thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Separate Stories: Reviews of ‘Spinster’ & ‘Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed’

In Uncategorized on October 5, 2015 at 6:31 pm

Sarah S.

I recently read books that I came to for rather different reasons and yet, set side by side, they seem inordinately correspondent. Both present alternatives to traditional life narratives, a move that is almost always powerful and valuable



My draw to Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum, is fairly self-evident to anyone who knows me. I am happily coupled, but I am also deliberately childfree. While I see more and more people “like me” nowadays, I also find our culture’s imperative to procreation tedious at best, oppressive at worst, particularly as imposed upon women. Add to that the insane cultural demands put on mothers to be self-actualized, self-sacrificing, still sexy super-women and the whole endeavor makes me want to retire to a mountain lair for life. So it’s no surprise that I sparked at an entire volume devoted to multiple people’s stories of why they chose to forgo parenthood.

Among the essays in what I will hereafter refer to as SSS there are really no duds. I didn’t enjoy all of the essays equally but none of them lack interest or insight. The volume reveals, in a way that even I found surprising, the myriad paths that people take to chosen childlessness. The volume suffers mildly from being solely focused on writers—who make up a rather motley crew in terms of the general population—and from being largely—although not entirely—white. But it was also interesting and lovely to hear from gay people and straight people, women and a few men, people still within childbearing range and those for whom that ship has long since sailed about why they chose not to have children.

The Dark Catharsis of Lifetime’s “Unreal”

In Uncategorized on August 5, 2015 at 11:07 am

Get it.

[spoilers everywhere!]

Sarah Todd

In Unreal’s season finale, everyone screws each other over. Friends betray friends. Someone gets left at the altar. Someone else plots to get his ex institutionalized. A woman and her cheating fiancé are bent on mutually assured destruction. One character gets double-dumped. The message to viewers is clear: Love is a joke. Trust no one.

That’s dark stuff. Yet I came away from the episode of Lifetime’s freshman drama, which takes place behind the scenes of a Bachelor-esque reality series, feeling somehow … cleansed.

Critics including Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson and Slate’s Willa Paskin have argued that Unreal features television’s first fully realized anti-heroines. This is true. But what’s even more remarkable is the show’s vision of a specifically feminine nihilism. Whereas anti-hero shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad are replete with guns, drug kingpins, strippers and other signifiers of a violent crisis of white masculinity, Unreal imagines the feminine crisis as residing in the breakdown of human connection.

Even in the twenty-first century, many women are taught to believe that only the bonds of heterosexual marriage can save them from turning into lonely, embittered social rejects. Meanwhile, a lot of women have also internalized the hostilities of living in a patriarchal culture and walk around all day worrying that deep down inside, they’re really horrible people. Unreal shows how pop-culture products like The Bachelor prey on these insecurities while turning women into their worst versions of themselves. It asks viewers to look straight into a black-hearted abyss–all with no small amount of affection for its warped women, and tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Mazel Tov, Cindy: On Orange Is the New Black’s New Jewish Convert

In race, TV on July 6, 2015 at 6:51 pm


Sarah T.

The most moving story about faith you’re likely to see on a television series this year starts with a kosher meal and ends with a small-scale prison break. At the center of it all is Orange Is the New Black’s irreverent Cindy Hayes (aka “Black Cindy”), who would seem to be an unlikely candidate for finding religion. What kind of spiritual seeker announces her decision to convert by shouting “Where my dreidel at” in the middle of a cafeteria?

Well: a wonderful new Jew, is who.

Cindy’s surprisingly joyful journey to Judaism stood out in a series that has featured many other stories about how people use religion to justify oppression, exclusion and manipulation. This season, the Netflix series skewers a flower-child cult that swindles naïve believers and a present-day prison sect that appears harmless but winds up forcing an already-depressed inmate into further isolation. Traditional religions also come under scrutiny. In a flashback, one woman’s father forbids her from running track to get a college scholarship, calling her uniform indecent by the standards of the Nation of Islam. A Christian father threatens his young daughter with the prospect of eternal damnation for sneaking a taste of mashed potatoes during grace. In all of these cases, belief itself isn’t the problem. The danger lies in people who want to wield it as a weapon.

In the midst of these darker tales, Cindy stumbles into a spiritual awakening. And the very qualities that would seem to make her resistant to faith—her deep-rooted skepticism, her refusal to take anything seriously—turn out to make her feel right at home with Judaism.


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