This week, we’re sharing stories from Roxane Gay, Katherine Heiny, Alexandra Starr, Dionne Searcey, and Anna Silman.
The episode that really pushed me over the edge was one where a single father was looking to move into a tiny home with his tweenage daughter. Frankly, it was a bit repulsive and unseemly, but the father tried to make this bizarre choice palatable by sharing that he and his daughter wanted to use the money they would save traveling around the world. Having traveled a fair amount, I was, as I watched this episode unfold, quite certain there is no wonder, anywhere in the world, that would merit this kind of domestic sacrifice. Alas, the choice was not mine.
Tiny House Hunters isn’t just about judging strangers’ choices (although it is partly about that). It’s also a mechanism for papering over dismal American economic realities.
Often, though, couples and families want to downsize to save money. They say they need or want less space, but what goes unsaid is that they likely can no longer (if they ever could) afford the mortgage on their traditional home. Or they live in San Francisco or Los Angeles, cities where the median price of a home is more than a half-million dollars and well out of reach for a lot of folks.
There is no shame in any of this, none at all, but when we talk about the American dream, we never talk about what that dream costs. We never talk about how so many Americans are one financial crisis away from losing their savings or their homes. And we don’t talk about how the American dream should not be grounded in material things like large homes or fancy cars rather than, say, single-payer health care, subsidized child care, or a robust Social Security system.
I don’t remember when Joss Whedon went from being a garden-variety household name to being someone I refer to on a first-name basis. I quote Joss, I verb Joss, I adjective Joss. As a woman who was once a teenage girl who grew up with Buffy, I’ve internalized more than my fair share of lessons from Our Lady of Buffdom. For the better part of twenty years, I’ve known Joss Whedon as the creator of a feminist hero.
For the better part of the same twenty years, Kai Cole knew Joss Whedon as her partner and husband. He was just Joss to her, too — far more intimately Joss than to any of his first-name-basis-ing fans.
This weekend, Cole wrote about her divorce with Joss in a post on The Wrap. She writes about how, on their honeymoon in England in 1995, she encouraged him to turn his script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer — which had just been misinterpreted as a film — into a television show. Joss apparently hadn’t wanted to work in television anymore. I repeat: As of 1995, Joss Whedon “didn’t want to work in television anymore.”
Yet on March 10, 1997 — two years after their honeymoon — Buffy aired on The WB.
According to Cole’s post, Joss had his first affair on the set of Buffy, and continued to have affairs in secret for fifteen years. I believe Cole. I believe that when she quotes Joss in her post, she is quoting him verbatim. I’ve quoted him verbatim, too.
(Or have I? I wonder, knowing more now than I did then about writers rooms, whether every line I attribute to episodes credited as “Written by Joss Whedon” were, in fact, written by Joss Whedon. Every time Jane Espenson tweets credit for specific lines to specific writers on Once Upon a Time — or retroactively to Buffy quotes — I wonder. Every time I watch UnREAL, a show co-created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon that sends up how often women are discredited in television, I wonder. I don’t doubt that Joss was responsible for the vast majority of what I’d call classic Joss dialogue. I’ll just never know which lines weren’t actually his.)
After I saw Joss Whedon trending and read Cole’s post, I scrolled through other longtime fans’ and non-fans’ reactions on Twitter. Many were not surprised. I texted friends about my own lack of surprise, punctuated with single-tear emojis: “I almost can’t even call it disappointed. As though it would be actually inhuman to expect something else.”
Cole quotes a letter Joss wrote to her when their marriage was falling apart, when he was “done with” lying to her about the truth of his affairs. He invokes the inhuman in his confession, too — or, as is so often the case with Joss, the superhuman: “When I was running ‘Buffy,’ I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.”
Was it superhuman for Cole to expect her husband to resist that kind of power? Would Joss have been running Buffy, if he hadn’t married Cole? “I was a powerful influence on the career choices Joss made during the 20 years we were together,” Cole writes. “I kept him grounded, and helped him find the quickest way to the success he so deeply craved. I loved him. And in return, he lied to me.”
As Marianne Eloise notes below in Dazed, it remains to be seen whether Cole’s letter will impact Joss’s career, most notably as director of the upcoming Batgirl. In the meantime, his fans are left to resolve tense, charged questions, none of which have easy answers: How do we come to personal decisions about whether or not we can separate the art from the artist? Will consequences come in the form of a public fall from feminist grace, or cost Joss professional opportunities he’s been enjoying for decades as a self-proclaimed feminist artist? Do feminists, male or female, need to be perfect to count?
In “Lie to Me” — Season 2 Episode 7, “Written by Joss Whedon” — Angel asks Buffy if she loves him. Buffy answers, “I love you. I don’t know if I trust you.” For fans and collaborators who are working through hard questions about love and the loss of trust this week, here is some guided reading on feminism, fandom, and fidelity for Whedonverse enthusiasts:
At Elle, Marisa Meltzer profiles Roxane Gay as the prolific author prepares to go on tour to support Hunger, a book she calls “by far the hardest book I’ve ever had to write.” In it, Gay reflects on what it’s like to live in a world that does not accommodate her body and how she “turned to food for numbness and protection” after being gang raped as a child.
“Hunger is not a story of triumph. Rather, it tackles the question of what it’s really like to live in a fat body—”and not Lane Bryant fat,” Gay says. “What is it like to be fat-fat? We don’t see that narrative.”
If there’s a through line to her writing, she says it’s exposing the unreasonable standards to which women are held, both by society and by each other, a reality Gay finds exhausting. “I think that I write about women’s lives in ways that allow people to be seen, and allow people to think about the world they are living in and the politics of this world without feeling like they are being judged or shamed for being imperfect,” she says.
The female body, in all shapes, Gay says, is a “final frontier, along with disability, that people can openly mock and demean and get away with treating with utter disregard.” The only possible solution she sees is “a huge amount of empathy. Kindness,” she says. “And people minding their own goddamn business.” Whether or not most readers relate to the statistics of Gay’s body, few will be able to finish her book without gaining a deeper understanding of her reality. “I don’t have a fantasy of a thin woman waiting to come out,” Gay says. “My fantasy would be to be able to walk down the street without being yelled at by someone. To walk through an airport without having someone point at me.” This is the true shock of Gay’s book—it is not the revelation of her actual weight, though how many of us, of any shape or size, would have the guts to put that on paper? It is the far deeper reveal: that a woman so accomplished, so seemingly fierce—in some circles, so revered—has been forced to “fantasize” about something so fundamental. “I don’t delude myself into thinking that if and when I reach [a certain] size, all my problems will be gone. Many of them would be different. At least I’d feel better in my body, better leaving my house,” she says. “My dreams have really become sad at this point—human dignity dreams.”
This week, a number of people heard of Roxane Gay for the first time when Simon & Schuster canceled its plans to publish controversial alt-right author Milo Yiannopoulos’s book. (In the weeks prior, Gay had withdrawn her forthcoming book, How to be Heard, from the publisher because they were giving the former Breitbart editor a platform.) For most writers, there’s no such thing as a bad way to be discovered by new readers. But it can be annoying when those who’ve just become aware of your work perceive you as an overnight success, especially when your career has been building for years. In a profile for Brooklyn Magazine, Molly McArdle asks Gay for her perspective on her success.
“A lot of people think it’s been overnight,” Gay says of her success. “In many ways my life hasn’t changed. My friends are still my friends. I still live in a small town that I hate.” But some things have started to shift. “It’s easier to pay my bills, certainly,” she says. “There’s a lot more scrutiny and attention.” There’s also a new apartment in Los Angeles, where she lives when she’s not in Indiana teaching at Purdue. (“It’s a workable compromise.”) There’s new creative projects in new genres: comic books, screenplays, occasional radio. Gay is the first black woman to write for Marvel, and her series, World of Wakanda, spins off from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther, tackling romantic love between queer black women in a way that is both literally groundbreaking and utterly natural. Still, Gay sees herself first as a writer of short fiction. “I’m relatively new to nonfiction,” she says. (I have to respectfully disagree with the bestselling essayist, a phrase so rare it’s practically an oxymoron, on this point.) With only one novel, she adds, “I’m a beginning novelist.” But Gay also sees growth, accomplishment: “My writing is more confident,” she says. “I’ve always taken myself seriously as a writer. Now other people take me seriously.”
Throughout my life books have been my best friends. In bookstores and with books I have been able to forget the cruelties of the world. I have been able to shield myself when I needed safety. I have been able to find solace and joy. I have been able to find sanctuary—a consecrated place, a place of refuge and protection.
I have been thinking a lot about sanctuary lately during this rising age of American disgrace. I have been thinking about how I have long believed that to write as a woman and to write as a black woman is political and that words are my sanctuary and more than ever, I need refuge.
-From a stirring keynote by author Roxane Gay, during the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute. “You are not just selling books,” she said. “You are providing sanctuary. You are the stewards of sacred spaces.”
Sara Benincasa’s essay “Why Am I So Fat?” was one of our top five reads last week, and with good reason — it was honest and cutting in all the right ways. It was brash and unapologetic and funny as hell (and also suggests that perhaps Fader was slightly premature in declaring, earlier this year, that “fat shaming is dead”).
It was also problematic, and many fat women applauded the piece while also wishing it had pushed harder and skirted some problematic tropes. Luckily, many other writers, scholars, and activists have also been publishing wonderful pieces on fatphobia: their experiences, the cultural and institutional ways it is entrenched, and more. They might not have gone viral, but their voices are important — and just as honest, cutting, brash, and funny.
Every day, terrible things happen in the world. Every damn day too many people die or suffer for reasons that defy comprehension.
All too often, suffering exists in a realm beyond vocabulary so we navigate that realm awkwardly, fumbling for the right words, hoping we can somehow approximate an understanding of matters that should never have to be understood by anyone in any place in the world.
This is the modern age. When tragedies occur, we take to Twitter and Facebook and blogs to share our thoughts and feelings. We do this maybe, just maybe, to know we are not alone in our confusion or grief or sorrow or to believe we have a voice in what happens in the world.
We are asked these questions as if we only have the capacity to mourn one tragedy at a time, as if we must measure the depth and reach of a tragedy before deciding how to respond, as if compassion and kindness are finite resources we must use sparingly. We cannot put these two tragedies on a chart and connect them with a straight line. We cannot understand these tragedies neatly. Life is a mess.
RG: Discussions about race, particularly in mixed company, are often combative and contentious. How the hell do we talk about race?
TC: No idea. I just try to communicate with as much honesty and respect as possible. I think we should not forget that a not so insufficient portion of this country sees it as in their interest to disrupt and marginalize such discussions. Everyone isn’t convince-able…
RG: How can allies best serve as allies? What is an ally? Are they needed?
TC: I don’t know. I think it’s probably terribly important to listen. It’s terribly important to try to become more knowledgeable. It’s important to not expect that acquiring of that knowledge — in this case of the force of racism in American history — to be a pleasant experience or to proceed along just lines. They certainly don’t proceed that way for black people. It’s going to be painful. Finally I think one has to even abandon the phrase “ally” and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.
-From a conversation between An Untamed State author Roxane Gay and Between the World and Me author Ta-Nehisi Coates about the challenges in writing and discussing race in our culture, at Barnes & Noble‘s site.
I have come to realize how much I have, throughout my life, bought into the narrative of this alluring myth of personal responsibility and excellence. I realize how much I believe that all good things will come if I—if we—just work hard enough. This attitude leaves me always relentless, always working hard enough and then harder still. I am ashamed that sometimes a part of me believes we, as a people, will be saved by those among us who are exceptional without considering who might pay the price for such salvation or who would be left behind.
Du Bois was a vocal proponent of the “Talented Tenth,” this idea that out of every ten black men, one was destined for greatness, destined to become the powerful leader black people needed to rise up and overcome and advance. This 10 percent of men were to be educated and mentored so they might become leaders, the front line for much-needed sociopolitical change.
We often forget, though, who first came up with the “talented tenth.” The idea first began circulating in the 1890s, propagated by wealthy white liberals. The term itself was coined by Henry Lyman Morehouse, a white man, who wrote, “In the discussion concerning Negro education we should not forget the talented tenth man… . The tenth man, with superior natural endowments, symmetrically trained and highly developed, may become a mightier influence, a greater inspiration to others than all the other nine, or nine times nine like them.” Here was a somewhat repulsive proposition gilded in condescending intentions, that if the strongest efforts were focused on the best of black folk, a few might be saved from themselves. Here we are today, still believing this could be true.
— Roxane Gay, in an essay for VQR, examining her success through the lens of racial inequality in the U.S.
Photo: Kelly Writers House