At the start of the year I committed to posting an essay on this website every other week, covering a wide variety of subjects. So far I’ve veered away from current events, but that’s not possible this week because my brain has been gleefully subsumed by the Bernie Sanders canvassing experience. I cannot stop thinking about how to get more people on the streets knocking doors for our first Democratic Socialist president.
I’ve canvassed the last five Saturdays and not gonna lie, walking these hilly Carolina Piedmont neighborhoods in the January/February chill takes a lot out of me. But I also get a huge rush from talking to voters about why we need to elect Bernie. I wish I had more time and energy to give. In quiet moments, my mind strategizes when and where I’ll set up my next canvass. How many people can I train? Who’s ready to step up and host their own? I can’t do it this Saturday because I’ll be facilitating a DSA meeting, But I can train people to use the canvassing app during my breakout session, and I’ll have packets ready for them to hit the streets at their earliest convenience. Once they get a fix, I know they’ll love it, too. I’ve already seen that happen to so many of the people I’ve met these past five weeks.
These people (along with the many thousands of Sanders campaign voluneers across the country) are my greatest inspiration, way more than Bernie. Much as we love our cranky, blue-sweatered, anti-capitalist grandpa, we’re the ones powering this thing. That’s the whole point of #NotMeUs. We want a Green New Deal and Medicare, housing, and free college for all because we know these programs would radically transform our lives and the lives of pretty much everyone we know. We don’t show up on a rainy January morning because Bernie got a good dig at Biden in the last debate, or because our friends sent us a hilarious meme of Bernie wearing Juggalo makeup. We treat ourselves to the jokes and zingers because we work so hard canvassing, calling, and texting voters. And we do that work for each other.
One of the most remarkable canvassers I’ve met is a single mom of four (including a young adult w/special needs) who also helps care for an elderly parent. She drove thirty minutes with her teen son to knock doors in drizzle. A working class person who spends that much time taking care of others AND volunteers for Bernie impresses me way more than any wealthy Mayor Pete donor.
The most fun I’ve had canvassing was two Saturdays ago when I set out with two socialist comrade friends; at the end we posed for this pic I tweeted with the hashtag #HotParentsForBernie. Our four daughters (cumulative age = 21) have attended multiple organizing meetings and marches. The baby of the group has ridden her stroller on many canvasses for both Bernie and Medicare for All. Even though we all lead busy, complicated lives, it’s no wonder that parents like us show up for Sanders. We know what’s at stake for the littles, and we’re training them to fight, organize, and seize power together.
Something I distinctly remember about Trump’s inauguration was that right after his swearing-in, I went on Facebook and posted, “Sooo… when do we start drinking?” Judging by the many “likes” I received, lots of depressed people boozed it up that day.
It’s been a drunk few years for leftists living under Trump, rising fascism, and rapid climate change. We don’t allow ourselves the comfort of denying how bad things are. I give us credit for refusing to look away from the darkness, and even more credit to those of us who organize to fight back against all the scary things. But for those of us who imbibe — and I know many comrades who do — our perennial rage, fear, and discouragement make us more inclined to drink from stress. Sometimes you just wanna take your mind off the pain and worry for one night. Or two. Possibly most nights out of the week, depending what kind of news cycle you’re in.
I’ve recently decided that the repercussions from drinking this often generally outweigh the enjoyment. Part of my issue is just age, limited energy, and how much my schedule’s changed recently. During the holidays, I switched from part- to full-time at my very pleasant retail job that I don’t discuss online. So I have way less personal time. But I’m still a mom, still writing, still leading my local DSA organizing committee (we’re in the process of forming our own chapter!), and also canvassing for Bernie whenever I can. I cannot imagine trying to balance all of this activity with even the slightest hangover. At age 42, anything over two drinks per night will likely mess up my sleep or leave me feeling fuzzy the next day. Suffice to say, I’ve had many 2+ drink nights since January 2017.
I feel quite vulnerable putting this in writing. I can speak about my anxiety and depression with far fewer reservations. Alcohol is a very touchy subject. I do genuinely enjoy the flavor and warmth, and don’t necessarily want to give up drinking entirely. But my dad was a drunk, and a pretty mean one. I don’t like thinking of myself inheriting his worst qualities. Nevertheless I want to be honest about how much I’ve been drinking over the past few years, because I know I’m not alone. If you drink a lot and don’t feel great about that, please know you’re not the only one grappling with where you ought to draw some lines. Perhaps we could all benefit from speaking more frankly on the subject.
My spouse and I decided to abstain from alcohol between New Year’s and Valentine’s Day, an old tradition I practiced during my last couple years in Michigan (so as not to become an extra depressed winter drunk). This go-round of temporary temperance feels very different than it did ten years ago. I was another person then — childfree and politically inactive, less burdened in many ways. But I also harbored meager expectations worn down by low wages, high rent, and the scarcity of jobs in my rust belt homeland. In 2010, I wasn’t nearly so afraid of the immediate future as I am now. But neither did I feel as much hope for a better, more just, and equitable society. What I’ve come to realize about drinking is that if I do it too much, I rob my sense of hope to feed that anxiety.
In my experience, drunks are not at their worst when they’re wasted — indeed, that is often when they’re the most fun. The nightmare moods strike when they’re hungover. The difference between 24 year-old me and me at 42 is that it takes relatively little alcohol to bum me out the next day. It’s this aging body, and it’s also the greater demands. No matter what, I have to wake up early every morning and care for my child. I don’t often sleep in. If I ever had a day when I didn’t have stuff to get done, maybe I wouldn’t mind feeling a little tired or weary. I could just lay on the couch all day, binge-watch Netflix, and order take-out. But I don’t often have those days. Not when there’s a DSA chapter to form, or a Bernie to elect, or an essay to post.
Speaking of which, I’m writing this paragraph at my favorite brewery, where I’m sipping a hibiscus soda. It’s been a long day. After helping my husband get our kid off to school, I went to work all day, then to a DSA event, then to the pet store for dog treats, followed by a quick (possibly regrettable) meal at KFC, and finally here. My town doesn’t have many late-night establishments that aren’t bars, so I’ve made my peace with being sober at the watering hole. This is the other reason I know I’m not the only one struggling with where to draw those lines. So much of our adult leisure culture revolves around alcohol. Drinking can feel like the cover charge you pay to enjoy a grown-up social life.
I remember a couple summers ago, we visited Michigan toward the end of Ramadan. One night my husband ran out to a Yemeni cafe in Dearborn and came back to my mom’s place in awe of what he’d seen — Muslims of all ages gathered at midnight, sipping tea and coffee, nibbling pastries, enjoying boisterous conversation. Old women in hijabs pounding the table and laughing. Of course it made sense that the cafe was open late, serving a community that had fasted all the long summer day. I just loved the idea that there was a party happening that didn’t guarantee an exhausted tomorrow. I love to chat and joke and stay up late with friends, and I hope one day (maybe when my child is a little more self-reliant, and I can sleep in) that I can go to that kind of party without feeling the need to pickle my insides. Let’s add that environment to our long list of socialist demands.
I don’t blame anyone for drinking too much in the face of this broken and disintegrating world. But as always, my mind wanders back to “What’s it gonna take to win a better one?” It’s gonna take a lot of work, which requires enormous energy. I can’t tell anyone else how to spend their energy. But this drinking fast has shown me that I have plenty more when I don’t wrap my down time around alcohol.
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.
Released 35 years ago this month, Madonna’s “Material Girl” is easily my favorite song from her ‘80s catalog. I’ve always loved its bubblegum poppy swing, that catchy chorus, and especially the music video in which she reenacts Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. 7 year-old me considered this song an instant classic and 42 year-old me will gladly belt it at karaoke, with the proper bourbon lubricant.
I’ve never related to the lyrics at all, cheeky and funny though they are. When I later became a Cole Porter fan, I realized “Material Girl” was very much in the vein of songs like “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” or “Always True to You in My Fashion” – stories told from the perspective of hot, fashionable young women who only put out for men that can afford their taste for finer things. In the “Material Girl” video, Madonna/Marilyn dances with a throng of tuxedoed men who ply her with jewels, as she sings lines like, “Some boys try and some boys lie but I don’t let them play / Only boys who save their pennies make my rainy day.”
This concept of sleeping with men for cash, gems, and designer gowns has always felt profoundly un-me. Between my prudish Catholic upbringing, my complete disinterest in Fancy Stuff like diamonds, sports cars, or furs, and my deeply romantic nature that shrinks at the notion of transactional sex, I’ve never related to this sort of vamp or what she wants from men. For me, the super hot part of the “Material Girl” music video is the backstage love story that seems to contradict everything Madonna claims to be about.
At the start of the video, we seen an intense, bearded, Hollywood producer type watching footage of our heroine dancing with her tuxedoed entourage. Transfixed by her sexy star quality, he tells his assistant he wants to meet her ASAP. But when he drops by Madonna’s dressing room with a shiny, wrapped box, he overhears her telling a girlfriend about an admirer giving her a diamond necklace (which she has inexplicably set upon a bowl of popcorn). “He thinks he can impress me by giving me expensive gifts. It’s nice, though. You want it?” Crestfallen, the Beardo tosses his fancy present in the trash.
The rest of the video is mostly Madonna playing up her materialistic Marilyn act for the cameras — pulling diamonds out of men’s pockets, fondling a mink stole, bopping a guy in the face with lacy fan just for her own amusement. But then we see a couple other shots of down-to-earth backstage Madonna looking totally bored with the flashy playboys who try to woo her with baubles. Meanwhile Beardo longs for her on the sidelines, and, through his keen powers of observation, ultimately figures out what she really wants — a humble daisy bouquet and a dream ride in an old-timey truck he buys off some random farmer… who’s hanging out by the studio soundstage where they work? 7 year-old me didn’t ask too many questions about these details and 42 year-old me still believes this is, indeed, a pretty hot date. Anyway, Madonna and Beardo end up making out in the truck in the rain, which I consider a delightful ending to this simple love story.
But in the back of my head I always wondered, who is the real Madonna in this scenario? When you think of the song and the video, you probably imagine her draped in diamonds and fur. For years she was often referred to as “the material girl” (at least until the “Madge” years, when she married Guy Ritchie and pretended to be British). Wanton sexuality has always been a big part of her schtick; as late as 2016, she promised to give blow jobs to any Madison Square Garden concert-goers who’d vote for Hillary Clinton. But I could also see how, at least in 1985, this Italian-American chick from Metro Detroit would truly dig this beardo in an old truck who isn’t totally stuffy or pretentious. After all, this was the same woman who popularized cut-off crop tops and cheap jelly bracelets. In the mid-80s, Madonna was our working class fashion icon!
Then it occurred to me, if you emulate the final verse from “Material Girl,” you really don’t have to choose one Madonna over the other. Consider these lyrics:
“Boys may come and boys may go
And that’s all right you see
Experience has made me rich
And now they’re after me”
The point is if you’re a woman who has her own money, you can sleep with whomever you like and buy your own jewelry. Or daisy bouquet. Or jelly bracelets. Or whatever you want! I’m old enough now to understand capitalism complicates all of our relationships, and that there’s nothing morally incorrect about trading sex for stuff (also that it’s none of my business if other people choose to do so). But wouldn’t it be cool if every one of us had money to cover all our needs and wants without relying on sexual partners to help foot those bills? Wouldn’t it radically change how we mate? You could collect gemstones in a bowl of popcorn AND hook up with Beardo in the old-timey truck. You wouldn’t even have to choose between those two things.
The following are my socialist organizing resolutions for 2020 ~
Keep your commitments to the cause Do the things you said you’d do. Every time you tell a comrade, “I’ll take care of that,” write it down. Update your to-do list as you complete your tasks. At the end of every meeting, review action steps so everyone is clear on who’s doing what. Follow through on your action steps (preferably before someone has to remind you).
When you cannot keep your commitments, communicate All of your organizing must fit around full-time work, raising a child, and writing. You will drop balls. And that’s okay, as long as you tell your comrades what’s up. Don’t just let a thing go and hope no one notices, or assume the task wasn’t really necessary. If you need to go away for a bit, say so. “I am too depressed and overwhelmed to deal with this right now,” is as good a reason as any. Have the courage to clearly express your boundaries.
Check your messages proactively Between texts, Messenger, Group Me, Slack, and Twitter DMs, you cannot keep up with all your messages via notifications. When you work half a retail shift without your phone, then see 30 notifications at lunch, there’s no way you’re gonna absorb all that info in one sitting. So just treat the messaging apps like email – set aside time every day to check them all. You don’t need to respond to everything, but you do need to identify and deal with time-sensitive stuff that cannot wait.
Use the messaging apps sparingly and with intention Remember that all organizers are inundated with messages and not everyone is online all day. When a new project idea comes up in a group thread, ask the comrades to meet and discuss as soon as possible. Meetings are for fleshing out details, apps are for checking in between meetings. When you’re about to send a message, ask yourself, “Is this a group message or a direct message?” Tend toward DM-ing as much as possible. Avoid open-ended asks (“Can someone print flyers for the event?”) in favor of direct asks (“Hey Karl, can you print flyers for the event?”).
Remember that any amount of organizing is work, not a hobby No matter what role you play or how much time you commit, you are contributing to a widespread, grassroots project to completely change our economy and society. You are not a passive observer but rather a member of the worker-led movement to win a better world. None of us can do this work alone, but we also cannot assume the work will be done for us. Take your contributions seriously, learn constantly, push yourself past what feels comfortable, and teach others what you know. Keep building. Know that the work continues while you step away, but also that your help is always needed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 doa 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:
running for office
calling representatives to complain
speaking out at city council and school board meetings
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.
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.