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The Mirror Stage


A classic graphic novel expresses a contradiction at the heart of sexuality

Watching Fun Home, the Tony Award-winning musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical novel, felt like sitting on the edge of a mirror. The in-the-round staging of this story I loved so much made me feel like I was watching my reflection, if slightly distorted, stand and sing before me. While the show is hailed as a rare coming-of-age musical about a lesbian protagonist, the novel also centrally portrays Alison’s struggle with her gender nonconformity in the wake of her own gender-nonconforming father Bruce’s suicide.

Yet as the musical progressed, I watched as Fun Home distanced itself from the transgender themes of its source material. In the graphic novel, whole scenes show Bruce living through Alison’s body as he forces her to wear dresses and barrettes, while Alison rebels by wearing pants because she feels like a boy. These are passing moments in the musical, subsumed by the more widely-legible drama of Alison coming out as a lesbian and Bruce admitting that he’s had affairs with men throughout his marriage. This narrative streamlining is a form of marginalization that is familiar to me as a trans woman. But it’s particularly painful here because in recent memory, Fun Home is the American literary work that comes closest to the idea that sexual orientation is more accurately and productively seen as a form of gender nonconformity.

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City of the Moon


In Jericho, Palestinians find a resort from their occupations

At the edge of the Judean Hills, after the mountains of Palestine have calmed themselves and their wrinkles have gradually smoothed out, the city of Jericho sits in a dry plain beside the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. The city looks nothing like the rest of the country. Jericho is the one place in the West Bank where the land is flat and plentiful. Unlike the rest of the region—generally pictured as a gentle landscape of rolling green hills adorned by olive orchards and gray Israeli settlements—Jericho is constantly hot. Its landscape is dusted with a brownish-yellow mix of sand and dirt, interrupted mainly by groves of palm trees that stretch for miles, until they are finally halted by Israeli settlements. For many Palestinians, Jericho is almost a foreign country, a place where the abundance of land decreases active confrontation with the Israeli military occupation. In Jericho, it’s easy to pretend you’re somewhere else.

It is no coincidence then Jericho is also the West Bank’s biggest domestic resort destination. Once you pass the Israeli checkpoint at the entrance to the town on the main road, the first thing on your right is a massive, abandoned casino. Israelis once flocked there in the 1990s, diverted to Jericho by the ban on gambling in their own country and spurred on by the longstanding Israeli association of Arab cities with hedonism, “Oriental” pleasures, and corruption that dates to the beginning of Zionism and the establishment of Tel Aviv beside Jaffa. If you gaze too long at the casino you’ll miss what’s on the left side of the road, where 5,000 Palestinians who fled from their homes in what became Israel in 1948 live in the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp. 25,000 people who used to live in the camp fled to Jordan when Israel occupied Jericho in 1967 and were never allowed to return. Today, the camp still feels a bit more spacious than other camps in the West Bank—a refugee camp befitting a tourist city in the desert, perhaps.

Ahead of you on the road is the city center, a few blocks of shops and a small plaza crowded with middle schoolers flirting, teenagers drinking Arabic coffee on their lunch breaks, and old men in dusty suits going for afternoon walks. Five minutes’ bike ride from the square there is are stately homes built by wealthy Jerusalem families during the British Mandate period; fifty meters further down the road you will see a split-level that wouldn’t be out of place on the Brady Bunch. Between the palm trees, on dirt roads winding lazily away from the square, are hundreds of abandoned resort homes, records of the decades upon decades of Palestinian vacations that have taken place here.

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Managing Hearts with Kim and Flo


Casual games mirror women’s work, teaching their players that affective labor counts

At the start of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, you, the player, learn how to fold a shirt. You tap your smartphone’s touchscreen a few times to have the customizable cartoon avatar straighten a clothing display. Kim Kardashian soon appears, heaven-sent, and you’re whisked out of your shabby shop and into her world of fashion and celebrity, where you climb your way toward the status of an A-List star like Kim through a successfully managed in-app career of smiling at the camera and maintaining social ties.

In Diner Dash, a similar tale of rags to riches is set up from the beginning—this time a pre-named avatar, Flo, is unhappy in her bureaucratic office job before deciding to make the leap into small-business entrepreneurship. She opens a diner, which, depending upon her/your waitressing skill, can evolve into an ever-fancier diner through success at serving customers quickly enough to keep them happy. In some versions Flo is eventually awarded transcendence in the form of a third arm. It’s a wry bit of humor from the game: A job well done rewarded with the increased capacity to work.

Both Diner Dash and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood are games where play takes place within the realm of a job—in the service and entertainment industries, respectively—with most of the drudgery, tedium, and frustrations of labor, waged or unwaged, abstracted away. At the center of both games is the management of the emotions of others, a distinctly feminine and post-industrial form of work. This curious conceptual heaviness has been noted: Media theorist Shira Chess writes that Diner Dash “re-enacts complex relationships that many women have with work, leisure, empowerment, and emotions,” and Ruth Curry wrote in Brooklyn Magazine about Kim Kardashian: Hollywood that “Kim Kardashian is what getting paid for ‘women’s’ work looks like.”

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Swimming Class


To clean the unwashed masses, American social reformers built public pools. You will believe what happened next.

“No TANF cash assistance,” the Kansas HOPE Act of 2015 stipulates, “shall be used in any retail liquor store, casino, gaming establishment, jewelry store, tattoo parlor, body piercing parlor, spa, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, vapor cigarette store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond company, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility, parimutuel facility or sexually oriented business.” Kansas passed this law a few months ago as part of a grotesque game of one-upsmanship that currently has state legislatures competing with each other to inflict suffering on welfare recipients in the most novel and headline-grabbing ways: If Missouri proposes a ban on spending EBT on steak or seafood, Wisconsin ups the ante by adding sharp cheddar cheese, white rice, and all herbs and seasonings to its own list of restricted foods.

While the Kansas law also includes less attention-drawing but far more devastating provisions like a lifetime cap of 36 months of Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) benefits and a three-month limit to benefits for those the state deems able-bodied workers, news coverage of it has focused on the list of prohibitions of fun. Many observers have singled out the swimming pool as such an indisputably wholesome form of amusement that its inclusion on this list makes the malicious spirit of the law especially obvious. There’s no denying the intense hatred of the poor that emanates from the list, but the fact that it includes swimming pools is in many senses nothing new. The claim that the poor should not have fun has been asserted—and contested—at the American swimming pool for centuries.

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Kid Stuff


If childhood is supposed to be a time for play, why do today’s kids spend so much time working?

In the past month, I’ve attended two elementary school plays. One was for a family friend, populated by mostly white kids from Long Island and suburbs outside the city. The other was one my 3rd students in the Bronx put on. Three of my kids wrote a scene about a boy who asks his friend for money. His friend refuses, the boy steals it, and they’re both promptly arrested. The friend with money bails the boy out, and asks what he needed the money for. The boys explains that he needs to pay his phone bill and a vet bill for his dog. Now, he adds, I need money for my fine from being arrested. In the end, the friend lends the boy the money. It’s a pretty devastating portrayal of the cyclical criminalization of poverty, but it was scene among others containing ninjas and witches and ghosts and dragons. At the other play, a girl wrote a scene about studying for a giant end-of-the-year test. She misses everything fun that her friends do for months and months, because she’s studying. In the end, she aces the test.

There’s a popular conception in mainstream US culture that childhood is carefree. Self-help listicles abound promising to teach struggling adults how to Live Like a Kid, Have Fun Like a Kid, Enjoy Life Like a Kid. Any food containing peanut butter, chocolate, or marshmallow, no matter how fancy, sells the promise to “taste like your childhood.” The sentiment goes has little to do with premise that children are innocents who deserve care, forgiveness, understanding, and support—ideas supported selectively, at best, in both US culture and policy. The mythical childhood of the mainstream imagination turns children into two-dimensional cartoons, devoid of emotional depth, and immune from the world’s oppressive structures. It flattens all children into stock photos—white, typically developing, stereotypically gendered, and climbing on a well-maintained playground against the sunset.

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