twitter
facebook twitter tumblr newsletter
 

Tender Potatoes

stigler-head
Chantal Akerman’s films show how murderous violence always lurks in the mundanity of the domestic

WHEN Chantal Akerman’s hyperrealist homage to ritualistic domesticity, Jeanne Dielman 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, Akerman settled down in the back of the room and observed the crowd. As the film progressed, a stream of audience members left, their chairs echoing their dismissals with loud smacks. Marguerite Duras, whose film India Song also screened at the festival, stood up at the end of the film and yelled, “This woman’s crazy!” Akerman, explosive at times, began to throw back defenses, but Delphine Seyrig, the star of both films, silenced her. The next day, after 50 people requested the film for festivals, it was clear. Cinema was hungry for ­Akerman.

Young but hardly a novice when Jeanne Dielman screened, Akerman had already established herself as a serious filmmaker. In her earliest film, Saute ma ville, a simultaneously joyous and suicidal short, Akerman shows a nuanced understanding of the precarious relationship between order and disorder, as well as a penchant for using food as a narrative device. Before blowing herself up, Akerman devours a plate of spaghetti with manic ferocity. She also eats an apple and sets the kettle to boil, though she never makes tea.

These commonplace actions, trivial as they may seem, establish the leitmotifs that appear in the rest of Akerman’s ­oeuvre—eating, not eating, preparing food, and refusing it all come to signal displaced sexual desires and internal disturbances within her characters. Whether depicting an anemic sexual appetite with a single pea, as in Les rendez-vous d’Anna, or a psychic break with burnt potatoes, as in Jeanne Dielman, by fixing the camera’s gaze on the mundane, often discarded tasks of food preparation and consumption, Akerman infuses ordinary gastronomical images with social and emotional significance. Here, food is not only a source of nourishment and preservation, but also an embodiment of desire, control, and their lack.

After Akerman’s death on October 5, 2015, her longtime cinematographer Babette Mangolte introduced the newly restored Jeanne Dielman at the Museum of Modern Art by noting that, more than ever, Akerman’s early films are reaching new audiences. In part this is because of the films’ relatively recent availability through the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse series and Hulu. But it is also because Akerman’s films offer an insight into the loneliness and quiet beauty that comes from physical isolation in a time when society increasingly tends to replace the fleshy body with the social avatar and actual, physical community with an image of it. Akerman’s films are deeply corporeal, and in that, they belong to a cinema that seems to be slipping further and further away.

 

JEANNE Dielman tells the story of a highly disciplined widow, who we watch, over the course of three days, cook, turn tricks, and take care of her son. Eventually Jeanne’s regimented routine is disrupted, and to restore it, she murders a client. Much of the 201-minute  film was shot in real-time; its detailed establishment and slow unraveling of Jeanne’s routine builds a desire for denouement. Mirroring Jeanne’s restraint, Akerman and Mangolte fixed the camera’s gaze in each shot. No close-ups, no reverse shots (simply because, as Mangolte argued, they aren’t needed), no pans, no zooms. Aside from two in-place jump cuts to indicate the transition from day into night during Jeanne’s sex work, there are no trick edits. Akerman said of the decision to allow for Jeanne to complete her actions within the frame before cutting: “It was the only way to shoot that film—to avoid cutting the woman into a hundred pieces, to avoid cutting the action in a hundred places, to look carefully and to be respectful. The framing was meant to respect her, and her gestures within it.”

Unflinching and uncanny, Akerman’s stationary camera sets the viewer at unease. Akerman and Mangolte initially used variations of this technique in Hotel Monterey, the first film that they shot together, and then in La chambre, filmed the day after completing Monterey. After moving to New York in 1971, at the age of 20, Akerman became friends with Mangolte, who introduced her to the work of avant-garde filmmaker Michael Snow. Akerman was deeply taken by the way Snow, rather than relying on narrative and linear plot, used space and oscillating tracking shots to create suspense and emotion, particularly in his film Back and Forth. After Hotel Monterey, a wordless film that speaks to the beauty of stillness inside a desolate hotel, Akerman and Mangolte replicated Snow’s back and forth tracking shots for La chambre, completing a 360-degree pan around Akerman’s New York apartment, revealing dishes and chairs and Akerman on her bed, staring into the camera, defiant. Eventually, the camera reverses its motion to and away from Akerman in her sea of blankets, now seen chomping on an apple.

While the constantly panning camera of La chambre builds suspense, the stationary camera and frame of Jeanne Dielman creates a world of utter consistency. Within the first 15 minutes of the film, we see Jeanne has dialed and locked her routine to the second. The film opens on Jeanne setting a pot to boil on the stove. The bell rings, but she doesn’t startle. Cut to the entryway. Jeanne stands, decapitated by the frame, arms extended to take her guest’s outerwear. They walk down the hallway to the bedroom and shut the door behind them.

Jump cut. It’s dark. Jeanne and the guest emerge and, after a slightly awkward moment, her “guest,” a client, hands her money and says that he will see her next week. Fastidiously turning lights on and off as she goes, Jeanne moves to the dining room, deposits the money into a soup tureen, then goes into the kitchen, switches off the stove, and drains her perfectly cooked potatoes. Without pause, she continues her routine until her son arrives, right on schedule, just after she has set the table.

Jeanne’s steady progression through the rest of day one and the morning of day two reveals the rigidity of her routine. By planning every single gesture, she protects herself against any unwanted anxiety that could seep in and erase the carefully constructed divisions in her life. Her rituals keep her life together by breaking it into cordoned fragments: motherhood, cooking, and sex work. Before meeting her clients, Jeanne washes and dries her hands completely, which cleanses her of cooking residue and, symbolically, her duty as caretaker. After she is done with a client, she deposits the money in the soup tureen before taking a bath, a sort of baptism, ridding the money of impurities. Jeanne gives money to her son directly from the soup tureen, never from her purse. By keeping these distinctions tidy, Jeanne maintains a sense of clean, guiltless power.

This changes when Jeanne emerges from her room with her client on day two. From the moment she walks out, she breaks her routine: she forgets to turn on the light in the entryway before handing her client his coat. She places her money in the soup tureen and forgets to replace the lid. By the time she reaches the kitchen, the potatoes have burned.

While peeling the new potatoes, her eyes drift closed and her hands slow to a drag, but she never stops. Despite significant delays to the evening’s ceremonial routine, she refuses to discard any ritual, displacing power onto the objects of her obsession rather than onto herself.

The next morning, Jeanne’s anxiety proves to be too much. Ahead of herself, Jeanne manages to skip a button on her nightgown, drop the shoe polish brush, arrive early to the post office and the grocery store, and ends up with an extra hour to kill—a first. Perhaps in the most telling scene, Jeanne tries to hurry the water through the hourglass neck of her pour-over coffee filter in an attempt, as Ivone Margulies points out in Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday, to push time along. Later, in a testament to her diminishing control, she prepares meatloaf, passing it through her hands for a full three and a half minutes—an eternity on film.

In the film’s penultimate scene, the viewer realizes what happened to disrupt Jeanne’s routine the night before, as it happens again for the camera. Jeanne has an orgasm and succumbs to pleasure—notably, though, for less time than it takes to make coffee. Positioned in front of the mirror so that both Jeanne’s reflection and her client are within frame, the camera watches the aftermath. Jeanne dresses, spots her scissors out of the corner of her eye, leaves the frame, re-enters, and plunges the scissors into the neck of her client.

 

ON the surface, scripting a film, like putting a recipe to paper or choreographing an airtight routine, writes out anxiety. However, lingering at the edge of Akerman’s meticulous script and Jeanne’s daily menus is a sense of dread that something can nevertheless seep in to raze the façade of impenetrability.

Akerman’s emotional relationship to food began early. As a child, her mother, an Auschwitz survivor, scolded her for not eating. Born into a poor family in postwar Brussels in 1950, Akerman recalls not wanting to eat because she did not want to be a burden. Instead, she ate her hunger, refusing to “reveal anything on the surface.” In an interview with Lola Journal, Akerman recounts, “As a teenager, I ate voraciously—which bothered my father, since you had to keep skinny to get married.” This tying of food to duty and societal expectations echoes throughout Jeanne Dielman.

Despite Jeanne’s best efforts to maintain a routine, appetite and hunger control the plot. Appetite, unlike hunger, is never fully resolved but sustained in harmonic suspension from the end of one meal into the anticipation of the next, unless either rejected or displaced. Like a conductor of a great Wagnerian epic, Jeanne paces her meals to bring hunger in right on cue the same time each day, with no room for improvisation, snacks, or any other sort of indulgence.

Indeed, there are no brightly colored treats or deliciously ornate costumes in the film to whet the eye, only meals that are exactly enough and real-time fragments of gastronomical events that, like watching a friend eat when you don’t have a plate, slowly build the viewer’s hunger. Jeanne’s sexual appetite, too, as mirrored in her abstemious food rituals, is purely economical, “merely a detail,” as she calls it. When the orgasm occurs despite Jeanne’s precautions, her orchestration slips.

To purge herself of her overabundance, Jeanne hurls her desire. Nausea, the violent undoing of appetite, manifests itself in Jeanne’s overcooked potatoes. Her absurd shuffling from kitchen to bathroom with the potatoes invokes Bakhtin’s grotesque body, overflowing and transcending its own limits, until she has eliminated them. Here, in retching, the metaphorical connection between Jeanne’s internal and external worlds becomes tactile.

A new Eve, fallen into what she herself has defined as forbidden territory, she takes her innately soiled apple, the burned pomme de terre, and peels away the skin, ridding it of its dirt and, symbolically, of her trespass against her rigid set of commandments. Of harder flesh than the red apple that tempts Eve but with the same sinister undertones as the apple in Snow White, the raw potato contains solanine, a poisonous glycoalkaloid, which when ingested can be toxic.

Always present inside the seemingly inane imagery of the domestic is a murderous violence: The cook’s ability to create comes directly from an ability to destroy. Though we witness no blood, we see Jeanne prepare butchered meat twice.

When Jeanne stabs her client, she completes the hunger cadence series that she controls throughout the film and brings her appetite to a resolution, indicating both a release for Jeanne—from her routine, her asceticism, her appetites—and for the viewer. As Jeanne sits at the dining room table with blood on her shirt, we see for the first time the violence of the everyday externalized.

It’s important to note that Jeanne Dielman is not a condemnation of Jeanne or her prostitution but rather a staging of the brutality present in everyday ­banality. Jeanne Dielman is indeed violent but not because it shows murder or madness. Rather, it is violent because it fills the screen with the coded mundane, forcing the viewer to consider what may go unsaid, hidden in the most organic components of the quotidian routine. 

Subscribe
 

War Comes Home for Dinner

jesse48-social

Since World War II, the aims of grocery shoppers, parents and the U.S. military’s Quartermaster Corps have merged

 

THE story, which varies a bit with the telling, goes something like this: around the time of the Napoleonic War, the French government offered an award of 12,000 francs for any method that cheaply preserved large quantities of food for transport to the front, however distant it may lie. The prize was given in 1809 to confectioner Nicolas Appert, who discovered that food cooked in a sealed jar wouldn’t spoil. Though he didn’t understand how it worked, canning was born.

Over subsequent decades canning increased in safety, affordability, and familiarity, and its military origin has since fallen into obscurity. While not all military food preservation techniques have garnered such renown, several others that have become an integral part of civilian life serve as the subject of food writer Anastacia Marx de Salcedo’s new book, Combat-Ready Kitchen.

Despite her devotion to preparing healthy, homemade meals for children, De Salcedo’s project began with the realization that she was sending her children to school with lunchboxes full of heavily processed food, wrapped in environmentally destructive packaging, and profiting food industry conglomerates.  But, she declares, “it’s far worse than that…It was designed for soldiers.” The shock of this discovery prompted her to follow the origins of her children’s packed lunch back to the U.S. military’s research station in Natick, Mass., and Combat-Ready Kitchen is the record of her findings. Somehow, since World War II, the respective aims of grocery shoppers, parents, and the Quartermaster Corps of the U.S. military have merged.

De Salcedo concentrates on the money moving between the research center in Natick and its partner conglomerates. Together they have improved on the rations of old—pork and rice, frankfurters and beans—to develop bread that won’t go stale for weeks, guacamole that never turns brown, and energy bars that can be eaten on the run. These advances in both preservation and nutrition afford the military more options for feeding troops; with a greater range of foods that can be easily preserved, the military has more leeway for prioritizing taste and variety.

Continue Reading
Subscribe
 

Little Big Eater Girl

yurina-social

Female stars embody the addictive contradictions of competitive eating

IT’S  just past noon at Times Square on a Wednesday, and people have gathered around two people sitting at tables, eating bowls of rice with beef. One is a white American man with a mohawk and a beard, with the build of a bulky football player. The other is a small. skinny Japanese woman, a little over five feet and probably 100 pounds, with a side ponytail and a baggy yellow sweater that makes her look like a schoolgirl. They’re barely chewing the food in front of them; they’re swallowing by the spoonful, gulping it down at a steady pace. The spectators are a mix of Midtown office workers out on their lunch break and random tourists who look like they’ve just stepped out of a Big Bus tour. It’s November 4, and everyone is shocked by how warm the day is. But the people standing around me are more shocked by this absurd display occurring in front of us. The American eater is almost done with his 10th bowl. The Japanese woman stacks her 11th bowl in front of her and raises her hand, as someone rushes to her table with her 12th.

yurina48-ts

“She’s so tiny.”

“Look at how skinny she is.”

“She can’t possibly have eaten that much.”

An old European lady asks me what’s going on. “They’re taping an eating contest,” I say. “It’s for a Japanese TV show called the Big Eaters World Championships, and it’s the final round between Team America and Team Japan.” I know this because my husband helped coordinate this show. He’s a few feet from me, urging spectators to take a few steps backward because they’re blocking the cameras.

“Ten minutes left!” the Japanese host says, pointing to a large digital timer and ceremoniously beating a taiko drum in his hand. Everyone claps. The contest is based on how many bowls of rice with beef they can consume in 30 minutes—the amount of time it takes an average person to finish just one bowl, maybe two, before they feel completely stuffed.

“USA! USA!” people start chanting. Even people who aren’t part of this crowd, who hear this chant, start chanting along in other parts of Times Square. Such is the nature of the chant; it doesn’t have to have context to be contagious.

On Japan’s side, the three other Japanese contestants are trying to work up their own chant: “Nippon!” (clap clap clap) “Nippon!” (clap clap clap)—the usual cheer the Japanese give in the Olympics and other international games. They’re completely drowned out by the “USA”s.

In the end, the Japanese eater loses by one bowl. The American wins, and Team America wins this year’s Big Eaters World Championship. There’s more clapping and cheering. But while everyone is happy for the American and the surreal thing they just witnessed on their lunch break, they’re still mesmerized the Japanese woman, who everyone keeps calling “girl.”

“But the girl. She can eat.”

“I wonder what her stomach looks like.”

I know how that feels, to be the small girl who can eat a lot. The glamour and warm feeling that comes with it, and the ability to mask what must be done to maintain it.

 

WHEN I lived in Tokyo, my parents and I would glue ourselves to the television to watch TV Tokyo’s Big Eater Championship every time it came on. There was something about this series that intrigued all of us in different ways. My mother would take note of the food they ate, which was often chosen to promote a trendy new restaurant, while my father, the doctor, would try to diagnose what was happening in the contestants’ organs as they shoved impossible amounts of food down their throats. We all found it simple, addictive entertainment. The format was the same every time, the shock and awe the same, and we would either come out of the viewing experience hungry for exactly the foods they were eating or too disgusted to touch our meals. It was usually the former.

yurina-galsone

From 2005 to 2008, the reigning Japanese eating champion was a woman named Natsuko Sone, who every Japanese person knows as Gal Sone (pronounced Gyaru Soh-Neh). With her dyed blonde hair, thick makeup, and clothes inspired by the “Gal” fashion trend of short skirts, loose leg warmers, doll-like eye makeup, Gal Sone was the first iconic embodiment of “the girl who could eat.”

After winning each round, she would smile at the camera and say things like, “Mmm! That was so tasty! I could eat more! Now I want ice cream!” More awe and laughter would follow.

From 2012 to the present, Gal Sone was surpassed by another big eating champion: Azuki Moeno, nicknamed Moe Azu. Moe Azu is extremely feminine and adorable in her own way: She’s a minor pop idol in Akihabara, where AKB48, the most famous Japanese pop idol group to date, is also based. It’s just as incredible to see her channeling the shy, naive schoolgirl voice and mannerisms while gorging on plate after plate of food.

There’s an appealing contradiction in watching these women at work. Look how much she can eat despite the way she looks. Look how she looks despite how much she’s eating. There’s a word in Japanese that describes these women perfectly: kuishimbo. It means someone who likes to eat, someone who’s always hungry, and it’s a word usually used to describe children.

It’s the magic of the Little Big Eater Girl. She’s skinny, prepubescent, and childlike in her seeming ignorance about what constitutes an appropriate portion of food. And yet she’s an adult. If you take her on a date, she won’t order just a salad but every item on the menu and beg for dessert after. After enjoying every spoonful of this giant meal, she still looks healthy, small, and fuckable.

The magic, though, only exists on TV, where all ugliness can be edited out and audiences need never suspect it had ever been there in the first place.

 

PEOPLE are surprised when I tell them I used to be fat. But as a child I had three rolls on my stomach that left stretch marks that are still visible. Growing up in Tokyo, this was particularly embarrassing, given how small and skinny everyone else is, including the adults. In my ballet class, the teacher constantly criticized my protruding belly, patting it in front of all the other skinny girls. Such is the nature of classical ballet. It’s not abuse if it’s for the sake of discipline and art. When we put on Alice in Wonderland as a summer performance, I was given a playing-card costume to help conceal the fat.

I was eight when we moved to California, where my chubbiness garnered me the nickname Yuri McFlurry. I don’t remember who invented it. It may have even been me. By then I’d learned to embrace being fat and no longer took offense. I even made Yuri McFlurry my first AIM handle.

yurina48me

When we moved back to Tokyo three years later, I was in my early teens, and being fat was a nuisance. It was then I noticed how skinny girls could eat and eat while remaining skeletal. If I wanted to be like them, I was going to have to manufacture it myself. So I chose bulimia.

Of course it was disgusting, and of course it was painful. But for many years it was worth it, an easy sacrifice for what I’d gained. I looked like a woman but ate with a childlike ignorance of nutrition and logic. I was the girl who loved food, who always ordered the meatiest, fattiest thing on the menu and later had room for dessert. I was the girl who ate candy bars followed by milkshakes followed by another midnight snack while appearing as though I’d eaten nothing. I was a contradiction, and I liked what it said about my personality.

I started staging eating contests in front of my then boyfriend and close friends. Around the middle of the meal, I would declare, “I bet I can eat the rest of this plate in three minutes. Time me!” I never bet money or anything. I wasn’t competing against anyone but myself, and if I lost my own bet, it was only ever by a few bites. I did it for the attention and laughter; I did it to impress. Look how much I can eat, and look how thin I am. Right on cue, my audience would say, “But you’re so small, how can you eat so much?” And when no one was looking, I found ways to make sure my body never absorbed the food.

“Look how much I can eat.” “Look how much of this food I can shove into my mouth at once.” “Look how much I can eat in just one minute,” “I’ll finish the whole plate, I bet you your next beer.” “Look how much I can eat in 30 seconds.” “Ten.” By the end of college I had made myself into Gal Sone and Moe Azu: a little Japanese big eater girl. In the process I had won over the love of my life with this circus performance. Our first dates revolved around my eating contests, and I loved that he was awed by them. Five years later, he would start working with Japanese TV shows, among which were the Big Eater competitions. Two years after that, we got married, and it was around this time that I realized that I had a serious eating disorder.

It took several months to quit the habit. I had to relearn how to really consume the food I was putting in my mouth instead of treating it like a prop in a performance, adjusting the amount and pace at which I ate everything, having to say, “No, I’m full,” instead of “Of course I can eat that, I’m so hungry I could eat a whole cow.” I acknowledged that my body would accumulate the water and the fat and that I would no longer be the “small girl who could eat.”

I came out to my husband about the bulimia only after I fully recovered from it. His first response, after the shock, was worry that he had inadvertently encouraged my Little Big Eater Girl act for all those years. “No,” I said. I had been putting on eating contests long before we had met, and though I was glad he enjoyed the show, I wasn’t putting it on to keep him. I was more addicted to embodying a contradiction. I was entertained by my own show.

During those years, I believed that it would be perfectly fine to keep going, that no one ever needed to know. But it became too much to ignore what I was editing out for the sake of perfection and entertainment. If I wasn’t as interesting without the contradiction, at least I was honest.

AT Times Square, the contest has just ended and people are clapping for the American winner. Then someone in the crowd points to the Japanese eater and says, “But look, now she’s sick.”

The woman looks like she’s in pain, breathing into a paper bag. What’s really happening is she’s starting to regurgitate into it.

People scatter at the sight of this.

“This is the most repulsive thing I have ever seen,” the European lady says, pulling her husband’s arm and shoving their way out of the crowd.

It’s almost the end of my lunch break, so I motion goodbye to my husband, who is busy trying to distract the spectators’ attention away from this scene—the part that won’t make it to the final cut. Show’s over.

I go back to work and eat my actual lunch at the desk while typing. It’s an avocado wrap from Pret à ­Manger ­totaling 480 calories. I chew, I swallow, I ­consume. 

Subscribe
 

Unfit for Consumption

greenfield-social

Thinx ads are controversial because we aren’t used to regarding women in their underwear as fully human

THINX, a menstrual underwear company, has recently been the subject of media controversy over the approval of their New York City subway and taxi ads. The contentious ads depict women clad in underwear, tank tops, and turtlenecks; some are posed casually, others in various postures of unease, apparently suffering from cramps. Several ads pair the model with an image of a single raw egg or a halved grapefruit.

The minimal compositions of the ads, their subdued tone, and the attire of the women are tame in comparison with similar, approved ads for women’s lingerie, breast augmentation, and protein powder, yet the contractors tasked with reviewing transit ads have raised concerns about the Thinx ads’ “offensive” nature and inappropriate content.

Thinx president Miki Agrawal has speculated about the reasons for the dispute: The ads don’t pander to the male gaze, they violate the taboo on menstruation, media contractors are sexist old boy’s clubs, and so on. But these explanations fail to fully address the root questions. What caused the Thinx ads to trouble review boards? The answer has to do with which representations of female bodies capitalist patriarchy deems fit for consumption.

It comes as no surprise that when women are defined in terms of what they can offer men, “sexual object” emerges as their primary function. Research from the University of Nebraska shows that both women and men process images of women in bathing suits and underwear as objects rather than people. Sexualized women are read using what’s called analytic processing, which discounts spatial relationships between an object’s constitutive parts. Sexualized men, on the other hand, are perceived using configural processing, which is related to facial recognition and body-posture interpretation and looks for how parts of an object fit together as a whole. The study’s disturbing conclusion is that we simply aren’t used to viewing women in their underwear as complete human beings.

greenfield-ads

The Thinx ads disrupt this view of scantily clad women by emphasizing the visceral rather than the appetizing. The grapefruit half and egg yolks, removed from culinary contexts, seem mysterious, even ominous, as if possessing a life of their own. Similarly, the women in the ads are not catering to anyone; absorbed in their own sensations, they look away from the viewer or across their own bodies, aloof and inaccessible. This perceived indifference to the onlooker is enough to bother certain male viewers, who are accustomed to images that reaffirm their feelings of entitlement to women’s attention and bodies. As recent discussion of street harassment has made clear, women’s refusals to acknowledge men as imperious observers are commonly met with aggression, stalking, and overt violence.

By swapping sinuous poses and pouts for reflective gazes, the ads speak to women’s lived experience rather than to the viewer’s appetite. These are real women, with real bodies that bleed, cramp, and get nauseated. Declaring that Thinx is “for women with periods,” the campaign’s straightforward text reinforces women’s physicality while emphasizing their reproductive abilities. The ads present us with sexual women (attractive, young, reproductively viable) while refraining from explicit sexualization, subverting expectations and creating discomfort in certain viewers, whose desires have been evoked but left unsatisfied.

The Thinx ads also elaborate that they can be purchased not only by women but by “any menstruating human”—a progressive assertion, given that trans mainstreaming is still in the nascent stages. Thinx has released a boyshort-style design primarily marketed toward trans consumers and updated their copy to state that the product is “underwear for people with periods,” reinforcing their commitment to trans-inclusive marketing tactics. Acknowledging that not all those who bleed are women and that not all women bleed threatens patriarchal gender definitions and the power structures that enforce them. This societal edge bleed is refreshing amid more conventional advertising schemes, which push tried-and-true stereotypes to broaden audiences and maximize profits.

It is by now a commonplace that advertisers reinforce an ingrained tendency to view women as sexual objects to capture our attention and entice us to buy. We equate their consumable products with consumable female bodies, a conflation advertisers exploit with unapologetic zeal. Ads that directly compare women to meat (such as those for Carl’s Jr., Arby’s, Burger King, and PETA) are the most overt form of this exploitation. As Carol J. Adams argues in The Sexual Politics of Meat, meat is something that men (particularly white men) have controlled and consumed throughout history. By equating women with meat, advertisers draw on this history of white masculine entitlement and the idea of meat consumption as a superior, manly activity to tantalize male consumers. A truly masculine man may possess the tradable flesh of women and other races as easily as he does the tradable flesh of animals.

By contrast, the unidealized foods in the Thinx ads are purposely off-putting. The grapefruit, suggestive of female genitalia, looks dry, bumpy, and asymmetrical, while the raw egg yolk seems dirty, smeared directly on an unknown and possibly unclean surface rather than in a pan or a bowl. As symbolic representations of fertility and the female body, these imperfect and possibly contaminated foods imply that there are equally imperfect and uncontainable aspects of the female anatomy. Under the patriarchal gaze, an autonomous woman in her underwear is about as appetizing as an escaped egg yolk oozing its way off of a counter, and a beautiful woman suffering through her period regrettably embodies the sticky, odorous grossness of meat gone bad. The ads provoke this gaze and counter it with the idea of a woman unashamed of physical flaws and occasional bouts of uncleanliness. They challenge the societal fantasy of the poreless, powerless woman.

The association between women and contamination is ancient. All the major religions place restrictions on the day-to-day life of women following menstruation and childbirth, considering women at such times to be a spiritual and physical danger to others. Passages from Leviticus outline hygienic standards and purification rituals to mediate the uncleanliness of both women and food and explicitly forbid sex with a menstruating woman. Similarly, chaupadi, a Hindu tradition, forbids women from normal family activities during her period, sometimes requiring her to sleep outside the home. In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva describes these rituals as an expression of fear at women’s procreative powers, arguing that such societies use boundaries between male and female as a foundation for the lawful organization of the world. Once masculine and feminine have been separated, it becomes easier to establish similar dichotomies such as clean/unclean, moral/immoral, and self/Other.

Bodily processes associated with women, such as childbirth and menstruation, evoke a particular horror in men, suggesting his bloody origins, his enslavement to the physical world, and the mysterious and terrifying power of female bodies. Freud, for instance, believed that disgust for menstruation expressed an “organic repression” ingrained in our biological makeup, while disgust for other bodily excreta, such as feces, was socially acquired. In The Anatomy of Disgust, William Ian Miller describes the process by which we use the physical aspects of a person and their perceived foulness to justify our already formed notions of their inferiority or immorality.

When disgust maintains social hierarchy its movement is not outward from some physical core disgust to more metaphorized moral and social domains. This disgust starts in the moral and social domains and moves toward concretizing itself in smells, cringes, and uglinesses. Once, however, the loathing of the lower orders ends in the perception of their odor there is a temptation to see a distinctly sexual, sometimes genderized twist to the style of subordination.

That is, we find facets of women’s bodies disgusting because womanhood is already inherently disgusting.

Body odor can affect anyone, but when women smell, particularly while menstruating, they invoke a profound sense of revulsion and contempt. Luckily, perfume, deodorant, and remedies for “feminine odors” can be readily purchased. With enough products at her disposal, a woman might one day become as clean and odorless as her ethereal, airbrushed image.

Conversely, refusing such an airbrushed image invites censure, as the Canadian poet Rupi Kaur discovered with her menstruation photo series. When Kaur uploaded an image of herself in bed with small bloodstains on her sweatpants and sheets, the photo was deleted from Instagram. The platform forbids posting sexually suggestive and nude photos, but there are no restrictions on stains, bodily fluids, and blood. Instagram restored the image and issued an apology only after the issue received considerable media attention, claiming that its erasure had been an accident. The misogynist implication that images of menstruating women are inherently obscene illuminates our societal preference for more easily digestible images of idealized women.

For women in a capitalist consumer society, double identification and the ability to perceive and associate with the desirous “male gaze” is a survival mechanism. Though female consumers are often described as senseless spendthrifts duped into believing an impossible ideal, the reality of women’s relationship to their images in the media is strategic. A woman can recognize a beauty ideal as insidious and unattainable, while also acknowledging it as an expectation, the approximation of which carries tangible social benefits. Ellen Willis declares that “for women, buying and wearing clothes and beauty aids is not so much consumption as work. One of a woman’s jobs in this society is to be an attractive sexual object, and clothes and makeup are tools of the trade.”

Most ads that claim to target women are in fact speaking indirectly to men. The woman is framed as a mediating presence at best, as secondary—she is the unaddressed reader who interprets the conversation between men and advertising, using it as a reference to anticipate what her straight male oppressors expect of her. The Thinx ad campaign does something different. It centers on another conversation entirely, one between women. Its self-contained women assure us, “We understand you. We know how you’ve suffered, and now you don’t have to”—a powerfully appealing statement.

Thinx knows that about half of women in their mid-20s identify as feminists, and these women earn more on average than men in their age bracket. Similar to Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, the Thinx ads position the company as an advocate for women’s health and self-esteem. Both companies hope to establish and commodify an intimate and understanding relationship with their female demographic. Disappointingly, both campaigns claim to use radically different models while still adhering to stereotypical conventions of female beauty: light skin, unblemished complexions, able bodies, long hair, and classically feminine features.

Insofar as images in public spaces may only be displayed with the backing of a corporate sponsor, I can only hope that the Thinx ad campaign elicits more of the like—clever, eye-catching, aesthetically sophisticated campaigns that, most importantly, acknowledge my autonomous existence. Unfortunately, my demographic does not control the major channels of image distribution and the campaign’s rejection from taxis proves that, as a society, we have not yet come to terms with the reality of liberated and imperfect female bodies. In the meantime, I, and women like myself, can take a small comfort in seeing our independently operating, feminine, bleeding bodies as worthy enough vehicles for a company’s expected profits—that is, as consumers rather than consumed. 

Subscribe
 

Tinderization of Feeling

mates-383

Tinder’s binary mechanisms can be a template for a whole way of life in which everything is an option and processing beats choosing

LIVING with a sense of overwhelming choice means exerting an insane amount of emotional energy in making the most banal decisions. What should you watch on Hulu tonight? Make a Facebook status asking for recommendations. Tweet the question to your followers. After perusing for an hour, settle comfortably into Seinfeld, which you’ve seen a million times before. Wonder whether you made the wrong choice. Do it again anyway. There is some comfort in sameness.

When the mundane act of choosing a television show to watch is emotionally taxing, relationships are next-level shit. But millennials have a solution: Tinderize it. Tinderize it all.

In an increasingly networked society where people are always ready to connect, the pacing of emotional intimacy has to be constantly tweaked. Dating apps facilitate rapid connection and constant communication, but trusting someone still takes as long as it ever did. So Tinder demands a certain amount of emotional dissociation — to distance oneself from emotions by treating connecting to others as a game. The only criteria is to choose and choose fast, choose as many as you want, choose so many you’re not even making a choice. This simplicity can provide sweet relief.

But Tinder is more than a dating app — it is a metaphor for speeding up and mechanizing decision-making, turning us into binary creatures who can bypass underlying questions and emotions and instead go with whatever feels really good in the moment. Its mechanisms perfect the similar either-or options other social media platforms have offered, the yes/no, like/ignore, retweet/pass dichotomy that leaves no room for maybe. Within Tinder, we sort each other into ones and zeroes, flattening away any human complexity, becoming efficient robots. Where a best friend might engage with you about the true motivations behind your choices, Tinder serves as Robot Bestie, there to make complex decisions seem easy, shorn of emotional entanglements.

Tinder offers a model for streamlining virtually any kind of decision making, but the streamlining exacts its price. Swipe right and match, then match again, and then see you’ve received 15 matches in five minutes and could continue on this way indefinitely. It is too much.

At the point of maximum social and techno-sexual stimulation, a total withdrawal — total disconnection amid default connectivity — begins to feel like the only way to actually say no. This coy form of avoidance is not about “playing hard to get”; it’s about preserving one’s sanity in the face of so much connectivity and emotional energy. But this refusal feels not only like a shutdown of others but also of yourself.

 

***

 

TINDERIZING is the millennial’s version of zoning out. Vulnerability is scary and potentially dangerous. Immediacy is comfortable and safe. Avoiding confrontation, often in the form of “ghosting,” becomes a substitute for relaxation. If you don’t follow up about a second date, a late night booty call might still be in the cards, another Tinderized form of intimacy. Swipe right, match, date, fuck, unmatch, rematch, repeat.

As any exposure to Tinder teaches, nothing matters unless you want it to matter. This a line to remember when things get weird, to repeat to your bestie while you swipe together, checking in about matches, screengrabbing conversations and sharing them with each other before responding, and texting, always texting.

Absenting oneself from potential intimacy is to come off as “chill,” a cultivated state of being in the era of general Tinderization. “Passion is polarizing; being enthusiastic or worked up is downright obsessive,” writes Alana Massey in “Against Chill.” The concept of Chill rationalizes self-centeredness as an acceptable by-product of too many choices. To remain chill is to drop off, not reply to texts for days because you are receiving too many. There are too many relationships to manage and not enough energy for your own relationship to yourself. As Massey writes, “‘Excessive Chill’ is ‘You do you’ taken to its most extreme conclusion, giving everyone’s opinions and interests equal value so long as they’re authentically ours.”

Tinderization facilitates chill. But it achieves this through depletion as much as through saturation. So many choices become too little energy.

The quintessential exponents of Tinder chill are perhaps the Softboy and the Fuckboy. In “Have You Encountered the Softboy?” Alan Hanson explains these types: “The Fuckboy is perplexed that you were upset when he forgot to text you for three days and then sent ‘what are you up to’ at last call. The Softboy knows this behavior is selfish and cruel, though his desire to get laid can trump this. He feels shame. He does it again.” Call a Softboy out on not responding to your texts and he’ll offer an explanation of what he’s going through, that he cares a lot about you but you’re “stressing him out.” Call a Fuckboy out and he’ll tell you to “chill” or “calm down.” But they’re both telling you the same thing. 

That is not to say chill is limited to such men; people of any gender can participate in chill. The only requirement is that you don’t acknowledge it. To remain chill is to ignore without intention, not because you chose to but because you don’t have the emotional energy to reply to everyone. The more we Tind, the seemingly chiller we become. But really we are just overwhelmed with faces behind screens, with serial objectification and passive evasion. Away from the screen, chill seems less chill and more like a sad wish that people were more robotic, without needs or feelings, hermetically self-fulfilling and self-fulfilled.

But chill is by no means limited to Tinder. The Tinderization of Everything occurs when we adopt Tinder’s coping strategies to deal with anyone or anything that might surface in our networks. By maximizing our connectivity and network exposure, we assure ourselves that we have entirely too many options to do anything more complex than yes/no, left/right, like/skip, retweet/ignore, 001010011010111 and keep on scrolling. Only a like or a retweet or a match gives us pause to enjoy the pangs of pleasure, which go away as soon as you stop refreshing notifications.

The Tinderization of Everything lures you into Epic Chill, the point of constant ignore. The immediacy of every dopamine hit replaces the pursuit of more complicated connection and entanglement. A match on Tinder begins to feel the same as a Facebook like, a Twitter retweet, the ding of a text message from someone cool who you do want to talk to — or even someone you don’t want to talk to, but who is providing you attention. At this point full Tinderization has taken place, and nothing at all feels meaningful — not even the dopamine. One feels fried. 

The epitome of Chill is to ignore everyone but yourself. Tinderizing Everything totalizes that process. Tinderization takes the form of crowdsourcing decisions, as the Jyst app attempts to help you do, or real-life decisions, as the artist Marc Horowitz did in the project The Advice of Strangers, in which he obeyed an anonymous online community. Similarly, the app Free makes the process of meeting up with friends even more passive than posting a Facebook Event; it permits users to swipe events away before they even occur.  

The new app Twindog, launched in December 2015, offers dog owners a way to meet other dog owners using Tinder’s mechanisms. No more dog park mingling; just swipe to find a pooch soulmate! Never mind whatever canine instincts that determine whether one dog will like another when the owner is swiping. Instincts can be overridden.

 

 

***

 

TINDERIZING can surpass romantic relationships, and if you get sucked in, you can find yourself living in a yes/no, chill/ignore, 0110101011 existence. You’ll find yourself stuck on Amazon or Yelp for hours, looking for the perfect dustbuster or the best Japanese restaurant in your area, unwilling to choose because there could be a better option ahead in the information stream. 

You can only get out of the Tinderization by including your bestie, your community, a group of trusted friends, in the process. By prompting you to discuss the emotional intricacies of the conversations you’re having and the vibes you’re feeling through the smartphone screen, these rescuers force you to acknowledge that intricacies are welcome — necessary to the process of getting to know someone well. To be without intricacies is to be without emotional boundaries, to disregard whoever whenever. Besties save you from your shit. They are your heart, and they transcend any efficiency that the Tinderization Bestie Robot attempts to offer you in its binary fantasy.

Tinder doesn’t have to lead to Tinderization. Tinder can serve as a way to verify a connection rather than to create it from scratch. Matching with someone you already know of, for whom you already have some context, can confirm and enrich the overlap of social circles and inject complications. In that case, Tinder is simply facilitating your first date. You have a different sort of emotional accountability. This sort of coincidence has more to do with Tenderizing Something than Tinderizing Everything. A flame transformed into a beautiful slow burn.

Subscribe