The Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams of newsletters is diving into next-gen gender stuff, OG feminist stuff, and sex stuff, to boot.
Jane Austen died 204 years ago. But don’t tell that to the people who are pissed to see a tentpole of the Austen oeuvre besmirched by one Dakota Johnson. Daring to recast Persuasion as a comedy? NO thank you! Netflix has only released the trailer of this adaptation so far, enough to showcase a “Fleabag meets empire waistlines” sensibility, according to Harper’s Bazaar. But among Austenites—who demand historical accuracy and fealty to the original text above all else—the torches are lit, and the marches are scheduled. Cue the tweetstorm: “Oh no the Persuasion remake thinks it can be wittier than Austen. Big mistake. Huge,” wrote critic Hillary Kelly. “Persuasion has some of the best writing in the English language and this is. Content,” says novelist Brandon Taylor. (Brandon, you had us at “content.” Nothing fans the flames of our rage like that word.)
Real talk: Will we be tuning in to see Dakota’s curtain bangs on Anne Elliot’s humble brow? Of course. If only to be able to fully wrap our arms around the backlash. For now, we’ll simply offer a curtsy with some side-eye and mark our calendars for July 15.
In the words of J.A.: “Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion,”
Rachel & Maggie
It’s unofficially Trans Kids Week in the media, with everyone from Time to the New York Times Magazine publishing seemingly long-in-progress features on gender identity in children and teens. If the fact that there are thousands upon thousands more trans teens in this country than there were even ten years ago isn’t enough of a peg for you, there’s also this new news: trans women will no longer be able to compete as women in Olympic or world-championship swimming. (Caitlyn Jenner pours herself another glass of chardonnay.) As the parent of a gender justice–focused tween girl, I’ve spent many a dinner hour this year embroiled in conversation about the ins and outs of pronouns and bathroom assignments and “dead naming” in middle school. Generally, these conversations are a rich, genuinely interesting portal into a wildly different—and generally kinder—world than the one I grew up in. Sometimes these chats can also be exhausting: I may have had one little outburst about it being selfish to focus so intently on any individual’s grammatical preferences when our entire country is about to lose the constitutional right to an abortion; I may have also apologized for my delivery of that impassioned and, yes, insensitive counterpoint. Sheesh, Emily Bazelon must be fatigued. She tackled the issue of gender therapy—what medical treatment is or should be given to transitioning individuals—among kids and teens in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, a topic dizzyingly complex on levels political, legal, medical, psychological, existential, and spiritual. Properly processing it as Bazelon does—interviewing more than a hundred patients, parents, and doctors about how the medical establishment should treat children who want to physically transition—is a 12,000 word feat (there’s also a 70-minute audio version) so comprehensive and evenly unfurled that I found myself ping-ponging between new convictions every few minutes: Children change dramatically between adolescence and adulthood! Children know themselves better than anyone else! Puberty-suppressant meds sound like a great answer! Puberty suppressants sound very permanent and dangerous! Kids need to prove they’ve wanted to transition for years! Forcing kids onto a timeline is punitive! I could go on but will save you the intellectual whiplash for the actual piece of journalism—essential reading for parents and anyone else who dares to have an opinion on this stuff. Like she did with her fantastic early-Covid education roundtables, Bazelon, who is best known as a Supreme Court and criminal-justice expert, slays this thorny subject. I hope we’ll see more of her on the high-stakes teen beat. Once she takes a very long nap.—Rachel
Rachel, Did the Spread miss a media-industry memo? Could it be in my 25,019 unopened emails? (That number is not a joke.) Right you are about this being the week for child/teen gender issues. People flipped when J.Lo introduced her 14-year-old child at a concert using they/them pronouns—and she handled it so smoothly and with such heart, making it both NBD and, as she well knew, a Very Big Deal, I predict this will go down in Hall of Fame J.Lo moments. In his Substack newsletter, Year Zero, Wesley Yang published “an appeal to reason and moderation on a subject that tends not to admit of either” by Lisa Selin Davis, the author of Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different. She argues that both the left and the right need some sensitivity training: We have to get the politics out of the issue of providing gender healthcare to young people, if we have any hope of doing right by these very human, not-just-statists kids. But the one that stuck with me most was in Time: photographer Annie Flanagan’s year-long project to document trans and gender-expansive adolescents across the country puts a (gorgeously moving) face on the argument that Selin Davis makes and the data that Bazelon reports. How could you look at these faces and not want to do everything you can to make these kids feel at home in their own skin?—Maggie
Read “The Battle Over Gender Therapy” in the New York Times Magazine here.
Read “The Pain and Pride of a Generation Changing How America Sees Gender” in Time here.
Read “Ban Politics from Gender Healthcare” in Year Zero here.
Lean cuisine for two, please.
When Sheryl Sandberg stepped down from the helm of Facebook/Meta, I sighed. I didn’t feel bad for Sheryl—who, after all, has her millions from the evil FB empire to keep her warm at night. I felt bad for myself. Cue the storm of post-Sandberg think pieces Rachel and I were going to have to wade through to do right by you, our Spread readers. See what we do for you? I honestly thought I could not read another word about Sheryl Sandberg. But then Caitlin Flanagan jumped into the fray at the Atlantic, and we were saved: Whether you agree with her or not, nobody makes the experience of reading about a feminist cultural phenomenon quite as entertaining—sympathetic or enraging, but never boring—as Flanagan. Here she starts off with a classic told-ya-so: Remember, when Lean In came out in 2013, Flanagan was the one in Time offering the counterintuitive and irritatingly old-fashioned take: “What About the Children?” Now, she says Sandberg’s book “will surely go down in history as one of white feminism’s greatest achievements,” for goading women to go for more money, more power, at any cost: “Lean In was a return to Greed is Good.” Flanagan casts Sandberg in the grand scheme of corporate avarice, ticking off the list of crimes against humanity (“an Oh, the Places You’ll Go! journey to the bottom of the Earth”) perpetrated at Facebook on her watch. (Cambridge Analytica, remember that gem?) I enjoyed the piece, I cheered at parts, but I don’t know if I walked away completely convinced: Lean In, to me, seems like a flawed step, but an important one nonetheless. Almost 10 years ago it put wage equality and C-suite representation on the front burner in many minds, in a way it hadn’t been before. I don’t think Sandberg has to be a great human being for that achievement to mean something. Rachel, thoughts?—Maggie
Maggie, My little baklava. I too am fatigued by all things Sandberg (and maybe all things period right now? Three weeks to baby time, baby!), but we do owe Sheryl a modicum of gratitude given that our first out-of-office date—as in, Rachel and Maggie’s—was at the Lean In book party at then-Mayor Bloomberg’s HQ! I don’t remember much beyond the passed hors d'oeuvres being above par, the white wine flowing like whatever liquid that is in the Hearst lobby fountain, and a white-suited, gorgeously blown-out Arianna Huffington introducing Sandberg onstage: “We all must leeeeean bahhhck!” she implored in her signature Greek accent. (Given how ferociously she had leaned in over the last decades, Arianna was docked no points by me for not having read the book before sharing her thoughts on it in front of hundreds of media, tech, and political power players. I just wished—and still do—that Nasim Pedrad had been in the house.) As for Ms. Flanagan, I am nerd enough to have jumped for joy (at least spiritually…have I mentioned that I’m nine months pregnant) when I saw the Caitlin-on-Sheryl pairing in my feed. As usual with Flanagan, I enjoyed the romp—especially the parts about her being the media world’s go-to crank for any contrarian take on feminism during Lean In’s peak…true!—however, I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I got to the end of the piece: This is why some people hate Caitlin Flanagan, it reminded me. In the essay’s final beats, Caitlin at once knowingly and sanctimoniously—and also pretty lazily—reminds us that nothing will make anybody happier than slowing down, having children, and enjoying them. You know, some good old-fashioned, family values–prioritizing leaning out. And she meant it! And it kind of hurt my feelings, despite the fact that I think having a family is great and I’m about to have four children under my roof. And now I’m going to lean on my wedge pillow for a rest period. Thanks, Caitlin.—Rachel
Read “Sheryl Sandberg and the Crackling Hellfire of Corporate America” here.
You’ll catch more flies with a honey-coated music video…right?
Spread readers, You knew we were going to get into this one. In the New York Times Opinion Pages this week, Pulitzer Prize–winning feminist thinker and journalist Susan Faludi digs into the double-edged sword of celebrity feminism. Did feminism make a deal with the devil when it said yes, we’d like to get the word out—even at the cost of irreversible commodification? Yeah, kinda! But let’s flashback to the late nineties for a moment: As a Mississippi teen, I was taught—by female teachers, family members, and babysitters—that feminism was an ugly word, counterproductive to the actual cause of women’s advancement. In their estimation, we needed men on our side; angry feminism would only alienate them. Faludi ticks off famous ladies who have sold us a commodified feminism in the last ten years—Katy Perry, Beyoncé, even Tina Fey and Adele. Thanks to them, “feminism” is in the air we as a culture breathe. It reads like a hilarious takedown, and yeah, some of the “progress” she cites is definitely just lip service—but I’d bet that “commodified feminism” has also been a useful gateway into actual activism for many women, converting even some of the women who once taught me not to use the word. It wasn’t enough to propel the kind of political change we could really use right about now—but it’s something. “Pop feminism’s Achilles’ heel is a faith in the power of the individual star turn over communal action,” Faludi says, “the belief that a gold-plated influencer plus a subscription list plus some viral content can be alchemized into mass activism.” Fair point. But now, we’re leaning out, we loathe Johnny Depp, and we seethe at Amy Vivian Coney Barrett and Brett Michael Kavanaugh and Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. (can’t take it, stopping here). Which feminist wave, exactly, should we get swept up in? It’s too late to revert back to Faludi’s generational playbook. The world has changed too much.
Speaking of waves, Maggie, can you do a quick primer on the waves of feminism for me? The way heroes like Faludi and Katha Pollitt often throw in a “wave” for context often sends me googling to no clear answer. What wave is Faludi, again? And where do I fall both generationally and spiritually (I’ll bet you a dollar those don’t line up)? I need to choose the appropriate boogie board and wet suit.—Rachel
Don’t feel bad, RB: I, too, have embarrassingly had to google The Waves multiple times, and I usually land on this explainer from 2018, which has served me well—and reminds me of fun facts, like that the beginning of the third wave is pegged to two things: Anita Hill in 1991, and the emergence of the riot grrrl groups in the music scene of the early 1990s.
But here’s the gist:
First Wave: 1848 – 1920: Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth
Second Wave: 1963 – 1980s: Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem
Third Wave: 1990s – early 2010s: Yes, your gals Faludi and Pollitt, plus bell hooks and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, yaaaaas
The existence of a Fourth Wave is somewhat debated, but arguably was born with the #MeToo movement and the flood of pink pussyhats…and very much includes Taylor and Bey and Katy, I’d say?—Maggie
Read “Feminism Made a Faustian Bargain With Celebrity Culture. Now It’s Paying the Price” here.
Vogue just gotta be Vogue—or VJGBV.
I recently ordered a 2006 copy of Vogue on eBay for research purposes. It cost $25 Canadian, whatever that means, and happened to be one of the magazine’s now-defunct annual “shape” issues. Dear god, the way we once talked about women’s bodies! I worked at Vogue a couple of years before this issue was produced, in the beginning of my career, from the ages of roughly 23 to 26. Lemme tell you, I drank the Kool-Aid. I did not question the Shape Issue. Nobody used the word inclusion back then, but I bought into the notion that it was—sorta, kinda—what the Shape Issue was about: The special issue was the one time a year when Vogue covered women who looked “different,” by acknowledging five body types: tall, thin, curvy, “athletic,” and pregnant, each exemplified by a gorgeous and presumably rich woman. In fact, as this 2006 issue reminded me recently, what they really covered was: Long and thin, short and thin, thin with boobs, thin with visible musculature, and alarmingly-thin-with-basketball-bump. Many of the types were illustrated by models, all tall, all skinny, little perceptible difference between them other than that buoyant pregnancy. This Vogue was not a world in which Lizzo would have landed the cover. But today’s Vogue is. So let’s pause and acknowledge progress. Before we get into this month’s issue. Because, damn y’all, Vogue just gotta be Vogue!
Rock-writer-turned-beauty-writer Jancee Dunn’s story about how to fix your middle-aged knees follows in grand tradition. Back in the day, Vogue’s “I feel bad about my X-decrepit-body-part” stories were sometimes ginned up when legendary photographer Irving Penn got a wild hair to take a picture of, say, a football in place of a woman's face and editors had to find some way to justify that photo’s presence in a fashion magazine. Ooh, ooh, I know, let’s do, “I feel bad about my leathery skin!” It was a surefire formula, since there were no shortage of body parts Vogue could suggest its readers should obsess over. While we generally enjoy Dunn’s work, this month she stumbles into every Vogue sandpit: This article assumes we are all self-obsessed, rich as shit, and desperate to wear Miu Miu’s “Y2K miniskirt.” While I’ll cop to the first, I do not fit the other two, and there’s something about reading about (very thin, white, wealthy) 58-year-old women bitching about their “pouchy” kneecaps that makes me want to scream. How many times must we read this exact line, detailing a range of “minimally invasive procedures designed to restore, tone, and smooth this oft-overlooked area”? (To be clear: I have written this exact line! I have been this problem!) I appreciated this morning’s response to the non-problem of aging knees by Spread friend/idol Val Monroe, of the newsletter How Not to F*ck Up Your Face. In a nutshell: Screw miniskirts, find a chic linen dress, try going commando in it while you’re at it!
On the other hand, in the same issue, Vogue shows us how far they’ve come: Friend-of-Spread Fiorella Valdesolo (don’t sleep on her Instagram account) explores the “‘huge revolution’ in an untapped market worth an estimated $600 billion”: Menopause products. And, OK, I have mixed feelings about a “night-sweat mitigating cooling mist” and a “hormone balancing facial”—by mixed I mean my perimenopausal mood swings make me highly pessimistic about high-priced snake oil—but I do appreciate the effort: In old Vogue, women did not bleed and menopause was on a long list of unmentionables (along with, say, fat and broke.) Also, I got a little smile at the art accompanying the photo: an archival shot by Steven Klein of a nubile young model swooning in a flame-orange cocktail dress…are we to assume she is having a hot flash in the grass? Baby, VJGBV.—Maggie
Read ”As Temperatures and Hemlines Rise, an Oft-Overlooked Body Part Arrives in the Dermatologist's Office” here.
Read, “Once a Taboo Topic, Menopause Is (Finally) Having Its Wellness Moment” here.
Rob & Mich’s kingdom.
Because we are really into this kind of thing, Maggie and I often look at each other—figuratively speaking—and say in unison, “You know who we’re missing in the pages of the New Yorker? Emily Nussbaum!” Though we don’t know where she’s been—book project if we’re lucky!—we sure are glad to see her back in this week’s issue, with a double-profile of The Good Wife (and The Good Fight and Evil) creators Robert and Michelle King, which hits the spot in many ways: Not only do we love a marital portrait, we love an insidery TV feature, especially one that confounds ideas about how television’s most successful players operate, which in the case of the Kings is by maneuvering within the network system in order to say bolder things about society at large than most behind-the-camera artistes. Hail!–Rachel
Read “The Couple Behind TV’s Boldest Shows” here.
A small parting gift.
If your Hulu account, like mine, knows you like a strong female lead, you’ll likely find yourself logging in to see a teaser graphic of two people half-dressed at the foot of a bed, cartoonishly looking at the camera and accompanied by the title Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (not pictured). At first, I thought it had to be the sequel to the Napoleon Dynamite sequel Nacho Libre, and then I looked more closely…Was that lady in the Porky’s pose Emma Thompson? Like, theeeee Emma Thompson? It was, and it turns out it’s just bad marketing for a little movie that is quite good. Thompson plays Nancy Stokes, a recently widowed teacher in her sixties who hires a sex worker (Daryl McCormack as Leo), then regrets it, then really doesn’t regret it, then…just watch it if this sounds like your jam, OK? Nearly the entire film, directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Katy Brand, takes place in a hotel room and unfolds almost like a play about self-discovery and also the best billboard for sex work since Pretty Woman.—Rachel