Quote

for when living gets tough

Wake, girl.
Your head is becoming the pillow.

Eleanor Taylor Ross

a woman who writes has power

Today is March 31st, and Women’s History Month is waning. Here’s the fun thing about women, though: our contributions to society are not limited to a 31-day time period. I know. Shocker.

With that radical reasoning in mind, I’ve compiled a list of five* of my favorite women writers from American history and today. Feel free to enjoy their poetry, stories, and novels in April. Or May. The summer months, too. Hey, if you’re feeling ambitious, try all year round.

Phillis Wheatley

Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley might be the most important person in American literary history, which is probably why she is never mentioned in public schools. Wheatley was the first-ever African American published poet and the second published woman in America, right after Anne Bradstreet. I might have forgotten to mention: she was born in Africa and sold into slavery at seven years old. A couple of other notable facts: she published her first poem in a newspaper when she was only twelve and her first book at age eighteen. Oh yeah, after she wrote a poem in support of George Washington, he invited her to his home so that he could personally thank her. No biggie.

All this from a teenager who was named after the inhumane ship that took her across the Atlantic and turned her into property.

Flannery O’Connor

O'Connor

Let’s skip forward to the 20th century (sorry, Dickinson and Alcott). I first read Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find in a class I took my first semester of college called “God, Sex, and Violence in American Literature,” after which I decided to study English. O’Connor suffered from lupus and passed away when she was only 39 years old, but she spent her life writing some of the wittiest prose on the grotesque** I’ve ever read. She once wrote in a letter, “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.”

She was also really into peacocks.

Anne Sexton

Sexton

Ask me what my favorite poem is, and I’ll answer without hesitation. It’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” Anne Sexton version. Here’s an excerpt:

Once there was a lovely virgin
called Snow White.
Say she was thirteen.
Her stepmother,
a beauty in her own right,
though eaten, of course, by age,
would hear of no beauty surpassing her own.
Beauty is a simple passion,
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes.

You can read the rest of the poem here, but I suggest picking up a volume of her collected works. Sexton’s reimagined fairy tales are only a few of her gems. Like her friend Sylvia Plath, she’s well known for writing her confessional poetry during a time when women who challenged the idea of the housewife were considered total nut jobs  Also like Plath, Sexton committed suicide; she dressed herself in her mother’s coat and took off her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, and locked herself in her garage, killing herself with carbon monoxide poisoning. She was in and out of mental institutes for her entire life, but her writings on her private life are actually fairly representative of many woman who felt trapped in their prescribed gender roles and later embraced second-wave feminism.

Karen Tei Yamashita

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Now, contemporary writers. I read Yamashita’s novel The Tropic of Cancer in my capstone on global literature during my senior year. This book is the literary embodiment of post-modernism. Instead of a table of contents, it has a grid outlining which parts of the book are written from which character’s perspective, and potentially, you could read it in any order.  Yamashita is Japanese-American, born in California, and The Tropic of Orange is set in a Los Angeles that isn’t white washed with so-called “beautiful people.” Her characters are Hispanic, Asian-American, black, poor, rich, and all in the throes of magical realism. It’s a book that’s as entertaining and nuanced as it is socially aware, and it doesn’t romanticize multiculturalism for the sake of self-righteousness.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Achidie

If you’ve listened to Beyoncé’s song ***Flawless, then you’ve heard Adichie’s voice.  Beyoncé actually samples a TED talk given by Adichie titled We Should All Be Feminists. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller,” she says. “We say to girls ‘You can have ambition, but not too much.'” Adichie is not technically American, as she was born in Nigeria, but I’m including her on the list anyway. I’m about to finish her novel published last year called Americanah, written about race relations in the States from the perspective of a Nigerian immigrant to comes to Philadelphia for university. The book is brilliant, and I plan to write about it as soon as I’ve had time to process it. Immigrants like Adichie are the new Great American Authors.

By the way, anyone who is terrified of the prospect that WASPs*** might soon become a minority and actively tries to preserve “Americanness” by restricting immigration is delusional. So what? This is a nation of immigrants, built on the labor of slaves. Grumbling about Spanish labels on foods is so passé.

Remember. “A woman who writes has power, and a woman with power is feared.” – Gloria Anzaldúa

*A difficult list to narrow down, obviously. Perhaps this would be better phrased as “five women writers who I’ve been reading a lot of lately but sometimes you’re just strapped for time.”

**Note the banner and subtitle at the top of my blog: The Pleasure of the Grotesque.

***WASP: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant

kansas city fashion week (and why i write about fashion)

What have I been up to this month?

Good question. As with any response that could easily be said in a few words, I think I’ll start with a quote from the one and only bell hooks:

 “When we’re talking about race or class or gender, popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is…it has power in everyday life.”

My writing dips into several different areas in culture; one of those areas is fashion.  Fashion is fascinating because it actually does dictate a part of everyone’s life, even if that part is merely throwing on a work uniform as part of a morning routine.  Essentially, fashion is a conflict between “high culture” (think Prada, Chanel) that considers itself art and the “lower” culture, aka the cheap designs that make it to the Misses section in Walmart. Historical movements are marked by fashion trends—the shapeless flapper dresses of the 1920s, indicating a rebellion from traditional femininity, for example. Fashion is class, race, gender, and cultural differences (or similarities) seamed together and torn apart in material form.

Plus, styling outfits can be pretty fun, you know, on a non-theoretical level. Go figure.

I’m not totally embracing or even endorsing the fashion industry; manufacturing is cruel (outsourcing, exploitation, factory collapses), as are the body expectations for women (you’re either tall, thin, and white, or the exotic Other). But connections between these material and economic relations and cultural representation—or, probably more appropriate, the disconnect between them—are all the more reason to check yourself if you roll your eyes at the word fashion.

So what have I been up to? I’ve been covering Kansas City Fashion Week, in my newest project as a contributor for the New York-based website, The Style Line. KCFW was held March 13-16 in KC’s own historic Union Station, and it featured designers from across the country.  Some collections erred on the side of boring, but most runway shows were legitimately a ball to watch. 

Union Station, Kansas City, Missouri

On Saturday’s shows, I sat next to a designer from New York. She asked my permission to editorialize out loud, and I happily let her. “Oh that is good. See that patterned skirt? That’s so tough, to match the pattern where the skirt is seamed, and the designer totally pulled it off… Is that a pin holding that dress together? Hello, have a fitting before the show… Ohmygod, yes, from now on every runway show needs to start with capoeira,” she said at the beginning of L.O.D.’s Brazilian-inspired showcase of yellows and greens. I didn’t bother to correct her use of capoeira; I was drawn in by her commentary, and even added my own knowledgable remarks. “Well… her hair looks good, so…”

My favorite collection was designed by Andrea Marie Long, partly because of my obsession with checkered patterns, and partly because the Cossack headbands made me imagine that I was watching Fiddler on the Roof circa 2014 (a very, very good thing). Plus, her capes were stunning. I can only imagine the skill it takes to design and craft them.

The best part about Kansas City Fashion Week, though, was the impressive community effort that it took to produce the event. The models, hair stylists, makeup artists, media, sponsors, and general public were all local. I saw people in the audience dressed as though they expected Anna Wintour to show up, and I saw others who seemed to think that Kohl’s is haute couture. Again: I saw fashion as represented by different cultures and classes, but all from the Kansas City community.

It’s a long time since I’ve experienced such a strong sense of creativity and community in one place, and I was thrilled. Well done, Kansas City Fashion Week.

For more of my KCFW coverage, visit The Style Line’s Tumblr.

gloria steinem, the undercover playboy bunny

Once upon a time, if you were hunting for a job, this is what you’d find:

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The State, June 1958

This Help Wanted section in The State is from 1958, when job ads were divided into Female Help and Male Help. The best job a college-educated woman could find was a secretary, bookkeeper, teacher, or nurse. The purpose of college for women, after all, was to find a future husband and glistening engagement ring before graduation. The diploma just looked good.

Five years later, a twenty-eight year old journalist named Gloria Steinem was working desperately to find serious assignments, but instead was given stories about stockings and “how to please your husband.” Gloria was unimpressed.

One day, Gloria came across a Help Wanted ad for a Playboy Bunny at the New York Playboy Club. The ad promised $200-$300 a week (a pretty large income for a woman during the 1960s), and asked if job-seekers wanted to “enjoy the glamorous and exciting aura of show business, and have the opportunity to travel to other Playboy Clubs around the world.”

Gloria was skeptical, but she had an idea. She decided to go undercover as a Bunny and investigate the working conditions of these women.

She applied under the name Marie Catherine Ochs, which she wrote sounded “much too square to be phony.” Marie Ochs was a bit flighty, having held several stints as she traveled around Europe, and she was twenty-four years old. The age range posted in the advertisement was 21-24, so Marie needed to be younger than Gloria.

Marie’s interview at the Playboy Club was not so much an interview as a Bunny costume fitting:

 The bottom was cut up so high that it left my hip bones exposed as well as a good five inches of my derriere. The boning of the waist would have made Scarlett O’Hara blanch, and the entire construction tended to push all of my available flesh up to the bosom. “Not too bad,” said the wardrobe mistress and began to stuff an entire plastic dry cleaning bag into the top of my costume.

The heels of the costume proved to be the worst part, though; after standing for eight hours in three-inch heels, her feet were throbbing in pain. In 1995, Gloria wrote that her feet were so damaged that they were enlarged half a shoe size and have remained that way ever since.

Marie Ochs in the promotional photo as a Bunny, taken by the Playboy Club. Playboy still uses this photo in promotional materials today.

Marie Ochs in the promotional photo as a Bunny, taken by the Playboy Club. Playboy still uses this photo in promotional materials today.

Another perk to the job: oh, the ogling. Men harassed the Bunnies often verbally and sometimes physically. Of course, the Bunnies were there purely for the enjoyment of ye old Male Gaze, but they were not allowed to be touched by men nor to go out with any customers (unless they were a Number One Keyholder).  Bunnies were mere decoration. They might as well be hanging in the walls of a museum.

Marie Ochs’ first night on the job was in the coat-check room, and as it happened, she came face-to-face with two friends of Gloria Steinem. The TV executive and his wife looked directly at Gloria/Marie, handed her fifty cents, but did not recognize her. “It was depressing to be a nonperson in a Bunny suit,” she wrote, and recorded several other observations from her night:

 The least confident wives of the businessmen didn’t measure themselves against us, but seemed to assume their husbands would be attracted to us, and stood aside, looking timid and embarrassed. There were a few customers, a very few, either men or women (I counted ten) who looked at us not as objects but smiled and nodded as if we might be human beings.

Back in those days, there was no concept of sexual harassment in the workplace. If there was, though, “Daily sexual harassment from washed up middle-aged businessmen!” should have been part of the Help Wanted ad. But Gloria/Marie was also curious about another part of the ad, a figure that had been cited in several newspaper articles too. Do Bunnies make $200-$300 a week?

So far Marie Ochs had earned close to nothing. Most of her work counted under “training,” which was unpaid. So, she went digging for answers from other Bunnies.

“Two hundred to three hundred a what?” asked one Bunny in disbelief.  She was a waitress, and waitresses generally made the most money because of tips (although the Playboy Club took 50 percent of tips as part of their own earnings). “I got a hundred and eight dollars this week, and the girl with the biggest check got a hundred and forty five.”

Gloria/Marie also learned that although the Playboy Club boasted a roster of 150 Bunnies, only 103 were on schedule because nearly 50 of them had quit. Girls signed up for the promise of glamor and then became jaded. When Marie Ochs finally did find a Bunny who earned $200, the lower end of the promised salary, it was only because she took double shifts and worked around the clock.

Marie Ochs existed for a month, and then Gloria Steinem took over and published her exposé called “A Bunny’s Tale” in Show magazine. It was a bold move, as His Holiness Hugh Hefner was in the glory days of his Bunny Empire. Hefner somehow found the gall to claim that his work was the “Emancipation Proclamation of the sexual revolution”; Gloria’s account told quite another story.

The short-term consequences of the article were frightening.  For several weeks, Gloria received “obscene and threatening phone calls from a man with great internal knowledge of the Playboy Club”—and, instead of accomplishing her intended goal of becoming a respected journalist, Gloria had even more trouble finding work “because I had now become a Bunny—and it didn’t matter why.”

Good thing, then, that the story doesn’t end here. Ten years later, Gloria Steinem would become the face of second-wave feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement. She founded her own magazine, Ms., that covered serious articles about women’s rights when other publications still thought feminism to be the silly ramblings of a few radical women. Gloria continues to write and work as a feminist activist today. As Gloria said, “The truth will set you free, but at first it will piss you off.”

D358GloriaSteinemWSPLunchTo read the entirely of “A Bunny’s Tale,” which is a great first-person journalistic account, click here.

hello women’s history month!

It’s March 1. Welcome to the best month of the year!

You might be skeptical. Fair enough. Snow is currently piling up outside of my window, which is not ideal. In like a lion, out like a lamb.

Consider this, though: March has got St. Patrick’s Day, Spring Break, and my birthday (March 4!). Most importantly, March is Women’s History Month, which is the glorious combination of two of my favorite subjects: feminism and history.

This month, I’ll be celebrating Women’s History Month by blogging about women writers.

Here’s the deal: writing can sometimes turn into a bonafide Boys’ Club. You know that romantic picture of the troubled writer, a man with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, his glass of bourbon half-finished by his pen and paper, his hair unkempt but still complementing the five-o-clock shadow his handsome face? The man might be in Paris in the 1920s, or sitting in a lone, dark room in New York City. The writer in this fantasy is always a man, of course, because serious writers tackle the big ol’ issues like the meaninglessness of our existential lives.

I used to play into this fantasy of The Writer, male by default, although I wasn’t doing it consciously. It wasn’t until college, when my unwitting perception of writing and gender was broken down and challenged on a daily basis, that I realized the irony of a young woman journalist upholding the fantasy of The Writer. I also understood the value of sharing the stories of great women rather than keeping them cooped up inside the sphere of higher education.

Thus, I’ll be profiling women authors and journalists and investigating the political reality for women writers throughout history and today.

Starting tomorrow: Gloria Steinem and her Playboy Bunny exposé in 1963. It’s a good story. Get curious.

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Gloria Steinem and Pamela Hughes, 1972.

the story of dr. essay anne vanderbilt: the ethics of lgbt outing and journalism’s pursuit

On January 15, journalist Caleb Hannan published a story on Grantland (associated with ESPN) in which he first endeavored to write about a “scientifically superior golf club” and ended up outing Dr. V, the transgender woman who invented it.  Her outing in the article is problematic enough. Here’s where it gets deadly: Dr. V committed suicide as Hannan was pursuing the private details of her past.

Hannan’s original goal was to investigate this supposedly perfect golf club, created with the help of physics and sold on an infomercial, but he became increasingly intrigued by the golf club’s inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, or Dr. V. According to Hannan,

 The story of Dr. V was getting stranger by the second. An aeronautical physicist with a sun allergy builds the world’s greatest putter by rejecting conventional wisdom, then watches as deep-pocketed competitors try to steal her secrets and shut her out of the market.

Hannan is referring to the information given to him by Dr. V in phone and email correspondence: that she had attended the University of Pennsylvania and MIT, that any record of her existence was impossible to find because she had been working on top-secret government projects in Washington D.C., and that she didn’t play much golf due to her crippling migraines from the sun after spending just a few hours outside. He also grew suspicious when he heard the unexpected low pitch of her voice (her explanation: “collapsed larynx she had suffered in a car crash”), and reports that she was 6-foot-3 with a “shock of red hair.”

So he continued to question about her past. After receiving a rather earnest email from Dr. V pleading Hannan to stop with his investigation about her background.  Hannan, clearly well studied in the art of narrative suspense, wrote about the email in his article:

 Dr. V’s initial requests for privacy had seemed reasonable. Now, however, they felt like an attempt to stop me from writing about he company she’d founded. But why?

He contacted MIT and UPenn, and there was no record of Essay Anne Vanderbilt’s attendance there. She had never lived in Boston or D.C., and, in fact, there was no proof of her existence prior to the early 2000s.

Hannan dug deeper and found these facts: Dr. V had been born Stephen Krol in Philadelphia, had been married twice with two kids, and had worked as a mechanic around the same time that she claimed to be working in D.C. Hannan also found an official petition in Washington state for a change of name to Essay Anne Vanderbilt on October 14, 2003.

While Hannan was doing his digging, back in Dr. V’s office on October 18, 2013, she was found dead, “lying on the floor curled in a fetal position with a white plastic bag over her head; an empty bottle of pills sat on the kitchen counter.”

Is Hannan responsible for Dr. V’s death? A petition on change.org called “Fire Caleb Hannan for outing a trans woman” believes so. The first line in the petition is, “ESPN killed a trans woman.”  Over 2500 people have already signed the petition online. Grantland’s editor-in-chief wrote a response to the backlash:

To our dismay, a few outlets pushed some version of the Grantland writer bullies someone into committing suicide! narrative, either because they wanted to sensationalize the story, or they simply didn’t read the piece carefully. It’s a false conclusion that doubles as being recklessly unfair. Caleb reported a story about a public figure that slowly spun out of control. He never antagonized or badgered anyone. Any mistakes happened because of his inexperience, and ours, too.

Listen, readers, because this is vital: 41 percent of members of the trans community have attempted suicide. This is more than 25 times more frequent than the rest of the national average, which is 1.6 percent.

Perhaps Hannan didn’t outright bully Dr. V, but this inexperience led him to out Dr. V to her associates as he was researching the story (note: while she was still alive), and to pester about her past, which obviously put enormous pressure on her.

This is, to a certain extent, complicated by her other alleged lies (the MIT degree, for instance). When a journalist finds a story where a supposed genius physicist’s invention might be a scam and her credentials might be fraudulent, the journalist should report and investigate. The original point of his story, after all, was to examine the claim that this golf club was scientifically superior. But Hannan should not have pushed to find her identity as a trans woman (which ultimately became the focal point, the climax, of the entire article).  That’s obvious. Surely Hannan could have distinguished the point of his ethical boundaries when Dr. V told him that he was “about to commit a hate crime.”

“The other question to consider was if the lies actually mattered,” Hannan writes in his article. But as Hannan’s narrative unfolded, it seemed that he was interested in uncovering her mysterious identity in order to validate his investigative reporting skills, brandish his journalism-y journalism like a knight wielding off his lance in a jousting tournament. He concluded, “writing a eulogy for a person who by all accounts you despised is an odd experience,” couching Dr. V’s story in his own while adding insult to injury.

Journalism isn’t simply a matter of “investigate at whatever cost.” It’s story about a golf club for goodness’ sake, hardly a reason to so persistently pursue someone’s gender identity—there are boundaries of personal privacy, especially with group so well acquainted with tragedy as the trans community is. Hannan’s behavior was might not strictly be labeled as bullying, but the act of writing in itself was already a step too far.

r.i.p. philip seymour hoffman

This wasn’t the post I was going to publish today, but life happens and apparently so does death. Philip Seymour Hoffman was allegedly found dead in his home after a drug overdose. He was 46 years old. He left behind three children. Celebrity deaths don’t usually shake me, but Hoffman was magic in everything he touched. So it goes.

So here’s a scene from one of his arguably lesser-known films, Charlie Wilson’s War, but one of my favorites.