Skin Deep

(from a letter to a friend)

I’m reading a Time article about how EVERYONE (female) has plastic surgery now. It’s so depressing that a woman’s value is still based primarily on how she looks — or rather, that most of us still buy into that — and that women are willing to look like nobody in particular to continue to look vaguely youngish. I’ve certainly been tempted; people think my 91-year-old mother and I are not just sisters, but twins! In a way it’s a compliment, to her AND to me — she’s prettier and always has been.
Twins? Twins??
But the difference in our body language doesn’t even register; it’s one of those snap judgments — gray hair, wrinkled, click, they’re in a bag called “old (bag).”
This isn’t all cultural, it’s very biologically primal — I got a tremendous jolt of power and pleasure, faster than thought, when some skanky man looked at my body in the supermarket because I was wearing tight pants. A flash of still being “in the game.” But … pulling the other way is a stiff-necked pride in refusing to be just like everybody else, and a protest against (the view that all the science I’m immersed in relentlessly promotes) just being an animal, with no values other than those related to power and reproduction. But as the article points out, when everyone is doing it, it becomes the new normal, and to be a holdout is freakish and lonely. People who have never seen an unimproved 69-year-old probably think I’m in my 80s, which is why they so kindly rush to offer me their subway seats when I could probably kick their butt. That’s hard to take. I’m fit from the neck down, so maybe I should be like the 1930s Peter Arno New Yorker cartoon where a painter, looking haggardly at the hatchet-faced nude he’s about to paint, displaces the fig leaf from her pubes to her face.
And it’s mostly white women, because our aging skin sucks and with sun damage, forget it  — but sadder still, more and more minority women are getting plastic surgery — to look more white. (Noses for blacks, eyes for Asians . . . ) It’s all so depressing. We are headed towards being a society of surgically and even genetically enhanced super(rich) beings (and gnarled and deformed poor people) who will all look alike, the upper tier of whom are entirely externally focused, with a stunted, undifferentiated inner life, emotionally, kinesthetically, and in all the senses but vision — people so busy objectifying themselves in competition with each other to look like a screen-propagated ideal that they’ve forgotten the pleasures of subjectivity.
Published in: on June 29, 2015 at 10:07 am  Comments (2)  

Hillary update

A commenter just asked me whether, in the light of the recent revelations about Hillary’s e-mail and donor machinations, I still thought she was a good candidate.

Even before that, I was coming around to thinking: No, she’s not.

Three reasons: she’s a baby boomer (so am I, and I’m sick of us; I suspect the culture is too); she’s dynastic (what, another Clinton running against another Bush?? Groundhog Decade!); and she’s half of a corrupt political couple.

I have no patience with “It’s time for a woman president” arguments. Sexism can’t be fought with sexism, and preferring and promoting someone simply because “it’s time” for their category to be represented is as sexist or racist as barring or demoting them for same. If their category can’t come up with a good candidate this time around (for reasons that most certainly include persistent sexism in the culture as well as the malign influence of money on politics), it is extremely patronizing to put forward someone you otherwise wouldn’t want in the office. What’s more, it does the category more harm than good, because it leaves an opening for the other wing of sexists/racists to blame a mediocre performance on the category rather than the individual.

I thought it was a mistake to elect Barack Obama primarily for the reason that “it’s time we had a black president,” even though that was a moving milestone and created a glow of emotion and self-congratulation that lasted for a brief honeymoon before it was time for him to start governing. The only thing that would have been not-racist was to judge him on his merits. Which are? He can be very eloquent, he’s intelligent to the point of being cerebral, he’s deliberate and calm, somewhat removed. I didn’t think he had an executive temperament; didn’t have enough zest for wading in and getting hands-on. That assessment, whether you agree with it or not, has nothing to do with his “race.”

I also don’t buy that the Republican obstructionism against Obama really has anything to do with his race — although politics being an “all’s fair” game, Republicans have been perfectly willing to enlist the racism of some of their constituents in the effort to defeat and discredit him. No, Republicans want to do as much damage as they can to his record because he’s a Democrat, and they want the White House back. People seem to have forgotten that Republicans also detested and did their best to destroy Bill Clinton, who, despite being “the first black president,” was, last I looked, white, all the way down to Slick Willie (no, I didn’t get a look at that).

That said, I’m entirely the wrong person to listen to about politics. I have nothing good to say.

Published in: on May 21, 2015 at 11:35 am  Comments (4)  

Passions of the Past

At last, this blog is back to life. I spent the morning weeding it of old posts that were dated and too mired in the daily political trenches of the past. I hope I have preserved the broad-mindedness the blog has always aspired to. In fact, I’m about to broaden its backside further with an elegiac tribute to a late diva of the left.

Judith Malina, cofounder with her husband Julian Beck of the politically and artistically radical Living Theater, died earlier this month at age 88. I had a memorable encounter with her more than four decades ago.

Around 1970 or ’71, when I was an aspiring young writer and a timid admirer of activist artists—I did not have a radical temperament but, in those times, rather thought I should—I interviewed Malina, then in her mid-40s, for the Village Voice (a clipping I may post here when I get back to New York and into my files). I was also starting a little literary magazine of women’s writing, ELIMA (which turned out to be a one-issue anthology); and Malina generously offered me excerpts from her diaries.

Naturally the news of her death took me back to the experience of interviewing this tiny hummingbird of radicalism who vibrated with a self-dramatizing, self-sacrificing intensity. I had not thought of her too often in the intervening years; I had seen her without knowing it in The Sopranos, as the nun who confesses on her deathbed that she’s Paulie Walnuts’s real mother—an oddly fitting role, given that one of the journal excerpts Judith gave me was about her imprisonment with and admiration of the saintly Catholic activist Dorothy Day. Sex and sainthood intertwined, in an image of paradisal innocence: how intoxicating. Can one be nostalgic for naïveté?

Here are the excerpts from Judith’s diary, kindly copied for me from one of the last surviving copies of ELIMA by San Francisco poet Marguerite Munoz. (You may notice that I typed the pages myself—on a defective typewriter.)

Malina 1

Malina 2

Malina 3

Malina 4Malina 5

Malina 6

Malina 7

Malina 8

Malina 9

Malina 10

Malina 11

Malina 12

Malina 13

Malina 14

Malina 15

Old Hillary

A rare political post. I’ve pretty much dropped out of politics, but reading that “Rush Limbaugh asked his listeners if Americans want to ‘watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis'” got me going.

Ann Althouse, as a woman getting older on a daily basis (like everyone else), can you laugh off this latest sally from your birthday buddy?

This is a reliable “all’s fair” conservative trope. When, in the 1980s, I wrote a book about the 1960s that conservatives didn’t like (and, in retrospect, I don’t blame them), David Horowitz didn’t find it sufficient to trash the book. He also had to point out that in my author picture I looked older than I was (i.e. I had not striven, as is the norm, to disguise my age), as if that discredited me, rather than him as a reviewer.

For the record, I think Hillary Clinton would be a good president and I don’t think she is too old to be president. (That mysterious “faint and concussion” the article mentions was, in my surmise, cover for a facelift.) However, a baby boomer myself, I also agree with those who are saying that it’s time for most of us baby boomers to have our arthritic fingers pried from the nation’s steering wheel. Just because pols of the Greatest Generation hung on into senility and decrepitude, earning admiration for their staying power and grit, it doesn’t mean we baby boomers couldn’t muster some late-blooming grace and retire into second lives of contemplative creativity and selfless service.

Published in: on July 1, 2013 at 8:34 am  Comments (3)  

The Ultimate Weapon

Here’s what she was almost martyred for.

Girls can do anything.


(Sorry I couldn’t figure out how to embed this video.  Well, I guess girls can’t do everything.)

Published in: on October 15, 2012 at 10:26 am  Leave a Comment  

How American Policies Helped Girls Go Missing in Asia

Here’s a shocker of an article about how the American obsession with population control in the 1960s and ’70s led American policymakers and NGOs alike to actually encourage sex selection. If traditionally male-biased families could assure themselves of having a boy right off the bat, the reasoning went, they wouldn’t have so many children. End result: 160 million missing females (and this “at a time when women are driving many developing economies”)—and a corresponding number of frustrated young males looking for trouble. Talk about unintended consequences!

Published in: on February 4, 2012 at 2:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

“I was still a young fighter pilot learning my trade.”

Air National Guard Pilot Heather Penney remembers 9/11. Who has an hour to listen to an interview?  (Wouldn’t you know it’s C-SPAN?)  It’s worth it, though—among other things, to gaze on and contemplate a tough, pretty broad who flew an armed F-16.  She says things like (on air defenses during the Cold War) “to defend our sovereign soil from the Soviet bear.” Fight like a girl, indeed. (Video unfortunately not embeddable.)

This should be required viewing for anyone (if there’s anyone left) who still thinks women are unfit to be full-fledged soldiers.

This sounds counterintuitive, but when the magnitude of the situation hit me, I really lost all emotion.  I didn’t have an emotional reaction at all.

It was really much more focused on what are the things that I need to do to enable us to protect our capital, what are the things that I need to do to facilitate us getting airborne. . . .

[Later, when getting ready to fly] It wasn’t so much that I kept my emotions in check.  It was just that they didn’t even exist.  They just weren’t even there.  But there was significant adrenaline.  And it was really just, “Dear God, just don’t let me screw up.”

Published in: on September 11, 2011 at 2:13 pm  Leave a Comment  


There’s a gap.  That’s the best way I can describe it.  There’s a gap women are afraid to leap or don’t know how to leap.  I feel it.  We — the majority of us women — still don’t know how to be primary in our own lives, how to relate directly to the world.  We don’t know how to start our own engine; we feel guilt and fear at the very thought of doing so.  We are deep-down sure that the only way to go our own way is alone and that the only way not to be alone is to compromise so deeply it bites to the bone.

Sure, I’m exaggerating.  Go ahead, tell me about all the exceptions.  Tell me love is worth compromising for.  (It is, up to the borders of your integrity.)  Tell me I should be saying “I,” not “we.”  But I hear a lot of seasoned, accomplished women saying or hinting at some version of this — that they still feel derivative, secondary.  Men romanticize this and see it as devotion.  It completes them and it diminishes us.  It’s also safe and easy for us, an ancient shtick, an existential cop-out with perks.

Freud thought the gap was the absence of a penis!  It’s so much more — the collective memory of physical danger; millennia of forbiddenness; void of precedent; human cowardice and inertia, always more easily forgiven in women.

The best writer I know about this — so good her writing scares people, scares me — is my friend Dalma Heyn.  Here she is on the danger of a new backlash, not so much against women but within them — a retreat from the challenge and chaos of rapid change into old, familiar, outgrown ways:

Women, conventional goodness isn’t your friend. Maintaining your vision for the future is. If we do all the things we used to do when chaos frightened us with, oh, loss of love, loss of husbands, loss of social approval, loss of funds, loss of everythng, we lose something far more precious: We lose our hope for evolving as women. We mustn’t ever again let anything, especially a flagging economy, threaten our own ability to push through the confines of that old story, the Romance Plot, the one that hurls women back into the kitchen.  Yes, we all yearn for security, but it never did come in the form of  old ideas, old roles, old habits.  Don’t idealize what never was. We’ve spent years setting free a new narrative, one that promises forward movement in the home, in our relationships, inside ourselves. The old story that we fantasize as being magically problem-free, actually brought more women lifelong depression than it did safety and security.

What Dalma writes about is not spurning love, but rather the challenge of loving without lying about who you are.  I’m a widow, which is forcing me to confront the gap in myself.  Male friends tell me radiantly that I’ll always be one with my husband and that ours was a great love.  I hate to tell them it was never that simple.  Don’t misunderstand me:  it was great.  But it was also safe.  Under his wing, my strengths were first derivative and then hypothetical.  They became mine, but I was safe from having to decide how to use them.  Eyes riveted on him — his grandeur, his trauma, his unquestionable genius for living — I never had to answer my own hard questions. And, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, that cop-out did not serve him well.

Don’t chicken out, women.  Go on, evolve.  Yes, I’m talking to you.  Me.

Published in: on September 8, 2011 at 3:28 am  Comments (3)  

This Says It All, And Then Some.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.