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A Body Like Arnold With a Denzel Face
The sun-hatted Diane and linen-swathed Meryl of newsletters takes our oversize garden shears to this week’s news, emerging with sexy-baby fashions, bombshells on the run, and Queen Viola Davis.
What makes a woman objectively hot? Please don’t waste our time with talk of “essence” and “soul” and je ne sais quoi. Thanks to fresh-faced writer Michelle Santiago Cortés in the Cut, now we know that a sub-Reddit thread has provided cold, hard answers. And those would be: Marilyn Monroe proportions, shiny hair, and precise ratios of facial symmetry (Redditors sure do love them some math!). The Reddit community that Santiago Cortés reports on is…oof: Racist, sexist, and all the other -ists, with origins in the femcel community and language that echoes the incel community. Still, we found ourselves thinking about how having a system for quantifying something as subjective as beauty could be oddly appealing. Or at least how it might worm its way into a woman’s soul. With so much gray everywhere—and in beauty, the choices are truly endless—is there something freeing in finding a clear-cut, paint-by-numbers map to “pretty”? And in admitting, flat-out, Kardashian-style, that what you really want is to achieve that? Would being more matter-of-fact about the intention to do the most with what Mother Nature gave us—without worrying about vanity and feminism and superficiality—save us all some hand-wringing in the long run?
Or should we all just say goodbye to all that, retreat en masse to the Hamptons, collect furry-chested lovers and white beach stones, take out a new mortgage for the kitchen of our dreams, and commence the Nancy Meyers segment of our lives?
You’re all Perfect 10s to us,
Rachel & Maggie
PS: Please make like the subjects of our favorite-ever episode of Behind the Music, Ann and Nancy Wilson, and HEART this post! Now wouldn’t you, barracuda?
To all the real-life Elle Woods out there, I have questions…
For at least two years, Rachel and I have scratched our heads at the subculture of sorority girls and grown-ass women flitting about the Instaverse in $250 ruffled miniskirts by LoveShackFancy, the frothy pink fashion fever dream of former Cosmo fashion editor Rebecca Hessel Cohen. My gut response is basically: Huh? Cohen landed the cover of the New York Times Style section last Thursday and for me, writer Jessica Testa’s most illuminating detail was that Cohen adores Betsey Johnson. This helped clarify the vibe/spot she’s after, but it also gave me pause: Betsey Johnson infused her girly florals with a punk streak that gave them a subversive twist. Whereas Cohen’s version is pure, weapons-grade cotton candy—it’s the aesthetic of a Bravo Housewife’s four-year-old daughter’s birthday party, boiled down into party dresses for 20-year-olds. Which of course gives them a pronounced Lolita twist. The prevailing theory on “why now” seems to be that LSF embodies end-of-the-world frivolity: Feel-good clothes for a girl who just wants to feel good—and why shouldn’t she, after years of a pandemic and social unrest? Call me a curmudgeon, but I think that a widespread and unironic adult embrace of the Disney-princess look circa 2022, when even Disney princesses don’t wear frilly pink dresses anymore, has got to be about more than mere escapism. To me, it feels like the last gasp of an exceedingly privileged, decorative, and essentially white vision of femininity—not to mention a celebration of hyper-traditional gender roles and ideals of “woman”—at the exact moment that we like to believe we have finally taught girls to want MORE and DIFFERENT. (I will duly note that Cohen hires women of color for her shows and presentations, and also appears to embrace the LGBTQ community…at least insofar as that means “drag queen.”) It’s just weird to me that LSF launched in 2013, and has seen most of its growth in a post-pink-pussy-hat, post-#MeToo, post-#BLM world. And that its biggest markets are Miami, Charleston, Houston, and Nashville, cities Cohen told the Times aren’t necessarily “college towns,” but “honestly, more prep school towns”—i.e. pockets of wealth and privilege and conservatism in the American South. And that Cohen’s own recent 40th birthday/marketing blitz was held at The Plaza with a Versailles theme, complete with waiters in powdered wigs and court dress. There’s something so Bridgerton-without-the-diversity about it all. Rachel, should I stop being so judgy and let these rich white girls get their party on? Or do you agree that looking like Polly Pocket is a strange thing for well-off women to aspire to, when they could aspire to literally anything else?—Maggie
Maggie, As you know, I’ve always hewn more Robert Palmer chick than Laura Ashley baby. I don’t even own a Nap Dress—a true feat given that I am almost seven months pregnant! My aversion to LSF isn’t that I’m a prude, either (though I may also be a prude when I feel like it). Despite the fact that I now wince at the actual text of Lolita (cc Emily Mortimer), I can comprehend why some Lolita-esque fashion with a twist can be cool/sexy/naughty/edgy. But like you, LSF leaves me cold. Last summer, when I was doing some casual journalistic research on “teens these days,” I called my 17-year-old cousin G., who lives in—you guessed it—Nashville, goes to a prep school, and has without a doubt begun to get her ducks in a row for sorority rush at Auburn this fall. “It’s all about LoveShackFancy. LoveShackFancy is big,” she said. As for what kind of footwear to pair with your sexy-baby frock? “Golden Goose, all the way.” —Rachel
Read “A Pink Parade at the End of the World” here.
Two, four, six, eight. Oxytocin, you are great!
Alright, team. Let’s talk about love. I’ll go first: I loved Hope Reese’s interview with neuroscientist-author Stephanie Cacioppo last week! In the past decade, there have been many articles in the New York Times about what happens to the brain when you fall in love—I could map them all according to where I was in my relationship with my husband upon their publication, but that’s a project for another day. This interview, more than any of its topical predecessors, though, is just so lovely and revealing, at once hopeful and empathy-inducing. It all begins with Cacioppo’s own love story—as a swashbuckling 30-something neuroscientist she thought it was unlikely she’d ever partner up, but then at 37 she met Dr. John Cacioppo, a rock-star brainiac, at a conference in Shanghai, and they fell in love and married…and then seven years later he died. It’s quite a backdrop for an exploration of how love and loneliness shape us. Most moving, to me, is that despite having tasted (poor choice of words but let’s go with it) that head-over-heels, classic, romantic love, Cacioppo argues that friends and family and community can be worthy substitutes to make us whole.
In quick succession to the Cacioppo piece, I happened to read another piece on love and loss and identity. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Corinna Cohn lets us in on the emotional journey she embarked on by undergoing sex reassignment surgery at 19. Ultimately, as the headline pretty much reveals, she believes that she was too young to make such a consequential decision—one that she feels certain will leave her a lifelong singleton. But the grappling that Cohn, a 40-something officer in the Gender Care Consumer Advocacy Network, does on the page is unlike anything I’ve read before. Whether or not you agree with its headline/conclusion, this one is worth engaging with.—Rachel
Read “How Love Changes Your Brain” here.
Read “What I wish I’d known when I was 19 and had sex reassignment surgery” here.
Whitney & Mariah & Dionne & Janet & Gladys.
“People say, ‘How can you say that Black women in pop don’t get the credit they’re due?’ Oh, they get credit. They don’t get the credit that they’re due. For everything that Beyoncé has, all the Grammys, the albums sold, the world tours, the trendsetting, the influencing, the voice, the putting in work since she was a child, she does not get the credit that she deserves. I’m up for the argument with anybody who wants to try me.” If this isn’t a call to arms, what is? So sayeth writer Danyel Smith in a new interview with culture critic Emily Lordi in the New Yorker, on the occasion of Smith’s new book, Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop. That title was altered—slightly but crucially—just before the book was published: The very was a late-breaking addition, to emphasize what Lordi calls “an innovative form of music writing” that “braids” together reportage, personal memoir, and history. Smith is a pioneering woman in music in her own right; she was named editor-in-chief of Vibe in 1994, becoming the first Black person or woman to hold the job. And in the New Yorker interview, it’s an anecdote about her experiences in publishing that illustrates the perspective she brings to her material:
“I remember when I was an editor-at-large for Time Inc. It’s a big job for a young woman. And every time I would walk in—let me not exaggerate. Many times when I would walk the floor—it was an executive floor, of the Time-Life Building—someone would hand me a stack of papers telling me how many copies they needed. And I would take them and go to the receptionist, who was Black, and, after a while, she’d just be, like, ‘Girl, are they at it again?’ And I would say yes.
The thing is, I don’t care. I used to work at Copymat. That’s the quiet truth. If you want me to make you some copies, girl, those copies are going to be crisp. I will change the toner for you. What do you need? It’s not a problem. I’m not looking down on anybody who makes copies; I used to make copies for a living. But, one time, somebody did it to me in front of the receptionist, the Black receptionist. I was talking to her and they just walked up to me and handed me some papers to copy: ‘I need sixteen copies, stapled, yada yada.’ And I was just looking at her, looking at the receptionist, looking back at the lady. And the receptionist said to the woman, ‘I don’t know if you’ve met Danyel Smith. She’s the editor-at-large here at Time Inc. She writes for and/or consults for all thirty-eight of our magazines. She’s currently working on a piece for Time magazine about Latrell Sprewell. You guys should have lunch and get to know each other.’”
The best part about Smith’s book? It comes with a soundtrack. She launched Black Girl Songbook, a Spotify-sponsored podcast, in 2021 and, like the book, it breaks new ground in podcast storytelling.—Maggie
Read “Danyel Smith Tells the History of Black Women in Pop Music” here.
All about Bonnie. (Clyde can stick to the chauffeuring.)
Though I’m no true-crime diehard—you know ’em if you see ’em—I’ve found myself relishing every half-hour episode of Run, Bambi, Run, the new Apple podcast hosted by Spread favorite and colleague Vanessa Grigoriadis. The series tells the story of gorgeous glamour-puss Laurie “Bambi” Bembenek, who in 1990 bolted from Wisconsin’s Taycheedah Correctional Institute, where she’d been ordered to carry out a life sentence for killing her husband’s ex. But of course, there’s much more to the tale, this time both in plot twists and in wild, neon-’80s color. For starters, after a stint as a Playboy Bunny, Laurie became a cop—which is where things started to get weird. Grigoriadis’s sherpa for the series is Bembenek’s delightful biographer, the excellently named Kris Radish, and the two journalists have a chemistry rarely felt in narrative podcasting.
Elsewhere in women who kill, our corner of the internet is swooning over Maclean’s new story called “The Nurse Imposter.” About a nurse imposter. While we thought this one paled in comparison to the electric Bambiverse, true crime completists, especially those with a penchant for body horror, should give it a whirl.—Rachel
Listen to Run, Bambi, Run here.
This week in the cancel culture: Is cancel culture even a thing?
The Nation columnist (and poet!) Katha Pollitt was so pissed off by this 17-tweet chain from NPR Planet Money cofounder and New Yorker financial columnist Adam Davidson, she devoted her latest column to proving him wrong. Davidson argues that cancel culture is mostly a moral panic: The people who supposedly got “canceled,” like J.K. Rowling and Bari Weiss, have only gone on to greater success and bigger piles of cash. The biggest problem, he says, is not the terrible repercussions of being canceled—which he thinks are mostly a myth—but the culture of fear that has led many to stifle their opinions lest they find themselves next up in the cultural firing line. But Pollitt neatly ticks off a list of supposed offenders (some you’ll recognize; some you may not) who lost their jobs and, in several cases, their entire careers over transgressions that seem pretty damn minor. This includes a writer who simply wrote #Istandwithjkrowling in her Twitter bio—now she drives a truck for a living. It’s worth reading the piece for the full list. I reached out to Pollitt to see if she got blowback just for suggesting these people were unduly canceled; she reports that the feedback has been mostly positive. The one person she hadn’t heard from, though? Adam Davidson. Keep your eyes peeled for that Twitter thread, coming soon.—Maggie
Maggie, One of the Spread’s most fiery prelaunch debates was about cancel culture—which I wanted to, uh, cancel (or just ignore) and you wanted to “talk about” in our theoretical pages. My argument was that the entire cancel-culture phenomenon was a distraction that would eventually kill us (meaning the Dems) in the midterms. While the midterms remain to be seen, I’ve kind of come around Green Day-style on the topic—though I refuse to wave around those two successive c-words without pause. Above all, I’m thrilled to have an excuse to share my favorite “Weekend Update” bit in years. Please welcome Lowell Fitzroy and Janet Noonan to the chat!—Rachel
Read “Cancel Culture Exists” here.
A woman king indeed!
The New York Times this weekend delivered my favorite version of the New York Times Magazine, which in my head I call C: The New York Times Celebrity Magazine, with Viola Davis on its cover. Davis, a respected actor since her Oscar-nominated role in 2008’s Doubt, has been the subject of many a magazine profile over the years—more than one of which I have edited. But here, in the Times’s glossy pages, she finally gets the space she deserves (almost 7,000 words of it) and, in Jazmine Hughes, a writer who imbues the tragic biographical arc that students of Davis have heard time and time again with human connection and context. The occasion of the profile is Davis’s memoir, Finding Me, which will be released next week and is sure to make a fantastic audiobook, and also her turn as Michelle Obama in Showtime’s The First Lady (it debuted Sunday night, at laaaast; the Spread’s viewing party starts this weekend, for follow-up analysis stay tuned.) But Hughes focuses more on her September film, The Woman King, which Davis produced as well as stars in, even traveling to Cape Town to experience the set in the cover story’s beautiful final act.
I’m always attuned to how each new Davis profile will handle her Oscar-nominated role in 2011’s now-derided white-savior film The Help, in which she plays a maid in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, my hometown. It’s a tricky one. A) The Help is wildly problematic—now widely agreed to be the epitome of the “white savior” narrative. B) It was a turning point in Davis’s career, earning her first Academy Award nomination for the Best Actress and launching her into the mainstream consciousness. A few years after The Help had become something of a film-pariah in progressive circles, I—pinch me—met Davis at an Elle event in Los Angeles and—pinch me again—we got to talking. When she heard my accent, all she wanted to talk about was her time in my home state. She had a blast, she said. She continued to adore the producers, she said. She ate a lot of pie, she said. Here’s hoping she gets into the details of this chapter and all its complications in the book, pie included!—Rachel
Read “Viola Davis, Inside Out” here.