Manic. Pixie. Huh?
The Lisa Loeb and Liz Phair of newsletters is diving into monogamy (who needs it?), squabbling about ’00s babe varietals, and getting pragmatic about post-Roe life.
During the making of last week’s issue—hot off a couple of cool hours in the Danger Zone—Rachel could not wait to write about Jennifer Connelly’s character in the Top Gun: Maverick as a new cinematic archetype, the grown-up version of the manic pixie dream girl. There was just one problem: Maggie had no clue what she was talking about—like, wasn’t Connelly, five-foot-seven, way too tall, too chic, too…Ghesquière…to be described as a pixie? There’s nothing “cute” about Jennifer Connelly. Rachel—first pointing out that there has been no height maximum for pixies since 5”8 Julia Roberts was Tinkerbell in 1991’s Hook—chalked up this confusion to a rare blindspot in Maggie’s cultural repertoire: Didn’t she know that the “manic pixie dream girl” (MPDG) had been bandied about since the early oughts, shorthand for a dreamy, woefully underwritten female character with tons of quirk and not nearly enough heft? Take Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane in Almost Famous. Zoey Deschannel’s Summer in 500 Days of Summer (and most of Deschanel’s other work). Natalie Portman’s Sam in Garden State. Even Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven in Stranger Things, and (retroactively) Audrey Hepburn’s characters in Sabrina, Roman Holiday, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The term was first coined in relation to Kirsten Dunst’s character in 2005’s Elizabethtown (Cameron Crowe loves a manic pixie). Maggie sat through Film Studies 101 and then insisted that the phrase was culture-vulture niche vocab—Spread readers who might not know it at first glance deserved a line of explanation. And so we did something members of Congress should consider trying: We both reached for our phones and launched surveys to our most responsive text chains. We called on ex-magazine editors-in-chief, healers, advice gurus, midwives, social workers, restaurateurs. You may be surprised to hear that the split fell along microgenerational lines, with those who came of age exactly with Garden State being fluent with the term and others who do not mark milestones by Natalie Portman’s filmography having either a vague familiarity or none at all. With one exception: Spread fairy godmother E. Jean Carroll, who immediately expressed her fluency not only with the term, but her encyclopedic memory of modern media, offering this Mindy Kaling-penned New Yorker piece from 2011 as an explainer to the unenlightened. In the end, let it be noted that Maggie gave Rachel a pass, and the term ran sans explainer—not because Maggie was convinced but because as we all know Rachel is extremely “with child” right now and Maggie can occasionally play nice like that. (However, even among those familiar with the term, reviews were mixed this week on whether 51-year-old, distinctly non-neurotic Connelly could ever really be either “manic” or “pixie,” though at any age she is 100 percent “dream girl.”) Spread Fam: Tell us—are you familiar with the MPDG archetype? Do you give a rat’s ass about any of this? Maybe we just answered our own question. Regardless, hats off to Spreadfaves Kaling, Carroll, and all of you who’ve stuck with us through this long nothing-burger of a paragraph, and we’ll see you and your fairy dust at the inevitable Top Gun 3.
Rachel & Maggie
P.S. Oooooooh, the Spread loves to love ya, baby. Throw us a bone by hitting that heart up there at the top of this page, why don’t you?
I will remember you.
Indulge me in a moment of nostalgic bliss before we dig back into the, um, less blissful present: Lilith Fair turns 25 this summer, and if you didn’t catch this oral history of the women-led festival that became a movement, a massive moneymaker—and still, a punchline—when it was published a few of years ago (actually, even if you did) I highly recommend the story, produced by Jessica Hopper with Sasha Geffen and Jenn Pelly for Vanity Fair in collaboration with Epic magazine. Though we all know how Lilith turns out, the story somehow manages to be a total page-turner, chockablock with fun anecdotes and encounters from and about the star-studded lineup: founder Sarah McLachlan, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow (who I liked for the first time ever after reading this piece; Caitlin Flanagan, curious about your thoughts!), Amy Ray, Missy Elliott, Erykah Badu, and dozens more.—Rachel
Read “Building a Mystery” here.
Baby got dragged.
Last week, I wrote here about Elizabeth Weil’s recent New York cover story, “Canceled at 17”: Quite the lightning rod! You’ll recall the piece centers on “Diego,” the drunken high schooler who showed a nude photo of his girlfriend and classmate, “Fiona,” around at a party, and was later ostracized for it by his entire community—and that my own post was mostly about my personal reaction and growth: I would once have been the first to attack Diego, to view his offense as forever unforgivable. But with twenty more years more life—including marriage and parenting—under my belt, I find myself feeling deeply outraged on Fiona’s behalf and convinced Diego should face consequences for his terrible actions, while also feeling deep compassion for Diego—in part because I now live with a 16-year-old male, my stepson, and am attuned to just how young 16 can be. Given that a very Gawker-y critique of both the sympathetic tone of the story and of Weil’s reporting practices had just popped up (Slate’s “unpacking” of the whole situation on its The Waves podcast gives a deep dive), maybe I should have anticipated that Twitter was not about to sit idly by and let my “take” go unnoticed. Jessica DeFino, who is mostly known for her feminist-edged beauty writing and whose work I admire, tweeted a screenshots of two paragraphs of my post. “Are boy moms feminism’s biggest threat?,” she asked. Her tweet has since racked up 763 likes and 90 retweets. I was being dragged. Did I engage? I did, Spreaders. With what I hoped was curiosity and humility, I tried to clarify any misunderstandings; I even tweaked the post itself for maximum clarity. Still, DeFino suggested that I should “privately examine…how proximity to males & power dampened [my] drive to fight against abuse & made me sympathize with perpetrators.” It was maddening, of course, but also interesting (both/and!): Surreal to have my allyship called into question, and most of all surprising that of all the legitimately spicy things I say here in Spreadland, it was my admission of and call for empathy for a child that caught the wrath of feminist Twitter. For the record I think that because my heart—and my ability to see more than one side of a thing—has grown three sizes in the past twenty years, I’m more driven and capable of effectively fighting abuse. To DeFino and all Spread readers: We write about this kind of thorny stuff every week…and we do have a comments section!—Rachel
As your ally, Rachel—and a mom of not one but two boys! Wait: Am I feminism’s big problem?—I have to jump in to point out the funny-fun-fun irony of someone suggesting that you “privately examine” your beliefs…on Twitter. I hope that most Spread readers saw the point of your initial post—even if they read the story differently—which is that it is possible, even in complex situations, to evolve in the way we see things, and to seek justice for victims while also finding empathy for both sides—especially when both sides are kids. OK, folks, feel free to have at me at @maggiebullock on Twitter, see you soon, don’t forget to tip your waiter, g’night now!—Maggie
The Ninth & the First.
We pause for a moment of joy to celebrate the historic appointment of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the highest court in the land, and to thank Justice Stephen Breyer for his service—and for having the humility to take himself out of the game in the second year of a democratic administration. Brava to them both. OK, now back to our regularly scheduled programming of nonstop panicking about the demise of said highest Court and our democracy in general. Sidebar: Per tradition, the second most recently-appointed Justice is the one who plans an arrival party for the latest, which means Amy Coney Barrett will be (was?0 in charge of Brown Jackson’s big welcome. Anybody wanna be a fly on the wall of that gathering?—Maggie
This is our place, we make the rules.
When Jean Garnett’s husband, who happens to be an indie rock drummer (just saying) asks if they should consider opening their marriage six months after the birth of their first child, I wanted to hurl my phone (and my husband, snoozing innocently beside me) across the room. An editor at Little, Brown by day, Garnett was still nursing and attempting to work again when her man “calmly set the idea on the table, like a decorative gun.” There is not a parent on earth who will not identify deeply with her as a “depressive working parent who has, as I hissed one night after another complaint about unmet needs, ‘absolutely nothing left for you.’” Was this going to be yet another case of the man-child whose needs must be met, even when his partner’s mind and body are still in shambles from the nuclear bomb that is early parenting? But no. Garnett’s essay in the Paris Review is an astoundingly gorgeous read; I’d say one of the best examples of sheer writing prowess we’ve recommended here in recent months; somehow her prose feels airy yet laser-specific at once, her words sharp and targeted as darts:
Maybe, I thought, the libido of a certain kind of woman is an animal that lives a little and then crawls into a cave and lies there panting for a few decades until, with a final ragged pant, it expires. Could it expire so early? Or perhaps it was taking a breather postpartum—understandable, surely, given how a six-and-a half-pound human body had been slither-pulled out of the place I get fucked, or one of the places.
It is also an intimate, deeply layered dissection of her open marriage, which unfolds over several years (as opposed to some three-month “experiment” undertaken for the purposes of a writing assignment) and considers why the arrangement works and doesn’t from the perspective of all parties. Yes, he gets his needs met; but so does she—his freedom buys her guilt-free “late night vigils on my laptop,” sinking into her writing until the computer keys are smeared in butter from her popcorn. (I scowled that he got sexual escapades while she got…more writing. Whoopee.) But there are also her own, far less frequent assignations, which somehow feed not just her, but their marital life. Even the needs of the younger women her husband dates receive her attention; Garnett lightly mocks herself for feeling “protective of these youngsters wasting their time on a married man.” What feels newest here is the way she broadens “open”—considering the role played by the young nanny who enters their life as a fellow parent figure, too. But what I can’t stop thinking about is Garnett’s permeability: Not just her openness to this arrangement, which in itself would tie me up in knots, but to the people it brings into her life; she befriends her husband’s lovers, chooses not to hold their youth against them (I’d fail that test straight off the bat); and finds it in herself to feel happy for him, the first night he comes home after sleeping with someone else, as he laughs to himself, peeling off his clothes in the dark, before piling into their bed. Is this a kind of generosity I fundamentally lack, Rachel? Or is it something more generational—I feel painfully aware of their hipness; I mean, dude’s a drummer, for chrissakes: How could my life choices ever keep up? Or is it just a more clear-eyed view of the relative value of monogamy vs. the actual needs of both Garnett herself and the man to whom she is still committed? [Guest fact checker Jesse pipes up to suggest it’s just their marriage more closely resembling that of probably every gay couple they know. Valid!] Either way, you will not be able to read this without diving straight to their Instagram accounts to put faces to names. Let me just go ahead and drop his and hers for you here.—Maggie
Speaking of different kinds of marriages… When I came across a New York Times tease about “7 questions to strengthen your relationship,” I called Maggie: Wanna dig into the untended guts of our partnership right now, or wait til the weekend when at least one of us can guzzle a glass of wine as we wade into the hard stuff? Then I looked more closely at the article (“Are we still on the same page about monogamy?”) and realized mayyyyybe this was not an exercise for workwives after all, but for actual live-in romantic/marital partners. Of course! Yes! Moving right along! As someone who is often made fun of by her friends (lookin’ at you, Bullock) for having an extremely high-communication marriage—my husband and I both read and write and edit for a living, it tracks—I love this kind of thing, and this particular version is designed with the idea that most partnerships have been shaken, pickled, and crusted over during more than two years of pandemic life, which I don’t think is us exactly…but I’m open to surprises! What seems telling this time around is that that question made it onto the list of the New York Times: Further evidence that non-monogamy has made it into the mainstream?—Rachel
Read “Scenes from an Open Marriage” here.
Read “7 Questions to Strengthen Your Relationship” here.
Have you met the Property (Theft) Brothers?
BusinessWeek’s newest edition is their Heist Issue—fun!—and one not-so-hard-to-crack caper is about a pair of doofus-y “realtors” (one is an actual realtor who does the strategizing, one a fake realtor who does the actual absconding) who allegedly teamed up to steal more than $5 million of luxury loot—art, designer bags, jewelry—from newly on-the-market houses in and around Beverly Hills. This should definitely be a movie, but in the making I’d recast the brains (ha!) of the operation as a woman—maybe Riley Keough; or Zoë Kravitz, who I can’t stop thinking about after Kimi; or Florence Pugh, who close readers will note I want in every movie—with Bowen Yang as the sweet, confused brawn.—Rachel
Read “The Open House Hunters” here.
Safe. Legal. AND WHAT DO YOU PEOPLE WANT FROM ME?!?
In recent weeks, in addition to our ongoing battle over the “manic pixie,” and Rachel’s recent foray into the cancel-culture ring on Twitter, the two of us have also spent hours via phone/text/Google Doc slugging it out over whether abortion is a “moral” decision. Why are we so combative lately? Go figure. Before we get into it, let’s start by excluding cases in which the procedure is a physical necessity for the mother, or the fetus is not viable, in which there is no moral or ethical question—there is only straightforward, immediate healthcare. But in cases where abortion is a choice—even one in which the parent has no other option—we differ slightly. I am comfortable calling this a moral choice, for the simple reason that the pregnant person must decide within themselves, according to their own code, or conscience, or belief system, if this is the right path for them. Moral, in my mind, doesn’t mean right vs. wrong—it means…weighty. But Rachel, understandably, doesn’t like appending the word moral or ethical to a procedure that is already too freighted: It implies judgment, also guilt; RB believes that morality as a concept should at this point fall to the imperative that abortion be accessible. She has tried to help me out by supplying other words: Emotional, maybe? Is abortion an emotional choice? Well, yeah, it usually is. As new Spread reader Ramona Grigg wrote to us last week, after our debate on the privacy questions stirred up by the absolutely iconic Lauren Santo Domingo/Ivanka Trump tweet, “Abortion is a life choice fraught with emotion. We need to address that side of it more, if anything. No woman goes into it without feeling gutted at some level, no matter how wanted or necessary it is, but opening up about it should be entirely her choice. Entirely.” This is how I tend to view it too, Ramona (also: welcome!). But friends remind me that many women who undergo it do so with very little emotional turmoil. I congratulate these stalwarts, I do: I can barely clip my toenails without emotional turmoil. But I also think that the existence of unemotional patients only strengthens my argument for moral: Because even if you can walk into a clinic without a pang of angst, you can’t have made that appointment without first interrogating (even briefly, or perfunctorily) something in yourself that runs deeper than emotion: What do I believe about this? Is this ok by me? Like it or not, I think it’s a choice that has weight—and should have weight. I don’t love moral to describe it, but I haven’t found a better word yet. (Ramona, thoughts?)
This week, Kat Rosenfield takes up the problem of abortion rhetoric masterfully in Unherd. Rosenfield might describe my current (and deeply unfashionable, I know) stance as that of a circa-1992 kinda Dem: That’s the year Bill Clinton ran on the abortion mantra of “Safe. Legal. Rare,” a catchphrase (one that, incidentally, Rachel and I do agree on), that “create[d] a big tent under which even people who felt morally ambivalent about abortion could comfortably gather,” Rosenfield writes. “….as well as safe and legal abortions, the Democrats were promoting comprehensive sex education and contraceptive access, which would help prevent unwanted pregnancies from happening in the first place—and Republicans, rather than make common cause with their enemies, mostly opted to argue against these things. And so, for a brief but magical moment, the Democrats could reasonably claim to be the party of fewer abortions and more shagging, while conservatives were left to take the deeply unpopular position that all non-procreative sex was bad, actually.” But by the time a different Clinton was running for president in 2016, the safe part had been excised from the Democratic Party platform, judged by activists as too “judge-y”—rare, they argued, made a woman feel guilty about being the one who had to have one. Read the full Rosenfield to understand why this shift occurred—we can’t tell ya everything here—and why she unflinchingly calls this argument “self-sabotaging lunacy.” Isn’t “safe, legal, and rare” a good description of any “medical procedure that is both unpleasant and unplanned, as abortions (but not only abortions) invariably are”?
A world in which people can’t even agree that fundamentally it would be nice if abortion was rare—rare but not restricted—doesn’t feel like a welcoming space for people like me, who want every woman to have access to something that we still believe carries some degree of moral or ethical complexity. Yes, I see abortion as a moral choice; no, I don’t feel morally ambivalent about women having them—and that’s a set of views that is complicated, even conflicted, I know. It’s not one that I expect everybody to agree with. But then, as a rule, why should other people see things exactly the way that I see them—as long as nobody is stepping in anyone else’s way to get what we need? Which means that we need, as Rosenfield is saying, not an ever-shrinking rhetorical tent, but a rather big-ass, flexible one that has room to fit everybody who thinks that abortion should be safe and legal and easy to get and guilt-free—even if some of us think it’s moral and others do not.—Maggie
Maggie, As you know and everybody I’ve bumped into over the past couple of months know, abortion is all I can talk about these days and it’s been wonderful to engage with you and Kate Greasley and also/even some of my conservative Southern friends on this third-rail stuff. There are two twin essays from this week that tackle abortion storytelling that I’m excited to recommend to Spreadville: The first is written by Maggie Doherty in the Yale Review; whether or not you believe that an abortion should be a weighty choice—Doherty does not—it’s a super clear-eyed and refreshing take a subject that brings Katha Pollitt’s pro-choice tennet that abortion is “is an essential option for women—not just ones in dramatic, terrible, body-and-soul-destroying situations, but all women—and thus benefits society as a whole” into focus for 2022. It also hit a nerve with me about how in all of our rhetoric in response to Roe, we may be overplaying our collective hand regarding how horrifying most pregnancies actually are (something Rosenfield touches on as well). Just read it; lots of smart stuff in here. I won’t miss a Doherty essay from here on out. Next, from tried-and-true thinker Rebecca Traister, is a piece for the Cut about how all abortion stories are important—that only when told en masse can they reflect the diversity and texture of life—and how we need to make up for lost time. For what it’s worth, she also sensitively gets into why it’s fraught for some women to tell our abortion stories—she doesn’t imply that’s easy. Traister also recalls an instance when Whoopi Goldberg waved a coathanger at a rally to showcase the lengths to which members of her own generation had to go through to get an abortion; it wasn’t Traister’s favorite example of abortion storytelling (“she was scolding a generation for its privilege”) but it was an important piece of the pre-Roe tapestry. This in combination with Susan Faludi’s takedown of pop-feminism in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago plus the fact that Hollywood is making noise about making business decisions based on state abortion laws and also paying for abortion travel for employees in need, made me look around and ask, WHERE ARE THE CELEBRITIES TALKING ABOUT THEIR ABORTIONS? Over the past decade or so, we’ve learned that politics sell—now is the time for big celebrities (in addition to the Laura Prepons and Lily Allens who’ve already done so—thank you for your service!—both men and women, to take a page of Ali McGraw’s 1985 People playbook to talk about the choices that made their current lives—and the presences in our own—possible. Is it risky for their careers? Sure, a little. Will the first few get blowback from the right? Of course? Is that a martyrdom that, speaking cynically, is going to look good in the long run? Absolutely. One of the most powerful lines Amy Hagstrom Miller, abortion celebrity and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, uses to show how essential it is to our society: “Everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.” Well what does America love more than celebrity?—Rachel
Read “The Left killed the pro-choice coalition” here.
Read “The Abortion Stories We Tell” here.
Read “The Abortion Stories We Didn’t Tell” here.
Rachel and other pregnant humans: Do not watch this television program. Everybody else: Scrub in!
Last week I binge-watched the first five eps of This is Going to Hurt, which means that I am now pretty sure I could personally perform an emergency C-section on a breach birth on the floor of the emergency room reception area—such is the quantity of unusually vivid OB/GYN medical scenarios packed into this one little BBC dramedy (streaming now via Sundance, which is most easily accessed via Amazon Prime Video, or AMC+, which is currently running a 7-day free trial). Indeed, after so many years of seeing our female-oriented medical dramas filtered through Shonda Rhimes’s Starbucks Venti Oatmilk Green Tea Latte™-smeared lens, it seems almost radical to watch Ben Whishaw's scrawny, embittered NHS doc—sorely lacking a spray tan, eyes perpetually underhung by Trainspotting-level purple baggage—scrambling around in a haze of torqued ovaries, sliced labia, stitched perinea (that’s perineum in plural, according to Merriam-Webster) and one woman who accidentally eats her blood clots, thinking it’s her placenta. You don’t see that on Grey’s Anatomy, y’all! And it all takes place in a hospital that—yes, Ms. DeFino, I know this is not a PC thing to say—will make any insured American at least a little bit relieved to live in a country without socialized medicine, if this is what socialized medicine looks like (yoikes!). Indeed, This is Going to Hurt (based on the 2017 memoir of the same name by British obstetrician Adam Kay) could be video footage used to illustrate the Left’s nonstop accounts of the gruesome horrors of reproduction: Trying for it, achieving it, failing to achieve it—none of it looks particularly beatific and rewarding at the NHS! But now that all I think about is pregnancy, anyway—Rachel’s, and those of the thousands of women in this country who two weeks ago had the right to control theirs and now cannot—I find the whole show feels (not unpleasantly) loaded, poignant, and almost weirdly timely: Here are the exact blood and guts we’re all talking about all the time, wrapped up in a tight 59 minute ep! It’s the literal opposite of escapism. Maybe a form of exposure therapy? Rachel, do let me know if your doc needs an assist when you go into labor next week (if not before!): By then, I may have been able to watch the whole series, and will be eager to put my new know-how to use.—Maggie
Maggie, I’m really looking forward to having a front-row seat to your new side hustle as a doula and I’m happy to be your guinea pig. Book that plane ticket; the clock’s a-tickin’.—Rachel
For evil to triumph it is only necessary for good women not to know the meaning of Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Dear Rachel and Maggie, I love The Spread and am probably your top gay male fan. Did you see the piece in the Times about Solveig Gold, the 27 year old wife of a recently cancelled Princeton professor? The peg it’s hung on is a dinner party she gave, but it’s about more, and I’m DYING for your take. Please enlighten us all! -Allen