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Soraya Roberts
I am a writer based in Toronto and the author of In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life.

Hollywood and the New Female Grotesque

Lionsgate / Element Pictures / PalmStar Media

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2018 | 8 minutes (2,206 words)

The Favourite does not take its women at face value. Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist tragicomedy has Olivia Colman starring as Queen Anne, a crumbling presence plagued by illness and an infantile disposition, neither of which stop her from playing magical beds with her two favorites, right hand woman Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and scheming servant Abigail (Emma Stone). This is not the stuff of the male gaze, though a male is gazing: it is over the top, tilting-into-farce, Grand Guignol panto. In one scene, Colman’s doleful Anne, secluded in her bedroom, morosely sticks a fork into a banquet-sized blue cake, shoves it into her mouth, vomits into a vase (everyone vomits into vases in this film) and then, wet bits of blue staining her mouth, acid-sweet bile in ours, takes another mouthful of that same cake. It’s gloriously grotesque.

The other two actresses are burlesque in a different way. Weisz is dragged so determinedly across the screen by a well-meaning horse that her beauty is deformed into a fulvous pulp. As for Stone, those cartoon-sized eyes are almost beside the point, which is her mouth contorting into various exclamations. They are united by the fact that their muddy, beaten, twisted faces always return to an alluring resting state (scars notwithstanding). Since Hollywood continues to celebrate beautiful women for transforming into ugly women — see Nicole Kidman in Destroyer, Patricia Arquette in Escape at Dannemora, Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots — these actresses can seduce us with their momentary lack of vanity while leaving us secure in the knowledge that they remain appealing.

But this year three actresses are cementing another tradition. Colman, Toni Collette in Hereditary, and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? are rewarded not for mutating, but for being, and not just for being, but expanding the “ugly” space in which they dwell to encroach on the sprawling establishment. This is something of a dual subversion: Not only do these women fail to meet Hollywood’s standards, they are lauded for pushing their undesirability to the extreme. It is the new female grotesque, and it supplants our idea of what a woman should be with what she is.

* * *

Five years ago, Colman was passed over by America. In 2013, Fox announced the network was developing a remake of Broadchurch, the British series in which Colman and David Tennant play detectives investigating a child murder in a small coastal town. While Tennant reprised his role in the U.S. version, Colman wasn’t even asked. She was instead replaced by Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn, six years older but also blonder and with a face that wouldn’t be out of place behind a Fox News desk. Colman reportedly said in response, “if Hollywood calls, I’m going, but I can also see why they haven’t called. I eat a bit too much, my teeth aren’t perfect, I’ve got eye bags. I look like a normal 39-year-old woman — but in England no one minds that.”

It says something about Colman that despite this blatant rejection, she leaned further into normalcy. The now-44-year-old actress put on another 35 pounds to play the imperious, mercurial Queen Anne. “I much prefer these sorts of roles because there is no pressure to be something you are not, and I am obviously not glamorous,” she told the Independent. “For Anne, I wasn’t meant to look nice or be nice, and it was liberating and brilliant.” That her approach is now being praised by the same system that initially punished her for it, suggests that England is no longer the only place where normal can not only be acceptable, but preferable.

Straining to think of farcical performances equivalent to Colman’s in The Favourite, I could only come up with this: “You’re terrible, Muriel.” In the Australian film that made her famous, 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding, Toni Collette played the homely titular anti-heroine in garish red lipstick, leopard print, and a side ponytail. In one scene, four of her friends, all of whom look like various Barbie collectibles, break up with her because she is “fat” and unstylish. “You bring us down, Muriel,” one of them says as Collette’s mouth slowly deforms into a grimace and she performs the nonpareil ugly cry: loud bawling, mouth open, teeth out, tongue out, lipstick smearing. “I’m not nothing,” she wails.

Her ascent was confirmation. The role won Collette a couple of awards and eventually landed her where she is today, in Hereditary, that same elastic face rewarded for its encapsulation of abject grief. In one scene, her son, sensing she is angry with him, asks that she release herself from her inner burden. And she does; after she yells wildly, we watch her searing hatred and anger slip into sadness, her face dragged down to hell.  As Owen Gleiberman wrote in Variety, “She plays Annie as a woman who begins to wear her buried rage and guilt on the outside. It pours out of her, as if she were “possessed,” and indeed she is — but by what, or whom?” This spectacle of disfigurement helps to reframe the way in which women are allowed to express emotion, the preservation of allure  — “I don’t want to cry, my mascara will run” — shouted down into oblivion.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? yields a more quietly ugly performance. Melissa McCarthy plays serial forger Lee Israel as a dyspeptic alcoholic with a shapeless haircut, no makeup, and a perpetual frown — even her smile looks like a scowl. Though the Gilmore Girls alum is known for her jovial on-screen presence, her performance as Lee is a throwback to the role that made her famous, the oversexed, mannish Megan in Bridesmaids. There, she chewed the scenery. Here she just spreads out in it. “She cares about her intellect more than her appearance and doesn’t care about the things that we assign to women as what they’re supposed to be interested in,” director Marielle Heller has said of the character. In McCarthy’s hands, Lee is not particularly likable, but she is understandable. One wonders what she would have been in original star Julianne Moore’s — would the apartment riddled with cat shit have rung false?

Despite her toxicity, McCarthy’s Lee is not drawn asexual. She has a sweet flirtation with a woman who runs a bookstore (Dolly Wells), though her surprise at her interest and the fact that it never progresses past one date does paint her love life as unsuccessful. Still, we’ve come a long way since 1991, when Kathy Bates won the Oscar for best actress by playing a virginal psychopath in Misery. The pre-stan “number one fan” of novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan), her character, Annie Wilkes, is a milk-fed matron who turns on a dime, refuses to swear, and wears her hair in a clip paired with pinafores. Her ability to juggle G-rated phrases like “dirty birdy” with X-rated torture makes her one of the top villains of all time, though there remains a superficiality to her ferocity. When Misery moved to Broadway three years ago, Julia Roberts was considered for the lead, but, according to Lisa Rogak’s Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, the author nixed the idea, describing Annie as simply “a brawny woman who can sling a guy around, not a pixie.” Still, Bates, who had been acting for decades, competed with Roberts and Pretty Woman for the best actress Oscar in 1991 — and won. “I’d like to thank the Academy,” she said, “I’ve been waiting a long time to say that.”

* * *

The same year Bates won for Misery, Whoopi Goldberg did for Ghost, heralding work by actresses of color which would in some ways be even more revolutionary. The only black woman nominated for best supporting actress that year, Goldberg took home the trophy for playing Oda Mae Brown, a snake-oil psychic who can actually commune with the dead. Though Goldberg was an established actress by that time and had already been nominated for an Oscar for The Color Purple, this was as rare a role for black women in general as it was for her. Instead of being straight drama or straight comedy, as Goldberg was used to, Oda Mae seamlessly threaded the absurd through the serious. Arriving 40 minutes in, she yanks Ghost out from under its beautiful white leads (“Wanna kiss my butt?”) with her voluminous hair, scene-stealing outfits, foul mouth, and resting wry face.

The quintessential Oda Mae moment comes when she is asked by ghost Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) to withdraw $4 million of blood money from the bank. She arrives in her Sunday best looking like a fuchsia peacock, complete with jaunty pillbox hat and matching clutch (white gloves included). Buoyed by the prospect of becoming a millionairess, she motors out of the bank high on adrenalin only to be told by Sam that she has to pass on the money. He points out a church stand — “I know you don’t think I’m giving this $4 million to a bunch’a nuns!” — and she hands the money over in bad grace before walking off in a huff. Sam watches her go with a beatific expression on his face. “I think you’re wonderful Oda Mae,” he calls. At that she turns around, in the middle of a busy road, her legs almost in gridiron hut stance, and spits in his general direction. Then she harumphs away, holding her purse like a dejected football player cradling his loss.

There are two kinds of performances by black actresses that tend to be lauded by the Academy. Since Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor to win an Oscar in 1939 for Gone with the Wind, the preference has been for less Dorothy Dandridge-looking women in morally superior “Mammy” roles, such as Octavia Spencer’s turns in The Help and The Shape of Water. When black women are considered traditionally beautiful, they tend to be recognized by the Academy for being tortured, ravaged — Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Naomie Harris in Moonlight. It’s okay to be less appealing, as long as you’re a symbol of virtue or remain appealing out of costume. God help you if you’re a black woman who is deemed unattractive off screen and you have no redeeming qualities on screen either.

Mo’Nique became the rare exception in 2010 after playing the repellent abusive mother of the titular Precious. Having constructed her career on raunchy stand-up that had an enormous following in the black community (though, as the Netflix debacle suggests, that stature matters less to its white executives), Mo’Nique dropped her trademark hair and makeup to sweat through a camisole and snarl at Gabourey Sidibe. Despite her character’s almost unbelievable vileness, there was a palatability to the “poor black violent single mother” trope for a white audience (and Academy) more familiar with racial stereotypes than reality. But it didn’t come in a presentable package. Mo’Nique was too much — too loud, too assertive, too entitled. In the end her win was overshadowed by the frivolous controversy that ensued when she refused to campaign — “You want me to campaign for an award — and I say this with all the humility in the world — but you want me to campaign for an award that I didn’t ask for?” — which is why, seven years after her win, it made sense that she didn’t feel she owed much to Hollywood. “I think a big highlight for me was when they called me for the first time for the NAACP Image Awards,” she told Variety. “Because as a little girl, I didn’t see people like me receiving the Oscar.”

* * *

In her seminal 1994 book The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, Modernity, Mary Russo outlined the kind of women our culture embraces. “The classical body is transcendent and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical and sleek; it is identified with ‘high’ or official culture,” she wrote. “The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple and changing; it is identified with non-official “low” culture . . . and with social transformation.” But the transformation to the new female grotesque — that of the unacceptable woman pushing her unacceptability to its limits — is gaining traction. The conversation around gendered exploitation in Hollywood has helped to expand the definition of women’s roles. Lena Dunham, meanwhile, spent much of her ascent exposing her own body on screen to liberate those of regular women (as performance artist Carolee Schneeman once told me, “She’s the ideal of normal”). Women of color are also being recognized for their part in dismantling the white ideal. And the number of women behind the scenes has swelled. Toni Collette co-executive produced Hereditary, Marielle Heller directed Can You Ever Forgive Me? (which was co-written by Nicole Holofcener), and Deborah Davis co-executive produced and co-wrote The Favourite. Perhaps Davis is even responsible for The Favourite’s final scene in which Queen Anne, beset by stroke, barely able to walk, still manages to physically dominate Abigail, her hand on the younger, comelier woman’s head, possibly tearing Abigail’s hair out as she strokes the monarch’s leg. In Lady Sarah’s words: “Sometimes a lady likes to have some fun.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

My So-Called Media: How the Publishing Industry Sells Out Young Women

Sipapre, AP / Getty / Collage by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2018 | 10 minutes (2,554 words)

On November 30th, Tavi Gevinson published her last ever editor’s letter at Rookie. The 22-year-old started the site when she was just 15, and in the intervening years it had spawned a pastel-hued community of girlhood, which, if not always sparkly, was always honest. The letter spanned six pages, 5707 words. In Longreads terms, that’s 20 minutes, 20 minutes of Gevinson agonizing over the site she loved so much, the site that was so good, that was now bigger than her, that she couldn’t figure out how to save. “Rookie had been founded, in part, as a response to feeling constantly marketed to in almost all forms of media,” she wrote, “to being seen as a consumer rather than a reader or person.”

The market had won, but Gevinson was fighting to the death. It was hard to read. You could sense her torturing herself. And she was. Because in truth there was nothing Gevinson could have done, because the failure of Rookie was not about her, or even about the poor state of media as a whole. It was about what it has always been about, which is that as much power as women have online — as strong as their voices are, as good as their work is, as valuable as it is to women, especially young women — its intrinsic worth is something capitalism, dominated by men, feels no obligation to understand. This is what ultimately killed Rookie. And The Hairpin. And The Toast. And maybe even Lenny Letter too.

***

In her first ever editor’s letter, Tavi Gevinson explained that she wasn’t interested in the “average teenage girl,” or even in finding out who that was or whether Rookie appealed to her. “It seems that entire industries are based on answering these very questions,” she wrote. “Who is the typical teenage girl? What does she want? (And, a lot of the time, How can we get her allowance?)” She claimed not to have the answer but provided it anyway by not asking the question: by not inquiring, like other young women’s publications, whether her readers would like some lipstick or maybe some blush with that. Instead, Rookie existed in a state of flux, a mood board of art and writing and photography on popular culture and fashion and politics and, just, the reality of being a girl. In an interview with NPR in 2011, Gevinson noted the hypocrisy of other teen magazines’ feminist gestures: “they say something really simple about how you should love your body and be confident or whatever, but then in the actual magazine, there will still be stuff that maybe doesn’t really make you love your body.”

Writer Hazel Cills emailed Gevinson when she was 17 to ask if she could join Rookie. In her eulogy for the site, published in Jezebel, Cills described the magazine’s novel concept: “unlike Teen Vogue or Seventeen, we were overwhelmingly staffed with actual teenagers, and were free to write about our realities as if they were the stuff of serious journalism.” Lena Singer, who was in her 30s when she worked as Rookie’s managing editor, thinks the publication deserves some credit for the fact that adults are now more willing to defer to adolescents than they were when it launched. “Part of my role as an editor there was to help protect the idea — and I still believe it — that the world doesn’t need another adult’s opinion about teen spaces, online or elsewhere,” she says. “Teens say what needs to be known about that.” And when they didn’t have the answers, they chose which adults to consult with video features like “Ask a Grown Man,” where celebrities like Thom Yorke answered readers’ questions. The column would have been familiar to Sassy aficionados, particularly fans of its “Dear Boy” series which had guys like Beck offering advice. Which made sense, because Sassy was basically the OG Rookie.

Named by the 13-year-old daughter of one of the heads of its publishing company, Fairfax, Sassy arrived in 1988 and was the first American magazine that actually spoke the language of adolescence. Teen publications dated back to 1944, the year Seventeen launched, but Sassy was different. “The wink-wink, exasperated, bemused tone was completely unlike the vaguely disguised parental voice of Seventeen,” write Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer in How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine. And unlike Teen or YM, it did not make guys the goal and girls the competition — if it had a goal at all, it was to be smart (and preferably not a conservative). Sassy was launched as the U.S. iteration of the Australian magazine Dolly — they originally shared a publisher — and presented itself as the big sister telling you everything you needed to know about celebrity, fashion, and beauty but also drugs, sex, and politics. “The teen magazines here were like Good Housekeeping for teen-agers,” Dolly co-founder Sandra Yates told the New York Times in 1988, adding, “I’m going to prove that you can run a business with feminist principles and make money.”

So she hired Jane Pratt, an associate editor at Teenage magazine, who matched her polka dot skirt with work boots, who donated to a pro-choice organization. Pratt “cast” writers like Dolly did, then went further to reinforce their personalities by publishing more photos and encouraging them to write in the first person, with plenty of self-reference, culminating in a sort of reality TV show-slash-blog before either of those things existed. Sassy became ground zero for indie music coverage thanks largely to Christina Kelly, a fan of Slaves of New York author Tama Janowitz who wrote the way teenagers talk. “I don’t know how to say where my voice came from,” she says. “It was just there.” Like the other writers on staff, she offered a proto-Jezebel take on pop culture, a new form of postmodern love-hate criticism.

At its peak, Sassy, which had one of the most successful women’s magazine launches ever (per Jesella and Meltzer), attracted 800,000 readers. But this was the era of the feminist backlash, where politicians were doubling down on good old American family values. The writers and editors at Sassy weren’t activists, per se, but they were the children of second wavers, they went to universities with women’s departments, they knew about the patriarchy. “Sassy was like a Trojan horse,” wrote Jesella and Meltzer, “reaching girls who weren’t necessarily looking for a feminist message.” Realizing that adolescents were more sexually active, receiving letters about the shame around it, Sassy made it a priority to provide realistic accounts of sex without the moralism. They covered homosexuality, abortion, and even abuse, and were the first teen magazine in America to advertise condoms.

In response, right-wing religious groups petitioned to boycott Sassy‘s advertisers; within several months the magazine lost nearly nearly 20 percent of its advertising. After several changes in ownership, including the removal of Sandra Yates and a squarer mandate, the oxymoronic conservative Sassy eventually folded into Teen magazine in 1997, the alternative press devoured once again by the mainstream.

But Sassy left behind a community. A form of analog social media, the magazine united writers with readers, but also readers with each other. Sassy even had its readers conceptualize an issue in 1990 — the “first-ever reader-produced issue of a consumer magazine” — the same year Andi Zeisler secured an internship at Sassy with a hand-illustrated envelope and the straightforward line, “I want to be your intern.” Six years later, she co-created her own magazine, Bitch, a cross between Sassy and Ms. It had the same sort of intimate community where, Zeisler explains, “there’s somehow a collective feeling of ownership that you don’t have with something like Bustle.”

Bustle, a digital media company for millennial women, is often cited as the counter-example to indie sites like Sassy, Bitch, and Rookie. It has more than 50 million monthly uniques (Bustle alone boasts 37 million) and is run by a man named Bryan Goldberg, who upon its 2013 launch wrote, with a straight face, “Maybe we need a destination that is powered by the young women who currently occupy the bottom floors at major publishing houses.” While Sassy had to struggle to be profitable and sustainable in an ad-based and legacy driven industry, now corporate entities like Bustle manspread sites like Rookie into non-existence. “The one thing that has stayed the same,” says Zeisler, “is the fact that alternative presentations of media by and for girls and young women is really overlooked as a cultural force.”

***

Tavi Gevinson was born the year Sassy died, but Lena Dunham arrived just in time. Recalling her predecessor, she described her feminist newsletter, Lenny Letter, which launched in 2015 as “a big sister to young radical women on the Internet.” Delivered to your inbox, Lenny, backed by Hearst, mimicked the intimacy of magazines past, the ones that existed outside Twitter and the comments section. It included an advice column and interviews (the first was with Hillary Clinton) as well as personal essays touching on various sociopolitcal issues. It was more activist than Sassy, more earnest than ironic, more 20-something than adolescent. It even had a Rookie alum, Laia Garcia, as its deputy editor. Lenny’s third issue launched it into mainstream consciousness when Jennifer Lawrence wrote an essay about pay disparity in Hollywood, which provoked an industry-wide conversation. Then three years after launch and without warning, on October 19, a final letter by Dunham and co-creator Jenni Konner claimed “there’s no one reason for our closure” and shut down.

Lenny’s demise came nine months after that of another site that had a loyal female-driven community: The Hairpin. Founded in 2010 by Edith Zimmerman under The Awl umbrella, the site that had also published writing by Lenny editor-at-large Doreen St. Félix claimed “a natural end” — the same words The Awl used for its closure. NPR’s Glen Weldon suggested more specific reasons for their termination: the decline in ad revenue online, the sites’ unwillingness to compromise, their independence. “The Awl and The Hairpin were breeding grounds for new writers — like The National Lampoon in the ‘70s, Spy Magazine in the ‘80s, Sassy in the ‘90s and McSweeney’s in the aughts,” he explained, adding, “Invariably they would find, waiting for them, a comparatively small, but loyal, sympathetic and (mostly) supportive readership.”

Two years before this, a similar site, The Toast, founded by former Hairpinners Nicole Cliffe and Daniel Ortberg, also closed. The publication was created in 2013 to be an intersectional space for women to write basically whatever they fancied. They even invited Rookie to contribute. The Toast published multiple features a day, stating, “we think there’s value in posting things that we’ve invested time and energy on, even if it comes at the expense of ‘You won’t believe this story about the thing you saw on Twitter and have already believed’ link roundups.” In a lengthy message posted in May 2016, Ortberg broke down the financial circumstances that left them weighing their options. “Most of them would have necessitated turning The Toast into something we didn’t like, or continuing to work ourselves into the ground forever,” Ortberg wrote, adding, “The only regret I have is that Bustle will outlive us and I will never be able to icily reject a million-dollar check from Bryan Goldberg, but that’s pretty much it.”

It says everything about the American media industry that Bustle, a site with an owner who mansplained women’s sites to women, a site which acquired the social justice-oriented publication Mic only after it had laid off almost its entire staff, has outlived the ones that are actually powered by women. If you look closely, you will see that the majority of women’s sites that continue to exist — from SheKnows to Refinery29 — have men in charge. Even HelloGiggles, which was created by three women, is owned by the male-run Meredith Corporation. That means that, fundamentally, these publications are in the hands of a gender that does not historically believe in the inherent value of women’s media. Women, including young women, are valuable as consumers, but if their interests cannot be monetized, they are worthless. Yet the same year The Toast closed, Lauren Duca wrote a Sassy-style essay, “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” in Teen Vogue which dominated the news and garnered 1.4 million unique visitors. “Teen girls are so much smarter than anyone gives them credit for,” Phillip Picardi, Teen Vogue’s digital editorial director, reminded us. “We’ve seen an immense resonance of political coverage with our audience.” Seventeen and ELLE have also capitalized on wokeness, their spon-con sharing real estate with social justice reporting, blurring the boundaries between protesting and shopping. “The inner workings of those places are not about feminism,” says Zeisler. “They’re about selling feminism and empowerment as a brand and that’s very different from what you would find at Rookie or at The Toast or The Hairpin.”

It seems fitting that a new print teen magazine launched last year called Teen Boss. On the fact that it had no ads, Jia Tolentino side-eyed in The New Yorker, “unless, of course, it’s all advertising — sponsored content promoting “Shark Tank” and JoJo Siwa (both appear in each of the first three issues) and also the monetizable self.”

***

Teen girls are the “giant piggybank of capitalism,” says Zeisler, and it’s an apt metaphor. Their value is their purchasing power and they are sacrificed, smashed to pieces, to get to it. When Ariana Grande obliterates every sales record known to man, man still asks why she is on the cover of BuzzFeed. Man never seems to ask, however, why sports — literal games — are on the cover of anything. This is the world in which Rookie and Lenny Letter and The Hairpin and The Toast attempt to survive, in which all that is left when they don’t are floating communities of women, because the industry refuses to make room. As Gevinson wrote, “that next iteration of what Rookie stands for — the Rookie spirit, if you will — is already living on in you.” As Dunham wrote, “Lenny IS you: every politician, every journalist, every activist, every illustrator, every athlete who shared her words here.” As The Hairpin wrote, “We hope when you look back on what we did here together it makes you proud and not a little delighted.” As Cliffe and Ortberg wrote, “The Toast was never just a chance for people to tune in to The Mallory and Nicole Show, it was also a true community and it will be missed.”

These publications did not die by their own hand. Zeisler notes that to this day, she sees people tweeting about missing The Toast. These sites died because their inherent value did not translate into monetary value in a capitalist system run by men who only know how to monetize women by selling them out. As bright and as hungry as young women are today, they are entering a world designed to shut them down. And the future looks bleak. “If media as an industry doesn’t figure out how to value [independent sites for young women] in a way that really reflects and respects the work that goes into them,” says Zeisler, “we’re just going to have a million fucking Bustles.”

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Who Even Watches the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show Anymore?

Evan Agostini / Invision / AP, Jens Kreuter / Unsplash, Collage by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | November 2018 | 9 minutes 2,184 words)

The most popular Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show picture on Instagram last year was of Bella Hadid. I burst out laughing when I saw it. It reminded me of that stereotypical image of the old-school flasher — beige trench, black trilby — ripping his coat open to reveal his anxious dick. Of course, Bella Hadid does not have a dick, but she’s posing like she does. The 5 foot 9 inch angel (if not capital-A Angel) stands legs akimbo in a room full of people minding their own business, splaying her petal pink robe to reveal hips jutting out of high-riding briefs and boobs pushed up so far they’re practically floating above her head. Read more…

The Queer Generation Gap

Express Syndication / Invision / Associated Press / Collage by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | November 2018 | 10 minutes (2,422 words)

Should I be married to a woman? If today were yesterday, if all this sexual fluidity were in the discourse when I was coming of age in the ‘90s, would I have been with a woman instead of a man? It is a question that “The Bisexual” creator Desiree Akhavan also poses in the second episode of her Hulu series, co-produced with Channel 4 because no U.S. network wanted it. Akhavan directed, co-wrote, and stars in the show in which her character, Leila, splits with her girlfriend of 10 years, Sadie (Maxine Peake), and starts having sex with men for the first time. So, Leila asks, if the opposite had happened to her — as it did to me — and a guy had swept her off her feet instead of a woman, would things have turned out differently? “Maybe I would’ve gone the path of least resistance,” Leila says. Maybe I did.

This is a conundrum that marks a previous generation — one that had to “fight for it,” as Akhavan’s heroine puts it, and is all the more self-conscious for being juxtaposed with the next one, the one populated by the fluid youth of social media idolizing the likes of pansexual Janelle Monáe, polyamorous Ezra Miller, undecided Lucas Hedges. Call it a queer generation gap (what’s one more label?). “I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with the Internet,” 32-year-old Akhavan explains to a younger self-described “queer woman” in her show. “I just get the sense that it’s changing your relationship to gender and to sexuality in a really good way, but in a way I can’t relate to.”

***

This Playboy bunny is chest out, lips open, legs wide. This Playboy bunny is every other Playboy bunny except for the flat hairy chest because this Playboy bunny is Ezra Miller. The star of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald calls himself “queer” but it’s hard to take him seriously. What was it Susan Sontag said: it’s not camp if it’s trying to be camp? And for the past few months, while promoting the Potterverse prequel no one asked for, this 26-year-old fashionisto has been trying his damndest, styling himself as a sort of latter day Ziggy Stardust — the monastic Moncler puffer cape, the glittering Givenchy feathers — minus the depth. Six months ago, Miller looked like every other guy on the red carpet and now, per his own request, models bunny ears, fishnets, and heels as a gender-fluid rabbit for a randy Playboy interview. Okay, I guess, but it reads disingenuous to someone who grew up surrounded by closets to see them plundered so flagrantly for publicity. Described as “attracted to men and women,” Miller is nevertheless quoted mostly on the subject of guys, the ones he jerked off and fell in love with. He claims his lack of romantic success has lead him to be a polycule: a “polyamorous molecule” involving multiple “queer beings who understand me as a queer being.”

The article hit two weeks after i-D published a feature in which heartthrob Harry Styles interviewed heartthrob Timothée Chalamet with — despite their supposed reframing of masculinity — the upshot, as always, being female genuflection. “I want to say you can be whatever you want to be,” Chalamet explains, styled as a sensitive greaser for the cover. “There isn’t a specific notion, or jean size, or muscle shirt, or affectation, or eyebrow raise, or dissolution, or drug use that you have to take part in to be masculine.” Styles, on brand, pushes it further. “I think there’s so much masculinity in being vulnerable and allowing yourself to be feminine,” the 24-year-old musician says, “and I’m very comfortable with that.” (Of course you are comfortable, white guy…did I say that out loud?) As part of the boy band One Direction, Styles was marketed as a female fantasy and became a kind of latter-day Mick Jagger, the playboy who gets all the girls. His subsequent refusal to label himself, the rumors about his close relationship with band mate Louis Tomlinson, and the elevation of his song “Medicine” to “bisexual anthem”– “The boys and the girls are in/I mess around with them/And I’m OK with it” — all build on a solid foundation of cis white male heterosexuality.

Timothée Chalamet’s sexuality, meanwhile, flows freely between fiction and fact. While the 22-year-old actor is “straight-identifying,” he acquires a queer veneer by virtue of his signature role as Call Me by Your Name’s Elio, a bisexual teen (or, at least, a boy who has had sex with both women and men). Yet off screen, as Timothée, he embodies a robust heterosexuality. On social media, the thirst for him skews overwhelmingly female, while reports about his romantic partners — Madonna’s daughter, Johnny Depp’s daughter — not only paint him straight but enviably so. Lucas Hedges, another straight-identified actor who plays gay in the conversion therapy drama Boy Erased, somewhat disrupts this narrative, returning fluidity to the ambiguous space it came from. The 21-year-old admitted in an interview with Vulture that he found it difficult to pin himself down, having been “infatuated with” close male friends but more often women. “I recognize myself as existing on that spectrum,” he says. “Not totally straight, but also not gay and not necessarily bisexual.” That he felt “ashamed” for not being binary despite having a sixth-grade health teacher who introduced him to the range of sexuality suggests how married our culture is to it.

As a woman familiar with the shame associated with female sexuality, it’s difficult to ignore the difference in tenor of the response to famous young white males like Miller, Styles, and Chalamet and famous black women like Janelle Monáe and Tessa Thompson not only discussing it, but making even more radical statements. Appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone in May, Monáe said straight up (so to speak): “Being a queer black woman in America — someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.” The same age as Desiree Akhavan, 32, Monáe identified as bisexual until she read about pansexuality. She initially came out through her music; her album, Dirty Computer, contains a song called “Q.U.E.E.N.” which was originally titled “Q.U.E.E.R.,” while the music video accompanying “Pynk” has actress Tessa Thompson emerging from Monáe’s Georgia O’Keeffe-esque pants. While neither one of them has discussed their relationship in detail, Thompson, who in Porter magazine’s July issue revealed she is attracted to men and women, said, “If people want to speculate about what we are, that’s okay.”

The mainstream press and what appeared to be a number of non-queer social media acolytes credited Chalamet and Styles with redefining their gender and trouncing toxic masculinity. “[H]arry styles, ezra miller, and timothee chalamet are going to save the world,” tweeted one woman, while The Guardian dubbed Miller the “hero we need right now.” Monáe, meanwhile, was predominantly championed by queer fans (“can we please talk about how our absolute monarch Janelle Monáe has been telegraphing her truth to the queers thru her art and fashion for YEARS and now this Rolling Stone interview is a delicious cherry on top + a ‘told u so’ to all the h*teros”) and eclipsed by questions about what pansexual actually means. While white male fluidity was held up as heroic, female fluidity, particularly black female fluidity, was somehow unremarkable. Why? Part of the answer was recently, eloquently, provided by “Younger” star Nico Tortorella, who identifies as gender-fluid, bisexual, and polyamorous. “I get to share my story,” he told The Daily Beast. “That’s a privilege that I have because of what I look like, the color of my skin, what I have between my legs, my straight passing-ness, everything.”

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When I was growing up sex was not fun, it was fraught. Sex was AIDS, disease, death. The Supreme Court of Canada protected sexual orientation under the Charter when I was 15 but I went to school in Alberta, Canada’s version of Texas — my gym teacher was the face of Alberta beef. In my high school, no one was gay even if they were. All gender was binary. Sex was a penis in a vagina. Popular culture was as straight, and even Prince and David Bowie seemed to use their glam sparkle to sleep with more women rather than fewer. Bisexual women on film were murderers (Basic Instinct) or sluts (Chasing Amy) and in the end were united by their desire for “some serious deep dicking.” I saw no bisexual women on television (I didn’t watch “Buffy”) and LGBTQ characters were limited (“My So-Called Life”). Alanis Morissette was considered pop music’s feminist icon, but even she was singing about Dave Coulier. And the female celebrities who seemed to swing both ways — Madonna, Drew Barrymore, Bijou Phillips — were the kind who were already acting out, their sexuality a hallmark of their lack of control.

“I think unrealistic depictions of sex and relationships are harmful,” Akhavan told The New York Times. “I was raised on them and the first time I had sex, I had learned everything from film and television and I was like ‘Oh, this isn’t at all like I saw on the screen.’” Bisexuality has historically been passed over on screen for a more accessible binary depiction of relationships. In her 2013 book The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television, Maria San Filippo describes what has become known as “bisexual erasure” in pop culture: “Outside of the erotically transgressive realms of art cinema and pornography, screen as well as ‘real life’ bisexuality is effaced not only by what I’ve named compulsory monosexuality but also by compulsory monogamy,” she writes, adding, “the assumption remains that the gender of one’s current object choice indicates one’s sexuality.” So even high-profile films that include leads having sex with both genders — Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Carol, Call Me By Your Name — are coded “gay” rather than “bi.”

Despite the rise in bisexual women on the small screen like Annalise in “How to Get Away with Murder,” Syd in “Transparent,” and Ilana in “Broad City,” GLAAD’s latest report on inclusion cited continued underrepresentation. While 28 percent of LGBTQ characters on television are bisexual, the majority are women (75 versus 18) and they are often associated with harmful tropes — sex is used to move the plot forward and the characters scan amoral and manipulative. This despite an increase in the U.S.’s queer population to 4.5 percent in 2017 from 3.5 percent in 2012 (when Gallup started tracking it). A notable detail is the extreme generational divide in identification: “The percentage of millennials who identify as LGBT expanded from 7.3% to 8.1% from 2016 to 2017, and is up from 5.8% in 2012,” reported Gallup. “By contrast, the LGBT percentage in Generation X (those born from 1965 to 1979) was up only .2% from 2016 to 2017.”

Here’s the embarrassing part. While I am technically a millennial, I align more with Generation X (that’s not the embarrassing bit). I am attracted more to men, but I am attracted to women as well yet don’t identify as LGBTQ. How best to describe this? I remember a relative being relieved when I acquired my first boyfriend (it was late). “Oh good, I thought you were gay,” they said. I was angry at them for suggesting that being gay was a bad thing, but also relieved that I had dodged a bullet. This isn’t exactly the internalized homophobia that Hannah Gadsby talked about, but it isn’t exactly not. My parents and my brother would have been fine with me being gay. So what’s the problem? The problem is that the standard I grew up with — in the culture, in the world around me — was not homosexuality, it was heterosexuality. I don’t judge non-heterosexual relationships, but having one myself somehow falls short of ideal. For the same reason, I can’t shake the false belief that lesbian sex is less legitimate than gay sex between men. The ideal is penetration. “That’s some Chasing Amy shit,” my boyfriend, eight years younger, said. And, yeah, unfortunately, it is. I have company though.

In a survey released in June, billed as “the most comprehensive of its kind,” Whitman Insight Strategies and BuzzFeed News polled 880 LGBTQ Americans, almost half of whom were between the ages of 18 and 29, and found that the majority, 46 percent, identified as bisexual. While women self-described as bi four times as often as men (79 to 19 percent), the report did not offer a single clear reason for the discrepancy. It did, however, suggest “phallocentrism,” the notion that the penis is the organizing principle for the world, the standard. In other words, sex is a penis in a vagina. “While bisexual women are often stereotyped as sleeping with women for male attention, or just going through a phase en route to permanent heterosexuality,” the report reads, “the opposite is presumed of bisexual men: that they are simply confused or semi-closeted gay men.” This explains why women who come out, like Monáe and Thompson, are considered less iconoclastic in the popular culture than men who even just make vague gestures towards fluidity — the stakes are considered higher for the guys. In truth, few feel comfortable being bi. Though the Pew Research Center’s survey of queer Americans in 2013 revealed that 40 percent of respondents identified as bisexual, this population was less likely to come out and more likely to be with a partner of the opposite sex. Famous women like Maria Bello, Cynthia Nixon, and Kristen Stewart have all come out, yet none of them really use the label.

“Not feeling gay enough, that’s something I felt a lot of guilt over,” Akhavan told the Times. It is guilt like this and the aforementioned shame which makes it all the more frustrating to watch the ease with which the younger generation publicly owns their fluidity. It is doubly hard to watch young white men being praised for wearing bunny ears in a magazine that has so long objectified women, simply because the expectations are so much lower for them. “I’m not looking down on the younger experience of being queer,” Akhavan said, “but I do think that there’s a resentment there that we gloss over.” In response, many of us react conservatively, with the feeling that they haven’t worked for it, that it is somehow less earned because of that. This is an acknowledgment of that resentment, of the eye rolling and the snickering with which we respond to the youth (ah, youth!). In the end we are not judging you for being empowered. We are judging ourselves for not being empowered enough.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.