"Flowers in the Attic" Is the Best Book Ever* And Here Is Why

Yes, I’m serious. Flowers in the Attic—a.k.a. “The book that made teenage girls look sideways at their brothers and shudder,” as my similarly besotted pal Lindsay put it—wasn’t originally marketed as a young adult book when it was first printed in 1979, but it soon found its niche in the hearts of pubescent girls across the land. (And now it’s popularly acknowledged as a YA book; in fact, my library categorizes it as such.) It hit bestseller lists within two weeks of its publication, and the popularity of that book and the numerous other works by V.C. Andrews** that followed didn’t dwindle for years—in 1990, V.C. Andrews was still the second-most-popular author among teens.

I was one of those teenagers, and maybe you were too. I’d grown up on a steady supply of classics and earnest Newbery award-winning books for children and young adults, so it wasn’t like I was deprived of good literature. But come the sophisticated age of 12, I was ready for something juicier than Tom Sawyer kissing Becky Thatcher, and I moved straight into—spoiler alert, here and throughout—brotherfucking. And, you know, I knew it was trash, but damn if I didn’t stay up nights sixth through ninth grade blazing through the entire Flowers in the Attic Dollanganger series, followed by the Casteel series, followed by the Dawn series, followed by My Sweet Audrina, which I thought was lame*** and then I stopped. But when I heard that Lifetime was premiering a new**** Flowers in the Attic movie this SaturdayI went back for a reread, and thus, my declaration that Flowers in the Attic Is the Best Book Ever.

And here’s why.

1) The incest plot was hot. 
Which is not to say that girls actually want to sleep with their brothers / sisters / uncles / cousins / parents / etc. It’s not even to say that girls fantasize about it in great numbers. But consensual incest caters to the nascent desires of many a pre/teen girl—that is, girls who aren’t yet sexually active, but who are beginning to think in terms of sexuality and have erotic impulses. A 12-year-old who has yet to be kissed might well be simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the thought of sex—and what would make it a mentally “safe spot” where she could feel aroused and not repulsed? A known, loving, nonthreatening partner. That is...a brother. Not her own brother, of course; I’m guessing most girls would be repulsed by the thought of actually kissing her own brother. But with Flowers in the Attic, the teen reader is aligned with protagonist Cathy by dint of being a girl. She gets to experience the thrill of sex without having to entirely shed any vestiges of “eww boys,” because she knows that “her” brother (that is, Chris, Cathy's brother) is a loving, nurturing person who is, above all, safe. So by “becoming” Cathy, the reader is able to experience sex—which, if memory serves, the average early adolescent sees as a combination of forbidden and arousing—in a way that’s both. 

Consensual incest is actually a recurring theme in Gothic novels (“the perfect linking of the most desirable object with the prohibited object”), and it showed up in the work of one of the most-read feminine***** erotica writers (Anaïs Nin, whose incest erotica was published just two years before Flowers in the Attic). It’s actually a surprise that there aren’t a whole lot more Gothic YA books with brother bangin’. Of course, the whole “brothers are safe” thing is complicated just a bit by the wee matter of consent. Chris and Cathy’s major sexual interlude begins with this:

… “You’re mine, Cathy! Mine! You’ll always be mine! No matter who comes into your future, you’ll always belong to me! I”ll make you mine...tonight...now!”

I didn’t believe it, not Chris!

And I did not fully understand what he had in mind, nor, if I am to give him credit, do I think he really meant what he said, but passion has a way of taking over.

We fell to the floor, both of us. I tried to fight him off. We wrestled, turning over and over, writing, silent a frantic struggle of his strength against mine.

It wasn’t much of a battle.

Two pages later, Chris is quick to offer the world’s most awful/awesome apology (“I didn’t mean to rape you, I swear to God”). But Cathy is just as quick to clarify that he didn’t rape her. “I could have stopped you if I’d really wanted to. All I had to do was bring my knee up hard… It was my fault too.” Yet the pretense that there was force involved may well have helped girls derive pleasure from it—“good girls” don’t actively want to have sex, after all. But if you’re simply overpowered, then you didn’t want it, it just happened. Applied to real life, this is terrible logic (in fact, it’s rapist logic); applied to the fantasy life of girls who have desires but not the know-how to give them form even in her imagination, it makes some sort of sense. Rape fantasies aren’t uncommon for women to have; about 4 in 10 women have them, with a median frequency of once a month. I couldn’t find any numbers about rape fantasies among girls/teens, but my hunch says that the idea of having to have sex whether you want to or not is probably far more appealing to someone who hasn’t yet learned how to express her sexual agency.

The first time I floated this girls-like-incest-fantasies bit out loud, one woman pointed out that for a good number of girls, rape and incest are realities, and that eroticizing them reinforces the idea that there’s something sexy about nonconsensual sex. (Keeping in mind that while consensual incest does happen, many survivors of coercive incest convince themselves their abuse is quasi-consensual, as a survival tactic.) I agree, at least in the sense that popular culture is a part of rape culture, which then colors the idea of what rape is (and—surprise!—usually not in a way that is helpful to its victims). But that’s not what’s going on in Flowers in the Attic. (Later “V.C. Andrews” novels, perhaps, but that’s a different post.) It’s in the realm of fantasy—it’s even constructed as such within the book. As literature professor Cynthia Griffin Wolff writes of earlier Gothic work, part of the hallmarks of Gothic literature is “a set of conventions within which ‘respectable’ feminine sexuality might find expression.” It’s understood by the reader as a way to get to read utter filth with a sort of “free pass” for wanting to do so in the first place. Case in point: When I read it as an adult, I found that I’d erased any rapey overtones from my memory of reading it as a kid. I saw it for what it was, and judging from the way my friends talked about it at the time, they did too. Nobody in their right mind would hand it to a young rape victim as a depiction of her experience—read as such, it’s horrific (“It was my fault too”?). But that’s not how it’s read by its readers, I don’t think. (Of course, when I read this book the first time, I hadn’t experienced a whit of sexual trauma; perhaps if I had, my memory of it would be different. I can only go off my own experience here.) 

Point is: Girls don’t want to be raped, any more than they want to sleep with their brothers. But are there elements of it that appeal to the V.C. Andrews target demographic beyond the mere taboo? Yeah.

2) It lets you hate the mother but still love your own. 
You know those goody-two-shoes YA novels where the protagonist and her mother might fight but deep down there’s a Very Special Connection? V.C. Andrews offers an ear-shattering Screw that and gives the reader every excuse to seriously hate on Cathy's mother, Corinne. SHE KILLED CORY, I mean, come on. Now, my mom and I have always had a pretty good relationship (I mean, I’m choosy about my guest bloggers, and here she is! Twice!). But our mother-daughter relationship took a definite downswing during my prime V.C. Andrews years. A catalogue of my mother’s sins circa 1987-89: She made me wear a hat and scarf in when it was a measly -18 outside (hats are for dorks!), she made me take a study skills course (study skills omg mom!), she enrolled me in a girls’ self-defense seminar against my will (on a Saturday, which is a weekend!), she made me read Charlotte Freakin’ Bronte (life is not school!), she wouldn’t buy me a Guess sweatshirt just because I wanted one (everyone but meee had one!), and she wouldn’t let me see Dirty Dancing (actually, I still think I’m right on this one). 

Anyway. So while I never resorted to any “I hate you!” antics, there was definite tension, and it doesn’t require years of therapy to understand that part of it was my pubescent resistance to becoming anything like my mother—that is, a woman. Eager as I was to grow up, my fantasy of womanhood clashed hard against the reality of womanhood I saw in the form of the actual woman I knew best. In my head, being a woman meant, like, going to balls and wearing updos and going out with a different dashing suitor every night, but then here was this flesh-and-blood woman who was doing things like making taco salad. It wasn’t long before I woke up and started appreciating her and everything she did for our family, but at 12 I was just too self-absorbed.

Enter a mom who went from basically being a Christmas card to locking up her four children in an attic and slowly poisoning them while she...went to balls and wore updos and went out with dashing suitors. Corinne takes every bit of perfectly normal mother-daughter strife and balloons it into grotesquerie. She’s a nightmare in the truest sense—just as you might manifest everyday anxiety into the classic why-am-I-in-my-underwear dream, Corinne’s evil is an enormously exaggerated version of what a lot of girls might feel toward their mothers at that age, shown from the girl’s perspective. That includes love and adoration too—Cathy might need prompting at times, but she’s still willing to melt into Corinne’s arms for quite some time after Corinne locked her away.

As Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, mother-hatred is interpreted as “a womanly splitting of the self, in the desire to become individuated and free. The mother stands in for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr.” Gee: split self, desire to become individuated and free, victim, martyr, sounds like a whole lotta 12-year-olds I knew. Cathy’s physical resemblance to Corinne is more than a handy plot point (not to detract from the awesome doppelganger subplot in Petals in the Wind******, but I digress); it’s an extension of this idea that mother is daughter, and daughter mother, as much as she wishes not to be. And it also leads to…

3) It depicts aspects of beauty that we don’t often see. 
Plenty of books explicitly aimed at teens and preteens involve looks, but it tends to be some variation on the protagonist’s dissatisfaction. Maybe she doesn’t think she’s pretty (but some boy just might teach her otherwise!), maybe she’s jealous of her best friend’s looks, maybe she has a movie-moment makeover in which she sees herself as she wishes to be seen. The better of the YA set will deal with these in a more complex manner, but at best there’s ambivalence about whether or not the girl feels attractive.

Not so with Cathy: She’s a babe, and she knows it, and it isn’t because of any makeover. In fact, she has a disdain for artifice—when her brother tells her that if she develops an hourglass figure, she’ll “make a fortune,” she schools him on the dangers of corsetry. She takes sensual pleasure in herself: “[A]lways before I went to sleep, I spread my hair on my pillow so I could...nestle my cheek in the sweet-smelling silkiness of very pampered, well-cared-for, healthy, strong hair.” She waits until she’s alone and “then I stared, preened, and admired” herself in the mirror, for “Certainly I was much prettier than when I came here.” As for body image, when she talks of her dream of becoming a ballerina, she points out that “dancers have to eat and eat or else they’d be just skin and bones, so I’m going to eat a whole gallon of ice cream each day, and one day I’m going to eat nothing but cheese…”—a far cry from the prototypical YA-ballet-eating-disorder storyline. (I mean, eating a gallon of ice cream a day is an eating disorder, but whatever.)

Cathy takes pride in her looks, something that we cheer her on about, especially when she’s punished by the grandmother after she catches Cathy admiring herself naked in the mirror. (Naturally, the punishment befits the crime: She pours tar in Cathy’s long blond hair, forcing her to cut it off.) Pride isn’t the sin here—the sin, as the reader sees it, is all on the grandmother. In what other universe are girls cheered on for their vanity? Not just her pride or resilience with her body image or ability to recite “I’m beautiful just the way I am!” or whatever, but her downright vanity? It’s the cardinal sin of girldom, thinking you’re “all that.” But Cathy does it. The only “mean girl” around to side-eye her is the grandmother (“‘You think you look pretty? You think those new young curves are attractive?’” she hisses at Cathy), and obviously we’re going to be on Cathy’s side here. We freakin’ eat it up.

The leadup to Cathy and Chris getting all bow-chicka-bow-bow is less about anything that actually happens between them physically, and more about him seeing her (something her mother never does—Cathy totally freaks when Corinne brings her a bunch of “silly, sweet little-girl garments that screamed out she didn’t see,” none of which have room for her new curves). “[Y]ou look so beautiful. It’s like I never saw you before. How did you grow so lovely, when I was here all the time?” Chris says to Cathy upon catching her naked. The only other eyes on her as a woman are her own. Remember that whole “girls mature faster than boys” thing that turned out to be painfully true? Remember that sensation of wishing boys would just see you already? Yeah.

Andrews herself had experience with looks bringing a mixed bag of tricks: After suffering a severe fall as a teenager (which eventually landed her in a wheelchair), doctors didn’t believe that she was in pain, telling her she “looked too good” to be seriously hurt. Says Andrews of that age, “I was very pretty, and some fathers of my little girl friends made advances.” She never spoke publicly of anything abusive that might have happened, but it’s interesting to note that alongside the wording she chooses for Corinne when describing how she fell in love with her husband/half-uncle-half-brother: “I was fourteen years old—and that is an age when a girl just begins to feel her power over men. And I knew I was what most boys and men considered beautiful…” Girls are usually cautioned against playing with this particular kind of fire—as well they should be, given the potential fallout. But denying that there’s a lure to discovering one’s own appeal does girls a disservice, particularly when young women’s bodies are still the universal symbol for sex.

Okay, now that I’ve convinced you that Flowers in the Attic is the best movie ever, you should all watch Saturday’s premiere with me and live-tweet the whole damn thing. That’s my plan, at least, but I am not kidding when I say that if tweeting interferes with the sheer enjoyment of it I will turn off all devices except the television immediately. In any case, I’ll hop on the Lifetime hashtag and go with #badgrandma too. Join in!


* Okay, seriously, it’s more like, Anna Karenina, Beloved, The Sun Also Rises, and then Flowers in the Attic. Or is it?!?!

** And by “V.C. Andrews” I mean both Flowers in the Attic author Virginia Andrews and ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman, who continued to write books under her name after Virginia’s death. Tracie Egan Morrissey interviewed him for Jezebel here.

*** Duh, of course it was lame. The first two lines of the Wikipedia entry about it: “My Sweet Audrina is a 1982 novel by V. C. Andrews. It was the only standalone novel without incest published during Andrews' lifetime.” Bo-ring!

**** As opposed to the old FITA movie with Victoria Tennant and Kristy Swanson, which was unfaithful to the book in the lamest possible ways (see also ***, above).

***** The literature scholars among you will likely not be surprised to learn this, but I was: There’s actually an entire genre of Gothic literature dubbed “female Gothic,” the hallmarks of which include ambivalent feelings toward female sexuality, and women being literally or symbolically motherless while simultaneously being shaped by patriarchal culture. For more on female Gothic—and for V.C. Andrews in particular—check out V.C. Andrews: A Critical Companion, which A) exists, and B) is now officially replacing Flowers in the Attic as The Best Book Ever. And now I’m absolutely serious—no, really, I am—it’s totally awesome and if you enjoyed this post at all you should at least skim it. Fascinating stuff.

****** Cathy dresses up just as Corinne did for a Christmas party 15 years earlier, then stuns the guests at the very same annual party by making a grand entrance as "Corinne" and revealing that she had kept four children locked away in the attic while she spent her evenings drinking from champagne fountains and slowly poisoning her kids with arsenic doughnuts. Then the mansion burns down, and Corinne winds up in an insane asylum. THE BEST.

The Impermanence of Beauty: The Buried Lede

The last time I ran a recipe on here, it was a wholly off-topic indulgence of mine (I love me some green smoothie). But this time, it is by request, since apparently mention of my "slammin'" vegan chocolate-hazelnut pie in my post about the impermanence of beauty got some readers' mouths watering. So it's not even off-topic! (It's also not even really a pie, but since the mousse part has a consistency that's more like a traditional peanut butter pie than a cake-cake, I call it a pie.) 

This isn't a difficult recipe, but it does require handling a couple of ingredients that people who aren't accustomed to vegan baking techniques probably haven't used much. Agar is an algae extract used as a vegan substitution for gelatin. Like gelatin, it needs to "bloom" in water; unlike gelatin, it needs to be heated while blooming. You can find agar at a health food store, but if your town has an Asian grocery, go there as it is literally ten times cheaper and is the exact same product. (The recipe calls for flakes, but you can also use powder; if you use agar powder use 1 1/2 teaspoons.)

Clockwise from top left: Expensive agar; inexpensive agar;
starch made from arrows; can (safely?!?) be eaten by spoonful.

On its own, agar creates a Jello-like consistency, but adding in a slurry of water and starch (preferably arrowroot, though cornstarch works just as well, it's just more processed and the final product isn't quite as lustrous) transforms a dessert into something closer to a custard or mousse, which is what you're after here.

Look for praline paste in gourmet or natural food stores. If you can't find it, try hazelnut butter (which is actually harder to find in my experience, but worth a shot). If you can't find that, you can try making your own praline paste. I've never attempted this but I see no reason it wouldn't work, though the final product won't be as silky as it would be with purchased praline paste (same thing with hazelnut butter).

Slammin' Vegan Chocolate-Hazelnut Pie,
Which Is Really More of a Cake But Whatever

Adapted from Myra Kornfeld's The Voluptuous Vegan (a fantastic vegan cookbook, endorsed by me, who isn't even a vegetarian)


Bottom layer:
1/2 cup pastry flour
1/2 cup plus 2 T white flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 T instant espresso powder
3 T cocoa powder
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup unflavored soy milk
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 T praline paste or hazelnut butter
1/2 tsp salt

Mousse topping:
1 cup water
2 T agar flakes (or 1 1/2 tsp agar powder)
1 1/2 pounds firm silken tofu (make sure to get silken tofu, not regular)
1/4 cup canola oil
3/4 cup maple syrup (1 cup if using hazelnut butter)
1/4 tsp salt
1 T vanilla extract
1/2 cup praline paste or hazelnut butter (if using hazelnut butter, use 1 cup maple syrup)
4 tsp arrowroot powder (or cornstarch)
1/2 unflavored soy milk

To make bottom layer:
• Preheat oven to 350F. Oil a 9-inch springform pan; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, brown sugar, espresso powder, and cocoa powder.
• In another bowl, combine canola oil, maple syrup, soy milk, vanilla, praline paste, and salt. Whisk until well-combined. Pour the liquid ingredients into dry ingredients, whisking together just until dry ingredients are completely moistened.
• Pour batter into the oiled pan, spreading evenly across bottom. Place on center rack in oven and bake 20 minutes, or until the cake has begun to pull away from the sides and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

To make mousse topping:
• Pour water into a small saucepan and scatter agar flakes across the top, distributing evenly. Allow flakes to soften for 10 minutes.
• Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine tofu, canola oil, maple syrup, salt, and vanilla; process until smooth.
• Heat agar-water mixture until liquid comes to a boil, then lower the heat and gently simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until agar is completely dissolved.
• In a small bowl, mix arrowroot with soy milk to create a slurry. Stir the slurry into the hot agar-water mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid just starts to bubble. (If using cornstarch, let it bubble a minute, while stirring.)
• Pour the agar-arrowroot mixture into the food processor; process until everything is thoroughly combined. Pour into springform pan over bottom layer.
• Place the dessert in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour to completely set and cool. Run a knife around the edge of the pan. Release dessert from the springform rim and serve.

Breaking Down Beauty: Physiognomy Revisited

 If you really want the magic decoder ring, scroll to page 61.

Just when you thought you’d read enough from me about physiognomy—the discredited pseudoscience of face-reading to determine character—for one month, here I come, wagging my charts with dimensions of bulbous foreheads and “lipless mouths” that “denote housewifery.” It’s just that in thinking more about the notion of “It” girls as a modern-day version of the science of face-reading, I realized I’d sort of fast-forwarded into that idea without looking at the more direct ways physiognomy is very much alive today.

Its rebirth isn’t called physiognomy, of course; it’s called something like "a universal conception of personality structure," which sounds much less nefarious than a discredited science based on phrases like “I have never yet seen a nose with a broad back, whether arched or rectilinear, that did not appertain to an extraordinary man.” Researchers use facial characteristics to explain things like gaydar, the trustworthiness of baby-faced adults, and women’s supposed preference for manly-men, and even conscientiousness. Even more so than with modeling, modern adaptations of physiognomy are often specifically not about beauty; they’re about classifying features in order to (supposedly) understand more about how we function. Physiognomy has its direct progeny in these areas of study. But the more I think about it, physiognomy is also a grandparent to the extraordinary attention paid to beauty by science researchers.

I’ve questioned the scientific drive behind beauty research before, and I don’t want to be redundant. In a nutshell: There’s an enormous body of research trying to pin down what exactly makes someone beautiful (rather, what makes someone conventionally attractive, I’d argue), and how/why people react to good-looking folks the way we do. I suspect it’s the very mystery of beauty that drives academic research behind beauty. There’s so much literature about how beauty leaves us powerless in its wake; why wouldn’t we want to demystify it in order to lessen its supposed power over us? (The next logical question question is gendered—why do we want so specifically to put a fine point on women’s beauty—but that’s a different post.)

Beauty science is the richest heir to physiognomy. What physiognomy attempted to do was pin down the mysteries of character and behavior, using a highly coded and essentially arbitrary system of classification. What scientists and economists are attempting to do with its glut of studies on beauty is pin down the mystery of fascination, using the highly specialized—and often subjective—tools at their disposal. When attempting to decipher what puzzles us, it’s assuring to turn to something unassailable to provide us with order. We can now look at physiognomy and see it’s ridiculous, but plenty today are happy to give credence to evolutionary psychology as it pertains to beauty without giving it a second thought. We can see the blatant racism, or at least the potential for it, in evolutionary psychology; we may not be as able to see how it enshrines subtler beauty norms, in part because there’s so much mystery, doubt, fear, and wonder about human beauty, particularly our own. (Is it possible to read any study on what determines beauty without attempting, however briefly, to figure out where you’d fall by its measure? I once actually measured the circumference of my wrist because it was supposed to tell me something about my desirability as a mate.)

I’m not trying to say that beauty researchers are as full of hocus-pocus as physiognomists. Where the father of 18th-century physiognomy Johann Kaspar Lavater said ,“Meeting eyebrows, held so beautiful by the Arabs...I can neither believe to be beautiful nor characteristic of such a quality,” the new set of beauty science at least attempts to set objective criteria. (At least, some of the time it does; much of the time it’s just as subjective as a 1794 fortune-teller. The aggregate study from Daniel Hamermesh that got a lot of ink last year examined five studies on beauty; four of them relied upon the beauty assessment of exactly one person.) I’m also not saying there’s nothing to the evolutionary science of beauty. I’m not qualified to make that statement, and it makes sense that the science of beauty, including evolutionary psychology, has a valid place in any thorough discussion of beauty. But what I’ve repeatedly found is that when people rush to bring in scientific “proof” of why we find certain features beautiful, it shuts down the conversation instead of enlivens it. It’s a way of saying, Sorry, babe, there’s nothing you can do about it, whether “it” is the incessant ogling of a woman with the desired waist-hip ratio, or someone feeling excluded from the realm of the beautiful because her features don’t match up quite right.

And that’s just a shame. I don’t think that the people behind these studies mean to shut down discourse about beauty; I think the actual researchers want to do the opposite. The most prominent researcher on the science of beauty, Nancy Etcoff, presents her work as a launching point, making it clear that she just wants the science of beauty to have a place in the conversation; her book, Survival of the Prettiest, is as much a cultural study as it is a scientific one. Actually, Etcoff’s introduction to her book makes it clear that she’s only trying to bring science back to beauty. Science had been concerned with looks at one point, she writes, until such studies became discredited as arbitrary, racist, and generally faulty. The science she was writing of, of course, was physiognomy.

Last week I wrote that it’s useful to look at a now-discredited pseudoscience in order to understand the collective cultural forces that go into taste-making, specifically in the modeling industry. But the consideration of physiognomy has a far more direct application to most of us: If we can give the science of beauty the same skepticism we now give to physiognomy, we may be able to see how little of the story evolutionary psychology really gives us when it comes to looks and attraction. Again, I’m not saying that Etcoff and the like are the equivalent of Lavater, making wild proclamations based solely on their own experience. But physiognomy’s, erm, limitations can illuminate those of the beauty sciences. More important, they can show us that there’s something more at stake than simple research. Lavater wrote Physiognomy in 1775—the early years of the Industrial Revolution, which would change the entire world more rapidly, and more radically, than any developments that came before it. The science of beauty began to see a resurgence in the 1960s, another time of blistering change. So let me ask you: What is going on now that might make scientists and economists put hard numbers on beauty? What sort of threat might a pretty face—or, for that matter, a not-pretty one—pose to social order? Why might we want to boil down beauty to a series of tables and charts, measurements and ratios, and why now? If we understand beauty in a rational way, who benefits—and whose power is curtailed?

Announcement, Announcement!

So I sort of yelled out “surprise!” a day early in my efforts at transparency, but here’s the scoop: Starting Monday, February 6, The Beheld will be syndicated on The New Inquiry (as well as continuing as usual on here, but I’ll get to that). If you’re a regular reader here, you’re already familiar with TNI from the review I published there a couple of weeks ago. If you’re not: The New Inquiry is a journal of ideas, one that might cover anything from the revolutionary potential of Justin Bieber to our accidental autobiographies as ghostwritten by Mark Zuckerberg. (The best way to get to know the site is to read it, but TNI also made a splash with this New York Times profile, which of course resulted in a sort of internet hazing but that's to be expected.) The site officially relaunches on Monday, with a complete redesign, a fantastic cache of bloggers, and a magazine you can buy to support TNI.

One of the things I appreciate about The New Inquiry is that it pays attention to gender issues without trumpeting itself as The Intellectual Site About Gender. (Not that I wouldn’t love to see that site, mind you.) Its writers and editors skillfully use gender to illustrate political and philosophical concepts, and to show how the two are inextricably linked. To write of precarious labor (a recurring topic at TNI) without considering gender, for example, is to write incompletely; the team there knows and intuits this, and it shows.

I’ve frequently argued on here that to not take beauty seriously is to not take women’s lives seriously. From the ground up, The New Inquiry understands that to not take women’s lives seriously is to not take the full spectrum of culture, intellectual life, labor, education, and public discourse seriously. Some wonderful examples of this include Malcolm Harris’s review of Sleeping Beauty, Elizabeth Greenwood’s examination of the wives of Woody Allen, and Sara Wookey’s account of bodily labor and Martina Abramovic. TNI also manages to not make “gender” code for “women”: Max Fox’s look at how Grindr reflects a shifting gay community, Elissa Lerner’s take on the “muscular Christianity” of Tim Tebow. And, of course, there’s plenty that isn’t specifically about gender at all. Look around. You’ll like what you see.

My fellow bloggers are also pretty fantastic. Two are new to me—political bloggers Evan Calder Williams and Aaron Bady—but I'm eager for that to change. Others I’ve been following for a while and may be of particular interest to readers of The Beheld. Christine Baumgarthuber of Austerity Kitchen writes on “plebian culinary practices, past and present, in their historical context.” (I suspect the fashion historians among you may find your interests dovetailing with hers.) Designer and creator Imp Kerr is the mind responsible for the series of fake American Apparel ads that slyly poked fun at the company’s ethos. Maryam Monalisa Gharavi examines concepts of the global and conceptual south in the aptly named south/south, including issues of visibility, which you know I just eat up. And faithful readers of my roundups will recognize Rob Horning of Marginal Utility, whose writings on the cultivation of the self have shaped much of my own thinking on the topic. (Truth be told, half of the books I draw on repeatedly here are plucked from his library, but shhhh. I’m hoping he won’t notice that his entire John Berger collection has vanished.)

As for how this will change The Beheld: It won’t. It’s a syndication, not a move, meaning that the-beheld.com will continue as usual, as will my already-existing syndication on Open Salon. The TNI blog will have some cool features that I don’t have here, including a nifty margins footnote tool that I’ll probably go way overboard with for a while, but the rest of the content will be the same. (Huge thanks to Imp Kerr for the awesome logo for The Beheld at TNI, which you can see at the top of the page. Now where was Mlle Kerr a year ago when I spent eight hours trying to attach a fake ponytail to my picture and then silhouette it at 60% shading?) It’ll also remain the same in topic, scope, and tone—though after seeing the ways my thinking and writing have shifted over the past 12 months just from exposing myself to more thinkers and writers in my general field, I’d be surprised if the syndication didn’t affect my thinking in some ways. And that’s a good thing.

So that’s that! I just wanted to let regular readers here know that there’s a mirror blog at TNI. I try to always respond to comments over here and plan on continuing to do so; it remains to be seen if there will be a different vibe in the comments over there, but if you’re craving more dialogue you may want to pop your head in over there to see if there’s a conversation happening that you’d like to join. But like I said, things around here are going to remain the same. The New Inquiry asked me to team up with them because they like what I do, after all, so changing what I do now would be beside the point.

And with that, onward!

On Ladyblogging and the Slumber Parties of the Internet

An early editorial meeting at Beheld HQ.

As a feminist who started my career at Ms. and wound my way through Glamour and Playboy before winding up at CosmoGIRL!—the exclamation point was part of the name—finding Jezebel shortly after its 2007 launch was delicious. I enjoyed it as a reader, and I enjoyed it even more as a worker in the industry they frequently critiqued, especially as I learned that some of their writers had been in my position—simultaneously excited and dismayed to be in the “pink ghetto,” eager to up the feminist content in glossy ladymags but frustrated by the conditions that Gloria Steinem labeled a “velvet steamroller.”

So it’s not surprising that I’m more kindly disposed to ladyblogs than n+1’s Molly Fischer appears to be. I was 30 when Jezebel launched, and was still eager for what blogs of any sort provided; Fischer, at 20, had gone through adolescence with public critique a click away. I’ve also contributed to two of the four sites Fischer critiques—Jezebel and The Hairpin—and my work there has brought me a portion of The Beheld’s readership, undoubtedly coloring my attitude toward them. I cannot pretend impartiality.

Given the impossibility of impartiality, I admit to being both excited by and uneasy about the n+1 piece. The whole article is worth a read, but in a nutshell, she looks at the evolution of ladyblogs, sites that give traditional women’s topics signature treatment. (Seventeen assures you that masturbating is totally normal; Rookie tells you how to do it.) The bigger the sites get, the more they adhere to what Fischer frames as a particular form of triteness endemic to ladyblogs, in which Zooey Deschanel is shunned but eco-friendly cat bonnets are squeal-worthy. Drained of the gravitas of other alternative women’s media, like explicitly feminist spaces, the potential for ladyblogs to become a true alternative to women’s glossies becomes watered down; the tool for revolution is rendered in scratch-n-sniff. “The internet, it turned out, was a place to make people like you: the world’s biggest slumber party, and the best place to trade tokens of slumber party intimacy—makeup tips, girl crushes, endless inside jokes,” Fischer writes. “The notion that women might share some fundamental experience and interests, a notion on which women’s websites would seem to depend—'sisterhood,' let’s call it—has curdled into BFF-ship.”

What this argument overlooks is that a slumber party is sisterhood. Junior high slumber parties might have brought anything from makeovers to pained sobs over family dysfunction to raging tear-downs of pervy gym teachers. The adult slumber party touches on these, with our adult wisdom added to the mix. The voices of women online have brought me my birth control (“Ask Me About My Mirena!”), lessened my shame about my belly bulge, shined an uncomfortable light on the way social and personal notions of beauty can collide, and opened my mind to what I, as a biological woman, can learn about my own position in society from trans women. There’s fluff, of course (“Watch Kristen Bell Adorably Lose Her Shit Over a Sloth”), but just as silliness coexists alongside our more meaningful concerns, fluffy pieces can comfortably coexist alongside essays on healing from sexual assault. (In fact, for some of us, the fluff was a way to heal.) The slumber party goes all night, after all.

By talking about issues particular to women and treating them as though they matter, we create sisterhood. Ladyblogs do that in tones earnest, flip, and everywhere in between; the “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” Hairpin post Fischer mentions is downright effervescent, and it went viral because it brilliantly encapsulated the way women are painted into a corner where if we’re happy to be eating, it must be because we’re being guilt-free. The post caught on because we all got it, and because we were all fed up with it too. Women laughing alone with salad was, in its own way, sisterhood, and to dismiss it as mere quirk is to dismiss the day-to-day stuff that makes up the particulars of a woman’s life. Fischer ends her piece with a rallying cry for sites that stem from “the notion that women might share some fundamental experience and interests,” but I’m not convinced that the sites in question aren’t doing exactly that. They’re doing them in a more lightweight fashion than Fischer might desire, but the things that constitute gravitas (formality, for example) are frequently structures that purposefully omit the validity of the personal, that look to an “objective” viewpoint (as if there is any such thing) as the end-all, be-all. That is, they’re structures that dismiss the ways plenty of women have written for centuries. Here it comes, that clichéd rallying cry we feminists say over and over: The personal is political.

So it’s unclear what Fischer wants the reader to do—what, when I worked in women’s glossy magazines, we called “the takeaway.” Are we to eschew The Hairpin in favor of today’s equivalent of The Bimonthly Period, the newsletter of the women’s resource center Fischer’s mother founded during her college years? Sites like Feministing, Pandagon, and Feministe play a crucial role in feminism, and therefore in women’s lives—even for women who have never heard of these sites, as they keep the activist fires burning. They can also occasionally feel alienating. I greatly enjoyed my guest blogging stint at Feministe last summer, but I also walked away from it understanding, for the first time, why some people whose politics roughly parallel mine refuse to call themselves feminists. For every commenter who thoughtfully critiqued my message, there would be one who’d say I was a tool of the patriarchy, and another who’d accuse me of abusing my class privilege. It’s a vibrant, razor-sharp community and I was honored to be a part of it, but my point is, if explicitly feminist blogs are the only acceptable online outlet for feminists to inhabit, we’d get exhausted mighty quick. (Let’s also not forget that the number of people who wouldn’t label the targets of Fischer’s critiques as forthrightly feminist is pretty small. The other day I mentioned to a new friend that a mutual writer acquaintance was a “radical feminist”—as in, menstrual art—and her response was, “Oh, does she write for Jezebel?”)

Fischer hits plenty of nails on the head (you know, my opinions being the bed of nails), especially her questioning of the age-appropriacy of ladyblogs' tone. I enjoy Rookie, helmed by 15-year-old Tavi Gevinson—in fact, I enjoy Rookie so much at age 35 that I began to wonder how many teenagers actually read it. I’ll happily cheer unabashed femininity, but like Fischer I’m wary of mass numbers of adult women inhabiting teen spaces. In fact, many of my feelings on this topic can be neatly summed up by an excellent Julie Klausner piece that—oops!—ran in Jezebel.

Still, despite finding aspects of adult-girl culture downright creepy (Hello Kitty?), I see other aspects as liberating. Where women’s magazines place readers on a trajectory of traditional womanhood—teenager to single woman to mommy to retiree—ladyblogs generally treat their readers as though they’re child-free adult women. Ladyblogs don’t mommy-track their readers—and that’s part of why “lady” makes so much sense in describing them. Classically speaking, ladies were put into a somewhat separate class. Ladies of recent centuries had social status; earlier, they had feudal privileges. The ladyblogs don’t use lady in that sense, but it carries a separatist air: We needn’t be quite as serious as we might when using the broader term women, but we don’t want to be girls. Fischer asserts that “On the ladyblogs, adult womanhood is a source of discomfort, and so when we write posts or comments, we tend to call ourselves ladies.” I’d argue the opposite: On the ladyblogs, adult womanhood is a given, and within our shared womanhood we carve out a comfortable space we can all inhabit. Within ladyblogs, we all become ladies.

The lingo may be why the presumably adult women on the ladyblogs (Rookie excluded, as it is aimed at teenagers) might seem to be clinging to girlhood. Fischer questions both the hallmarks of ladyblog style and the way its commenters pick up on it. In my own writing I rilly rilly try to avoid the clichés of the ladysphere (amirite, ladies?), because I don’t want to rely on those methods to convey my point. But as Emily Gould points out, it’s not like “commenter sycophancy” is particular to the ladyblogs. Still, it’s particularly easy to slip into ladysphere lingo, for the very reasons these clichés evolved in the first place: When skillfully employed, ladymags’ “endemic verbal tics” connote personality. Instead of the self-seriousness of magazines, ladylingo gives a tilt to the voice, one that implies we’re all in it together (which, again, is why it’s contagious). The tics serve as a friendly politesse, a way of conveying that you’re typing with a smile.

In fact, that seems to be Fischer’s larger point, and one I’m ambivalent on: Ladybloggers and their commenters are typing with a smile. “They bake pies with low-hanging fruit: they are helpful, agreeable, relatable, and above all likable,” Fischer writes. “Surely one can’t, and shouldn’t, strive to like and be liked all the time. But how else can one be?” (I couldn’t help but wonder how much time Fischer spent actually wading around in comments sections. The culture of “like” looms large, but ladyblog commenters can get vicious, and they’re certainly not afraid to disagree.) The point is an excellent one, but two key points give me pause. First: What’s so wrong about wanting to be liked? I want to be liked; I want my writing to be liked. When I started The Beheld I repeatedly said that all I wanted was to be a part of the conversation. Some writers become a part of the conversation by being controversial, but that’s not my style. I’m a good girl from birth, and it’s built into me to want to be liked. But being liked isn’t my goal in writing; likability is a tool I use to pave my way toward the larger goal of being a part of the conversation, and occasionally hosting it too. There’s plenty to critique about women having a compulsive need to be liked, and it’s something I’ve wrestled with a good deal on a personal level. But I’m not going to apologize for couching arguments in a softer way than I would if my goal were to win.

But the larger issue here about likability is this: Maybe if more women writers were published in gender-neutral publications, writing stories that treat “women’s issues” as people issues, we wouldn’t be paranoid about being so fucking likable. This is a much deeper issue than I’m able to address here, and since most of my bylines have been in explicitly female-oriented spaces, I’m not particularly credible on this front. What I’ll say is that I’m not alone in being a female writer who writes about women’s issues who would be happy to publish in more gender-neutral spaces—and that I rarely pitch those spaces because there’s still a little voice inside me telling me that what I write about is just girl stuff. And people, this is what I do, every day: I write about girl stuff, and I treat it with the gravitas it has in my own life. But that voice is still there, and it’s a result of all sorts of things—internalized oppression, the realities of the “pink ghetto” of women’s issues, fear that if I did start writing more for gender-neutral outlets I’d have to face harsher criticisms than I usually do (the only time I’ve been forthrightly called stupid is from self-identified male commenters, and never on ladyblogs). It’s also a result of me specifically wanting to write for women; as they say, I “write what I know,” and what I know is being a woman. And I don’t particularly want it to be any other way; like I said, I’ve written for ladyblogs, and I wouldn’t bristle at The Beheld being categorized as such. Obviously I believe in what ladyblogs do. But I’m a fool if I think there are no other reasons I align myself with them—reasons that have to do with the “belonging” Fischer criticizes in her piece (“[Ladyblogs] tell us less about how to be than about how to belong”). I know I “belong” in ladyblogs, for I am a lady. I’m not so sure where else I belong.

Despite my misgivings, I liked Fischer’s piece. I like the questions it asks, and I just like that it exists. Recent discussions about women writers and where our bylines ought to be need to continue, and they can’t continue in an authentic manner if we’re afraid of critiquing one another. Ladyblogs aren’t above reproach or critique, and given that some of them serve as watchdogs to traditional women’s media, if we become lax in watching the watchdogs we’re perpetuating the problem. I just don’t want the conversation to be a ping-pong of should we or shouldn’t we, of ladyblogs versus the rest of the Internet. I want the sentiment behind Fischer’s piece to be explored so that whatever these spaces look like in five years, they’re serving women’s needs even more.

Perhaps it’s the women’s magazine veteran in me, but I want a “takeaway” from Fischer’s piece, and I want it to be something like this: We’re in an interesting time as far as gender and access to the public, and we’re also at an time when “voice” is a prime asset for online visibility—“voice” being something women writers have traditionally been told they excel at. We’re also living in a time of fragmented, personally curated information streams, one in which a person could read a handful of sites—even ladyblogs, depending on the blog—and have a reasonable handle on what’s going on in the world. So we’re at the era, and if the proliferation of ladyblogs is any indication, we’ve got the talent. Now what are we going to do with it?


On a related note: I’m thrilled to announce that starting February 6, The Beheld will be syndicated at The New Inquiry. I’ll write more in-depth about this tomorrow but given the topic of this post I thought it would be downright dishonest to not share this bit of news, since TNI is a gender-neutral space that looks at my ladybloggin’ background as an asset, not a ghettoizing detraction. But more on that tomorrow!

68% of Your Vitamin C, 100% Off-Topic

New rule at The Beheld as of December 2011: Every 230th post or so, I can do something that has absolutely nothing to do with beauty. Whaddya say? Will it sweeten the deal if it's LEAFY GREENS THAT TASTE LIKE A MILKSHAKE?

I first encountered the green smoothie--a fruit-based smoothie that has a good amount of leafy greens thrown in but that somehow manages to taste not like leafy greens but instead LIKE A MILKSHAKE--at a health food store near my old office. I was trying to eat more leafy greens, and since I don't really cook that meant I was eating lots and lots of salads (a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, without asking what I ate every day, once told me my condition was due to "too many salads and bananas," and advised I cut those out, plus sex, but whatevs). I'd gotten into kale on a theoretical basis (so good for you!) but not on a practical one (takes so long to cook! I mean, it takes like eight minutes, but I am impatient) and was torn between two worlds, so when I saw a smoothie on the menu that involved banana, almond milk, honey, cinnamon, and kale, I got all jazzed up, ordered it, and floated back to the office in an ethereal delight of green vegetables THAT TASTED LIKE A MILKSHAKE.

Now, buying a green smoothie every day would be cost-prohibitive. But it turns out I'm far from alone in coming to rely on these to get in a good amount of vitamins, and the Internet is chock full of recipes on how to make them yourself. Perhaps I am too late for the ball, but I'm going to show up with my recipe anyway.

All you really need is a liquid, some greens, some fruit, and a blender. There are other things you can put in to taste, but those are the basics. Here's my standard recipe, with variations below.

Green Smoothie
  • 1/3 cup coconut water
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 banana, preferably frozen (peel it before you freeze it)
  • 1/3 cup frozen fruit (I love mango, but it's up to you)
  • 1 tablespoon honey OR one pitted date
  • Pinch cinnamon
  • Pinch sea salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger (I keep peeled ginger in the freezer; easier to grate)
  • 3 cups fresh spinach OR 2 cups shredded kale
  • 3 ice cubes

Directions: Put coconut water, lemon juice, banana, fruit, honey or date, cinnamon, sea salt, vanilla, and ginger in blender. Blend, pulsing as needed to get the chunks of fruit broken up. Puree until mixture is smooth. Put in one cup of spinach, pressing down with a spatula to immerse it as much as possible in the fruit puree. Blend. Repeat process with remaining two cups of spinach. Once all spinach has been mixed in, throw in the ice cubes. Puree for one minute to make it super-smooth LIKE A MILKSHAKE.

There are about a zillion variations, but this is my standard. You can use fruit juice instead of the coconut water; you can use whatever fruit or greens you like; you can throw in herbs for more zing (cilantro is particularly nice, especially with grapefruit juice subbed in for the coconut water). If you're hard-core you can omit the honey or date, but really, why would you? I sometimes throw in a pinch of stevia too, to make it a hair sweeter.

If you find it difficult to use up all your greens before they go bad, you can also do this with frozen spinach--I just throw it in frozen, actually, no defrosting or anything. With that you'll need a lot more liquid and you can omit the ice cubes; it's much thicker this way, LIKE A REALLY THICK MILKSHAKE. Note that it's easier to use the kind of frozen spinach that's loose in the package instead of the kind that's been formed into a solid brick, as that makes it more difficult to get into the blades of the blender.

A note on blenders: This works just fine with a regular blender. I made the one in the picture with my fellow's Cuisinart, but he only has said Cuisinart because I gave him mine after I discovered the Ninja, which might be the world's best blender (besides a VitaMix, which really is the best blender in the world, but which is $600 and frankly not worth it unless someone else is footing the bill, as was the case when I used it back in my restaurant days). It's great because the power unit is separate from the blades, so there's zero risk of accidentally turning it on when you're poking around with a spoon to get the spinach wet enough to get it to puree along with the fruit. The only downside is that you can't just drop in ingredients; you have to lift off the power unit every time you want to access the ingredients, but it's such a good blender that you won't need to do this often (i.e. you won't need to stir it a lot, and in fact if you have a Ninja you can put in all the greens at once instead of doing them in batches).

You can throw in whatever supplements you like--I do put in omega-3 oils sometimes (and, just to make this related to my usual work, I do find it makes my skin all soft and glowy)--but that's up to you. It's nutritious as-is (63% of your daily vitamin A, 68% of your vitamin C, half your B6, etc., using 3 cups spinach) so that's just a bonus. But really, all this is beside the point; I'd drink this even if it didn't have all those vitamins, because it tastes LIKE A MILKSHAKE, and really I just wanted to share my daily treat with you, because sometimes we need a break from sociology, feminism, economics, and business talk (hey, not to brag but I'm sort of thrilled that my post about the lipstick index was republished not only at Jezebel but also at Business Insider, a publication I never thought would see my byline) to talk fake milkshakes.