December, you've always been a problem child.
Though its roots emerged earlier, and its declaration wasn’t until March, this year-long, monthly personal writing objective technically began with a blogpost in January that provided a snapshot of my life in that moment. It was the start of my last semester of college, during a time when I picture myself always wearing a skirt so long it hangs past my knees, paired with a shirt low-cut enough to make sure the length of the skirt didn’t make me look like a religious extremist. (This is a tightrope I walk regularly, as I have been receiving regular comments from acquaintances about how overdressed I am since I was fifteen. I swear, I am just an agnostic feminist who hates wearing pants.) Mostly, in my ethereal image of myself from that time I am tall, towering over my city, my university, my work, and my social life, feeling content in my identity and my success. The blogpost documented ordinary but fulfilling moments I experienced in the four weeks prior. In the end, I mentioned the music I had been listening to all month, which was Melanie Martinez’s concept album, Cry Baby. The album was very pop, more pop than I usually listen to, but I admired the clever, thematic metaphors Martinez wrote herself and their accompanying music videos. She was young, as young as me, and from Long Island, just like me, which made me feel special and capable. Like I wrote in January, Cry Baby came to me at a time when I needed its striking hooks to fill in the gaps in my understanding of my own personality. This month, Melanie Martinez was accused of sexual assault by another female pop singer.
I read the accusation made against Martinez on Twitter, followed by a stream of opinions on the topic that inevitably followed. Most tweets I read berated Melanie Martinez in the way we do on Twitter now, using hashtags like #MelanieMartinezIsOverParty and #MelanieMartinezIsCancelled, arguing that we should unquestionably believe the woman accusing Martinez because that’s what we would do if she were accusing a man — wouldn’t we? The accusation was made during the height of the quote-unquote #MeToo Moment, which has led to the firing or resignation of many individual men from their prominent career positions after many individual women have come forward with accounts of sexual misconduct. For me, some weeks have been more disappointing (Louis CK, Matt Lauer) than others (Charlie Rose, Mario Batali) relative to my affection for the work of the men accused. (If Paul Rudd or Mark Ruffalo is accused next, I am officially never getting married.) The reveals that come with each passing week have made this season feel interminable. As women outside of Hollywood, we continue to live our everyday lives dodging the subtle workplace sexism that we have come to expect but are unable to realistically report. We hunker down and read the headlines and hope the progress will eventually trickle down to us, but for the most part we are unable to feel like we are Bravely Joining The Movement.
The weekend after the Al Franken photo surfaced, I sat across from my sister at the New England version of a diner before going to see Lady Bird in theaters. We discussed how we felt disconnected from so many of our peers who were sternly insisting that Franken resign from his position in the senate because of his past sexual misconduct. We agreed that Franken is nasty and sexist, and that he violated the woman in the photo; he was a male comedian trying to make a joke at the expense of a female coworker, and the joke wasn’t remotely funny. Yet my sister and I didn’t feel compelled to demand his resignation because what Franken’s photo showed felt ordinary and predictable. His attitude and actions toward women were completely in line with those of the boys in my global history class in ninth grade and the uncles at my last family reunion. It has been proven in the last eight weeks that this expression of hegemonic masculinity is widespread and epidemic, not confined to isolated incidents. Simply asking Franken to individually resign fails to address that our culture teaches men and boys that female sexual objectification is okay and even funny. In many ways, Franken did what he was told to do. A resignation feels more like a bandaid than an integral part of a solution, and it does not have the same value as presenting a way for men to unlearn their sexist behaviors. I confessed to only my sister that I believed #MeToo was a neoliberal solution to a structural problem.
The individual punishments and blame that characterize #MeToo make way for the defense of "not all men" as we try, in vain, to weed out the bad guys. It is comforting to believe that we can pick the chauvinists out of a lineup and banish them forever and it is easier than addressing the role we all play in our sexist culture. Leeann Tweeden, the woman in the Franken photo, has been named one of the “top Hooters girls of all time.” I mention this not to place blame on her, but rather to highlight the irony in how enthusiastically we admonish Franken’s photo without acknowledging that Hooters has an entire business model based upon the objectification of women’s bodies. Of course Franken took that photo. Look at what we taught both Franken and Tweeden is valuable in women. How can we rightfully ask for any different while we make way for this type of amusement? When the allegations against Matt Lauer surfaced, a video was circulated as evidence of his character. In it, he is interviewing Sandra Bullock in 2009, and he mentions ad nauseam her nude scene in her latest film. We all laughed along at the time, assuming the comments were harmless at worst and comedic at best, because the interview was reflective of our collective cultural attitude about female bodies. Matt Lauer is simply the grown up, celebrity version of the boys in my residence hall my freshman year of college who had posters of bikini-clad Sports Illustrated models on the walls of their common room. They taped up the posters quickly and proudly and I still remember how I felt when I walked from my 8-person girls suite to their 8-person boys suite next door on my first night of college to meet them and saw what they had hung on their walls. But when we read the statistics on campus sexual assault, we are all so shocked and appalled. We act as if RAs, whom college women are supposed to be able to confide in and report abuse to, aren’t taught to overlook these posters as they confiscate candles and dime bags in dorm rooms, as if mothers and fathers didn’t purchase these posters for their sons, as if the one in five college women who are sexually assaulted aren’t staring up at us from our shopping carts asking for justice as we buy the essentials to send our kids off to universities.
I am certainly not arguing that these men shouldn’t be fired or resign, or that #MeToo is valueless, but I am arguing against the hopeful belief that we can successfully scare men into subverting patriarchy instead of teaching men and women why these actions are unethical. I worry about the backlash to this movement because I recognize that the last presidential election was in part a backlash to eight years of progressive politics. I worry about who will be elected to replace Franken. Specifically, I worry that a conservative senator will be elected — someone who could support legislation that attempts to limit women’s liberation on a larger, structural scale. I worry that a man who objectified one woman in one photo will be replaced by a man who works to defund Planned Parenthood and thus supports the oppression of millions of women. I worry that #MeToo is a watered down version of social action that will never get to the root of the problem but will lead to the dismissal of average working women who report sexual misconduct in coming years. Men need to treat women better because they have learned that it is the right thing to do, not because they are afraid of getting caught. It frustrates me and irks me that the New York Times calls it the “#MeToo” moment, rather than the “Me Too” moment. By extension, I worry about the difference between feminism and #feminism.
The pop culture version of asking Franken to resign was this month’s
#MelanieMartinezIsOverParty, which I observed from a not-so detached vantage point as Martinez’s fans posted videos of them burning her merchandise online. (As of now, Martinez has denied the accusation.) This is the rule during the #MeToo moment, after all: you must immediately delete the artist’s songs from your iTunes library, dismiss your fond childhood memories of watching The Today Show every morning before elementary school, remove House of Cards from your Netflix list, and don't you dare be caught with a copy of Annie Hall in your entertainment center. All of these requirements come from a desire to stand in solidarity with the women who have been abused by these men (and by Martinez), and of course I want to support this notion with my whole, feminist heart. I want to be the best feminist I can be at all times, overflowing with support for a new-wave women’s movement. But I am human and I have questions.
All season, I have caught myself spiraling into doubts about what the good, supportive, feminist thing to do is. I mean, is it really practical to stop ourselves from consuming art made by every problematic figure? And who gets to decide what counts as problematic? Is it only defined by the "-isms," or should we also cast off the artists who treat all people terribly but equally? How will we ever know when we choose to buy or consume art what the deepest morals of its creator are? I guess we are supposed to consume freely and assume artists are innocent until proven guilty? (Lately I’ve been doing the opposite with every man I meet.) How can we distance ourselves from these men when we know so many of our fathers would do the same thing if given the power? Is it fair to enforce modern standards on historical events? If not, what is the cutoff for when men should’ve known better than to treat women this way? Is it after the second women’s movement? Is it the turn of the century? Is it before or after you transition from a comedian to a senator? Should we go back and check the history of every male artist before we buy his work? Was Picasso a dick, too? I mean, he probably was, right? He probably hit on his assistant or coerced a paint store clerk or something, right? Do we have to stop buying tickets to the MoMA until they agree to take down his work? Must we erase every problematic figure in history? I don’t think so, but I generally support the removal of confederate statues, so am I a hypocrite? Why am I able to scoff without hesitation at people who still support R. Kelly and Chris Brown? Is it because their actions deserve more contempt or is it because their work never meant anything to me in the first place, allowing me to distance myself from it, pat myself on the back, and never feel like I have lost something? What instinctual role does race play in my white woman judgement of dangerous men? Is it possible for these men to authentically apologize and be better? What about the argument that we should mourn not the loss of bad men’s art but the art that would’ve been made by the women who were oppressed? That is beautiful and persuasive but what does it mean to mourn art that never existed? Isn't asking for conscious consumption inherently classist and astronomically privileged, anyway? Aside from whether or not it is practical to live this way, is it fair for women to have to live with these restrictions? Must we, as women, be further subjected to a life with less positivity because in the name of intersectional feminism we have distanced ourselves from the art that brings us joy? Is it not enough to have to live with constant fear of assault, with gaslighting attempts by male family members over the seven fishes this Christmas Eve, with the both subtle and aggressive patronizing we experience from our male coworkers and managers regularly — we now also have to stop consuming the media that bring us peace from the hellish atmosphere that so often characterizes our experiences of womanhood? In addition to all we’ve already sacrificed to this patriarchy, do we also have to give up the things that make this fight feel just a little bit lighter?
I always circle back to my same source of caustic guilt: when I was sixteen, I went to the movies with my grandmother without any prior knowledge of the film we were about to see, or its director, or the reasons he deserves the utmost contempt. While watching Midnight In Paris for the first time, I felt existentially understood. It is still my favorite movie because it came to me when I was young and convinced that everyone else in the world was happier than me. Seeing my neuroses reflected on screen helped me name and accept my dissatisfaction, and ended my harmful fantasy that there was some greater contentment out there that everyone but me was relishing in. What Midnight in Paris gave to me has been tarnished as I have gotten older, grown into my feminism, and learned all of the reasons to hate Woody Allen. (As Nanny says, “I love his work, but he’s a rat bastard!”) I haven’t paid for one of his movie tickets in years, but I admit that I am still reliant on the comfort I was given by a man whose writing I love but ethics I absolutely despise.
Each of the Me Too scenarios are distinct, but they are being lumped together without full consideration of the ways they differ. Harvey Weinstein, who reigned over women for decades, is not the same as Melanie Martinez, a queer young woman (with a song about childhood sexual abuse on her album) who has been accused of raping her best friend during a sleepover. Martinez, unlike Weinstein, played no role in the structural workplace power men hold over women — which is the concept from which Me Too originally stemmed. Some of this generalizing is necessary in order to support it as a movement, but blanket statements about evil and good are so common in modern journalism that sometimes I am compelled to delete all of my social media apps for days at a time until I can remember that it’s okay and healthy to feel two things at once. It was during one of these deletions that I began drafting this post. Like I expressed last December, I am still tired of writing celebrities off as soon as their perfect images falter. It isn’t something I do with people in my real life, so it feels false to do so online.
The Me Too accusations do not call for shock or surprise from those of us who inhabit these bodies that are treated like public property our entire lives. We already knew these things happened all the time. But I am grateful that in this cultural moment when womanhood feels particularly raw — during Me Too but since the election, really — I have been able to seek virtual shelter in this space every month as I try to make sense of my experiences as a woman by putting pen to paper. Or, more accurately, as a woman typing in Google Docs, Weebly drafts, Word documents, and iPhone notes, while on the Long Island Railroad, on the 2 train, in Pace University’s Honors Lounge, and its courtyard, and its elevator up to the Communication Studies department, in a dozen different Starbucks in two different states, in my bed on Friday nights, on the swing on my back deck on Long Island in the summer, at Back Bay station in Boston after crying in the front seat of my best friend’s car, crossing over Delancey Street in July and editing while I walked, and on New Jersey transit on my way to a county that a year ago I would have sworn I would never return to so regularly.
I do not have answers to the questions I have posed in this writing. I am a mess of contradictions, I know, like a long skirt with a low-cut shirt, but I will not apologize for this. I am going to continue to write nuance into all situations, to avoid classifications and categories and be-all end-all statements. And I know I am going to mess up. Repeatedly, consistently, and overwhelmingly.
My self-imposed monthly blogpost deadlines have often made me feel like I need to come to grand conclusions about my life and the world before I have fully formed them, to answer all of the questions like those above that constantly swirl around in my head. There has been value in this pressure, as some months I began writing aimlessly and ended up explaining something to myself that brought me comfort and calmness. As I read back through the year, I can detect the underlying lessons that I didn’t realize I was beginning to uncover at the time I wrote. The most surprising of these was the lesson that people are actually reading my writing. As a result, I must use my words carefully and strategically, for my best friends and for my mom and for my best friend’s mom (hi, Mama Viggz!), but mostly, I must use them joyously and kindly and confidently. In my posts from the year I also witness myself coming to the conclusion that some people will love me. And some will hate me, too. Both are okay. One matters much more. This year I learned to accept that six weeks of silence from someone communicates a message to me quite clearly, even when I am trying my absolute hardest not to read what is written in the unspoken sentences. In the second half of the year I realized that Jack Antonoff’s production is art come to life. We must appreciate it (and hope he is not accused of sexual assault). In the fall I found that it is possible to feel broken hearted without getting broken up with. In the words of our favorite Lorde, I know now that it is essential to recognize when “it’s time to let go of this endless summer afternoon,” but I am still working on this one. Several times this year I learned that sometimes things fall gracefully into place. Most of the time, things crash and burn erratically into place. Let them fall. The result is the same either way.
As I have just explained, I need to write with nuance. Most definitely not as often as this year, but consistently still, I will continue to write. And I hope you will continue to read.
The subheading of this post is a quote from the song “December” by Sara Bareilles, because why not end the year with a thematic homage to my singing-songwriting-piano playing-nose ring wearing-sarcasm spewing hero?
A portrait of the blogger at age 22, for better or for worse.
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In September and October, I wrote extensively about the things in my life that have changed since I finished college in the spring. I have spent much of this season charting the differences between who I am now and who I was as a teenager, trying to conceptualize what I would tell the girl I used to be, but never taking the time to consider what that girl would say to me. In doing so, I have failed to acknowledge the ways I have stayed the same. In November I was forced to face the parts of me that have been consistent throughout my life, and this was directly related to the release of Taylor Swift’s sixth studio album, reputation.
Listening to a new Taylor Swift album for the first time is a process I take very seriously. I do not listen halfheartedly, in a rush, or awoken from sleep at the strike of midnight. Generally I wait until I have the physical album in hand and can seclude myself to absorb it in isolation. I listen all the way through, without skipping the promotional singles, and I read every detail of the album booklet, including the lyrics, liner notes, co-writers, producers, and any other surprises. (Like, did you know that Martina McBride’s kids are the ones snapping their fingers in “Hey Stephen,” or that in the background of “Wildest Dreams” you are hearing the sound of Taylor’s actual heartbeat?! There is so much to discover here, people!) At various points, my listening sessions are joyous and sad, satisfying and disappointing, but enthralling and solitary throughout.
But this November, the first time I listened to reputation, I broke my own rules. The album became available on iTunes as I was driving out of Philadelphia with my sister, who is far less strict about these things than I am. She insisted that we listen to the new album to fill the time as she drove us back to New Jersey, and I was surprised at my own willingness to oust my former listening traditions.
Of course I immediately built a list in my head of logical reasons to break my routine for the first time. One of my excuses was the increasing stress I experienced with the release of each promotional single from this album. I had become preemptively resentful of reputation and worried about the content of it because all of the public dialogue surrounding its release had become political and controversial. If I could tell my eighth grade self that in the week leading up to Taylor’s sixth album release she would find herself debating with her (liberal) friends who claim that it is this pop star’s responsibility to quell the fantasies of neo-Nazis in the darkest corners of the internet after they claim her as their Aryan goddess, she would be so incredibly confused. Hell, I’m confused by it now.
Mostly I believed I was entitled to listen to reputation because I was still on the high of realizing that I have somehow built the foundation of an academic career on my ability to talk about Taylor Swift’s music at length. I was in Philadelphia to present my research at a regional conference on popular culture, and a large part of my research is an analysis of the representation of female sexuality in Taylor Swift’s lyrics and music videos. The crux of my argument is that Taylor’s negative reputation as a serial dater is a patriarchal punishment for presenting a more feminist version of sexuality than her contemporaries do. (In simpler terms, while Taylor spent a year writing an album about her reputation, I spent a year writing a thesis about it. We’ve always been SO in sync.) During my presentation, I stood up and walked around the room and talked with my hands, receiving positive encouragement from a group of older feminists sitting in the back row who nodded vigorously whenever I mentioned sexual subjectification. When they complimented me afterward, I felt like I had manipulated everyone in my life into praising me for something that comes intuitively. If I could tell my eighth grade self that in the week leading up to Taylor’s sixth album release she would find herself defending Taylor's representation of female sexuality at an academic conference, she would be so incredibly confused. But I hope she would be proud.
My sister Kellie pointed out to me when we began listening to reputation that the only person I know who had ever before witnessed me listening to a Taylor Swift album for the first time was Taylor Swift herself. This is true: the first time I heard 1989, Taylor’s fifth album, I was sitting on her living room floor surrounded by strangers. (More details in a very nascent blogpost here.) Still, I went to Target on release day a few weeks later to buy a physical copy of 1989 and do my traditional full listening session after class. I recall clutching the unopened CD on the subway ride back to my dorm, excited and relieved to already know that I liked the album. I felt powerful and omniscient when 1989 was released, and I recall smiling during class as my friends texted me their initial reactions to the songs they knew I'd already heard.
This sense of immortality peaked when 1989 was released, but I remember this mindset characterizing my entire nineteenth year. At the time, I was squished safely in the very middle of college, far enough into it to avoid homesickness but far enough from the end that graduation day felt like nothing more than a shimmering mirage, past rolling hills of sand in an imaginary setting. I think my insides really believed that graduation would never happen to me. This month I have been longing for how headstrong I was at nineteen, when Taylor’s last album came out, and for how sure I was of all that I said and did at that time. I thought everything was permanent then, because I believed I had the grown-up power to make things last. This sense of permanence made me bitter enough to act impulsively, and do things like write passive aggressive essays in my introductory Communication classes and run away to Italy for a semester. Do you remember how it feels to know so little about the world that you are capable of believing that you know everything?
Armed with the blaring pop singles of 1989, which were a new, forceful direction for Taylor Swift, at the time of the last album release I remember thinking: this is what my life will look like from now on, this is who I am now and therefore who I will be forever, these are the friends I will keep by my side, this is the city I will live in, I can see my whole future ahead of me and it does not scare me. In hindsight, at the time 1989 was released I was a caricature of my true self, just scratching the surface of the woman I would become. I had recently watched every episode of Girls very quickly, was highlighting full paragraphs in Sylvia Plath’s unabridged journals, wrote clunky poetry in my economics class, gained a newfound optimism while planning my sister’s wedding, and spent Saturday afternoons at The Strand, where I read the back covers of dozens of books I never purchased and walked out exclusively with magnets and postcards displaying satirical remarks. I thought I had discovered and checked off all of the shallow boxes that made up Who I Will Be As An Adult Woman, and the world was mine to conquer. I do not want to be nineteen again, because I know that I was not happy then (plus I was extremely pretentious, and this combination would be absolutely unbearable to be around when not confined to a college campus). But I miss being naïve in a way so tragic and dramatic that it becomes beautiful in retrospect, and I envy a more fearless version of myself, who I like to think still exists in an alternate dimension where I am still listening to “Welcome To New York” on sunny mornings in Manhattan and insisting it was written just for me.
1989 marks the only release week I miss today. But Taylor Swift releases albums in the fall, in the Octobers and the Novembers, so this month I have been compelled to recall my past first listens. I remember the release of Red two years earlier, in October of my senior year of high school, only vaguely but I know I was collected and content after my first listen. Despite Taylor’s rapidly increasing commercial success in 2012 and 2013, much of my time with her fourth album, Red, was spent in isolation: driving home down Northville Turnpike after 9th period Latin, messing with my FM transmitter until it played “Treacherous” more clearly; sitting in my car in the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot during fifth period lunch, eating a salad my mom made for me and playing “Holy Ground” on repeat for twenty minutes until I had to flip my hair, reapply my lipstick, and head back to school in time for Spanish class; with track fourteen on repeat after a high school graduation party in early July, on the hottest day of the year, when I desperately regretted leaving too soon; after a closing shift at my first job, close to midnight, on many, many nights during a commute that was just long enough for one song; sitting in my bedroom with my hair curled and my lips red during that awkward, in-between week separating Christmas and New Years when you forget what day it is, wishing he would text me, but mostly wishing I had a friend I felt I could safely confide my feelings in. The more time I spent alone with this album, the more intricately I learned its composition, and the better I became at interpreting its messages and realizing their significance.
Before Red came album number three, Speak Now, when I was fifteen, which disappointed me upon release only because it wasn’t album number two, Fearless. I had fallen in love with Fearless when I was thirteen, longing for security, and in need of something—or perhaps someone—distant enough that it was impossible for it to let me down. (I had been deeply disappointed by several adults in the year prior, the scarring of which I still battle today, especially during this time of the year.) I couldn’t articulate this then, but at the time that Speak Now was released I was struggling to accept that Taylor Swift was not my friend, was not my big sister, was not mine and only mine. All of the interviews and songs and behind the scenes footage I consumed during the Fearless era had felt fixed and controlled, but the release of a new, living, breathing album made me realize how little say I had over something I had previously believed was static. I recall feeling overwhelmed by vulnerability as I realized this thing I loved so personally had become public, with record-breaking first week sales and girls from school going to see her on Good Morning America. I recall crying on the couch in my basement in 2010, in the same spot I had unwrapped her debut album on Christmas morning three years earlier, deeply upset that I had to share Taylor Swift with the rest of the world when I felt ready to do no such thing.
Looking back now, all of the hours of my teenage years that I spent reading through album booklets, watching interviews and bonus DVDs and performances, traveling to and from shows—often during late November release weeks, but also during all the weeks in between—it all feels like preparation for the way I spent my senior year of college, cultivating all of the research on pop music that I presented in Philadelphia this month. The diligent, hyperfocused, intellectual skills I used when reading the messages of each of these earlier albums is reflective of the way I perform my research now. If I weren’t getting accepted to present at conferences, or writing personal statements describing my research philosophy for graduate school applications, I would still be talking about the idiosyncrasies in albums, I would still be analyzing, and researching, and digging for details in lyrics, I would still be examining the ways that popular culture is consumed by me and by people like me and people around me, and I would still be reading and writing about it all, even if no one else was interested in consuming it or grading me on it. I can say that I am sure of this because it is what I have been doing all along. The circumstances have changed, but when I listen to reputation's "Delicate" while driving home from work through Providence, I am adjusting the radio for "Treacherous" again. I received moments of clarity and direction this month, which have been rare for me ever since I grew out of my nineteen-year-old resolve, but particularly so in recent weeks. When I left the conference in Philadelphia and decided to listen to reputation, and when I recall all of these Late Novembers, it becomes clear to me that I am still very much the same as I have always been, despite spending all of September and October trying to distance myself from the fool I feel I was yesterday. I will feel very lucky in my life if I can continue to trick people into letting me stand in front of a podium and talk about Taylor Swift—especially if I can figure out a way to get paid for it.
Now, in the month that reputation was released in 2017, I am still wearing a thin silver ring on my right hand that my mom bought for me when I was fourteen. It says the word “love” in lowercase script, and I wanted it because Taylor Swift wore one just like it in the beginning of her career. After eight years I hardly ever notice it anymore, except maybe when it gets caught on a glove, or when I am seeking comfort and twist it around my finger because it has shifted too far to the right—it has always done this. Earlier this month I took the GREs in preparation for graduate school applications, and I was required to take off all jewelry in the testing center. I forgot to even consider this ring a piece of jewelry. It feels so minimal compared to my cameo necklaces and my Frida Kahlo earrings—it feels less like an accessory and more like it's one with my hand at this point. The test administrator pointed it out and asked me to take it off. I felt silly for not noticing it, then felt even more embarrassed when I realized I couldn’t get it off my finger. I told her it was stuck, and I asked if I could have a minute to run some cold water over it and try to remove it. She said that wasn’t necessary, and let me keep it on.
Music, feelings, and a little bit of feminism.
words by the month