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.”

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah.

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.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yup.

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?

EZRA KLEIN: Yeah.

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.

[LAUGHING]

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.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes.

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

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yup.

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

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s right.

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.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes.

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.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah.

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.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yup, yup.

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.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Same!

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

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yup.

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.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s right.

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.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Very much so.

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.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah.

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.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah.

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.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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]

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Mm-hm.

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?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Oh, yes. Yes.

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.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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

17:26
okay so I think I think that myself I
17:29
might be a little bit of an outlier as a
17:31
as a club girl because I was much older
17:34
by about ten years even though I was
17:36
still referred to ubiquitously as a girl
17:37
but yeah I mean I had a professional job
17:41
in a career and I was I was in here
17:42
doing for one thing but looking at the
17:44
other women that are in the scene I mean
17:47
it’s really quite a range of of outcomes
17:50
I think they it might increase the most
17:55
their social capital in the sense that
17:58
they get more ties to people in
18:00
different kinds of realms than they
18:03
would if they weren’t a part of this
18:05
world so you know if they stayed in
18:07
Nebraska and didn’t try try out modeling
18:10
or if they tried out modeling but stayed
18:12
in the models apartment and didn’t go
18:14
you know to the Hamptons and to San
18:15
Tropez with the promoter I think that
18:18
you know on the margins they do gain
18:20
they gain those kinds of cosmopolitan
18:22
experiences which might be convertible
18:25
for something valuable in the future I
18:27
think that they gain friendship ties to
18:30
people that they otherwise wouldn’t be
18:31
exposed to you especially other women I
18:33
think it is a really important scene
18:35
where women can connect to each other I
18:37
don’t think it’s that valuable of a
18:39
scene where women can connect to rich
18:41
men so this is a question that people
18:43
always want to know like well you know
18:45
don’t these young women these club girls
18:48
don’t they like fetch a rich man for a
18:51
husband and this is a you know kind of
18:53
great dating and mating market and I
18:55
think the answer to that is no why don’t
18:58
why not because the well-to-do men are
19:00
there the attractive women are there
19:03
right in a lot of other settings you see
19:05
frequent pairings what stops it from
19:08
happening in the club yeah so even
19:11
though women who look like fashion
19:13
models are so valuable in this scene for
19:15
lending status they’re devalued for the
19:18
assumption that they’re just beautiful
19:20
and specifically the kind of women that
19:23
are like club girls going out night
19:24
after night they’re seen as being
19:26
unserious like this is this is not the
19:28
pool of future wives this is not the
19:30
pool of future business partners this is
19:32
a pool of hookups and people have a very
19:35
specific term that they use to describe
19:37
girls that are very valuable to the club
19:40
and
19:40
to the promoters but completely devalued
19:43
outside of the club and that’s the party
19:45
girl so people would just dismiss party
19:48
girls as being like I’m serious
19:50
you know like women women that you want
19:52
to have it the party but you don’t want
19:53
to see them the next day yeah so that
19:57
it’s kind of a I don’t know like being
19:59
tainted by going into the club and
20:02
taking advantage of all of the things
20:04
that the club can offer to a beautiful
20:06
young woman by making that trade of her
20:09
beauty for access she’s assumed to be
20:12
just a party girl as you probably know
20:16
there’s some modest degree of evidence
20:18
that attractive people are smarter on
20:20
average at least so why isn’t it the
20:23
case that these suppose and party girls
20:25
a lot of them are quite bright they
20:27
figure out ways of signaling that
20:29
they’re smart which is not hard to do in
20:31
conversation mm-hm
20:33
but have some well-to-do men who maybe
20:35
find it hard to meet the beautiful women
20:37
they want to marry and they go to the
20:39
club and they look for the signals from
20:41
the really smart party girls why doesn’t
20:43
the market work that way why keep apart
20:47
so it definitely can it worked that way
20:50
and I think there’s lots of success
20:52
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
21:38
for the majority of the cases of the
21:39
young women who are brought to these
21:42
clubs with the promoters they it doesn’t
21:47
work for them because they’re staying
21:48
with the promoter the promoters job is
21:50
to keep them at the table their primary
21:53
being there is signaling their beauty it
21:57
becomes difficult to try to forge any
22:00
kind of meaningful connection when the
22:02
lights are low and the music is loud you
22:04
know there’s people are you know talking
22:07
but really like shouting into each
22:08
other’s ears and so the the setup of
22:11
that kind of a situation works against
22:14
any woman who’s trying to show that she
22:17
is like a real intellectual or she is
22:19
you know it has some kind of
22:20
occupational or educational prestige I
22:22
have so many naive uninformed questions
22:25
but why is the music so loud in these
22:27
clubs I found the music loud in
22:32
McDonald’s right right and so clubs are
22:38
kind of there also in this business of
22:39
trying to manufacture and experience
22:41
like the that annual Durkheim would call
22:44
this collective effervescence like
22:46
losing yourself in a moment and that’s
22:48
really possible when you’re able to kind
22:50
of tune out the other things like I
22:53
don’t know if somebody is feeling
22:57
insecure about the way they dance or if
22:59
somebody’s not sure of what to say
23:01
having really loud music that has a beat
23:03
where everybody just is the same thing
23:05
which is like nod to the beat that helps
23:07
to kind of tune people into one another
23:10
and it helps build up a vibe and a kind
23:12
of energy and so that’s the the the
23:14
point is to sort of lose yourself in the
23:16
music in these spaces putting aside your
23:19
research interests how much fun was it
23:22
for you to be in these gloves all right
23:25
so I always say like I really wish that
23:27
I had met these promoters when I was 18
23:29
because I was in New York I was studying
23:31
at Hunter College for a year and if I
23:34
had met the promoters then it would have
23:36
been fantastic it would have gotten to
23:38
you know travel and eat and drink for
23:40
free and stay out all night and enjoy
23:44
but when I was going back in into this
23:47
world of New York when I was 30 31 and
23:51
32 yeah it was pretty difficult
23:54
it was pretty grueling so just to put it
23:56
in perspective the dinner with the
23:57
promoters would start at around 10
23:59
o’clock at night we head to a club at
24:01
around midnight and we stay there until
24:03
3:00 a.m. and the high heels are very
24:05
high like the expectation is that when
24:07
where these really high high so it’s
24:09
like physically hard to to keep up and
24:11
be in these phases I think that for some
24:14
of the younger women that’s their thing
24:16
like they’ll of house music or they love
24:18
hip hop music they love to stay out late
24:20
get dressed up be looked at you know get
24:22
drunk have drugs it’s it’s fantastic for
24:25
for a young person it’s hard to convey
24:27
that kind of fun and it was hard hard
24:30
for me you know being like a sober
24:32
thirty year olds to also feel it now why
24:37
don’t they just pay the women to go to
24:38
the clubs as you know in economics it’s
24:40
typically assumed a cash payment it’s
24:43
more efficient than free tuna rolls what
24:46
stops that from happening
24:47
right always asking this of the women I
24:51
would and I would say like you know why
24:53
don’t we just like band together and
24:55
agree to show up at the club together
24:56
and then we’ll each get paid a hundred
24:58
dollars as opposed to going through all
25:00
of these efforts of the promoter you
25:02
know cajoling us and mobilizing us and
25:04
then he gets paid a thousand dollars and
25:06
the answer was always no I don’t want it
25:08
to be work I want it to be fun this is
25:11
leisure not labor and there’s all of
25:12
these efforts that are expended to make
25:14
it look like it’s not work although it
25:16
is I mean the women are performing a
25:18
really valuable labor to the club and
25:20
lots of profits are being made off of
25:22
them but they don’t want to think about
25:25
it in terms of work and occasionally
25:27
some promoters if they’re running low on
25:29
girls or they’re in a desperate
25:31
situation for the night they’ll call a
25:33
girl and and offer her say $40 or $80 to
25:37
come out as paid and this is looked down
25:40
on by other women is as being like an
25:43
act of desperation it’s going to ruin
25:45
the fun of the night because you have to
25:46
be there as opposed to wanting to be
25:48
there but that seems like a funny norm
25:51
so occasionally I may say to give talks
25:53
I can assure you that does not take away
25:55
from the fun that’s what I do
25:58
couldn’t the young women all just drop
26:00
this norm and they would get paid and be
26:02
better off aren’t they laboring under
26:04
some kind of false consciousness here it
26:06
is it – it’s a degrading experience in
26:09
some ways right the loud music so you
26:12
why not on the money side get the better
26:15
outcome right so it’s a degrading
26:17
experience if it’s not fun
26:19
if it’s not made meaningful and the
26:20
promoters that are really good at their
26:22
job they do it really well to make it
26:24
meaningful with the young women so
26:26
they’re not just recruiting models off
26:30
the street you know giving them some
26:31
free tuna rolls and then you know have
26:34
it saying like wear heels and dance it’s
26:37
actually the the promoters spend a lot
26:39
of time developing intimacy and
26:42
connections with the young women they
26:44
talk about each other as friends they
26:45
use this language of friendship they see
26:47
themselves as supporting one another and
26:50
the girls are loyal to the promoter and
26:53
so under these kinds of terms when the
26:56
women go out with the promoter it’s
26:59
usually a combination of things maybe
27:01
she’s needing free dinner maybe she
27:04
doesn’t have any friends because she’s
27:06
new to New York City maybe she is
27:07
sleeping with the promoter and she
27:09
thinks that she’s his girlfriend or
27:10
maybe she really likes the promoter
27:12
because they go to the movies every
27:13
Wednesday afternoon and promoters do
27:16
that they’ll invite they’ll invite girls
27:18
for bowling or for picnics or to you
27:21
know whatever Disneyland and so these
27:24
are relationships that the promoters are
27:25
cultivating which there then profiting
27:27
from so it feels meaningful it doesn’t
27:30
feel degrading and for the women from
27:32
whom it does feel degrading they
27:34
typically don’t last very long or they
27:35
leave over the course of the night and
27:37
they say this isn’t for me let’s say you
27:39
sat down with one of these 20 year old
27:41
young women and you taught them
27:43
everything you know from your studies
27:45
what you know about bodily capital and
27:47
sociological theories of exploitation
27:49
you could throw at them whatever you
27:51
wanted they would read the book they
27:52
would listen to your video talk with you
27:55
would that change their behavior any I
27:57
don’t think so no I don’t think so I
28:01
think that they might not be too
28:05
surprised even to learn the that this is
28:09
a job for promoters and the promoters
28:11
make money doing this most of them know
28:12
that they didn’t know how much money
28:14
promoters are making they don’t know how
28:16
much money the clubs are making but they
28:18
know that they’re contributing to those
28:20
profits and they know that there’s this
28:22
inequality built into it you know for
28:25
some of the women that had a belief that
28:28
they had the exclusive affections and
28:31
attention
28:31
the promoter that might come as a
28:34
surprise and those are the those are the
28:36
satyr moments that I discovered in this
28:38
economy when promoters are misleading
28:42
the young women into thinking that they
28:45
genuinely have you know exclusive
28:48
romantic or intimate intentions when
28:50
often a promoter might be sleeping with
28:53
two or three or several models in order
28:56
to get them to come out with him at
28:58
night so for those women they might that
29:02
might be the drawing line because it’s
29:04
such an egregious abuse but in this
29:07
world there’s a widespread assumption
29:09
that everybody uses everybody else I
29:11
mean the women are using the club for
29:13
the pleasures that they can get from it
29:15
they’re using the promoter for the
29:16
pleasures they can get from him the
29:18
access the promoters are using the young
29:20
women the clients using the promoters
29:22
the drawing line is when there’s a
29:24
perception of abuse that people have a
29:27
clear sense that you know lying about
29:30
being exclusively romantic would be a
29:32
clear violation so that would be abusive
29:34
but use is okay mutual exploitation is
29:37
okay the margin do you think this world
29:40
should be taxed or subsidized by local
29:43
policy and I mean the words tax and
29:45
subsidize in a broad way like noise
29:47
ordinances opening hours their implicit
29:49
policy decisions that help her harm
29:52
these ventures what should the policy
29:53
stance be
29:55
okay well this is kind of out there I
29:59
think that as as a labor issue
30:03
this shows the really unequal and unfair
30:07
terms of the modeling industry in
30:10
particular and the modeling industry is
30:12
generating so much profit for the club
30:16
industry I mean the these unpaid women
30:18
in the modeling industry they’re also
30:21
generating huge like untold profits all
30:23
of these other industries that benefit
30:25
from their presence in the clubs like
30:27
finance or real estate where all of
30:30
these networks of powerful businessmen
30:32
get consolidated in part you know
30:34
softened through the presence of unpaid
30:36
women from the modeling industry so I
30:38
think that there could be some case to
30:40
be made that fashion unpaid fashion
30:44
models or low paid fashion models are
30:46
doing enormous unpaid labor for all of
30:48
these other hugely profitable industries
30:50
where disproportionately the profits are
30:52
going to men so I could see
30:54
redistribution working in that direction
30:56
but if you can’t talk them out of what
30:59
they’re doing given everything you know
31:01
and you would be the person to try to do
31:03
it right right is it that you’re you
31:07
know paternalistic or maternal istic
31:09
towards them or you don’t want to
31:11
respect their preferences or I mean how
31:15
do you see this at the meta level I
31:16
think that people participate in their
31:18
own exploitation all the time I mean you
31:20
see this in all kinds of different forms
31:22
of work as academics like yeah you get
31:24
paid for your talks but you’re doing a
31:26
lot of work that’s unpaid and
31:28
uncompensated and often unrecognized as
31:30
well like all of the service work all of
31:33
the other things that academia runs on
31:34
it also a lot of this is free labor that
31:38
we give up because we believe in it and
31:39
we find it validating and someone should
31:41
tell us not to do it but we’d probably
31:43
still do it anyway because it’s
31:44
validating so I think that exploitation
31:46
works best when it’s pleasurable and
31:49
when it’s made meaningful but that
31:50
doesn’t mean that the inequities can’t
31:52
be challenged at a structural level if I
31:56
had a subjective level people consent to
31:57
them whose evidence say that academics
32:01
are left-leaning dentists tend to lean
32:03
more toward the right what are the
32:04
politics of fashion models on average
32:07
but they’re they’re young this is a
32:10
population of people who are young and
32:12
often you know politically unexperienced
32:15
and often not educated especially for
32:17
women the age for a fashion model is
32:19
typically they’re late teenage years
32:21
into their 20s this is the company this
32:23
is the age for you know going to college
32:26
so so yeah um I would have to say that
32:31
they are amorphous and you know perhaps
32:34
they’re leaning left if for no other
32:36
reason because it’s a creative industry
32:38
and they’re exposed to more creatives
32:41
and Bohemians who tend to lean to the
32:43
left or tend to be more progressive why
32:46
is the scouting model so common for
32:48
finding women who might be fashioning
32:50
fashion models there’s a scout he goes
32:52
up to a woman he says you have that look
32:54
come with me why are things done that
32:57
way I think that’s happening less and
33:00
less in a digital and globally connected
33:02
world so it used to be that Scouts would
33:04
travel all across the like nine time
33:06
zones of Russia and go to these beauty
33:09
pageants across all these different
33:10
little cities and you know pluck someone
33:13
from obscurity and send her to Paris but
33:15
now there’s so many small modeling
33:17
agencies or even even just women with
33:20
Wi-Fi connections and instagrams all
33:22
around the world that they can email
33:24
their pictures directly to a scout who’s
33:26
based in New York so I think that that
33:27
model is starting to cut down where the
33:31
professional paid Scout whose job is to
33:33
go on the hunt will become less and less
33:36
or is becoming less and less but that
33:38
person will just look through pictures
33:41
on their computer they’re still scouting
33:43
but in a different form but isn’t there
33:45
some physical presence or charisma that
33:47
doesn’t come through in a photograph and
33:49
you need a good scout for that because
33:51
modeling may be mainly isn’t even about
33:54
looks right so the thing that models
33:58
sell in the market is called a look but
34:00
you’re definitely right that it’s part
34:02
physicality but part personality and
34:04
that comes through in a picture it comes
34:05
through in a walk and also a
34:06
conversation I think a lot can be
34:08
captured in video and zoom and Instagram
34:12
so you know I think there are ways to
34:15
capture that but a scowl maybe who gets
34:20
a
34:20
picture and gets the videos that they
34:22
like from somebody would eventually need
34:25
to go and meet them in their part of the
34:27
world it also probably you know
34:29
depending if it’s a woman in her age to
34:31
meet her parents as well and to develop
34:34
a rapport so that someone would feel
34:37
good about sending their teenage
34:38
daughter to a new market how good a
34:41
scout would you be a fashion models well
34:47
I’m a little bit shy I think when I to
34:49
go and talk to people so I think that a
34:52
good Scout they have to have a good eye
34:54
that’s the primary thing to to see that
34:57
what they would call like a diamond in
34:58
the rough I could do that I think that
35:00
any model that’s gone through the system
35:02
and is exposed to this kind of look over
35:05
and over can make these assessments and
35:07
to kind of see things together how
35:08
different features come together but I
35:11
think that Scouts also I’ve spent some
35:13
time with them they have a kind of ease
35:15
and talking to young people and they
35:16
have an ease and talking with their
35:18
parents and I I just don’t have that I
35:20
think I would feel awkward or like
35:23
creepy or in some way like offering
35:25
false dreams that I think probably I
35:27
would have serious hesitations about
35:29
trying to pull somebody into the
35:32
modeling industry if a good quality
35:34
Scout goes up to a 17 year old young
35:36
woman and approaches are about being a
35:39
model I mean what’s the median or modal
35:41
reaction to that okay so I know this
35:46
from interviewing the the models for my
35:48
first book it surprised its surprised
35:51
because I say I said so a scout has to
35:53
be able to identify a look and to be
35:55
able to see how somebody who is not in
35:59
the context of the fashion modeling
36:00
industry could be you know really great
36:02
under certain kinds of conditions and so
36:04
these are usually young women’s their
36:06
scouting stories are like you know I was
36:08
just coming out of soccer practice or I
36:10
was just getting off of like an
36:11
overnight airplane and I had braces and
36:14
you know I was the ugly duckling and
36:15
yeah nobody nobody looked twice at me in
36:18
middle school and then here’s this
36:20
person you know saying I should be a
36:21
model in London or something so yeah
36:24
surprise
36:24
but do ninety percent just tell the guy
36:26
to buzz off or what do they do I think
36:30
if it makes I mean that surprise can
36:31
come with like fear that this is some
36:34
it might be shady it could also come
36:36
yeah with the sense of like disinterest
36:40
I think that a lot of people in the
36:43
modeling industry they have a couple of
36:44
experiences with getting scouted so the
36:46
first time might be complete surprise
36:48
and like yeah this might be creepy or
36:50
like buzz off not interested right now
36:52
but if it happens again or a third time
36:53
then it the idea starts to start to
36:56
develop that maybe there’s something to
36:58
it and I was yeah did you respond so
37:04
sorry having a couple of times in at the
37:07
mall that a scout would would come
37:09
approached me which state is this yeah
37:12
so I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta
37:14
sent a lot of diamonds I fashioned malls
37:16
in Atlanta and my peers and so yeah
37:19
Scout would come up and say like all you
37:20
I’d love for you to come into the office
37:22
and you know we could probably work if
37:25
you’re interested – have you ever
37:26
thought about becoming a model but by
37:27
that point by that time that that had
37:30
happened I was already told by people
37:33
and like my friends in high school that
37:35
you know I was skinny enough that I
37:37
looked like one of these girls in these
37:41
magazines and I should consider it so it
37:42
was already kind of on my mind that it
37:44
was something that I wanted to do and
37:45
then of course my mom she sent me a
37:47
Vogue magazine 1993 Cindy Crawford was
37:52
on the cover I still have it and I and I
37:55
just got really into whatever fashion
37:57
modeling was I didn’t fully understand
37:58
but I was like I want to be this do you
38:02
regret having been a model no not at all
38:06
I regret that I didn’t use it in a
38:11
smarter way
38:12
because I was I think that you know I
38:14
started traveling to Milan in Japan when
38:17
I was 19 and 20 and so that’s still
38:21
quite a young age I think like mentally
38:25
and emotionally to kind of pick up and
38:27
go somewhere but if I sometimes feel
38:31
like if I had had
38:32
I don’t know better if I knew what I
38:35
know now you know back then I could have
38:38
built stronger connections with
38:41
interesting people like I could have
38:43
tried harder to understand the
38:46
creative side of producing fashion yeah
38:50
I could have tried tarted to get
38:52
involved in photography which I found
38:54
interesting but it was always kind of on
38:55
the margins of so it it opens up all
38:57
these doors that you know frankly at 18
38:59
I wasn’t really capable of seeing it’s a
39:03
significant subset of models who at
39:05
least to me appear to be distant
39:07
unapproachable and they look pissed off
39:09
why is that
39:11
there’s a wonderful dissertation at the
39:14
University of Amsterdam called my
39:16
fashion models don’t smile don’t they so
39:20
it depends which segment of the fashion
39:22
modeling market we’re talking about so
39:23
if you look in your catalogs that you
39:26
know used to come in the mail that now
39:28
are mostly online models are pretty
39:30
relatable that they they have the kind
39:32
of look that would be described as
39:33
girl-next-door or like a classic apple
39:35
pie and you see a lot of smiles when
39:37
people are selling things directly in
39:39
the catalog or commercial realm on
39:40
television commercials as well really
39:42
relatable people aspirational in the way
39:45
they look they look good but they’re
39:46
connecting they’re smiling and they’re
39:48
not meant to be intimidating unlike the
39:51
editorial side of fashion which is like
39:53
the catwalk or the magazines especially
39:56
the vogue magazines these are the kinds
39:59
of looks of models that are projecting
40:02
what people in the fashion world think
40:05
of as being in fashion and those kinds
40:08
of models almost never smile there’s
40:10
almost never a smile on the catwalk it’s
40:12
remarkable it’s supposed to be all about
40:13
showing the clothes and projecting this
40:16
aspirational distant kind of beauty that
40:20
is not meant to be relatable
40:22
if I could add you know just a lesson
40:24
from the art world is that the more the
40:28
more people and the more kind of
40:30
socially different types of people that
40:32
a work of art is meant to relate to the
40:35
lesser its value so in the editorial end
40:38
of the market the fact that your average
40:40
consumer doesn’t get that kind of look
40:43
doesn’t doesn’t get that cold distant on
40:45
smiling body your face that’s kind of
40:48
deliberate it’s not meant to make sense
40:50
to you it’s meant to make sense to like
40:51
the Anna Wintour’s of the world now when
40:54
your work on modeling in Japan you once
40:56
wrote that Western female models in
40:59
Japan
41:00
or often portrayed as quote silly
41:02
harmless and incompetent why is that
41:04
equilibrium in Japan so yeah I’m out in
41:09
Japan and these are just some
41:10
observations I mean I don’t know if it’s
41:13
I didn’t do a comparison with the local
41:18
models like Japanese models but indeed
41:21
there were lots of observations I took
41:24
of the Western models coming into Japan
41:27
and doing all kinds of just bizarre
41:30
silly things infantilizing things I
41:32
think that there’s some interpretivist
41:35
cultural studies that I reference in
41:38
that paper that suggested this is a way
41:40
of I don’t know diffusing or yeah
41:43
diffusing the Western hegemony or maybe
41:47
maybe bridging the divide between you
41:50
know Western beauty and Eastern Beauty
41:52
but I’m really not sure but that also
41:55
might account for what you call the
41:57
models passivity in the Japanese market
41:59
well yeah but it’s really the terms of
42:01
the work in the Japanese market it
42:03
produces passive passivity unlike
42:06
anything I’ve ever experienced because
42:08
the the language barrier and the the
42:13
ways that models would usually have a
42:15
little bit of control in the casting
42:17
situation is to talk to show their
42:20
personality is you know to connect to
42:22
relate and it’s really difficult in the
42:24
Japanese market because Western models
42:27
not only do they not speak Japanese in
42:28
most Japanese people do not speak
42:30
English the fashion world and lots of
42:32
other worlds
42:33
so the solution there is that every
42:36
agency has like a manager whose job is
42:39
also to drive the models to their
42:41
castings and then introduce the models
42:43
to the clients and then clients talk in
42:45
Japanese and the model stands there and
42:48
then the manager introduces the next one
42:50
so it’s like a just a very weird kind of
42:53
passive experience it also meant that a
42:56
lot of my time in Tokyo was spent in the
42:58
back of a van being driven around with
43:00
like Ukranian teenagers looking out the
43:03
window in the middle of these tracks we
43:07
usually have a segment overrated versus
43:09
underrated I’ll toss out a few notions
43:12
you tell me what you think are you
43:15
the importance of what sociologists call
43:18
loose ties overrated or underrated is
43:24
there an option to say it’s like
43:25
appropriate of course yeah I think this
43:30
is appropriate I mean I think that I
43:33
would be either some somewhat doing a
43:39
disservice to my discipline if I were to
43:41
say that it’s been overrated because it
43:43
is one of the major findings within
43:45
economic sociology that’s kind of
43:47
continually shown that there all these
43:49
advantages for having loose ties
43:51
arms-length ties the French sociologist
43:54
Pierre Bourdieu overrated or underrated
43:57
Oh again I have to be careful here
44:03
because you know one of my fields is
44:04
cultural sociology again write a paper
44:06
without citing the guy and I really
44:09
would say it’s a very 1970s 1980s French
44:13
notion of hierarchy that is itself
44:15
hierarchical very limited he covers
44:18
gender only much later yeah it probably
44:21
doesn’t even apply to the rest of France
44:23
yet truer true or false it’s true yeah
44:27
it’s true and there have been important
44:28
correctives
44:29
to that but I think that it was a huge
44:31
contribution to insert culture into
44:34
class hierarchy so everybody pays homage
44:37
for that reason the movie Zoolander
44:40
overrated or underrated underrated and
44:42
we should all still watch Zoolander this
44:46
is a fantastic treatise on like gender
44:48
and the impossibilities of male Beauty
44:51
it’s one of my favorites Miami Beach is
44:54
it actually fun overrated what do you
44:56
think overrated yeah over it overrated
44:59
although there’s you know pockets of it
45:02
that I think are probably more
45:03
interesting but they the kind of glossy
45:05
glitzy glamorous part of Miami Beach
45:07
totally overrated I mean it’s your thing
45:10
of like all glamour bad food Osaka Japan
45:15
what do you think um it’s been like 15
45:19
years by yeah yeah I like those little
45:25
octopus fried balls under right
45:27
okay you didn’t remember it would have
45:30
to be overrated right REM the musical
45:35
group you went to school in Athens
45:37
Georgia yeah underrated there yeah
45:39
although you’re at right now I think
45:41
that well because of that hit song it’s
45:43
the end of the world as we know it
45:44
they’re they’re having a moment coming
45:46
back
45:47
perhaps unfortunate champagne I don’t
45:50
like it am I wrong am I missing
45:52
something
45:52
data signaling so much of your work is
45:56
about signaling do you have to conclude
45:57
champagne is overrated I have to
46:00
conclude is overrated but there is
46:02
something really delightful about it as
46:04
a party good because you can shake it
46:06
and spray it without like destroying
46:08
clothes unlike say red wine and it’s
46:10
bubbly and you know this is kind of mad
46:14
it has a sort of fun magical quality so
46:16
yeah on the whole overrated but well
46:19
overrated because you can get all those
46:21
things with Prosecco here’s a question
46:24
from a reader and I quote quote how has
46:26
her own beauty and glamour influenced
46:28
her career academic career does she find
46:31
beauty based biases in academia either
46:34
positive or negative end quote yeah well
46:38
I think it looks matter everywhere in
46:39
academia is no exception
46:41
in my own experience there’s this
46:45
double-edged sword for women’s beauty so
46:49
some studies show that you know it’s
46:51
important for women especially to
46:53
conform to these traditional notions of
46:56
beautiful but they can’t overdo it in
46:58
the professional workplace so some
47:00
makeup is appropriate but like too much
47:03
eyeliner is considered you know to
47:05
sexual and inappropriate so yeah I tried
47:09
to balance that for instance even before
47:11
I got my job at Boston University I was
47:14
coached by my adviser to dress you know
47:17
in a fairly drab way to really try to
47:20
assert my authority
47:22
and and to distance myself from the
47:25
femininity and the beauty which was kind
47:27
of always going to be plaguing me
47:28
because of my work and because the fact
47:30
that I was a model so I tried to
47:32
distance it as I could you know dye that
47:35
question though for sure I think at an
47:37
interactional level having having beauty
47:41
definitely eases the way for for people
47:45
to respond more favorably to me because
47:49
of that halo effect of beauty so you
47:52
know maybe people are more more likely
47:56
to answer an email or to agree to a
48:00
meeting or the meeting will go smoothly
48:01
and people will listen more to what I
48:04
say
48:05
because I look the way they do I’ll find
48:07
that out I mean that questions to be
48:10
continued because as we know as women
48:12
age they so-called lose their bodily
48:15
capital aging is comes with a decline of
48:18
beauty for women and so yeah I’ll have
48:21
to answer that and say you know 10 or 15
48:23
years what kinds of emotional labor do
48:27
women professors have to perform that
48:29
maybe the male professors do not yeah
48:32
this is like a perennial conversation
48:33
that I have with my women colleagues
48:35
about the number of students that ask
48:40
for exceptions in their grades
48:43
especially of younger faculty young
48:46
women faculty the number of students
48:48
that open up with their problems and you
48:51
know we are more likely I think to keep
48:53
tissues in our offices for crying
48:55
students then like our male colleagues
48:58
so there’s there’s that yeah just kind
49:02
of being being a crutch to students and
49:05
being seen as somebody that’s more
49:07
relatable by virtue of age and by gender
49:10
means that we have more of these kinds
49:13
of drains on our I don’t know emotional
49:16
work than male colleagues I don’t know
49:18
if you if you would agree or if you find
49:20
that do you also keep tissues in your
49:22
office I don’t but you know my office is
49:27
so crowded I think actually everything’s
49:28
in there and probably that includes some
49:30
tissues I think if you broadly as being
49:37
anthropological even though you’re
49:38
sociologists and if you if you view
49:41
academia with your anthropological hat
49:44
on what about it seems most comical or
49:47
most stupid to you or just strange and
49:49
bizarre
49:50
the stranger bazaar well it’s a really
49:52
interesting question there’s so many
49:53
things about it I guess the way that it
49:58
portends to be so meritocratic I mean
50:01
thinking here about academia and the
50:04
world of professors the way yeah the way
50:08
that it’s very meritocratic and
50:09
ostensibly within sociology were so
50:12
attuned to inequalities by gender and by
50:15
class and by race like that’s the bread
50:17
and butter of our discipline and yet we
50:19
reproduce inequities all the time I mean
50:22
not in the least with this notion of the
50:26
disproportionate amount of emotional
50:27
work of women faculty disproportionate
50:30
ways that women faculty and people of
50:32
color do more service work certain kinds
50:37
of hierarchies get reproduced in the
50:39
hiring all the time you know so even
50:42
though we’re supposedly all about equity
50:45
it’s just the fact that you know
50:47
somebody who’s tied to a prominent
50:50
person or an Ivy University will catch
50:52
our eye and so we’re starting and we
50:54
have now discussions about how to
50:56
safeguard against those biases but yeah
50:59
there’s kind of a bizarre thing the way
51:01
we reproduce inequalities all the time
51:03
if we’re concerned about inequality
51:05
including for women who have a
51:06
childbearing cycle shouldn’t we just
51:08
abolish tenure right and or maybe not
51:16
abolish it but maybe change the terms of
51:18
it so that the clock doesn’t completely
51:21
overlap with the so-called biological
51:23
clock for women who want to have
51:26
families so perhaps there could be a way
51:28
to lengthen it or pause it or start it
51:32
you know in a way that makes it fit
51:35
better with with having kids there’s
51:40
also a couple of you know yeah so I had
51:43
my kids right when I got tenure I had my
51:46
first child she arrived right after I
51:49
received my positive tenure decision I
51:51
didn’t plan it that way but it worked
51:54
out really luckily but I remember in
51:57
graduate school a couple of people had
51:59
kids in grad school and I was thinking
52:00
like no this is a ridiculous it’s not
52:03
the right plan like I could never
52:05
imagine having kids in grad school but
52:06
actually it does make sense to in grad
52:10
school you have a lot more control over
52:11
your time you’re a lot more flexible
52:13
fewer demands and you can kind of
52:16
stretch your grad school clock in a way
52:18
so in some ways I sometimes looking back
52:20
I think like that’s also an option to
52:22
maybe loosen up the expectation that
52:27
that women have kids after their careers
52:31
are all stitched up because that’s what
52:32
I followed and it it worked out for me
52:34
but it can’t work out for everyone and
52:36
it also was quite a big stress for those
52:38
six years if you think about the
52:41
question like what is your unified
52:43
theory of you you have this early career
52:46
as a fashion model and your current
52:49
career as an academic and also as an
52:52
author they’re all winner-take-all
52:55
sectors do you think of yourself
52:58
as in some sense you keep on doing the
53:00
same thing in different areas or do you
53:02
think of your current career as a
53:04
rebellion against what you did before so
53:09
I should say I was a really good student
53:12
all throughout high school in college
53:13
and I got into the modeling kind of as a
53:17
as a side job and then I I found a way
53:20
through sociology to turn my experiences
53:23
and modeling into an academic project
53:26
and I could kind of even see when I was
53:28
in college reading these ethnographies
53:30
at the workplace because I took this
53:31
great class on the sociology of work I
53:34
could see like wow someone should really
53:35
do this of fashion modeling and like I
53:38
could be the Barbara Ehrenreich you know
53:39
in sociology of like fashion in high
53:42
status and so in some ways I I’ve always
53:47
been a scholar I’ve always been I mean
53:49
I’ve always been a student first and
53:51
foremost my my alignment was an academia
53:54
and I was always looking searching for
53:56
the status and the the winner-take-all
53:57
hierarchy of academia and modeling kind
54:01
of got me there and you enjoy the thrill
54:05
of winner-take-all markets yes I know I
54:09
mean I can’t say that I’m like a winner
54:13
in the academic field I mean yes having
54:16
good a good
54:17
your job is because I know that they’re
54:19
increasingly in short supply but in some
54:21
ways it’s such a it’s less volatile of a
54:25
world than these cultural production
54:27
fields me it’s the complete opposite job
54:29
model once you get a tenure track job
54:31
and once you get tenure especially you
54:33
kind of can’t be fired
54:35
I mean barring you know some real
54:36
problems but I mean it’s lifetime
54:39
security in an age in the workforce in
54:42
which this is just shrinking it’s so
54:44
rare to have this kind of privilege of
54:46
lifetime job security and really like
54:48
knock on wood because as the
54:49
universities are facing these challenges
54:51
it just entered my mind in the last
54:54
month of like wow what would happen if I
54:56
didn’t have this lifetime job security
54:58
that I’ve counted on but it’s a complete
55:00
opposite fashion modeling is a 180 where
55:02
you can be dismissed you know from one
55:04
day to the next and your fortunes can
55:06
change for the better or for the worse
55:07
so yeah it’s a winner-take-all maybe
55:12
like in terms of prestige but once
55:14
you’re in the tenured world it’s pretty
55:17
study there’s a common perception that
55:20
Korean culture is relatively oppressive
55:23
for young women there’s a certain way
55:25
they’re expected to look or maybe to
55:27
have plastic surgery yeah you agree with
55:29
that and if so why is it yeah and I saw
55:34
this on the question like I thought that
55:36
maybe you’re asking me at first because
55:37
my you know my dad is half Korean so my
55:41
grandmother it’s Korean she was born and
55:44
raised in Hawaii but but in any case so
55:46
yeah I never been to Korea and so my
55:48
Korean connections actually really I
55:51
know from the literature but so to your
55:53
question it’s a common perception that
55:57
it’s a plastic surgery is oppressive but
56:01
I think make from my understanding you
56:05
know there’s an opposite reading which
56:06
is that it’s really validating and and
56:09
really quite pleasurable to modify the
56:11
appearance so in your write in South
56:15
Korea it’s it leads the world in double
56:18
eyelid surgery to make that eyelid fold
56:20
that is typical of Western shape I but
56:24
less so of an Asian shaped eye and so
56:26
this is often read as like oh this is
56:28
like internalized white Western hegemony
56:30
on to Asian people but I actually think
56:33
it’s a bit more complicated than that
56:35
there’s a certain kind of beauty they is
56:39
really popular around because throughout
56:42
Asia because of the rise of k-pop stars
56:45
and this kind of Asian beauty has a very
56:48
specific kind of face that’s like very
56:50
pale skin with a certain kind of makeup
56:53
regime around it and yes that the eyes
56:57
but I think it would be hard to say that
57:00
anybody is looking in Asia to the west
57:03
as the beauty standard I think within
57:05
Asia people are looking to kpop is a
57:07
beauty standard now and you know in the
57:10
u.s. like there’s all kinds of things
57:12
that could be read as oppressive to the
57:14
that people do like hair extensions and
57:17
these um eyelash extensions you know to
57:20
make really long and dark eyelashes and
57:22
all kinds of all kinds of practices that
57:25
when you actually talk to people they’re
57:27
very validating or they feel pleasurable
57:29
where do those pleasures come from sure
57:32
Marxist could say that it’s all false
57:34
consciousness but I think that there’s
57:36
probably lots more interesting answers
57:39
in America today for women what do you
57:42
think distinguishes most clearly notions
57:45
of upper class beauty and lower class
57:47
beauty yeah alright so I think that
57:54
upper class beauty upper class bodies
57:58
are pretty uniformly thin and that’s you
58:02
know the the economy of plenty whoever
58:05
has money can afford quality food and
58:07
getting to the gym as opposed to an
58:09
economy of scarcity having a kind of
58:11
plump you know a rotund belly would be a
58:14
sign of having extra money or of wealth
58:18
so yeah I definitely thinness and if you
58:21
look at the rates of obesity and
58:23
overweight you there’s a very clear
58:25
divide like upward people who are upper
58:28
class tend to be thinner my people who
58:30
are lower class tend to be larger so
58:31
that’s one kind of clear distinction
58:36
otherwise you know all of the things
58:38
that are signals of beauty tend to be
58:41
things that people who have money can
58:43
afford to invest in so straight teeth
58:46
clear skin you know blonde highlights or
58:52
just kind of shiny hair kept up nails
58:55
clothing signifies a lot I mean these
58:57
are all things that can be people with
58:59
money can work on themselves to achieve
59:02
for a very last segment return to what I
59:05
call the Ashley Mears production
59:07
function me who first spotted your
59:10
talent as an academic okay so there
59:15
there were two of them at the University
59:18
of Georgia in the sociology department
59:20
it was William Finlay he’s a sociologist
59:22
of work and and also James Coverdell
59:25
they wrote a book on headhunters and so
59:27
they were attuned to questions of
59:29
non-standard work for Carius work and
59:32
when I I took the sociology of work
59:34
class with James Coverdale and he was
59:37
like yeah you should do this like a
59:38
sociology of work about fashion models
59:41
definitely then he put me in touch with
59:42
that with William and I was yeah I was
59:45
just emailing with them last week like
59:47
they they stayed my mentors for a long
59:49
time and if you’re looking for promising
59:52
young sociology or anthropologists for
59:55
that matter what’s the non obvious
59:57
signal you look for yes hard work they
59:59
should be smart and so on but beneath
60:01
the surface what strikes you if somebody
60:05
is read a lot and if they’ve read
60:07
eclectic things and they have that kind
60:09
of breadth that strikes me because that
60:11
means that they’re curious and
60:12
interested in a lot of different things
60:14
and that they can bring that to whatever
60:17
is our topic they end up landing on
60:19
what’s the weirdest set of things you
60:22
like to read or have read other than
60:24
about fashion modeling in the party and
60:27
like you know guidebooks for restaurants
60:30
and Economist’s right so I read a lot of
60:35
ethnographies within sociology that’s
60:38
probably not a surprise that’s kind of
60:39
within my field but I’m also reading now
60:42
because I have two kids I like to read
60:44
advice books for parents you know
60:46
ranging from kind of kitschy ones on up
60:50
to like from economists on like what the
60:53
data say are the best child
60:55
practices so that’s where I’m kind of in
60:58
now I mean yeah having having kids maybe
61:00
not a surprise kind of put me in this
61:02
like parenting literature and what’s the
61:04
best advice you either have read or
61:06
would offer to other people on parenting
61:08
to people on parenting sure you’ve read
61:12
all these books you have an opinion tell
61:14
the parents out there I said maybe I
61:19
still need some advice but what do you
61:21
say so usually that kind of question
61:26
would invite into an individualistic
61:28
answer and that’s the problem with the
61:30
literature that it’s all like you as an
61:32
individual parent what you should or
61:33
shouldn’t do and you know maybe because
61:37
I’m a sociologist but but yeah my advice
61:41
for parents in this country is to
61:43
mobilize because it’s a complete crisis
61:45
that we don’t have paid parental leave
61:47
that there’s no state supports for
61:49
daycare I think that that’s one of the
61:52
tragic but really important things about
61:54
the pandemic right now is that it’s it’s
61:56
revealing just how difficult it is to
61:59
combine a career with family and the
62:03
United States is just exceptional in how
62:06
unfriendly it is for family policy yeah
62:09
mobilize what is your most unusual
62:13
writing or work habit ok these are
62:19
interesting questions so I used to have
62:22
something I used to have it like a
62:23
pretty consistent flow before I had kids
62:25
that got that got disrupted and that’s
62:27
what a lot of people say is like they
62:28
write in like these certain chunks of
62:30
time day after day and that’s how
62:32
they’re able to accomplish it but so
62:35
here’s a weird habit that I picked up in
62:38
college I mean it stayed with me if I
62:40
eat something sweet in college I would
62:42
munch on like a box of Dunkin Donuts to
62:44
get through a term paper and now I find
62:47
like whatever cookie is my kids have no
62:49
like I always have you know some sweet
62:52
junk food this is probably not really
62:54
great advice there for anybody but it’s
62:56
just my habit now just to the audience I
63:00
would like again to recommend Ashley’s
63:02
book it is called again very important
63:05
people status and beauty in the global
63:07
party circuit
63:09
it is quality research fantastic fun to
63:12
read I learned a great deal from it I
63:14
think it will be a big hit
63:15
definitely one of my favorite books of
63:17
this year or indeed would be of years
63:20
past and Ashley thank you very much for
63:23
joining us and best of luck with
63:25
publication thank you thank you so much
63:27
again

The Great White Culture War

Discussion of American cultural conflicts has to take place alongside pivotal conversations about race, not instead of them.

With each passing year, I grow more convinced that Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy represent two of the best vehicles for understanding our times. Though they’re not specifically political, they help us understand the profound differences between different white American communities — differences that are often exacerbated in our polarized age.

.. Consider, for example, the extraordinary faith gap between white Republicans and white Democrats. According to recent Pew data, fully 72 percent of white Republicans believe in the God of the Bible. Only 32 percent of white Democrats share that same faith. To take another important cultural issue, gun-ownership rates vary wildly between white Americans, with whites in blue America far less likely to have a firearm at home.

Now, what does this have to do with race and condemnations of “whiteness”? Earlier this week, my colleague Reihan Salam wrote a fascinating piece in The Atlanticmaking the point that white-bashing is actually a way in which the progressive white elite distinguishes itself from “lower” white rivals, a form of “intra-white status jockeying.” Here’s Reihan:

It is almost as though we’re living through a strange sort of ethnogenesis, in which those who see themselves as (for lack of a better term) upper-whites are doing everything they can to disaffiliate themselves from those they’ve deemed lower-whites. Note that to be “upper” or “lower” isn’t just about class status, though of course that’s always hovering in the background. Rather, it is about the supposed nobility that flows from racial self-flagellation.

Given the awesome power these “upper-whites” exercise in elite American institutions, there are incentives for other people to bash whites as well:

In some instances, white-bashing can actually serve as a means of ascent, especially for Asian Americans. Embracing the culture of upper-white self-flagellation can spur avowedly enlightened whites to eagerly cheer on their Asian American comrades who show (abstract, faceless, numberless) lower-white people what for. And, simultaneously, it allows Asian Americans who use the discourse to position themselves as ethnic outsiders, including those who are comfortably enmeshed in elite circles.

.. the GOP’s revulsion at the message that white people’s day is done isn’t grounded exclusively (or even mostly) in racial resentment and fear. Because we know full-well that the white people who so gleefully make that claim fully expect to emerge victorious, their status and power intact, in a post-white-majority America.

.. consider California and Texas. Both states are firmly majority-minority. Yet the leaders of both states are still disproportionately white and male; they’re just culturally very different kinds of white males. Conservative white Americans eagerly move to majority-minority Texas. Those same people would be far more reluctant to live in majority-minority California, because of its profoundly different treatment of religious freedoms, gun rights, and of course tax rates.

.. Discussion of American cultural conflicts has to take place alongside, not instead of, pivotal conversations and debates about race. Indeed, the legacy of American racism (including the sad prevalence of outright racists in the GOP) is one reason why white conservatives struggle to form alliances with black voters who are actually more culturally and religiously similar to their rural and exurban white neighbors than to their white progressive allies.
.. it’s important to understand that when conservatives confront a political coalition that seems to be cheering the decline of “whiteness,” they often experience it as an attack on “white people the Left doesn’t like.”

As for the rest? They roll on, enjoying the same power and the same privilege. They’ve sacrificed little and stand to gain a lot: nothing short of victory in the great white culture war.

The 7 Different Types of Narcissists

1. The Narcissistic Winner

– These narcissists derive their sense of self by feeling superior to others. As a consequence, everything becomes a competition. This behavior is not confined to naturally competitive areas such as sports, career achievements, and academics. This type of narcissist must also “win” at seemingly collaborative activities, such as parenting, driving, friendship, and even spirituality. A narcissistic winner is rarely happy for a friend’s good fortune.

In their eyes, another person’s success is their own failure. When they “lose” – in reality or in their own perception – their self-esteem takes a huge hit. They may become antagonistic, or try to overcompensate by belittling the achievements of others.

2. The Victim Narcissist

– The victim narcissist is the sneakiest of the bunch. These people are master manipulators who use affection and emotion to keep you close to them. They are very skilled at playing the underdog, and will often create or seek out situations in which they can do so effectively. A victim narcissist will have perfected their sob story. They will easily convince you that the world is out to get them, and that none of their misfortune is their own doing.

3. The Know-It-All Narcissist

– This person is convinced that they are more intelligent and well informed than those around them. They treat their opinions as fact and become deeply offended when faced with disagreement. To the know-it-all narcissist, you are either right or wrong – with them or against them. There is no in between. They often preach, but rarely listen. They are known to offer unsolicited advice to friends, family members, and even strangers.

However, they will become offended if someone does the same to them. The know-it-all narcissist feels that they have nothing to learn from others. Unfortunately, this causes them to miss out on quite a lot in life.

4. The  Narcissist Puppet Master

– These narcissists can absolutely not cope when things do not go as they’d like. To compensate for this, they find ways to manipulate everyone around them. The puppet master narcissist has learned to control others through several different tactics, and is skilled at finding an individual’s weak spot. They have no concept of integrity or empathy. A narcissist puppet master will liecheat, seduce, and withhold affection from loved ones to get what they want.

They are not above playing friends against one another or using innocent people as pawns. This type of narcissist will seek out your insecurities and vulnerabilities, and exploit them without even a trace of remorse.

5. The Narcissist Antagonist

– This type of narcissist always seems to have an enemy. They scream at other drivers, berate wait staff at restaurants, and leave nasty notes for neighbors who play their music too loud. This expression of their righteous indignation helps them to feel superior and in control. Unfortunately, it also keeps them from maintaining healthy relationships. They likely have few – if any – friends at work, and may even have lost jobs due to office disputes.

Their personal lives are in constant turmoil. If they are in a relationship, their partner is likely a very submissive personality with low self-esteem. The narcissist antagonist may be estranged from one or more family members, often with no hope of reconciliation.

6. The Status Narcissist

– To this type of narcissist, self-worth is only real if it can be proven in a concrete way and validated by others. They have little to no internal sense of self. Instead, they put all of their energy into accumulating money, power, and social status. They use these things to give themselves a value, and they assign value to others by the same measure. This type of narcissist knows how much you paid for your house and whether or not you hired the “right” interior decorator.

They are president of the PTA and their local homeowner’s association. A status narcissist is often very smart and accomplished. Unfortunately, this is where the depth of their personality comes to an end.

7. The Royal Narcissist

– This type of narcissist feels that they are always entitled to the best. They don’t believe in earning special treatment – they feel that they deserve it simply by birthright, much like royalty does. A royal narcissist will break rules, and will refuse to abide by societal conventions like taking turns or waiting in line. When faced with consequences, they will react as though they are being persecuted or treated unfairly. The royal narcissist, after all, is above things like speeding tickets.

They will also treat others – equals or even superiors – as inherently lesser than themselves. The world is their kingdom, and everyone within it is their servant.

“I am in love with you’, I responded.
He laughed the most beguiling and gentle laugh.
‘Of course you are,’ he replied. ‘I understand perfectly because I’m in love with myself. The fact that I’m not transfixed in front of the nearest mirror takes a great deal of self-control.’
It was my turn to laugh.”

Is Nothing Funny, Mr. President?

Donald Trump almost never laughs. The leader of the free world frequently displays a tight-lipped smile, but mirth-wise, that is as far as he will go.

.. For the first time in recent memory, we have a commander in chief without a sense of humor — and America is paying the price.

.. For most presidents, humor is a tool for building bridges, especially with voters who may not be persuaded by their policy goals.

.. With no talent for gracious one-liners, he finds himself ill at ease in front of all but the most adoring audiences.

.. Surrounded by followers at rallies, he uses his well-honed sense of timing as a cudgel. He jeers. He mocks. His goal is to insult, rather than to entertain.

.. It should come as no surprise, then, that Mr. Trump governs the way he delivers a punch line: consolidating support among the hard core while alienating everybody else.

.. politicians use humor to identify, and ultimately to uphold, unwritten norms.

.. Peter McGraw, founder of the Humor Research Lab, has called “benign violation theory.” We laugh when something breaks one of life’s many rules.

.. By stepping up to the line without crossing it, a commander in chief tacitly acknowledges that a line exists.

.. President Trump does not possess the sense of nuance a well-told joke requires.

.. This refusal to recognize the unwritten rules that govern us, so evident during Mr. Trump’s failed attempts at humor, is a central feature of his presidential tenure thus far. If a leader does not understand the idea of benign violations, blatant violations inevitably occur.

.. Thanks to the power of the internet, there is proof that our president has indeed laughed at least once. This was during a campaign rally in January, when Mr. Trump’s speech was interrupted by a barking dog.

“It’s Hillary!” an audience member shouted. And the candidate tilted his head back, opened his mouth wide and laughed without reservation, quite possibly for the first time in his political life.

.. they reveal a president who is constantly, endlessly preoccupied with status.

Thresholds of Violence

But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them.

.. riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two.

.. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyonearound him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.

Granovetter was most taken by the situations in which people did things for social reasons that went against everything they believed as individuals. “Most did not think it ‘right’ to commit illegal acts or even particularly want to do so,” he wrote, about the findings of a study of delinquent boys. “But group interaction was such that none could admit this without loss of status; in our terms, their threshold for stealing cars is low because daring masculine acts bring status, and reluctance to join, once others have, carries the high cost of being labeled a sissy.” You can’t just look at an individual’s norms and motives. You need to look at the group.

.. the way to explain the school-shooting epidemic

.. think of it as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before?

.. Then came Columbine. The sociologist Ralph Larkin argues that Harris and Klebold laid down the “cultural script” for the next generation of shooters.

.. Harris said he wanted to “kick-start a revolution.”

.. Larkin looked at the twelve major school shootings in the United States in the eight years after Columbine, and he found that in eight of those subsequent cases the shooters made explicit reference to Harris and Klebold.

.. Larkin says six were plainly versions of Columbine; of the eleven cases of thwarted shootings in the same period, Larkin says all were Columbine-inspired.

.. The kid who wants to be a chef and hears “non-specific, non-violent” voices requires a finely elaborated script in order to carry out his attack. That’s what Paton and Larkin mean: the effect of Harris and Klebold’s example was to make it possible for people with far higher thresholds—boys who would ordinarily never think of firing a weapon at their classmates—to join in the riot.

  • Aguilar dressed up like Eric Harris.
  • He used the same weapons as Harris.
  • He wore a backpack like Harris’s.
  • He hid in the changing room of the store until 11:14 a.m.—the precise time when the Columbine incident began—and then came out shooting.

.. Between Columbine and Aaron Ybarra, the riot changed: it became more and more self-referential, more ritualized, more and more about identification with the school-shooting tradition.

  • Eric Harris wanted to start a revolution.
  • Aguilar and Ybarra wanted to join one.
  • Harris saw himself as a hero. Aguilar and Ybarra were hero-worshippers.

.. “My number one idol is Eric Harris. . . . I think I just see myself in him. Like he would be the kind of guy I’d want to be with. Like, if I knew him, I just thought he was cool.”

..“He appears to lack typical relational capacity for family members. . . .He indicates that he would have completed the actions, but he doesn’t demonstrate any concern or empathy for the impact that that could have had on others.” The conclusion of all three of the psychologists who spoke at the hearing was that LaDue had a mild-to-moderate case of autism: he had an autism-spectrum disorder (A.S.D.), or what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome.

.. When should he attack? April made the best sense, “because that’s the month that all the really bad tragedies happened like . . . Titanic, Columbine, Oklahoma City bombing, Boston bombing.”

.. He was even more scathing about the Boston bombers’ use of pressure-cooker bombs. He thought they made a “crappy design of it.”

.. In the world before Columbine, people like LaDue played with chemistry sets in their basements and dreamed of being astronauts.

.. The idea that people with autism-spectrum disorders can stumble into patterns of serious criminality has a name: counterfeit deviance. It has long been an issue in cases involving A.S.D. teen-agers and child pornography. “They are intellectually intact people, with good computer skills but extraordinary brain-based naïveté, acting in social isolation, compulsively pursuing interests which often unknowingly take them into forbidden territory,”

..  But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.