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S2: I’m Stephen Metcalf and this is the Slate Culture Gabfest. You lost me at Bonnaroo or Ed. It’s Wednesday, October 7th, 2020. On today’s show, The Glorias is a Julie Taymor directed biopic of the feminist icon Gloria Steinem. It’s based on Steinem’s on memoir, My Life on the Road. And it stars Julianne Moore, among others. And then Darren Starr is best known, I would say, as the creator of Sex and the City. His new show is on Netflix. It’s called Emily in Paris. And we will be joined by Lauren in Paris. That’s Lauren Collins of The New Yorker to discuss the show. And finally, the reality show known as Reality Continues with its wild, this episode yet Trump has covered. Joining me today is Laura Miller, who is the books and culture columnist for Slate dot com. Hey, Laura. Hi, Steve. And of course, Julia Turner is the deputy managing editor of the L.A. Times. Hey, Julia. Hello. Hello.
S3: And we should note, Steve, that the reason Dana is not here this week is her continuing new profession as a stage mom. But she’ll she’ll be back with us soon. And Laura, we can’t wait to talk with you.
S2: Is she what’s known as a manager?
S3: I mean, she’s clearly headed in that direction. We’ve all we’ve all seen her dark and controlling side lo this decade or so. So could could go to a tough place.
S4: Yeah, it’s intervention time. All right. Yeah. Dan, if you’re listening, we love you.
S2: The Glorias is an adaptation of Gloria Steinem is a memoir of my life on the road, it’s sort of a sort of a conventional biopic, cut up into non-linear pieces and salted through with surrealistic digressions. Let me try to explain what I just said. The movie is built around a central conceit, more or less. Rather than telling the story of Steinem’s life in sequence, it’s told nine chronologically, mostly nine chronologically, with four actresses playing or at different times in her life. They’re often depicted as writing together on a Greyhound bus. So that is you’ve got her childhood, her teenaged, her young adult and her more fully formed adult self, all on the road together, off and on throughout the movie, trying to justify themselves to one another, at least to a degree. This is only one of the surrealistic touches of the movie, though there are a lot of very wild hallucinatory sequences we’ll get into that. The movie is directed and co-written by Julie Taymor, stars Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Timothy Hutton, Bette Midler. Gentlemen, I in the clip that we’re going to hear, it’s the young adult, Gloria Steinem, as played by Alicia Vikander.
S5: Love the Barbie piece. You’re a good writer, Gloria. In fact, you write like a man.
S6: Is that a compliment? But listen, I’ve I’ve done the profiles, Bobby Kennedy, Baldwin Bellow, Dorothy Parker, I even did the Margot Fontaine piece about the dancer. I couldn’t be Max. I want to write about the women’s movement. What movie I want to write about pie in the face of Congress is male and the face of welfare is female. Why? Homemakers are called women who don’t work. They work longer, harder and for less pay than any other class. A worker. Gloria, I want to write about why women are 70 percent of the productive labor in the world, paid and unpaid, yet they own only one percent of the property. I want to talk about why masculinity means leading and femininity means following in the hands of daily life.
S5: Well, look, I’m sorry, but if I published an article saying women are equal, I have to publish one side by side saying that they’re not it’s not my opinion. But in journalism, as you know, you’ve got to be objective. Is that how you covered the civil rights movement?
S1: All right, Laura, I’m going to start with you, you wrote a piece about this this biopic, great piece, by the way, and in it you say Steinem is a person so admirable that she both commands and deflects the biographical eye. What do you mean by that?
S7: Well, Gloria Steinem is someone who I admire tremendously. I have read a lot about the second wave feminist movement. It involved a lot of big personalities. And in a way, Gloria Steinem, although she is one of the most famous women at the at the sort of forefront of this group is not a big personality in the same way that Betty Friedan or Flo Kennedy or a bunch of these other characters, Shulamit Firestone, Kate Millett. But what Steinem did was she turned all of the sort of traditional markers of femininity. She’s very cooperative. She’s very diplomatic. She’s very kind. She’s very inclusive. You know, really way before intersectionality, she was committed to that idea. And and then she’s also very pretty and very stylish. She she she used all of those traits in her activism. She’s fantastic. But she doesn’t have a lot of internal conflicts and a lot of conflicts with other people, despite her famous friction with Friedan to generate the kind of drama that makes a biography gripping, you know, like as a person. In a way, she’s not that interesting. And she’s kind of remarkable for the degree to which she is very famous. And yet people don’t really obsess about her private life. You know, Gloria Steinem is slippery in that way. She never gave people a little handhold to try to pry her open with. And in that that’s one of her amazing strengths. But I think it makes her difficult to turn into a character in a narrative.
S1: Right. Julia, this is not the most traditionally presented biopic by any means. The director’s sensibility is all over it for better and for worse. I’m curious what you thought of it as a film.
S3: It’s it’s long and evidently that, you know, and I think for some of the reasons that Laura cites, it does not have a ton of conflict in it, emotional conflict. You just watch her be good and understand that any true feminist movement must be intersectional from the very beginning. And I mean, is there a mistake she makes in the whole movie? And Laura, I. I trust that you know more about the history of this movement than I do have read more about it. I’m also a huge admirer of hers. And and, you know, she’s she’s a Titan and someone who’s changed lives, including my own. But, you know, you go to a biopic kind of wanting to learn about the history of a person. And as someone who knows something about Gloria Steinem, her life and career, but not everything. This film almost seemed to cozy with Steinem, she appears in a fire in the final five minutes of the film in a manner that suggests she is blessing its message. She’s an executive producer of the film, and it’s based on a memoir of hers in a manner that suggests that she’s controlling the narrative here. She’s been a very public critic of Mrs. America, the other project that took a look at the feminist movement in the 70s and early 80s this year. And in fact, I had the privilege and pleasure of editing her the summer. She wrote a piece for The L.A. Times explaining what she thought Mrs. America got wrong about her life and her work. So she’s clearly scrutinizing these portrayals of her. But I found it untrustworthy. Like, you know, we criticized the Beyoncé documentary for just being Beyonce’s Beyonce controlled platitudes about the state of being Beyonce.
S8: And I’m sorry, I don’t believe she had no flaws whatsoever. Like and it’s harder to believe it when it feels like, well, this is the best project. Mm hmm. And maybe she just is a saint.
S7: But then if she is, I want someone beside Gloria to be telling me that, you know, I think the the real trial of her life happened when she was taking care of her mentally ill mother before she went off to New York to work. And I think that was probably the shaping, the sort of crucible that shaped her personality and probably made her very hesitant, again, to be enmeshed in a sort of a caregiving relationship that was extremely painful and really confusing. And they were very poor. But, you know, in terms of, you know, obviously as an adult who’s been involved in so many movements and movements that were that were at the center of all these controversies, obviously she’s done things wrong and made mistakes. But I think that that she is she’s she just unlike so many of the other fascinating women in this movement, she just doesn’t really lend herself to this kind of Shakespearean portrait like Betty Friedan, you know, the the feeling supplanted by Steinem, her kind of homophobia and her you know, her arguments for why the movement should be presented as this sort of movement of white middle class women. I mean, she’s a more fascinating character because she is more flawed and she’s more divided against herself. I mean, my sense, I you know, I enjoyed this, but my satisfaction came from like I like to see the women’s movement have the triumphs that it has. And I like to see Steinem get credit for always insisting on her speaking tours that she had a partner who was a woman of color, speaking with her from the very beginning, because there is a lot of glib millennial dismissals of of the second wave feminist movement as only being about white middle class women, which it really wasn’t. But that was the part that was publicized. And it’s sort of weirdly trusting of the media to sort of just believe that that’s what it was. But I have to say, it is it’s just sort of glides along on these frictionless rails in a way, because even her even her up opposition, you know, that guy that we heard in the scene, the the bosses who, you know, make her write articles about dating when she gets started. And this is kind of slimy talk show host who tells her that she’s a stunning sex object like all of these resistances don’t feel like you just see them just crumble before her. So so it lacks drama. It is really beautiful, though, I have to say. It’s there’s shots in it that are just stunning, you know, and. Yeah. And that and some crazy, wacky lava lamp style fantasy sequences that I thought were just so goofy that they were kind of fun. But yeah, I guess it’s like it’s a corny biopic like the Ruth Bader Ginsburg one was that just happens to be very handsomely, handsomely mounted. And I mean, there’s something to be said for, you know, feminists of that generation finally getting their corny biopics right.
S1: I was surprised at how much I liked the first. That looked genuinely like the first hour of the movie. I liked the conceit of four Glorias having to having to kind of justify themselves to one another, because it just struck me as true about life in some sense, that who you were at different points has disappointed who you are at other points. And, you know, it’s that’s where our consciences start to really agonize over, you know, roads not taken and choices made and whatever. And, you know, I thought that had something. Going there, I loved her relationship with her father, I found it very moving, I mean, I guess as a father of feminists in the making or feminists already, you know, I thought Timothy Hutton was quite good. I hadn’t seen him in something in a long time playing this kind of feckless wandering, you know, I mean, I use this term advisedly sort of a loser. But, you know, he’s just quixotic in a way that flows through to her, weirdly, that some of her courage to be, you know, came from his faith, weird faith in her. And I thought that relationship was really beautifully rendered as the movie went on, given how much I liked it for about an hour, I was shocked at how hagiographic and self regarding it became in its second half, at which point it was just, I mean, borderline to me, unwatchable. And and I think the contrast is with Mrs. America, because Schlafly is a villain and she’s a villain of the most interesting kind, one who knows better who kind of manufactures her own villainy in highly strategic way, discovers probably to her surprise, as I recall from Mrs. America, they’re shocked to discover what powers of oratory manipulative oratory she has. I mean, just a much more like a Jagow figure in a way. And this saintliness of of Gloria Steinem in this version. And then I found Gloria Steinem of Mrs. America more captivating, interesting, conflicted than this one. And it just unfortunately just didn’t carry through to its second half for me at all.
S3: I mean, this one seemed I didn’t I actually thought the Steinem and Miss America was the weakest part of Mrs. America. She just seemed elusive. I mean, maybe it’s the sort of on an. On drama, stability of her qualities in life, Laura, that made her I found Rose Byrne’s Gloria to be sort of wispy and malleable in a way that just can’t be what Gloria Steinem’s role was in the movement. Like it didn’t didn’t feel right either. I think that some of those moments with her childhood are interesting. If the mystery is how do you become a person who can play this role, that is largely good and hard to criticize or dramatize with fatal flaws and tragic sins. You know, I do think that those moments with her mom and her dad lay the groundwork. And I think you do see her pain around her mom. As you know, she sees her mom as like a victim of the patriarchy.
S7: It’s hard to say I mean, I think her mother was also difficult in her her madness in a way that the teenage Gloria Steinem had to had to sort of manage. And I think she developed some skills there that really helped her as movement leader. And one of the things that she, I think is good at is reflecting back at people, the thing they need to see at a particular moment. You know, there’s a scene in Mrs. America where Sarah Paulson, who plays this sort of follower of Schlafly, winds up in the same room with Gloria Steinem, and they’ve been talking about how she’s going to confront her and claim that, you know, that as homemakers, she’s their enemy. And then, you know, she meets her. And Gloria just kind of looks at her and says that that’s a lovely color on you. And like she she sees that this woman is staring at her eyes, focusing all this energy on her, and then she says this completely diffusing thing. And then later you can see that the Sarah Paulson character has she’s turning Gloria Steinem in her mind into sort of a heroine in the way that Phyllis has been for her. And so, you know, there’s just a way that Steinem kind of tapped into things that people needed at particular moments in their lives and and moved her movement forward or or averted confrontations. I mean, like she has an ability that is almost like a superpower. It’s just it’s a mistake to think that just because she doesn’t have the makings of a of a fascinating fictional character, that she lacks a presence or an identity the way that someone who does have those qualities has. She just has these skills that we almost don’t recognize for their true worth because they part of their value is their invisibility. I’d like to apologize for the yelling of my cat who really hates it when I don’t pay attention to her for any period of time.
S3: I feel like this is the human life and cat noises in the virtual studio are acceptable, so no need to apologize.
S2: All right. Well, the movie is called The Glorias. It’s on Amazon Prime. Check it out. Let us know what you think.
S4: All right. Moving on.
S9: All right, before we go any further, it’s time to talk about business and Slate, plus otherwise known as SLAPP. Plus Laura Miller, Slate’s great book critic, will recommend some books to read this fall. So if you’re a slate plus members, stick around. That’ll be great. And if there’s anything you’d like us to discuss in a future segment for Slate. Plus, let us know why we need suggestions. We love hearing from you on this. You can email us at Culture Fest, at Slate Dotcom, and we may well take your suggestion gratefully to hear our Slate plus segments and to get ad free podcasts. You can sign up for Slate plus our membership program. And as we’ve said before, memberships are extra important for us right now. Very, very important. It was actually your influx of Slate plus memberships that helped us get back to a weekly schedule, which we really love for the rhythm and the spirit of the show. That was huge. And we can use all the support that you can give us. It’s only 35 bucks for your first year of Slate. Plus, you’ll get ad free podcasts, exclusive, plus only content and many, many other benefits to sign up.
S4: You go to Slate Dotcom Culture plus. All right, thanks. And back to the show.
S9: Emily in Paris is a sitcom on Netflix, it stars Lily Collins as the title character. Here’s the setup, if you couldn’t guess it already. Emily is a young, ingenuous, ambitious girl getting American in her 20s. She’s adept at social media, her big shoulders. Chicago Marketing Company has bought a boutique firm in Paris. This transplants her from Chicago to the title city. The show, though, has too intermingled premises. If I if I have it right, one is quite familiar story of a young American provincial discovering wine, food, sex in a word, sensuality in a great European capital. The other is of a very neoliberal outlook coming up against a decidedly non Anglo American attitude toward work and life. So we both have both a workplace and a sex comedy. It practically writes itself and maybe it did. It comes courtesy of Darren Star, creator of Sex in the City, and Lily Collins, who’s a producer on the project. Let’s listen to a clip.
S10: I said do the marketing plan before I got to Paris. It’s week. Oh, so you’re piggybacking off the ad campaign? Very little social engagement. I know you’re about to launch and you’re keeping me out of the loop. True parties tonight. Tonight. What are you going to tell me? Never listen. I don’t agree with your approach. You want everything to be everywhere, accessible to everyone.
S5: If you want to open doors, I want to close doors. We work with very exclusive brands and they require mystery and. You have no mystery. You’re very, very obvious.
S10: Maybe I am, but I do understand what it means to be on the outside, looking in my perspective that you will never understand because, no, I’m not sophisticated or French and I don’t know how to look like you, that slouchy, sexy Jessica thing. But I am the customer that wanted. And you’re not because you’ve already got it and you don’t even know how you did it.
S11: So you want to go to this party? Might be there at eight. Wonderful. Any tips on what to wear? Not that.
S1: All right, we’re joined by Lauren Collins, The New Yorker writer. She’s also the author of Win in French Love in a Second Language, a book about her experience in France as an American. Lauren, welcome back to the show.
S12: Thank you. I am not only a friend of the program, but a giant fan of the program. And I’ve got opinions.
S8: I love.
S1: We love opinions. The more baseless, the better. I’m kind of just thinking I throw the show over to you and just let you go. What did you make of this? Of this?
S12: I disclaimer I hate to be the lame trophy expert getting kind of bent out of shape over a show that most people will just say is, you know, a fun, harmless confection. And I really shouldn’t take it so seriously. I love the show for some reason that we can get into what it really struck me as was like a kind of off shoring of these rancid politics or lack thereof that would kind of never fly in a show made with the U.S. city as a backdrop. There’s a line where I think it’s mehndi the, you know, BFE character who says this might be Emily herself, but it’s Paris is the most exciting city in the world and you never know what’s going to happen next. I heard that. And I was like, is Emily in Paris or is Emily and Darren Stars retrograde New York with a few dog poop jokes thrown in and and we’re off.
S1: I mean, Lauren, I just would love to know whether this show gets anything right about Paris.
S12: There are a few things I thought the performance by the actress who plays Emily’s boss, Sylvie, the actress’s name is Phillipine Lukla. Both you and I mean, I love that performance. I think it’s like a really funny one. I mean, even in the clip that we just listen to, you know, the quietness of her voice, the kind of strange cadence that, you know, I thought was a fairly convincing depiction of a certain type of French woman. But again, you know, she’s the white, skinny, straight, rich bourgois who’s walking on cobblestones in stilettos. And I guess that’s kind of what gets on my nerves about the show because and again, you know, somebody tells me I’m just taking Emily in Paris too seriously and I probably am. But it’s neglecting and even nullifying the work that French women themselves have been doing in recent years to challenge this cliche, which really leaves the majority of them both, leaves them out of the national narrative and then presents them to an international audience as this kind of undifferentiated mass. What I’m saying, a friend of mine who’s French Moroccan said much more succinctly, which was no Arabs, no rats, no dirt.
S3: I mean, I am hearing from you, Lauren. Concerned about the disregard of this show for the actuality of modern Paris, which I think is evident in the show, if I may also, although I do not represent this group, speak a word on behalf of the influencers. I was surprised by how. Dumb, the show’s ideas seem to be about what would make a social media post successful or why something might go viral or how anyone would build a big following on Instagram like she you know, there’s there’s an episode in which she is dismissed as basic by a snooty French couturier. And I’m sorry about her Instagram posts, our basic why would she go viral doing any of those things, like not to detract from it’s it’s snobbery about France, but there’s sort of, I don’t know, just this weird chauvinism of not bothering to figure out either the actual world or the virtual world in which it’s set.
S12: I agree with you. I mean, even if you put aside the politics, put aside all my kind of chippy complaints about it, it’s supposed to be a show about. Culture clash, you know, a very traditional American abroad narrative of a girl coming and losing her, her innocence, and it’s just like I don’t even feel like any of that stuff is really right or that entertaining. I mean, her shower breaks, she watches her hair and a B day. It’s like it’s like the equivalent of French people making a show about New York. And like everybody living in log cabins. I didn’t find that. I didn’t find it current. I didn’t find it correct. I just didn’t find it interesting.
S7: Right. Just before the show, Lauren and I were talking about how this conversation needs someone who enjoys the show, because for me, watching this was like putting on your itchy sweater in the middle of August. It was like I could barely make it through two and a half episodes before I just couldn’t do it for the for the Gabfest. But, you know, some people are clearly really liking it. And it is so sort of bland and kind of generic and so devoid of anything even remotely troubling that that, you know, I just speculated that whoever is loving it is just so fragile right now that it would be kind of cruel to sort of berate them for it, you know, because this is really like, you know, yelling at someone who’s getting over a stomach bug for wanting to eat saltines and ginger ale. It just seems like you’re only eating it because you’re so sick.
S12: If we were Instagram influencers and we had to show for this show, what would we say about it?
S3: You know, the same things that have made Darren Star shows knowledgeable and watchable forever. There’s like decent Sopore. There’s like some good cutting, backstabbing among the friend dynamics. The plot moves along and the characters are introduced. There’s some glamorous settings and Silvy. I agree her performance is great and she’s a great sort of villain who might actually just be right about everything. I mean, that’s part of what makes the show great. So you sort of rooting for her.
S12: I think there would be a way to to be much more intelligent and kind of entertaining and just with all these ideas, I mean, even the idea, like the Parisian originally was a marketing phenomenon. I mean, this idea that she was something so singular, like largely came out of the 1900 Paris exhibition and there was like a 20 foot tall statue of a Parisian, the woman who who evoked only the present. And I don’t know, I just think there are things like I don’t understand why this show isn’t a little bit more knowing about anything. Emily doesn’t have to be knowing that.
S1: Lauren, that’s that’s putting her finger, I think, exactly on it is that the discrepancy between the sensibility of the creator and the writers of the show and an ingenue, Emily, is is. There’s just no sense that the people making it are more knowledgeable about Europe or Paris than Emily herself is. And therefore, it’s just going to fall ridiculously flat. You know, the one thing I didn’t like anything about the show, you know, but I wanted to I am the broken person who needs almost makeable TV or so mix my metaphors. Well, we all are, right. We I mean, and also it’s not just that I need a reprieve from pestilence and political chaos. It’s I need a I need some kind of reprieve from quality TV, you know, which is like this foreboding slog. And it would be great to have something that you might watch or might not watch. You might start but not finish, but you kind of enjoy it and it you know, whatever. It’s just lightens the soul a little bit. And then, Lauren, I thought I thought the the most promising part of it wasn’t refurbishing this old Henry James cliche of the of the American in Europe, you know, going from innocence to experience and then possibly regretting it, though, of course, you can do interesting things with that even in this day and age. To me, it was just this assertion on behalf of French culture, which I do correct me if I’m wrong, which I do think the French have. Actually, it’s something that they’ve stood for nationally during neoliberalism, which is that life actually is inefficiency, that everything that makes life intrinsically worth leading can be described. As in efficiency, as a market and efficiency, and that, in fact, we suffer from a horrible life denying disease and this occasionally by trying to maximize our income and market output or whatever, and occasionally the show seems to have a discernible spark of wisdom about this subject. Or am I just grasping?
S12: No. Right. Mindy’s gloss on that is Paris is a great place for doing nothing, which, yeah. Was a line that resonated. But then this inciter message or whatever it is, is like so garbled and undercut by even like the. Kind of just nasty classism of this show, too, I mean, like Emily is this ingratiating try hard with all her social and professional superiors and just this total entitled to all the frumpy, low class people who do regular jobs like our florist or the boulangerie, the you know, the concierge at her apartment. I don’t know. I think it’s like really strange that there is this kind of message of like this kind of anti rising grind culture message. But then anyone who’s like doing a job, a normal job is kind of looked down upon. And then you have even like the best friend who’s the nanny. But the nanny can’t just be a nanny. The nanny has to secretly be an amazing singer and the momentarily disinherited daughter of the Chinese zipper gang.
S8: It is true. She does have to be that in the logic of this show.
S3: I mean, I I agree with you, though, Steve, that the ideas about work and the notion of having the striving young American confront a workplace in a culture that puts work in people’s lives differently, which in my much more limited than Loren’s experience of Paris doesn’t seem wildly off, is kind of enticing because it’s a it’s sort of a fresh set of ideas to put in a glossy confection like this. And I think the thing that’s frustrating is that it only goes so far, like if if you live in Paris, like Lauren. But honestly, even if you just read the news about France, you know, twice a year, you can tell that there’s, you know, a lot to think about with regard to class and race in France and how the the ideas of France and the actuality of France intersect with each other. And if you really wanted to play into it with social media, the notion of like what the image captures versus what you really see, like you guys are making me want the better version of this show that could exist, because it’s it’s kind of a fresh set of ideas for for junk TV to play with. All right. Here’s my here’s my question to the group. Are Emily’s Instagram posts better or worse than Carrie’s columns in Sex and the City?
S8: Oh, I think they’re they’re worse.
S7: They’re worse because at least Carrie would try to explain a phenomenon that wasn’t completely and utterly familiar and overexposed to the point that, like anyone knows it, like, you know, she didn’t write a column called Paresis for Cheese Lovers.
S8: And that that was just, you know, did you ever think about how delicious chrysanths really are?
S1: It’s amazing. Lauren, one last thing before we let you go. Apparently, Emily in Paris is now a marital retaught in your household.
S12: Yeah, maybe that’s how I get famous on Instagram. Just start hashtag, hashtag, everything OK? And Paris, which is what my husband, who is a real live French person, has basically started saying back to anything that I say that he even mildly disagrees with.
S1: I love it. All right. Well, it’s so great to have you on the show, and it’s great to discover that you’re an expert FOP, an expat friend of the program any time.
S12: Well, it has been fun. And if there’s a season two, you know where to find me.
S4: Brilliant. Take care and come back soon, please.
S1: All right, I know it is peculiar probably to say that the covid virus brought with it a kind of hope, but if it did, it was the hope that reality would finally overwhelm the epistemology of the culture wars, that people would have to reckon with something so real, so dangerous, so universally threatening that there was no wishing it away. And what we’ve seen in the last few days is reality, asserting itself and the president becoming sick and then reality TV pushing back hard. Right. The reality TV presidency reasserted itself against reality. He did the limo drive by the the joyless joy ride. He did this walk into this, you know, highly staged walk back into the White House, the removal of the mask up on a quality balcony, peeling it off grandly. All of these very large, very television ready gestures for the millionth time were confronting the odd interplay between chaos and what seems like a pre scripted narrative during the Trump presidency. And I think what we want to do examine is supposed culture critics is what the role of narrative has been in shaping our experience of this presidency and what it is now that there’s been this quite extraordinary plot twist.
S3: I mean, I was struck on the night when Trump’s diagnosis was announced. Just by how many people on Twitter and yes, I follow a particular Twitter that’s full of both journalism writers and Hollywood writers, but by just how many people on Twitter were trying to process the news events? In terms of narrative, and I don’t think that’s a Trump era phenomenon, right, it’s not that we have a reality TV president, so now we think of everything as narrative. I think that’s a fundamental human way of processing information. I remember being in New York on 9/11 and sort of this feels like a disaster movie. It was was on everybody’s lips in the same way that, you know, the writer’s room is really going over. The top was on everybody’s tweets. But I think part of what was shocking about last week was this feeling of kind of climax upon climax upon climax. Oh, here are the tax returns. Oh, here is this like buffoonery of a debate. Oh, holy moly. The actual event at which Trump announces the presumably anti-abortion candidate to replace her was actually a super spreader event where a vast swaths of the senior leadership of the Trump administration and the Republican Party contract, the very disease that many of their policies have been failing to contain and failing to protect Americans from both physically and economically, like it was too much, it was too much and overloaded the circuits. And I think one of the things that felt novel and to some tantalizing and also to some confusing was the notion that there might be consequences for fecklessness. Like it feels that in some ways the last four years, five years, you know, the very election in 2016 seemed to be a denial of consequences for fecklessness. Right. There were so many reported instances of Trump, um, you know, having affairs, paying off women, groping women, talking about groping women, you know, sending out racial dog whistles that had no consequence. So the notion that my perhaps actions might have consequences in Trump’s White House, I think, was part of what what also caused people to revert to these ideas about narrative, because the whole thing has seemed so consequence lists for so long, at least for the for the you know, for the architects of the administration, certainly not consequences for everybody living in the country, in the world.
S1: Yeah, you know, I agree with you, Julia, that narrative is just probably the arguably the oldest way of organising human reality and a sensible poll. But still something has changed. And reality TV is is one of those things that’s different. I mean, Trump literally would not exist as a have continued to exist as a viable business person had it not been for the lifeline thrown to him by Mark Burnett. He was, quite literally, as we now understand, from the tax returns rescued from bankruptcy, almost sure bankruptcy because of his unsustainable levels of debt. I mean, completely non. He appears to have a completely non-economic mindset. I mean, is the most fascinating thing about this person to me or one of them is that he just does not appear to be able to think rationally as a business person would define rational, you know, in terms of actual expected future income flows relative to current liabilities. You just goes shopping for toys, loads them up with all kinds of debt, and then they go belly up. I mean, this is over and over and over again. And had it not been for reality TV, the fat. And the fact is he trained for reality TV since at least the 1970s when all he did was kind of play a business person for the benefit of journalists who to their immense discredit, with the possible exception of Wayne Barrett at The Village Voice, didn’t do their fucking homework and determined that he was actually a terrible business person. That, as Wayne Barrett said in 1979, the facts are there. If you dick and put them before the public, you can demonstrate that this person actually doesn’t know the first thing about operating a business without actually destroying it. And yet journalists played along and created a kind of public narrative about him for which we are now literally every human being on the planet is now paying for that false narrative. And the fact that reality, a specific reality TV show, was the turning point. It literally rehabilitated Trump as a as a as a going concern and presented him to the public falsely as a as a CEO and in charge. No nonsense, you know, hyper competent CEO. It just makes me think you can’t. Not see this as a falling away, even from the highly staged, managed reality of the Reagan presidency or even arguably the Kennedy presidency. I mean, it goes back to television and no doubt newspapers were, you know, played to all kinds of falsehoods and legends. But but there is something, Laura, I think we’ve gone someplace grotesque, right? We’ve gone completely beyond democracy and into some kind of weird, hyper real or surreal Lollo.
S7: Well, it’s fascinating to Segway from, you know, talking about Gloria Steinem, talking about Donald Trump, because Gloria Steinem specialty was soothing away the conflicts within her movement. And Trump’s whole skill set is about drumming up conflicts. I mean, I think the as James Poniewozik wrote about in his really astute book on on Trump audience of one, you know, Trump is made of TV, but the sort of maybe the core kind of TV is really professional wrestling because professional wrestling, the point of it is to see a fight and everything that surrounds it in terms of like these personas that people adopt, you know, the faces and the heels and all of this other stuff is to provide a pretext for the for the fights. So and to sort of intensify them, to drum up the anticipation for for the fight to give the fight meaning. But the fight is the reason why you’re there. And really, you know, politics is supposed to be about, you know, the art and business of managing conflict, you know, sort of keeping it under control and coming to resolutions and moving forward. And he actually has the opposite skill set for that, because his specialty is to manufacture conflicts so that there’s a reason to fight so that people can pick sides and root for their side.
S3: Yeah, I mean, I guess what I’m trying to figure out is whether the reversion to narrative helps us understand the Trump administration or hinders us from understanding it, like our efforts to put a narrative arc on it. A crucial way of processing our political reality or. You know, either an effective tool that teams it and makes it inert or an insufficient tool, that just isn’t the right way to think about modern political reality.
S1: Well, I think it’s critical as a mental defense, both as an individual and as a citizen, to. Impose a narrative on the chaos that’s being handed to us, and, of course, there are multiple possible narratives, but I think it’s critical to try to place Trump in a historical and sociological context as a way of explaining Trump. Without giving in at all to either a left or right bogeyman, either a bogeyman or folk hero, reductive narrative in which the in which the central protagonist is Trump himself. Right. I think we have to think about what kinds of larger sociological forces went into creating. A situation which is so counter to the founding ideals of the country in the extent to which this country was was consciously separated off from the English and then founded as its own. Political entity on the principle that a certain kind of power was unjust and a certain kind of person must never be handed a certain kind of power, right? I mean, that’s just I don’t know that there is a more fundamental initial impulse for creating the constitutional entity of the United States than that. And the fact that we are now on the verge of possibly offending that to its absolute core. That happened for reasons that Trump is completely not in control of. It didn’t happen because of Trump’s will to power. We have to impose a rational explanatory structure on the phenomenon of a democracy, dis burdening itself of the duties of citizenship in favor of spectacle and possibly something far, far scarier.
S7: You know, it’s still really hard for us to tell right now how it’s going to resolve, you know, whether he’s, you know, whether ultimately the nation will rise up and reject it. And the parts of our culture that are clinging to that will either have to give it up or just die out or become some kind of violent insurrection. But I think, you know, the whole thing of him being, you know, the whole thing of him getting sick from the disease that he spent all of this time trying to escape. I think what’s what’s weird about it is the way that something that is not really about narrative, except that to the extent that if you expose yourself to a disease, you’re very likely to catch it is that, you know, it’s like science. It’s like viruses. We know that they’re not just all kinds of people who shouldn’t have died from covid have died from covid, and yet now suddenly he gets it. I think it’s like it’s the whiplash of the fact that he shouldn’t have ever been elected president because not a majority of Americans don’t support him and that he somehow is and that he managed to skate on all of these crimes and misdemeanors that he’s committed, even though everyone knows that he’s guilty. And just all of this all of these ways that that the unjust have triumphed since his election and then suddenly he actually gets it. And that just seems like this crazy switcheroo that makes you feel like a reality is just trying to do your head in.
S3: Yeah. One one thing I’ve been thinking about, I wrote a piece shortly after Trump was elected, I think before he took office, when he was making noise about the all the quote unquote jobs he saved at the carrier plant, about how Trump would be the the president of anecdote, the president who understood that you could just governed by anecdote rather than by actually fixing systems or engaging systems. And, you know, him getting it is like the ultimate anecdote. And now he seems to be attempting to turn him, quote unquote, beating it, which he seems to be claiming to have done, although it’s unclear if that’s true or if that’s the, you know, steroids talking. As someone who once took a very mild steroid for bronchitis, I felt pretty high for a week. You know, this will become the ultimate anecdote. He will try to use this incident for as long as he is able to anecdote as his response to covid.
S13: And I and, you know, I do wonder if our susceptibility to using narrative as a way to process information makes us susceptible to attack by anecdote. And I mean, it almost ties back to our Gloria conversation. Right. We should be more interested in the worthy life of a person who’s done good through recessive listening and organ and quiet organization that gets public publicity with a little bit of glamour and panache and and with results and yet are are lower towards narrative. The thing that will keep us snacking vapid Emily’s, you know, pursuits in a bland, white, dimwitted Paris. We’ll keep us tracked to the Trump show, like maybe we need to just reject narrative as far as the processing mechanism and I don’t know how we do that.
S8: It’s very delicious narrative. We like it so much. It’s so satisfying.
S7: I just I do think that people are exhausted by the excessive twists of the Trump regime at this point. Like nobody wants to be going through all of this. That’s my impression. But I don’t know.
S1: You know, I agree that exhaustion may be among the biggest factors in a loss if he loses. But I would I am going to find so interesting, especially on the left is the withdrawal symptoms. Yeah, because he does operate on people like a drug. Right. In our sense of righteousness and gives us a sense of public purpose and a perverse negative way.
S4: Once Trump is finally gone, we’ll have to confront the fact that our problems as a society don’t just involve one villainous, you know, greed. Yeah, but anyway. All right. I would love to get listener mail on this subject, so go ahead and email us. We’d love you to chime in on this conversation. All right, time to endorse Laura. What do you have?
S7: Well, I am very excited. This hasn’t been released yet, but I have been watching screener’s of it. And I just want to give everyone a heads up about this new series based on the James Brid novel, The Good Lord Bird, starring Ethan Hawke as John Brown. And it’s told from the point of view of a black boy, I think he’s, you know, maybe in his mid teens who gets pulled up into John Brown’s army during the bleeding Kansas period of his abolitionist, his violent abolitionist career, and who Brown mistakenly thinks is a girl and who spends most of the story dressed up as a girl pretending to be a girl. It is just so refreshing and exciting to watch. I mean, there is a tendency for narrative set in the civil war or in the in the antebellum period in the South to be incredibly somber. Obviously, it’s a serious subject and it’s a horrific subject. But there is a kind of one note quality to a lot of them, that sort of trauma porn thing. And this like McBride’s best work, including a novel that he published earlier this year, which is also wonderful, called Deacon King Kong. It it’s there’s so much energy, there’s so much kind of brio and humor, but not. Not trivializing humor in this, there’s so much humanity in it, I just I love it so far I’ve seen two episodes and I just can’t wait to see the rest.
S2: That sounds amazing. We’ll have to talk about it on the show, I hope. Yeah. Excellent. All right, Julia, what do you have?
S8: Well, I have been particularly struck this October by the East Coast free of media. Like there’s just so many references in every frickin story about, oh, we’re going to be stuck inside or the sweater weather or the crisp in the air. And it’s like not everybody lives where you live. Like, yes, like some chunk of the country. Has your experience of fall fall in California is like 100 degrees like like get over yourself. So with that in mind and with a with a just a elbow to the New York, D.C. centrism of my media elite brethren, I’m going to go with a lemonade recipe today because I have lemon trees and I like lemonade and it’s 100 degrees. And I’m going to make some guys. Well, you all cozy up with your scotch around your fires.
S3: OK, this recipe is state fair. Lemonade from a website called All Recipes dot com that my husband found somewhere. I don’t even know who pointed him to it. I’ve never been to this website before, but essentially the method for this lemonade is you infused the lemonade with lemon oil by zesting lemon. I actually did it by using a surrogate peeler to peel off along kind of strips of lemon, like the kind you’d put in a Manhattan. And then you lay those strips in like a bed of sugar and you let the sugar just absorb the kind of lemon oil for two to 12 hours. And then you cook that you mix that sugar with water and kind of cook it down and then add a bit of water to it. So you’re in lemon juice to it. So you’re sort of getting the fresh lemon juice flavor and the sugar, but also this tangy lemon oil quality. And it’s extremely. Um, I don’t know, just has a different, richer character than other lemonade’s that I’ve had, and it’s very good. So to everybody whose fault does not involve, you know, cardigans, make yourself some all recipes, dot com state fair lemonade.
S1: All right. Apropos of that, I got to say, last night, eating out on the porch, sun goes down, temp goes from a sufferable sixtyish into the upper 50s. You cross a kind of threshold there. The nip in the air is starting to really get some teeth to it. Nonetheless, in the dark, made a big fire out on the outdoor porch fireplace. Got it nice stoked. Got it raging. Emanating heat and glow. Got under some blankets. Poured had poured myself a Japanese whiskey over some rocks, put my laptop in my lap and watched the glorias and so fuck you and your lemonade and where it came from, because that’s not my endorsement.
S8: This is.
S1: Do you guys know do you guys know the song Handbags and Glad Rags?
S14: No, I don’t know any songs false.
S1: You actually you know, it was the theme song. It was used as a theme song to the British office. So which you probably because that was a while ago.
S2: So you may not be able to conjure it, but go listen just that time on the Web and there’s this cover version of it. It was originally written by the singer from the old British invasion band, Manfred Mann. And the definitive version is A Golden Period, Rod Stewart cover of it. That is just so good. It’s just a great I mean, it’s an absolutely great piece of songwriting and Stuart absolutely kills it. But I found it. So that’s partially my endorsement is that song, which I love, but I’ve discovered it. My real endorsement is I discovered it just made the balm for my brokenness from my wound, from my Trump wound for a couple of days. I was just looking up YouTube videos of rock stars suddenly appearing on a streetscape where someone was busking and then joining in with them. And there’s there’s an awesome one of Rod Stewart singing that song. I mean, I think it’s in London. The guy nails it on guitar. And Staats, it’s an older Rod Stewart is a very seems to me to be a very recent video.
S15: He just nails it is his voice is beautiful on it. And it’s a great song, so. And then there just so many versions of this, there’s there’s Bruce Springsteen, Italy, back in the 1980s at the apex of his fame, there’s John Legend.
S1: There’s I mean, they’re just tons of there’s Bon Jovi at a wedding where the wedding band begins playing halfway home that are living on a prayer, starts playing, livin on a prayer. And he’s just sitting there and he has this look on his face like, please fucking stop this. Like, I actually don’t enjoy being part of this joke. And finally, he’s like, oh, fuck. And he just gets up and takes the mic. And I mean, they’re just they’re it’s a great series of videos. I got to say, I think my favorite one might be I mean, I’m I, I hate Bono and I’m such a sucker for him at the same time. And in 2015, basically this streetscape and in Dublin got shut down because Glen Hansard and a bunch of other folks, we’re going to do like a Christmas busque. And the thing ends up mobbed. Chinato O’Connor gets up on like a stool in the middle of the street and sings nothing compares with Hansard banging out the chords. And she just seems happy for the first time in 30 years. I mean, the whole thing is so it’s filled with so much warmth and goodwill and and cheer and Irishness and funkiness of the very best kind.
S2: And then Bono sings, Baby, please come home or whatever that old, you know, Motown Christmas song is any more or less nails. And of course, at that point, the crowd’s in a frenzy, but there’s just a there’s such a boozy Christmas time warmth to it.
S1: It’s really great. This is really wonderful and it cheered me up, so handbags and glad rags and just diddle around on YouTube and watch some of these. They’re fun. That sounds great. Laura, thank you so much for coming on the show.
S7: Always a pleasure. Thank you for having me. Yeah, that was awesome.
S1: And Julia, of course, always a total delight. Thank you, sir.
S16: If find links to some of the things we talked about today at our show page, that Slate dotcom culture, first you can email us at culturist, it’s late dot com. We do love it. We for the most part, we reply we can be interacted with on Twitter. Our Twitter feed is at Slaid Colthurst. Our producer is Cameron Drus. Our production assistant is Rachel Allen for Laura Miller and Julia Turner, I’m Stephen Metcalf. Thank you so much for joining us. And make sure to subscribe to our show on Apple podcasts or wherever it is you listen to your podcasts. We will see you soon.
S3: Hello and welcome to this light blues segment of the Slate Culture Gabfest. Today we get to grill Mrs. Miller, who’s going to tell us what to read this fall. We’re going to do a little audio version of the fall book preview, something that book critics and book experts must tell us about in their written work. But, Laura, what should we be reading? What are you most excited about that’s coming down the pike, this weird, apocalyptic fall?
S7: Yeah, well, the weirdest thing, and this is won’t be happening until after the election. The weirdest and the biggest thing. It’s not actually right. It’s just Beck is the first of Barack Obama’s memoirs of his political career and time in the White House called A Promised Land. And that is coming out in mid November.
S14: And I think that’s without a doubt the biggest book of the season, even to the degree that it is monopolizing all of the printing press capacity in the nation, which is somewhat limited to begin with. And it’s been difficult for people to get other books printed up. But there were a few other things. I mean, Jerry Seinfeld has is publishing his first book in over a decade, which is called Is This Anything? If that is something that excites some people here? I don’t know. I’m not going to read it myself. But I thought I would mention in the book that I have loved the most so far is called Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which was published in, I think, 2004 massive book that was sort of a magical version of like a Jane Austen or a Trollope novel. This is a completely different book. She has been ill for, oh, 15 or 16 years and she’s finally managed to write another novel. And this is a strange almost it’s shorter. It’s a little bit eerie, but also very beautiful and very, very human. It’s narrated by a man who does not remember his own name and who lives in an infinite house full of rooms lined with marble statues that the tides flood on the lower levels and Bird’s Nest in on the upper levels. And he is the only other person that he knows of who’s alive is a person he calls the other. And it’s about how this man survives and how he understands his world, which he finds very beautiful and meaningful, and how he begins to remember that he had another existence. So that is a really unusual, beautifully written, evocative, very like I said, you know, it sounds really conceptual.
S7: It sounds like a boring story. But unlike a Borges story where the characters are just kind of devices in a kind of a kind of symbolic system, this is this is very human. And and this has to be my favorite book of the year so far. Many people will also be excited that Marilynne Robinson has a new book in the series called Jack.
S14: I am not a huge fan of that. I probably won’t be reading it, but I thought I would mention that as well. I’m excited to read Leave the World Behind by Ramon Allum, who is a someone a lot of people know from book and journalism Twitter, but who is also a really wonderful, observant, sort of humorous novelist.
S7: And this is a story that sort of is perfect for our times and also sort of, you know, slightly different enough. It’s about two families, a white family that rents like a like a dozen Airbnb of somebody’s house in the Hamptons. And then the family that owns the house, which is a black family, comes back when there’s some unspecified sort of unknown disaster in New York. And these two white and black families are sort of holed up in this very posh house, in this in this sort of vacation resort area. And and what happens. So that’s a book to definitely look out for. And I would also say I have not read this at all yet. I just got the galleys. I’m so excited. Just Walter, who wrote Beautiful Ruins, a wonderful novel that was based on the Elizabeth Taylor Richard Burton affair. And in Italy, that was a big hit many years ago as a new book out. That sounds fantastic. And it is about two brothers who in living in early 20th century Washington state, who get involved in all of the radical political movements of that time. And he is just such a wonderful writer. I, I this is also, I expect to be a highlight of the season.
S3: We should also mention that Ramona Lum is a sometime Slate podcast and column.
S8: So people I know that as well. Well, the fix was not in because I did not know that I’m very excited for the novel. I have to also mention, Laura, that there’s a new tone of French right out this week. Yeah.
S7: You know, there’s a reason I didn’t mention it. I did not love that the way that I love. The other ones, I just I don’t I don’t feel like it works quite as well, although she’s always worth reading, it’s just very long and it’s not narrated in the first person. And I have a whole review of it for Slate. So if you want to know what my reservations are about it, that that book, they can find them. I’m I’m not going to recommend as heartily as I recommend for other books for all of the reasons. Describe their noted Laura.
S2: Have you seen or read the new novel by Andrew O’Hagan, the extraordinary critic? His novel is called Mayflies.
S7: I haven’t I haven’t seen I read it, but I do love his work, so I’m excited to read that as well.
S3: Yeah, I’m psyched to see that very, very much so. All right, gang, well, Laura, thanks so much for those tips and for joining us today, sleepless listeners. Thank you so much for supporting Slate and its journalism and our show. We’ll see you next week.