Welcome to “What’s Next?”

Rationally, I know the stacks of boxes inhabiting my living room have books in them, but right now they seem to contain the wonder of continuing time. I guess I’m still moving. I guess life is still… going on. I know so many people who are more afraid now. I know I’m more afraid now, in ways I never expected to be afraid.

I never thought the patriarchal imperative was done with us, but I hoped as hard as I could that we had the momentum to truly make a dent. The thing is, even with this result, I still believe we did. More first-time voters cast their ballots for Clinton than for Trump. The problem is not that she lost. The problem is that he won. The problem is he exploited ideological and cognitive dissonances and convinced people to think, despite all the evidence in front of them, despite huge holes in his plans and a critical mass failure of basic human decency, that he could somehow “save” their country. A country that’s been doing increasingly well and is (…was…) on track to do better.

He, well. He lied. He lied so much, and so graphically, and with such bludgeoning precision. I turn now to our own Cassandra, Aaron Sorkin, writing over twenty years ago:

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism. You tell them she’s to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her a whore.
The American President

Or you call her “crooked.” Apparently “crooked” also works. Weirdly enough, this is exactly what just happened. Except the President’s girlfriend was also the President’s wife, and the nominee for President. Do you think Aaron gets tired of being right all the time? (P.S., Aaron, you didn’t think to specify “white middle age, middle class, middle income voters.” The 2016 electorate fixed that for you.)

I am, for myself, convinced that Donald Trump believes the hateful things he says, and that he knows what he’s doing when he uses racist and misogynistic rhetoric.

With that being said, it’s pretty clear by now that Trump wants to win more than anything. He doesn’t want to govern. He wants to lead, in the sense that he thinks leaders are always understood to be right, have all the best toys, and get salutes and cheers when they walk into a room. His personal vision for America most likely contains nothing more than being the president of it. He’ll probably go down in history as the Great Delegator, simply because he doesn’t have the attention span or the desire to do any actual work. All he’s wanted this entire time was to put his name on a country. That’s where the danger comes in. It’s easy to get close to men like Donald Trump, to wield tremendous economic and social power through them. I’m afraid of the people who decide to do that. I’m afraid of why they might decide to do that, and what their vision is.

I believe in progress and humanity. Cynically. Grimly. I can make trouble. I can reflect the world. There’s some defiant comfort in knowing I’m a queer Jewish woman who has a rudimentary grasp of statistics and can write a coherent sentence. It means I can be a threat. For now I’m still safer, practically speaking, than so many people put in jeopardy by this horrifying development. So for me, for anyone with more privilege, it is even more important that we work for others and support the work that is already going on.

As Jews, we’re supposed to engage in acts of justice, of lovingkindness, to do the work in whatever way we can of repairing the world. “Repairing the world” as instruction contains the understanding that the world is broken. But in a compassionate way, without inviting complete despair. We’re only ever working with pieces of the whole that might have been.  You know, throughout history, we have always been there. The artists. The queers. The challengers. The accusers. The ones who say “This isn’t good enough, let’s do something else.” His election, that is supposed to (and can in no way) bring “change,” is a frantic reaffirmation of a status quo built on false foundations that so many people have worked to dismantle for decades, for hundreds of years.

That work is not erased. It is still going on. Trump isn’t going to stop it. He isn’t even going to slow it down. He is just going to make its necessity more obvious to this country and the world.

Something else Aaron Sorkin wrote has been getting a lot of airtime in the last, so help us all, less than twenty-four hours.

“What’s next?”

It’s a familiar refrain if you watch The West Wing. Those two words are a magic spell to bridge the widest gaps between what you think of as reality, and what’s really going on. They are used by the President to indicate he’s done with a subject, and that it’s time to move on. The phrase is sacred to the show. It is used, most significantly, by a man after fourteen hours of intensive surgery to repair gunshot wounds to his chest. He whispers them twice, too faintly to be heard the first time. He was shot by a white nationalist as part of a plot to kill a young black man for dating the white President’s daughter.

The greatest threats to this country have always come from within.

I think, in context, we’re supposed to admire him for not wanting to linger in the pain of the event. And we’re not yet through our fourteen hours of surgery.

But I think it’s important to remember, as I keep asking what’s next with every possible inflection, that this election season did not create these problems. Decades of the erosion of voting laws, gerrymandering, and stoking social resentment while aggressively pandering to corporations whether or not they kept their jobs in the US created this situation. This election season revealed how deep and violent racial antipathy runs to those of us who grew up privileged enough to still feel a thread of surprise along with our rising dread last night. But we were so close to Hillary Rodham Clinton being our next president. We were so close.

We will have to be our better angels. We will have to turn it back. But we were never free from that obligation in the first place. It just seemed as if the path would be easier for a while, maybe, and now it’s definitely going to be so much harder.

I am afraid of what the next few years are going to bring. But we’re closer than we were this morning to an America in which Donald Trump isn’t the president.

Surviving is resistance. Holding your joy and your love and yes, your despair and your anger as well, that is resistance.

If you are tired now, it is all right. If you can’t think about fighting for a day, or a week, or if this is too much on top of the rest of your life, it is all right. Be as safe and as well as you can. Make the plans you have to. I am here if you need help. I won’t leave you behind in my writing or in my heart. I’m only one person, but no one of us is alone.

This is what’s next.

Some further reading:

A twitter thread. Long, but basically required reading at this point.

President Shepherd’s final speech from The American President.

The CNN exit polling information.

Roxane Gay’s 2am oped for the Times. 

SJ Rozan, a mystery author, on where we go from here.

Dear Queer America, by Noah Michelson.

A message from the principal of a Jewish day school on how to talk to children about this. As an adult, I found it comforting.

A poem, “Rend the Heavens,” that I always find inspiring even though I am not religious that way.


Harley and Me

I just got back from seeing Suicide Squad, and boy are my arms tired!


HERE BE SPOILERS. Also, for the sake of this exegesis, just take as a given that Jared Leto annoyed me greatly.

It’s canon in the DC universe that the Joker is exquisitely bad to Harley Quinn, and that she loves him obsessively, rarely even acknowledging his flaws. He is abusive towards her, and she takes it.

This movie is extremely interested in changing that narrative, while trying to maintain her baseline victimization as a get out of jail free card (ironically enough) for dealing with her willingness and enthusiasm for doing bad things. They want her and the Joker to be soulmates that lift each other up and inspire, while bringing them ever closer to perfect harmony with their own weird divine. She seems to be the exception to his nastiness. His obsession with her humanizes him. An obsession, by the way, that we all share from basically the minute we see her onscreen.

They are presented as a unit. Twinned, in a way, with the “bad guys” Enchantress and her giant gold maguffin of a brother. In this universe, Harley supposedly outstrips the Joker himself in terms of being reckless, opportunistic, showy, sociopathic, violent, and just plain uninterested in consequences. We SEE that. It’s glorious and kinky and consensually disturbing. (Scene in the strip club that will haunt my forevers.) We see, furthermore, the honest-to-god BATMAN so enthralled by her that instead of looking for his arch-nemesis to, I don’t know, make sure he’s dead or something, he drags her out of a river and gives her mouth-to-mouth. (During this process she tries to kill him twice and then snogs him when he tries to give her CPR.)

This positioning of Harley as the Joker’s redemption, as his soulmate, the one being he cares about more than himself, doesn’t quite work. Not completely. Because he created her.

We see him manipulating her in Arkham, then his minions tie her down and he electroshocks her, and then she jumps into a vat of chemicals after he’s basically taunted her into it, and THEN he jumps in after her. Her origin story is one of tremendous abuse and manipulation on his part. She is supposed to be a good woman turned bad, but also… unlocked, somehow. Comfortable being the ultimate gangster’s moll, wanting to be married and living in a beautiful house with two babies and the Joker, only he’s not Jokerfied. This part actually works, I think. She, like the rest of them, understands that what she wants is out of her reach. But in context of how we’re led to believe that he corrupted her utterly, it’s sinister. If they were willing to change her origin a little, they could have changed it a lot.

She really seems to like herself quite a bit. Everything she does and is functions as a performance for her own benefit. She spends a lot of the movie wearing a collar that says “Puddin” and a jacket that says “Property of Joker” across the back. When he dies, she’s heartbroken and throws the collar away in a moment of rain-soaked independence. But when he’s back, she’s elated. I question, by the way, whether that collar is usually worn by her or him. Their relationship in this movie contains a shadow relationship that relies on Harley’s fundamental right to her own psychopathy. No, I’m not kidding. There’s something actually subversive going on, but it never explodes into full, weird life.

In a movie about the bad guys, you really have to commit. And the people who wrote and directed and framed this movie do, they almost do. The film ends with a shot of Joker’s face, not Harley’s. He breaks in to one of the highest-security facilities in the US to get her, out from under Amanda Waller’s nose. You would, too. Don’t lie to me.

But in the end, left to her own devices, I think Harley’s just too scary for them.

Oh. And yeah, I liked the movie.

I don’t forget.

TW for a laundry list of Holocaust references, nothing graphic.

This is going to be quick and dirty, because I don’t have time for links or images. I have other things I’m supposed to be doing with this day. If you’ve read my Twitter feed today, a lot of this is going to sound familiar.

We wanted Steve Rogers to be bi, and Marvel gave us a Nazi. His unofficial tagline is “The Bisexual America Deserves,” and now, whoopsie, he’s a sleeper agent! For a neo-Nazi organization!

Are these two things related, do you think? Is this punishment for something, on some level? Swear to god, if he kisses a man at any point in this run, it will be such blatantly offensive queer-coding. Because obviously, queer people are always evil. Obviously, you are only allowed to be queer if you are already beyond the pale. Like being, for example, a Nazi. (Who weren’t so crazy about the queers, if I recall correctly, and you bet your ass I do.)

Look, this is a longer post for a different day, but I have always thought that Steve and Bucky are Jewish-coded and queer-coded. I believe in that, and as a queer Jewish woman, it brings me much joy. So, yes, this is a problem for me. It’s a huge problem for me. One of the first things he ever did was punch Hitler in the face. He’s the quintessential power fantasy, the Ubermensch, but for the good guys. (Spoiler alert: the Americans are supposed to be the good guys in this fantasy.) He was created by two Jewish men in 1941. He’s supposed to be hope. He’s supposed to be the best ideals we’ve got. He’s the son of immigrants, for god’s sake. He grew up in Brooklyn. The qualities in his heart even though he wasn’t as strong as the other guys, even though he was skinny and bullied and asthmatic and drew comics that made him capable of being Captain America.

But whether you sign on for my Jewish and or queer reads of them or not, can we at least agree it is specious and wrong to make Steve Rogers, LITERAL CAPTAIN AMERICA, even temporarily struggle with whether LITERAL NAZIS make some GOOD POINTS? It’s insulting. It’s dangerous, in the current social and political climate. It’s dangerous to ME.

Marvel, you do remember what the Nazis stand for, right? You do know why they’re the worst bad guys you can come up with in the modern Western canon, right? You remember?

I remember. I remember a lot of things. Not because I was there. Because I hear the stories. Because stories matter. Stories about packed train cars and smokestacks, stories about being separated from your family, never to see them again. Stories about death, starvation, rape, “medical experimentation.” Purple triangles. Yellow stars. Stories about the people in power wanting me dead. About how that can always happen again, and we have to watch for it, we have to be ready, because it could happen again.

Steve Rogers is not supposed to, even for a minute, believe in those things. Steve Rogers is not supposed to make me afraid.

So no, I am not going to be here for Steve Rogers grappling with what Jews managed, through vicious, vicious difficulty, to have accepted as universal evil. With antisemitism on the rise again against Muslims and Jews, and violence against LGBTQ+ people, I do not have one second of patience, one moment of sympathy, for this. Do it with some other character. Do it with someone who doesn’t wear the stars and stripes. Or don’t do it at all. Give us an enemy to fight, how about a blowhard billionaire who wants to be president? That could be compelling. And topical.

I’m learning more dark things about what really goes on in my country, what people are really willing to believe, than I ever wanted to know. Than I ever thought remained. I was naive, and I was wrong. But that’s why I loved Captain America. That’s why Steve matters to me. Because he’s on my side. He punched Hitler in the face in, what, 1941? Before America even officially entered the war?

Why do you think he did that, Marvel? What do you think he was responding to?

Right now he looks a little bit too much like who you are. Not me. No. Steve Rogers, currently, even for a second, believes I am subhuman. You did that, Marvel. You sat around and decided to do that.

This is awful. This is awful, and upsetting, and I have other things to do today.

Three Dresses (and a fourth)

1.) The first one I pulled out of the closet was the color of seafoam. It fit close to my body when I got it, like it was tailored for me. Tiered, tight ribbons of fabric wrapped around me, like silk mummy bandages. Thin straps because I didn’t have enough on top to hold it up. It felt structural, like it would hold me up instead. I wore that gown to the American Ballet Theater’s Spring Gala in 2008. I remember feeling like I could float over the red carpets at the Metropolitan Opera House. All those steps in my strappy silver shoes. Nothing to the dancers, I remember thinking. Their feet hurt worse than I do, and for something they love more. I remember the dances, from Romeo and Juliet, from Othello. I went with my then-boyfriend and his family. Both sons brought their girlfriends, oblivious to each other. I remember the meal afterwards, in that big tent beside the opera house. His father put a hand over the top of my erstwhile instrument of self-harm’s wineglass after the second bottle disappeared. A third was snuck away. I remember staring up at the paper lanterns instead of at the endless glasses and wild centerpieces. I wanted to float up to be with all those lights. I felt it was a distinct possibility. When I walked into the warm spring night, across the Lincoln Center plaza, and the rush of the fountain sounded like the dress as I ran my hands down my hips, lost (always lost, then) in my  thoughts.

2.) The second one was dark teal. Strapless, satin, it shimmered. A gown for a nightclub singer, gathered in along the drop-waist bodice, a slight train designed to purr along the floor while I crooned. I wore it to some kind of winter social for a very great friend’s teaching program at NYU in the fall of 2006. The social was at Tavern on the Green, right before it closed for the umpteenth time. By unspoken agreement, we were vintage. We were anachronisms. I don’t know if he cared, but I was delighted. I remember realizing that this was just who we were, a little bit out of step, a little bit more glamorous when we had the mettle for it. I loved that feeling. I got ready at a friend’s dorm room at NYU, I wore pretty underwear. My black and rhinestone heels were four inches high. We took a cab. The hallways were lined with mirrors and we pointed out the big windows, wishing for Rick Moranis to come stumbling out of the night. We danced. Him, me, his suit and my dress. My shoes were abandoned at the edge of the floor. The ceiling was carved wood, the chandeliers brass and intricate. I imagined all the fin de siecle crooked mayors of New York and their shrewd, brilliant lady friends drinking and laughing and eating oysters. Creating my city, long before it was mine.

3.) The last dress, that’s when I started to cry. In 2003 I wore it to my grandmother’s wedding in St. John the Divine, the cathedral on the Upper West Side in New York City. I felt like a princess in that dress the second I put it on in the dressing room. It swished over the uneven stones leading from the priest’s office, where my grandmother, mom, aunt, and I got ready. I walked to the altar first. As if I had a map, somehow. As if I was qualified to lead the way. My shoes hurt. I was so happy. Just one small human, a teenage girl with minimal makeup in a dress the color of baby pink rose petals with iridescent beads all over. I carried flowers, I think. I remember looking up at that cavern of unfinished stone over our heads. The wedding guests seemed far away somehow, but I was in the thick of the action. Stained glass windows, an organ so high and old and large they can’t play it for fear it’ll come crashing down. After the wedding, I sang with a live band as my grandmother and her new husband danced. Perhaps love is like a resting place, shelter from the storm. Then I toed my shoes off and slid around on the slick tiles, going from poised young lady to little girl. Abracadabra.

I’m more of a tea-length gown kind of woman, now. I don’t wish to float away any more, having learned my light is not disposable, and not just there for effect. I wear ballet flats to everything, refusing to let my feet hurt. I love all those girls I was, those girls who did their best and felt like they were playing pretend when they got all dressed up. The best kind of pretend, where everyone believes the same thing at the same time.

So when all those dresses came out of my front closet today during the great stuff purgement of 2016, I knew it was time.It has been eight, ten, and thirteen years since I wore each of them, respectively. I never pretended they were going to fit again. I broke up with that boyfriend in 2008. Tavern on the Green was remodeled in 2014. My grandmother died in 2013. For a long time I thought those dresses contained something important about all those experiences, symbolized something. But you can tell that story any way you want.

I kissed each one, thanked it, and cried as I put them in the bag to be rid of. Room for new things, please. Everything I remember happening? It did. I was there. I don’t need proof.

And I have to tell you, there’s a 50s-style navy blue dress with rhinestone buttons on the three-quarter sleeves hanging in my closet. Tea length, fits like a dream. I wear it with boots and ballet flats, and wearing it never feels like playing pretend. It finally has some room to spread out.

Mabel and Me

Revising update:

It turns out, dear readers, the book I’m writing isn’t the book I thought I was writing, and it’s going to be a much bigger, deeper, more interesting book when it’s done, but that won’t be for a while because I have to add and change and do a lot of things to it and this sentence has been going on for a while now but it’s important and I have to follow my stars and work at the edge of what I’m capable of so just stick with me, my friends, and I’ll tell you a really good story.

The end.

Revising, verb

I just got the following email.

“I’m really curious, because you’re making the revision process sound like pure unmitigated hell in a blender. Why is it so rough?”


It’s hard for a few reasons. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, that I’m not doing enough, that somehow I should have managed to emit a completely coherent novel on the first draft because I should be that good, and if I am not that good I am nothing.

That’s the most hellish reason. It is also the most inaccurate, and I’m trying to be harsh with it and gentle with myself on that basis. I have never revised a novel before, of course it’s going to take a while. Of course I am not good at it yet, I’m just starting!

The second reason is that progress feels slow. It’s hard to budget time when this is the part of the process where I stare into space, occasionally reaching out, groping blindly for a pen, to scribble something like the following:

“mash chs 11+12”
“Cater the hell out of this catastrophe?”
“ch 18 ends with that string of texts from E to C”
“ch 5 PARIS (remember to write this)”
“second BJ–redundant???”

Art isn’t easy.

Identifying problems and plot holes and ways the story needs to be made better is hard! Chapters 21, 23, and 28 have nothing in them! Literal nothing! They are blank voids, potholes in the land of plot! I made no notes to myself about what goes there, but I know something has to! Past Miranda had so much confidence in Future Miranda. It’s very sweet, the amount of faith she had in me. I kind of want to kick her now.

I’m not beating myself up for not writing a perfect novel in one go. Besides, the first draft is perfect. It got the story and the characters out of my head and onto the page, and that was exactly what it was supposed to do. Finding the gaps in my own writing is in its better moments really interesting. I am terrible at describing people. You could read the whole book and not know what hair color anybody has. And I swear to GOD if any more characters look any more heatedly at any other characters the sprinkler system in Buckingham Palace is going to go off. Does Buckingham Palace even have a sprinkler system? Do I need to know that? I don’t actually need to know that, but that’s twenty minutes of googling I didn’t know I had to do…

For those more mechanical problems I just put a flag on that page. I know I’ll come back to it and make the writing work. I know how to do that.

Fixing the bigger problems–the inconsistencies in how people behave, the places where I jumped the gun, chapters that only have 228 words in them–there are two of those, a second act that is introduced and resolved in basically three pages–is daunting. And, to use my friend’s delightfully descriptive phrase, it’s hell in a blender to understand that I can’t fix all the problems instantly, and that I don’t even know how to fix some of them yet. I know I will, but it takes time. I just finished disassembling the plot, making a catalog of everything that happens in the book, and now it’s time to go ahead and figure out how to put all the pieces back together again. Then it’ll be time to add in new pieces, and smooth out the whole thing.

And the thing is, when it isn’t making me scream internally, revising is about the most fun I think I know how to have. The sharp-eyed focused marathon of making it better is just as exciting as the sheer breathless sprint of creating it in the first place. There is a lot of satisfaction in making this book match the picture in my head, which itself has changed so much from the initial “The Plot So Far” document I wrote in an hour in Argo Tea back in August.

But it’s effort. It’s hard to quantify, or communicate about. It’s effort that feels like I’m an idiot, when in fact I’m thinking really hard and coming up with solutions and cackling madly. Maybe I should tweet those parts more often so you don’t worry I’m going to throw myself in the river or something.

It just seems less triumphant to tweet “OMG I lay on my back on the floor with my eyes closed for 45 minutes and now I totally know what to do about that longing look on the bridge in Paris in Chapter 5!#amrevising”*

Writing a book is like building a rope bridge across a chasm. The first draft is when you throw the guide ropes across to the other side and tie them off, and get all your cross-pieces in roughly the write order. Revising is when you inch out along the ropes to fit the cross-pieces, and discover that you don’t have enough pieces of wood, or that they’re the wrong size entirely, and realize that you don’t know how to build a bridge at all, and are probably a mollusk. But you have to do it anyway, so off you go.

Now it’s off to write a timeline so I don’t accidentally have one character declare their undying love for another several pages before they meet.
*Still need to write Chapter 5.

The Price of Admission

Action movies. My loves. My dearest cinematic joys on this earth. The lingua franca of many of my relationships and friendships, my stock in trade. I don’t look forward to them, these days.Something inside me snapped. Good job, Hollywood! It only took fifteen years for you to break me. I still love going to the movies, but there are things I don’t want to watch any more.

I don’t want to see the one woman who speaks belittled. I don’t want to see her hurt. I don’t want to see her pressed up against a villain with a knife to her throat as he makes pronouncements or threatens her to get to Our Hero. I don’t want to see her smacked around or thrown into a wall or murdered for having sex with someone. (As direct cause/effect in the narrative, or as moral judgment of the meta-narrative, or even just because whatever the hell, there was a woman, and we need to show something about this dude, so… he hits her? Yeah? Good. Men who hit women are Bad Mans. Except when the good guy hits women, that’s because he needed her to shut up or needed to look tough or you know, just, whatever. Don’t be so sensitive. It’s just a movie.)

Of course we buy their love story. He's condescending, she's impatient. Match: made.

Of course we buy their love story. He’s condescending, she’s impatient. Match: made.

I saw Mission Impossible: The One With The Giant Plane Stunt a couple of weeks ago, and spent the whole movie waiting for Rebecca Ferguson’s character to be sexually assaulted. The entire two hours-plus of movie, and all I could think was “Does it happen now? Is it going to happen now? The pace has gotten a little slow here, are they going to put her in peril now? Maybe now?” It’s not a particularly nice place to be, guys. I was shocked when she walked off unraped. That’s where we are.

Tried to rewatch the first two Transporter movies the other night. Couldn’t get through either of them. These are movies I loved, these are movies I defended on the basis of their quality. I have the same reaction thinking about many of the action movies I’ve seen over the years. I have devoted precious brain space to thinking about how action stars are created and their careers and arcs maintained over multiple movies even when they aren’t in the same series. I have nursed crushes on the men who star in them. I’m not ashamed of this, exactly. It’s like the end of a mediocre relationship. I’m upset that I wasted so much time on something that didn’t deserve me.

Spoiler alert: they fuck.

Spoiler alert: they fuck.

The price of admission to an action movie is understanding that I’m going to be scared in a way my cis male movie-going companions are not going to be scared. I’m going to be anxious the whole time. The price of admission is knowing that I have to laugh when women are the visual butt (or bust) of the joke. That I have to go in with a hard heart and clenched jaw, because I know what’s coming for me.

Women in these movies are portrayed as either blocks of ice who know how to punch, and are punished accordingly, or as useless wads of dryer lint there to be stared at and laughed at if they try to do anything. Especially when it’s something that, if you squint, looks a lot like something the male protagonist would be applauded for doing. Sometimes they’re actually helpful and good for the plot and are made sympathetic. I worry the most for these women. Kate Mara’s character in Shooter, for example. She was great, and she was raped and tortured at the hands of the film’s villain. Unnecessarily. Gratuitously. The movie had already established him as beyond redemption. They just wanted to show a woman shaking and traumatized at the hands of her attacker. I think she maybe gets to shoot him in the chest? Maybe that’s how he dies? I don’t remember exactly, that movie in particular upset the hell out of me.

This is necessary. Instead of fridged, she's dishwashed. And by dishwashed, I mean raped.

This definitely seems necessary. Instead of fridged, she’s dishwashered. And by dishwashered, I mean raped.

And, for all that, I love these movies. I’m a biased observer for them. I’m an apologist. When the latest Jurassic Park movie yanks feminism and gender relationships back to a particularly poorly conceived Spencer Tracey/Katherine Hepburn movie, I want it not to be true. I want to think that I’m watching something subversive, that I’m in on the joke with the film’s creators, but I’m not. I’m on the outside, and I am meant to be on the outside. I’m going to be kept there with sexual assault and sexist jokes, with cinematography that highlights these meaningless secondary sexual characteristics on my chest (I’m looking at you, Joss Whedon) instead of my face.

Three movies, all put out in the last three years, have delighted me. I could watch them over and over again and never watch any others. Pacific RimJupiter Ascending, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Those movies understood my presence in the theater, two of them explicitly catering to it. They welcomed me. They gave me respect. Me. Not “women.” Not “feminism.” Not a generalization or an abstract socio-political construct or movement.

Me. My self.

Saving the world. Fully dressed. It could only happen in science fiction. (And yet, so rarely does.)

Saving the world. Fully dressed. It could only happen in science fiction. (And yet, so rarely does.)

All three are speculative. The levels of personal agency, narrative importance, and actual exploration of some facet of womanhood reached in the very occasional sci-fi movie are pretty much unheard-of in straight action movies. I can think of one that can squeak in on the very barest suggestion of a technicality, but really, if we still have to go back to Demi Moore shaving her hair off in a military drama from 1997 (in a film where the presupposed foregone conclusion of her brutal rape is used as a lesson for her teammates rather than herself) I’m comfortable calling misogynistic bullshit when I see it. Which is often.

There is some room for apologists like me to wiggle. MI:PLANE STUNT OMG DID YOU SEE WHAT HE DID is a case in point. The woman does not become Ethan Hunt’s sex prize du jour, she drives off into the sunset and what one assumes is an extremely lucrative retirement. There have been a few others lately that surprised me pleasantly with how much not-rape they contained. Most are still as trope-y as ever, woo the Crazy!Uterine!Killers clubmembers and the Mostly!Useless!But!Still!Fuckable girls and the Bitch-Who-Will-See-The-Error-Of-Her-Bitchy-Ways-And-Get-On-Board-With-Smooching-The-Minimally-Adequate-Hero bitches and the Why-Is-She-Even-Here-Oh-Right-We-Live-But-To-Die-So-That-Your-Rage-Might-Flourish ladies. You all know exactly who I’m talking about with all of these. I bet a rolodex of characters is spinning in your heads for each of those types.

But at least I die horribly, right? (The image title

But at least I die horribly, right?
(The image title, “one crazy woman,” was what this still from Transporter 2 downloaded as. I left it alone for reference and interest.)

So, sure, I’ll keep going. I’m interested in a couple of franchises and in the development of the genre as it careens here and there trying figure out what the hell it’s doing. I’ll be more critical of it more loudly, and if you don’t like it, blow it out your ear. There are still set pieces I like, car chases and explosions and gorgeous locales. But I’m not going to keep pretending, even for a minute, that these movies don’t have problems. Huge problems, and I don’t mean the laws of physics.

There’s a higher price for admission to every piece of media, when you’re not a white straight cis man. The price is not seeing yourself. The price is having to watch hackneyed, vicious portrayals of you and then having to defend why you didn’t absolutely love everything about said portrayal. If you can’t really accept that, we can’t really have a conversation. I’m not annoyed at you in particular for it, and I don’t need you to defend it to me. I already enjoy these movies enough to keep watching. But being entertained, even while I’m erased, isn’t a band-aid over the way they hurt me, and I’m not going to slap it on any more.

Tonight at dinner.

There are many things I did not say at dinner tonight while interacting with a man I had never met before. He was obnoxious, impressed with himself, rude, sexist, and more interested in making sweeping, incorrect generalizations than in conversation. He changed his argument and the direction of the conversation every time he was challenged on any of those many sweeping generalizations. It was faux intellectualism taken to truly astounding heights. Also, he managed to insinuate at every opportunity that I, the only woman in the conversation, didn’t know what I was talking about. Following is an incomplete list of the things I did not say.

“If ‘society’ were reset,’ in your words, and we were all ‘dumped naked in a field with no tools,’ I’m pretty sure our first response would not be to kill each each other. Your first response, based on your behavior so far, would be to look at my breasts.”

“You are not an expert about something because you have the most baseline cynical opinion possible about it. Everything you have claimed the intellectual high ground on so far is something that I know for a fact someone at this table knows more about and is more thoughtful about than you.”

“I did not start paying attention to your conversation with [friend] again because you ‘were done nerding out.’ I am a nerd. I am not interested in combative pedantry, which is what you were doing.”

“I have, in fact, read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I just told you that I have. I have read many things, actually. My breasts do not interfere with my vision or my ability to decode language. So when I finish quoting the scene you are laboriously trying to explain to me, it’s not like I’ve done some amazing trick.”

I know this might all seem petty. I know. But I felt, for the first time in a long time, that I was being shut down, over and over, for nothing so heinous as challenging a man who seemed to think that he deserved to be talking by virtue of his maleness, where maleness correlated to rightness. I, as woman, was supposed to sit there basking in the attention, gratified that he would be choosing to share his thoughts with me. Gratified, and appropriately impressed by his intellect.

In closing, I leave you with one of the most powerful set-downs in the history of modern cinema, delivered by a woman in a bright pink muppet sweater, the subversive epitome of femininity.

Thank you, and good night.

Older Men, Teenage Girls: An Essay in Three Parts

This post is long, and deals with uncomfortable situations involving minors (including me). They happened a long time ago, and didn’t cause lasting damage to me, although I don’t know and can’t speak to anything that might have happened to anyone else. I was very lucky.

When I was in summer camp the year I was fifteen, there was a counselor, a wonderful, thoughtful guy named Stephen, who patiently and with a little bit of horror in his eyes lived through being subject to our affections. One day, as we were hanging out at a picnic table discussing writing, one of my friends (who had a huge crush on him) said that she didn’t think the age difference between a fifteen and a nineteen-year-old was so big. To his credit, he didn’t bang his head into the table or run screaming or anything. He just said that there’s a lot of life experience that happens between then and now. What about people in their twenties? we demanded. Twenty-one-year-olds date twenty-five-year-olds all the time. He, still patient, ever-patient, said that it didn’t matter so much after college, but that when you’re still in high school, you’re in a very different place. I am still grateful to him for that conversation. Not so much because it changed anything, but because it put a quiet, non-parental voice in my head, a voice from someone close enough to my age and my perceived “cool” levels, that maybe some of the other things that were about to happen involving me might, just possibly, be on the wronger side of things.

Later that summer, I was part of the costume crew at a theater running a fairly expensive and (in its own mind, at least) prestigious youth program. The techies were all men in their late twenties, good-looking, etc. I had an uncomfortable (for both of us) crush on one of them, but he kept mostly to himself, away from the shrieking, hormone-fueled, slightly confused, sexually frustrated on a molecular level, roiling mass of teenager that had infested his theater. There was another one, though. I’ll call him Jon. The average population of any high school musical production is going to be heavy on girls, and teenage boys were, as they have always been, a combination of terrified and consciously oblivious that is very frustrating then and in hindsight a survival mechanism for the good of the species. Jon spent a lot of time with a few of the girls. He was at least thirty, and came across as funny, smart, and interested. The attention made us feel good, you know?

I got a weird vibe off Jon, kind of. I spent more time with the techie guys than the girls in the show, and he was a little too friendly when he was friendly, but he was all business a lot of the time, so it seemed okay. I know Jon and I talked. I know I must have been flirty, it was what I did. I liked using my words, and here were a couple of older guys who seemed to like talking to me. There was a rumor that the old lighting guy had been fired because of “something happening” with a girl our age, but we were safe. He had been fired, and she wasn’t involved in productions here any more. (That was mentioned sideways, like maybe she had been culpable, too.) Of course we were safe! How could we not be safe!

One afternoon, it was in a break between scenes. It was me, two other girls, and Jon sitting in a clump on the darkened stage. One of the girls, a thin blond wearing plaid shorts, was talking about something, and she said something funny. We were all laughing, and Jon put his hand on her thigh like it was the most natural thing in the world. Another time, he and I were in the wings killing time between scenes, and my hair color came up. He asked if “the carpet matched the drapes.” I, in a reckless display of ingenuity and ignorance, shot back with “What do you think?” I had no idea what that meant until I got home and asked one of my friends. When my friend told me, I was aghast, but it wasn’t any dumber or weirder than the questions the guys my age were asking me, so I let it go.

Few days later, he pulled me into him, wrapped us in one of the wing curtains, and kissed my neck. I was surprised. This wasn’t a thing that grown men were, you know, supposed to do to me.

Holding me in that old, dusty black velvet, he said, “You’re seventeen, right?”
I blinked. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might not know how old I was. I felt myself start to smile.
“Think again.”
His arms stiffened. “Sixteen?”
Now my smile was real, if tremulous, and just a little bit vicious. Remembering it now, I am sick to my stomach like I was at the time.
“Think again.”

I had not, up to that point in my young life, seen the color actually drain out of someone’s face before. He immediately let go of me, untwisted us, quietly falling all over himself, saying he was sorry, that he thought I was older, that it was a joke. I’m pretty sure he called in sick for several days, and didn’t come near me again the rest of the time I worked on that show.

I haven’t told that story much. I was lucky, I know I was. He’d been assuming I was legal, which made me nonprosecutable fair game, even though it would never have been fair. He was nearly twice the age he thought I was, and twice the age I actually was. He’s forty-one, now, and I hope he still feels ashamed of himself. Hell, I hope he never did anything worse.

So when I listen to talk of James Franco messaging with a seventeen-year-old girl who got her picture with him, I think about being seventeen. I think about being half in love with a dozen different movie stars, playing and replaying fantasies in my head that somehow magically involved me being older, or sometimes they didn’t. It was strange, because my historically minded self reacted with revulsion whenever I heard about marriages where the groom was so much older than the bride. Some fantasies aren’t supposed to come true.

Would he have messaged a twenty-one-year-old? Or a twenty-seven-year-old? Or a thirty-year-old? Or a thirty-five-year-old? Somehow I doubt it. These interactions are age-specific and they are all about power, and the assumption is that the man has all of it. Also based on the idea that there is some kind of secrecy, that he is protected because she won’t say anything. He told her not to tell. Sometimes she will. Not always, but she will. I am so happy that Lucy Clode did.

I didn’t say anything about Jon at the time. I didn’t tell my parents, I didn’t tell the director of the show, or the director of the program. I didn’t want to disappear, like that girl who’d been involved with the lighting guy disappeared. I was protecting myself against questions about my own behavior (which was probably verbally questionable) and against the embarrassment, and in the process I protected him. I should have said something.

Post it everywhere when anyone does something that makes you uncomfortable. I don’t care who you are, or who they are. Tell everyone. Shout it. Make fliers. Paper the world in our discontent and our vulnerability and our power. Tell them to think again when they go to seduce us, to take advantage of our limited experience and boundless desire to be older, to control our fates, to be like the older girls. The hardest part is the first part: telling ourselves to think again.

Knitting through.

Things are hard right now, my friends. I’m casting around for some kind of distraction, some kind of destruction, something to take my mind off, or at least away. My options are limited, since I don’t actually want to make bad decisions.

So this time, I’m taking up my knitting needles and working on a thing of beauty.

I knit because it lets me remain in my head while blunting the sharp edges of distress. It calms me, interests me, the repetitive motion is soothing. I am always getting somewhere. One more step in the spiral, one more link in the chain. It’s a labyrinth, built and explored by my fingers. It’s a path, a journey, there is a beginning, middle, and end, and so much can happen along the way.

A dropped stitch, an error in the pattern, a lapse in concentration. Terrible fates to befall one. I don’t use markers to portion the way, and I don’t weave in lifelines in case something goes wrong and I have to rip back. I just pick up needles and yarn and go. Of all the parts of my life, I am least anxious about knitting.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not anxious. Worry over whether I’m using the right needle size can plague me, fears that the product will be too big, too small, it won’t feel right, it’s not soft enough, it’s too stiff, too loose, it can take me an evening of swatching and choosing to make sure it’s going to be right. (And this is in the least anxious bit of my life. I think I need lavender oil, or maybe gin.) But once I get it right? (“Right” is, of course, subjective.) Once I find the combination, it unlocks my enthusiasm and I fly.

I’m flying on the project I’m knitting now. It’s so gorgeous, pattern complicated and engaging. The colors in the yarn look like fallen leaves from oaks and maples. The yarn even makes this wonderful crunchy, dry-leaf sound as I slide it along the matte gray needles. It’s a lace shawl, but I’m knitting it in heavier yarn. It’s going to be very big when it’s done. A roof. A house. A safe place. An autumn day to spread over me whenever I want one.

So this is me. A maker of beautiful things, in sadness, grief, in confusion and need. Dancing through my days as well as I can even though my heart is heavy. Wrapping the yarn around the needles like my arms around the ones I love.