faith caroline feminism

(4 february 2011)

i am keeping crazy hours.

going to sleep at midnight. waking up at two. working with jackie until 7 a.m.

it isn’t intentional and it isn’t ideal, nor is it as bad as it sounds. as onassis himself said once: “jackie is a pleasure in the morning.”

i’m working on something new. well, in truth, it’s old. but now it’s new. ish.

if that makes any sense.

much of what i’m doing right now does not make sense. i am often talking of things i know nothing about.

it would’ve been wise to have taken a feminist theory class somewhere along the line, because i am making a point that, i see now, is deeply feminist. it is the sensation of pulling a hot pan from the oven only to discover you’ve no surface on which to set it.

i don’t know that i want to be a feminist, i just really need to borrow their theories.

and so, as though it qualifies as a legitimate theoretical work, i’ve thrown gloria steinem’s marilyn book into a pile of reading that was already verging on schizophrenic. she looks awkward there. gloria. sandwiched between kierkegaard and sweet valley high #17. too awkward. i throw mercy onto the pile too because, clearly, dworkin makes good company.

i don’t know that i want to be a feminist, but maybe it’s too late for that? maybe i’m fleeing an inevitability? maybe i’m running from what i already am?

but then i’ve been on the run for awhile. because it’s difficult to face what i’m doing.

i am using biography to argue the validity of fiction. i am writing the real life of a fictional version of a real woman. i am using that fictional version to argue that the real woman- who has been marginalized by the feminist movement- was, in fact, one of its central players.

i am holding one idea and a million fictions.

i have no surface on which to set them.

but then every once in awhile there’s a glimmer. a good sentence. a good paragraph. an early morning hour of writing where three pages come easily. and, every once in awhile, there comes a moment, a moment almost too fluttering sweet to be substantial, where those three pages are enough.

boxing day

there were forty pound boxes in my closet. they are no longer there.

i awoke on saturday morning convinced that saturday was the day for the boxes to come down and, thus convinced, confronted the holy terror that is my closet.

this was a task not devoid of stupidity.

i’d been awake less than ten minutes.

i hadn’t had coffee.

i was climbing a ladder in bare feet to haul down containers that collectively weighed more than me and i was doing so clad in nothing more than a purple satin slip.

despite my proclivity for sacrificing sense to elegance, the end result was as it should be. the boxes are down. they are unpacked and have been discarded.

in their place sits a tiny kingdom of magazines. a kingdom i know all too well and am more than a little afraid to revisit. because it looks entirely too familiar. it’s like 2004 all over again.

just like us

At the advent of the 1960 presidential campaign, Norman Mailer prophesied that if John Kennedy was elected, “myth would emerge once more, because America’s politics would now also be America’s favorite movie, America’s first soap opera, America’s best seller.” He was eerily accurate.

As long as they have been in public life, the Kennedys have been associated with the press, making their first fan movie magazine appearance in the September 1927 issue of Photoplay. By the early 1960s, there were upwards of forty fan magazines, including Photoplay, Motion Picture, Modern Screen, and TV Radio Screen. The forerunners of the modern “celebrity magazines” such as Us Weekly and In Touch, the movie magazines covered the misadventures, tribulations and lifestyles of television and film stars, as well as lesser known celebrities. By the early 1960s, the top two dozen publications had a collective circulation of 8,000,000.

In the wake of the Red Scare and the advent of television, movie admissions and, thus, the movie magazines’ revenue from advertising had dramatically decreased. In response, tabloid editors used “Jackie’s” image with unabashed frequency.  Much as popcorn kept movie theaters afloat, so “Jackie” stories salvaged the movie magazines: “the appearance of a beautiful and personable First Lady, who could have been a movie star, offered the ailing fan magazines a two-pronged editorial policy certain to keep them solvent and profitable. The fan magazines would concentrate on Mrs. Kennedy, featuring her regularly on their covers.” As sociologist Irving Schulman notes of the movie magazines, circa 1961: “It had at last come to pass that the world’s longest and most exciting movie was being performed every hour of every day at the White House and in locales throughout the world related to this master set. To record this living movie and assure its proper critical place in American and international history was the contemporary historic dedication of the fan magazines.”

In recording this living movie, the fan magazines were chronicling a lifestyle that held great allure for readers. Sociologist Irving Schulman begs us to remember the “tired housewife who fell into bed after she had done the evening’s dishes, put out the pets and garbage, got the children to their rooms, and left her husband [ . . . ] snoring before the television set, six-pack at his feet– [who] envied the lovely woman in the White House.” This was, from the very beginning, a fairy tale as vividly drawn as any by Disney. As Paris Match’s Washington D.C. correspondent, Phillipe de Bausset, later reflected: “The public expected a dream story, so this is what we gave them.”

“Jackie’s” life would become the world’s first reality show. It would play out weekly on newsstands across the country, and even just by reading the headlines- much less the stories- it was possibly to keep abreast of everything happening in “Jackie’s” magical movie magazine world. Her reign as movie magazine queen would be so successful that in 1962, after just one year as First Lady, Variety hailed her as the “world’s top Box Office femme.” Never mind that she had never been in a movie.

Later that same year, the editors of TV Radio Album came closest to explaining this fixation when they attempted to justify use of the word “star” in relation to Mrs. Kennedy: “The word is used in show business to describe a personality so warm and vital that we forget we know it only as a picture on a TV screen or a name in newsprint. We feel that we know the actual person, as someone close to us. And certainly Jacqueline Kennedy is all that!”

Though she closely guarded her privacy, small details seeped out. Jackie ate grilled cheese for lunch. She napped. She jumped on a trampoline. She did the twist.

She was just like us. Except when she wasn’t.

When she read Saint-Simon and went to India. When she spoke French. When she said clever things and made it obvious that she was insanely smart.

While her popularity was bolstered by a sense of likeness—the notion that she was “just like us”— a significant part of her appeal also lay in the nagging sense of her otherness; the idea that she was more cultured, more intelligent than ordinary women could ever be. It was these two sensations in tandem—her plainness and exoticism— that increased her marketability.

It was astonishing, the ease with which she could be integrated into everyday life. There were “Jackie” vases, “Jackie” dolls, and “Jackie” salt and pepper shakers. By July 1961, two million copies of a biography—a “paperback romance of her life”— had been sold. Plastic surgeons reported an increase in requests for nose bobs and low-priced clothing lines offered affordable knock-offs so everyone could sport the “Jackie look.” For the Midwestern housewife who knew nothing of Saint-Simon, fine art, or French and lacked Mrs. Kennedy’s je ne sai quoi, copying the First Lady’s hair, clothes and lifestyle provided an easy means of evoking her sophistication.

After the TV program A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy aired in 1962, yard sales and antique stores did booming business as women began foraging with near maniacal vigor in a quest to decorate their homes à la “Jackie.” Nearly every aspect of Mrs. Kennedy’s life– what she said, what she wore, where she went and what she did– was marketed.

Even the movie magazines exploited her as a commodity, using her image to boost readership and, accordingly, advertising revenue. She generated good sales in an industry that depended upon the newsstand to an extraordinary extent. In the early 1960s, Photoplay, the most dominant movie magazine, sold half its copies through the newsstand. The welfare of smaller magazines depended even more heavily upon the newsstand. For example, in August 1964, Movie TV Secrets’ monthly circulation through paid subscribers was an astounding fifty copies, and even when a cover was wildly successful, the fan publications struggled to break even. For the movie magazines, “Jackie” represented a goldmine of possibilities.

It has been suggested that “Jackie’s” narrative and the advertisements that appeared alongside it are intertwined. Thus, when in December 1964‘s TV Radio Mirror, the article “As I Still See Him,” which was subtitled ANNIVERSARY OF TERROR and detailed how John Kennedy’s life “was violently, horribly, against his will, taken from him,” was flanked by advertising that implored “DON’T BE FAT,” “KILL THE HAIR ROOT,” and banish “OLD LEG SORES,” “Jackie’s” heroism casts our petty concerns in a proper light.

Pop-culture philosopher Wayne Koestenbaum argues that these juxtapositions were not alarming to contemporary readers because “Jackie” “is not just next to ads, she herself functions as an ad [ . . . ] For miraculous change of life [ . . . ] Jackie advertises the transformation.” It was not a giant leap to assume that if “Jackie’s” story could share a page with a particular product, she might purchase the product as well. The ads kept “Jackie” human; she was beautiful and glamorous, but she was mortal and busy– waxing, bleaching, dieting. But they also pushed readers towards betterment by establishing a paradigm of “what would Jackie do?” in which being fat was not an option.

In the coming years, the connection between the stories and the ads would only become more obvious, with the ads growing increasingly smutty as the “Jackie” character herself sustained a moral plunge. Not ten years later, “Jackie’s” story would be flanked by advertisements for vibrators and birth control.

The movie magazines had begun as an advertising vehicle for motion picture stars, but “Jackie’s” very appearance in their pages suggested a sea change. Whereas celebrities like the Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor were, in fact, selling a product– themselves and their movies or music, Jacqueline Kennedy had nothing to hawk. And so, her life itself was turned into a movie for the public’s entertainment. By the early-1960s, “the tabloid newspaper was almost exactly analogous to a movie theater,” and “Jackie’s” life was the feature presentation, played out on newsstands across the country. Within the tabloid culture, she heralded a new age—one in which an ordinary housewife could become a lifestyle star.

In Life the Movie, cultural historian Neil Gabler observed that “Every celebrity worth the designation had to have some ready referent, whether a physical characteristic or a signature expression or a distinctive vocal inflection or a style of dress, in order to claim his space in the crowded celebrity universe.” “Jackie” has referents in spades– sunglasses, the bouffant, pearl necklaces, shift dresses, pillbox hats, printed scarves, kid gloves, jodhpurs, the breathy voice, and that wide-eyed look, to name just a few. Through these artifacts, as if blessed by “Jackie” herself, the icon endures. Yet, “Jackie” gains tribute not simply through the classy, but the kitschy as well. Her image is featured on coloring books, as paper-dolls and collector figurines, on vases, salt-and-pepper shakers, plates, cups, spoons, calendars, purses, t-shirts, and stamps.

The “Jackie” captivation endures precisely because she has “lasted as ephemera.” Despite Mrs. Onassis’ death, “Jackie” still has the power to mesmerize and perplex. Writing in the Washington Post shortly after the former First Lady’s death, Henry Allan extended the most succinct articulation of her unrelenting hold over the American imagination: “[ . . . ] like all useful goddesses, she was a mystery . . . She rose above, and for a woman of her time, and maybe for a woman of any time, this was a supreme act. She was silent. She was beautiful. She was ours and she was us.”

the formal acceptance of fath caroline eaton

(28 january 2011)

the sex toboggans have been accepted for presentation elsewhere.

wait. let me be precise. an essay by “fath caroline eaton” that has been rechristened with a suitably academic name because the phrase “sex toboggan,” though “spectacular,” is too “mysterious,” has been formally accepted for presentation at a film conference in london this summer.

that is what i wake up to. this email to “fath caroline eaton” and a groupon.

i’m pretty sure that’s why what i’m doing seems so small when it should feel monumental. because it’s hard to wrap your head around the potential life-alteringness of something when it is coupled with a coupon for a cut-rate coffee-making class.


(27 january 2011)

being a writer is just about the most pretentious thing one can be.

there’s this guy. the parakeet. he’s a writer. as in, he leads with that.

sample dialogue…

oline: and, dear person i’m meeting for the first time in my life, what do you do?
parakeet: I. AM. A WRITER.
oline: [grand silence, punctuated by monumental eyeroll]

end scene.

yeah. um… no.

my reluctance to own up to the fact that biography is what i want to do is, in part, rooted in the intolerable belief that i will, at some point, come off looking like the parakeet. because if being a writer is pretentious then being a biographer is pretentious times ten.

nobody reads biography. surely it couldn’t take more than ten people to write for an audience of none.

i never wanted to be a writer. that is a fact to which i clung through all of college. but we do not always wind up where we think we’re going. we sometimes have to become the very thing that makes us roll our eyes.

to keep the winter glums at bay, i’m walking to work in the mornings. this has led to a couple early a.m. conversations with a friend, wherein we have wrestled with this very thing. with the realignment of expectations. an openness to adventure. the acceptance of the seemingly unacceptable fact that your life may not look like everyone else’s. and the knowledge that that really is ok.

i am trying to be a biographer. for real. for, like, a living.

i don’t know that i’ve explicitly said that before here because it comes wrapped in a whole fear of failure that makes it a scary as hell thing to say. but that’s what it comes down to. this past september, as i rode in the back of a cab through downtown chicago in the middle of a night, i concluded that writing biography was not so much a dream as the end goal.

thanks to a story about jim carrey that may or may not be apocryphal, i picked a date and put it down on paper.

i have tried, ever since, to live as though the date on that piece of paper were an absolute truth. non-negotiable and totally binding. this has made most days feel like a death march undertaken in badly beaten up boots.

because this is a journey of micro-movements. of painfully, infintesimally teeny tiny steps. it’s hard not to be discouraged. by silence. by a lack of measurable success. by loneliness. by forty pound boxes or by the lifetime of poverty that seems to loom.

but then there are times when i open my wallet and the date taped in there doesn’t strike me so much as a horrible threat or a big, scary unknown, but rather as a delicious possibility. and it makes me smile to have been so bold.

and i’m well aware i may not make it. i might not be there on that day then. but i’ll be further than i am now. i will have moved a million painfully, infintesimally teeny tiny steps closer.


(21 january 2011)

writing hurts. not always, but sometimes.

like when you gash yourself shaving and tug on tights before the blood dries and then, when at the end of the day you go to pull them off, the sensation of pulling fabric from flesh smarts so that you can’t help but cry out.

sometimes, writing hurts like that.

i am standing on a precipice. sensei believes i am on the cusp.

those are romantical ways of saying i’m staring down the pile of important papers stored six inches from the litter box and looking for new ways to see old things.

in high school, mrs. reynolds taught us how to write papers.

first, you buy notecards.

next, you fill them with your facts.

then you lay all your cards on the table. every last one.

this was the fun part, the part that i loved. because this was the great coming together. the moment when you realized that in this deck of cards, you held an idea. an idea admittedly derived from whatever ideas of other people were held in the rather limited centennial high school library holdings, but an idea nonetheless. and an idea put together, laid out on that table, in a manner that uniquely belonged to you.

this process was a fundamental part of the way i learned to write and it is one i have never been able to fully escape. even now, when sentences, facts, phrases, opening lines occur, i text them to myself. i put them down on paper. i lay them on the table and i look for where the pieces fit.

jackiebook 1.0 was written this way. in part, because i am secretly exceedingly vain and hold the notion that my rough drafts and notecards and marginalia will one day warrant inspection and be poured over by scholars wearing white gloves and sitting in temperature-controlled, darkened rooms. but also because this is the only way i know how to do this.

a book is a scary thing. a notecard, now that is manageable.

sensei says i am on the cusp. he has asked me to take the ring to mordor. i am staring down a pile of important papers stored six inches from the litter box and facing forty pound boxes.

i am realizing that it is difficult to read the things you once wrote.

because there is a brief moment of separation from one’s work that comes about a month out. a flash in the pan where you can read something you have written and see it as something written by something else.

i had to proof an essay for publication the other day and throughout, i found myself thinking, damn, this is tight. the work did not feel like mine.

i’m going to go out on a limb and say this- the moment when you can see your work as though it weren’t your own- that is the moment writers write for.

sadly, it does not last. and then along comes the time ever after, when you return to the work you had left, the writing you once did, and confront the world of inferiority you find there.

i cannot handle that world right now.

so i go into my closet and, ignoring the forty pound boxes, pull down a very small one from which i pull the pile of notecards for jackiebook 1. i unloose them from the rubberbands by which they’ve been bound since the spring of 2006 and i do the scariest thing i can think of- i shuffle the deck.

i am sitting three feet from the pile of important papers six inches from the cat’s toilet.

i am going back to the beginning.

i have laid all my cards on the table. every last one.

heavy lifting

(19 january 2011)

so there was this little while last spring when i was all OMG, i, like, totally don’t have the time to work on jackie in paris, because jackie in paris is going to be soooooooooooo hard and i’ll, like, have to ratchet up the wherewithal to work hard. and that is, like, simply expecting too much.

then, as all times do, that time passed and for a brief shining moment there was a clearly illuminated path of how things were going to go.

i was going to write people letters. people were going to respond to them. and the book that i’d put off all along because it was so difficult was going to be the easiest thing in the world to do.

that clarity lasted about a week. then, as most always happens in cases of clarity, everything was muddled again.

because jackie in paris is, indeed, so hard, in the effort to unmuddle, i have flailed about grasping after anything i can find. essays! blogs! short stories! sex toboggans! huzzah!

i realized today that i am sloppily steering six ships at once.

this isn’t as fool-hearty as it might seem. short stories on sexy dancing provide an effective antidote to the sense of hilarifying fraudulence produced by being an unmarried, childless woman discoursing on the subject of “mothering.” and the amount of reading required to have something to blog about every day gives one a surprisingly odd lot to say outside that context as well.

so there is movement. these are, however, micromovements.

and when every movement is a micro-movement, it’s difficult to gain momentum.

i’m in this writing group. we meet in a bar with paintings of naked famous people on the walls. and so, in the naked lady bar last week, in the midst of what i like to call The Great “Footnotes: Friend or Foe” Smackdown, sensei asked me to take the ring to mordor. to essentially do with jackiebook, ver. 1, what i had originally set out to do, which was to make it a biography about writing biography.

this sounds easy.

it is not.

and yet, as i recently mined through jackiebook 1 looking for topics that would work as stand-alone features, i confronted the reality of how far it still needs to go. and i felt, for the first time, almost ready to pick it up again and push it there.

there is one tiny hindrance.

i have not needed the jackie magazines for the last five years. i was done with them and, accordingly, modified my renters insurance policy so they are a part of it and then stuck them away in the darkest corner of the top of my closet in nine boxes that weigh a solid forty pounds each.

the problem is this: i need those magazines. now.