“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” So claimed T. S. Eliot in his iconic essay “Hamlet and His Problems.” And what’s true of Hamlet is doubly true for the New York Times‘ Modern Love column. This recurring essay feature aspires to represent emotion in the form of art, but with a 2000-word length limit, plus there’s no sex scenes or cussing allowed. To put things into perspective, this it what it sounds like when an essayist describes their love story in literal language: “We went to the beach and swam, held hands at the Fourth of July fireworks, went on roller coasters at Six Flags, ate Thanksgiving dinner with each other’s families, exchanged gifts on Christmas. We cried when I had to leave for long periods of time.” Fascinating. No, this will not do: If you wish to interest the world in your banal tale of romantic disappointment, you must take Eliot’s advice. You need a metaphor. You need a symbol. You need an objective correlative for those ineffable emotions. Like this: Continue reading “Crazy Love III”
Love has always proved a difficult subject for NYT writers to tackle. Having existed for over 50,000 years, long before the beginning of recorded human history, it cannot be convincingly described as a “trend.” It could even be said defy trends, outlasting all epochs, regimes, reigns, administrations, and empires. It’s a human universal! That is all very inspiring, but poses difficulties for the Styles scribes, who have a paradigm that — while perfectly serviceable when men’s eyebrow grooming appointments go up 8 percent between 2009 and 2010, or some such — lacks explanatory power when dealing with with time frames in the tens of thousands of years.
Are trend pieces the only option? No. If you want to explain the vagaries of affection to Styles readers, you could turn to another perennial format, the one that I call “article about a press release.” Specifically, an article about a press release about a scientific study, a study that is about something of interest to Styles readers. Creating an AAAPR(AASS) is easy, because all you have to do is read the one-age press release, paraphrase what it says, and add in some Jersey Shore references. You don’t have to weigh conflicting opinions and reach an independent conclusion, or read a bunch of relevant scientific work in the field, or even read the one scientific work that the article is about. Just summarize the press release, and bam, you’re a Science Reporter, using all kinds of cool words like “hypothesize” and “control group.” Science is great!
Some of the problems with the New York Times are nebulous and diffuse. The writers’ tone can seem kind of smug and suck-uppy. They write about rich people too much. They care way too much about iPhones and hipsters and artisanal axes and stuff. Yet none of these things are wrong, exactly. It’s not incorrect to write that a man in TriBeCa is crafting beautiful handmade “urban axes,” as indeed he is. Yet some claims and ideas in the Times aren’t just annoying; they’re concretely, satisfyingly wrong. That is what we’ll be looking at today. How many kinds of wrongness are there in Times articles, and what form do they take?
Michael Leviton is a New York musician and author who has a children’s book forthcoming from Hyperion next year. The video above gives you an idea of his worldview: It features accordion and glockenspiel, warbly soprano vocals, and lyrics about how all the normal beautiful people are having fun in the summertime but the speaker is lonely and disillusioned because he’s so quirky, unique and sensitive. The video contributes to the atmosphere, spinning a nostalgic yarn about a 1940’s sailor who falls in love with an emaciated mermaid and is lured by her coquetry to a watery grave. I posted it on my Facebook page, and one music fan was moved to comment on the song’s “incoherent lyrics, extremely amateurish singing, and worst of all, an acoustic guitar (technically ukulele) with which absolutely nothing interesting is done,” observing that “Benjamin Franklin invented electricity for a reason.” I think it sounds like an imitation of parody of a Stephen Merritt/Belle and Sebastien cover band. You might like it, though!
Why am I telling you about Michael Leviton? Because he is the author of the latest “Modern Love,” and the subject of this post. But before looking at his writing, let me shift gears for a moment. Why do people write embarrassing stuff about themselves? Everyone has done dumb stuff they feel bad about, but why publish it for all the world? It’s hard to say. Yet autobiography, memoir and standup comedy would all be impossible without the speaker’s penitential urge to be bracingly honest. No one wants to read a story about how you went to Stanford, didn’t do drugs, got a job at a financial firm, bought a Prius, and married someone just as upwardly mobile as you. Or maybe they do, if you’re in the New York Times wedding pages, but that doesn’t make it interesting. So it’s lucky we have some writers who feel compelled to tell the ugly truth.
The New York Times has much to offer that is not worthy of hatred. Within the US, International, Local and Business sections, there is a wealth of informative coverage of the world around us — “news,” if you will. Why, then, do we return again and again to the Styles section, again and again to be disappointed? What is the true purpose of the Styles section? What is it doing next to all those other sections, and why can’t we just throw it away? Well, I’ll tell you why. The Styles section (and the Magazine, and T the fashion magazine) is far from extraneous. These sections have news to transmit, albeit more ineffable and subjective than that which you’ll find in the “A” section. The tidings they bring are about our lives, here in the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century: How are mores and manners shifting? how are we changing? how is technology changing us? and how we should feel about it all? These sections help us make sense of it. Their subject is (hip, urban, upper-middle-class) humanity itself. They may be vapid, but they are dear to our hearts.
But what answers do the Styles section and the Magazine really give? Below, I analyze a selection of pieces from this Sunday. I will extract the conclusion or “moral” each piece offers, and we’ll see if any patterns emerge.
We’ll start with Randy Cohen’s latest. Randy Cohen writes a column called “The Ethicist,” in which he advises readers on morally significant decisions. His qualifications to do this are that he has a B.A. in music and is an “Emmy-winning humorist,” although I suppose he’d be just as ineffectual if he had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard. There’s something reassuring about his lack of credentials, though. If you don’t like Cohen’s ethico-philosophical worldview, you can feel free to ignore it, because he’s just some guy.
I remember Cohen best for the column in which he asserted that “nobody should attend strip clubs, those purveyors of sexism as entertainment. Strip shows are to gender what minstrel shows are to race.” That’s a nice analogy, because think about it. Minstrel shows were a form of traveling variety show enjoyed by multiracial audiences in the 1800’s and early years of the 1910’s. They gave many talented black musicians, actors and comedians a chance to succeed as professional artists, yet also forced them to perform degrading caricatures of blackness for the benefit of their white spectators. If everyone had boycotted minstrel shows, these black artists would have been able to… go back to cotton sharecropping! Thus bringing about an end to racism. Similarly, boycotting strip clubs would help the women’s movement by putting a bunch of single moms out of work. Why am I comparing these two things, again?
Don’t get me wrong, I think Cohen should following his personal moral compass on this issue. As a feminist, I would never want to go to a strip club with Randy Cohen.
This week Cohen is at it again with the milquetoast-y pronouncements. Someone writes in saying they don’t spank their kids, but have been asked by friends to spank their kids “when they are playing at our house and misbehave.” Cohen says they don’t have to:
Many parents are militant in defense of their putative right to discipline their children as they see fit: with a sound thrashing. But conversely, your friends may not impose their Neanderthal parenting practices on you…. When you [tell them] that, you probably ought not mention that spanking is banned or restricted in 22 countries. Such facts will only irritate them. (And you should avoid the word ‘Neanderthal.’) Parents can be so prickly. Here in America, most people believe it is a fine thing to beat children, as long as you employ the accepted euphemism, ‘spanking,’ and are the child’s parent. (A similar justification was once applied to spousal abuse.)
Actually, I kind of love that Randy Cohen exists. It is a rare writer who can make a person like me — someone who goes to graduate school, drinks Starbucks Via and gets one hundred e-mails a day from MoveOn.com — feel like a flag-waving mama grizzly Hell’s Angel rebel. Don’t tell me not to spank my kids, you pantywaist! I’m not gonna let some Liberal fascist feminazi communist Canadian Al Gore-hugger tell me how to raise my kids! I almost can’t wait to have kids, just so I can start spanking them (moderately) (in cases of extraordinary disobedience). Don’t Tread on Me! Live free or die tryin’! You’ll pry this imaginary gun out of my cold, dead hands! I’ll put a boot up your ass, it’s the American way!
Moral: Don’t spank kids, don’t go to strip clubs.
Up next, “Out and About: Cruising the Caribbean.” This piece argues that “cruise ship food doesn’t have to be bad.” “Qsine’s approach is high tech and high concept. The menu, with a lineup of small bites — or food to be shared — is presented on an iPad, through which each diner scrolls to select his favorites…. For dessert, the options are presented in a Rubik’s cube-like puzzle. Shift the boxes around and reveal ‘The Cupcake Affair,’ four cakes with do-it-yourself sauces and garnishes.”
Moral: The next time you’re planning a luxury cruise, hold out for one with gourmet meals.
“TV Right-Sizes 3D” by Virginia Heffernan. “In deciding whether to buy one of the new, ludicrously cool 3-D TVs — some of which won’t even require special glasses — ask yourself a serious question: Do you like your entertainment in front of you, inside your body or all around you?” Um… are you sure that’s really what you meant to ask me? That’s a very very… intimate topic! A penetrating question, if you will! I’ll take the second one.
Moral: Buy a 3D TV immediately, unless you’d rather just fuck.
Social Q’s. Someone writes in to Galanes complaining that their daughter (apparently of high school age) is dressing “trampy.” He responds: “We don’t want your little girl mistaken for a hooker as she waits for the school bus. Horns of a dilemma, right?” Anyone who would mistake a student waiting at the bus stop for a “hooker” is probably not a reliable arbiter of youth fashion, anyway. Galanes suggests a way for the parent get perspective on the situation: “Drive over to your daughter’s school and take a hard look at what the other girls are wearing.” Yes. There is no more welcome sight on the high school campus than an adult cruising around the parking lot, taking a “hard look” at the female students. You might want to take the family van, in case a couple of those girls needs a ride! Teenage girls can be shy, so don’t hesitate to ask. Some of them might need painkillers for their menstrual cramps, so try yelling “WANT SOME DRUGS?” at them to get their attention. Let me know how this goes.
As for the daughter in questions, “set reasonable limits: blouses three inches above the nipple line.” Nipple “line”? It’s a circle, Galanes, a circle! I knew none of these guys had ever seen a naked woman. “And save those mini minis and four-inch heels for 11th Avenue, not home room.” Is anyone else creeped out by all these references to someone’s “little girl” becoming a prostitute? Galanes is not an “edgy” humorist; he cannot transition easily from anodyne gags about old sitcoms to statutory-rape jokes. Also, the vast majority of women you see wearing skimpy or revealing clothing are not prostitutes. Galanes must be a barrel of fun at cocktail parties, though. “Pardon me, madam, that’s a lovely pair of boots! Didn’t I see you wearing them earlier on the corner of 28th and Lexington?”
“”Keep her safe, but let her express herself, too.” “Safe”? From what, nipple-line frostbite? Oh wait, I get it… from rapists, against whom the only impregnable defense is modest clothing. No man would be so beastly as to victimize a woman with the mouth-watering three inches above her nipples covered up.
Moral for girls: Don’t dress trampy, or bad men will rape you. Moral for parents: Go to the high school and check out all the trampy chicks!
“What ‘Modern Family’ Says About Modern Families,” Bruce Fiedler. “In his 1964 book ‘Understanding Media,’ Marshall McLuhan helped define the modern age with his phrase, ‘The medium is the message.’ Were he here nearly 50 years later, the critic would hardly be surprised to discover that in the most talked-about sitcom of the moment, the medium has become the punch line.”
Moral: You should watch Modern Family because it holds a mirror up to your techno-savvy, upper-middle-class lifestyle. Also, Bruce Fiedler is an intellectual.
“MTV’s Naked Calculation Gone Bad,” David Carr. This article chronicles the problems MTV has caused by itself by airing the controversial show Skins. “What if one day you went to work and there was a meeting to discuss whether the project you were working on crossed the line into child pornography? You’d probably think you had ended up in the wrong room. [DRAMATIC PARAGRAPH BREAK.] And you’d be right.” Wouldn’t I actually be wrong, if I worked for MTV, and we were being accused of violating child pornography statutes, which is what this scenario is all about? Oh, never mind.
Carr is in a moral panic about this show. To be sure, “MTV didn’t invent ‘friends with benefits’ [or] oral sex as the new kiss.” Man, I’d like to see a profile on the guy who invented oral sex as the new kiss. Now that’d be a trend piece I could get behind, am I right? LOL! That guy is responsible for so many cold sores. Here we are wasting time on this stupid Skins show, while a much more sinister figure lurks in the darkness of anonymity. He’s like the huge cocaine kingpin who gets rich and hangs out on a yacht in Miami, while all the little neighborhood crack dealers get prison time.
“The self-described ‘Guidos’ and ‘Guidettes’ of ‘Jersey Shore,’ MTV’s breakout hit, have probably already set some kind of record for meaningless sex.” Gratuitous Jersey Shore reference alert! The “record” for meaningless sex was probably set by some gay dude on Fire Island in 1978. Still, it’s helpful to have David Carr around, weighing in on how much “meaning” other people’s sexual experiences should have.
“MTV leaves it to real-life parents to explain that sometimes, when a car goes underwater, nobody survives and that a quick hookup with cute boy at the party may deliver a sexually transmitted disease along with a momentary thrill.” Or… they could just use condoms? I am not joking right now. Actually kind of mad that the paper of record is resorting to scary metaphors straight out of an abstinence-only classroom to demonize young people’s sexuality.
Moral: Don’t watch Skins; don’t have sex or you’ll die of STDs and drown in a car.
“On the Street: X Factor,” Bill Cunningham. This is that weird collage of half-inch fashion pictures. “Every era has a defining stance, and at present, it is standing with your legs crossed, like a model or a dancer en pointe. The key to the look is the ankle boot, some with platforms and stiletto heels.”
Moral: You’re not standing right. Go buy some Christian Louboutin ankle boots.
Meta-moral: The lesson I take away from all this is that we live in a time of great opportunity, yet also great danger. This era is exciting, because innovations like 3D televisions, gourmet Caribbean cruise cupcakes, and Christian Louboutin booties are available to all, except people who don’t have a combined total of $16,299.98 to spend on them. It is terrifying, because raunchy television shows, hookup culture, unrestrained oral sex and scantily clad young women are undermining the very fabric of the society in which we live. Yikes! But no matter how bad things get, pseudointellectual theorizing and half-assed social commentary are here to stay. The Styles section will never die.
The NYT‘s weekly Modern Love column could be very relateable. Love, the universal human emotion that brings us all together… the only thing there’s just too little of… no matter if you’re a king or pawn, noble or peasant, ugly duckling or beautiful swan, love is a humbling experience that makes fools of us all while giving us a tantalizing glimpse into the mysterious workings of the human heart. That sort of thing. Instead, it tends to be more like one of those shows on TLC about freaks and weirdos. “I’m Addicted to Sex“; “I’m Addicted to Candy“; “I Paid a Kabbalist to Find Me a Husband“; “I’m Jealous of My Grade-School Son’s Girlfriend“; “Reality TV Stole My Baby“; “My Wife Is in the Slammer“; “I Live With My Ex-Husband“; “Married to a Hoarder“; “78 and Still Doin’ It“; “Married… With Bedbugs!” It’s a parade of special-needs children, arranged marriages, reappearing birth mothers, and psychotic animals.
And so it is with the most recent column. In this personal essay, Nicole Hardy tells us what it’s like to be a 35-year-old Mormon virgin. Fascinating… lurid… like a Judd Apatow movie, combined with that one reality TV show about how crazy Mormons are! I can’t wait to learn more about the Mormon faith, so that hopefully I can let go of my simplistic stereotypes about it. What have you got for me?
“Of all the places I felt sure I’d never go, Planned Parenthood topped the list. Because, you know, they perform abortions and give condoms to kids, or so I’d been warned.” Okay, never mind.
As the story opens, Hardy magnanimously deigns to make use of PP’s low-cost, community-subsidized health services. She finds herself “in its waiting room next to a teenage girl, who was clearly perplexed by the intake form and likely bound for an uncomfortable, humiliating four minutes in the back of a borrowed Chevy Chevelle.” Teenagers are so stupid, what with being confused by bureaucratic paperwork! Not like the writer, who, as we will learn, spent 15 years figuring out that putting off sex for marriage often results in neither. Also, for all she knows, this teenage girl is about to have hours of mutually pleasurable sex with her adoring boyfriend on a bearskin rug. It’s like, I know you’re jealous, but wishing painful intercourse on a sexually empowered youth is Not A Good Look.
“But what did I know?” What, indeed. “I was a 35-year-old virgin.” You don’t say! How come? “I was not frigid, fearful or socially inept.” Well, you sound a little fearful, what with that crack about “uncomfortable and humiliating.” “I was not overweight or unattractive.” Pics, plz. “Didn’t suffer from halitosis or social anxiety disorder.” I was not celibate like a nun/I was not celibate just for fun/ I was not crippled in my bed/I was not crazy in the head/I was not smelly like a goat/ I was not fat with junk-food bloat/I would have, could have gotten laid!/ I would have, but the church forbade. That’s a poem I wrote.
The true reason, as the intelligent reader may have surmised (because it was in the headline) is that “I was a practicing Mormon, and Mormons ‘wait’ until marriage.” The result was an epic wait. “It felt as if celibacy was stunting my growth; it wasn’t just sex I lacked but relationships with men entirely…. I felt trapped in adolescence.” That sounds awful. I think I know what she should do, though. She should get a makeover and go on a wacky, booze-fueled quest to get her cherry popped.*
*Ew, but that’s what the movie people would call it… Pop My Cherry, starring (probably) Katherine Heigl.
Instead, “my first act of open rebellion was to go see ‘Brokeback Mountain’… with a pair of lesbian friends. I was not ready to have an alcoholic beverage or a cup of coffee, to lie with a man or smoke a cigarette. But I could watch a movie, even if that movie was an obvious attack on the sanctity of hetero marriage.” Damn you, Hollywood! Stop attacking the sanctity of hetero marriage by occasionally acknowledging that gay people exist! You’re perverting people’s morals and tempting them to drink coffee!
“While I am also straight and believe in God, one thing became clear that day: I could empathize with those gay cowboys.” I got news for ya, honey: Every straight woman can emphathize with those gay cowboys. The blond guy, the brunet guy, both at once, other gay cowboys who wander by and decide to join in, whatever. So strongly can I emphathize with them, I would like to be pressed in between them, to feel what it’s truly like to be a gay cowboy. Just a big testosterone-fueled sandwich of clandestine lust, musky sweat, and mutual identification. I would do that for you, gay community. Because I care about CIVIL RIGHTS.
Hardy goes on to appropriate the characters’ experience. “I knew what it was to be
sodomized in a tent fundamentally bound to an ill-fitting life, to be the object of pity and judgment, to feel I had no choice but to be the thing that made me ‘other.'” Also like the characters, she risks being beaten up by rednecks and dragged behind a pickup truck if caught in bed with a man. Curse our intolerant, heterophobic society!
Wacky rom-com antics seem likely to ensue in next paragraph, in which she pursues “stage 2 of my rebellion” by going to a sex shop with her lesbian friends. The scene isn’t narrated in enough detail to make anyone laugh, though. If she wanted me to LOL, she should have made up a part where like, she runs into her boss while waving around a gigantic black dildo. Or maybe her chihuahau bites open a tube of strawberry-scented lube, and it squirts all over her silk scarf, and the clerk is like “since you damaged that, you have to buy it,” and then the next day she’s at Mormon church, and the lube falls out of her purse & into the collection plate… then an old lady sitting next to her says something incongruously risqué… this movie just writes itself!
She tries dating Mormon men and regular men, but gets nowhere. Finally, she has a has a conversation with some douchebag that reveals what she’s doing wrong. After getting her to admit that she has her own career and money & stuff, this dude concludes she’s “too independent” and that “If you have all the things we’re supposed to provide, we have nothing to give you.”
She regards this as a moment of epiphany, but it is hard to see why. If all the men in one’s social circle were seeking out young, passive, helpless, mindlessly compliant women as life partners, one would think it would be the sort of thing one would notice. Nonetheless, “I tried for 15 years not to lose hope.” It’s not clear whether the 15 years happened before or after the conversation with the douchey guy. There’s some stuff about “the Gospel” that I sorta skimmed over. Then eventually, she did lose hope.
“Perhaps the failure was mine — I’m sure many church members see it that way. I was too weak to endure.” Or, perhaps the failure was that of the Mormon church, for demonizing homosexuality and female sexual desire, judging women’s worth based solely on their reproductive output, and telling people they will burn in hell for all eternity if they don’t follow a set of arbitrary rules of conduct? Nah, that’s too nitpicky. It’s probably all the author’s fault. What a slut!
“Oddly, my trip to Planned Parenthood provided much that the church had not in recent years. I was mystified by [the doctor’s] compassion.” Yes… that is odd. After all, it says right in their mission statement that “for more than 90 years, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has promoted a commonsense approach to women’s health and well-being, based on respect for each individual’s right to make informed, independent decisions about health, sex, and family planning,” so it’s hard to see how they could have dropped the ball in this one instance WAIT I THINK I’VE MIXED THINGS UP SOMEHOW.
The nice lady doctor touched her all compassionately, and she cried. The end, almost. There’s one more paragraph. So, is this going to be it, the thrilling conclusion, the sex scene? Will she finally live out her dream of ass-balling on a mountaintop with a Heath Ledger lookalike?
No. “I would have an IUD instead of children.” Congratulations on your spiky little bundle of joy! This isn’t a very good movie, after all.