Not For Me
I bought Beyoncé’s Lemonade album eight days ago. That I have listened to it a mere seven times through is only a reflection of the amount of time I have to listen to music, and not at all of my feelings about the music. Because this album is a masterpiece, and I love it. I love how musically adventurous it is. I love the naked emotion, both the roar in “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and the sigh in “Pray You Catch Me.” I love the confidence and the vulnerability, both. I love how it makes me feel. As much as I understand about Lemonade, though, I know too that there are parts I do not understand, that I may never fully understand. I love it, but it wasn’t made for me.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: art that isn’t for me. I thought about it when Prince died, of course, because on some level music so brilliant and so explicitly about freedom and limitlessness is for everyone. But, of course, there are parts of Prince’s music that I can’t access, which the life I’ve lived simply hasn’t given me the experiences to be able to know.
Is there a way to talk about this that isn’t appropriative? That isn’t trying to make it about me? Maybe not. Maybe I wouldn’t be thinking about this so much if I didn’t feel a sense of entitlement. The question that stays in my mind isn’t so much what I’m allowed to love or what I can say I relate to. Rather, I wonder about participation, and about how my presence affects the rest of the audience.
Years ago I saw a feature on Lenscratch of photographs from a young artist named Natalie Krick; I was drawn in by the wit and intellect apparent in the images. She had something to say about femininity, about feminism, about youth and age, about parents and children, about our image-saturated culture. Much later I discovered she was on Instagram, and I loved the way that even her casual studio and process snaps had both a boldness and a sense of play, and an assuredness that I have certainly never felt about either my art or my body. But it’s clear, too, that that play is with and for the young women who are her peers and friends, and not at all for some dude out in the suburbs who has three kids and is pushing forty. I love her work and I think it deserves to be celebrated, but I wonder sometimes whether I am intruding.
Back in March, Jenny Zhang—whose poetry and essays I adore—tweeted a link to an interview between her and fellow writer Charlotte Shane, titled “There’s no spectrum of nuance for why people might expose themselves.” I had just recently read Zhang’s essay “On Blonde Girls in Cheongsams” and had been thinking a lot about how erased I have felt at times in my life, how I have not felt entitled to access the Asian culture into which I was supposedly born. And I loved her for putting that feeling into words and then again for putting those words into the world. I felt seen. At the same time, I knew that much of what she wrote in that essay was something I’d only really understand if I’d grown up as a girl. In the interview with Charlotte Shane, she asked
I’d be interested to know what you think the gender breakdown of your readership is, and then within the men who read your work, do you ever feel like they are judgy or creepy or perhaps looking for evidence of a womanís brokenness or fucked-ness, and what percentage are just open, curious, voracious for your stories and your ideas?
It’s a thing I’ve wondered, too, because Zhang’s writing is so often about her sexuality, her body, and it must attract all manner of creepers. And, indeed, both she and Shane talked about that. I can imagine how frustrating, how infuriating it must be to get that kind of reaction from men who you were not talking to, who you were never thinking about when you were writing your own truths, but who still feel allowed to do whatever they want with your writing. I can imagine it, but I can’t really know how it feels because it’s not something that has happened to me.
And this is the crux of it: this work represents a phenomenon which I have never and probably will never experience, but which millions of women live every day. It is speaking to them, not to me. And if I go into this space, no matter how much I love the work, nor what my intention may be, it is true that my presence may make one of these women feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. Here some dude will pound the table and shout “Not All Men!” but this is entirely missing the point. (Also, he is an asshole.) The point is that the work is by a woman, speaking to other women, and if my being there makes one of these women—who may connect more deeply with the work than I ever will—unable to enjoy and connect with the art or the artist, then that is me interfering with the purpose of the art.
I know that if art is put out into the world for the public to view, it is not wrong for me to view it. I know that if I see some part of myself reflected in someone else’s art, I can experience that connection and feel good about it. But what the boundaries of participation and engagement with a piece or with the artist are—or should be—I don’t know. I’m sure it varies from piece to piece and artist to artist, from situation to situation. I want to be respectful. I want not to cause harm. I don’t know if there’s an answer and I know there isn’t a rulebook, but I hope that there could be a conversation.
Am I Actually Defending Thinkpieces? I Guess I Am.
Twitter brought me a Jezebel article this afternoon called “Damn, You’re Not Reading Any Books by White Men This Year? That’s So Freakin Brave and Cool”, by Jia Tolentino. The gist of it is that reading more diversely is good, even necessary, but that writing thinkpieces about doing so is just another way of othering underrepresented writers and making diversity about yourself. It’s an interesting perspective, and based on who I saw retweeting the link it’s certainly one that seems to resonate with a lot of minority writers. Still, it doesn’t really sit right with me.
Now, I imagine that the easiest, quickest negative response would be something along the lines of “Can’t win for trying.” And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t briefly go there myself, especially given the goals I recently set myself. The thing is, though, in her larger point about majority engagement with capital-D diversity, I agree with Tolentino. “If only it were possible to do something good and rewarding without publicly prioritizing what effect that act has on you,” she says. Moreover, like so often seems to happen with corporate diversity initiatives, there’s a real danger of people assuming that simply having some sort of diversity policy is the same as solving the actual problem. It reduces normalizing diversity in literature to something like a fad—here today, forgotten tomorrow.
Still, as much as I agree with Tolentino on one level, I’m much more ambivalent on another. The problem for me, I think, is summed up in the last few lines of the piece:
If you were a queer writer, or a woman of color writer, would you want someone to read you because they thought they were doing something dutiful about power structures? Or because they gravitated to you, not out of any sense that you would teach them something about diversity that they could then write about in a year-end essay—but that they just read you because you were good?
How similar does that sound to some of the arguments against affirmative action, ones I especially tend to hear from more privileged minority groups? “I don’t want to feel like I got a job just because someone was trying to fill a quota.” But just as with the affirmative action, it presents a bit of a false dilemma. The choice here isn’t necessarily between being read because of your talent and being read because of your gender or color or sexuality. In the real world, the choice can often be between being read because of a diversity mission and not being read at all.
In a perfect world, women writers, writers of color, queer writers would rise to the top and gain a following on the strength of their writing in much the same way that we imagine straight white men do. But we are just not at that point yet. If diverse writers are seeing any uptick in readership and stature in the industry, if there is any push right now toward a more inclusive mainstream, it’s only because the need to actively seek out diverse books is being called out so loudly, and that that call is being repeated widely enough to gain momentum.
Of course it would be great for underrepresented writers and artists to be sought out solely on the basis of their talent. But at this point, without an active effort to bring those writers more attention (and therefore more sales, the only signal with any meaning to the publishers and retailers who determine what actually gets onto shelves) then it’s difficult to imagine the status quo ever changing.
What is the appropriate role of a father? To what extent does the answer depend on the gender of the child? What is the appropriate balance between actively instructing children and passively allowing them to come to their own conclusions?
What is my responsibility to continue seeking information from sources who make me unhappy, if their criticisms of me and people like me are correct? What is the appropriate balance between cultivating one’s own happiness and well-being and trying to be a better person, in cases where these two conflict?
What is my responsibility to speak up for less privileged people, and what is my responsibility to remain silent in order to allow less privileged people to empower themselves? How much does the answer depend on the degree of privilege I benefit from?
To what extent is it acceptable to express disagreement with unprivileged people in a discussion about that privilege? How much does the answer depend on the relative privilege between the people who disagree? How much does the answer depend on the nature of the disagreement?
In cases of double standards, to what extent is the problem due to the inequality of the application of the standard, and to what extent is the problem the standard itself? Put another way, should the priority be to give “privilege” to everyone, or should it be to remove it from everyone? Is the answer the same for every type of double standard or privilege?
With respect to pornography and sex work, how can one reconcile the goal of ending the objectification of women with the goal of allowing women the freedom to choose to participate in pornography and sex work without a social stigma (e.g. "slut shaming")? If these two goals are incompatible, which is the better goal to achieve? Can pornography be consumed in such a way that does not objectify its participants? If not, to what extent are the participants culpable for perpetuating the objectification of themselves and others?
To what extent is it possible to separate a work of art from the artist who produced it? To what extent is it acceptable to try to do so? If the artist's racism, sexism, or other prejudices are not present in the work itself, how does this affect the question? If racism, sexism, or other prejudices are present in the work, how should this affect how we understand or value the work as a whole? To what extent do the time period and contemporary cultural context of the artist affect this calculus?
To what extent is it acceptable to appreciate or enjoy the privilege I benefit from? To what extent does maintaining my lifestyle harm or oppress other people? If I am aware that change is required and have the ability to affect that change, to what extent am I complicit in oppression if I do not actively work toward that change? How much is the answer affected by the difficulty of the change?
Assuming that it is impossible to perfectly rid myself of bias and to always speak and behave perfectly appropriately, at what point am I doing “good enough”? At what point is it reasonable to consider myself a good person? How does the answer change if it is not impossible, but merely very difficult?
I have spent a lot of time pondering both these generalized questions and the more specific scenarios that led to them, but I haven't been able to come to any conclusions. I can't figure out the general principles, I can't figure out the specific applications, and I can't figure out if it even makes sense to try to reduce the specifics to general principles. It's possible that there are no definitive answers.
I recognize that some of these questions may be problematic. Some or all of them may be fundamentally based on biased assumptions or on ignorance. Some or all of them may be offensive, or ridiculous, or self-pitying. If that's the case, I'd like to know about it.
If you do have thoughts or opinions on any of these questions, please leave a comment. I have just one request: you don't have to be nice to me, but please do be nice to each other.
My Latest at Life As A Human: Raising Respectful Sons
Back in the early stages of my wife’s pregnancy, before we knew we would be having a son, people often asked me whether I wanted a boy or a girl. My response usually went something like this: “Well, I’d be happy either way, I think, and I don’t have a preference, really. I don’t want one more than the other. Honestly, though, the idea of having a daughter kind of terrifies me.” That’s the thought that occurred to me again Monday morning when I ran across this article in fellow Life As A Human author Schmutzie’s Twitter feed.