The Girlfriend Experience
The Thelma and Louise of newsletters is using our sexiest baby voice this week.
Because we’re nothing if not current, the Spread has gotten into NFTs. Yup, we’re BIG into them! Like Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon big. Like Brie and Gwyneth big. That’s right, we’re pretty much an NFT newsletter now. According to Google, NFT stands for non-fungible token. According to Kim Kardashian’s boyfriend and friends, NFTs are totally unique, built on blockchain, and work best if you’re…dressed in a superhero costume of some kind? According to Rachel, they’re a new art medium, probably, that she and her aunt LuLu text about sometimes? According to Maggie…wait, what are NFTs? OK, fine, the jig is up. We don’t fully understand NFTs, we definitely don’t have any yet, and our houses aren’t in Arch Digest either. But people ARE mad about our knockoff fine art! (No, they’re not.) But! There are big things afoot at the Spread and we’d love to hear your ideas about how we can better serve you, dear reader. Tell us your hopes, dreams, fears…and also what you’d like to see more of in this space and beyond. You know where to find us! Or if you don’t: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To infinity and beyond,
Rachel & Maggie
PS: Have you gotten in the groove of hearting us weekly? “Science” says it takes two weeks to make anything a habit, which means smashing the like button on the Spread for a total of 14 issues before it becomes second nature. Join us in making this into a resolution! No, excuse us, an intention for 2022. Also: Share us! Heck, even overshare us! We know you’re excellent at sharing.
My phone Freudian-autocorrected his name as “Sucker.”
When news broke last week that Jeff Zucker was stepping down as chief of CNN because of his relationship with a senior employee, a slew of conspiracy theories sprouted right up. “That Zucker—arguably the person most responsible for turning TV news into entertainment and giving Donald Trump endless airtime in 2016—resigned over this feels, as one person put it to me, like getting Al Capone on tax evasion,” writes Noreen Malone in Slate. His relationship with EVP/CMO Allison Gollust appears to have been the worst-kept secret in media (Katie Couric brought receipts, y’all! That lady is Going There.), and though Zucker says it started during the pandemic (when he and Gollust were both divorced) many believe it’s been going on for years, and may have been investigated by CNN before, without consequences—so why’s he resigning for it now? Was he internally exposed as revenge for the firing of Chris Cuomo, or was getting rid of him necessary housekeeping in advance of CNN’s upcoming merger with Discovery? Either would make blaming his departure on the relationship a cynical exploitation of the rules of sexual misconduct. What struck me, though, after the news alert went out and my usual text chains predictably lit up, was the curious mix of responses it engendered. Why wasn’t anybody on the side I expected them to be on? Among my friends, the person arguing most passionately for transparency, conflict of interest, and the ethics of sexual harassment was a dude. Meanwhile, at least two very progressive women friends thought it was insane for Zucker to have to step down because of a consensual relationship, even if he was her boss. What consequences would Gollust face? they wanted to know. (We all managed to agree on one thing, at least: “You can’t dip your pen in the company ink” is a choice but, sadly, problematic idiom.) Not so long ago, there were rarely two sides to any #MeToo debate—these gray-area relationships were condemned with a black-and-white absolutism. Are we entering a new age of nuance in how these cases are seen?—Maggie
Hey Maggie! I think we are indeed entering a new chapter of #MeToo and I am here for it. The subject of interoffice relationship gray areas always makes me think of Allison Benedikt’s essay, also on Slate, about sparks flying with her now-husband at work (though I too met my husband at work, there were no low-rise jeans involved; I know, I’m boring). Benedikt published this piece right after the Weinstein scandal broke, as #MeToo was dawning, which I find incredibly bold and even sweet—she must really love this guy!—but such nuanced ideas have rarely seen the light of day in the mainstream media since. If this is a new era, what an eye roll that Jeff Zucker of all people is ringing it in.—Rachel
Read Malone’s “Did Jeff Zucker and Chris Cuomo Make Me Too a Weapon in Their Power Struggle?” here.
Read Benedikt’s “The Upside of Office Flirtation” here.
On sinful blow-dryers, Mormon sex, and identical influencers.
In December, the Spread launched the career of a little-known newsletter-er named Anne Helen Peterson by bestowing upon her a Spreadie award. OK, fine, she didn’t need us: A former professor who worked at Buzzfeed before launching her hit newsletter Culture Study here on Substack, Petersen’s been a wildly successful pop thinker for years. She’s written several smart books and has a cool 137,500+ Twitter followers. And though I immensely respect her, I do often think she goes too soft on her interview subjects, and I sometimes find her takes a little knee-jerk progressive, especially in the realm of Zillennial office culture. (Isn’t it fun to be mad at people you admire and who have zero clue who you are?) But I am not mad at this week’s installment of Petersen’s newsletter whatsoever. She’s long been fascinated by Brooklyn and Bailey McKnight, twin Mormon influencers who attended Baylor University but mostly live on Instagram and TikTok; here she uses the consummation of Bailey’s marriage to boyfriend Asa—in the afterglow, Bailey and Asa made a video about it!—as a way into sex positivity and the Christian church. As someone who grew up Methodist and in the Bible Belt, this is a pet subject of mine, and Petersen handles it beautifully, framing the concept of female sexuality in the church in terms of Gloppy, the Candyland character who in this metaphor has not only touched sinful chocolate but is sinful chocolate. (I can’t forget, for example, how on one church trip to Orange Beach, Alabama, when I was in eighth grade, a guest preacher went on at length about the filthiest thing in the world: a woman’s menstrual rag. Wasn’t God great because he forgave us our sins, which were as dirty as the dirtiest thing imaginable, an old-school maxi pad? This, in front of a room of self-conscious eighth graders, many of whom had learned to use tampons expressly for this trip, which required us to wear bathing suits in front of boys!) The surprise in Petersen’s piece is that she thinks, with a few caveats, that the post-sex video is good for the world—an argument she lands persuasively—but also spends time on the counterintuitive point that the LDS church is actually more sex-positive than evangelical faiths. It’s a layered and lengthy investigation—Petersen’s newsletters are always very long; I know, pot-kettle—that covers a lot of ground and made me resubscribe to Culture Study’s paid level (which I had at one point canceled in a moment of rage). So Annie—can I call you Annie? I’ve heard people call you Annie!—want to have coffee and, you know, talk with an enthusiastic subscriber?—Rachel
Read “The Baylor Influence Twin Sex-Positive Glow-Up” here.
A boost when you need it.
At a wedding this past fall—at which every attendee had to be vaxxed, PCR-tested, and twice rapid tested for Covid—I spotted the jowly face of Mr. Hillbilly Elegy himself, would-be US Senator from Ohio J.D. Vance, on the dance floor. The nerve of him, showing up in dress shoes instead of boots which he could strap. Did I need to call up Marjorie Taylor Greene and tattle on him for complying with these mandates? But before I whipped out my cell to capture photographic evidence, I responsibly fact-checked my hunch with the bride and…it was not J.D. Vance at all. Just a look-alike cousin. I was disappointed but also relieved not to have a job to do during “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” This is a lot of windup to say that I cheered when Educated wunderkind/author Tara Westover came out as the anti-J.D. Vance in the New York Times with a guest op-ed titled “I Am Not Proof of the American Dream.” Like Vance, Westover grew up in poverty—he in Ohio, she in Idaho to survivalist parents—and managed to hustle her way out. Unlike Vance, who preaches hard work and bootstrapping, Westover—who barely slept in college due to all of the jobs she worked to pay her tuition—talks in the new piece about how not just her hard work but a $4,000 Pell grant changed her life. Without that small amount of social support, she would not have been able to reach the heights she has. It’s a powerful case for giving students—and anyone—the help that they need. And Westover writes movingly about her responsibility to shout from the rooftops: I couldn’t do it alone!—Rachel
Read “I Am Not Proof of the American Dream” here.
Does it hurt the sex bot’s feelings when you’re mean to her?
Alexa and Siri are persona non grata in my house. My partner has some objection to all-powerful corporate entities listening in on our conversations—go figure. So I still flinch a little when I hear other people (especially male people) bluntly order them around. Alexa, turn that down. Siri, stop playing that. Would I care as much if Silicon Valley had seen fit to give our AI assistants male voices and identities? Doubtful. But the sound of a man ordering a woman around just doesn’t sit right with me, even if the woman’s a bot. Rachel, for the record I support your right to bark orders at your Alexa, but since you flatly refused to read this Jezebel article solely on the basis of its headline—People Are Creating Sexbot Girlfriends and Treating Them as Punching Bags—I guess I’ll take this one for the team. The headline is repugnant, it’s true. It’s also somewhat misleading. The article, by Kylie Cheung, centers on chatbot-maker Replika, which has 2.5 million users, who text with the company’s virtual pals about benign topics (travel, race car drivers), but also about love and sex. Here, of course, is where it gets sketchy. The company’s users include people seeking relationships and companionship from bots. And some—and these are mostly men—take advantage of the encrypted anonymity of the chat to “quite unabashedly subject their bots to verbally abusive language and/or live out violent fantasies with them,” Cheung writes. “Give humans a virtual space and an avatar to hide behind, and they’ll find a way to turn it into a hotbed of sexual abuse and harassment.” We already knew that the subservient female voices of Alexa and Siri encourage sexist, abusive language toward those bots. Now, this gets us into the murky ethical territory of “virtual abuse” wielded against fictional characters. Writes Cheung, “With sex bots and virtual reality very much a part of our current reality, we’re facing a fundamental question about how we treat those we perceive to be subhuman.” Is it healthier for those users to have a nonhuman outlet to take out their darkest impulses on, or does having free rein to be cruel to an AI girlfriend normalize that behavior, increasing their likelihood of cruelty to an actual human?—Maggie
Maggie, OK, of course people should not abuse Alexa or anyone or anything. But sometimes Alexa is an obstinate little brat and will only respond to my partner (a male) and not to me! Am I supposed to just roll over and have her wreck my brain with incessant beeping after I’ve politely said, “Alexa, please stop timer” like four times? I think not! Sometimes she needs a firmer hand, i.e. me shrieking at the top of my lungs. And for that I’m not apologizing.—Rachel
Read “People Are Creating Sexbot Girlfriends and Treating Them as Punching Bags” here.
Precious Baby Angel-Pie Bunny Foo-Foo Scott?
As we anxiously await the big reveal of the name of Kylie Jenner’s new babe, born 2/2/22 (coincidence? I think not), fans are guessing it involves the word “angel.” Which would actually be fairly sedate in what the Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker this week deemed “the age of the unique baby name.” One fascinating tidbit from his piece:
“American naming is now in a phase where distinctiveness is a virtue, which is a departure from the mid-century model of success: Today, you excel not by fitting in, but by standing out. ‘Parents are thinking about naming kids more like how companies think about naming products, which is a kind of competitive marketplace where you need to be able to get attention to succeed,’ Wattenberg told me. And whether or not parents nowadays choose a name with an eye toward its Google-ability, search engines and social media have certainly changed the way they think about the value (or the downsides) of having a name that is different from that of other internet users.”
When my sons were born, it was pretty clear their names would be short and sweet, not because of their future “brands” but because of their dad’s surname: Cichanowski. Two children and nearly 15 years into our relationship, those four syllables still stump most members of my family. (Guys, all together now: Chee-huh-now-ski.) I never considered taking his name. By the time we met, I had a professional byline and was also a fully cooked human being: I was going to start answering to a new name this late in the game, because of a man? No. Also his mother, a kindergarten teacher who spent decades telling tongue-twisted five-year-olds “It’s OK, just call me Mrs. C,” told me straight out the name was a mouthful, absolving me of any guilt I might have felt about keeping my own. Though in truth, I had none. The funny thing was, when I got pregnant, I didn’t think twice about giving our children his name. In Time, Aubrey Hirsch writes about the uphill logistical battle she and her husband faced when they, as a married couple, decided to give their children her last name. At every turn they were hit by the assumption: Children have their father’s name. But “tradition wasn’t a good enough reason to convince me that the children I grew in my own body shouldn’t have my name,” Hirsch says. “After all, it’s (mostly) women who do the hard work of pregnancy and childbirth. We also do the vast majority of the actual parenting…So why shouldn’t we pass on our names as well?” Oddly I think I did give my kids my spouse’s name for the same reason she didn’t: I was carrying and birthing these children. That, in my mind, inherently made them mine. Using his surname was a way to lasso them to him, too, and to tie us together as a unit. I’m interested in how this negotiation works in same-sex couples: Readers, tell us how you did it! And Rachel, what are your thoughts on this one?—Maggie
Ms. Bullock, My situation is unique and my position self-centered: Our big kids—my stepkids—have my husband’s last name, Burnett. And I wanted our baby to share a last name with them, so she too is Burnett. And then I threw in Baker as an extra middle name. I think if it weren’t for the biggies, we’d have gone the hyphenated route in a ’90s throwback kind of way. However, being from the South (did y’all know I’m from the American South?!?!?) it’s still considered radical in my family—and among their assorted bridge and golf groups—that I kept my “maiden” name. Like, people freak out and send panicked texts when a wedding invitation needs to be addressed to us. Which is satisfying enough from where I sit. Still, when I meet someone whose kid shares the mom’s last name I do find myself thinking that she (the mother) is kind of badass. Maybe in my next life!—Ms. Baker
Read “It's 2022 and People Are Still Confused That My Kids Have Their Mother's Last Name” here.
Read “The Age of the Unique Baby Name” here.
An avatar for what, exactly?
I am really into Lil Miquela. When someone brings up Lil Miquela, I involuntarily shout, LOVE HER! OBSESSED WITH HER! HAVE BEEN SINCE 2016! Hitching my wagon to Instagram’s sweetest nonhuman influencer must make me feel young or something. Sad, I realize. Happier—well, kind of—is Kim Hew-Low’s recent piece on Lil Miquela in the Drift. As a Miquela stan, I thoroughly enjoyed Emilia Petrarca’s 2018 New York profile of the incredibly human-looking digital character, but I did wonder, what more is there to say? (Beyond Miquela’s entrance into the NFT market, that is: the first Lil Miquela NFT was acquired for $82,000. Its value has reportedly quadrupled since.) But Hew-Low’s feature is an investigation of our culture’s relationship to race and racial ambiguity, using Lil Miquela as, well, its avatar. According to LinkedIn, Hew-Low is currently an editorial assistant at the soon-to-be-bygone Believer and seems to be very young—like, early 20s maybe—my point being: Someone out there should hire this woman if she hasn’t already been snapped up! Hew-Low astutely traces America’s relationship with the concept of racial ambiguity from the Benetton ’90s to present-day, and the end of the piece was a gut punch to this Miquela follower. The last drop of cool has been drained from my body—not that it was ever there. THANKS A LOT, KIM, YOU BRILLIANT CHILD.—Rachel
Ask a 40-something.
Maggie, A bunch of question-headlined pieces burst onto my radar this week, and for each of them, my first thought was, I WONDER WHAT MAGGIE THINKS!?!?! So I’m asking you—my surrogate big sista—to please answer the four below. Think of it as service journalism, serving me and all the other wanting Spreaders out there.—Rachel
Is it easier to handle two babies than one? (British Vogue)
Puleeze, two babies is like three, and three babies is like six. My therapist believes you need four adults to happily raise two children and I’m with her on this one. This writer didn’t have a new baby, she just discovered the beauty of a playdate for the very first time. I’m happy for her but let’s be careful what we call “easy,” sister.
I have not, but only because it hasn’t come up in casual conversation! I did notice a major shift over at once-trad Parents mag, though, where language has shifted from “pregnant women” to “pregnant people” and from “breastfeeding” to “chestfeeding.”
100 percent. Indeed, last Friday night, long after margaritas did my best friend in, I sat up late in her kitchen talking with her husband, one of my favorite people. (Of course, in a bar fight or a dance-off, I would be obligated to take her side, but I’m sure he’d understand.) But this story is actually about something stickier: Whether single people can really be friends with their best friend’s partner, and the complicated feelings that come with being a plus-one. To that I say: Hmm. Tricky.