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Pride and prejudice

Dear Feminists: You Think Too Much

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Not everything has meaning. Not everything requires critical analysis. Not everything is in need of a theory to explain it.

Some things are really simple. They are what they are, and the temptation to intellectualize everything should be resisted. Consider, for example, New York Times column by Emily Witt:

Who could be cynical about the rise of friendship? In recent movies, female friends have banded together to shoot guns from trucks (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) and sing a cappella (“Pitch Perfect”). On TV, they have spooned in Greenpoint (“Girls”) and found common ground in prison (“Orange Is the New Black”). Their stoner antics (“Broad City”) have liberated us from the slob dads of sitcoms.

Once limited to sassy supporting roles, female friends are now the primary source of romantic tension themselves: making passive-aggressive phone calls, taking baths together, serving as sugar daddies, lying to each other, busting ghosts. Unlike traditional romance, friendship doesn’t force us into archaic gender roles or complicate our professional or sexual independence. It’s now the boyfriends who are vestigial, appearing only in bit parts like “timid suitor” or “obnoxious co-worker.”

(This is because feminist bloggers now instantly attack any movie that doesn’t pass the lesbian-approved “Bechdel Test,” and everybody in Hollywood is scared to death of feminist bloggers. In order to satisfy blogger demands, males can never be heroic in movies, nor can any woman be cast in the role of “hero’s girlfriend,” let alone “damsel in distress.” Third-wave feminism requires that males be “vestigial,” because women must be so “empowered” that men are either peripheral characters — clowns and tagalongs — or else sinister villains representing the Oppressive Patriarchy.)

Running parallel to this artistic phenomenon, however, is an anthropological one. Lately, we’ve been inundated with images of real-life best friends, triumphantly displayed. It’s difficult to get through a day on the Internet without looking at photos of women flaunting the depth of their intimacy by posing over dinner or watching television together in matching pajamas. We now flick through images not of celebrity couples but of celebrity friends: Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj eating hamburgers in matching varsity jackets; Taylor Swift with Karlie Kloss, Lorde, Selena Gomez, Ellie Goulding, Lena Dunham, her cat Olivia, the entire runway lineup of a Victoria’s Secret show; the U.S. women’s soccer team. The meme factories have responded to the popularity of pictures of best friends with maximum output, harvesting groups of women posing on beaches and in limos fromcelebrity Instagram feeds and presenting them in slide shows . . . and labeling these images as “#friendspiration” and “#squadgoals.”

(Note the use of the authorial “we” here. Who is “we”? Why does Emily Witt presume that everyone is plugged into the same Internet feeds, so that they are “inundated with images” and it is “difficult to get through a day” without seeing the phenomenon she describes?)

Picture-perfect groups of friends on Instagram make me wonder whether Bridget Jones’s idea of “smug marrieds” could also apply to “squads” and why “The Stepford Wives” hasn’t been re-envisioned with a friendship plot. The portraits seem to be asking a lot of impolite questions: Do you have as many friends as we do? How did you celebrate your birthday? Do you regularly drink prosecco over plates of fruit at Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar? Have you betrayed your gender by preferring the company of men? You don’t have a friend with whom you publicly exchange photographs of your manicures? What’s wrong with you? If female friendship is so uplifting, then why do these photos make us feel the opposite — unbalanced and unsure?

(Again with the authorial first-person plural. Emily Witt presumes to know how “these photos make us feel,” when she’s actually describing how they make her feel, i.e., envious of the lives of the celebrities whose photos she sees while obsessively checking the online feed that inundates her with these images. Clearly, “we” need to log off Instagram, get outside more often and, perhaps, ask “our” therapist to adjust the Prozac dosage.)

I used to think that friendship as performed for an audience would end with middle school, but the past 10 years of technology have changed that expectation.

(Obviously, she’s one of those unhappy-childhood types who are forever reliving their middle-school identity crises.)

In social media, friendship gets fixed and mounted. It loses its dramatic tension. It becomes a presentation of happiness, an advertisement for friendship rather than an actual portrayal of it. Sometimes, scrolling through photos of women I know looking carefully hungover in front of a perfectly composed brunch, or lying on a blanket in a park in crop tops, or posting screenshots of their exuberant text messages, I’m reminded of something Marnie once said on “Girls”: “I thought that this would be a good opportunity to have fun together and prove to everyone via Instagram that we can still have fun as a group.”

(If you ever find yourself thinking about life in terms of lines from a Lena Dunham HBO series, it’s time to have that talk with your therapist about the appropriate Prozac dosage.)

Mimicking the advertiser’s strategy, these pictures of delightful fun inevitably provoke a feeling of lack or longing in the consumer of the image.

When I think of depictions of friendships that have moved me, I find myself thinking mostly of books — of those passages in novels that illuminate friendship by its moments of thorniness, by the heartbreak it can cause.

(Of course! It’s about characters in novels. People who read too much fiction think everything is about characters in novels, in the same way people who spend too much time on Instagram think everything is about people on Instagram.)

Real friendship is complex. It’s the sadness of Elizabeth Bennet when her friend Charlotte Lucas marries the odious Mr. Collins in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” It’s Leah and Natalie’s complicated dance of haughtiness and need in Zadie Smith’s “NW.” It’s the once-a-week limit Vivian Gornick has with her friend Leonard in “The Odd Woman and the City” (because men can be friends too).

The best works of art about friendship resonate by showing how our closest friends have a way of ruining our attempts to present ourselves as perfect; how those picturesque moments are belied by other truths.

(My friendships have never been “complex.” Never once in my life have I engaged in a “complicated dance of haughtiness and need,” probably because I don’t sit around reading novels, filled with a bittersweet nostalgia for middle school or obsessively staring at pictures of Taylor Swift on Instagram. Seriously, lady, you need to have that discussion with your therapist about your Prozac dosage.)

Friendship stories might have replaced tales of romantic love, but the best ones stop themselves from purveying easy clichés of their own — whether clichés about feminist solidarity or about mean girls (sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two). Close friendships are worth celebrating — but it is how they look at their least photogenic moments that proves their veracity.

And so concludes this New York Times mini-essay. Emily Witt is to Instagram selfies what Hannah Arendt was to Adolf Eichmann.

Curious as to who wrote this bizarre column, I found her online bio:

Emily Witt . . . has degrees from Brown, Columbia, and Cambridge, and was a Fulbright scholar in Mozambique.

Oh, that explains it. ” Nor do our daily lives as adults consist of scrolling through celebrity Instagram photos, wishing we could hang out with Lena Dunham and her friends.

Only if your Daddy can afford to send you to elite universities (annual tuition at Brown, $46,408), followed by several more years of postgraduate education, can you indulge in that kind of stuff and then get paid by the New York Times to share your thoughts about it using first-person plural pronouns so that you presume to speak for a “we” who share your peculiar obsessions. Speaking of peculiar obsessions, Emily Witt (who got her bachelor’s degree at Brown in 2003, majoring in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies and Art Semiotics) wrote an 800-word article for the New York Times with the headline, “In Praise of Sensible Panties,” which included sentences like these:

“Good design is as little design as possible” is one of the famed German industrial designer Dieter Rams’s Ten Principles for Good Design, and in the underwear from Swiss brands like Zimmerli and Hanro, as in a Braun appliance from the 1960s, Rams’s mandate for elegant minimalism finds fulfillment. . . . .
A country’s underwear preferences say a lot about its ideas of the erotic. . . .
Ultimately, what intrigued me about the underwear I saw in Germany had something to do with its directness — the way it resisted gendered ornamentation of the body.

You see? Even your underwear must be subjected to critical theory, if you’re an intellectual with degrees from three elite universities.

You really have to feel sorry for her Dad. Just imagine Mr. Witt’s conversations with his golf buddies.

“How’s your daughter?”
“Fluent in Portugese and resisting gendered ornamentation.”

This is why you should keep your kids as far away from the Ivy League as possible. Even if you could afford the tuition, you’ll still have to pay for a lifetime of therapy and Prozac.



 

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