Notes on Leadership and Getting Shit Done

I’m not a political organizing expert, and I realize what I’m about to say may not apply to long-established groups in larger cities. But something I’ve noticed about organizing leftists in small southern cities is that too many people are allergic to the concept of leadership. So here are my thoughts, based on five years of organizing work:

  • Every project oughta have a leader. Whether you’re organizing a campaign, canvass, rally, or bake sale, someone needs to be in charge of making sure shit gets done. It doesn’t have to be just one person, but in small cities you probably don’t have a ton of active participants. It’s okay to have just one person designated “in charge,” because it’s just one project. This isn’t a dictatorship in which some bold visionary bosses everyone around. It’s just a temporary condition!*
  • We’re all leaders in various capacities. I assume every person who shows up to a meeting can take the lead on something at some point. We’re all capable of tackling smaller tasks and no one is above handling the little things. Indeed, every project is comprised of many little things.
  • The most impactful projects cannot be accomplished without a team. Every teammate (a.k.a. comrade) takes the lead on something big or small. The leader checks in periodically and makes sure everyone’s doing what they said they’d do, which amounts to a lot of dull yet delicate work. So much messaging and meetings. You’ve gotta respect people’s time because we’re all volunteers, living busy lives complicated by late-stage capitalism. But we’ve still gotta get shit done! So leadership often entails nudging comrades to follow through on their commitments. Most everyone needs a reminder at some point.
  • Oftentimes leadership means getting administrative shit done. I’m not passionate about that stuff but somebody’s gotta do it. This is why I’m running to lead my Democratic Socialists of America branch, though I hope it’s a short-lived stint. We’re actually voting right now on whether or not to become our own chapter; should we vote to do that, we’ll elect new officers once our chapter status becomes official. But in the meantime, it’s the season for officer elections and we’re still gonna need leadership during this limbo period. I know I can get us through, because I’ve facilitated meetings, handled mass mailings, and corresponded with other DSA chapters and local community groups. But my best qualification is that I can make time to execute these tasks reliably. I realize some people put themselves in this position to grab power, but all I want is to make sure foundational shit keeps getting done.
  • Something I’ve learned in the past 1.5 years of leading our Medicare for All crew is that if you have some grand organizing idea — like, “Let’s canvass working class neighborhoods and talk to people about universal healthcare,”— then chances are that project will only take shape under your leadership. I showed up to my first few DSA meetings saying, “We should canvass for Medicare for All.” Several people nodded and nothing happened. When I finally came to a meeting and said, “I’m gonna start a Medicare for All working group, who’s in?” stuff started happening immediately.
  • Another thing I’ve noticed after overseeing several projects from start to finish (with all the messaging, meetings, posting, flyering, phone banks, and trips to the store) is that I find it bizarre when someone shows up to a meeting with big ideas they expect others to enact. Ideas are NOTHING without the labor required to see them through. What makes you think someone else has the time and energy to bring your vision to fruition? But then I remember when I used to show up and say, “We should _____,” and nothing happened. Perhaps that initial failure is part of the process. Most of us learn by doing. If you have a smart idea, consider taking the lead on it. Others will follow if they think it’s smart, too. But just understand you’ll probably be doing the bulk of the work at first. 
  • At the same time, don’t martyr yourself. If you’re doing too much of the work, then you don’t really have a team. You just have you, and you alone are not that impactful. You’ll burn out eventually. And then your impact will be zero.

Again, I’m not claiming to be some organizing mastermind. There are other key leadership qualities that matter a lot, like vision, interpersonal skills, or having a well-rounded historical perspective (an area in which I’m lacking). I’m okay with my shortcomings because I trust I’ll learn and grow with time, but ultimately I want my organization to expand beyond my ability to lead it. When that happens, I know I’ll still have a place because there’s always a need for people who get shit done. We’re like gardeners, tending the soil to create an environment in which our projects blossom and thrive.

*My sociologist spouse tells me this assertion means I am a vanguardist, to which I say, “Sure, that sounds accurate!” I have a lot to learn about history and theory — something I discuss later in the essay — so I’ll refrain from using such labels for now. My apologies to any passionate theory nerd whose head is now exploding. 

Problematica: Karen Richards is a Useless White Feminist

Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.

Well-known as “the bitchiest film ever made”, I love writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 drama All About Eve precisely for its catty content. I especially appreciate its acid-tongued characters, their disgruntled rants, and the way they snipe at each other in both bold and covert fashion. The story centers around queen bitch Margo Channing (Bette Davis), a deeply talented but aging Broadway diva struggling to hold on in an industry that fetishizes youthful femininity. She meets her match in devoted fan Eve (Anne Baxter), a meek, twenty-something widow who idolizes Margo almost as much as she loves The Theater. During the run of her hit play, “Aged in Wood,” Margo hires Eve as a personal assistant but soon notices her efficient, hardworking mentee is a bit too entrenched in her personal affairs – especially when it comes to keeping tabs on her young director/boyfriend Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill). At that point, angelic Eve has already charmed all of Margo’s closest friends, including “Aged in Wood” playwright Lloyd Richard (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Karen (Celeste Holm). By the time we realize Eve ain’t as wholesome as she seems, Margo’s histrionic tantrums have alienated all the people who might normally back her up. 

At first glance, All About Eve appears to be the classic match-up of Loud and Proud Bitch vs. Passive Aggressive Saboteur. To a certain extent, Margo creates her own hell by letting paranoid fear of losing Bill make her vulnerable to Eve’s machinations. Of course Eve is also at fault, as well as sociopathic theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), who loves watching this young lady toy with his frenemy Margo. But if we’re going to dole out fault for every bad thing that goes down in this messy melodrama, we must also consider that the most “virtuous” character in this wasps’ nest is also largely to blame. That character would be Margo’s best friend Karen, who in my mind is the perfect representation of a useless white feminist.1

(Warning: I’m going to reveal lots more spoilers here. If you haven’t seen the film and highly rate the experience of being surprised, I recommend you watch it before reading this.)

It’s funny that this character is named “Karen,” which in current slang refers to an awful white women who frequently asks to speak to customer service managers or calls the cops when she see a “suspicious” person standing too close to her. The Karen in this story is just that sort of moralistic busybody, the kind who feels compelled to teach someone a lesson about things she does not understand; this is the essence of Karen and Margo’s friendship throughout the first two acts. In one of the earliest scenes, when Margo is holding court in her dressing room following a performance, she playfully begs Lloyd to write her a better role than the southern belle protagonist from “Aged in Wood” – “Lloyd, honey, be a playwright with guts. Write me one about a nice normal woman who just shoots her husband.” Lloyd, who has written several plays for Margo, laughs off this jab. But Karen gets huffy — “I find these wisecracks increasingly unfunny!” — and whines about how Margo doesn’t appreciate all the fame and fortune her husband’s youthful characters have brought her. When her guilt trip fails to illicit a sense of shame, Karen then introduces Margo to the odd woman in a trench coat who’s been standing outside the stage door after every single performance. Indeed if not for Karen, Eve would never have entered Margo’s world.

Eve approaches Karen in the alley outside the stage door

You might be wondering, why does Karen care so much about Margo or Lloyd’s work? Doesn’t she have a life of her own? The answer is no, she doesn’t. When Eve first meets Karen, she recognizes and greets her by name. Karen laughs at the notion of being notable – “A playwright’s wife? I’m the lowest form of celebrity!” This is Karen’s whole schtick, that she’s the “nice,” even-keeled, normie outsider in a world full of temperamental egomaniacs. But being an outsider doesn’t stop her from meddling in her husband’s business. Just as Margo is beginning to suspect that Eve isn’t as sweet or devoted as she initially seems, an unwitting Karen encourages the young woman to audition as Margo’s understudy, assuming the star will be completely on-board with this plan. When Eve asks if Lloyd and Bill will also support it, Karen assures her, “They’ll do as they’re told.” 

Isn’t it odd that Karen thinks she has the right to boss around professionals when her only connection to this business is via marriage? You might be thinking, “Well 1950 was a different time. American women were expected to stay at home. Is it so wrong for Karen to wield power in whatever way she can? After all, she means well.” In a certain way, it looks like Karen is doing a good feminist deed by using her influence to lift up a young woman who’s just getting into this profession. When I first saw this film twenty years ago, I loved the “do as they’re told” line because it struck me as a bad ass, pro-lady sentiment way ahead of its time.

But now that I’m an aged socialist, I see that Karen’s sense of entitlement has more to do with class privilege than gender solidarity. Let’s consider what happens after she assures Eve that the men will fall in line with their plan. They have that chat at Margo’s birthday party for Bill, during which our paranoid heroine gets wasted and behaves like a complete psycho bitch toward Eve and all their friends. At one point Margo snaps at Eve for being too obsequious. When Karen calls out her snotty behavior, an inebriated Margo replies, “Please don’t play governess, Karen. I haven’t your unyielding good taste.” And then in a sneering upper class accent, adds, “I wish I could have gone to Radcliffe too, but father wouldn’t hear of it. He needed help behind the notions counter.”2

As partygoer Addison watches this scene unfold, he remarks to Margo, “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent.” He’s mocking her but it’s true – from a spectator’s viewpoint, this cattiness is precisely what makes All About Eve such delicious drama. At the same time, he’s also clued into the class resentment that underlies Margo and Karen’s friendship. As he notes in a voiceover monologue at the beginning of the film, “Nothing in [Karen’s] background or breeding should have brought her any closer to the stage than Row E, Center. However, during her senior year at Radcliffe, Lloyd Richards lectured on the drama. The following year, Karen became Mrs. Lloyd Richards.” Essentially, Karen is a rich girl who went to college with the same intention all rich girls had back then – to find herself a wealthy, respectable spouse. Karen may as well be an aristocrat; she never had to work, never had to prove herself worthy of this cutthroat business, but somehow still gets to be a decision-maker in this circle of Broadway elites.

Margo didn’t enjoy any of those shortcuts because she’s a worker. And increasingly, she’s become disillusioned with what’s required to survive in this business. Past age forty, she’s tired of playing characters Eve’s age. It makes her feel undignified and phony. It heightens her concern about losing her 32 year-old director beau to “some gorgeous wide-eyed young babe.” Right before her big blow-up at the party, she drunkenly lays out her insecurities to the man who has written all her major roles:

Lloyd: Margo, you haven’t got any age. 

Margo: “Miss Channing is ageless.” Spoken like a press agent.

Lloyd: I know what I’m talking about. After all, they’re my plays.

Margo: Spoken like an author. Lloyd, I’m not twentyish. I am not thirtyish. Three months ago, I was forty years old. Forty. Four oh… That slipped out, I hadn’t quite made up my mind to admit it. Now I feel as if I’d suddenly taken all my clothes off.

Lloyd: Week after week, to thousands of people, you’re as young as you want…

Margo: … as young as they want, you mean.

Watching the movie recently, I came to the conclusion that Lloyd is also much to blame for all the bad that happens. Why the hell doesn’t he write an age-appropriate role for his muse? Like so many men who are awarded huge platforms to tell stories about women, he possesses little understanding of what our lives are like, especially those of us facing middle age. Again, we could concede that conventions of the era made that condition so (as if the condition ever changed!). And yet here we are, watching a film from 1950 about a woman in her forties. Clearly it wasn’t an impossible task then any more than it is now. 

So we can blame Lloyd for being an oblivious nitwit (which later makes him the easiest mark for Eve’s shenanigans). But Karen is smarter and she actively schemes against her friend, pulling that classic white feminist “teach you a lesson” bullshit I mentioned earlier. After Margo throws a tantrum about Eve receiving the understudy role and subsequently breaks up with Bill, Karen takes advantage of a weekend getaway to sneakily trap her friend in the countryside so she misses her next performance. (This bitch literally drains the gas tank so they don’t make it to the train station in time!) Since Margo never misses a performance, and this snafu means understudy Eve is getting her big break, the viewer expects Margo to explode.

Instead, sitting in Lloyd and Karen’s chilly car, Margo apologizes to her pal for her recent hissy fits and admits with heartbreaking honesty that it all stemmed from her fear of losing Bill. “Infants behave the way I do, you know. They carry on and misbehave. They’d get drunk if they knew how, when they can’t have what they want. When they feel unwanted and insecure – or unloved.” From her point of view, this has all come down to a choice between continuing her life on stage or being with the man she loves. “Funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder, so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you go back to being a woman.” Karen squirms during this monologue, knowing she’s set her friend up for this painful moment of reckoning. But of course she can’t admit that. Her discomfort is one of the film’s most satisfying moments.

Karen and Margo, stuck in the car because Karen secretly drained the gas tank

But Karen faces even worse punishments down the line. When Eve turns on her, it’s difficult to feel she’s getting anything less than she deserved. That’s how devil’s deals go! At some point Lloyd stops doing as he’s told by Karen and becomes Eve’s stooge, instead. Apparently his spousal loyalty isn’t quite as deep as Karen assumes. But isn’t that the perfect metaphor for the limits of white feminism? It isn’t about destroying patriarchy as much as it’s about usurping patriarchal power to enact one’s personal agenda. As long as the system remains intact, most women keep losing. And for all of Karen’s good intentions, every action on her agenda winds up hurting her friend by reinforcing the patriarchal system that makes her professional life hell. 

As for Margo, I’ll always find it a bummer that she needs to abandon her career just to have a happy relationship (a classic Hollywood trope I touched upon in my last Problematica piece). But I fully relate to that choice. It isn’t that we foolishly choose love instead of personally fulfilling work, it’s that sometimes our work makes the pursuit of love impossible. When I was 29 years-old, I decided to quit the best paying job I ever had, working for an institution I adored, because I knew the constant overwork would keep me from ever having a meaningful romantic relationship. Two weeks later I fell in love with the man I’d later marry. I don’t think our relationship could have blossomed if I’d continued working 60-hour weeks at a place where I was always on call.

Born-rich homemakers like Karen don’t have to make those choices. Imagine if women of her means really used their power to help the rest of us. What if Karen had ordered Lloyd to write a play about a nice, normal woman who just shoots her husband, instead of giving her best friend a hard time about being ungrateful?

1. I prefer the term “elite feminist” to describe a sort of feminism that benefits individual privileged women as opposed to women at large. But since “white feminist” is the more common term, I default to it here.

2. “Notions” refers to a counter in a department store where small sewing supplies were sold.

None of Our Work is Pointless

I’m done with criticizing how other leftists engage politically. I’m done with making general comparisons about which is the better form of political praxis (the practice of one’s political beliefs, as opposed to theory). I’m done with the phrase “waste of time.”

This doesn’t mean I can’t be critical of people who behave like jerks. I just choose to separate their personalities from their approaches.

Take this one leftist I know. A real nitpicker, especially when women are leading a local action or campaign. He’ll argue against a proposed plan by emphasizing a single detail he finds morally problematic. His collaborators’ vision never seems to live up to the revolutionary ideal in his brain, yet he offers few alternatives. Ya know, that guy. I’ve joked with friends that he’s secretly a cop because his main motivation appears to be shooting down every new idea before it can take form. But really, I suspect he’s just that common leftist white guy combo of arrogant and awkward, and this is his version of being helpful. Or perhaps that’s me being generous, because I can afford to think he’s harmless. I decided ages ago I’d never work with this person under any circumstances.

Fellow comrades who get frustrated with this guy sometimes point out that his main form of political engagement is standing on street corners waving signs for far left causes. “He doesn’t DO anything.” While I feel their exasperation (“Who the hell is this guy to judge me?!”), I don’t agree with this specific analysis, and here’s why: as far as I’ve seen, most people in this country don’t willingly engage with politics at all. If they do anything, they vote (and most eligible voters don’t vote). The majority abstain, which I find very sad, but my point here is not to attack them. Rather, I must give credit to the guy who waves signs on street corners because at least he is doing something. It’s not the something I generally choose to do. Nor is it the only thing I do. It’s not enough to change the world in itself, but it’s not nothing.

And if I’m being completely honest, none of the ways I engage with politics are going to change the world either. There is no perfect praxis. There is no magic bullet that solves the big problem all at once. You can sit in meetings with your comrades all day, trying to devise that perfect action or campaign that will fix your fucked up corner of this fucked up world and you will never succeed. At some point you must determine to do a thing, and hope to sway others to your cause. You and your comrades can work very hard at that thing. Maybe you’ll even get others to show up. Perhaps when it’s done you’ll call it a “win,” but you can trust  others outside your circle are saying the same thing you yourself said about some other activist or group in your community – “what they’re doing is a total waste of time.”

I’ve definitely been subject to that criticism. My preferred praxis is door-to-door canvassing. I believe in the power of one-on-one conversation to facilitate social change. Sometimes I canvass on behalf of political candidates, but mostly I canvass for Medicare for All. Many people in my community and in my political organization believe the work I do is a waste of time. I’m past feeling hurt about that. And at the same time, I also question the efficacy of my work on a regular basis. There’s no chance of enacting single-payer health care under the current North Carolina legislature. Our Republican U.S. Senators and House Rep sure as hell aren’t going to rally for it. What’s the point? Well I happen to be passionate enough about single-payer healthcare and canvassing that I’ve been able to convince comrades to work on this project anyway. And they in turn recruit other canvassers. We’ve gotten used to talking to strangers in neighborhoods most of us have never visited before. And to a few hundred people in this town, our campaign’s been the first they’ve heard about Medicare for All. The work we do isn’t going to institute single-payer healthcare. But we’re contributing to a movement that will. I refuse to call that a waste of time.

Perhaps it’s not the best use of someone else’s time. I respect that. We’re all busy, especially us comrades who engage with left politics. But I also have enough respect for the comrades that I will not call whatever they choose to do instead “pointless.” At various times, I’ve been told by other organizers that the following forms of praxis are wasted time: 

  • voting
  • canvassing
  • running for office 
  • phone banking 
  • calling representatives to complain 
  • speaking out at city council and school board meetings
  • letter-writing campaigns
  • mutual aid
  • demonstrations
  • marches

If everyone is correct, then there’s no point to any kind of engagement. I tend to believe, on the contrary, that ALL of these approaches are useful in some context

I don’t think I know any activist who believes all these approaches are useless, but they do tend to think that some forms of engagement are way better than others. I often find that an activist’s preferred praxis is whichever one best fits their personality. People who love leading chants with a bullhorn often prefer marches and demonstrations, people with strong organizational skills might prefer planning actions behind the scenes, while introverts like me might be more inclined to do one-on-one calls or canvass. And I think all of that is just peachy. Every one of us who engages with progressive politics takes risks in putting ourselves out there, and it makes sense that we tend toward the praxis that feels most comfortable. Doing what feels natural helps us build the confidence we need to do all the necessary work that makes us uncomfortable.

From 2012, 9-year-old Josef Miles protests a Westboro Baptist Church demonstration in Topeka, KS

So why are we inclined to criticize each other’s methods so harshly? In my experience, the criticism either comes from an unwillingness to do that specific work (because it’s tedious, scary, requires too much planning, etc.) or — more often, I suspect — it comes from hurt feelings and banged-up egos. Of course we want to shit on the guy who who shits on all our new ideas, and make fun of him for only waving a sign on a street corner instead of doing something more helpful. But the problem with that guy isn’t his praxis. His problem is that he’s a jerk. If he were a kind soul who simply could not bring himself to do anything beyond waving a sign (because maybe, for whatever reason, that’s all he can give), I’d have no ill will toward him.

This distinction matters because once one person or group starts criticizing another person or group for having “bad” praxis, it just leads to a domino effect of competitive back-biting that is poisonous to solidarity. So that’s why I’m done trashing other good faith leftists’ various forms of political engagement. As long as you and your group work on good causes, you don’t abuse people or abet abusers, and you don’t collaborate with fascists, you’re probably a-okay with me. I may not work with you on this one campaign. But I hope we can work together later. And if you think what I’m doing is a waste of time, I can live with that. Just use your pre-mouth filter when you’re around me and we’ll be just fine.

Problematica: On Not Being Hildy Johnson

Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.

To understand my neurotic feminist dilemma with His Girl Friday, you must understand I’ve loved this movie since age twelve. Director Howard Hawks’s 1940 screwball comedy retelling of the Broadway hit “The Front Page” mostly sticks to the original story about shady newspaper editor Walter Johnson scheming to keep star reporter Hildy, who’s leaving the business to start a family with his soon-to-be wife. But in Hawks’s version, Hildy is a woman (played by Rosalind Russell) and Walter (Cary Grant) is both her editor and her recently divorced ex-husband.

Through adolescence and adulthood, Hildy has been one of my primary role models – brilliant, witty, tough, aggressive, a writer like me, but also a legend in her field. We never see her struggle with the kind of workplace sexism a woman would surely have encountered at the time (or now, for that matter), because every one of her peers knows she’s the best. In the opening scene, when she drops by the Morning Post office after a four month divorce/vacation hiatus, she breezes through this busy, buzzing newsroom as her colleagues pause their work to smile and wave at her. She owns the place. I’d never seen this kind of leading lady before, so confidently executing her power. Throughout the film she uses that power to harangue cops and politicians, gently press a prisoner for an interview, and firmly manage her naive, good-natured fiancé Bruce (Ralph Bellamy). But most of all, she draws upon that power to fight ex-husband Walter.

I’m going to reveal a spoiler about His Girl Friday that should be obvious to anyone who’s watched a romantic comedy, especially one starring the ridiculously smooth and dapper Cary Grant — Hildy ultimately ditches nice boy Bruce to reunite with Walter. And I’ve gotta admit, that outcome never sat completely right with me. As much as I’ve always adored this smart, fast-paced film and especially Hildy and Walter’s frenetic bickering, it made me sad to see my heroine go right back into this complicated relationship with a man who shows no signs of improvement. Walter is a ruthless, selfish, alpha go-getter. Even before he learns his ex-wife is marrying another man (he assumes she’s taken a job with another paper), he’s scheming to keep her from getting away. First he enlists Bruce’s help guilt-tripping Hildy into interviewing Earl Williams, a gentle but mentally unstable death row convict who’s seeking a stay of execution. Once Walter has her back in the game, he spends the rest of the movie orchestrating tricks to keep Bruce and Hildy apart so they miss their train to Albany on the eve of their wedding. She sees exactly what Walter’s doing. But when Williams escapes from prison, she can’t resist reporting the ensuing manhunt. Walter and his henchmen get Bruce arrested multiple times and even kidnap his mom at one point. Still Hildy’s drawn to this man who represents everything she finds foul and repellent about the newspaper business. “Walter, you wouldn’t know what it means to want to be respectable and live a halfway normal life,” she explains in the opening scene. So how can this self-assured woman with crystal clear moral judgment reunite with this slippery, chaotic cad?

I always wished Hildy could wind up with a character who’s a cross between Walter and Bruce, a love interest who matches her intellect but also exhibits the kind, sweet, and considerate behavior she seeks in a spouse. I guess I wanted her to be with someone like my husband – a wickedly funny, clever sociologist who is also affectionate and thoughtful. I could never see myself marrying a man like Walter, because my moral judgment precludes me from cohabiting with manipulators or mean spirits; I would literally rather live alone. How can Hildy settle for this jerk, and does her willingness to settle make her a flawed feminist figure?

I recently revisited His Girl Friday with fresh eyes, and a question I learned to ask myself when I reviewed TV episodes about abortion – does this character’s choice make sense? Framing the query that way, I came to the overwhelming conclusion that Hildy does indeed belong with Walter. Whether or not that outcome diminishes her feminist status isn’t that important to me once I accept that my role model’s attitudes toward love, sex, and writing are actually pretty different from mine.

To understand why Hildy is drawn to Walter, we need to examine exactly what makes her, as he says in the beginning of the film, “a great newspaperman.” On the one hand, she exhibits a maternal quality that sets her far apart from her peers. Walter himself notes this early on when he insists Hildy is the only one who can write the Earl Williams story because it needs “a woman’s touch”; he’s manipulating her, but he’s also correct. When Hildy gets her interview with Williams she subtly cajoles him into sharing the nonsense logic he had in mind when he shot and killed a police officer, which she uses to demonstrate his insanity (though the mayor’s handpicked medical examiner is eager to claim otherwise). Her thoughtful method stands in stark contrast to her fellow male reporters at the Criminal Courts Building, who spend most of the film lazily playing cards, cracking wise, chasing sirens, and stealing each others’ leads. There’s this incredible scene when Earl’s friend Mollie Malloy — a fragile, working class lady who testified in his defense — confronts these men in their office about all the lascivious lies they published about her. Hildy walks in to see them mocking Mollie as she becomes hysterical with rage. She calmly escorts the girl away from the room. When Mollie moans, “They’re not human,” Hildy replies, “I know, they’re newspapermen,” while throwing an extremely judgmental look over her shoulder. The men share an awkward silence until Hildy returns, stares them all down, and says, “Gentlemen of the press,” with a shake of her head – dismayed, but not surprised. It’s a gutting moment, and you sense that no other person could successfully shame this group. These unfeeling, misogynist jerks actually care what Hildy thinks of them.

But the reason they care is because she channels that maternal compassion into excellent writing. They even gossip about the piece she’s written on Williams when she’s called away to bail Bruce out of jail, saying there’s no chance her new marriage will last; someone as talented as herself could never give up journalism. As insensitive as this crew is, they quickly intuit  Bruce is more child than mate, hence their snarky remarks whenever Hildy has to save her fiancé from Walter’s shenanigans. (“Lioness rushes to defend cub.” “Man forgets hankie, mama goes to wipe nose.”) And they’re right. In pretty much every Bruce and Hildy scene, she’s shushing him or giving firm advice on protecting himself from Walter, even making up a little “newsroom superstition” fib about hiding his cash in his hat for good luck. There’s nothing romantic or alluring about this mother-son dynamic. It’s probably the worst use of that maternal quality which makes her writing so great. 

But there’s another characteristic that makes Hildy a great newspaperman, which has nothing to do with her compassion or maternal nature – her insatiable desire for the story. She’s no different from her ruthless peers in this regard, except smarter; instead of chasing sirens she tackles a prison guard to find out how Williams escaped his cell. No matter how many times Walter pulls some sneaky scheme to get Bruce in trouble, she can’t resist writing this story because she keeps getting the scoop on everyone else. And this, I finally realized, is the major difference between my fictional writer role model and me. I’m not a journalist. I write pop culture pieces and personal essays, the kind of content Hildy might reductively call “sob sister stuff.” She’s a reporter. She gets tired of hunting leads and chasing people down for quotes in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s really good at it. Rosalind Russell shines in this role. The gleaming eyes and conspiratorial whisper she uses when she calls Walter to tell him about her latest hot tip indicate early on that her colleagues are right – there’s no way Hildy can give up this game to marry some unsexy schlub.

And that leads us to the Walter and Hildy dynamic. Grant and Russell have an incredible chemistry that’s unlike any other dynamic I’ve seen on screen. It’s like a rollercoaster on repeat. In the first scene we see them bicker about the circumstances that led to their divorce. Before long they’re hollering and she’s throwing her purse at his head. Then he seems to relent. In the next scene, they’re bantering. He convinces her to do the interview. Everyone’s laughing. They’re collaborating. Then he eventually double crosses her (gets Bruce arrested for solicitation), and they’re back to hollering. I finally realized during my latest viewing that this is sex for them. Several years into the Hays Code era, Hollywood films couldn’t depict anything resembling sex on screen. So instead there’s this fantastic scene when Walter stops Hildy from running off to get Bruce out of jail. With machine gun delivery Walter badgers then flatters Hildy into sticking around to finish the story. “How can you worry about a man who’s resting in a nice quiet police station while this is going on?… Hildy, you’ve got the whole city by the seat of the pants… This isn’t just a story, this is a revolution!… They’ll be naming streets after you… There’ll be statues of you in the park.” They circle about the room as they speak. First she argues, then she agrees, then she gets dreamy eyed as she fantasizes about exposing their corrupt mayor. And when he starts blowing smoke up her ass about streets and statues, she tells him to shut up so they can get to work. It hits all the classic beats of a seduction scene, starting with friction and escalating to submission. But there’s little physical contact and it all centers around creative collaboration. Frankly, it’s incredibly hot.

So as shady and manipulative as Walter can be, I get why he’s the only one for Hildy. It’s not just that he’s her only match for wit. There’s something sweet and incredibly unusual in the fact that he refuses to see her give up her profession. I think of other films from this era that starred Barbara Stanwyck (my all-time favorite) as a smart, self-sufficient working woman – the magazine columnist from Christmas in Connecticut or the stripper from Ball of Fire. In these and many other films from that time, the working woman lead character ultimately trades her job (i.e. her financial independence and perhaps some self-fulfillment) for love. Her career ambition gets in the way of romance. For Hildy and Walter, it’s the opposite. Their romance isn’t always what she wants it to be, but it’s intense, passionate, and thrives upon the combined power of their professional talent. It isn’t the love story I would choose for myself, because it involves entirely too much fighting. But then I’m not the sort of fighter that my heroine Hildy Johnson is.

The Doldrums

I’m more an anxiety person, so it took a long time to notice I was depressed. Waking up in the middle of the night to ponder Big Social Problems had exposed me to much tossing, turning, and occasional doses of antacid. But waking up in the middle of the night to sob over a deep sense of inadequacy and hopelessness in the face of those problems – well, that was new. 

I’m usually content with the humble busy-ness that fuels my more buoyant self. When not overcome with existential malaise, I get lots of stuff done. I raise a child. Work retail. Write.  Organize Medicare for All canvasses. Cook. Clean. Walk. Occasionally run, lift weights, and sing karaoke. I’m not extraordinarily good at any of those things but sometimes impress even myself with proficiency. Creating and producing brings its own joy, no matter how limited my impact. And as for the Big Social Problems – I was doing my bit to chip away at this capitalist system that’s ruining our planet and feeding the other major maladies. A little something is better than the nothing most people do. In my small way, I was helping.

But between wintry weather that just wouldn’t go away, and the increasingly bleak state of our crumbling planet, I lost my motivation to do many of those things. The self-preserving tasks were easiest to abandon. Oven-ready frozen comfort foods and take-out required less effort than cooking healthy and washing dishes. In turn, exercise became more dreadful. So why not just quit that altogether? In fact, why bother with a lot of things? The planet’s temperature could rise 14° Fahrenheit in 100 years. Perhaps I’m alive just in time to witness the beginning of the end. In which case, did it really matter if I got bloated and lazy? 

I didn’t lose motivation to the point of shirking my responsibilities to others (child, spouse, work, comrades), so then I just began questioning the value I actually held to those groups and entities. As a person who earns well below a living wage, what is my value in a capitalist society? If this is the system going down with us during this mass extinction, am I not ultimately defined by those measures of success or failure? If I actually saved money for my family by ceasing to exist (because the loss of income represented by my dead body’s inability to sell its labor would be outweighed by lower health insurance premiums + a cheaper grocery bill), then what’s the big loss? Sure, my kid would be sad and so would my husband. But he is a likable guy — definitely more popular than me — and way better than most men. He actually likes women. He could find another one. Maybe she’d make more money than I do.

So that was my general state of mind a couple weeks ago! Some of you already know this because I tweeted many of these thoughts, though I waited to do so until after I’d scheduled a visit with my therapist (whom I’d last seen when I had a rare panic attack during the Kavanaugh confirmation). I figured at that point I was free to lay my demons out for display on social media, because if anyone said, “Jesus, Tara! GET SOME HELP,” I could be like, “Duh, I know, I’m working on it.” 

So during that week between texting my shrink and seeing her, I shared a lot of dark thoughts I’d never before considered posting on such a public platform. And you know what? The release felt great. I’m so used to bottling my saddest, most vulnerable feelings based on the assumption that someone else in the vicinity has it worse than me. As my therapist later noted, that’s some classic Adult Child of an Alcoholic nonsense, and it’s actually pretty rad that I broke through my “suck it up” martyr reflex. Because you know what’s SUPER rad? In 2019, I can go on social media and tell people I’m depressed… and they get it! Not only do a lot of people get it, they relate. And they share kind, generous observations like, “I take medication for that,” or, “I also question the value I bring to my marriage.” Or they say things they appreciate about me, like, “I know I don’t know you, but you seem like such a nice mom!” I’m paraphrasing a lot for the sake of other people’s privacy, but hopefully you catch my drift. I found deep wells of compassion when all I expected was a nonjudgmental void.

The therapy appointment went well. We talked about how my atheism feels weirder when I contemplate mass extinction, and we talked about “The Good Place” (my favorite TV show). She encouraged my practice of taking long walks, and recommended a full spectrum lamp for next winter. Because this is cognitive behavioral therapy, we focus a lot on habits, and since seeing her I notice that the self-preserving habits I’d shed during winter are the very ones that keep my humble busy motor buzzing. My goals for April are pretty simple – at least two blood-pumping fitness routines per week (in addition to my retail workout) and five fruits/vegetables per day. It’s been fun cooking again – I missed the creativity sparked by a well-stocked fridge. The process of exercising might be less enjoyable, but I’m definitely breathing and sleeping better.

I still feel shaky, as one does after a nasty illness. It’s like my soul had a puking virus. I’m not so quick to volunteer my time beyond Medicare for All and basic officer duties for our Democratic Socialists of America branch. I spend many evenings lately coloring pictures of flowers and half-watching “Murder She Wrote” reruns on Amazon Prime. I have a feeling I’ll look back on this practice with some fondness, like the spring when I read a bunch of Jane Austen, or the summer when I was 12 and became obsessed with 1960s “Batman” TV show reruns. So I’m savoring it, as all pleasant present moments should be savored.

I’m still very worried about the future. But there’s much to love about the present. I turn 42 on Sunday and can definitely say it looks more than twice as good as age 21 was. I don’t know if I would have expected that then. I certainly couldn’t have visualized the sorts of communities and relationships that bring me joy and comfort now. 

My Case for a Mutual Indifference

I follow this Facebook group with hundreds of women members, one of whom recently posted about a frustrating experience with a male client. He’d made some dopey sexist remark about her having grown out of her “scared little girl” phase of being a new employee. She laughed off his backhanded compliment but felt awful afterward; her feminist instinct was, “I should have confronted him.”

I couldn’t bear to read the comments on her post because in my experience, fellow frustrated women tend to jump into, “Well you know what I would have said” mode, which is not helpful. In fact, I see that as a very alpha response more reminiscent of patriarchy than feminism. My feeling is that the person posting about that experience did nothing wrong. If she had chosen to chastise or insult the fool, that would have been fine, too. If you, reader, are a woman who enjoys lashing back at sexist men, I sincerely cheer and encourage you to keep up your great work. Guys like that definitely deserve your harsh words. But if you’re a woman who dreads having that confrontation, may I suggest an alternate response that doesn’t require the sexist man’s participation at all – simply write off his existence and ignore him as much as possible. 

The thing about telling off a sexist dude is that you’re probably not gonna get anything out of him beyond his temporary embarrassment or anger (both of which can be very hard to take, especially if you must deal with him while making a living). He might stop saying those dumb things out loud in front of you to avoid another confrontation, but he’s unlikely to think real hard on what you taught him and change his attitude for the better. He probably doesn’t care about the lesson you’re trying to teach him, because you are a woman and why would he care? We don’t matter to most of them, beyond our capacity to mother, serve, or satisfy. Once you realize you’re dealing with that sort of man — the kind who doesn’t care about your insides — it is in your best interest to stop caring what he thinks or feels. Let his insides be as invisible to you as yours are to him.

What I’m advocating for is mutual indifference. We cannot entirely avoid dealing with these men, especially at work. But we can choose to end conversations with them as quickly as possible and refuse to mask our boredom when they blather on about themselves or their precious ideas. My sister calls this latter technique “napping bitch face” – for when the mansplainer is so boring that you practically fall asleep. You don’t have to tell the guy to shut the fuck up (unless that’s something you enjoy, in which I case I applaud you). But neither do you need to feign interest. The nice thing about writing off these dullards is that it frees you from wanting to be liked by them. So go ahead, take a nap. Or just let your mind wander to more pleasant thoughts – that’s what they do when you speak about something other than them.

Becoming a mother helped me notice the vast number of selfish men who want nurturing attention from women without giving any of that attention in return. Especially as I’ve found myself aging out of the range of their jerk-off fantasies, I can easily recognize this sort of man. He isn’t talking to me in the hopes of maybe getting laid, but still wants something from me that he has no intention of reciprocating. Maybe he wants me to listen to his problems or tell him his ideas are smart. But if I start discussing my problems or ideas, he either talks over me or gets that faraway look in his eye that indicates he’s having his nap. 

If I told off every man who engaged me this way, I’d be lecturing nonstop. That’s not my idea of fun or fulfillment. Instead, a switch flips in my brain and I think, “Ah, one of them.” And I avoid conversation with that man as much as possible. This system works for me.

I also apply this technique to my organizing life. As much as I can, I avoid working with men who exhibit those characteristics. Fortunately, I have many guy comrades and friends who actually like and respect women; I tend to arrange more meetings with them. Sometimes we’ll get together for beers or karaoke and I’ll have multiple conversations with these gents, during which they maintain eye contact and respond to the things I’m saying instead of the thoughts in their own head. It’s honestly a little jarring, because my social expectations are now so low. 

Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to underestimate the high level of sexism and misogyny in left organizing circles – it’s a big problem, and in recent days I’ve heard rumblings from a couple socialist organizations about high-level male members getting away with terrible abusive behavior. I can only say that here in my little corner of socialist organizing, my filter definitely works for me. And in the end, while creeps and dullards still abound on the left, I do believe there are a slightly higher-than-usual number of dudes who actually like us.

But even if there weren’t, we’d still have women (and nonbinary folks!). From nurses to teachers to flight attendants to teenage climate change strikers, we’re doing some of the most impressive, impactful organizing right now. As long as we’re good comrades to each other and don’t get bogged down in exhausting fights with silly men, I believe we’ll continue kicking ass on a major level.

Sirens of the Rust Belt, Sirens of the Cornfield

For the last few months I’ve been keeping an eye out for good socialist candidates who can primary some of our centrist Democrats in office. A friend suggested I consider myself for the role, but I immediately eschewed the notion. I’m not an “on-stage” personality. Perhaps time and experience could help me overcome my shyness and fear of public speaking. Or maybe I could just learn to fake it. But they’ll never completely cure me of my Midwestern accent. I won’t let them. 

I’ve worked on two progressive political campaigns for Midwestern-bred women running in the south. Both lost but came really, close considering they were outspent underdogs. And both faced opponents whose main modes of attack were essentially, “She’s not from here, don’t trust her.” One particularly slimy opponent warned of my candidate bringing “Detroit values” to our southern city, even including images of abandoned factories in his campaign materials. Sadly, these tactics work. Never underestimate the power of provincial xenophobia. But I also wonder if these women would’ve been more warmly received had they come from some other faraway place with a more sophisticated or less noticeable accent. I heard voters make fun of both these women candidates’ voices. People who aren’t from around those parts really hate the way we speak.

I love the way we speak. I love Midwestern women. They’re my favorite group of people. So many times since I moved to the south, I’ve met some charming, plainspoken lady with a hilarious, dry wit and wondered, “How’s she so cool?” Then I find out she’s from Cleveland, or rural Indiana, or somewhere around Chicago, and I think, “Ohhhh, THAT’S why I like you so much.” Then I notice they make some of the same nasal vowel sounds that I do. 

Of course I speak of many accents – a white woman from Cedar Rapids doesn’t sound the same as a black lady in Flint. But I appreciate them all because they’re the perfect complement to the down-to-earth, no-bullshit, wholesome truth of what we say. A Midwestern woman’s spoken wisdom is like a big old scoop of mashed potatoes slapped down on the plate in front of you. Maybe it’s not the most delicate delivery or elegant presentation, but that doesn’t make the mashed potatoes any less delicious. Why would you complain about rich, creamy carbs? Dig in!

When I hear a Midwestern woman tell the truth in her mashed potato voice, I feel inspired. These sirens of the rust belt and the cornfield are my role models. Roseanne Barr busted my heart by proving herself an unhinged bigot, because I used to considered her the patron saint of Midwestern women. That loudmouthed, sarcastic, working class Illinois mom she portrayed on TV reminded me of countless women I’ve known (sometimes myself). But I no longer care to honor her legacy. So instead, I seek inspiration from these notable daughters of the heartland ~

  • Kim Deal, but especially that outtake from “Surfer Rosa” when she tells the rest of The Pixies about the pedophile high school coach (“All I know is that there were rumors he was into field hockey players…”). Here’s this cool as hell woman bassist, performing on one of my all-time favorite rock albums, alternately trilling and shredding her voice on songs like “Gigantic” and “River Euphrates”. And then for a moment you hear her conversational voice and she sounds like a judgmental Ohio mom talking very frank shit about a very bad man. That twang when she says, “They were so QUIET about it,” fills me with joy. That’s the sound of home. I feel protected.
  • Mary Wells and Madonna, but specifically their inability to pronounce the “t” in “wanted.” Listen to “You Beat Me to the Punch” or “Crazy for You.” According to these Mitten State ladies, the appropriate pronunciation is “wah-nid.” That’s that sloppy mashed potato quality coming through, and I love it. But also they’re pop music icons, so who’s gonna argue with it? On that note, I’d like to say to every snobby, out-of-state student at the University of Michigan who ever had the nerve to move to my state and tell me I pronounce Mary, merry, and marry wrong – guess what? They’re all pronounced the same. Suck it!
  • Rep. Rashida Tlaib, when she said of Trump, “We’re gonna impeach the motherfucker.” Much as I admire and respect this congresswoman for trash-talking our troll president, and specifically for referring to him by that apt epithet, I didn’t watch the clip of her saying those words until a few days ago. I read 99% of my news, which is how I learned about her glorious taunt. It never occurred to me she would be making this beautiful statement in the same tone of voice I associate with every blunt, salty woman from my hometown. (Speaking of which, Midwestern Muslim women are a particularly lovable subset of my favorite group of people – they consistently disprove every stereotype you might believe about their supposed timidity.)

Obviously, I never noticed these accents until after I moved to the south and people would make fun of the way I say words like “cotton” (slightest hint of a t-sound, more like “KAHt-ihn”). Just as I’ve learned to sprinkle “y’all” throughout my everyday dialogue, I’ve found myself pronouncing my Ts a little harder. When I go back to Michigan, I’m stunned by the strength of my friends’ accents, which had been invisible to me before I moved away. Like so many other aspects of the rust belt, I suppose I adore that sound more for its familiarity than its pure aesthetic value. But it isn’t just nostalgia that feeds my admiration. There’s an authenticity in this manner of speaking that feeds my soul, much like a hearty pile of mashed potatoes. 

I know what people from other places think. They find us annoying, unrefined, lowbrow. They complain about the women’s voices more than men. Maybe it’s the higher pitch combined with those nasal vowel sounds that irritates them. Or maybe misogyny is just that pervasive. Either way, their snobby aversion just makes me wanna turn up those nasal vowel sounds and drop my middle-Ts even more. I believe there’s power in using that grating siren sound to tell the truth. And whether or not I can get myself elected to office, I’m gonna use it.