We're Working From Bed
The Collins and Murkowski (not!) of newsletters tackles good billionaires, bad vegans, and the ghost of Helen Keller.
It has come to our attention that half of the Spread is afflicted with “career woman’s disease.” And no, we’re not talking about our jammed-up brains or our desk-bound backs or our under-exercised thighs—though all that could use a paid vacay, too. In her recent book review of Vagina Obscura—“an anatomical voyage” by science journalist Rachel E. Gross—the New York Times’s Maya Salam casually drops that medical textbooks in the ’80s used that catchy coinage to refer to endometriosis! To be crystal clear, we’re not talking about Freud’s 1880s heyday, which led to his seminal 1895 Studies on Hysteria, but the nineteen-80s, when greed was good and Julia Roberts’s hair was even better. The book—which Salam describes as very graphic: an excellent audiobook choice for our families’ next road trip (not because they’re sexist but because they hate guts and talk of blooood bwahaha!)—details a medical establishment that, if you’re a woman, you already realize has long been anti-woman, and even if you’re a glass-half-full type of woman, you can’t deny has been egregiously exclusionary of women. The Spread will be purchasing Vagina Obscura for our reference library. We like our hysterical grumbling punctuated with cold hard, historical facts!
This week: We can expect a verdict on the trial against four idiots who planned to kidnap and kill Michigan gov Gretchen Whitmer, an almost definite confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, and…spring! May you all unfurl like the allium bulbs in Maggie’s yard, which grew four inches—we kid you not—in the eight hours it took us to write this newsletter.
Jam out with your clam out,
Rachel & Maggie
P.S. Don’t forget to show us that love, readers!
Quick, honey, hide the icepick!
And Rachel, while you’re at it, page my therapist, and maybe my husband. I’ve just had a psychological breakthrough, and it’s a little worrying: Hands down, the most influential movie genre of my childhood and adolescence was the erotic thriller. I’m talking about Sharon Stone’s entire ‘90s oeuvre, plus Indecent Proposal, Disclosure, Cruel Intentions, Fatal Attraction, 9 1/2 Weeks, and (omg, o-m-g) my then-favorites, Single White Female and Sleeping with the Enemy. Plus, three words: Rebecca De Mornay. I devoured them all between the ages of eight and 18. Yet somehow I’d never really tallied them up, or considered their potential impact on my nascent female psyche, until I read Amanda Hess’s phenomenal essay on the genre in the New York Times, and realized that back when I was sitting thisclose to the Home Box Office screen in our otherwise pitch-black basement—sky-high on murderous women having disastrous sex—I was…10. Maybe nine? This informed an early impression of sex as an a) vertical and b) covert act, urgently accomplished while pressed against, say, the door of the fridge, and under a cloud of impending doom. But mostly it gave me the illicit thrill of watching something distinctly adult and certainly forbidden. Don’t blame my parents, who are probably learning this for the first time here. I was crafty—isn’t that what these movies told me to be? I crept downstairs to watch in the middle of the night; watched at friends’ houses; watched at movie theaters after sneaking out of Young Guns. (Actually maybe do blame my parents, for being gullible enough to believe I was going to watch Young Guns.) This week, the genre is enjoying a revival—in the mediaverse, at least. Over at Vulture, they’re calling their week of essays on erotic thrillers “Make Hollywood Horny Again.” Among the hits is Carrie Wittmer’s roundup, “22 Signs You’re Watching An Erotic Thriller.” My favorites: “vertical and horizontal blinds”; “Effective Use of Westchester County”; and “If Michael Douglas, a man who once blamed his throat cancer on oral sex, is in a movie, it is probably an erotic thriller.”
The funny thing is that all this renewed attention was sparked not by a great new erotic thriller, but by the opposite: The collective groan when sexy-movie king Adrian Lyne (who directed a fair share of my aforementioned formative films) returned after 20 years to give us…Deep Water. We knew this one would be awkward from a PR perspective, considering the movie stars Ben Affleck between the sheets with his early-pandemic girlfriend, the luscious Ana de Armas, and not his late-pandemic girlfriend, the luscious Jennifer Lopez. (Come on ladies. The Dunkin’ guy with the full-back tat of a phoenix?) I can’t say enough about Hess’s gleeful evisceration of this film, but Allison P. Davis’s mediation on the genre on Vulture sealed the deal for me, both with this line about her Deep Water anticipation—“I wanted to see it, then I wanted to go to dinner and talk about it, then I wanted to go home and bone about it in a way that was maybe inspired by what I’d watched”—and by unearthing a choice circa-1988 quote from Lyne, about women like Alex, Glenn Close’s bunny boiler in Fatal Attraction—who was single, vaguely feminist, and worked in publishing:
“They are … sort of overcompensating for not being men. It’s sad, you know, because it kind of doesn’t work. You hear feminists talk, and the last 10, 20 years, you hear women talking about fucking men rather than being fucked, to be crass about it. It’s kind of unattractive, however liberated and emancipated it is. It kind of fights the whole wife role, the whole childbearing role. Sure you got your career and your success but you are not fulfilled as a woman…..My wife has never worked. She’s the least ambitious person I’ve ever met. She’s a terrific wife. She hasn’t the slightest interest in doing a career. She kind of lives with me, and it’s a terrific feeling. I come home, and she’s there.”
Thank you, M. Lyne, for making it so satisfying to hate Deep Water. RB, dying to know, what’s your fave erotic thriller?—Maggie
Maggie, This morning, my 17-month-old was literally toddling around our kitchen waving a small saucepan with her beloved Rat Bunny (a stuffed rabbit with fur the color of the nastiest rodent you could imagine) inside it. Could this be mere coincidence given that it’s Erotic Thriller Week?!?! Though you were more of a risk-taking child, MB, this genre was also a formative one for me. When I was little, my parents were obsessed with every single title you’ve ticked off—they’d rent one and shoo my sister and me to bed early so that they could fully embrace these scary femme fatales and the Michael D. types who didn’t love them—which meant I had to urgently watch the entire collection the moment I snagged a high-school job at Video Library whose benefits included an account of my own and unlimited free rentals. You mentioned Ms. De Mornay and yep, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle will forever hold a special place in my heart—though that one has more thrills and less eroticism than the genre’s peak. As a Video Librarian and Cher Horowitz stan, I was partial to The Babysitter. But now as an adult, I vote Body Heat all the way, sweaty baby. As for more recent fare, don’t sleep on Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects! Earlier this year, my husband and recommended Power of the Dog to my mother, who is a proud Jane Campion fan (nobody understood The Piano as deeply she did—nobody!!) but also such a disciple of the erotic thriller genre that she cut her hair into a pixie for the first time weeks after Sharon Stone did in the ’90s. Her “return recommendation” for us was a film she and my dad loved, The Voyeurs, starring “the scary young girl from White Lotus in a very different role” (Sydney Sweeney). The film is supposedly an homage to Rear Window. I pulled it up for our Friday night watch. Mamma mia! This movie is not an erotic thriller—it’s soft-core porn with a light, um, window dressing of plot. Even Basic Instinct beats this one; though, according to Vulture The Voyeurs has been a huge success for Amazon. Wonder why?—Rachel
Read Hess’s “When the Master of the Erotic Thriller Fails to Thrill” here.
Read Allison P. Davis’s “When Sex Was Bad for You” here.
Helen Keller was a hoax-puppet for the liberal-socialist agenda!
A few weeks ago I was at a backyard party for a friend who has gleefully joined the Great Resignation, when the topic of Helen Keller came up. “Oh yeah, she’s the subject of a bunch of far-right conspiracy theories,” one guest—an academic with cool bangs—offered. What? My conservative Mississippi high school spent extensive time indoctrinating us into the cult of The Miracle Worker: We read it, we sat through the black-and-white movie, we were field-tripped to New Stage community theater for multiple stage productions of it over the years. Still, it makes sense that in the age of the internet, Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan had been recast in a deeply cynical light: Keller was, after all, an activist for the disabled and—gasp—women’s suffrage. Well, Radiolab cohost Lulu Miller’s recent episode, “The Helen Keller Exorcism,” landed right in time for my newly piqued interest. Miller brilliantly unlocks the real story of the Alabama-born deaf-and-blind trailblazer—who, it turns out, was far more than the malleable, high-IQ pupil I studied in school—through the up-to-the-minute personal journey of Elsa Sjunneson, an award-winning sci-fi writer and media critic who herself is deafblind (and as you can imagine, has for her entire life been compared by strangers and classmates to Keller). The result is an alternately heartfelt, enlightening, and quite funny double-portrait of two rabble-rousing women born a century apart.
Speaking of disability: The Cut ran an excerpt of Chloé Cooper Jones’s new memoir, Easy Beauty, about being told she could never be pregnant due to having a rare congenital condition called sacral agenesis, and then realizing five months in that she was pregnant despite her disability! The excerpt itself doesn’t totally hang together as a standalone piece, but Jones’s writing is wonderful and serves as an effective billboard for the book.—Rachel
Listen to “The Helen Keller Exorcism” here.
Read “The Life I Grew” by Chloé Cooper Jones here.
President of the First Wives Club.
I think we can all agree that MacKenzie Scott is the woman—and the ex-wife—we all want to be. The way she has upended the world of philanthropy, sprinkling hundreds of millions in no-strings-attached grants from the skies, fairy godmother-like, over whatever organization strikes her as worthy? Stunning. The way those grants dwarf her ex’s comparatively paltry gifts, doing enormous good while showing him up? SPECTACULAR. The fact that she’s a writer who, post-Bezos, married a beloved high school teacher? Gah! We’ve been craving a great Scott story. Considering that both Kara Swisher and Gayle King have publicly begged Scott for interviews and gone unanswered, we’ll accept that the write-around Fortune delivered last week may be the closest we’re gonna get. (For now, at least: New Yorker, we’re looking at you.) Here are the hits:
At 51, Scott has given away more than $12 billion of her now $52 billion net worth.
The rest of the billionaire’s club gives away 1.2 percent of their assets a year—juuuust enough to slash their taxes. Scott’s donations just through last June accounted for nearly 5 percent of her net worth (though of course, as Amazon skyrocketed in the pandemic, the rise in her stock price outpaced even her giving: The ultrarich can’t even give it away, people!).
Those who win a Scott grant don’t have to spend half their time reporting what they’re doing with her money; Scott has sparked a trend in “trust-based philanthropy” with no reporting required.
Organizations that want Scott’s money, and those that have received it, have absolutely no way to contact her. You either receive a surprise phone call that a grant is coming, or you don’t. You can’t apply for a MacKenzie Scott grant, and winners can’t reveal which person in her organization informed them it was coming—or even send a thank-you note. The Spread is thinking of trying smoke signals. Very dramatic in the Pacific Northwest, and you can buy an handy kit on Amazon for $96.28.—Maggie
Read “The Mysterious MacKenzie Scott” here.
Can I buy stock in Mindy Inc.?
Let’s try to talk about women and work without mentioning a certain incendiary comment that recently caused outrage, was joked about with Judi Dench, was said to be “taken out of context”, was proven not to be “taken out of context”, and now has kind of evaporated to make room for the commenter’s castmate/sister’s Las Vegas wedding to the drummer from Blink 182? OK, thanks, and who’s still with me?
Mindy Kaling, if you’re reading this, I know you know what I’m talking about. Kaling is on the cover of Time’s 100 Most Influential Companies issue, representing her humbly named production company, Kaling International (italics mine), which has made the winning Never Have I Ever and the successful Sex Lives of College Girls, both featuring non-white young women in the lead roles. Aptly, the accompanying profile of Kaling, by Eliana Dockterman, drills down on her ambition and unapologetic workaholism, which I found superrefreshing given that 2022 has been all about the bashing of the out-of-fashion girlboss (especially those who have turned out to be scammers, which, fair!). Of course there are problems with the trappings of the girl boss but for Kaling the work-work-work-work-work-life (do I sound like Rihanna, yes or yes?) feels completely true to who she’s always shown us she is. Two highlights: 1) Kaling, without qualms, says that she does most of her writing from bed. (Same!) 2) The obligatory B.J. Novak quote is a good one: “She can outline an entire season of television on the back of an envelope in the time it takes someone else to come up with one joke.” Finally, I feel the need to mention that the lead of the piece is about how everyone thinks they should be Kaling’s best friend and that scores of women approach her to tell her so (she is too busy to take on random friends!), and…guilty!—Rachel
Read “Funny Business” here.
Bad Vegan left ya…hungry?
This was the week everyone on my text chain got around to bingeing the Netflix docuseriesabout Sarma Melngailis, the restaurateur behind Manhattan’s O.G. vegan hotspot, Pure Food and Wine, who in the 2010s got New York-famous both for her pricey, “good” food, and a certain blond, skinny-browed Bachelorette aesthetic. In 2015, she fell hard, defrauding investors and stiffing her staff, only to be tracked down months later in a rando Tennessee hotel just down the road from Dollywood—caught because of…a Domino’s pizza. (You can’t make this sh*t up). Bad Vegan builds the case that she did all this under the spell of a shadowy figure, her serial-huckster husband, who convinced her to obey his increasingly bizarre “spiritual” directives and to write him checks totaling $1.5 million over two years. My text chain’s review, in a nutshell: Huh? Even if you accept that Melngailis was brainwashed (I do, mostly) the series—four episodes that are fun to watch but beg to be condensed into a single hour of Dateline—falls far short of explaining how or why a successful, Ivy-educated adult human could be influenced to this degree. If you’re in deep, Melngailis’ says her says her interview with the podcast A Little Bit Culty “tells the truth” and “will fill in some blanks.” The pod is hosted by married couple Sarah Edmondson and Anthony “Nippy” Ames, who are predisposed to be Sarma sympathists: They got sucked into NXIVM before helping to drain that cesspool (you may recognize them from another cult-escapee docuseries, HBO’s The Vow.) In a lengthy Instagram post, the duo called out Netflix’s director for neglecting to interview any experts on coercive control or cult abuse. True! Where was the context, the perspective of anybody other than ex-employees? Is it possible it’s all in the last 30 minutes of the show? Just as entered the home stretch, my four-year-old came downstairs and launched into a 1:30 a.m. meltdown. Netflix: Are you interested in a docuseries on his coercion tactics? Working title, Bad Sleeper—Maggie
Watch Bad Vegan on Netflix here.
Listen to A Little Bit Culty here.
The Jill Team!
My favorite thing about lefty opinionist Jill Filipovic is that I don’t always agree with her. Sometimes I think she’s knee-jerk progressive; other times she gets me with the kind of eyeroll-worthy pronouncements common in people who tweet around the clock, like this one—which went viral and which she has since taken down, but which I still think about all the time. But when I do agree with her, it’s my favorite kind of agreement—violent agreement! In her most recent newsletter, titled “In Defense of Debate,” Filipovic’s twist on the seemingly constant debate about debate is that she’s talking about actual formal debate, which most of us got our last shot at on the high school debate team but which Filipovic still actually formally engages in—specifically last week, at Notre Dame, about abortion rights, vs. Alexandra DeSanctis from the National Review. As many on the left advocate for “deplatforming” instead of engaging, I’m with Jill. She writes, “I do not believe that abortion rights should be up for debate. But whether I like it or not, abortion rights are up for debate. My choice is not whether I live in this world or my ideal one; it is whether I show up in the world I live in to defend abortion rights or not...[And] college campuses…are one space where I think it’s particularly crucial for those of us whose job it is to publicly grapple with questions of politics and rights to show up and engage, even on issues we don’t believe we should have to defend and even on questions we believe have long been answered.” Like!
Elsewhere in my inbox, I enjoyed Erin Gloria Ryan’s (née Morning Gloria to second-wave Jezebel readers) newsletter screed on the concept of getting one’s body “back” after having a baby. The piece isn’t reported nor does it say anything new, but this topic has been on my surrogate’s mind so I found it as soothing as a swaddle.—Rachel
Read “In Defense of Debate” here.
Read “Where Is My Old Body and How Do I Get It Back?” here.
Hess sure has been busy this week! She also published a top-notch meditation/profile on Charo in the past few days, for which she did a lot of hanging out with Charo at Charo's house. It's a good time! Read it here.
Bad Vegan was born out of this 2016 Vanity Fair story by Allen Salkin.