10 Ways to Make A Narcissist Respect You

How do you make a narcissist respect you?

You should be aware of one simple fact – narcissists don’t really respect anyone, especially in a functional sense. They can have respect for someone if it is potentially beneficial for them, but it is difficult to expect honest and authentic respect from someone who is neither honest nor authentic. What a narcissist can do is respect a person’s power, privilege, money, physical appearance, prestigious occupation, social status, unavailability – in other words, they can “respect” everything they want for themselves, except the person who possesses those things.

Even that “respect” for superficialities other people possess is laced with envy, which is also one of the core characteristics of the narcissistic personality. In some instances, it is important that you make a narcissist “respect” you, because you might work with them, have children with them, or something similar, so you are unable to just walk away. There is still no magical cure for narcissism, so employing different strategies to make them at least pretend to respect you might sometimes be necessary.

In today’s video we show you how to command respect from a narcissist so you can take control of the relationship.

Hypergamy: practice of a person marrying a spouse of higher caste or social status

Hypergamy (colloquially referred to as “marrying up[1]) is a term used in social science for the act or practice of a person marrying a spouse of higher caste or social status than themselves.

The antonym “hypogamy[a] refers to the inverse: marrying a person of lower social class or status (colloquially “marrying down“). Both terms were coined in the Indian subcontinent in the 19th century while translating classical Hindu law books, which used the Sanskrit terms anuloma and pratiloma, respectively, for the two concepts.[2]

The term hypergyny is used to describe the overall practice of women marrying up, since the men would be marrying down.[3]

Tressie McMillan Cottom Interview (Ezra Klien Show)

Prepping for a conversation with Tressie McMillan Cottom is intimidating. McMillan Cottom is a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a 2020 MacArthur fellow, co-host of the podcast “Hear to Slay,” and the author of the essay collection “Thick,” which was a National Book Award finalist. And she’s one of those people who can seemingly write on anything: The way for-profit colleges generate inequality, the cultural meaning of Dolly Parton, the way the U.S. medical profession treats Black women, how beauty operates in contemporary America, the role of hustle in the economy — the list just keeps going.

And so did this conversation, in the end. I barely made it through a third of my planned questions because so many interesting topics came up in each answer. We discuss the dangers of nostalgia, the social construction of smartness, the moral panics gripping America, why journalists are racing to platforms like Substack, how different mediums of communication shape our conversations, the central role status plays in American life, her research on the root causes of the uptick in “deaths of despair,” how beauty is constructed and wielded and much, much more. This is one of those conversations that could’ve gone on for four more hours.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.




EZRA KLEIN: I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”


So when I do these introductions, I try to have a particular thread I’m following, something to set up the main argument or the main question of the show, but that’s not possible today. It wouldn’t do this justice. There’s too much in this show for me to wrap it into one idea. It is, as my guest might say, really thick, and it is great. Tressie McMillan Cottom is a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She’s the author of the book “Lower Ed” and then the wonderful essay collection “Thick,” which was a National Book Award finalist in 2019. She won a MacArthur “genius” grant. She’s a co-host of the podcast “Hear to Slay,” and she’s just one of those people who you can ask her any question, any question at all, and you just get a sparklingly interesting answer.

Prepping for this was intimidating because her work is just vast, from academic research on how for-profit colleges generate inequality, to sprawling essays on Dolly Parton, to these analysis of how beauty functions in contemporary America, to ideas about the roles hustle plays in the American economy, everything, everything, everything in between.

But in part, I just wanted to understand how does she take on so many different topics constructively. Like, what is her process for being able to say something useful as she moves into these different areas. It’s a lot to find something intelligent to say about, but as you’ll hear, there’s also one idea that thrums the core of a lot of this, and that is the way status structures reinforces the hierarchies of American life of who gets listened to and who gets seen and why, but this is honestly one of those conversations that could have gone for four more hours. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. As always, my email is ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com. Here’s Tressie McMillan Cottom.


So something I always admire about your work is the range of topics you’re able to write in and the range of topics you write about and this crazy group of registers you do from Twitter, to Substack, to academic work. So I wanted to start here. How did you train yourself to write in so many different ways?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Oh, man. I wish I could say that I did train myself to write in so many ways. I think what happens instead is that — first of all, I’m a very curious person. I’m in these spaces anyway. I am an internet person for better or for worse, right? I came of age as a public person and like live journal, right? Like, I have followed the development of these spaces just like any other person, I think, of my generation, though. That’s just kind of where. That’s where we were hanging out.

And when I’m in a space, this predates being a sociologist or an academic. When I’m in a space, I’m very much a one step, in one step removed kind of person. I’m watching the thing I’m participating in, can’t turn that off. It’s just what I am and who I am. And so it makes sense for me that if I’m on Twitter, I’m also thinking about Twitter, right? I’m thinking about, why are all these people here? What’s the audience looking? What’s that about? And so that comes out in the things that I’m interested in. So that’s one thing.

I think training myself to write to that audience — understanding it is one thing, to be fair. Understanding everything as a genre is another thing, and there was a moment when I realized this is just like learning how to write the five paragraph essay, right, as opposed to a long form piece of creative nonfiction. Every medium has a genre, and some of that, cracking some of it really is just fun for me.

It’s like, OK. Let me see if I can do this. I can’t do them all, to be fair. There are definitely some genres, especially ones that lean more visual, because I’m a textual kind of girl. And I just don’t get like visual and editing, but some of it is just fun for me to see if I can remix the genre. First of all, can I capture it? And then can I remix it a little? Can I make an essay you have like the freewheeling feeling of Twitter? Can I surprise an audience that thought they were showing up for like a first person essay with a little bit of empirical thinking? Can I just sort of surprise people? That’s part of the fun for me.

EZRA KLEIN: How do the genres change the way you think? When you sit down and you begin writing in the academic register versus the personal essay register, does it change the kinds of thoughts you have?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes. What will often happen is I sit down, and there’s something I want to write about or I’m obligated to write about. That happens sometimes, too. Like, I just got to write about it. And one of the first questions I kind of ask myself is, what is the right speed for this argument? So I actually think that one of the things that happens in writing in different registers is that you become much more reflexive about, should this have just been a tweet, which is totally fair, right?

And I think it’s a fair thing to say. Sometimes I’ll start on an argument, and I’ll go, this is not substantive enough for like this genre. And I’ll even push back sometimes now, like editors or people I’m collaborating with and go, y’all, I think we just mean to write a quick write up and move on. One of the things the academics are taken a task for is bloviating and overcomplicating simple things, and I really do think we could be set free a little bit if we would just admit that sometimes the thing we turned into like an academic piece probably just should have been either a first person essay or a tweet or somewhere in between, but status drives us sometimes more than the question we’re asking.

But I sit down and I go, OK, what is the right speed for this? What’s the right genre? When will I know that this argument is done? I like a complete argument. I like to walk away from something and say I left it all on the court, and sometimes that’s 240 characters. Sometimes it’s 20,000 words, and just being like attuned to that, that those are options. Those are choices. I ask myself that a lot when I sit down and I start with an argument. What’s the right size?

EZRA KLEIN: I feel like I used to be able to ask that question of myself. I came up as a blogger, and I’m an internet person.


EZRA KLEIN: And I would write little posts and long ones. And I swear to you, I cannot, no matter how hard I try now, write something that is in between 280 characters and 1,800 words.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: It’s one or the other?

EZRA KLEIN: I completely lost the register, like all the way in between. It’s like a book. It’s like a long essay, or it’s a tweet.


EZRA KLEIN: And God forbid you have 400 words worth of something to say. I just can’t seem to stop then.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Because then you just feel like you talk — it feels like a stub, right?


TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: I call those stubs. I’ve got so many of those. It’s something like 350 words or something, and I’m not sure where that would go. I think what you’re asking is for us to bring back Blogger. I think that’s what you’re suggesting we do.

EZRA KLEIN: Well, I’m always asking for us to bring back blogging.


There is a nostalgia, oftentimes, among people who came up in it, for the internet of the aughts.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. The old internet.

EZRA KLEIN: Do you think that’s nostalgia, or do you think something was lost?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Hmm. OK. So I now work with a lot of internet people. I’m in an information school at a university. And so a lot of my very good friends are those people, so I want to tiptoe carefully. I do think that there was a clubbiness and a camaraderie, even among people who politically disagreed. There was a class of thinkers, a class of writers who came up in that web 2.0 that does feel like, yeah, we lost something there.

There was a humanity there for good or for bad. Humanity is messy, but there was a sense that those ideas were attached to people, and there were things driving those people, there’s a reason they had chosen to be in that space before it all became about chasing an audience in a platform and turning that into influencer and translating that into that — before all that happened, the professionalization of it all. And that’s what I think we’re missing when we become nostalgic for that web 2.0. I think it’s the people in the machine.

Having said that, I am very resistant to nostalgia as a thing because usually what we are nostalgic for is a time that just was not that great for a lot of people. And so what we were usually a really nostalgic for is a time when we didn’t have to think so much about who was missing in the room, who wasn’t at the table. So when I talk to friends, and especially younger people coming up behind us either in the internet or in writing spaces, we’re like, that time was horrible for young queer people.

They talk about looking for little safe pockets of space in web 2.0 world where it was still very OK to be homophobic, for example, in those spaces and our casual language and how we structured that kind of thing. And they love being able to leave that part behind in this new world of whatever the web is now, both a consolidated and a disaggregated new web.

That’s why I’m like resistant to nostalgia. At the same time, I’m like, yeah. I also laugh and go, I really miss having a blog. In some ways, coming back to the newsletter, and Substack was kind part of that. It’s me being nostalgic for having a place where I could put thoughts that didn’t fit into any other discourse or genre, and I wanted a space where I could talk to people who were actually interacting like real people. They weren’t acting like bots, or trolls, or whatever your internet persona is.

So, I mean, I say I’m resistant to nostalgia. I just try not to reproduce, but even I get a little — I’ll always have a soft spot for Blogger, which is coincidentally my first “where I state” space on Blogger.

EZRA KLEIN: Yup. Me too.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: [LAUGHS] I’ll always be a little romantic about it.

EZRA KLEIN: But I think you’re right about that criticism of it, too. Something that, for all that I can tip into nostalgia, something that I think is often missed in today’s conversation is the conversation has never been wider.


EZRA KLEIN: People talk all about things they can’t say, but it has never been wider.


EZRA KLEIN: There’s never been a larger allowable space of things you could say.


EZRA KLEIN: And people have also never been more pissed about how it feels to participate in it. I don’t want to say never, but broadly, there is an intensity to that conversation that is distinct, and I don’t think those things are unrelated, right? I think it is the wideness of the conversation and the fact that there are so many people you might hear from that make you feel cautious and insecure and unsafe, and the good of it is the bad of it.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Exactly. One of the things I like to say to people is that we think that broadening access in any realm — we do this with everything, by the way. It’s such an American way to approach the world. We think that broadening access will broaden access on the terms of the people who have benefited from it being narrowed, which is just so counterintuitive.

Broadening access doesn’t mean that everybody has the experience that I, privileged person, had in the discourse. Broadening it means that we are all equally uncomfortable, right? That’s actually what pluralism and plurality is. It isn’t that everybody is going to come in and have the same comforts that privilege and exclusion had extended to a small group of people. It’s that now everybody sits at the table, and nobody knows the exact right thing to say about the other people.

Well, that’s fair. That means we all now have to be thoughtful. We all have to consider, oh, wait a minute. Is that what we say in this room? We all have to reconsider what the norms are, and that was the promise of like expanding the discourse, and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten. And if that means that I’m not sure about letting it rip on a joke, that’s probably a pretty good thing.

EZRA KLEIN: Yeah. Jennifer Richardson, the psychologist at Yale, once called this a democratization of discomfort to me.


EZRA KLEIN: And I think it’s such a good line. And something it always makes me think about is that there are a lot of us who came up in an earlier iteration, not just of the internet, but of journalism or cultural criticism or whatever it might be, and there were certain things it selected for. You know what I mean? There was like the 80s “New Republic” people who were really selected for slashing counterintuitive, provocative, and somewhat offensive essay-writing, and just — this era requires different virtues, and that’s the conversation I almost never hear people have.


EZRA KLEIN: That maybe just the new internet or this moment, to be in one of these highly public and very privileged positions, you’re going to need to develop a different set of virtues and competencies and how to conduct a conversation and how to speak to people that are just hard. It’s just going to be really hard.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. Yeah. And human nature is resistant to learning. I mean, nobody knows that more than people who teach for a living. But for all we valorize learning and education, human nature really trends towards inertia, and every layer of privilege you layer on top of somebody makes that more true. And so what we’re fundamentally, I think, saying to people is — who achieved something where part of the promise of the achievement was that I’ll never have to learn anything new again, right?

This was the promise, right? I’m now the editor. I’m the gatekeeper or whatever, and the whole promise of that was I’ll never have to worry about learning anything new again. And then we come to them and we go, no. You got to relitigate. You got to reconsider what your role is, and now there actually are people who can hold you accountable for that in a way that wasn’t always true.

And I found it to be true in every space I’ve ever been in, every organization. It is true of myself. Nobody likes being reminded that they are not done yet, that there’s still more work for them to do. And that’s, I think, what we’re fundamentally saying to people, and they resist that because that’s human nature. It’s just that some people get to resist it in a way more aggressive fashion than other people.

EZRA KLEIN: Yeah. Yuval Levin, who’s this conservative thinker, I once heard him say that almost all change is generational. Almost all real change that happens is when a new generation comes, and they are able to change. And I hadn’t thought about it quite that way before. But now when I look at, say, Congress, and I see the way, particularly, the Democratic Party is changing, or I look at what’s happening in online discourse, some of it just feels to me — I’m of a different generation, even than some of the young writers now — and you feel a little left behind. There is more change generation to generation than there is within generations, and maybe it’s for exactly that reason.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. Nothing is funny to me than when I realize, we wrote all of this stuff. We did all this stuff. We threw out all these theories of change, and then people believed us. That’s literally what happened. You’ve got young people who said, wait a minute. Gender is a spectrum? OK. I’m a live it like a spectrum. And we’re like, no, but we didn’t mean that.

Really, what fundamentally happened is we hypothesized and imagined all of this stuff, wrote it into the ether, and then we’re surprised that people actually took it up and lived it. That does happen faster, as you point out. We do owe that to the internet. The generations are now like four and a half years long, but it happens faster, and so we feel older faster, and we feel outdated faster.

But I get so inspired by the people who, within a generation, have resisted becoming that old person. And I’m just like, OK. I’m just going to double down, right? I think we’ve got a choice. You can become like the Angela Davis of the world, or you’re like, OK, I hear you. Each new generation comes along, and I hear you. I got to get with it, and I’ve seen Angela do that in real time.

Like a young person will stand up in the audience and go, and we say “sibs” now. And she’s like, I’m with you. Gotcha. Like, you just take it, and you’re supposed to go. And I think we’ve got a choice. You can become that person within your generation who lives in that uncomfortable space, or you can become the person — I won’t name a name — but you can become the person who doesn’t and resists it. I just don’t want them writing about me like that later. So I’m really shooting for the Angela Davis model.

EZRA KLEIN: Let me ask you about your own generational change. You have this line I love where you say that all of your essays begin with a question of why me and not my grandmother. Tell me about your grandmother.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Oh, thank you. I’d love to tell you about my grandmother. I’ve been thinking about her so much lately, in part because I’ve moved back home to North Carolina, and that’s where my family is, and so getting nostalgic, and because we’ve been trapped in the house. What else is there to do? But my grandmother was a part of this sweeping — talk about a generational change — sweeping generational change in the United States of America, really, I think in the Western world when we think about how central the United States is to that definition.


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She’s the tail-end of the Great Migration generation, Black people who left point South for points North and West with millions of other people, spans about a generation and a half of people if we use the big definition of generations, but I think something really just coheres that generation of African-Americans in particular. They’re the ones who made really foundational decisions about whether to stay or to leave.

And my grandmother was one of the people who left, and she was probably the least likely of her family members to have been predicted to leave. I mean, this was not a brave woman. I love her dearly. She’s sweet as she could be, but this was the woman who had 19 locks on the door. She wasn’t exactly a pioneer and that pioneering spirit. What she was pragmatic, however.

And if jobs were in the North and that’s where you went — but I think about how much she probably had to fight her nature to do what she needed to do. She was creative. I get so much of, I think, my creative energies from her, a big reader, which all of us are in the family. But even in a family of readers, my grandmother was the reader, really wide reading. She read anything, and I think I got that from her, too.

Very agnostic on genre, and I don’t care. I’ll read anything. I got that from her. And so when I’m thinking about why me and not her, of all of those instincts that I inherited from her and all those things she socialized me into, she’s just, for me, the concrete example of how you can be everything that a culture values and not be in the right body for the culture to value it, and that is going to shape the limit of your life. It is my understanding of this is what inequality and stratification looks like in a very real way. My grandmother should have had my life, basically.

EZRA KLEIN: And what life did she have?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: She had a hard life. She moved from rural Eastern North Carolina where hard life meant partially sharecropping, leasing yourself out in the summers to pick tobacco that was left over after the machines that come through. She went into labor with my mother in the middle of a field and almost did not survive childbirth. So she leaves that to go to Harlem, which would have been an exciting time by all accounts, but another hard transition, small, crowded living conditions, very different from what she’d come from.

For many, many years, she went back and forth between working for Jewish families as a domestic worker to, again, working in the garment district and just always trying to eke out something that was just a little bit better than the position before, and then eventually came back home to North Carolina, as many Black folks did in the reverse migration, and by that time was done with raising people and taking care of people and being a caretaker, and she really spent the last few years of her life reading, and I think it was the most peaceful she’d been her whole life Living right there at the edge of social change, as much as we like to write about it and romanticize it, living it is tough. So she had a tough life.

EZRA KLEIN: And so tell me about the question why you and not her. What is that question?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: I think that question is about the limits of how we internalize the American dream. I think a lot about nobody believes in mobility more than Black people. Nobody believes in the promise of this country more than Black people, and nobody has less reason to believe it than we do, and I think holding those two ideas at the same time is probably why our health outcomes are as poor as they are.


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I think living in that liminal space between it’s supposed to be better but it isn’t and trying to just constantly trying to butt up against that, just trying to find a crack, trying to get in there. And I think what I’m asking about when I think why me and not her, one, I hope I’m keeping myself grounded in how contingent this all is. I never want to wed my sense of self and my identity to something I don’t control.

And part of being Black and being a woman in this country is that, even when you’re very successful, you just don’t control the terms of your success. My success is always limited by how well other people can imagine the possibility of me. When people could not imagine my grandmother, she just wasn’t possible, you know? Here is this big reader who did well in school, and she’s a domestic worker.

They just couldn’t imagine anything else for her, and so I’m always really aware of and never want to forget that, that no matter how hard I work — and yeah, you’re supposed to maybe work hard or whatever, and then you invest in yourself, and you develop your skills. I always want to be really clear that I can do all of that. I can do all of the right things, and it still won’t work out, and I think that’s just the basis of my work of trying to explain that to other people.

Many people who, for the first time in their lives, are reckoning with the fact that I did everything right, and it didn’t work out. Maybe this is just not supposed to happen. And what’s basically just becoming more true for more people is that more people feel like my grandmother than they ever imagined would be possible for them.

EZRA KLEIN: Sometimes I hear a line when I’m doing the show that I just know I’m not going to get away from for a long time, and how well I did is how well people can imagine me is one of those. That’s a remarkable way of putting that. You say something in Thick where you write and, quoting, smart is only a construct of correspondence between one’s abilities, one’s environment, and one’s moment in history.

I’m smart in the right way in the right time on the right end of globalization. Tell me about that because I think we frame smart culturally as something that cuts through time, space, society. Tell me about seeing smart as contingent.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. I think we love that idea because I think it’s an idea about ourselves, that there some one true thing about human nature that will be as fixed as a mathematical relationship. It’s a very post-enlightenment sort of way to think about it, but yeah. There’s supposed to be one smart, that you would recognize genius no matter where you were on the timeline, right?


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I’m not into this show, but I have a young person in my life who’s very into the “Doctor Who” show. One of the things I do find interesting about “Doctor Who” is it’s that premise. It’s that conceit that no matter where you drop in the time-space continuum, you’re going to recognize that person as the doctor, the scientist, the one who knows, right? And it’s just so not true.

What a culture needs from its smart people at any given point in time changes. We can have a very different value system about what constitutes smart. What I want to keep in mind, and one of the things I hope that people take away when I say something about the correspondence of how smart you are is just really about your place in the world is because I want people to feel obligated to think about what world they’re creating for somebody else, but first we got to recognize how vulnerable our own identity is.

If you build your whole identity on how smart you are, I think it can make you very small and selfish in thinking about the world for everybody else. And so that’s why I try to pinpoint, like, if you think that I’m good enough, if you think, wow. Tressie’s really sharp, right? Tressie’s really brilliant. What I want you to imagine is how easy it would be for you to not think that and for me to just not exist, right?

I’d still be me. I’d still have my talents and abilities, and that we do that to people every day. We build a world that’s just not allowable or acceptable, and then I also really want to push the idea that we have so embodied the idea of smart as being something that a person is that it makes us really easy to disinvest from the things that make smart actually possible because smart is like a social problem.

We make smart. We make smart with schools. We make smart with our political decisions and choices, right? And if you think nature is just going to take care of it and it’s just going to give you a once in a lifetime genius every go round, then you don’t invest in the things that produce smartness. And a fixed idea of intelligence invites us to disinvest from the social contract of making more smart people. Just make more by expanding your understanding of it.

EZRA KLEIN: One of the things I was thinking about with that is I’ve been thinking about the idea of disability studies, that disability is about a relationship between you and the built world.


EZRA KLEIN: And we were talking before we began recording about our eyesight, that you got LASIK, and I had negative eight vision since I was five, basically. And in another context, I’m just completely useless. The things that make you smart, like I’m a good reader and I can write a lot, I can’t do that without my glasses, not that long ago in human history that it wouldn’t have been possible for me.


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And even that, you can have everything exactly the same but just one lapse in the accommodation society or technology is able to make for you, and you’re gone. And meanwhile, I have no sense of direction whatsoever.


EZRA KLEIN: My mechanical and physical intelligence is really weak.


EZRA KLEIN: I think all the time about how low the esteem I would be held in at other points in history.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Mm-hm. You take away things like libraries and the written word and the printing press, and I my social value declines significantly. I’ve learned so much from the disability studies people, by the way. And it’s actually something that was in back of my mind the whole time I was answering your question. One of the things that just sort of flipped a switch in my brain, I was in graduate school at Emory University, so we had a really strong contingent of scholars who were doing disability studies, and I learned a lot from them.

But we were having coffee one day with some of those folks, and friend Adam turns to me. And he’s like, the thing is, it’s not about who is disabled. It’s about when are you going to become disabled. We will all be disabled at some point in our life course, and so much middle class consumption, by the way, and our obsession with health and wellness is about that.

We are fundamentally — because we know how horrible we are to other disabled people, so we are terrified of becoming in any way disabled or differently-able, right? So take your bee pollen, and get your magnesium, and — well, you’re going to age. If nothing else, your eyesight is going to go. You’re going to lose some of your mobility, speaking about smart as a fixed idea. Just the way your brain works is going to change. We’re just so vulnerable to nature and time and biology, and we’re so terrified of it, I think, because we know that a lot of what we have built our ideas of who we are on are really far more vulnerable than we think they are

EZRA KLEIN: I think about this all the time when I cover health care policy because people will, during these fights, they’ll talk about, well, I don’t know. As a healthy person, do I need to be subsidizing the sick so much? Or they’ll start talking about the old and the young, and I’m always screaming during these debates. These are not fixed categories. We go in and out, you know? You’re young now, but you’re going to be old someday, hopefully.


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And you’re healthy now, but you’re going to be sick someday, and it’s funny. It’s a place where I think our enthusiasm for categorizing people — it’s one of many that really leads us astray. As soon as you begin talking in categories, it tricks the mind into fixing the boundaries, but a lot of categories are very porous.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes. Categories are really useful for like analytical thinking. Like, yeah, it helps me get my arms around something that’s really messy, and it helps me figure out like — because you can’t just consider every eventuality. That’s just a limit of human nature, of how the human mind works. So categories, they become useful as long as you keep in mind that that’s all they were, right?

You got to constantly, I think, relitigate. Wait a minute, what was the category I had at play here? We were talking about the old internet and the world people miss. I think one of the things that people are so uncomfortable with right now, why there’s just so many — there seems to be moral panic after moral panic after moral — we’ve got a lot of moral panics happening right now, hard to even like separate them out, and I think that it’s because it’s all one big moral panic about I don’t think we feel equipped for doing that. It is a moment, I think, in time when we are being asked and really pushed to rethink almost every meaningful category that we’ve kind of taken for granted.

EZRA KLEIN: I love that description of the moral panic. You talk in your book about thick descriptions and thin descriptions, and one of the things that feels to me like part of the moral conflict or the reason it feels so panic-inducing is we are having the thickest conversation possible in the thinnest mediums possible.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Bingo. I totally agree. So thick description is ultimately about asking as many questions of yourself as you’re asking of other people. So a thin way of engaging with the world is to assume that everybody has already made the decisions that you’ve made prior to the discussion, and all of your questions are going to be reserved for the object that you’re talking about, right, the people you’re talking about, the idea you’re talking about. I think that’s one way to think about it.

We also think about thick description as being really evocative, and that’s true, too. Using language to really try to capture people’s experience of things, that’s also true. Whereas thin description usually tries to flatten differences between experiences because it wants to tell you about sort of a universal experience, right, that I can make you understand your connection to something by pointing out what’s universal in it.

We think that we’re going to lose people when we start talking about the differences, by the way. And I’m not sure that’s true, and I try to show in my work that that’s not true, that you can absolutely seduce people into having a thick, nuanced conversation. It’s just going to take work on your part, right? I think you have to be dead on with craft. I think you have to be brutal about your empirics being accurate. I think you have to consecrate your own belief in yourself as being the universal storyteller.


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But I think if you do all of that, people will follow you into a thick, uncomfortable conversation that they did not know they needed to have, but the mediums you talk about, who’s going to do that, right? The economics of that are horrible, and I know that. I get it, but I think what we’re seeing is an unspoken desire for exactly that kind of work, but a media ecosystem and an attention economy that just cannot allow that to happen.

That takes a lot of human beings, a lot of human power, takes a lot of willingness to embrace risk because you’re going to mess it up. You’re going to fail, and you’re going to piss somebody — right? This is just going to happen. There’s a lot of risk involved. And initially, it’s not profitable, but that is one of our struggles, I think, in the public discourse where we are trying to have that kind of conversation that I think people absolutely are attracted to even if that attraction feels like they’re angry about it, but that’s still desire for the conversation. I think they’re attracted to it, but we’ve only figured out the economics for very thin genre.

EZRA KLEIN: I don’t want to pick on Twitter and cable news here, which are two mediums that I operate in sometimes, but I will see conversations happening there, and I’ll just think, that is such an important conversation, and there is no way I’m engaging it in this medium.


EZRA KLEIN: I’m not going to come within 1,000 feet of it in this space.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Same, never going to happen.

EZRA KLEIN: Whereas, in a podcast, there are things you talk about in a podcast that are a lot trickier because it has this quality of hesitancy. I got a reader email yesterday, actually. I guess it was a listener email, but they were emailing me to say that they listen to a show, and they just thought there shouldn’t be podcasts anymore. They thought podcasts were part of a ruining America because it was such a loose and messy form. People just talk.

I mean, they prefer columns, which is fair, and I write columns. But as I was reading it, I was thinking it’s the exact thing I like about the medium, that messiness allows things to be thick. To take on these topics, you have to let things breathe a little bit. And so many mediums over time, particularly when they get professionalized, they trend towards this type optimization. You ask as little of the audience as you possibly can before letting go of them. And that works for scale, but I think it’s bad for understanding and very bad for your relationship with the audience.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. I don’t think we have the luxury right now of scale and efficiency. We don’t have a culture right now for scale and efficiency that can be productive. That’s for a culture that mostly agrees on who and what it is is mostly functioning the way most people need it to function for a good life. We don’t have that culture. And so I tell people, maximizing efficiency is for very different political body and public discourse than the one we have.


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The one we have is trying to grapple with potentially massive social change and social transformation. That is a culture that needs messier, more nuanced places for public discourse. Trying to skip over that to get to the scale and efficiency part is how you become antagonistic to the audience. Even as y’all are sort of in a dance together, I think that thin stuff that is narrowed, asking the least from the audience, is actually fundamentally antagonistic to the idea of having an audience.

EZRA KLEIN: What are those spaces for you?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: I mean, I think I’m in part trying to build that with increasingly thinking about micro media, of which podcasting is one of those. I tend to think of audio storytelling, which is a little bit broader to me. Thinking just about podcasting because I’m thinking about the different cultural traditions for telling oral stories, and that there has to be more than one way for us to capture those and share them and reproduce them.

So audio storytelling just broadly excites me a lot as a potential avenue, and I think it’s all right if that never scales. I think that’s actually probably preferable. I think what we are in a moment for is a lot of micro media attempts to capture the parts of the discourse where people are willing to be called in to complicated conversations that, again, scale just might not be the goal. It might not even be preferable to desire scale in that arena.

I’m still working out whether or not I think something like — I’ve been on Substack. I’ve been on Medium. I’ve done my own sorting, and that’s just way too hard. I don’t like running all the back-end, but basically trying to recreate the comment section of web 2.0, becoming a destination conversation place for people around an idea, and I think that’s what some people are doing with the newsletter model, and et cetera. So I’m interested in that. I’m not sure yet what I think that space does, but I like the experiment.

EZRA KLEIN: I think a lot now about the way we’re all taught to want scale and the way that that’s often a false or counterproductive desire. I am somebody who is taught to want scale, and I got it, and I can’t tell you I’m happier for having it. It definitely affords me opportunities and all kinds of things, but I can’t tell you I’m happier for having it, and I know a lot of people who got it, and I can’t tell you they’re happier for having it.

And it’s a funny thing, the desire people are given for a certain kind of success as measured by scale where scale takes away a lot of what makes these conversations and work joyous. And yet, it’s the way we are taught to measure, whether we are succeeding in these conversations and work. And so then you see now, I think, Substack and podcasts, you see a lot of people who’ve achieved scale actually fleeing to things that are smaller scale.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: They’re to actually pare it down. I was about to say. So what you have is you got somebody with like a million followers on Twitter who has realized it’s actually horrible, and now they want to talk to 20,000 people more regularly in depth, and we don’t have a way to either capture the value of that — that’s actually, I think, part of what a lot of the more contentious debates are about.


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We don’t know how to value that. I mean, we don’t know whether we can say that’s worth a half a million or not, but I don’t think that’s about our inability to — we have the tools to capture how many eyes you have on it, how long people spend. So it’s not that. I think it’s what you’re saying. I think we are just resistant to the idea of valuating anything other than scale, right?

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to imagine like a midterm future where having 20,000 regular people who meet and talk about an idea is valued roughly equal to a periodical that has a mailing readership of 350,000 people. We don’t like thinking about it that way, but I think it’s entirely possible.


EZRA KLEIN: I got to read a lot of your work all at the same time to prepare for this, which is great, but something that leapt out at me was that a lot of your work revolves around this idea of status, how it’s developed and what it’s composed of. So how do you define what status is and how we construct it?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: It’s a great question, and I think I would agree. A challenge for me, professionally, is that I write so broadly, and certainly the way other people experience it is broad. But in my mind, I’m always writing about one thing, and I’m always stunned that other people don’t see it. It’s just status. It’s just status. The thing is, status looks the same everywhere you go, but it wears a different outfit.

So it’s always at play. It’s always happening. And so when I show up and I see status, it’s not that I’m the person who does race and gender or whatever. It’s just that I entered a room, and I looked around, and I went, oh, here’s what’s happening here. Here’s the status that’s at play. And sometimes that’s a little bit more gender than it is race. Sometimes it’s a little bit more class than it is race, right? But it’s always there.

And the way I explain it to students and my audiences is status is the thing that is external to you that defines you as much as your identity does. So we love to talk about identity, right? We’ve got a whole language about identity, about self and our political identities and our racial identities and sexual identities. We don’t have as rich a conversation to talk about status, which, coincidentally, is some of the most powerful work that status does.

It becomes so taken for granted that we never even label it, right? We’ll walk into a room, and everybody agrees who’s supposed to sit at the chair at the front of the room. That’s status, right? And that it operates a little differently everywhere you are standing. But if you learn how to identify it wherever you are standing, in many ways, you become one of the most powerful people in the room because you see what’s driving and shaping the decisions.


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But as a cultural critic, as a social investigator, you also become super important to the people who will never be invited to that room, right? So when I leave a room, I want to be able to tell people not just what happened, but I want to be able to give an informed opinion about why it happened, why it happened, and that’s what understanding status does. It means that when I leave the room, I can bring some of the people who will never be invited to that room with me by being able to translate the dynamics that happen in that room, and it’s a hard thing to do with American audiences.

I travel, before times, I was doing quite a bit more international travel, and it’s so interesting. I can go to the UK where everybody gets this. Their language about social class is so refined that they get it. They may not have our same understanding of race and gender, but their language about class has really given them a public language of talking about status. In America, we only talk about status as race, and so our language is very, very atrophied, you know?

EZRA KLEIN: Yeah we want to ignore the idea that class is status.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s right. Class is natural. Class is biology. Class is destiny. Class is family. We talk about it embedded in those things, family politics. We talk about it about values, ideals, having the right behaviors, but we don’t have any language to talk about it in this country. And since it is one of our biggest status differentials in this country, it means we miss a lot of what’s happening.

EZRA KLEIN: I think a lot about places where we have language that hides what we’re doing, hides, particularly, the way we actually treat people. We have language that venerates them as a way of not making good on what that language would say. So middle class, working class, essential workers, the military and veterans are huge in this. There are certain groups where we have an agreed upon political language.

And if you were an alien who came to this planet and this country and listened to us talk, you’d be like, ah, those people they’re talking about, they have the most status, and they’re going to be treated the best. And then you look at how policy plays out, and it’s the exact opposite. And the language, we are pretending we have a different social hierarchy than we actually do.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Which is super important to our ruling ideology, which is merit. How else do you get people to buy into the idea of merit when their own lived experiences say to them every day that merit is not real, or certainly not as concrete as everybody says it is? Well, you get them to buy into it by saying you just need to get into the right category.

And if you get into the right category — military veterans is one. It’s a big one in my world, like in education policy. We make horrible education policy for veterans. They have some of the highest rates of student loan defaults. The money that they’re given to go to college really translates into them going into high quality institutions, but you try to talk to somebody about making the G.I. Bill more robust, and they will have a public meeting in the middle of Capitol Hill.


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Everybody shows up. There’s the equivalent of bible thumping, and then they will all close the doors — and both sides of the aisle, by the way, will close the door and will agree to not do anything to protect veteran students, but the veterans believe that they’re protected, you see? That’s what matters. They believe. How else do you get somebody to sign up for something like military service when they’re poor and working class and from places with poor economic outcomes?

You do it by saying, yeah, you won’t be rich, but everybody will value you, will give you status instead of money. This is one of the allures of becoming a police officer where status can far outstrip the economic rewards of being a police officer to take on the risk of doing the job. So really tightly closed status that does not have the economic power to go with it can actually become violent, frankly, but we don’t have a language yet to talk about any of that.

All we know how to do is say this group of people deserves our deference and our respect, but we don’t have a commensurate policy conversation to talk about how we attach actual meaningful resources to it.

EZRA KLEIN: Yeah. There’s almost nothing more destabilizing in politics than a group that the way they are talked about and the way they talk about themselves in terms of merit and status is not recognized by society because it creates a deep sense of unfairness, of shame, of resentment for individuals for whom it happens to. I think it collapses a person’s psyche, oftentimes.

But for groups, particularly when it’s a group that is told or actually has power, but then society isn’t treating it like it does or stops treating it like it does, that becomes, as you’re saying, it becomes very violent. This whole discussion has always been to me like the molten core of Trumpism. It’s this class of voters and Donald Trump himself who, on some level, have so much status and have had so much power.

But then what begins to happen is not just a losing of power, but a losing of status, a feeling that the culture is turning on them, that they’re being disrespected. What motivates Trump is disrespect, the feeling that he’s not a winner, right? And the same for what motivates many of his supporters, and I do think this is why the fights over speech and cancel culture and all of this are so intense because they are, at some fundamental level, about who has the status to decide how they are spoken about, and then who has the status to not fear what it is they’re saying? And you can’t solve that with policy. It’s actually a question of social hierarchy.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: A lot of people woke up to find that the merit culture that they have been operating in has been, for a very long time, an honor culture. See, we were supposed to be too sophisticated for our honor culture of ritual and honor, exchanges of prestige and status and privilege, right? We were supposed to be too sophisticated for that.


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And so you work hard and that the status will follow, economic achievement. And when that economic promise starts to collapse but the ritual of status remains, you really just have an honor-based culture where people will defend honor, will determine their honor in relation to other people. They’ll build hierarchies of honor within their own little corner of the world that might be at odds with another corner.

That’s when we talk about the siloing effect of culture. It’s not that people don’t know that people disagree with them. It’s that they’ve built their own little honor culture over here. And if there are no economic incentives to leave it, why would you? If you can be the king— what’s the guy with the thing on his head, the horns on January 6th?

EZRA KLEIN: Oh, the QAnon Shaman.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Thank you. But if you’re going to walk around with horns on your head, I get to mock. So that’s an honor culture he brought of a subculture that had a set of rules where that actually wasn’t absurd, but if you divorce then some of the economic incentives for people to participate in that, all you’re left with is the guy with the horns on his head.

EZRA KLEIN: You did this research project about white deaths of despair that feels relevant to this conversation.


EZRA KLEIN: Do you want to talk about it a bit?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes. So our argument — my colleagues Arjumand Siddiqi, Sandy Darity, and I did — so we were responding to the documented demographic data points about change in white Americans’ mortality. One of the arguments had been that was due to several things, the opioid crisis, growing economic insecurity, job polarization, and access to health care.

Well, one of the things that we actually find and argue in the data is that you see those deaths even in places where those indicators do not exist, where they have not experienced job losses, where they do enjoy access to health care and a certain amount of economic security. And our argument is that white people’s deaths of despair, as it has been called, is not as much about real losses in their status. It’s about perceived loss in their status, right?

The perception of loss was enough to undermine positive health outcomes and health-seeking behaviors. That point you were making that people feel like they have lost status, whether they’ve lost it or not. Well, that’s not about actual loss. That is about perceived loss, and that we so underappreciate how much perception matters to how much we’ll even accept facts, right?


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Most people will just accept the facts that match what they already believe, you know? Confirmation bias and et cetera. We’ve seen this in vaccine roll-outs, right, where people’s political identity shapes what information they will accept about scientific evidence. Well, that happens in every facet of life. And so perception is just as important as any universal belief system and what’s true and what’s untrue, and that that perceived loss is enough for people to not seek out health care or to engage in dangerous health behaviors.

How else do you explain people arrested on Jan. 6 who perceived loss of status? And they engaged in — if you think about self-selecting into a conflict with armed police as a dangerous health behavior, that’s one way to think about it. You can quite literally get hurt, right? They elected to go into this risky behavior that could end in loss of life, and for several people did.

That’s a risky health behavior, and that’s about perceived status, and that we haven’t thought concretely enough about how dangerous privileged people will become if they just perceive that they have less privilege, not actual loss of privilege, but they perceive they have less privilege.

EZRA KLEIN: I wonder if one way of thinking, too, about this actual versus perceived is to think about base rates versus rates of change.


EZRA KLEIN: You get this in economics all the time where people, particularly their politics, are much more driven by how their economic situation is changing than what it actually is. The fact that you’re richer than you were 10 years ago doesn’t matter in terms of a recession. If things are getting worse right now, you get really upset, and I think there’s something in this for white voters, for more conservative Christian voters, for more traditionalist Christian voters, where, still on top, no doubt about it, but in terms of groups raising and lowering their power in society, in terms of rates of change in status, the rate of change is bad.

White people feel that they are not as protected as they were, not as powerful. Christian folks feel they don’t have the hammerlock on politics they did, particularly white Christians, once upon a time, and that people are very sensitive not just to rates of economic change, which we in the literature forever, but they’re very sensitive, much more so than we give them credit for, to rates of status change.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes, actually. I think that’s a great way to think about it, and it’s actually like — when we talk about socioeconomic status, the addition of the socio to the economic status is something that was being said in I think my old sociological literature, the ’60s and ’70s, where we had something called like — we’d do these massive class structure and stratification tables. They said that people’s understanding of their economic position was conditioned on their social position, basically.


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We got away from that understanding when we thought that there was more equal opportunity access to economic positioning. Well, yeah. That makes sense when you got a lock on something like male privilege in the workplace, but once women entered the workplace, we expected those things to level off. So it isn’t that those things stop being true. We did, however, stop studying them that way.

There became a real preference for saying that your economic position was so wedded to your social position because we were more egalitarian. And macro economists, especially more critical ones, will now say that what you’re really seeing is, with the polarization and the pulling apart of the economic structure, a re-emergence of the importance of how social position conditions your understanding of your economic position.

But if you look at women, however, women workers, for example, nonwhite workers, that’s always been true. It’s always been the case that we understand the fine-grained differences in our relative economic status based on who we are and our lack of social status. It is just more true now, however, for white workers, especially white males.

EZRA KLEIN: I always think that the political conversation here is driven basically mad by something that’s all over your work, which is that status is not stable.


EZRA KLEIN: And there’s no agreement as to who is where, and that’s partially because who is where changes, but there’s a real different status hierarchy in elected politics and how power records there to where it is in culture to where it is and religion to where it is in a bunch of other parts of our society. One of the things I noticed in your work is that you are incredibly sensitive to using the way status changes for you moving in and out of different rooms as an example to showing it for others.

You really do use yourself as like, look what happened to me here, and look where I was here, and look where I was here. Could you talk a bit about that? Because we keep using status as a singular, but it’s not. It’s a shifting plural.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes, it is. It’s highly contextual, which is why we don’t like trying to measure it, frankly. And it is experienced subjectively but has objective consequences and measurable effects. That’s why it’s a really messy thing to try to understand. But as we start our conversation with the mess is where the good, important stuff is happening, and then we also are living in a time where — this is the technology piece.


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Almost all of the dominant technological changes that have reshaped our world over the last 30 years have only made status more contextual. So it’s added a layer of how important context is to status. Audiences can be collapsed and expanded so quickly, and they can shift so rapidly, and there new forms of status emerging all the time driven by digital platforms and digital technologies and just digital ideas, the idea of technology.

And so at the very time that status has become more destabilized and contextual and transient, there are also ever new and emerging forms of status, right? One of the examples I like to give is you can be a celebrity, what we call a micro celebrity in some digital space, and that translates to absolutely no form of capital anywhere else.

I love these stories. They do them every few years where they go, oh, what happened to somebody who was in that massive meme, you know? And they’ll go find them, and they’re working in fast food, or they were doing what they were doing before, usually worse off because the celebrity impacted their ability to work and get a regular job. And so status has become decoupled in so many micro ways from economic relations.

And I use myself as an example because people are so resistant to thinking about themselves as being vulnerable. If I invite the reader to think about how much status they lose when they go from one room to another, very few people are ambitious enough and courageous enough to do that. It’s a level of vulnerability to ask from the reader to go, you know how you feel like such a girl boss when you go do x, right? But you know what happens when you leave that room and you go to this other room, right?

And it doesn’t feel good to people, but if they can project it onto me and experience it through the way I’ve learned to see myself as sort of like a meta-narrative as I move through the world, I think it shows them a model for, when they’re ready, a model for how to think about it in their own lives. I think of some of my work, especially in Thick and some of the essay work as just trying to model for people that you can understand that this thing is happening to you and it not change who you are, right?

I’m still who I am. I still have what I have, but I know there are rooms that enter where my status evaporates the second I walk in. You can almost feel it sometimes. You can become so attuned to it. I can feel when a room changes, and we know that feeling. If you’ve ever been someplace, when a celebrity walks in the room and the air gets that crickle-crackle feeling in it, right, we know it. We just don’t think of it as being something that happens with us and to us.

And so I use myself as an example to try to give people a way to develop a model of thinking about the world, that you don’t have to be afraid of acknowledging that because status exists and it makes you vulnerable, acknowledging it doesn’t change your vulnerability. You’re vulnerable whether you develop a language to think about it or not.


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And that thing you talked about earlier, that psychological fissure that can happen when the world doesn’t recognize your status the way you think they should, developing a language is the most powerful thing we can do to protect ourselves from that kind of psychological trauma, that I may not be able to control how the world will see a really smart Black girl as she walks around in the world, but I can have a language for describing it, and I can know, at the end of the day, that if I can label it, if I can talk about it, it hasn’t completely broken me, and that more of us need that language. More is needed.


EZRA KLEIN: We’ve talked about some of the tributaries of status here, money, education, race, gender, politics. One of the really challenging essays from Thick, one that I still think about having read it now, I guess, a couple of years ago, is In the Name of Beauty, and attractiveness is a huge generator of life outcomes, of status. And you write in that that beauty isn’t actually what you look like. Beauty is the preferences that reproduce the existing social order. People talk about lookism. Is attractiveness a generator of status, or is it the reflection of it?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Both. I just did a really fun project — fun for me project — about Dolly Parton, and I read a book, “She Come By It Natural” by Sarah Smarsh. And what Sarah is doing is she’s talking about her. She comes from a white working class rural family, woman-dominated family, a very matriarchal family, and I could relate. I come from a very patriarchal family, and she talks about the women in her life, in her family’s lives about how important it was for them to be attractive as working class white women.

And she said it wasn’t attractive the way attractive matters to my now upper middle class white peers. Her life has changed. Being attractive meant a level of security and very marginal economic mobility for white working class women. She was like, for us, staying thin or staying attractive or staying pretty was about just being able to get some favor at a really brutal job.

If I’m a waitress, then it means I get a slightly better shift because the manager thinks I’m cute, basically. Or it opens up an avenue to marry and get the hell out of the Blue Ridge Mountains, right? That marginal amounts of very conditioned and complicated status, that beauty and attractiveness was generating then in that space status. But it also — the idea of what is beautiful, about what is attractive is a reflection of our collective political values and is about reproducing the underlying economic relations embedded in them.

And the way you know that it’s true is because if beauty were some objective idea, the same thing would have been beautiful in 1880 that was beautiful in 1980 that will be beautiful in 2080. And in fact, what you see when you study ideas, popular ideas about what constitutes attractiveness and desire and beauty, is that they have changed to match whatever is the economically valued group of people in the world.

And so yeah, there’s some underlying — sometimes evolutionary psychologists like to point to work about how there’s a universal equation for beauty, like there’s a ratio. The beauty, I think, ratio is what they call it, that we all value eyes that are set to something, some weird math. And I go, or there was a global system of capital by the 1500s countries that developed an idea the world over that was predicated on an equation of beauty that was exported.


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And when I do that, they always get very eh with me, but I also complicate the evolutionary psychology people because I think they are wild. That’s just a wild group of people, but looking for stable ideas across thousands of years is wild to me. But yet, we don’t think about — we’d like to think that beauty is just like the merit myth, so that we’d like to think of beauty as being objective at the same time that we want it to be achievable, right?

So this is the tension. And in every idea about merit that is both supposed to be inherited and achievable, and things cannot be both. If you inherit beauty but you can also achieve beauty, then inherited beauty won’t matter as much, right? And that’s the tension that we have and the ideas about what we’ll say is beautiful becomes a tool for consolidating status and opportunity and privilege for people who have inherited a social position.

One of my favorite ways to get people really upset is to talk about how much we valorize blondness in our culture, right? So here you have a biological blip, a set of recessive traits that has been elevated to almost a political ideology that we never, ever, ever critique as political or economic-based, but turn on the evening news tonight. Turn on Fox News, right? And you tell me what the visual comportment of power looks like.

EZRA KLEIN: I think all the time, just all the time, about how Hitler ran this genocidal campaign in service of an aesthetic ideal that he didn’t represent.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Didn’t embody, yeah.

EZRA KLEIN: It is — the mind crumbles. [LAUGHS]


EZRA KLEIN: And not that it’s funny, obviously.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: I know what you mean.

EZRA KLEIN: But it’s just one of these things. Sometimes I sit there with that, and it is the strangest thing. I understand on some level going nuts in service of something that obviously accrues to your own power, but the whole thing he was fighting for, he would have been on the outs — it just — It drives people mad.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: It really, really does. It does.

EZRA KLEIN: I don’t know if you across this. I come across it a lot. There’s a what-aboutism around beauty and attractiveness that will come from people who say, oh, well, you care about discrimination or inequality or inequity that comes from race or gender or education or something else, but look at the research on unattractiveness, and you don’t seem to care about that. And it’s always from people don’t care about any of them who are saying this.


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TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Anything else. Uh-huh. Yeah.

EZRA KLEIN: But it actually is, but I do think that it’s a critique worth taking seriously in the sense that there is something real to it, that we really do treat people differently in society based on height, based on looks, and we don’t have a very good critical discourse around that, in part because I think it implicates us too much, right? It’s very hard to talk about something that you’re part of that you can’t change or don’t want to change what you’re attracted to, or don’t want to think too hard about where it came from. It feels like a pretty expansive vista for complication. Not that, obviously, a lot of scholars haven’t been doing this for a long time, just that, in the public conversation, it’s a little thinner.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. And it’s the one that goes at the heart of — listen, you don’t own a lot in a leasing society, right? So here’s a society where we running out of stuff. We don’t get much, OK? Many of us are going to be renters forever. So the idea of the things that are naturally occurring that emerge from our true selves, I think we have always put value in that, but I think we especially put value in that now.

So this is the part where people will feel implicated, I think, in critiquing beauty privilege or whatever, attractiveness privilege, is what they think we’re saying is who you are attracted to is a social construction and a political problem. And well, here’s the truth. That is exactly what I’m saying. I am saying that that is not nearly as natural as you think it is, and that one of the most basic ways that we are all implicated in the status hierarchy is in naturalizing those differences and saying that they are naturally occurring.

And then that gets really, really, really fuzzy when I think it pushes people on thinking about something like gender and desire. I think that there is a lot of resistance coming from that side, but I also just think there’s just sort of a routine uncritical resistance to the idea that you’re going to try to police what I find attractive, and you’re going to tell me that even that is a political problem. And yeah, it kind of is.

EZRA KLEIN: I think it’s hard in a lot of these conversations to hold the idea that what we believe, think, do, intuitive reactions we have do reflect political problems, but they are not sins.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Oh, yeah. The morality. Yeah. Yeah.

EZRA KLEIN: Yeah. People have a lot of difficulty. Even I have a lot of difficulty with the idea that there can be things about me that don’t fit my politics. That can be an interesting fact and worth interrogating without it being something that I have to like loathe myself for.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. One thing I didn’t get from my family was — we are what I call culturally Baptists. We show up on Easter and Christmas, and we do some of the things, but we were not like devout churchgoers, which actually made us quite different in the places that we were from where the church is the center of the social and economic life of Black communities, right?


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We kind of participated, but we didn’t bring a lot of that home. And I think because of that, I never had some of the moral baggage. I mean, I have some that just comes from, I think, living in a secularly religious society, but I never internalized that because I am a part of a thing that’s bad, I am bad. And I actually will forget sometimes that other people aren’t like me in that regard.

And yeah, they’ll start spinning out. And I’ll go, what’s wrong with you? And somebody will say, Tressie, you basically just went at the core of their entire belief system. But I was like, well, all I said was you like blondes, and that’s a little eugenicist. I mean, I don’t know why you’re now crying. And apparently, because I don’t have that impulse, I forget to be empathetic with others. So thank you for reminding me. Yes, it does, I think, make people feel really bad.

EZRA KLEIN: But also, just, I don’t know. I don’t want to get prescriptive here coming to the end of this, but when we were talking earlier about mediums for thicker conversations and how do you have them, and how do you have this, like, what you described as a unified moral panic about our categorization systems without it feeling like a panic and without it feeling like a war of all against all.

I feel like there’s something here that’s really important in the way you approach it that makes a lot of sense for why you’re good at talking about these things because, somehow, it has to be OK that we are going to fall on the wrong side of even our categories. And I don’t know that we can do that in these spaces that are so tuned for shame that are tuning us for shame. You somehow have to — it has to be safer than it is to have some conversation because, if it isn’t safe, you can’t you can’t admit any of it.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: I actually have a really counterintuitive position on shame which is that it can serve a social function when it is divorced from some of the other social functions. So one of the problems right now is that social shame, which I think in and of itself is enough, usually, to discipline most people, is now tied to economic and political and cultural capital in sort of a way, and people feel that in a really gut level, and I think they’re right to feel it.

Shame is important to kind of like get people to adhere, especially to new norms, and we got to have. And so I’m always like, you don’t want to take shame off the table. What we probably do need to have happen is we need to divorce it from our micro celebrity driven culture.

EZRA KLEIN: That is such a good point.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Where your systems are the people, right? People become avatars for a whole system of thought, and I’m just like, well, that’s almost never going to work, the celebritization of some of these things that are always supposed to be really contentious sort of trade-offs, right? Well celebrity is not set up for trade-offs. Most of what we do for work is not set up for trade-offs, but our status is set up for that.


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And so that’s probably where we confine those conversations to. I think is perfectly fine to say, when somebody is on the wrong side of one of our political values, to say I don’t mess with them when they’re talking about minimum wage, right? They’ve been wrong on it. When they get started on minimum wage, I tune out. And for that to be the take away, tune out on so on so when they do minimum wage because they don’t know what they’re talking about, and they’re on the wrong side of history on this one, but to say but that person tends to be in the pocket on X, and we’ll listen to him on X. That would be to me contextual and status-based.

Like, OK, let’s not give them status on this idea, but give them some status on it that idea. But micro celebrity and the microeconomics of writing into public life right now really privilege everybody being a generalist and a universalist who performs being an ideologue, and you just can’t do all of that. You can’t do it all.

EZRA KLEIN: Ooh, let me try to make this comparison. So this feels technological, at least in part. We were talking earlier about your work on how status doesn’t follow you room to room, how you change room to room, but one of the problems online to what you were just saying about how many things shame attaches to is our, at least our group identity, our name online is cohesive.

And the things that attach to it, which are not everything. It’s a very flattened identity. Only a certain number of things attach to it, but the things that are attached to it follow it into every room, follow it into every Google search, follow it into what anybody would know about that online identity, and it’s very then hard to change it. You can’t get out of the room, and we don’t really know what to do with that well.

And it’s funny because were talking earlier. I think it almost maybe sounded negative that the things in our lives are contextual. But in many ways, I think the problem with our online identities, which now, as you’re saying, are our economic identities, our cultural identities, et cetera, is they are noncontextual. They are decontextualized.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. That efficiency and maximization piece again, the thing is, technologies can only maximize and increase efficiencies in a system of unequal distribution. It’s just going to make unequal distribution more efficient, and it’s just going to maximize it. And in the case of our very identities, that’s what it does most effectively. It flattens differences and distinctions and elevates the place where you have cobbled together the most consensus, even if that consensus is itself negative and decontextualized, but it will drive efficiencies of driving up consensus, even if the consensus is negative, and that there might be some value in there being contextual spaces where, in this space, I am an expert. In this space, I’m just a member of the audience, right? And in this space, I’m a membership of a group who has a group position, and we’re trying to move forward a group agenda, and that we cannot do that when we attach our work to our identity.

So what we may have here is just a fundamental critique of, should we be our work? And I always tell people, if you judge me by Twitter, that’s on you because I write all the time. And I have made as much of it free as I possibly can. So I’m like, you can judge me on what I write, but I’ve never told you to pay attention to me in these other contexts, and that is one of my ways of trying to navigate that.


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If I write and I articulate a reasoned, more thoughtful position on something and I make it freely available, then I always feel like I’ve got plausible deniability on the fallibility of being a digital person, an internet person, right? That’s me trying to build a buffer. It’s harder to do when you don’t control where you write, and you can’t control the circulation of your ideas, but yeah. That’s what I think I’m trying to get around.

The technology is never going to give us that affordance. We’re going to have to come up with social norms about it. The technology just can’t differentiate. The economics aren’t there. The political structure regulation isn’t there to make it differentiate. So what we really would be asking for is something like where we own all of our data and we could change access to different parts of the data we produce in different ways. We just don’t have that environment. So that means social norms are going to have to do it.

My challenge is this. I want those social norms to bubble up from the actual vulnerable people and not to be imposed top down from the people who only perceive that they are vulnerable.

EZRA KLEIN: I think that’s the good challenge right there. You want to do some book recommendations?


EZRA KLEIN: All right. What’s a work of cultural criticism you’d recommend?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Oh, yeah. And this is not only one of the more recent things I’ve read, but it is one of the better things I’ve read, and so I got lucky in that regard, and that is Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. I think everybody who says that they are an essayist and a popular culture critic right now needs to be chasing this book.

EZRA KLEIN: What’s the best book by a contemporary sociologist who isn’t you?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: I’m actually going to recommend something that, in my dream scenario, these things would come together in a pack when you went to the store. Like, if you bought one, you get the other, and that is Sabrina Strings, who’s a sociologist, and she has a book called “Fearing the Black Body,” “Fearing the Black Body,” that actually gets it some of what we were talking about, the construction of beauty, how we have defined beauty to be antithetical to whatever our racialized assumptions were of difference at any point in time in history, and that if that’s the line you take, then beauty has been stable. The construction of beauty has been whatever was not the racialized moral panic of the time. And so it’s a really great book.


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EZRA KLEIN: We managed to have so many interesting conversations, so I didn’t expect that I never got to all of my education questions for you, but because you’ve done so much education work, what’s the book you recommend on thinking about education?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Well, when I think about education, I am most often thinking about higher ed. So this is going to be the higher ed book. I think it’s just the GOAT. I think you got to do the GOAT book, and this was one of those when we talked about the difference between census reading and reading around. This is a census book. So that’s why I say these things still matter to do. It’s just I want people to do both, but you got to read Jerome Karabel’s “The Chosen,” which is the history of selective admissions in elite higher education.

I, as a person, do not care about Ivy League institutions. I tell people this all the time, and I think they think I’m doing that to angle for a job at one, and I promise you I’m not, but we are always, always in a long historical conversation in higher ed circles in this country with the foundations of how selective admissions were designed. And until we fully understand that, you can’t grapple with something like student loan debt or why people keep showing up for paying $100,000 for a master’s degree that has a symbol on it, right? We got to get that, again, status.

EZRA KLEIN: Then finally, always our last one, what’s your favorite children’s book?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Well, I should have said a Judy Blume book, considering we’ve lost her recently. And certainly, there are many of hers on that list, but my sentimental favorite will always be “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred Taylor. I often call this book — it was baby’s first novel. It was a longer book, right? I wasn’t a children’s reader, so I felt very grown up when I read this book. Didn’t have any pictures in it. I was so impressed with myself, and it is the kind of story — I mean, I saw myself in that story in a way that was really new for me at that age and at that time, and the book holds up. I reread it again within the last year and a half or so, and it really holds up.

EZRA KLEIN: Did it really? I remember reading that as a kid. And actually, it was almost too adult for me.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Well, that’s why I liked it, to be fair, and probably why I now think it holds up because now I’m the adult, right? I thought it nailed the emotions of a certain point in history without being too heavy-handed, but it was adult in a way that all kids don’t get to be kids. That’s kind of the moral of that story. So when we’re talking about a moment when the adultification of young men of color and young women of color, making them more vulnerable to police violence and et cetera, one of the my adult takeaways from the book is that not all kids get to be kids in the same way, and that’s probably why I liked it as a kid.

EZRA KLEIN: Tressie McMillan Cottom, thank you so much. What a pleasure.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: It really was a really good time. For a thing that did not involve cocktails or dinner, this was a lot of fun. Thanks, Ezra.


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EZRA KLEIN: Well, next time we can do it with cocktails.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: I’m holding you to it.


EZRA KLEIN: That is the show. We’ll see if I keep doing this, but I thought it might be fun to offer occasional recommendations of my own here at the end, and here’s mine for today. I just watched “My Octopus Teacher” on Netflix, which is in their nominated for Oscars documentaries category, but it’s all about a guy’s friendship with an octopus, and it is wonderful.

I think I need to do a show about octopi at some point. I’ve been reading some books on them. And then after watching this, it’s really strange how much we just have a wonderful alien-style intelligence on this planet and how little attention we actually pay to that fact. But if you want to just — I don’t exactly want to say trip out here, but if you really want to enter a different world for a while, “My Octopus Teacher,” it’s terrific.

If you want help the show, you can leave us a review wherever you are listening, or you can email this episode or text it or however you kids share your episodes to a friend, if you think they’d enjoy it, or family member. It’s a great way for the show to grow, and we always really appreciate it when you do it. “The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld, fact-checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld.

Ashley Mears on Status and Beauty (full) | Conversations with Tyler

okay so I think I think that myself I
might be a little bit of an outlier as a
as a club girl because I was much older
by about ten years even though I was
still referred to ubiquitously as a girl
but yeah I mean I had a professional job
in a career and I was I was in here
doing for one thing but looking at the
other women that are in the scene I mean
it’s really quite a range of of outcomes
I think they it might increase the most
their social capital in the sense that
they get more ties to people in
different kinds of realms than they
would if they weren’t a part of this
world so you know if they stayed in
Nebraska and didn’t try try out modeling
or if they tried out modeling but stayed
in the models apartment and didn’t go
you know to the Hamptons and to San
Tropez with the promoter I think that
you know on the margins they do gain
they gain those kinds of cosmopolitan
experiences which might be convertible
for something valuable in the future I
think that they gain friendship ties to
people that they otherwise wouldn’t be
exposed to you especially other women I
think it is a really important scene
where women can connect to each other I
don’t think it’s that valuable of a
scene where women can connect to rich
men so this is a question that people
always want to know like well you know
don’t these young women these club girls
don’t they like fetch a rich man for a
husband and this is a you know kind of
great dating and mating market and I
think the answer to that is no why don’t
why not because the well-to-do men are
there the attractive women are there
right in a lot of other settings you see
frequent pairings what stops it from
happening in the club yeah so even
though women who look like fashion
models are so valuable in this scene for
lending status they’re devalued for the
assumption that they’re just beautiful
and specifically the kind of women that
are like club girls going out night
after night they’re seen as being
unserious like this is this is not the
pool of future wives this is not the
pool of future business partners this is
a pool of hookups and people have a very
specific term that they use to describe
girls that are very valuable to the club
to the promoters but completely devalued
outside of the club and that’s the party
girl so people would just dismiss party
girls as being like I’m serious
you know like women women that you want
to have it the party but you don’t want
to see them the next day yeah so that
it’s kind of a I don’t know like being
tainted by going into the club and
taking advantage of all of the things
that the club can offer to a beautiful
young woman by making that trade of her
beauty for access she’s assumed to be
just a party girl as you probably know
there’s some modest degree of evidence
that attractive people are smarter on
average at least so why isn’t it the
case that these suppose and party girls
a lot of them are quite bright they
figure out ways of signaling that
they’re smart which is not hard to do in
conversation mm-hm
but have some well-to-do men who maybe
find it hard to meet the beautiful women
they want to marry and they go to the
club and they look for the signals from
the really smart party girls why doesn’t
the market work that way why keep apart
so it definitely can it worked that way
and I think there’s lots of success
stories where it does work that way
Melania Trump for example met Donald
Trump at one of these party not not one
of these parties in these nightclubs but
she was introduced at a party that was
run by her then fashion modeling agent
who was actually regular and one in this
whole VIP circuit so she was kind of
connected to this world and that’s where
she met the you know very rich and
successful businessman it by the way she
also had to work pretty hard when she
was introduced to the national stage to
clear the reputation that she’s not a
party girl there was like all of this
effort to say like Melania Trump was a
good girl she didn’t go out too much
right she happened to be at this one
party but she was not a party girl so so
I can work and I think there’s probably
lots of stories where that does work but
for the majority of the cases of the
young women who are brought to these
clubs with the promoters they it doesn’t
work for them because they’re staying
with the promoter the promoters job is
to keep them at the table their primary
being there is signaling their beauty it
becomes difficult to try to forge any
kind of meaningful connection when the
lights are low and the music is loud you
know there’s people are you know talking
but really like shouting into each
other’s ears and so the the setup of
that kind of a situation works against
any woman who’s trying to show that she
is like a real intellectual or she is
you know it has some kind of
occupational or educational prestige I
have so many naive uninformed questions
but why is the music so loud in these
clubs I found the music loud in
McDonald’s right right and so clubs are
kind of there also in this business of
trying to manufacture and experience
like the that annual Durkheim would call
this collective effervescence like
losing yourself in a moment and that’s
really possible when you’re able to kind
of tune out the other things like I
don’t know if somebody is feeling
insecure about the way they dance or if
somebody’s not sure of what to say
having really loud music that has a beat
where everybody just is the same thing
which is like nod to the beat that helps
to kind of tune people into one another
and it helps build up a vibe and a kind
of energy and so that’s the the the
point is to sort of lose yourself in the
music in these spaces putting aside your
research interests how much fun was it
for you to be in these gloves all right
so I always say like I really wish that
I had met these promoters when I was 18
because I was in New York I was studying
at Hunter College for a year and if I
had met the promoters then it would have
been fantastic it would have gotten to
you know travel and eat and drink for
free and stay out all night and enjoy
but when I was going back in into this
world of New York when I was 30 31 and
32 yeah it was pretty difficult
it was pretty grueling so just to put it
in perspective the dinner with the
promoters would start at around 10
o’clock at night we head to a club at
around midnight and we stay there until
3:00 a.m. and the high heels are very
high like the expectation is that when
where these really high high so it’s
like physically hard to to keep up and
be in these phases I think that for some
of the younger women that’s their thing
like they’ll of house music or they love
hip hop music they love to stay out late
get dressed up be looked at you know get
drunk have drugs it’s it’s fantastic for
for a young person it’s hard to convey
that kind of fun and it was hard hard
for me you know being like a sober
thirty year olds to also feel it now why
don’t they just pay the women to go to
the clubs as you know in economics it’s
typically assumed a cash payment it’s
more efficient than free tuna rolls what
stops that from happening
right always asking this of the women I
would and I would say like you know why
don’t we just like band together and
agree to show up at the club together
and then we’ll each get paid a hundred
dollars as opposed to going through all
of these efforts of the promoter you
know cajoling us and mobilizing us and
then he gets paid a thousand dollars and
the answer was always no I don’t want it
to be work I want it to be fun this is
leisure not labor and there’s all of
these efforts that are expended to make
it look like it’s not work although it
is I mean the women are performing a
really valuable labor to the club and
lots of profits are being made off of
them but they don’t want to think about
it in terms of work and occasionally
some promoters if they’re running low on
girls or they’re in a desperate
situation for the night they’ll call a
girl and and offer her say $40 or $80 to
come out as paid and this is looked down
on by other women is as being like an
act of desperation it’s going to ruin
the fun of the night because you have to
be there as opposed to wanting to be
there but that seems like a funny norm
so occasionally I may say to give talks
I can assure you that does not take away
from the fun that’s what I do
couldn’t the young women all just drop
this norm and they would get paid and be
better off aren’t they laboring under
some kind of false consciousness here it
is it – it’s a degrading experience in
some ways right the loud music so you
why not on the money side get the better
outcome right so it’s a degrading
experience if it’s not fun
if it’s not made meaningful and the
promoters that are really good at their
job they do it really well to make it
meaningful with the young women so
they’re not just recruiting models off
the street you know giving them some
free tuna rolls and then you know have
it saying like wear heels and dance it’s
actually the the promoters spend a lot
of time developing intimacy and
connections with the young women they
talk about each other as friends they
use this language of friendship they see
themselves as supporting one another and
the girls are loyal to the promoter and
so under these kinds of terms when the
women go out with the promoter it’s
usually a combination of things maybe
she’s needing free dinner maybe she
doesn’t have any friends because she’s
new to New York City maybe she is
sleeping with the promoter and she
thinks that she’s his girlfriend or
maybe she really likes the promoter
because they go to the movies every
Wednesday afternoon and promoters do
that they’ll invite they’ll invite girls
for bowling or for picnics or to you
know whatever Disneyland and so these
are relationships that the promoters are
cultivating which there then profiting
from so it feels meaningful it doesn’t
feel degrading and for the women from
whom it does feel degrading they
typically don’t last very long or they
leave over the course of the night and
they say this isn’t for me let’s say you
sat down with one of these 20 year old
young women and you taught them
everything you know from your studies
what you know about bodily capital and
sociological theories of exploitation
you could throw at them whatever you
wanted they would read the book they
would listen to your video talk with you
would that change their behavior any I
don’t think so no I don’t think so I
think that they might not be too
surprised even to learn the that this is
a job for promoters and the promoters
make money doing this most of them know
that they didn’t know how much money
promoters are making they don’t know how
much money the clubs are making but they
know that they’re contributing to those
profits and they know that there’s this
inequality built into it you know for
some of the women that had a belief that
they had the exclusive affections and
the promoter that might come as a
surprise and those are the those are the
satyr moments that I discovered in this
economy when promoters are misleading
the young women into thinking that they
genuinely have you know exclusive
romantic or intimate intentions when
often a promoter might be sleeping with
two or three or several models in order
to get them to come out with him at
night so for those women they might that
might be the drawing line because it’s
such an egregious abuse but in this
world there’s a widespread assumption
that everybody uses everybody else I
mean the women are using the club for
the pleasures that they can get from it
they’re using the promoter for the
pleasures they can get from him the
access the promoters are using the young
women the clients using the promoters
the drawing line is when there’s a
perception of abuse that people have a
clear sense that you know lying about
being exclusively romantic would be a
clear violation so that would be abusive
but use is okay mutual exploitation is
okay the margin do you think this world
should be taxed or subsidized by local
policy and I mean the words tax and
subsidize in a broad way like noise
ordinances opening hours their implicit
policy decisions that help her harm
these ventures what should the policy
stance be
okay well this is kind of out there I
think that as as a labor issue
this shows the really unequal and unfair
terms of the modeling industry in
particular and the modeling industry is
generating so much profit for the club
industry I mean the these unpaid women
in the modeling industry they’re also
generating huge like untold profits all
of these other industries that benefit
from their presence in the clubs like
finance or real estate where all of
these networks of powerful businessmen
get consolidated in part you know
softened through the presence of unpaid
women from the modeling industry so I
think that there could be some case to
be made that fashion unpaid fashion
models or low paid fashion models are
doing enormous unpaid labor for all of
these other hugely profitable industries
where disproportionately the profits are
going to men so I could see
redistribution working in that direction
but if you can’t talk them out of what
they’re doing given everything you know
and you would be the person to try to do
it right right is it that you’re you
know paternalistic or maternal istic
towards them or you don’t want to
respect their preferences or I mean how
do you see this at the meta level I
think that people participate in their
own exploitation all the time I mean you
see this in all kinds of different forms
of work as academics like yeah you get
paid for your talks but you’re doing a
lot of work that’s unpaid and
uncompensated and often unrecognized as
well like all of the service work all of
the other things that academia runs on
it also a lot of this is free labor that
we give up because we believe in it and
we find it validating and someone should
tell us not to do it but we’d probably
still do it anyway because it’s
validating so I think that exploitation
works best when it’s pleasurable and
when it’s made meaningful but that
doesn’t mean that the inequities can’t
be challenged at a structural level if I
had a subjective level people consent to
them whose evidence say that academics
are left-leaning dentists tend to lean
more toward the right what are the
politics of fashion models on average
but they’re they’re young this is a
population of people who are young and
often you know politically unexperienced
and often not educated especially for
women the age for a fashion model is
typically they’re late teenage years
into their 20s this is the company this
is the age for you know going to college
so so yeah um I would have to say that
they are amorphous and you know perhaps
they’re leaning left if for no other
reason because it’s a creative industry
and they’re exposed to more creatives
and Bohemians who tend to lean to the
left or tend to be more progressive why
is the scouting model so common for
finding women who might be fashioning
fashion models there’s a scout he goes
up to a woman he says you have that look
come with me why are things done that
way I think that’s happening less and
less in a digital and globally connected
world so it used to be that Scouts would
travel all across the like nine time
zones of Russia and go to these beauty
pageants across all these different
little cities and you know pluck someone
from obscurity and send her to Paris but
now there’s so many small modeling
agencies or even even just women with
Wi-Fi connections and instagrams all
around the world that they can email
their pictures directly to a scout who’s
based in New York so I think that that
model is starting to cut down where the
professional paid Scout whose job is to
go on the hunt will become less and less
or is becoming less and less but that
person will just look through pictures
on their computer they’re still scouting
but in a different form but isn’t there
some physical presence or charisma that
doesn’t come through in a photograph and
you need a good scout for that because
modeling may be mainly isn’t even about
looks right so the thing that models
sell in the market is called a look but
you’re definitely right that it’s part
physicality but part personality and
that comes through in a picture it comes
through in a walk and also a
conversation I think a lot can be
captured in video and zoom and Instagram
so you know I think there are ways to
capture that but a scowl maybe who gets
picture and gets the videos that they
like from somebody would eventually need
to go and meet them in their part of the
world it also probably you know
depending if it’s a woman in her age to
meet her parents as well and to develop
a rapport so that someone would feel
good about sending their teenage
daughter to a new market how good a
scout would you be a fashion models well
I’m a little bit shy I think when I to
go and talk to people so I think that a
good Scout they have to have a good eye
that’s the primary thing to to see that
what they would call like a diamond in
the rough I could do that I think that
any model that’s gone through the system
and is exposed to this kind of look over
and over can make these assessments and
to kind of see things together how
different features come together but I
think that Scouts also I’ve spent some
time with them they have a kind of ease
and talking to young people and they
have an ease and talking with their
parents and I I just don’t have that I
think I would feel awkward or like
creepy or in some way like offering
false dreams that I think probably I
would have serious hesitations about
trying to pull somebody into the
modeling industry if a good quality
Scout goes up to a 17 year old young
woman and approaches are about being a
model I mean what’s the median or modal
reaction to that okay so I know this
from interviewing the the models for my
first book it surprised its surprised
because I say I said so a scout has to
be able to identify a look and to be
able to see how somebody who is not in
the context of the fashion modeling
industry could be you know really great
under certain kinds of conditions and so
these are usually young women’s their
scouting stories are like you know I was
just coming out of soccer practice or I
was just getting off of like an
overnight airplane and I had braces and
you know I was the ugly duckling and
yeah nobody nobody looked twice at me in
middle school and then here’s this
person you know saying I should be a
model in London or something so yeah
but do ninety percent just tell the guy
to buzz off or what do they do I think
if it makes I mean that surprise can
come with like fear that this is some
it might be shady it could also come
yeah with the sense of like disinterest
I think that a lot of people in the
modeling industry they have a couple of
experiences with getting scouted so the
first time might be complete surprise
and like yeah this might be creepy or
like buzz off not interested right now
but if it happens again or a third time
then it the idea starts to start to
develop that maybe there’s something to
it and I was yeah did you respond so
sorry having a couple of times in at the
mall that a scout would would come
approached me which state is this yeah
so I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta
sent a lot of diamonds I fashioned malls
in Atlanta and my peers and so yeah
Scout would come up and say like all you
I’d love for you to come into the office
and you know we could probably work if
you’re interested – have you ever
thought about becoming a model but by
that point by that time that that had
happened I was already told by people
and like my friends in high school that
you know I was skinny enough that I
looked like one of these girls in these
magazines and I should consider it so it
was already kind of on my mind that it
was something that I wanted to do and
then of course my mom she sent me a
Vogue magazine 1993 Cindy Crawford was
on the cover I still have it and I and I
just got really into whatever fashion
modeling was I didn’t fully understand
but I was like I want to be this do you
regret having been a model no not at all
I regret that I didn’t use it in a
smarter way
because I was I think that you know I
started traveling to Milan in Japan when
I was 19 and 20 and so that’s still
quite a young age I think like mentally
and emotionally to kind of pick up and
go somewhere but if I sometimes feel
like if I had had
I don’t know better if I knew what I
know now you know back then I could have
built stronger connections with
interesting people like I could have
tried harder to understand the
creative side of producing fashion yeah
I could have tried tarted to get
involved in photography which I found
interesting but it was always kind of on
the margins of so it it opens up all
these doors that you know frankly at 18
I wasn’t really capable of seeing it’s a
significant subset of models who at
least to me appear to be distant
unapproachable and they look pissed off
why is that
there’s a wonderful dissertation at the
University of Amsterdam called my
fashion models don’t smile don’t they so
it depends which segment of the fashion
modeling market we’re talking about so
if you look in your catalogs that you
know used to come in the mail that now
are mostly online models are pretty
relatable that they they have the kind
of look that would be described as
girl-next-door or like a classic apple
pie and you see a lot of smiles when
people are selling things directly in
the catalog or commercial realm on
television commercials as well really
relatable people aspirational in the way
they look they look good but they’re
connecting they’re smiling and they’re
not meant to be intimidating unlike the
editorial side of fashion which is like
the catwalk or the magazines especially
the vogue magazines these are the kinds
of looks of models that are projecting
what people in the fashion world think
of as being in fashion and those kinds
of models almost never smile there’s
almost never a smile on the catwalk it’s
remarkable it’s supposed to be all about
showing the clothes and projecting this
aspirational distant kind of beauty that
is not meant to be relatable
if I could add you know just a lesson
from the art world is that the more the
more people and the more kind of
socially different types of people that
a work of art is meant to relate to the
lesser its value so in the editorial end
of the market the fact that your average
consumer doesn’t get that kind of look
doesn’t doesn’t get that cold distant on
smiling body your face that’s kind of
deliberate it’s not meant to make sense
to you it’s meant to make sense to like
the Anna Wintour’s of the world now when
your work on modeling in Japan you once
wrote that Western female models in
or often portrayed as quote silly
harmless and incompetent why is that
equilibrium in Japan so yeah I’m out in
Japan and these are just some
observations I mean I don’t know if it’s
I didn’t do a comparison with the local
models like Japanese models but indeed
there were lots of observations I took
of the Western models coming into Japan
and doing all kinds of just bizarre
silly things infantilizing things I
think that there’s some interpretivist
cultural studies that I reference in
that paper that suggested this is a way
of I don’t know diffusing or yeah
diffusing the Western hegemony or maybe
maybe bridging the divide between you
know Western beauty and Eastern Beauty
but I’m really not sure but that also
might account for what you call the
models passivity in the Japanese market
well yeah but it’s really the terms of
the work in the Japanese market it
produces passive passivity unlike
anything I’ve ever experienced because
the the language barrier and the the
ways that models would usually have a
little bit of control in the casting
situation is to talk to show their
personality is you know to connect to
relate and it’s really difficult in the
Japanese market because Western models
not only do they not speak Japanese in
most Japanese people do not speak
English the fashion world and lots of
other worlds
so the solution there is that every
agency has like a manager whose job is
also to drive the models to their
castings and then introduce the models
to the clients and then clients talk in
Japanese and the model stands there and
then the manager introduces the next one
so it’s like a just a very weird kind of
passive experience it also meant that a
lot of my time in Tokyo was spent in the
back of a van being driven around with
like Ukranian teenagers looking out the
window in the middle of these tracks we
usually have a segment overrated versus
underrated I’ll toss out a few notions
you tell me what you think are you
the importance of what sociologists call
loose ties overrated or underrated is
there an option to say it’s like
appropriate of course yeah I think this
is appropriate I mean I think that I
would be either some somewhat doing a
disservice to my discipline if I were to
say that it’s been overrated because it
is one of the major findings within
economic sociology that’s kind of
continually shown that there all these
advantages for having loose ties
arms-length ties the French sociologist
Pierre Bourdieu overrated or underrated
Oh again I have to be careful here
because you know one of my fields is
cultural sociology again write a paper
without citing the guy and I really
would say it’s a very 1970s 1980s French
notion of hierarchy that is itself
hierarchical very limited he covers
gender only much later yeah it probably
doesn’t even apply to the rest of France
yet truer true or false it’s true yeah
it’s true and there have been important
to that but I think that it was a huge
contribution to insert culture into
class hierarchy so everybody pays homage
for that reason the movie Zoolander
overrated or underrated underrated and
we should all still watch Zoolander this
is a fantastic treatise on like gender
and the impossibilities of male Beauty
it’s one of my favorites Miami Beach is
it actually fun overrated what do you
think overrated yeah over it overrated
although there’s you know pockets of it
that I think are probably more
interesting but they the kind of glossy
glitzy glamorous part of Miami Beach
totally overrated I mean it’s your thing
of like all glamour bad food Osaka Japan
what do you think um it’s been like 15
years by yeah yeah I like those little
octopus fried balls under right
okay you didn’t remember it would have
to be overrated right REM the musical
group you went to school in Athens
Georgia yeah underrated there yeah
although you’re at right now I think
that well because of that hit song it’s
the end of the world as we know it
they’re they’re having a moment coming
perhaps unfortunate champagne I don’t
like it am I wrong am I missing
data signaling so much of your work is
about signaling do you have to conclude
champagne is overrated I have to
conclude is overrated but there is
something really delightful about it as
a party good because you can shake it
and spray it without like destroying
clothes unlike say red wine and it’s
bubbly and you know this is kind of mad
it has a sort of fun magical quality so
yeah on the whole overrated but well
overrated because you can get all those
things with Prosecco here’s a question
from a reader and I quote quote how has
her own beauty and glamour influenced
her career academic career does she find
beauty based biases in academia either
positive or negative end quote yeah well
I think it looks matter everywhere in
academia is no exception
in my own experience there’s this
double-edged sword for women’s beauty so
some studies show that you know it’s
important for women especially to
conform to these traditional notions of
beautiful but they can’t overdo it in
the professional workplace so some
makeup is appropriate but like too much
eyeliner is considered you know to
sexual and inappropriate so yeah I tried
to balance that for instance even before
I got my job at Boston University I was
coached by my adviser to dress you know
in a fairly drab way to really try to
assert my authority
and and to distance myself from the
femininity and the beauty which was kind
of always going to be plaguing me
because of my work and because the fact
that I was a model so I tried to
distance it as I could you know dye that
question though for sure I think at an
interactional level having having beauty
definitely eases the way for for people
to respond more favorably to me because
of that halo effect of beauty so you
know maybe people are more more likely
to answer an email or to agree to a
meeting or the meeting will go smoothly
and people will listen more to what I
because I look the way they do I’ll find
that out I mean that questions to be
continued because as we know as women
age they so-called lose their bodily
capital aging is comes with a decline of
beauty for women and so yeah I’ll have
to answer that and say you know 10 or 15
years what kinds of emotional labor do
women professors have to perform that
maybe the male professors do not yeah
this is like a perennial conversation
that I have with my women colleagues
about the number of students that ask
for exceptions in their grades
especially of younger faculty young
women faculty the number of students
that open up with their problems and you
know we are more likely I think to keep
tissues in our offices for crying
students then like our male colleagues
so there’s there’s that yeah just kind
of being being a crutch to students and
being seen as somebody that’s more
relatable by virtue of age and by gender
means that we have more of these kinds
of drains on our I don’t know emotional
work than male colleagues I don’t know
if you if you would agree or if you find
that do you also keep tissues in your
office I don’t but you know my office is
so crowded I think actually everything’s
in there and probably that includes some
tissues I think if you broadly as being
anthropological even though you’re
sociologists and if you if you view
academia with your anthropological hat
on what about it seems most comical or
most stupid to you or just strange and
the stranger bazaar well it’s a really
interesting question there’s so many
things about it I guess the way that it
portends to be so meritocratic I mean
thinking here about academia and the
world of professors the way yeah the way
that it’s very meritocratic and
ostensibly within sociology were so
attuned to inequalities by gender and by
class and by race like that’s the bread
and butter of our discipline and yet we
reproduce inequities all the time I mean
not in the least with this notion of the
disproportionate amount of emotional
work of women faculty disproportionate
ways that women faculty and people of
color do more service work certain kinds
of hierarchies get reproduced in the
hiring all the time you know so even
though we’re supposedly all about equity
it’s just the fact that you know
somebody who’s tied to a prominent
person or an Ivy University will catch
our eye and so we’re starting and we
have now discussions about how to
safeguard against those biases but yeah
there’s kind of a bizarre thing the way
we reproduce inequalities all the time
if we’re concerned about inequality
including for women who have a
childbearing cycle shouldn’t we just
abolish tenure right and or maybe not
abolish it but maybe change the terms of
it so that the clock doesn’t completely
overlap with the so-called biological
clock for women who want to have
families so perhaps there could be a way
to lengthen it or pause it or start it
you know in a way that makes it fit
better with with having kids there’s
also a couple of you know yeah so I had
my kids right when I got tenure I had my
first child she arrived right after I
received my positive tenure decision I
didn’t plan it that way but it worked
out really luckily but I remember in
graduate school a couple of people had
kids in grad school and I was thinking
like no this is a ridiculous it’s not
the right plan like I could never
imagine having kids in grad school but
actually it does make sense to in grad
school you have a lot more control over
your time you’re a lot more flexible
fewer demands and you can kind of
stretch your grad school clock in a way
so in some ways I sometimes looking back
I think like that’s also an option to
maybe loosen up the expectation that
that women have kids after their careers
are all stitched up because that’s what
I followed and it it worked out for me
but it can’t work out for everyone and
it also was quite a big stress for those
six years if you think about the
question like what is your unified
theory of you you have this early career
as a fashion model and your current
career as an academic and also as an
author they’re all winner-take-all
sectors do you think of yourself
as in some sense you keep on doing the
same thing in different areas or do you
think of your current career as a
rebellion against what you did before so
I should say I was a really good student
all throughout high school in college
and I got into the modeling kind of as a
as a side job and then I I found a way
through sociology to turn my experiences
and modeling into an academic project
and I could kind of even see when I was
in college reading these ethnographies
at the workplace because I took this
great class on the sociology of work I
could see like wow someone should really
do this of fashion modeling and like I
could be the Barbara Ehrenreich you know
in sociology of like fashion in high
status and so in some ways I I’ve always
been a scholar I’ve always been I mean
I’ve always been a student first and
foremost my my alignment was an academia
and I was always looking searching for
the status and the the winner-take-all
hierarchy of academia and modeling kind
of got me there and you enjoy the thrill
of winner-take-all markets yes I know I
mean I can’t say that I’m like a winner
in the academic field I mean yes having
good a good
your job is because I know that they’re
increasingly in short supply but in some
ways it’s such a it’s less volatile of a
world than these cultural production
fields me it’s the complete opposite job
model once you get a tenure track job
and once you get tenure especially you
kind of can’t be fired
I mean barring you know some real
problems but I mean it’s lifetime
security in an age in the workforce in
which this is just shrinking it’s so
rare to have this kind of privilege of
lifetime job security and really like
knock on wood because as the
universities are facing these challenges
it just entered my mind in the last
month of like wow what would happen if I
didn’t have this lifetime job security
that I’ve counted on but it’s a complete
opposite fashion modeling is a 180 where
you can be dismissed you know from one
day to the next and your fortunes can
change for the better or for the worse
so yeah it’s a winner-take-all maybe
like in terms of prestige but once
you’re in the tenured world it’s pretty
study there’s a common perception that
Korean culture is relatively oppressive
for young women there’s a certain way
they’re expected to look or maybe to
have plastic surgery yeah you agree with
that and if so why is it yeah and I saw
this on the question like I thought that
maybe you’re asking me at first because
my you know my dad is half Korean so my
grandmother it’s Korean she was born and
raised in Hawaii but but in any case so
yeah I never been to Korea and so my
Korean connections actually really I
know from the literature but so to your
question it’s a common perception that
it’s a plastic surgery is oppressive but
I think make from my understanding you
know there’s an opposite reading which
is that it’s really validating and and
really quite pleasurable to modify the
appearance so in your write in South
Korea it’s it leads the world in double
eyelid surgery to make that eyelid fold
that is typical of Western shape I but
less so of an Asian shaped eye and so
this is often read as like oh this is
like internalized white Western hegemony
on to Asian people but I actually think
it’s a bit more complicated than that
there’s a certain kind of beauty they is
really popular around because throughout
Asia because of the rise of k-pop stars
and this kind of Asian beauty has a very
specific kind of face that’s like very
pale skin with a certain kind of makeup
regime around it and yes that the eyes
but I think it would be hard to say that
anybody is looking in Asia to the west
as the beauty standard I think within
Asia people are looking to kpop is a
beauty standard now and you know in the
u.s. like there’s all kinds of things
that could be read as oppressive to the
that people do like hair extensions and
these um eyelash extensions you know to
make really long and dark eyelashes and
all kinds of all kinds of practices that
when you actually talk to people they’re
very validating or they feel pleasurable
where do those pleasures come from sure
Marxist could say that it’s all false
consciousness but I think that there’s
probably lots more interesting answers
in America today for women what do you
think distinguishes most clearly notions
of upper class beauty and lower class
beauty yeah alright so I think that
upper class beauty upper class bodies
are pretty uniformly thin and that’s you
know the the economy of plenty whoever
has money can afford quality food and
getting to the gym as opposed to an
economy of scarcity having a kind of
plump you know a rotund belly would be a
sign of having extra money or of wealth
so yeah I definitely thinness and if you
look at the rates of obesity and
overweight you there’s a very clear
divide like upward people who are upper
class tend to be thinner my people who
are lower class tend to be larger so
that’s one kind of clear distinction
otherwise you know all of the things
that are signals of beauty tend to be
things that people who have money can
afford to invest in so straight teeth
clear skin you know blonde highlights or
just kind of shiny hair kept up nails
clothing signifies a lot I mean these
are all things that can be people with
money can work on themselves to achieve
for a very last segment return to what I
call the Ashley Mears production
function me who first spotted your
talent as an academic okay so there
there were two of them at the University
of Georgia in the sociology department
it was William Finlay he’s a sociologist
of work and and also James Coverdell
they wrote a book on headhunters and so
they were attuned to questions of
non-standard work for Carius work and
when I I took the sociology of work
class with James Coverdale and he was
like yeah you should do this like a
sociology of work about fashion models
definitely then he put me in touch with
that with William and I was yeah I was
just emailing with them last week like
they they stayed my mentors for a long
time and if you’re looking for promising
young sociology or anthropologists for
that matter what’s the non obvious
signal you look for yes hard work they
should be smart and so on but beneath
the surface what strikes you if somebody
is read a lot and if they’ve read
eclectic things and they have that kind
of breadth that strikes me because that
means that they’re curious and
interested in a lot of different things
and that they can bring that to whatever
is our topic they end up landing on
what’s the weirdest set of things you
like to read or have read other than
about fashion modeling in the party and
like you know guidebooks for restaurants
and Economist’s right so I read a lot of
ethnographies within sociology that’s
probably not a surprise that’s kind of
within my field but I’m also reading now
because I have two kids I like to read
advice books for parents you know
ranging from kind of kitschy ones on up
to like from economists on like what the
data say are the best child
practices so that’s where I’m kind of in
now I mean yeah having having kids maybe
not a surprise kind of put me in this
like parenting literature and what’s the
best advice you either have read or
would offer to other people on parenting
to people on parenting sure you’ve read
all these books you have an opinion tell
the parents out there I said maybe I
still need some advice but what do you
say so usually that kind of question
would invite into an individualistic
answer and that’s the problem with the
literature that it’s all like you as an
individual parent what you should or
shouldn’t do and you know maybe because
I’m a sociologist but but yeah my advice
for parents in this country is to
mobilize because it’s a complete crisis
that we don’t have paid parental leave
that there’s no state supports for
daycare I think that that’s one of the
tragic but really important things about
the pandemic right now is that it’s it’s
revealing just how difficult it is to
combine a career with family and the
United States is just exceptional in how
unfriendly it is for family policy yeah
mobilize what is your most unusual
writing or work habit ok these are
interesting questions so I used to have
something I used to have it like a
pretty consistent flow before I had kids
that got that got disrupted and that’s
what a lot of people say is like they
write in like these certain chunks of
time day after day and that’s how
they’re able to accomplish it but so
here’s a weird habit that I picked up in
college I mean it stayed with me if I
eat something sweet in college I would
munch on like a box of Dunkin Donuts to
get through a term paper and now I find
like whatever cookie is my kids have no
like I always have you know some sweet
junk food this is probably not really
great advice there for anybody but it’s
just my habit now just to the audience I
would like again to recommend Ashley’s
book it is called again very important
people status and beauty in the global
party circuit
it is quality research fantastic fun to
read I learned a great deal from it I
think it will be a big hit
definitely one of my favorite books of
this year or indeed would be of years
past and Ashley thank you very much for
joining us and best of luck with
publication thank you thank you so much