How We (Don't Really) Get It Done
The Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding of newsletters goes full contrarian this week.
Like you, we lie awake at night, thinking about the White House press secretary. Specifically, comparing and contrasting the fictional portrayals (The West Wing’s C.J. Cregg by Allison Janney; Sarah Sanders by…Sarah Sanders) vs. the real-life women (Clinton’s Dee Dee Myers; W.’s Dana Perino). Wait, you don’t do this? Ooooooh. OK. Moving right along: This week, we seized on the Cut’s How I Get It Done column1 featuring flame-haired Biden mouthpiece Jen Psaki, a longtime comms ladder-climber2 we were thrilled to see land the top job a year ago. We’re guessing Psaki did the story to humanize herself—remember: you like me!?—after a spate of awkward/combative moments in the briefing room, like when she scoffed at the idea of sending free Covid tests to every American last month (a strategy the administration is now employing—oops). In the Cut, Psaki, 43, is clear-eyed about the domestic trade-offs she makes as the mother of two kids, ages three and six—which Maggie can tell you is a j-o-b unto itself—who also has one of the most demanding job-jobs on planet Earth: She’s out of the house from 7:15 a.m. to 7-something p.m., leaving her kids with a nanny. Psaki says little about her partner, who Google reveals to be one Gregory Mecher; our Washington spies tell us that a) Mecher is a “consultant” (well that clears it up!) and b) Psaki, like many politicos, is all-in on the job with the knowledge that it’s temporary: These days, no one survives more than a year or two in the role of the president’s surrogate punching bag. One intriguing tidbit: Like all kids, hers creep into her room in the middle of the night…where they crawl into sleeping bags left on the floor for this purpose. Which strikes us as both clever (no tiny elbows to the ribcage!) and a good way to ensure kids will be sleeping in your room until college. Jen Psaki: Figuring it out JUST LIKE US (except smarter, more powerful, more ambitious, more disciplined, with much smoother hair—shall we continue?).
Rachel & Maggie
PS: Last week, we got a little vulnerable, baring our souls to ask you to please share the Spread with your friends and smash our like button. And it worked! You heeded our call, giving us a burst of new readers and a whole lotta hearts. Thank you—every little bit genuinely helps. And please keep it coming!
Why do we still take Lena so personally?!
On the occasion of the Sundance premiere of the buzzed-about film Short Stick, the Hollywood Reporter served up a cover story on its director, maybe you’ve heard of her? The accompanying profile by Seth Abramovitch, though generally generous to Lena Dunham in tone and content (I think in part because the writer is male—Dunham is just too personal a subject for women to write about with such distance), takes pains to catalog all of her major gaffes and controversies since her watershed series Girls premiered a decade ago. Underpinning it all is what seems to be the prevailing view of both Dunham and Girls circa 2022—especially on Twitter, which lit up when THR’s story went up online. I’d summarize this view as: Cringe—but thanks for birthing Adam Driver! Dunham herself seems to be viewed as a darling of the white establishment whose continued success proves that people with enough power can’t get canceled, no matter what they do. Y’all. I love Adam Driver—dude tops my hall pass list—but Adam aside, can we set the record straight? Girls was a great show, watched by millions because it captured a real early 2010s moment, celebrated the chosen family of post-college friendship, and—like most art—is full of mistakes. Mistakes that Dunham, who was 25 when the show debuted, copped to and processed publicly! So why is our culture so comfortable piling on to her, or at the very least, framing her as a “cultural lightning rod” as opposed to a creator of influential and, I’d say, groundbreaking work? I think, on some deeper level, it goes back not to what she says, but to how she looks: Too much like regular women, too much like us. And she has the gall not only to show her body—which, I’ll admit can occasionally make me jump…sometimes it’s as if she’s showing the world my body—but to open her mouth and her brain and make something. Do I even need to say it? #TeamLena—Rachel
Read “Lena, Renewed” here.
Wait, are you telling us there’s some science-based good news on the horizon?
Since the dawn of time—and I’m not making a joke about Joe Manchin’s age; or am I?—the struggle to arrive at policy solutions to address income inequality has been hamstrung by many tropes, one of which is the Reagan-era myth of the deadbeat “welfare queen”3 sucking up the tax dollars of hard-working Americans. With that figure stuck in so many minds, it’s no wonder that advocates of the radical concept of universal basic income strategies, in which people below the poverty line receive a sum of money—no-strings-attached, to use as they see fit—struggle to convince the other side, who remains stuck on the ideological hump of who “deserves” money that many still see as nothing more than a handout. Until now, evidence that unconditional payments do work has been mostly anecdotal. But a headline in Monday’s New York Times brings something that looks like hope. The story—quickly picked up by activists from Chelsea Clinton to MLK, Jr, daughter Bernice King—announced a potentially game-changing study: Researchers found that giving mothers making under $20,000 annually just $333 a month for a single year was enough to produce a small but discernible improvement in their babies’ brain patterns. The researchers don’t know why, exactly: Could be because the money helped them access better food or health care, or reduced parental stress, or allowed moms to work less and spend more time with their babies (the study will continue for three more years, hopefully clarifying the results)—but even though the change is small, the takeaway is significant. It shifts the conversation from the murky territory of “who deserves what” into the action-oriented territory of: We know this is something that works—now what?—Maggie
Maggie, This is indeed exciting! Anytime anyone mentions the word “study,” my mind quickly goes to Emily Oster, my favorite data-obsessed parenting guru in all the land. I can’t wait for her to write a cymbals-crashing newsletter on this landmark study. In the meantime, I recommend following both Oster’s Instagram (her weekly AMAs are gold for parents navigating school and quarantine) and her newsletter, Parent Data, which this week tackled race and inclusion in children’s books and recently unpacked the explosive New York Times article about false positives in genetic testing.—Rachel
Read the story here.
Aiming below the belt…for our wallets.
As my extremely crunchy-granola, chicken-farming, honey-bottling, electric-car-driving next-door neighbors will tell you, I am an enthusiastic consumer: One Amazon delivery truck barely pulls out of our driveway before the next one zooms in. Still, when it comes to products designed to address women’s health issues, I balk. It’s not that I don’t want the issues addressed; it’s all that marketing that makes me crazy. Can we just talk about a thing without, in the very next breath, being sold a product to fix it? It’s a bait and switch sensation: I’m two paragraphs into an article about some previously unmentionable lady problem feeling vaguely impressed—huh, since when did Vogue talk about incontinence!?—when, bang, there it is: The real impetus for the story. A new, appropriately chic-ified product is here to solve it! It bugs me because I was once part of this problem. In my (many) years editing health and beauty pages, we never thought to mention period underwear (eek!) until Thinx, Knix, The Period Company, and Proof came along and wrapped that unsightly problem up in a pleasing millennial-pink bow…to make money off of it. But OK, fine, deep breath: This is the way progress looks in late-stage capitalism. And it is progress to see the unglamorous truths of women’s health discussed frankly in publications not exactly known for such. I am thrilled to see the byline of veteran health and beauty (and food!) journalist Fiorella Valdesolo on a string of stories about post-40 women’s health, answering such pressing questions as why my midlife skin looks like hell at certain times of the month in Town & Country, and, for Vogue, outing the aforementioned incontinence and addressing the vagaries of the perimenopausal period. (Sidenote: If you’re not following Valdesolo on Instagram, fix that today: She contains multitudes, and her daily doses of art history/pop culture never fail to delight.) —Maggie
Read “How Hormones Became Part of the Skincare Conversation” in Town & Country here.
Read “Your Period Could Change in Your 40s—Here’s How to Manage the Shift” in Vogue here.
Read “The Latest Health Issue to Finally Get Its Due? Incontinence” here.
I’ll be your drinking buddy.
A couple of weeks ago in our always-rousing Spread lineup meeting, I put a moratorium on all talk of And Just Like That…. Because, like it or hate it, AJLT does touch many corners of the cultural conversation; if we weren’t careful the Spread could turn into AJLT Weekly. But then! Essays about drinking—or rather, about not drinking—began bubbling up. In Jezebel, Danielle Tcholakian published a moving piece about how finding sobriety mid-pandemic allowed her to get ahold of her depression and take her life back during the most uncertain, loneliest time in her life (and many of our lives). In the Cut, Sarah Wood ruminates on her wish that there was a word, a shorthand, that described her relationship to drinking—she doesn’t drink because she doesn’t like alcohol’s effect on her, but alcoholic is too specific and pejorative. Both women write bravely and personally—brava! But reading them, I also recalled my (totally unfair) annoyance a few years ago when all the hipsters got “sober curious.” I couldn’t help but wonder: Are we rushing to judgment on Miranda Hobbes? I was as worried as everyone when Charlotte spied those little vodka bottles jangling around Miranda’s leather lady-pack. But other than that, where is the evidence that what Miranda has is a “problem”? Are we getting to a place in the culture where any woman who orders a second—or, OK, a third—round of drinks is a cause for concern? (Do I sound defensive? Maybe I am!) What I see in Miranda is a woman with a helluva lot on her plate: She’s on a quest to find herself again professionally, she’s fallen out of love with sweet homebody Steve and deep in love with groaner-cracking Che (now being much ridiculed on the internet—on this one, I’m with Rolling Stone’s E J Dickson: they’re totally fine), and her gross teenage son is loudly doing sex things with his chronically pantless girlfriend in her house. Can we give Mir, and women like her, a break? Maybe she’s overdone it a few too many nights—now she’ll dial it back. Good for her. But if she wants to share a bottle of real bubbly at SUNDAY FREAKIN’ BRUNCH, let’s not get our La Perlas in a tangle!—Rachel
Rachel, The sober curious movement struck (strikes? Are we still in it?) me as one of the thousand cultural overcorrections we’ve gone through in recent years: Many of them necessary to clear the decks but also kind of a relief when the initial fervor fizzles out. On one hand it did seem smart to question why every mother in a sitcom suddenly had a glass of chardy in hand—really, did we ever see Julie Bowen in Modern Family without one?—and whether “Rosé All Day” was such a great thing to proclaim on one’s bumper sticker. Was women’s full-throated embrace of alcohol, in fact, progress? Or just alcohol-industry marketing masquerading as empowerment? But on the other hand the movement seemed to make a lot of navel-gazing wellness types who didn’t have a problem think they might have one. It began to seem like another word for “cleanse.” Did you have to be “sober curious”...or could you maybe just skip this round?—Maggie
Read “I Got Sober in the Pandemic. It Changed My Life.” here.
Read “I’m Tired of Explaining Why I Don’t Drink” here.
The sperm has thoughts, too.
Writing in the New Yorker, Akhil Sharma brings us a deeply personal male perspective on IVF. Sharma (who is almost startlingly self-aware) and his wife, Christine, embark on their fertility “journey'“ late in the game—at 49 and 50, respectively; the piece traces their anxieties and age-precipitated realities with incredible humility and generosity. It’s a lovely read whether or not you’ve been on the fertility treadmill yourself.—Rachel
Read “A Passage to Parenthood” here.
Never change, Ms. Merkin!
Whenever it feels like the mainstream media has congealed into a post-Trump gelatin salad in which everyone is saying the same thing but in slightly different words, Daphne Merkin enters the chat. (In my head she’s always wearing a voluminous vintage coat made from the skin of an endangered animal upon her entrance.) This week, after a month of fawning tributes to the late, great Joan Didion, who died in December at 87, Merkin—she who insisted that we should all hear from Woody Allen’s wife (and adopted daughter) Soon-Yi Previn at the height of #MeToo—weighs in on “The Cult of Saint Joan” in the New York Times. Merkin indicts Didion as materialistic, class-obsessed, and—gasp—a dedicated Republican voter and points out the paradox of many otherwise lefty, anti-capitalist, community-minded Gen Z-ers’ adoration for Didion. Am I swayed by all of Merkin’s arguments? No! Will I always read her every word? You betcha.—Rachel
Read “The Cult of Saint Joan” here.
The Whitney We Didn’t Know
The title alone of former L.A. Times culture critic Gerrick Kennedy’s upcoming book fascinates me. Didn’t We Almost Have It All: A Defense of Whitney Houston (out February 1): Since when did we need a “defense” of a dead celeb? It also leaves me with mixed feels: Yes, please, somebody, anybody—defend this woman! But also: After tragedy, drug use, Bobby, and reality TV, isn’t the problem that we already know too much? Now comes an excerpt in Vanity Fair chronicling Whitney’s relationship, at 17, with a beautiful girl named Robyn Crawford. In Crawford, Houston found a respite from her strict mother as well as the Black girls who bullied her in the neighborhood and the white girls who bullied her at private school. Whitney was laying in bed with Crawford when she first got the idea for one of my all-time favorite songs, her remake of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman”4 (she wrote it down in a notebook; Robyn reminded her about it years later). And when fame beckoned, she eventually cut Robyn loose with a parting gift: a slate-blue-colored Bible. As is the conventional wisdom in the magazine biz (which two weeks ago People stumbled into by accident with Betty White’s not-quite-100th birthday), nothing moves sales figures like a recent expiration, but what do we think, Spreaders: Are we in this one for the full story?—Maggie
Read the excerpt here.
“Life as a minor hospitality magnate was intoxicating.”
The new BusinessWeek treats us to the story of Gina Champion-Cain, the San Diego powerhouse behind a $400-million Ponzi scheme that stole from her closest business partners, her colleagues, and her own family. It was a weird relief to read about a woman whose slippery slope centers around small business, real estate, and finance—not leggings or diet products. And writer Chris Pomorski’s work reminded me of the best city magazine stories, back when city magazines regularly produced deeply reported, compellingly told investigations in the ’90s and early ’00s. (Shout out to my alma mater Boston magazine!) And you won’t be surprised to hear me say this: It should be a movie! Let’s cast Catherine Zeta-Jones (she needs a comeback) as the raven-haired, boho-styled, boys’ club-infiltrating Champion-Cain, with Marielle Heller of Can You Ever Forgive Me? fame in the director’s chair.—Rachel
Read “The Charismatic Developer and the Ponzi Scheme That Suckered San Diego” here.
I can hardly draw a smiley face, but has anyone else noticed that many of the illustrated portraits accompanying this column don’t look a whole lot like the subject? For instance, this is Kristin Cavallari.
As a self-identified Striver, Rachel wants you to know she considers this description a high compliment.
Did you know this entire thing originated with a single article about one woman? Ugh.