"Dangerous" Update

One of my favorite post-election action newsletters (which you should subscribe to if you're looking for actionable ways to resist the Trump agenda) covered the Milo Yiannopoulos/Simon & Schuster problem the other day. I suggest you read it if you're looking to take action: It give the address of where to send actual letters, which the activist suggests doing because actual letters make an impact in a way that emails can't. I'd also suggest that you direct these letters to the Threshold imprint.

The activist I'm linking to here does not support a boycott, and I'm inclined to agree, though halfheartedly. We are both Simon & Schuster authors, so please take that into account. I genuinely believe I'm ambivalent about a boycott for reasons having nothing to do with my own affiliation with S&S. (For the record: Unless "Face Value" unexpectedly and literally becomes a bestseller, I won't get any more money out of the company than what is promised to me in my contract. Most authors never earn back their advance and unless something drastically changes for me, I'm among that crowd.) I think boycotts can be effective. But they need to be strategic and organized for them to be so, and I just don't think that Simon & Schuster is the best target in this way. Not only because it's a fragile industry (though honestly, that too) or because they publish wonderful, often progressive, authors under different imprints (which they do, but that in and of itself is no reason to not boycott them) but because nobody gets into publishing to make money. They get into publishing because they love to read. They love books and ideas. This is one of those cases where writing a heartfelt letter actually might make a different for future buying decisions, particularly if there's a critical mass where the assistants opening the mail can make a case to their higher-ups for not publishing more white supremacists because it will simply be too much work. 

So I suggest you write letters—physical letters, even if you've already sent an email—and then completely ignore it, though depending on how the book is received that tactic might need to change. No books are sold without publicity surrounding them, so let's do our best to not give this book publicity. It's tough because I very much feel a responsibility to speak out here, but I also know that I'm probably a part of the problem by doing exactly that. I've never been targeted by trolls on Twitter as much as I have been for my tweets on this topic. White supremacists love our outrage. That's not a reason to not be outraged! But it's a reminder to be strategic about it.

All that said, I'm not going to tell you to NOT boycott Simon & Schuster; if you choose to, please don't feel like you need to apologize to me for not buying my book. I'm still figuring out my own ways of how best to resist, and I support most endeavors to do just that, even if it's not a tactic I myself am engaging in.

"Dangerous" indeed

Simon & Schuster announced that it will be publishing Dangerous, a book by Milo Yiannopoulos, an editor at Breitbart and a white supremacist, in March 2017 under its Threshold imprint, which is devoted to conservatism. As a Simon & Schuster author, I'm horrified that a company I've been proud to be associated with is giving a platform to Yiannopoulos.

To be clear, the book isn't about white supremacy. The book is about free speech, and indeed Yiannopoulos is well-situated to write about free speech. White supremacy has a history of making people rethink their commitment to free speech (I'm thinking here of Skokie, Illinois, a heavily Jewish town where Nazis were allowed to march and display the swastika in 1977, thanks in part to the ACLU's efforts to support the Nazis' First Amendment rights). I don't want to stop Yiannopoulos from writing or publishing such a book—or any book, for that matter, even as I find his views despicable. Free speech, even when it's abhorrent, is a cornerstone of democracy.

But the kind of "free speech" we're talking about here is the kind promised to us by our government, not the kind sold by for-profit companies like Simon & Schuster. Nobody has a right to a book deal; not publishing this book, even if it never once uses the phrase "white supremacy," is not censorship or an abridgement of free speech. Yiannopoulos already has quite a mouthpiece at his disposal; this isn't an issue of him not being able to assert his views.

The issue is that when a major publishing company gives a lucrative book deal to a white supremacist, it legitimizes him, even when the topic is free speech.

Indeed, that's his entire goal in publishing the book, not getting his word out per se: "this book is the moment Milo goes mainstream," Yiannopoulos told The Hollywood Reporter. By publishing this book, Simon & Schuster is enabling Yiannopoulos to "go mainstream," which normalizes his views and makes them seem like they should be a legitimate part of public discourse. It turns white supremacy into just another controversial viewpoint instead of a genuinely dangerous ideology that is gaining ground in our country by the minute. White supremacy kills people, and it will kill more people in the coming years.

This isn't about me just not liking what Yiannopoulos has to say; I don't like what most Threshold authors have to say. (Threshold exists to "provide a forum for the creative people, bedrock principles, and innovative ideas of contemporary conservatism.") But there is a sharp difference between conservative thinking and white supremacy. No publisher has an intellectual obligation to give a mouthpiece to the latter. 

I've been thinking a good deal about boycotts and their effectiveness, and I'm not sure that calling for a boycott of all Simon & Schuster books is a great idea; I'm hesitant to say that you shouldn't buy good books that encourage clear thinking and open discourse—that seems counterproductive. But I will happily tell you that my book sales are far less important to me as a Simon & Schuster author than us taking a stand against legitimizing white supremacists. (I will also point out that the Face Value audiobook is not published by Simon & Schuster, ahem.) If you want to contact the publisher, you can call Threshold at 212.698.7006 or email at gallerypublicity@simonandschuster.com. I'll continue to think on how I want to handle this as an author with the same publisher, and am open to suggestions.

The Sisterhood, If It Ever Existed and It Probably Didn’t, Shattered While I Wasn’t Looking and All I Got Was This Dumb Safety Pin

I have always believed that beauty is political. But when we are dealing with fascism sweeping our nation, the way for those of us who believe that is to use beauty in ways that support the work we have ahead of us. Put on your lipstick if it makes you fierce, then go out and yell. But right now I don’t have my usual intellectual luxury of examining beauty in the ways I usually do in this space.

I got an enormous shock in one of my core beliefs with this election. I have always believed, with the wide-eyed earnesty of a white woman for whom inclusion is usually taken for granted, in the sisterhood. I am horrified at how wrong I was about that. I’m shocked at my naive assumption that women would do better by one another; I’m shocked that 42 percent of women and 53 percent of white women looked at a man who is proud of his misogyny and think, Yes, himEvery woman who has ever been sexually assaulted was assaulted again on Tuesday night, including those who voted for him. Our national figurehead is a sexual assault trigger. I am sickened.

But the deeper rocking of my world has come from how this past week has made me look my own complicity right in the eye. I have long considered myself an ally to disenfranchised and oppressed people, but I now see that “considered myself” is meaningless. I have done jack shit to actually show up for people of color. I read the thinkpieces and make my Twitter feed diverse and try to treat people like they’re, you know, human, and none of that is active alliance. Patting myself on the back for being aware enough to not expect a cookie for being a decent human being is just me baking a batch of cookies for myself. I thought I “got” intersectional feminism because I agreed with its tenets. But I wasn’t really listening. I am sorry.

I’m a writer by nature and vocation, so part of how I wind up contributing to overcoming the fascism of this country might well be with my words. But right now, I don’t have anything to say that isn’t being said elsewhere by people whose voices more urgently need to be heard, and anyway, the kind of words I have to offer the world aren’t what we need right now. Right now, we need action, and organizing.

Here are a few places to start actionwise; these are roundups of specific, varied ways each of us can help overcome this. Find what works for you, then do it.

 



There is one thing about what’s going on that’s in my wheelhouse, so yes, let’s talk about safety pins. What the fuck are you thinking? We’re looking at the possibility of mass deportations and the impulse is to ask what you can wear to the revolution?

Maybe it’s different in communities where disenfranchised people are surrounded by the enemy—I don’t know, I can’t speak to that. But criminy, if you’re wearing a safety pin out of an earnest belief that someone in need can come to you, a stranger, because they need help? Then you, a stranger, can probably see that they need help, so help them regardless of what’s on your lapel.

 

Requiem for My Potential Hotness [Invited Post]

When I got an email with the subject line “Requiem for My Potential Hotness,” I was intrigued—and was hooked when its writer, Rachel McCarthy James, went on to detail how the false split between intelligence and beauty had led to another false split, this one of her own identity. I'm thrilled to host the results of that exchange here. McCarthy James has written for Broadly, Bitch Media, Lit Hub, and The Billfold, among others. You can follow her on Twitter @rmccarthyjames. 

“There is surely a difference between being a beautiful person and being a moderately pleasant-looking person. Both get you a certain set of advantages. Are the advantages of being actually hot worth it? I’ll never know.”

“There is surely a difference between being a beautiful person and being a moderately pleasant-looking person. Both get you a certain set of advantages. Are the advantages of being actually hot worth it? I’ll never know.”

Since I saw Ariel and her purple bikini in The Little Mermaid at age three, I wanted to be hot. My parents were more interested in the development of my intellect than my looks, but I still nursed the secret desire to be desired, to be the thing that boys started calling Hot, sometime around the third grade. So I began to believe that Smart was on one end, mutually exclusive with Sexy, and I knew that I should choose Smart. I was scared of the baggage of beauty—the new things people would want from me, say to me, assume about me, the specter of Sex that I could not back away from. My body grew out of control, too big, much too big. And I was scared that I wouldn’t live up, that I would try and fail to be sexy. I wasn’t going to be Britney Spears, that much was clear, so best not to try at all. Safer.  So I didn’t learn to do makeup. I didn’t wear my retainer. I wore clothes that looked like what my crush wore, instead of what my crush’s girlfriend wore. I compulsively plucked my eyebrows until they were gone.

But like the slim person who looks back at old photos and thinks, I can’t believe I thought I was fat, I can’t believe I thought I was ugly. I had assumed failure on the scale of Hotness and I wasted so much potential. I assumed hotness was permanently out of my reach, when I could have had all the boyfriends. I have come to understand some things about myself, and one of them is that I am cute with my big frame, like a fuckable Snorlax. One of my friends said, “no one would look at that face and tell you that you’re ugly.”

I’m 30 this month and fat for the last seven years, so probably permanently. I have finally realized that even if I lose 80 pounds (which I won’t), I will never be hot in the way I could have been, in the way I dreamed of when I was a child fantasizing about my adult life. And I’m kind of mad that I was never hot: mad at myself, mad at beauty, and—just a little, in the worst chambers of neurons—mad at women who are hot. I am jealous that other women get to be hot, regardless of age—from Kylie Jenner on up to Jane Fonda, they have beaten me, they have arrived ahead of me, and the part of me that is jealous and nasty and competitive and shallow wants to win, dammit, wants to be the best. But I know it’s wrong. I know it’s wrong not just because misogyny is a false game in which there are no winners, really, but also because they win not because I’m uglier, but because they legitimately work a lot harder than me at being hot, at dieting, at exercise, at makeup, at hair, at clothes. I can’t begrudge someone success based on hard work.

It’s more that I am mad at myself that I didn’t try harder to be conventionally hot when I would have been so. Because of a lot of unfair things—race, class, height, health, shiny hair—my body had many qualities that could have aligned with a certain form of hotness, if I’d pushed the levers a bit more. For a total of maybe 100 non-consecutive hours when I was 20 to 23, I was made up and dressed scantily enough that I probably cleared the bar of Hot. I have pictures. But I found more and more that the effort wasn’t worth the reward, that even at my hottest I would glance across the room and wonder, Is she hotter? I still didn’t win. Also I was drunk most the time. Even though hotness was accessible to me, I found it less than satisfying.

Now, even if I were to weigh less, I will never be able to go back and achieve the Peak Hotness I could have had. I always want to know the truth, and I will never know the truth. Is it that much better to be nigh-objectively attractive? Does everyone treat you better? Do the potential cons—being harassed more, pestered, devalued, assumed to be less smart—outweigh the pros? Would I have been happier? Would I be sadder in the future, to no longer be hot, or is it better to have been hot and lost it than to never have been hot at all? Would I have finally felt like I won? There is surely a difference between being a beautiful person and being a moderately pleasant-looking person. Both get you a certain set of advantages. Are the advantages of being actually hot worth it? I’ll never know.

When I was a little kid, people kept telling me I was going to be a model, because I was tall. When I was a little kid, I kept telling people that I wanted to be the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, because I was smart. I can’t go back to 18, and try harder at hotness or college, and the twelve years that have passed since have knocked me out. Like being an Olympic athlete, being Hot and being a Supreme Court Justice is a road that forks off before the age of 20. Neither of those dreams will be; I am not, by either measure, good enough on those scales.

Of course, hotness is still possible, on any scale, after 30, after 40, after whatever. Helen Mirren is a concept that exists. Iman is at present more beautiful than me on my wedding day in any timeline in the multiverse, even the ones where I put in a bunch of effort. And as my editor commented on an early draft: “Most women I know my age—around 40—report their early 30s as being their own Peak Hotness.” If I really wanted to, I could probably become a hottie still, even without losing a bunch of weight. Ashley Graham isn’t much younger or thinner than I am. But it would take a lot more time, money, and effort than if I’d began taking beauty seriously at 12, or 15, or 22. Instead, I’m spending that free time learning French and hoping I pick up some elegance by osmosis. It’s not that being 30 disqualifies me from intense beauty; it’s just that I’m just unlikely to find the motivation to turn this particular car around. I want to get pregnant soon; my figure and my priorities will reshuffle again. I don’t expect being fuckable to suddenly jump several notches in my bucket list, and why would I want it to? It’s a bother, unnecessary because: I like who I am and I like how I look, even—maybe because—my own brand of magnetism doesn’t really register on the scales of the people who define hotness.

But I’m still good enough. I went to a women’s college; I made friends; I found an intellectual voice; I found a lover. None of them required me to be Hot, and eventually it slipped out of my plans and dreams. Hotness is always a short-term goal, and I was more interested in parties, friends, food, writing. At Hollins, I saw that there were many kinds of beauty, and that the girl with the pearls and the perfect face in size 2 jeans wasn’t necessarily more pleasing to look at than the chubby girl with an endlessly fascinating MAC kit with more brilliant shiny tubs of eyeshadow than there are crayons in a box and a way of telling vivid color stories with cardigans, scarves, and accessories. I also learned that people thought I was cool and interesting and smart even when I didn’t shower for six days in a row and wore the same hoodie, pajama pants, and Crocs to class every day for a semester. Suddenly having friends who admired me regardless of my appearance changed my relationship to my appearance for good, and for better. Instead of being just another Rachel who didn’t look like Jennifer Aniston, I leaned into my simple nickname: RMJ. My own invention, undefined by beauty, stipulated by me. 

I did not spend my twenties being as breathtakingly beautiful as I perhaps could have, but I also spent them having fun and sex and happiness. If I had spent them being Hot, would I be able to look at myself in the mirror and smile at my wrinkles, or would they only remind me of the decay still to come? I don’t know. I’ll never know that particular truth.

 

The Well-Heeled Life: Shoes, Ability, and Fear [Invited Post]

The work of guest writer Keah Brown first came to my attention with her nuanced critical view of disability and film in Catapult, and my appreciation of her work only deepened with "The Freedom of a Ponytail,"  an essay about the triumph of learning to put her hair in a ponytail one-handed, as necessitated by the cerebral palsy that affects mobility on the right side of her body. In Lenny Letter, she writes: "[My ponytails] are a promise of more to come, a promise to keep working at them until they are the best that they can be. I find myself wondering back to that list of things I can't do and imagining a world in which I can. ... Being able to put my hair up didn't make me instantly love myself or my body, but it helped me see that I could one day." You can follow her on Twitter here, and visit her website here.

 

"And then I watched as their feet grew tired when the night went on and those same heels ended up in their hands or at the tables by their purses." (Photo: Tangi Bertin, Creative Commons license.)

"And then I watched as their feet grew tired when the night went on and those same heels ended up in their hands or at the tables by their purses." (Photo: Tangi Bertin, Creative Commons license.)

One of the first times I ever felt beautiful was at my high school prom. I stood on the venue’s version of a dancefloor and thanked the classmates who passed by me and complimented my dress. My dress, to this day, is one of the prettiest things I have ever worn, a black and pink ball gown with corset ties and enough tulle to make your head spin. I looked like a princess and felt like one too, with the tiara to match. I believed them when they said I was beautiful. I had no reason not to. I knew that the dress fit my body and skin tone well. I felt at my prettiest then, even as I wore silver sparkly flats that I bought from Payless two nights before. I watched my classmates walk and dance in their sky-high heels with ease. And then I watched as their feet grew tired when the night went on and those same heels ended up in their hands or at the tables by their purses.

The trouble with prom is that it’s only one night, and that feeling of being beautiful ended when it did. However, the envy of the girls and their sky-high heels remained. Though I had plenty of reasons to be jealous of the girls themselves, I found myself specifically envious of their ability to walk in heels. High heels are beautiful. I say this as a person who has never been and will never be able to wear them. I don’t have the coordination and the balance to do so. I heard once that we often crave the things we can’t have. We wish for a scenario or a world in which the thing we can’t have, the thing we can’t do, is possible; we crave a bit of magic. I am and was no different. Growing up as a black disabled woman with cerebral palsy, I wished for many things. I wished for a new body entirely, asking only to wake up with the same black skin, same name, and the same family everything else could go. I wished for knees and feet that didn’t ache after walking through malls and on park trails, grocery stores and movie theaters. And around the time of each high school dance I wished for a magic pair of heels that were secretly made just for me to walk in. I wanted them to be a secret because I feared they wouldn’t work if other people knew about them. I’d like to think that they would appear on my doorstep in a black and white box with a note that read “Keah, here is the only beauty secret you need.” I likened them to The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants books. I was a huge fan at the time and thought that if they were allowed a pair of magic pants I should be allowed one pair of magic heels. The pair of enchanted heels never came for me but I still found myself admiring heels from afar, picking them up in stores and asking my mom and sister if they thought the heels on the shoes were small enough for me to walk in even when we all knew the answer was no.  

There are lots of things I can’t do: cartwheels, backbends and walkovers, fly, wink, or whistle, blow bubbles, crack an egg or the code to the perfect Rubik’s cube, and this is not due to a lack of trying. In fact, I spent many of my adolescent years trying to do cartwheels and backbends at home and after cheer practices with my sister. I spent summers at park programs trying to whistle and blow the biggest bubble while in competition with the other kids. All of this was a result of fearlessness. When you’re younger, fear is a thing you know but not something you practice. Fear is the thing you tuck away in the furthest part of your mind while you do the things you love or dream without abandon. The lack of fear as a young girl is what kept me believing the impossible and continually trying the things that were genuinely impossible. We live in a society that touts the message  “nothing is impossible if you believe hard enough!” but that’s simply untrue and quite frankly, harmful.

People with disabilities are regarded as worthy only when we “achieve” and “defy expectations”; we are led to believe that our worth lies in how closely we can align ourselves to the able-bodied, Eurocentric beauty standards that our society holds so dear. After all, high heels are sexy and fun; they make women irresistible and men drool, if you ask any advertisement, movie, TV show, or image eager to convey desirability. The “irresistible” women in these images are never in flats like I was at prom. They’re in heels as high as possible, walking confidently as the heels click-clack on their feet. They are models on the runways of the biggest fashion companies with heels bedazzled and strappy, a silent promise that a heel is the necessary shoe to complete whatever look graces their bodies. When the models aren’t in heels, their look is just as unattainable. They’re shown in t-shirt-and-jeans-and-I-just-woke-up-like-this beauty that is just as alienating. These women do not wear heels all the time but we are lead to believe that certain looks are incomplete without heels, often overlooking the ableist nature of such a message. The images presented to us are easy to buy into. When you are fed the narrative that almost every single body but yours is desirable, you believe it. So it’s easy to look at the images of those same beautiful women in high heels and back at yourself, and think, Maybe I’ll never be as desirable and sexy like those women. It’s not just that we share no similarities in body type, or often, race. It’s also that I can’t even indulge in the primary simulacrum of their sexiness. I can’t even wear their shoes.

When I was in college, my friends and I would sometimes leave campus and go to our Galleria Mall. I would pick out clothes I was almost always too lazy to try on and wait for my friends while they did the responsible thing and made sure their clothes fit before buying them. They would try on their clothes and we’d collectively agree or veto them, and I’d always wander back by the shoes, picking up and putting down heels that were far too thin and too tall for anyone but an expert to walk in. I would sit with the shoes for a bit while waiting for my friends to change and close my eyes and imagine a world where the shoe was both in my size ten foot and wearable. Under my closed lids my friends would ooh and ahh as the heels sculpted my feet like art before I’d take them off and bring them to the register for purchasing. These dreams would end once my name was called or one of my friends stepped out of the dressing room to ask me how the clothes looked, but I enjoyed each moment anyway.

High heels have always been one of the things I’ve loved but could never have. This realization came to me early. I am very familiar with my body’s limitations and I take great care to wear sneakers with heel and arch support when I am walking anywhere regardless of the distance. I often ask myself: How much of my inability to walk in heels is fear, and how much of it is the result of the body I am housed in? Fear, in a twisted way, brings me comfort. Fear is familiar and digestible in a way that the reality of not being able to wear heels is not. Fear allows me the room to lie to myself and say that fear is the only reason I cannot wear heels. When in reality, that’s not the case.  

The answer doesn’t exactly matter in the grand scheme of things because the fact of the matter is that it’s just not something I’ll ever be able to do, despite the messages that nothing is impossible. However, when I posed the question of the ability to or to not wear heels on Twitter I was surprised by the response. Like many people, my circumstances, failures, and inability to do certain things have always felt like circumstances I’ve always dealt with alone. As ridiculous as it sounds, I’d already convinced myself that I was the only person in the world who could not wear heels and in turn, could not be desired by anyone. I found out a few weeks ago that this was not only ridiculous but untrue. The same balancing issues that I have, other folks with disabilities have as well. The same aching feet and need for stability is theirs as well, and they still found significant others. Despite the lack of heels in their lives they still love, and are loved. The femininity, desirability, and embrace of womanhood that I feared I did not deserve without the ability to adhere to the standards set and reinforced by society, I’ve had all along. On prom night all those years ago, I felt beautiful without question. Now, despite feeling fear, I am ready to walk through life one flat shoe at a time.

Lisa Ferber, Artist, New York City

{For more long-form interviews from The Beheld, click here.} 

A highly productive bonne vivante, Lisa Ferber has shown her paintings and illustrations at National Arts Club, the Painting Center, and Village West gallery. She's also the creator, writer, and star of the feature film The Sisters Plotz (directed by Lisa Hammer, and starring Eve Plumb, Lisa Ferber and Lisa Hammer), which debuted at New York City's Anthology Film Archives in 2015, and launched as a Top Five Most-Watched video on FunnyorDie.com. Words like whimsy and satire are frequently applied to her work—but it’s her enchantment with beauty, expressed through vibrant color and markings of high glamour, that made me want to interview her. A featured speaker at New York University on independent arts marketing, her keen awareness of image extends beyond canvas and stage to her signature colorful wardrobe and polished presentation. We talked about makeup as a symbol of humility, the glamour of the absurd, and beauty as a marketing tool. In her own words:

Photo: Meryl Tihanyi

Photo: Meryl Tihanyi

On Apologies

There are ways people have to deal with physical beauty that they don’t have to with other assets. Beautiful people are supposed to act as though they don’t know they’re beautiful, even if it’s kind of a fact. Somebody might say, “I’m good at math” and not apologize for it, but for a woman to say, “Yeah, you know, I’m really pretty”—nobody does that. It’s weird that people are modest about being beautiful because it’s sort of an accident. But it can be a way of stepping away from being threatening, since beautiful women are seen as threats. I remember complimenting this woman who was working on a show with my then-boyfriend. I said she was really pretty and she said, “It’s amazing what a good lipstick and a great dress can do.” It made me like her more because I felt she was saying, “I know I’m in a show with your boyfriend, but I am not a threat to you.” I felt she understood that sometimes women can be insecure about having a pretty woman around their guy, and that she could handle that with humility and manners without insulting herself.

Part of it is the social power women wield with beauty. When we say, “Oh, that woman is so beautiful,” we give her power and mystery. Beauty simultaneously gains someone social respect and people’s suspicion. Are there certain types of beauty that don’t incur the wrath of other women? Or certain levels of beauty? If you work with someone who has that California-girl kind of beauty, everyone is going to want to think she’s dumb, because she’s pretty in that certain type of way. Whereas I think women are into someone like Angelina Jolie because she’s freaky-looking but also really beautiful.

I think people believe they’re supposed to apologize for beauty because it’s genetic. Nobody’s allowed to show that they know it, yet most of us are also raised to present ourselves confidently. If you don’t groom yourself and make the effort, it looks as if you don’t care—or even that you’re conceited. I go through phases of not wearing makeup, and someone said to me once, “I noticed you don’t wear any makeup—how come?” I remember thinking, Why do I need to explain this? Is she saying that I don’t have the right to think that I look good without it? Should I wear makeup just to show that I don’t think I’m okay without it?

I think as much as women are raised to believe in ourselves, we’re also taught that a woman who’s prettier or slimmer than the people around her will be hated—think of the whole idea of “You’re so skinny, I hate you!” That mind-set can prevent women from revealing their full bloom. It’s really only been in the past few years that I’ve been able to not just present myself comedically, in terms of the way I look. For many years I felt like my self-presentation had to have something ridiculous about it, sort of kooky—and sure, there’s always going to be an artsiness about my style. But for me to just put on a beautiful dress and feel comfortable looking elegant and serious and poised, and not have to have something ridiculous about it—I had to be ready to say, “I can handle this.”

 

Djuna’s Croissant Had Failed Her 

Djuna’s Croissant Had Failed Her 

On the Glamour and Humor of Her Work

People have always responded to my work as witty, both my writing and my visual art. Only recently have I thought: You know, I really love beauty. I want my visual work to be transportive—to be beautiful as well as witty. Wit has a glamour to it, which I hope comes through in my work. I also think absurdity is glamorous, if you think of glamour as something indulgent and transcendent. Glamour means there’s a sense of mystery that makes you want to get closer, but you suspect that you can’t. So I put my women in makeup and necklaces—I’m not going to draw schlubs! But for somebody who loves beauty so much, I’m not painting a picture of the prettiest girl in the room. People tell me that I create characters, almost like pop art or illustrative art—they’re not supposed to look like people we know. But something can be beautiful even if it’s not realistic. I want that feeling of “Aaah” that comes because something is gorgeous, with beautiful colors.

When I’ve gone through tough times in life, the things that help me survive are beauty and humor, and it bothers me when people try to make them separate. Beauty and humor are both transportive—they’re magical. When I was growing up two of the women I admired were Lucille Ball and Gilda Radner, because they were pretty and funny. And one of my current heroines is Fran Drescher. She created a hilarious show and strutted around that set without apologizing for being beautiful, funny, and powerful. I think that women in comedy often make themselves less pretty because they’re taught they have to choose between pretty and funny. But I don’t want to have to choose one or the other in the way I present myself as a woman, or in my artwork. I want my viewer to enjoy two of my favorite things: beauty and humor.

Lady Ferber Gave Her Sommelier the Afternoon Off 

Lady Ferber Gave Her Sommelier the Afternoon Off 

On the Myth of the Underdog

We give ourselves credit for thinking someone who’s jolie-laide is cool-looking because she’s not conventional. But when you look at these women, it’s not as though they’re ugly—when Anjelica Huston walks into a room, everyone notices her. It’s like sometimes we’re taught to hate conventionally pretty things because we’re more feminist if we think weird-looking people are pretty—but those people are still pretty. I mean, Christie Brinkley is super-duper pretty. She’s the definition of pretty. But it’s not cool to say so because she’s conventional-looking. I love pretty! Pretty is great! I’m kind of on both sides of it. It upsets me that women are taught it’s imperative that they keep themselves looking attractive, but if somebody tells me I’m pretty, I think that’s nice of them. It annoys me when people think you have to choose one side.

Nobody relates to the pretty, popular character in a movie, even people who are pretty and popular. We’re always supposed to relate to the underdog. There’s this movie Boomerang, with Eddie Murphy—Robin Givens is the hot woman, and she’s evil, and Halle Berry is sort of the sporty underdog best friend. Halle Berry is the underdog! You’re supposed to relate to her, even though nobody can relate to Halle Berry! But the movie standards for beauty set us up, and maybe that’s for our ego—we get to feel like the underdog, but then we can think, “Wow, look at that underdog, she’s really beautiful.” And it’s because we’re convinced that we’re never the top thing. Certainly things like beauty contests don’t help. Beauty contests? That’s crazy!

I remember being an editorial assistant, and there was this other girl who worked there. I started to pick up on this vibe that she resented me somehow. I didn’t know if I was imagining things so I talked to a friend who had worked there for a while. He said, “Well, before you came, she was the only attractive young editorial assistant.” I hadn’t taken away anything from her—we were both young, pleasant women, but there’s this idea that there can only be one woman who occupies that space at any given time, and it becomes a part of our mentality. Take the idea of the 50 most beautiful people in the world—why should there be a competition? Men don’t think this way, and women don’t think this way about men. Women might compete for men, but the emphasis is on competing with one other, not on competing for him. 

The Sisters Plotz premiere, 2015 (photo: Lisa Lambert)

The Sisters Plotz premiere, 2015 (photo: Lisa Lambert)

On Beauty as a Marketing Tool

I think beauty is a fantastic marketing tool. By being beautiful, a person is saying that she has the things associated with beauty: health, wealth, success, all these things that we value. When you hear, “Oh, I ran into so-and-so, and she looked like hell,” boom—she’s leading an unhappy life. But when it’s “...and she looked great”—now, what that could mean is that she’s had a ton of Botox and has a personal trainer and is miserable. A beautiful woman can be miserable like anyone else. But we think she’s doing well.

Whenever we hear about the beautiful but tortured woman, we don’t really believe it, which is why we love it. We still think she’s cool in some way. The Jared Leto character on My So-Called Life was considered a heartthrob because he was beautiful and tortured. If he hadn’t been beautiful but was still tortured, his character would have just been some random guy, but to have a coating of beauty over an implied pain is perceived as intriguing.

As a visual artist, I am constantly expressing myself, so when I leave the house I’m going to be together. I’m going to have my lovely necklace, my lipstick, my pretty dress. There probably are industries where you have to play down any ornamentation in order to market yourself properly—but actually, when I’m presenting myself as a writer I try to be more glamorous. When you’re a writer people assume that you’re smart, and I don’t want to be seen as, Oh, she has brains, so she doesn’t have a body. I’m a body person as well as a mind person. When you’re a visual artist nobody necessarily assumes that you’re smart. So when an artist has something about them as a person that makes people want to keep looking at them, we’re intrigued by that and then want to know the artist’s work—which is part of marketing. Really, beauty is marketing: That’s the whole point, that you see somebody and they’re beautiful and you think, I want to get to know you. People are going to want to talk to a beautiful woman. Women are going to admire her, and men are going to want her, and she just seems happy and healthy and like she’s doing well. That’s what draws people in.

This works in other professions too: When I’m working in any job, I like to be valued as a part of the team, and part of it is showing up well-groomed, in nice colors, and just contributing to the overall atmosphere. I sang in choir when I was in Hebrew school—I wasn’t thinking about how my particular voice sounded, I just wanted to contribute to the beauty of the overall sound. It’s like that with my art, and my style. I want to be a pretty part of the world.

Henry Might Organize His Freezer This Evening 

Henry Might Organize His Freezer This Evening 

For sale inquiries, please contact Lisa Ferber at LadyFerber@gmail.com.

[This interview originally posted in March 2011.]