In This Issue
ANNA HARVEY 2
Radio in the Morning DANIELLE EMERSON 4
I Am (Not) A Fake
KAITLAN BUI 3 ERIN WALDEN 5
“I can, I will”
DAVID KLEINMAN 6
Yelling at the
postCover by Julie Sharpe
VOL 24 —
Talking Politics, Creativity, and Joy with Fashion@Brown BY ANNA HARVEY ILLUSTRATED BY HANNA RASHIDI
t 11:00 p.m. on a Monday night early this semester, Fashion@Brown (F@B) President Sasha Pinto ’21 posted an event on Facebook and went to bed. She expected that the event, a Thursday evening talk with renowned shoe designer and entrepreneur Stuart Weitzman, would draw a sizeable crowd of fashion- and business-minded students, but Sasha wasn’t anticipating anything dramatic to happen overnight. By the next morning, however, 100 people had already registered for the event, and just three days later, that number jumped to 350. “I’ve worked on dozens of major events over my three years at Brown, and I’ve never seen anything sell so swiftly,” Sasha told me of the tickets, which were free of cost. “Mr. Weitzman’s message must have resonated with the Brown community.” If anything is resonating on Brown’s campus,
Fashion@Brown certainly is. Founded in 2011, F@B currently has over 100 students working on ten different teams that represent each aspect of the fashion industry. Fashion designers, writers, makeup artists, and photographers collaborate on creative endeavors, while event planners, marketers, and the finance team manage the business side. F@B maintains a robust social media and web presence as well, thanks to a cohort of graphic designers and Instagram aficionados. “One way to think about Fashion@Brown is that we’re a microcosm of the fashion industry in general,” Sasha said. She emphasized that F@B offers a valuable space for Brown students to explore different spaces within the industry that might spark future career interest; unlike other institutions, Brown does not offer a formal degree in fashion. Each winter, F@B hosts a “Fashion Week,”
the centerpiece of which is their annual Runway Show. The impressive event celebrates the work of student designers and models from a wide range of concentrations, including computer science, applied math, and psychology. According to Sasha, the designers throw themselves into their collections “out of sheer love and dedication to fashion,” demonstrating their dedication to their craft outside of their coursework. No need to be a design whiz to join a F@B team, though. When I asked Design Executive Lynn Hlaing ’21 about his previous experience with fashion design, he laughed. “I had never used a sewing machine—I’d hand-sewn maybe a tote bag back in middle school for a Home Ec class—but other than that, I had almost zero experience.” Last year, he debuted a six-piece outerwear collection based around the theme of “unbalance” at the Runway Show. In addition to the Fashion Week events, a glossy photoshoot graces F@B’s website each spring, with a diverse cohort of students modelling apparel that speaks to a theme chosen by the executive board. Some recent themes have included renewable fashion and gender neutrality. Editorial features are published online throughout the year, covering topics like the history of perfume and the return of ’90s fashion á la Rachel Green. One quality unites these activities: They’re all labors of love. No matter how much F@B members care about fashion, however, love isn’t the only thing keeping them there. According to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), understanding dress is “vital to the practice and study of not only art history, but also archaeology, classics, history, literature, and visual culture.” FIT has created an online, open-access timeline of fashion history through the ages, with the first entry beginning with Sumerian civilization (the prehistoric period is awaiting research) and running all the way up to the 21st century. A casual scroll through the timeline reveals how the vast swath of human experience can be contained in a wisp of lace or a string of pearls. Editorial Executive Moe Sattar ’21 elaborated on this concept through the lens of the YSL Le
Letter from the Editor Dear Readers, At post-, the editor’s note is traditionally a space for us to run down the week’s pieces, gathering them around some gentle thematic link to make them topical to the greater Brown community. I’m still going to do these things, but I’m also going to talk about rats. This will be difficult. None of the pieces actually discuss rats—not as characters, metaphors, or objects of discursive contemplation. I refuse to make a Ratty pun, so relevance will elude me as well. Perhaps, in the time before the publication of this note, our campus will suffer a grievous and glorious vermin infestation. But, again, I do not think this is likely. I live in utter filth and squalor and can testify the only pests I’ve amassed are concerned friends who tap on my window each day. Go away. Nevertheless, I’m going to do it. Rats. Get ready. In the Feature this week, we find a nuanced and wide-ranging exploration of Fashion@Brown. Not so wide-ranging, however, as to make space for our
rodent friends. Forced to Google “Rat Fashion” for myself, I discovered a Gawker article from 2010 that called their mink “the new IT fur.” Looking down at my bland, cotton socks, I must say we failed when we declined this bright future. In Arts & Culture, we have a story about bad art (rats, for all their infamy, are admittedly innocent of this particular crime) and a story about diversity in indie rock. This set my mind turning again. The closest the genre ever came to rodent representation was the Walkmen’s classic song “The Rat,” and even that is actually about an annoying ex-girlfriend. Shameful, IMO. Finally, the Narrative section offers an incisive piece on imposter syndrome and a lovely reflection on radio, family, and Native American heritage. What's important, though, is that you can't spell narrative without "rat."
Why We Love That It’s Dark by 4 p.m. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.
6. 7. 8.
Have a lovely week.
Arts & Culture Managing Editor
It’s socially acceptable to blast “Sunglasses at Night” in the afternoon You can go to bed at 6 p.m., if you feel like it You can’t tell how much time you’ve wasted just by looking outside Parties will probably start earlier so you can get to bed by a decent hour If you like looking at the sun, you’re motivated to wake up earlier (and be productive?) Your GPA looks better in the dark More darkness means more time for vampires Just when you think it’s too late to finish an assignment due tomorrow, it turns out it’s only 7 p.m.! Dinner can happen earlier, so Second Dinner can also happen earlier The aesthetic™
Smoking—the first tuxedo for women—which debuted in 1966, coinciding with the beginning of the women’s liberation movement in the United States and Europe. It was “wildly popular and incredibly controversial,” according to Moe. The suit represented “power for women,” and after some initial backlash, it was highly praised by the fashion industry. “It was ironic, however,” Moe said, “that many of the very magazines praising the Le Smoking wouldn’t allow their female employees to wear suits to work.” The interplay between the forces that shape our lives can be read in the clothes we choose to wear. In many ways, fashion is the ultimate expression of the second-wave feminist maxim: The personal is political. “National dress is what traditionally distinguished different cultures and gave people a sense of pride,” Sasha explained, “and of course, ornamentation and embellishment are ancient concepts. I think it’s safe to say that fashion in one way or another is human predisposition.” Lynn offered a similar response: “Fashion is always there whether you think of it or not because you’re always wearing clothes...for the most part!” Fashion is a powerful force beyond the individual garments we wear—valued at $3 trillion and employing over three trillion people globally, the industry accounts for two percent of the world’s gross domestic product. Such economic clout is not without its costs, however. Using 2016 as a baseline year, a report by the environmental consulting group Quantis found that, combined, the apparel and footwear industries contribute to 8.1 percent of global climate impacts, releasing 3,990 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. Textile production alone accounts for 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, surpassing all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Clothing made from synthetic fabrics releases plastic microfibers when washed, half a million tons of which seep into the world’s oceans every year—an effect 16 times higher than that of the plastic microbeads found in cosmetics that have been widely derided and even banned in Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. These are dismal statistics, but there is hope on the horizon. According to the 2019 State of Fashion Report, nine in ten Generation Z consumers believe that brands have a responsibility to address environmental and social concerns, a sentiment shared by many millenials. Together, these two groups represent $350 billion in spending power in the United States alone, and by 2040, Generation Z is expected to comprise 40 percent of consumers worldwide. The State of Fashion Report also shows that crossgenerationally, two-thirds of U.S. consumers now say they would switch, avoid, or boycott a brand based on its stance on controversial issues. Brands “need to take an active stance on social issues, satisfy consumer demands for ultra-transparency and sustainability, and, most importantly, have the courage to ‘self-disrupt’ their own identity and the sources of their old success in order to realise these changes and win new generations of customers,” the report says. The fashion industry is starting to catch up to the fact that we live in dire times; California is burning as I write this, the climate crisis
extending the length of the fire season. Even though we are living in what feels like the precursor to the apocalypse, there are still those who have hope for the fashion industry, and who are pushing it to be better every day. The Fashion@Brown team is the perfect example of fashion’s future. Speaking about their renewable fashion photoshoot, Sasha emphasized “the beauty of purchasing clothing from vintage and thrift stores as a counterpoint to fast fashion... We’re all about encouraging the Brown community to reuse, renew, and repurpose clothing to make fashion more sustainable.” Lynn foregrounded recent strides in diversity and inclusion as well, stressing that F@B is committed to welcoming people of all identities into its community: “If the opinion set isn’t diverse, it doesn’t really reflect the Brown community, and we’re an organization that’s supposed to reflect the Brown community.” F@B is trying to create a vibrant space for students to enjoy and explore the multidimensional nature of fashion as it exists for them, right here, right now. “Our intention isn’t to be a ‘college copycat’ of Vogue magazine,” Moe said, “but rather an organization and publication that is reflective of the immensely diverse community we have here.” This is a personal issue for many on F@B’s executive board. “When I was growing up, I did not see anyone who looked like me in any magazines I read, when I would be looking at fashion on the internet, or even on YouTube in the beginning,” Editorial Executive Nikita Shah ’21 told me. “It was one type of person, and I didn’t see myself. It’s very important that everyone is recognized.” A self-described “queer woman of color,” and therefore “not someone that fashion is ‘for’” Social Media Executive Nara Benoit-Kornhauser ’22 echoed Nikita’s statement. “My intention with F@B is to always harbor a community of loving and accepting people... The industry is plagued with all sorts of institutionalized issues, and I would never want anyone to feel as though we allow those to exist in F@B.” F@B is, after all, a group of students who love getting dressed in the morning, who relish the opportunity to experiment with their outfits, and who want to share that passion with others. Most, if not all, of them view fashion as a form of self-expression, a form of art, and a way to articulate to the world who they are and who they want to be. “An outfit I’m piecing together often gives me such a nice little boost of self-confidence,” Moe said. “As people, we are always growing and evolving, and the way I dress often parallels different stages of my life.” Growing up as one of the only people of color in her community, Nikita found fashion to be liberating: “I started getting into clothes, and I realized that I liked exploring and trying new outfits, and that became a way for me to take control of how I was seen...just getting out of the box and showing people who I am, besides the fact of my skin color.” Nikita has also found F@B to be a welcome refuge in college; it gives her the chance to exercise her creativity and to write (“which I love”) amid the intensity of STEM classes and pre-med requirements. Nara “has always viewed fashion as a form of armor... I was always the person who went to school
dressed up a little, just because it made me feel more prepared and on top of things.” I know that when I take the time to put on dangly earrings, a vintage jacket, and a slick of lipstick, I feel most like myself. This may not happen every day, or even most days, but taking the extra step to pull myself together has a profound psychological effect—suddenly I feel like I can make it through Monday. Fashion might seem intimidating, elitist, or exclusive, but at its core, it’s just another way to explore what it means to live in the world today. Fashion, like visual art and like music, is a mode of creative communication as well as individual expression, and it can serve as a great unifier. We all wear clothes (for the most part), and clothes carry meanings about our personal and collective histories, about our place in culture, in politics, and on this planet. We may as well share those stories.
I Am (Not) a Fake Redefining Imposter Syndrome BY KAITLAN BUI ILLUSTRATED BY GABY TREVIÑO
I say I’m not a fake, but I’ve often felt like one. I’m sure you’ve heard it all before: “imposter syndrome,” especially common among women (according to research) and especially prevalent at a place like Brown (according to my freshman orientation lectures). But I felt it even before Brown—stiff smiles, midnight tears, my mom’s you do deserve it, you do deserve it, you need to believe in yourself you deserve it. During high school, it manifested itself as self-doubt over my achievements. Typical, perhaps relatable, because it’s the microscope through which many of us see our insecurities. But things have been changing for me. Prodded by the “college journey” of defining myself, I'm pinpointing “imposter syndrome” in areas of my life which should be concrete and nonnegotiable—factual, even. My feelings of displacement, shame, and confusion are appearing in spheres of cultural and generational identity. Are my grandma and I Vietnamese American in different ways because she’s a naturalized citizen and I was born here? Am I really Vietnamese American, or am I an Americanized Vietnamese American? If I’m Americanized, can I ever truly understand my family’s immigrant story? Can I call myself Chinese if I’m merely one-fourth Chinese and the only member of my family who speaks Mandarin is my grandpa? Am I a millennial or a Gen Z-er? Am I a first-gen or second-gen immigrant? First-gen or second-gen college student? Which checkboxes do I mark on my financial aid questionnaire? I feel like I should know myself, but the reality is that I don’t. And that’s where the shame, different from the shame of achievement-related insecurity, comes in. This shade of internal pandemonium seems so much more real because it involves so much more of the world around me: In attempting to define my own identity, I feel the impulse to fully understand the identities of others. It’s an impossible task. The former version of my imposter syndrome was nice, in a way, because as uncomfortable as feeling like a
“When I see people who don’t use hand-dryers, I think, ‘Oh, I see you’re a person of culture as well.’ But then I remember they blow bacteria onto your hands, so people who use them actually have more culture.” “Why is it pitch-black outside at 4 p.m.?” november 8, 2019 3
NARRATIVE My aunt’s trailer has no running water; everyone in my family knows this. A two-minute trek away, our shimasani’s hogan was where we showered, cooked, and used the toilet. Getting up and ready for school meant walking there, most times half-asleep, past bare trees and stripped cornfields. This walk was completed in silence. Nothing but the occasional bark from our dogs—Asher and Mason, both tied up near my aunt’s trailer—and the whoosh of cars down the dirt road nearby. Even now, I can see her hogan clearly. Small, brown,
fraud is, the experience was my own: my awards, my titles, my self-skepticism. This other version is intrusive; I try to un-imposter myself, hesitantly peeking into strangers’ windows and tiptoeing on their lawns, but become an imposter instead. This feels so wrong, but how else can I figure out where I belong, what I can call myself ? Who are you? Am I like you? If you are X, Y, and Z, and if I am X, Y, and Z, then we are the same. Aren’t we? “I” becomes “we.” “We” becomes a label, an easy tag—defined not so much by who we are individually, but who we are socially and categorically. We are Vietnamese American. Chinese. First-generation. And when X goes missing or Y is replaced by B, to what extent do these permutations alter our identities? When I stare at that financial aid questionnaire, the checkboxes mutate into checklists—X, Y, Z—none of which I feel entitled to mark. Am I a fake Vietnamese kid? Though my first language was the language of my grandparents, I can’t read or write it. (Condition X: Vietnamese kids should at least be able to hold a conversation with their grandparents. Another checkbox I can’t mark.) When I was in China this past summer, was saying “I’m Chinese” a lie? I don’t even know how to say “part-Chinese” in Chinese, and I’m technically more Vietnamese anyway. Am I a fake first-gen student? My mom graduated from college, but I’m the first one to attend a school with as much privilege as Brown, and I’m also the first one born in America, and I feel like “the first” in many ways— but I’m still so confused. And I don’t want to “take advantage of” what’s not mine, not even accidentally. Like any good millennial/Gen Z-er (circle one), I turn to Google. Just tell me what I am. what does vietnamese american mean “A Vietnamese American is an American of Vietnamese descent.” what is an american “An American is anyone who loves life enough to want the best that it has to offer.” all the generations in order “Dates are approximate… There are no standard definitions for when a generation begins and ends.” first generation “The term first-generation, as it pertains to a person’s nationality or residency in a country, has two incompatible meanings.” One part of me just wants an easy answer, something straightforward I can accept. The other part of me is happy with these half-answers; my Google yield recognizes the ambiguities—that a “complete” definition of identity can’t be reached. But it only scratches the surface of what any of these terms could encompass. I don’t know what to do with such half-answers, and the 4 post–
knowledge I need to shape my identity feels inaccessible. What’s more: Google doesn’t discriminate between “reliable” and “unreliable” sources, and those of us who use it typically trust the first five links. We’re fine with Wikipedia answers and feel especially scholarly when a New York Times article pops up. But regardless, these “answers” shape our knowledge—and in this case, our understanding of who we are. The question of reliability is yet another cloud fogging our vision, hindering us from determining who we might be. Maybe what I’ve been saying this whole time is wrong. Maybe I do know myself after all—I just don’t know my labels. How might I reconcile my story with Google’s presentation of the XYZ’s? How might my personal experiences figure themselves into the social narrative surrounding identity? I have a hard time figuring out which is what and what is where and where do I belong. No lived experience can be as monolithic as a label stipulates, but rather than flesh out what my experiences mean for my identity, I’m tempted to slip back into the easy. But when I look at all those half-answers from Google, I just can’t feel comfortable with blindly accepting what it says about who I am. I just can’t scratch the surface and stop there. I might feel like an imposter, but that’s only because I’m quick to dissect myself in XYZ ways. And I might be tempted to slip back into easy (even if incomplete) labels, but that’s only because I underestimate my ability to push the envelope of my selfhood. There are still so many questions and so few answers, but the permutations of my identity don’t nullify my right to define it. And with realizations like that, how could I ever slip back?
Radio in the Morning
Bringing Home to Brown BY DANIELLE EMERSON ILLUSTRATED BY CECILIA CAO
The bright morning sun warmed my back. My footsteps crunched, and I could feel the gravel under my worn, blue tennis shoes. The brisk November air chilled my legs. I shuddered, my thin pajama bottoms rippling in the wind. I buried my nose deeper into my jacket collar and eyed the sky. Another clear day with few clouds covering the blue paintbrush smears of the sky. My arms held a new change of clothes and an old towel. Every morning, I made the short journey between my aunt’s trailer and my shimasani’s, or maternal grandmother’s, hogan.
peeling. The porch, crafted from old cement blocks, wobbled when I stepped onto it. A box in one corner, home to a collection of wild cats—some named, others merely “the one with white ears,” or “the one with black paws.” I always peeked inside, my brown eyes meeting a drowsy collection of dilated pupils. “Good morning,” I yawned. As expected, I received no response. The mother, a large cat with sleek black fur, refused to break eye contact. I took that as my cue to leave, but not before offering a small wave. “Hagoshíí,” I said. See ya. The screen door never shut correctly, and it always screeched when I opened it, the noise making my shoulders scrunch and face crumple. But no matter how unpleasant, it couldn't conceal the sound of shimasani’s radio inside—nothing could. Every morning, I’d walk into her hogan to hear the same station playing. “KNDN, all Navajo all the time!” The radio host spoke with the same rough Navajo accent that many of our elders carried with pride. The entire radio station was in Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language. I could pick out a few of the host’s words. Mostly about advertisements: car dealerships, casino deals, back-to-school discounts at local supermarkets. Sometimes I could translate full sentences—“Kirtland Central High School is hosting parent-teacher conferences this weekend.” Other times I’d only catch the date or place, “Dííjí eí damóo Niłchil’tsosí táá’,” Today is Sunday, November 3, or “Dahghaalgaiidi,” Taking place in Kirtland. But no matter my ability to understand, the radio station offered comfort. If the radio was on, shimasani was already up and working in the fields. During the winter, she always started the stove’s fire early. So whenever we young’uns came over to shower and get ready, we were met with warmth—in sound and in atmosphere. At Brown, a good two-thousand-plus miles away from home, I look back on these memories with yearning: something heavy I carry in my breast pocket, close to my heart and always in the back of my mind. Many of us come to Brown with something pinned to our chests, written on the insides of our wrists. A small token of home: a photo, a song, a memory, a recipe. Something we cling to, consciously or unconsciously. My freshman year of college, I attempted to recreate the lost feelings of comfort and ease I experienced each time I walked into my shimasani’s hogan. The warmth from the cast iron stove crowding my cheeks, the smell of dirt and ash mixing with the air, the instant manifestation of every good emotion I knew—something close to what the English language describes as content. But my sad, empty dorm room did not compare. I’d lay on my bed, listening to Diné Bizaad pour from my busted laptop speakers. A tiny part of me felt something close to comfort, but I couldn't shake the parts of myself that continued to feel lost and displaced. Nevertheless, hearing Navajo brought me reassurance. It brought back memories of cooking with my aunt, of sitting on the porch with my shimasani in the evenings, of entering her kitchen each morning, shivering from the walk. Though these memories brought on pangs of heartache, reminding me of my distance from home, they also managed to ground me in my identity. All the things I thought I’d lost to the past remained through connections both tangible and
ARTS & CULTURE
intangible. Slowly, as if they had never left, I felt pieces of myself return. Pieces of home, pieces that ultimately make up who I am. Trinkets, tokens, strands, collections, streams, and threads. My foundations: built from tattered photo albums, patched jean jackets, wrinkled finger paintings, and songs I can’t help but sing along to. My memories, constructed and raised by stories shared over dying stove embers, by the smell of black coffee in the morning, and by the feel of brisk November air rushing through pajama bottoms. The bright morning sun continues to warm my back, but from a new direction. My footsteps continue to crunch, though from fallen leaves instead of dirt and gravel. I still complete morning walks in silence, though with a backpack and not a pile of clothes in hand. Wild cats no longer greet me, nor does the comforting warmth of my shimasani’s cast iron stove. But the language of my people and the songs I’ve heard morning after morning, for as long as I can remember, are all a couple keystrokes away; KNDN radio still reaches me. The emotion behind these memories, no matter how painful, fosters strength. I can feel it now—a new kind of warmth, reaching from the tips of my fingers to the ends of my toes. And reader, no matter where you’re from, I hope you can feel it too.
“I Can, I Will”
On Palehound and Representation in Songwriting BY ERIN WALDEN ILLUSTRATED BY ELLA HARRIS
It’s been a little over four months since Palehound released their third album, Black Friday. First launched in 2013, the project began as a solo outlet for vocalist and guitarist Ellen Kempner and now includes Jesse Weiss on drums and Larz Brogan on bass. When I first listened to Palehound a few years ago, I was taken aback. Kempner’s lyrics felt so close, so diary-like, that listening to them was almost unnerving—like an invasion of privacy. Black Friday continues Kempner’s knack for open and honest songwriting, allowing her listeners to follow her on any and every journey she chooses to embark upon. Against lush soundscapes and gentle guitars, Black Friday weaves together personal anecdotes about body image, sexual assault, and queer relationships while also discussing loneliness, bad tattoos, and public transportation. The result is an album that is personal and moving without feeling like it was written to check off certain boxes to appear relevant and appeal to a commercial audience. In “Aaron,” the second song on the album, Kempner sings about her transgender partner and his transition
process. It is, first and foremost, a love song, written both to and about her partner, represented by the fictional Aaron. But in interviews, Kempner emphasizes that the song isn’t only about supporting him; it’s also about viewing transitioning as an act of self-love and selfrespect from which anyone can take inspiration. “Aaron” begins with the following verse: Your mother wanted to name you Aaron but her body built you as a different man And, my friend, if you want me to I’ll call you Aaron I can, I can, I can, I can, I can, Aaron I can The closing refrain weaves its way throughout the entire song, sometimes changing from “I can” to “I will” but always sung with the same urgency. For a song about transitioning, it touches only lightly on the actions of Kempner’s partner, focusing, rather, on Kempner’s own agency. The refrain seems unprompted, indicating that she will offer support even though it may not have been asked of her. In the final verse, she demonstrates a kindness that doesn’t expect reciprocity when she sings, “And if shutting my mouth will help you turn around, Aaron / I can.” The reiteration of “I can” and “I will” become the primary actions in the song—a promise to unconditionally support. It’s rare to find positive songs about trans people and even rarer to find ones about loving them. As someone also dating a trans person, it’s beautiful to hear the joy that Kempner describes. She sings about seeing her partner tuck in his shirt and about both of them feeling weightless while swimming. It’s a depiction of the small movements they make toward self-acceptance, and what it feels like to watch someone else partake in these acts. It’s also a reminder that there is generative power in sharing vulnerabilities with each other. This song is about what Kempner can do—listen, support, use preferred names—rather than what she cannot. In one of the singles off of the album, “Worthy,” Kempner turns her gaze inward:
I think I better quit I text you late at night I'm in the hotel bathroom Staring at my thighs I remember my body showed Its evils in others' rooms “Worthy” is a meditation on what it means to feel like your body deserves love even when the world is telling you otherwise. Though the indie music scene is becoming more accepting, with musicians and fans working to create safe and inclusive spaces for each other in what has traditionally been a (white) boys’ club, Kempner still must operate in an arena dominated by thin bodies, and heteronormativity. There is an expectation for women in indie rock to be thin, to fit the mold created by those who have previously been allowed to enter the industry. Kempner says that on a recent tour she was “the only plus size person on every bill.” Representation is important, but “Worthy” takes it a step further. It’s one thing to be a visual icon for fans. It’s another to show them how you’ve struggled with the same things they do—a sort of emotional and experiential representation. I, too, have been in a hotel bathroom at night, gazing into the too-well-lit mirror, wondering how on earth my body belongs to me. Wondering how love operates if you aren’t what you think others want you to be. It can be hard to find yourself in music—you may find yourself stretching for meaning, pulling sexualities out of pronouns and emotions out of line breaks. Often, I catch myself morphing verses in my head to create a story the artist probably never intended to tell. But in Palehound, listeners have a songwriter who believes in the power of sharing herself. Kempner says that she has “a bad habit of writing really vulnerable music”—a bad habit for her, perhaps, but quite a gift for all of her listeners. I like to imagine “Aaron” and “Worthy” as two songs in conversation. They open up to each other, acknowledging that you don’t have to “love yourself before you love someone else,” as people say—you can cultivate both loves simultaneously, alongside another person. It’s not only Kempner opening up to the audience and to the “you” in her songs, it’s how she reacts to her partner opening up to her. Through these songs, Kempner creates layers of discussion—two people continuously opening up to each other about feeling out of place in their bodies. Next week, I’m traveling to see Palehound on tour. I imagine I will find what I normally do at shows— overpriced drinks, intimidating people, and a very long line for the bathroom. But I’ll also find a singer whose songs mirror my own experiences, who believes in sharing, who has carved a space for herself and all of the other people listening to her music who also feel at odds with their bodies, love trans people, and want to love themselves too. And as I listen, I’ll join her on a ride that traverses the ups and downs of everyday life, always carrying herself and everyone around her back to the top.
november 8, 2019 5
Yelling at the Screen
My Love Affair with Bad TV BY DAVID KLEINMAN ILLUSTRATED BY CAROL DEMICK
It’s 10 a.m. in New York City in the middle of August, and I’m hungover. My friend and I have planned for this: We bought pizza last night so that we could eat it cold today, plus she’s got a bottle of atrocious wine in her fridge. There’s only one thing left to do—sit down, bring up Netflix, and turn on Lucifer. Comfort food and “hair of the dog” are classic hangover cures, small steps back toward humanity; it’d be easy to assume that the mind-numbingly sensational police procedural functions similarly. Basic visual stimuli and unchallenging storylines ought to gradually rev our brains back into fighting shape, but, far from a slow recovery, we’re jumping up and down and yelling at the television within minutes. This injection of bad TV isn’t a gentle wake-up; it’s a slap in the face to get us agitated enough to go out and take on the world. We’re not the only ones with a passion for bad art. I’ll never forget being 13 the year my grandpa first discovered Mob Wives; ever since, he’s loved nothing more than to giggle at the antics of those terrifying Staten Islanders. The constant drama and over-thetop personalities are a wild contrast to his quiet New England life. But, mostly, the awful artwork we love to watch takes itself seriously, or at least appears to. If it was meant to be laughed at, laughing at it would just be passive reception—nothing with which to make our own fun. Of course, you can’t throw a stone these days without hitting a negative review, with YouTube channels like CinemaSins poking holes in the newest blockbuster films and TV series almost daily. However
popular, there’s something joyless about that sort of takedown. When I’m watching an episode of Zoo, I will often literally roll on the floor laughing and audibly yell at my TV—especially if I’m watching with a friend. It’s not just a pastime, but an activity, and a communal one at that. What we’re doing isn’t formal criticism, not really. I’m not bashing any of these TV shows for an audience, because I don’t particularly care if anyone agrees with me, and more importantly, because I don’t actually hate them. Hate implies wanting them to go away, or at least to change. If my rage at these terrible plotlines could change anything, it would either get these shows cancelled or improved. As much as I’d love them to improve for their own sake, neither of those outcomes is what I want when I’m turning wide-eyed to my friend after the latest shark-jumping extravaganza. This isn’t about me wanting to change the world; as curious as it sounds, it’s a form of self-expression. It’s in the tradition of a Rocky Horror Picture Show shadowcast or a screening of The Room where everyone throws spoons at the screen, with the key difference being that my banter is all improvised. I’m not trying to participate in a tradition or join a mass of people united against these works, but rather, to explore for myself and revel in the laughable treasures I find along the way. I can pin my discovery of this practice down to one moment: My friend Betty and I, bored at her house in the summer of 2017, decided to watch the 2006 film Zoom—a family-friendly superhero movie starring Tim Allen. I’d seen the film as a kid and remembered only that I had loved it (literally, nothing else), but Betty warned me it was terrible. I took her on—I’d find out exactly how much my taste had changed, if at all. I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t. Zoom is a masterclass in how not to make a movie. It could be thought of as an extremely early prototype of the gritty superhero flick. When it opens, Tim Allen’s
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“Then I cried about being a girl who eats hardboiled eggs with her hands while sobbing on a public bus. Since this was New York City, no one seemed surprised by any of this.”
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–Jennifer Osborne, “ why i left new york” 11.09.18
“It could feel lonely if I let it. My circle is so small that it could suffocate me if I never poked holes in its fabric. But instead, on a muggy Tuesday morning, I can walk peacefully across campus while listening to Julien Baker, tap my hands on my thighs to the beat, look straight into the air, and exhale.” –Nicole Fegan, “a solitary nature” 11.08.17
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title character has lost his superpowers and is incredibly jaded toward the government testing that has turned his (formerly superheroic) brother evil. This attempt at nuanced morality clashes with the absurd comic book logic that Zoom’s brother could even be turned “evil” by science experiments. The film makes a point of explaining that this is a moral turn and not a mental one. He isn’t warped by rage, his reality isn’t distorted—in this world, good and evil simply exist, and he got switched from one to the other. Meanwhile, the superhero kids that Zoom spends the entire film mentoring to take down the bad guys each perform exactly one action in the film’s finale; their entire existence is a Chekhov’s gun that holds only a single, irrelevant bullet. Zoom, for his part, regains his super speed when the youngest kid— an adorable little girl with super strength—is in danger and he rushes in to save her. His explanation for this rediscovery is that he finally really needed his powers… as if saving his brother and fixing the most traumatic part of his life had not been reason enough. This was only the tip of the iceberg, but it marked the beginning of my love affair with bad TV and film. I had more fun critiquing this movie with Betty than I ever had worshipping it as a child. We laughed until we cried, several times over. I wrote the above summary of our findings not as a screed against Zoom, but as a means of reproducing the joy I felt upon saying them the first time. I wouldn’t want the film to be any different, or risk losing any of that enjoyment in translation. When my friend Jonah and I began watching Zoo later that summer, we did so unironically. We were thrilled by the premise. A reversal of the food pyramid? How it would feel if humans were no longer on top? Equal parts terrifying and fascinating. When they announced that the animals’ increased intelligence was due to a mutation giving them “triple helix” DNA, we realized we were leaping into the deep end of pseudoscientific gobbledygook. Rather than turning off this ever-descending drivel, we instead chased the same rush that Zoom had given me a couple months earlier: I let the commentary fly. The same thing happened with The Flash the next summer, and Lucifer the next, which brings us to today. It’s now a time-honored tradition for me to pick a terrible show each summer and revel in it. So often I define myself by the things I enjoy, works of art that are actually outside of me. This critical habit, on the other hand, is totally mine. These terrible TV shows bring me closer to my friends while challenging me to figure out exactly what is going wrong, as well as the most enjoyable way to express it. Maybe bad TV is too commonplace to be worth writing about, but commonplace or not, it’s comforting to know I can enjoy something like Lucifer in my own company, even when I’m at my loneliest. Now, if anyone needs me, I’ll be browsing Netflix...snarkily.
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