Dream Boy: On Fantasy, Female Desire, & Leonardo Dicaprio, 20 Years After Titanic

Titanic turns 20
In a 1996 episode of the television show
Friends, Chandler introduces the gang to the concept of the list—the idea that, in any committed relationship, each person can choose five celebrities with whom they are allowed to have sex. The other person in the relationship is not allowed to get angry about this. Does anyone else think David Copperfields cute?Chandler asks Ross and Monica while the three sit in Central Perk. Its no coincidence that Chandler is the one to ask about Copperfield; homophobic jokes about his sexuality permeate the shows ten seasons. Haha, Chandler thinks a man is cute. Haha, Chandler is gay. The laugh track revs up immediately. Theres a back story, of course, that brings Chandler back into the fold of heteronormativity: David Copperfield is on his girlfriend Janices list. Members of the gang establish their own lists, each a mixture of the expected (Cindy Crawford), the quirky (Dorothy Hamill), and the imaginary (Jessica Rabbit).  

Rosss choices eventually become the crux of the plot. Based on Chandlers advice, he removes Isabella Rossellini from his list for beingtoo international.Whats the point of putting someone on the list whom you have no chance of ever meeting? Imagine Rosss surprise, then, when Rossellini shows up at Central Perk. Still, its not to be: by turns creeped out and unimpressed, she eventually tells Ross that, ironically, she has just bumped him from her list of five goofy coffeehouse guysthat she is allowed to have sex with. The ridiculousness of assuming that our objects of desire will reciprocate our attraction. The hubris. The reality does not, cannot, live up to the fantasy.

Really, though, thats the whole point. The list is an exercise in the imaginary. Thats the irresistible lure of the celebrity crush: it wont happen. But it could. But it wont. But it could. Its logic, its appeal, demands absence even as it presumes access: if we met, if only we met, something would happen. Imagine: something to lift your life out of the humdrum monotony of coffee shop banter and illegal pet monkeys. But is that what you really want? As classicist Anne Carson asks in Eros the Bittersweet, Who ever desires what is not gone? No one.

Like anyone, I worked my way through various celebrity crushes, and crushes on real people too. Bobby was the boy I loved most in high school. He was smart and funny, pale and freckled, part of a whole group of smart and funny boys who somehow became popular by senior year. He looked like the late actor Brad Renfro, if you remember him. Bobby and I had several classes together, and by sophomore year we had developed a purely online friendshipI was too anxiety-filled to walk into the school cafeteria, let alone talk to a boy. Our only computer was in the family room, which was so difficult to heat that we usually left it closed off in the winter. At night I bundled up and sat in the cold, waiting for his screen name to appear.

I looked at Bobby and saw someone who called the world on its bullshit shallowness, rejecting the materialist complacency of our peers. I would take such stances too, had I believed for a second that I was allowed to be anything other than nice. I could only envision alternatives to a conventional life through a boyan object not of desire, perhaps, but identification. Its the classic film theory dichotomy, in which our only opportunity to identify with a character who possesses agency is to identify with the male protagonist. We watch men going on adventures and women being watched, argued Laura Mulvey decades ago. Often, these adventures involve rescuing women.

My crush on Leonardo Dicaprio was at its peak when I was in high school, a time in my life when interacting with actual human beings was acutely painful. I was afraid of everyone but particularly of boys, whom I was starting to realize had all the power in the world. The ease with which they occupied space was stunning. What was there to do but let them?

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Two Cities, Fairy Tales, & a Marathon Sprint: An Interview with Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung, poet.

Photo by Sarah Gzemski.

Muriel Leung is an Asian American poet who defies convention and form, who adds whimsy to everyday objects and exposes the darkness behind them, and who pushes the boundaries between the real and the normal and the hyperbolic and absurd in her work. Her first collection, Bone Confetti (Noemi Press), toys with the magical yet apocalyptic and the romantic yet grotesque; it is both a strut through a flowery meadow and a devastating walk through the ruins of a ravaged city. I joined Leung in her adorable Echo Park, Los Angeles apartment for this conversation in racial politics, Asian American poetics, labor, and grief.

MV: What was the process behind writing Bone Confetti? As a fairly young poet, how did you balance writing and coming-of-age in your 20s?

ML: I wrote the bulk of Bone Confetti during my MFA, which I started in 2013. I moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana from Queens, New York, which is where I grew up. I had the great fortune of having a wealth of different experiences, to work with different people and communities beforeLouisiana. It was such a big move and shift—from going to a chaotic city that constantly displaces people and is very difficult to live in—to then move to Louisiana where the pace of life is different. Baton Rouge has a different set of racial politics, where being an Asian woman there meant something entirely different than in NY.

I also began to understand the history of resilience in Louisiana, which has seen so much social, political, and environmental turmoil. I saw how much this was embedded in the fabric of its history that if there is a storm coming, people know they have to cook all the meat in their freezer because the power might go out, so they just throw a big barbecue. The attitude of survival in Baton Rouge is very different from NYC, which sometimes doesn’t know what to do with itself other than facilitate high productivity. I think both city’s spirits contributed to Bone Confetti, which was a very important transitional point in my life—a whole wealth of experience and language. Continue reading

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“It’s like you had to split yourself in two to watch yourself”: 21 Moments in Lauren Levin’s The Braid

Lauren Levin‘s poetry collection The Braid (Krupskaya Books, 2017) is described by its publisher as “a fever dream of pregnancy and early parenting in the era of the police state.” Here are 21 moments and meditations, strung together from from this whirlwind text.

1. The Braid opens wondering, “what it means / to say we want our work to be vulnerable when we’re the ones who make it.” (13)

Vulnerability is the ultimate braveness, admitting one’s own insecurity.  Telling the truths we are not sure we can understand.  Standing in our uncertainty and being willing to speak from there. It is guts. This book has guts.

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Why Charlottesville: A Look at U.S. Nationality and White Masculinity

Currently, almost everyone in the U.S. has been feeling the resonances of the white nationalist marches in Charlottesville, VA. In Introduction to Ethnic Studies, my students have been feeling them too. Many of my students were shocked, angry, and struggling to process why such a hateful event would take place within our borders. However, as a queer person of color with a working-class background, I had to tell them that I myself was not surprised.

As a person raised within the backdrop of multicultural education and colorblindness—where children are taught that the color of a person’s skin does not matter and that not seeing race ensures seeing each other as humans instead—I can see why many cannot fathom how our current moment of white nationalist revival came to be. We have been taught to view each other as equals. We have been taught that everyone living in the U.S. has the chance to succeed despite their difficult backgrounds and struggles early in life. We are continuously reminded that the U.S. is a democratic nation that values freedom, liberty, and justice. But we are not taught that this democracy was built on the backs of racialized and subjugated others—the racial chattel slavery of Africans, the genocide of Native Americans, U.S. colonization of the Philippines, the exclusion of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, and the exploitation of Mexican labor. And now, with Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-blackness, and Zionism peaking, we should not be surprised with the election (and retention) of Donald Trump and the (now) visible white supremacists in our midst. Continue reading

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A Tactile Encounter: A Review of Slabs by Brittany Billmeyer-Finn

Slabs Timeless Infinite Light Brittany Billmeyer-Finn

The book fits in your hand: it can go inside the back pocket of your jeans. It is truly portable, and the tactile encounter of the book, I believe, conditions the reading experience. There is that feeling of manageability, contrary to its title, Slabs, that is being invoked by poet Brittany Billmeyer-Finn‘s second collection, released in 2016 from Timeless, Infinite Light.

The book is arranged in two parts. The language is fragmentary—as a reader, it seems as though I am eavesdropping. The conversation has been going on long before the reader opened the book, and now we are entering in and out of the narrative at any given point. What is beginning? What is ending? How do I situate and locate myself in relationship to the text?

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“United, In Spite of Everything:” A Review of Julia Alekseyeva’s Soviet Daughter


Julia Alekseyeva’s Soviet Daughter is an intergenerational memoir, a graphic novel that weaves the history of Khinya “Lola” Ignatovskaya, Alekseyeva’s great-grandmother from Soviet Russia, with Alekseyeva’s own story of coming-of-age in America. Lola—a fierce, independent, intelligent, and rebellious woman—draws us right in from the very beginning. Although violence, tragedy, and loss color Lola’s life, her headstrong and resilient spirit blazes through these hardships, giving us a heartfelt—but also empowering—narrative. Alekseyeva herself is also an indomitable spirit—Soviet Daughter demonstrates how female badassery can define and even steer family history and legacy, giving us a Marxist feminist analysis of war, labor, and domesticity.

In addition to witnessing the Russian Revolution during her younger years, Lola also gives a female perspective of World War II. Soviet Daughter intervenes into the genre of the androcentric war narrative, illustrating that the positionality of the male solider/comrade is not the only valuable perspective surrounding these events. Lola herself challenges the Marxist distinctions between the “productive” and “reproductive” labor spheres. Although Lola initially begins working in the household as a child and fulfills the feminized role of a reproductive laborer, growing up, she enters the productive workforce—becoming a factory worker and typist—all while still sustaining and supporting her family in the home. Lola shows how these labor spheres are not really separate and that powerful women throughout history have traversed these dichotomous theoretical frames. Lola—and countless other women during war—are not merely “left behind” by their husbands and fathers, but perform key productive and reproductive labor that maintains not only their households, but the very fabrics of the nation-state. Continue reading

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How the 13 Reasons Why Response is Reshaping the Conversation about Trigger Warnings

13 Reasons Why trigger warnings PTSD
On May 1
st, Netflix issued a statement explaining that they will be adding a trigger warning to their hit series 13 Reasons Why, acknowledging the danger of exposing audiences to “graphic content” such as suicide and sexual assault. This decision was in part a result of pressure from mental health advocates, school administrators, and psychologists who fear that the show’s depictions of suicide could result in the contagion effect, in which publicizing suicide increases suicide attempts. Although suicide and sexual assault trigger warnings are guarding against vastly different reactions, as one attempts to prevent a person from taking their life and the other alerts the viewer to potential PTSD reactions, putting them in the same disclaimer is powerful.  By putting suicide ideation trigger warnings beside sexual assault trigger warnings, Netflix is taking the  PTSD responses of assault survivors seriously, and publically acknowledging that these can have serious physical repercussions.

In a society that constantly delegitimizes the magnitude of sexual assault trauma, seeing a major force in TV voice concern for sexual assault victims is a step to a public recognition of sexual assault as a devastating crime.  Just as suicide ideation is dangerous, being unexpectedly triggered is not just emotionally upsetting; it’s physically harmful.  Teenagers are the target audience for the show, which arguably makes the call for trigger warnings more pressing. For young people who are susceptible to self-harm, media that triggers suicide ideation could pose a real threat.  This is the main reason why Netflix received so much pressure to add trigger warnings to 13 Reasons Why, while much of their triggering content targeted at adults remains trigger warning-free. Although much of Netflix’s content still lacks trigger warnings, placing a warning on 13 Reasons Why is a step in the right direction, as it sets an example for adult television and teaches a new generation to acknowledge that sexual assault has real repercussions.

This conversation is far cry from the adamant rejection of trigger warnings of just a year ago, and marks an important cultural shift. Fox’s Greg Gutfeld’s 2016 article “The Ultimate ‘Safe Space’ is a Coffin,” for example, called calls trigger warnings on college campuses “psychological bubble wrap” and safe spaces “ball pits for babies.” This rhetoric was not just sequestered to right-wing media, as academic institutions classified trigger warnings as the unnecessary coddling of young adults, from American University officially discouraging them to the University of Chicago banning them completely. “We do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’” University of Chicago’s Dean of Students John Ellison told the class of 2020 in their admissions letter. “We do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”  Here, Ellison is equating trigger warnings with censorship. Safe spaces, to Ellison, are places to retreat and hide from ideas, as opposed to places to find literal bodily security. Continue reading

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Two Books About Beauty: Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine and Sarah Jean Grimm’s Soft Focus

Khadijah Queen and Sarah Jean Grimm

“A very flat-chested woman is very hard to be a ten.” As we all know by now, the President of the United States said those words on the Howard Stern Show in the nineties. I still can’t get past that. I’m not sure if it’s because our president, like most middle school boys, believes in a rating system where women are appraised based on their physical traits, or if it’s because, as a flat-chested woman, I’m bummed I’m not a “ten.” I know that’s a sick thing to think, but of course being feminist doesn’t mean one is entirely free from the intense ideological beauty standards of our society. I think this is what it’s like to be an intelligent, feminist woman today: you can recognize the bullshit, you can feel angry, and you can also want to be recognized within that admittedly-bullshit system as a desirable object. I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On by Khadijah Queen and Soft Focus by Sarah Jean Grimm are two brilliant new poetry books that simultaneously celebrate and eviscerate the complicated landscape of American womanhood. While both books explore the traditional trappings of femininity—makeup, clothing, hairstyles—along with our newer gendered societal norms—selfies, Instagram, clickbait, celebrity culture—on a deeper level, Khadijah Queen and Sarah Jean Grimm each peel back the layers of multiple selves, masks, and metaphorical armor most women wear every day in order to simply survive.

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How Girls See Girls: A Closer Look at Pretty Little Liars Before Its Final Season

Pretty Little Liars feminist
There’s a lot of gossip but a dearth of good scholarship about Pretty Little Liars, or, familiarly, PLL. Why is this? It’s true, PLL is dumb. The show—the final ten episodes of which begin airing next week on April 18th—revolves around four or five girls, each a different shade of Disney princess, each from improbably wealthy families. The drama begins when queen bee Alison goes missing; a year after her funeral, her friends start receiving texts that threaten to expose them as liars, lesbians, precocious Lolita types and/or former fat kids. Occasionally they get group texts, like this one: “I’m still here bitches, and I know everything. -A”

Spoiler alert: this show gets so fucked up, I don’t know how it was ever on television, let alone ABC Family. A, the anonymous author of these texts, will eventually break into their Chinese takeaway, fill it with dirt and worms, then text: “This is what live bait looks like.” In a separate episode, A will extract the fortunes from their fortune cookies and replace it with a note of their own: “Liars and tigers and bitches, oh my!” A will sneak into their cafeteria and tamper with their Alphabits, replacing all 25 other letters with A. (This episode is called “Touched by an A-ngel.”) A will sabotage a memorial fashion show with heavy metal guitar and flame graphics, screaming over the PA: “THE BITCH IS DEAD!” In their final coup, A will build a dollhouse in the middle of nowhere, with fascimile replicas of the girls’ rooms, then submit them to psychological battery. One will wake up covered in blood; another will get her hair cut short. A is that unpredictable.

Who is A? It doesn’t matter. Like Twin Peaks, Pretty Little Liars is most enjoyable when it meanders, when the lead character gets lost in the woods or stuck in a strangers’ cabin. The comparisons end there. Twin Peaks was sexy and cool; Pretty Little Liars is not. It’s a flaming circus tent of tween vulgarity, a Sweet Sixteen cake that’s pink, black, and mostly fondant. Adam Lambert makes a cameo as himself. Every week is either Halloween or homecoming, and every dance is a masquerade ball. Actually, every day is a masquerade: no one needs an occasion to wear fascinators in earnest or corsets as outerwear. If you find the Dresden Dolls cringe worthy, you’ll find Pretty Little Liars disgusting. Trust me, I do. Continue reading

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On Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison, Mental Illness, & the “Ugly Cry”

Carrie Mathison Homeland feminist mental illness

It was in my couples’ counselor’s office, after a breakup, where I first realized I identified with Carrie on Homeland. The therapist was smart, Buddhist, queer, and clearly of the opinion we should have broken up much earlier. Even though he had told us both he would only see us as a couple and not alone (because we fought over him) he had agreed to see me solo once to debrief.  We wound up talking about Homeland.

Carrie Mathison is not a beloved character. The trolls hate her, especially what they refer to as her “ugly cry.” When Carrie cries, it is a mix of anguish and outrage; she does not get doe-eyed, while a tear gently rolls down her cheek.  Her face twists; her lips quiver; her voice cracks… she embodies what the artist Louise Bourgeois once said about her emotions, “they are disproportionate to my size.”  Carrie is played by Claire Danes, formerly of My So Called Life. Her character on Homeland is a CIA agent, a single mother, and bipolar.  What I love about the portrayal of mental illness on this show is that it does not separate her gifts from her demons; it does not lock a part of her in a box and label it crazy. While it causes pain to her and those she loves, it is Carrie’s mania that sometimes allows her to find the truth.

I’m not a spy but I might have the skillset—a combination of passion, paranoia, and a propensity for relentless obsession. When I want to find something out, I usually do. Driven by both heart and humiliation, I can usually tell you what all my significant exes are up to, no matter how many ways they block me. These days, I mostly temper these impulses in my personal life, but reading the news can feel like an invitation to uncover the secrets of a Russian spy movie. I have to make myself turn it off and watch something soothing before sleep. Homeland decidedly does not fit this bill, but, like Carrie, I don’t always do what’s good for me. This was driven home recently, by season 6, episode 7, when Carrie’s young daughter is taken away by Child Services because she is seen as being in imminent danger. This is, of course, a triggering fear for any parent, but for me, it felt disproportionately personal. Like Carrie, I’m also a single mom (although I’m lucky to have a great co-parent). Like Carrie, I also reside in Brooklyn.  Also like Carrie, I have been diagnosed with bipolar illness.  Continue reading


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