choices. He’s a lot more specific about himself and his own type of character (“guys like me”) so that the person that this unknown girl wants is a lot more clearly delineated.

Also, most of these lyrics repeat about 15 times, and by the time the song ends, you never want to hear the word “yeah” again in your life.

And if Maroon 5 had been willing to leave things at the level of just having a vague, crappy song, I probably wouldn’t have cared enough to write this post. But then they did the Video.

I’ve talked before about what Doree Shafrir calls “fempowerment,” the lip service that companies pay to feminism and feminist ideals because it is trendy and commercially profitable. Peter Coffin and his wife, Ashley, also have a few videos in their “Adversaries” series that also address it quite well.  (They call it “empowertizing” but I like “femmpowerment” better). As I’ve said before, I’m begrudgingly accepting of “fempowerment,” because it at least means that feminism has gotten enough public acceptance that it is now more profitable to support feminism than to condemn it.

And this music video is “Fempowerment: The Music Video.”

It features multiple actresses, activists, and athletes, many of whom are having a particular cultural moment right now (Gal Gadot, Aly Raisman, Ilhan Omar, Millie Bobby Brown, etc.). At first they are standing behind Levine, one at a time, while the camera rotates and they dance and mouth the words to the song. They rarely interact with Levine himself, except for when Raisman briefly takes his hand. Then it starts focusing mostly on the women—the camera rotation starts showing us woman after woman in turn, before the “spoken breakdown” moment happens and it’s just Levine again, before Cardi B comes in for her verse and gets all the camera’s attention. Then we’re back to the one-by-one women and the turning stuff, ending with his own partner and their child, whom Levine hugs, before all of the band members disappear and all of the women are featured in two circles.

When the song came out, it made the media rounds as “OMG sooooo empowering, Love This!” fodder. And to its credit, the people that are featured in the video are a pretty wide array of backgrounds, ages, and races. In their own lives a lot of them are doing a lot of work for feminist causes and other activist causes. But this is not really empowerment. This, my friends, is Peak Fempowerment. The women who are shown in this song are all amazing, awesome, and deserving of attention. And with the exception of Cardi B, they are also all basically just set dressing for a dude, which they spend most of the video literally standing behind.

Now, it can be really hard, not to mention hypocritical, to criticize women for the ways that they decide to engage with culture, attention, fame, etc. I’m sure that each of these women received a boost to their public profile, and in at least a couple of cases, their causes. (Mostly when their causes were literally displayed on their t-shirts.) And it is hard to criticize any of these women for the choice to participate in this video when it gave them an opportunity to bring more awareness to their personal brands or causes. But as I’ve said before, choices don’t happen in a vacuum. And it is fair to ask what these women are accomplishing, or not accomplishing, by their participation in this video, and in particular, the way they are participating.  

Again, the women are frequently literally behind Adam Levine. They’re mouthing Levine’s words, dancing, and not even really interacting with the singer or other members of the band. (Name one member of Maroon 5 that isn’t Adam Levine. I dare you.) They aren’t getting to use their own voice, or even take a really active role in the action of the video. This isn’t a “story” type of video, where these individuals could be playing a role—it’s obvious that they are meant to be themselves. Which would suggest that they are supposed to be related to the song itself, and that their role in it is to fit in with some theme of female empowerment.

But the song isn’t really about female empowerment. And with the exception of Levine’s own partner (and Cardi’s verse about herself), the women aren’t thematically connected to the song itself, either. I really doubt that Adam Levine is calling Ilhan Omar at 6:45 to whine about himself (or maybe he does, that sounds like something he would do) or that Olympic-tier athlete Aly Raisman is rolling Backwoods. I sincerely doubt that Ellen Degeneres would “spend the weekend” making things right with Adam Levine. And since Millie Bobby Brown isn’t old enough for her learner’s permit, I doubt that it would be a better idea for her to drive.

So the women in this video aren’t there to take part in the story. They aren’t there to link to the song. They aren’t even there to interact with the band. Which means that they are mostly there to lend their own social cachet to Maroon 5, and prove how “woke” they are. They may be getting something out of this, whether it’s awareness for their campaign, a namedrop during discussions of the song, or hell, even just appearing in a music video. (That seems like a cool thing on its own. I’ve never been part of a music video.) But it is pretty clear, to me at least, that they are giving more than they are getting, and that is not particularly empowering.

The danger of “fempowerment” is similar to the danger of a vague love song—something that seems appealing on the surface is revealed to be at the best, hollow, and at the worst, harmful to its supposed subject.

Signed: Feminist Fury

***

Featured image is a digitally-altered photograph of Adam Levine with his arm around a white cut-out with the words “Your Face Here” written on it.

I Sometimes Hate When I’m Right

With friends like these… [incoherent screaming]

So remember last week, when I said that I wasn’t going to critique Marie Kondo in particular, because critiques of her have a lot of weird sexist and racist undertones? So…. Yeah. I was right about that. And now I have to be sad about the world again. (This post is going to involve a lot of GIFs, because the way I am dealing with my depression and anger at the world is by using a lot of GIFs.)

Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, and Elaine Showalter are all writers who I’ve respected for a long time. When I was teaching, I used pieces from both Ehrenreich and Pollitt. I’ve cited Showalter in my own work, because I apparently can’t stop talking about the concept of hysteria. All of them have, at one time or another, (and to one degree or another) written really insightfully about gender, culture, and class. And when I first saw these comments, I was just gobsmacked. Because these three women that I respected had just done the intellectual equivalent of shouting “PSYCH!” in my face while lighting The Feminine Mystique on fire and tearing pages out of Orientalism.

Orientalism is actually something that I somehow haven’t talked about very much, which means I probably lost a game of SJW bingo somewhere. Orientalism, as discussed by Edward Said in his excellent book by the same name, refers to the stereotypical attitudes people in the “West” have about people from the “East” (most notably the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia). These attitudes are typically both patronizing and sexualized, depicting Eastern cultures as exotic, erotic, and uncivilized. One aspect of Orientalism that is highly relevant to these godawful tweets is the concept of the sexualized, submissive Asian woman. Asian women are often depicted as diminutive, modest, and secretly sexual. She’s often either/all an “exotic” version of the manic pixie dream girl, a submissive wife, and a sexual object. It’s the kind of thing I expect from certain anime and porn, not three well-respected female authors.

Let’s look at the different aspects of Orientalism, often also imbued with sexism, that these three women present. Most of these tweets have this idea of a strict difference between the “East” and the “West,” with the explicit idea that the United States as part of the West is supposed to be superior, but something about the influence of the East has diminished us. (Also, most of these authors use the terminology of “America,” but I’m making a concerted effort to use the phrase “United States” because it is pretty damn presumptive for us to steal a moniker that is applied to two different continents, so I’m going to accurately quote the authors but then use the term “United States” in my discussion of their tweets.) And then there’s all kinds of objectification, but I don’t want to give too many spoilers.

First we have Ehrenreich’s first tweet:

Which… wow.

First of all, the United States is definitely in a decline. I could go outside and point, and I will probably land on evidence that the United States is in decline. But one thing that is definitely not a sign of our decline is that Marie Kondo does not speak English. Does Ehrenreich think that all people who visit the United States should speak English? Because United States citizens definitely don’t follow that logic when we visit other places. Does she think that we should only be influenced by people who should speak English? Because that’s not a really great standpoint, either. There are all kinds of amazing, thoughtful people in the world whose ideas should influence us. And not all of them are going to learn English because we are too lazy to be multi-lingual.

It’s worth noting that Ehrenreich deleted this tweet, and then replaced it with the tweet that I’m about to discuss, because it shows that she’s self-aware enough to know that the way she phrased this was Not Good, but not self-aware enough to know that she just shouldn’t be letting this idea into the wild in any form.

In her second tweet she writes, “I confess: I hate Marie Kondo because, aesthetically speaking, I’m on the side of clutter. As for her language: It’s OK with me that she doesn’t speak English to her huge American audience but it does suggest that America is in decline as a superpower.”

…Ok. So. First of all—as I pointed out in my own post (seriously I do this for funsies and cheap therapy, how am I better at articulating this than a woman with actual publishing deals) the issue is not with Kondo herself, it is with minimalism. Kondo is not breaking into your house and burning all of your clutter. She is saying that you should take a look at your clutter and see how much happiness it is giving you. If the aesthetics of clutter give you joy? Great! Clutter sparked joy. Watch Brooklyn 99 instead of her show.

Second. It is obviously not ok with you that she doesn’t speak English. If it was ok with you, you wouldn’t be fucking saying these things. You are implying that the size of her United States audience should have some influence over the language that Kondo speaks. You know… you know that’s why interpreters and translators exist, right? Like no one made JK Rowling learn Mandarin just because Harry Potter got translated into 60 different languages and there are a ton of Harry Potter fans in China. They have translators for that. (Yes, I did a Google search to make my point. That’s how pissed I am.) It is not incumbent upon Kondo to learn an entirely new language just because a bunch of people in the United States like her work. Second, and I cannot repeat this enough, it is in no way a sign that the United States is declining as a superpower. And honestly, the implications of that thought are suuuuper imperialist and scary. What Ehrenreich is basically saying is that Kondo should have felt pressured to learn English in order to appease the powerful and judgmental people in the United States, who are at the top of the global food chain and thus have no need to do something as petty as “read subtitles” or “listen to an interpreter” or “acknowledge that other languages exist.”

Then Ehrenreich tried to “fix” things in the worst way possible: saying that she was just joking.

…it is the reaction of basically every racist/sexist/etc. to say “I was just kidding!” when they say something upsetting. (Also, they don’t actually decide that they are joking until they determine if their audience is reacting positively or negatively. Then if it’s negative, they were definitely joking.) It’s the reaction of every racist/sexist who is also an asshole for separate reasons to imply within this defense that the audience just “didn’t get the joke.” According to Ehrenreich, she was trying for “subtle humor.” What about her tweet could even generously be described as either subtle or humorous? She is owning exactly none of her own behavior in this tweet.

Moving on to Katha Pollitt’s reply, where we get to move further into the personal Orientalism:

“I think her speaking Japanese adds to her fairy-like delicacy and charm. It exaggerates the diff between herself and her lumpish, clueless American clients. She’s the decluttering equivalent of Queer Eye. Outsider helps insider who’s doing it all wrong.”

Pollitt basically manages to be dreadful to everyone in this sentence. She is dreadful to Kondo, who she turns from a person into a mythical creature while trying to basically say, “Kondo speaking her own language is a feature, not a bug!” Like…. What? Calling Kondo “fairy-like,” “delica[te]” and “charm[ing]” aren’t the compliments that she thinks they are. She is forcefully Othering Kondo, especially when she compares her to her audience. Pollitt is dreadful to people in the United States, who become “lumpish” and “clueless.” I know I was just badmouthing the US a little while ago, but… lumpish and clueless? According to imdb, some of the people that Kondo helps are: a widow, a couple expecting their first child, a retired couple, and some pet owners. They sound like… people? Pretty normal people. She’s also dreadful to the guys from Queer Eye by basically paring down their appeal to an “insider/outsider” dichotomy. I am just so, so done.

Pollitt, unlike Ehrenreich, seems to make at least a half-hearted attempt at actually accepting criticism.


So she starts off kinda bad, basically saying “I wasn’t trying to be racist to allll Japanese women. I was only trying to be racist to this specific Japanese woman,” and then describes Kondo’s experience and demeanor as if this is going to make things better. But she at least acknowledges that she made people angry, and promises to consider the criticism she’s gotten.

And then…. Showalter.

“She is certainly a pretty little pixie, & I am keen on decluttering but I am immune to Tinkerbell teaching me how to fold my socks.”

I just… I mean… how do you get things this wrong? First of all, if you actually don’t mind decluttering, then why the hell are you wading in on this? Just happily continue being ok with decluttering, and don’t say anything about this. Second…. “pretty little pixie?” “Tinkerbell?”

Tinkerbell does not approve of your shit, Elaine Showalter. Showalter is best known as a feminist theorist. She, of all people, should understand the harm in objectifying women based on their appearance, using dehumanizing language, and essentially scolding women for taking part in domestic-sphere type activities. I just….

Even worse, as far as I can tell Showalter is the only one to not even attempt to apologize for her words. I gues she’s just hoping we all… forget? Move on to the next crisis?

Marie Kondo is a person. Not a pixie, not a fairy godmother, not a sign of the decline of the United States. A person. A person who is enjoying a cultural moment right now, and a person who deserves to be critiqued if there are things to be critiqued about her, but these “things” do not include her appearance, her demeanor, or her language skills.

I really can’t fully express how disappointed I am in these three women. It is hard enough right now with all of the alt-right or just generally conservative assholes doing their best to drag women down, suppress our voice, and take us out of the public sphere. When self-professed feminists and leftists (instead of apologizing for being an asshat, Showalter has spent most of the last few days retweeting criticism of Trump and his administration) take part in those activities, it is deeply disappointing. We can’t fight the enemy in front of us when we’re worried about getting stabbed in the back. We are living in dangerous times, and we do not have time for this shit. Everyone who is left-leaning needs to get with the goddamn program, because we are moving forward, with or without them.

Signed: Feminist Fury (with extra fury today)

***

Featured image is of one of the tweets in question with a bunch of “no” written all over it by the generally horrified editor of this post.

Millenials, Minimalism, and Stuff

Why the current fad for minimalism does not “bring me joy.”

NOTE: Before I get started, I want to be upfront with the fact that I have not watched Marie Kondo’s show, or read her book. And I think a lot of the criticism that is directed her way has some weird racist and sexist overtones, and I really don’t want to add to that. And from what I understand, she’s not really a minimalist, minimalists just really dig her. My beef is not with Kondo, who I think seems to genuinely want to help people, but with the entire dialogue around minimalism. Also I’m gonna make some pretty sweeping generalizations in the following work, and I am aware of that. So please don’t @ me with “Not all of the 80s!” and “Not all millennials.” I’m aware. Chill.

Let’s tell a story together. Let’s say that we’re millennials (which at this point is an infantilizing term that means that we were born in the early 80s to the mid-90s, which means that we’re in our early 20s to late 30s at this point.) We were born into… interesting… times. The 80s weaponized conspicuous consumption, and valorized greed. A loosening of broadcast legislation meant that television for children could basically be a 25-minute ad, interspersed with smaller, 30-second ads. We were encouraged to identify with glorified commercials, because that would mean we wanted more Stuff. The watchword was “more.” More TV stations, more stores in the mall, more Stuff.  He Who Had the Most Stuff was the Best Person. Trickle down economics was totally going to work, and didn’t we want to take regulations off so that “job creators” could fix things? That was (after all) the best way to get us more Stuff.

If you were a kid in the 90s, you grew up in a world that seemed to be endlessly expanding, endlessly consuming, and endlessly competing. We got “participation trophies,” not because we wanted them (we knew that they were “thanks for entering, but you sucked” prizes. We weren’t oblivious.) but because our parents couldn’t stand to think that their progeny wasn’t special. That their own parenting wasn’t reflected in an object that could be held and taken home, that could be placed on a mantel and shown to others. How could our parents know that we were good children if we didn’t have Stuff to show for it?

We lived through, and participated in, multiple crazes that focused around two things: gathering lots of Stuff and keeping it forever. We were told that Beanie Babies, Furbies, Pokémon cards, and variant comic book covers were things that We Had to Have. We had to be the person with the most, and the best. And we should hold onto these things for years and years, because they would only grow in value over time.

We were pushed in carts around giant shrines to Stuff—bulk-buying stores were trumpeted as the smartest choice in shopping. Why buy a jar of mayonnaise when you could buy a quart? Why buy a pack of toilet paper when you could buy a crate of it? It would be cheaper, overall, to buy more of the Stuff at once, and again, keep it for a long time.

Behind the scenes, economic changes were happening that we were unaware of. Globalization and trade meant that the market was flooded with more and cheaper Stuff. Sure, a lot of that Stuff was really shitty, but it was cheap, which meant we could get more of it. The economy forcibly moved away from ideas like “repair” and “reuse.” Why repair your vacuum, when it is cheaper to get a new one? And why build a vacuum that will work for many years, when you know that your customer is just going to buy a new one? Planned obsolescence was much better than quality for all of those “job creators.” People wouldn’t complain (too much) about their jeans wearing out after just a year when it was fairly cheap to buy new jeans.

The increased monopolization of various industries meant that what appeared to be different products really, really weren’t, and price was no longer a good indication of value. Those $200 boots were made in the same factory as those $20 boots, and fall apart about as fast. There was no good way to determine how much “bang” you were actually getting for your buck.

We were told that we absolutely had to go to college if we wanted to succeed at life. Coincidentally, Sallie Mae was privatized in the 1990s, encouraging students to take loans that they couldn’t afford, all in the name of profit. Kids who weren’t old enough to buy cigarettes or drink were encouraged to take on loans they couldn’t possibly pay off, and subsequent decades of lobbying ensured that these loans couldn’t be erased like other types of loan, or even dissolved in bankruptcy.

The minimum wage stayed stagnant, even as inflation ballooned. Gas prices rose. 9/11 happened, and the War on Terror seemed to hurt rather than help the economy. But we should still keep buying Stuff, we were told. Buying Stuff would help.

And we did what we were told. We took out loans, we bought Stuff, we went to college, and we waited for the Success to happen to us. The Success that happened to everyone before us. And then the economy tanked. And most millennials still haven’t recovered, and never will recover.

We were raised in a culture that idealized Stuff, and related consumption to success. We have been encouraged our entire lives to purchase and keep things. Our minimum wage is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it’s a better option for us to buy multiple cheap things than try to buy one more expensive thing, because we have no guarantee that the expensive thing will be better. We can’t repair things when they break, either because either it’s too expensive, there’s no one able to repair it, or some multi-billion corporation will void our warranty if we try to fix our own objects. We’re struggling to find jobs, crushed under loans, and doing our best to get by.

We have closets full of cheap clothing, because we know that it is going to wear out but we can’t afford to do laundry at the laundromat too often, and we don’t want to take the chance of spending a day’s paycheck on a single shirt that is still going to fall apart. We hold on to old shoes, computers, and furniture, because we don’t know if the current stuff we have is going to break worse than the old stuff we’re keeping around, and we might need the old thing to replace the new thing at any point. We have shelves full of college books because we weren’t going to get anything near what we paid for them if we tried to sell them back. We buy in bulk whenever we can, because we were taught to, and because it will hopefully ultimately be cheaper for us.

And into this enters minimalism. Getting rid of as much as you can, living “simply,” and de-cluttering your life.

Let me make something clear: there are two ways that you can live “minimally.” You can either (a) be too poor to buy enough things to have clutter (in which case your minimalism is probably not an active choice) or (b) you are rich enough that you don’t have to worry. You don’t have to worry about things like buying replacements when something breaks or wears out, or buying in bulk to save money. It means you have the time, energy, and money to find fewer objects of obvious quality instead of many cheap objects.

Minimalism is either a punishment or a privilege.

And it wouldn’t upset me so much, if it weren’t for the fact that minimalism is going the way of veganism, Paleo diets, natural birth, organic food, breastfeeding, and yoga—in that a lot of people are totally capable of doing the thing without making it a moral judgment about everyone around them, and a different lot of people Are Seriously Not Able to Do The Thing Without Being an Asshole. Minimalism is becoming a purity cult, where enacting minimalism is associated with personal goodness and moral virtue. Which is bullshit.

We were raised to worship Stuff. We entered an economy where we had no choice but to cling to Stuff. And then a lot of the same people who raised us that way, who messed up the economy that way, are now telling us that we’re not good people unless we can live in a minimalist lifestyle. Which is a lot like a bully telling their victim to stop hitting themselves.

This does not bring me joy.

Signed: Feminist Fury.

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Featured image is of the aisle of a Dollar Store and is released under a CC-BY 2.0 license by Random Retail.