IS SEX OVER?

Camille Paglia certainly rocked the Times the other day: “The implication is that a new pill, despite its unforeseen side effects, is necessary to cure the sexual malaise that appears to have sunk over the country. But to what extent do these complaints about sexual apathy reflect a medical reality, and how much do they actually emanate from the anxious, overachieving, white upper middle class? In the 1950s, female “frigidity” was attributed to social conformism and religious puritanism. . . .The real culprit, originating in the 19th century, is bourgeois propriety. As respectability became the central middle-class value, censorship and repression became the norm. Victorian prudery ended the humorous sexual candor of both men and women during the agrarian era, a ribaldry chronicled from Shakespeare’s plays to the 18th-century novel. The priggish 1950s, which erased the liberated flappers of the Jazz Age from cultural memory, were simply a return to the norm. Only the diffuse New Age movement, inspired by nature-keyed Asian practices, has preserved the radical vision of the modern sexual revolution. But concrete power resides in America’s careerist technocracy, for which the elite schools, with their ideological view of gender as a social construct, are feeder cells. In the discreet white-collar realm, men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work. Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure. Meanwhile, family life has put middle-class men in a bind; they are simply cogs in a domestic machine commanded by women. Contemporary moms have become virtuoso super-managers of a complex operation focused on the care and transport of children. But it’s not so easy to snap over from Apollonian control to Dionysian delirium. Nor are husbands offering much stimulation in the male display department: visually, American men remain perpetual boys, as shown by the bulky T-shirts, loose shorts and sneakers they wear from preschool through midlife. The sexes, which used to occupy intriguingly separate worlds, are suffering from over-familiarity, a curse of the mundane. There’s no mystery left. . . .Furthermore, thanks to a bourgeois white culture that values efficient bodies over voluptuous ones, American actresses have desexualized themselves, confusing sterile athleticism with female power. Their current Pilates-honed look is taut and tense — a boy’s thin limbs and narrow hips combined with amplified breasts.‘ Not American but British, David and Victoria Beckham will serve as poster children quite nicely.

KRUGMAN: BAD MOON RISING

With cold, methodical clairvoyance, Paul Krugman has been chronicling our descent through subprime madness, into recession, into crisis, liquidity trap, and into the green shoots on the other side. He applauded Ben Bernanke‘s firmness and leadership in 2008, and warned very early in 2009 that the stimulus wasn’t large enough to do the job, that more spending would be (and still is) needed, and that plainly stated that the very worst thing policy-makers could do would be to repeat FDR’s mistake of 1937, when he cut spending and tried to balance the federal budget, and thus undid all the progress of his early years and prolonged the Great Depression. His column in the Times today is thus nothing short of sick-making: “We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression. It will probably look more like the Long Depression than the much more severe Great Depression. But the cost — to the world economy and, above all, to the millions of lives blighted by the absence of jobs — will nonetheless be immense. And this third depression will be primarily a failure of policy. Around the world — most recently at last weekend’s deeply discouraging G-20 meeting — governments are obsessing about inflation when the real threat is deflation, preaching the need for belt-tightening when the real problem is inadequate spending. In 2008 and 2009, it seemed as if we might have learned from history. Unlike their predecessors, who raised interest rates in the face of financial crisis, the current leaders of the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank slashed rates and moved to support credit markets. Unlike governments of the past, which tried to balance budgets in the face of a plunging economy, today’s governments allowed deficits to rise. And better policies helped the world avoid complete collapse: the recession brought on by the financial crisis arguably ended last summer.  But future historians will tell us that this wasn’t the end of the third depression, just as the business upturn that began in 1933 wasn’t the end of the Great Depression. After all, unemployment — especially long-term unemployment — remains at levels that would have been considered catastrophic not long ago, and shows no sign of coming down rapidly. And both the United States and Europe are well on their way toward Japan-style deflationary traps.”

SCREENING HOLIDAY

Hands down, my favorite perk of being a writer has been screenings. Slipping out of the office, ensconced in plush private rooms with friendly publicists hovering nearly, seeing things before everyone else–pretty sweet. Yesterday I rewarded myself for a couple of weeks sustained good work by venturing into a broiling city for a double feature. At the opener at the Sony Building, I saw Tamara Drewe, the new Stephen Frears‘ film based on a Posy Simmons graphic novel which itself is based on Thomas Hardy‘s Far From the Madding Crowd. This is a reasonably diverting way to spend a couple hours, although I kept waiting for it to get sharper and funnier, and it never did. You can see that the ambiance of the graphic novel and the stunt of updating Hardy increased the cleverness quotient. The film’s greatest attraction is the entirely peachy Gemma Arterton as the title character. We’ve noticed her appeal before–Pirate Radio, A Quantum of Solace, St. Trinian’s)–here revealed more fully than ever before. In the nightcap, we say the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy at Magno. An excellent Aaron Johnson excels in this revealing treatment, but the real scene stealer is the customarily brilliant Kristin Scott-Thomas, who’s just the most marvelous and versatile actress.

WHAT DO DAUGHTERS WANT?

Recently my younger daughter, age 16, shared with her mother the following revelation. “I need new sneakers,’’ she said, “but not, you know, sneakers.’’

Confronted with this Delphic utterance, my wife, like a character in a Dan Brown novel, sought to penetrate this mystery by showing my daughter a website devoted to sneakers. “How about this one?’’ she helpfully suggested.

Mesh?!?!?!?’’ replied my daughter, her voice conveying the utter revulsion customarily reserved for villains who commit crimes against humanity. “I hate mesh.’’

As a loyal father, I couldn’t agree more: mesh is despicable. Of course, easy agreement on fashion matters has long been part of my successful strategy to maintain peace by limiting my involvement in my daughter’s fashion choices to a few broad comments—a bland “You look nice’’ that is bereft of details, lest I over-praise or under-praise some particular feature; non-judgmental interrogatories like “Do you know that it’s raining (or freezing, or hailing frogs) out?’’, and firm citings of legal precedent, like “The law forbids you to drive in flip flops’’ or “You will be arrested if you do not wear more clothing than that in public.’’ But sometimes curiosity gets the better of me, and I wonder: why does she wear what she has chosen to wear?

For enlightenment, I turned to an expert, my friend, the author and fashion consultant Holly Brubach. “Years ago,’’ she told me, “people floated the theory that fashion is really a coded language spoken only by women. I’m not sure I ever entirely bought it, but if there is ever a time in a women’s life when it’s true, it’s when she is a teenager. Fashion is a way of expressing identify, and at that age, usually nothing is more important than fitting in with one’s peer group.’’

Hence the outfit that most of the girls in our local high school wear most of the time: a pair of preferably brand-name jeans, and a close-fitting top. Not too many have the inclination or the will to deviate for long. As it happens, this is a flattering look for my daughter, but that’s not the name of the game here; the girls seem more driven to own cool than to actually look cool. But it’s not as if girls in this group could be counted on to objectively analyze what they actually look like.  Self-image is susceptible to distortion at any phase in life, but perhaps never so much as during the generally narcissistic and hypersensitive days of adolescence.

But the safety of conformity can be confining, of course. “I think girls might have had some things working in their favor before,’’ says Brubach. She recalls that her high school that didn’t require a uniform, but it did forbid jeans. “That almost forced us into wearing a wider variety of clothing. We got to wear more things, we got to see more things, a wider range of choices was acceptable, and from that, we began developing a more individual style.’’

Which, slowly but surely, is what is happening with my daughter. You can see her taking steps, tentative though they may be. A few months ago, she and her best friend co-hosted a Sweet Sixteen. Each selected a long, beautiful gown, special jewelry, a special hairstyle, and—to round off the look—a pair of high-topped tennis shoes (in a matching color, of course—and without mesh.) Their messages were clear: to their friends, they were saying we’re taking this glamour look seriously, but not too seriously; to mom and dad, they were saying that [our] heads and bodies may be veering into adulthood, but at bottom, we’re still kids.

Last month my daughter was given a ticket to a concert by Britney Spears, a performer who had not previously ranked among her favorites.  She brought home two souvenirs: a Britney trucker cap, an ordinary item that could serve as a badge indicating that she’d been to this cool event, and a loose-fitting T-shirt bearing the phrase “It’s Britney, Bitch,’’ from one of the singer’s recent songs.  For a moment, I felt my inner Church Lady rising to the surface, but I soon got the message: she’s may not be ready for hot pants and halters, or to emulate Britney’s brazenness in full, but with this shirt, she’s telling us something important.  Think of it as a flag planted on the unexplored shore of adulthood.

Notably, she has yet to wear it to school, to subject the garment, and her message, to the judgment of her peers. But the time may come. “Eventually, most of us stop trying to fit in by being like everybody else,’’ my friend Holly comforts me, “and we start trying to fit in as ourselves.’’

(This article recently appeared in BG, the magazine of Bergdorf Goodman.)

PEACOCKS: MEN AND CLOTHES

The topic of this article is supposed to be Why Men Don’t Like to Dress Up, but I’m having some difficulty with it, because the premise is obviously untrue.  Men love to dress up.

If you have any doubts, go to a football game—NFL, NCAA. Look in the stands. You’ll see tens of thousands of men who have taken enormous care with their day’s wardrobe, starting next to the skin with the luckiest of their lucky T-shirts and building to the regulation team parkas. They will wear the official jersey of a current star, or the throwback jersey of a retired idol in order to help draw the mystic power of mighty ancestors into the day’s conflict. They will top off the ensemble with a well-chosen cap, or imitation leather helmet, or plastic pig snout, or styrofoam cheese head, and they will feel that they have dressed perfectly for the occasion.

And they will not be alone in their sartorial exactitude. Civil War reenactors in blue and gray will scour the hinterlands to find the precise regimental button to wear to their mock conflagrations.  Star Trek devotees will never be caught wearing items from their Deluxe Captain Kirk Uniform Packages from the original series when they meant to be wearing Gold Kirk Uniform Shirts from the 2009 film. A yachtsman will have his special windbreaker and a golfer will have his special sweater and slacks, and many a tennis player will continue to sport his short McEnroe-ish tennis shorts long after his slender McEnroe-ish figure has joined John in retirement. One need look no further than the example of Mr. Elmer Fudd, who always wears the same cap with the side flaps snapped together at the crown whenever he hunts that cwazy wabbit.

What most men do less and less, and what many men no longer do at all, is dress up for work. There was a time, as we see on Mad Men, when men were expected to dress for the office, and that the more successful you were, the better you were expected to dress. None of this came to anyone as a shock, since the world was still governed by a relatively small elite, and they mandated fashion and taste. Appearances mattered, often too much: men who had the right look often rose higher than men of greater ability who didn’t.  And even those who challenged the powers that be—Martin Luther King Jr., Lenny Bruce, Chuck Berry—wore versions of the suit and tie. They wanted to change, challenge, join the power structure, not destroy it, and their clothes demonstrated that.

But as Mad Men shows, not all men take to a suit and tie. Don Draper looks great and takes pleasure in the power that his appearance brings him. But Pete Campbell, young and unformed, doesn’t so much wear his suit as is worn by it; the suit is like the outline of a drawing that he is filling in. And for poor Harry Crane, deskbound and thickening, wearing a suit is a yoke of servitude, another obligation that society, family, marriage imposes upon him.

The sixties, of course, changed everything.  The new fashion freedom men enjoyed  fell on peacocks and drones alike. But over the years, the easygoing spirit of Casual Friday took over, and in many places became Sloppy Whenever. “Suits’’ became a synonym for executive power that was clueless and stodgy. Instead of the Don Drapers pulling the Harry Cranes to dress up, the Cranes pulled the Drapers down.  “The only people in Los Angeles who wear a tie,’’ a friend from the television business recently noted, “are the agents.’’

“It’s appalling how men dress today,’’ Tim Gunn, the creative director of Liz Claiborne said to me in a recent phone call. “More and more, I’m meeting men who have attained some professional stature, who not only don’t wear a tie, but who don’t know how to tie a tie.  I’m flabbergasted. It’s like they’re wearing a sign that says `I have arrested development.’ What are they signifying?’’

What indeed.  Back in 2005, the current chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank Ben Bernanke gave a speech in which he answered that very question. “The biggest downside of my current job is that I have to wear a suit to work,’’ the former scholar and researcher told his audience. “Wearing uncomfortable clothes on purpose is an example of what. . .Nobel Prize winner Michael Spence taught economists to call ‘signalling.’ You have to do it to show that you take your official responsibilities seriously.’’

Bernanke’s right (although you’d think a guy who’s able to understand credit default swaps could find himself a comfortable suit.) Men should be as willing to demonstrate their pride in their families and their professions as they do in their teams. And don’t forget: a lot more people are going to admire the way you look in a suit and tie than the way you rock a cheese head.

This article originally appeared in BG, the magazine of Bergdorf Goodman.

ROSENKRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN AND NEWSPAPERS AND MAGAZINES. . .

In The Guardian today: “The playwright Sir Tom Stoppard spoke today of his fears that the “printed page” is in danger of being edged out in a `world of technology’.  “I am aware, as everybody has to be, that there’s more competition for one’s attention nowadays,” he said. “The printed word is no longer as in demand as when I was of the age of pupils or even at the age of the teachers teaching them.” The “moving image,” he added, was taking precedence in many children’s lives over “the printed page … [and] I think that’s to the detriment”.

Reported in a British paper, read on its website in New York, on a screen, of course.

US 2, SLOVENIA 2

No point crying in one’s beer, but like Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers, the US Soccer team was deprived not merely of an accomplishment, but of place in history. No team in World Cup history has come back to win after trailing by a 2-0 score, and yet the US would have done just that, had not referee Koman Coulibaly disallowed what appeared to be a perfectly spotless goal by Maurice Edu; if anything, the American Michael Bradley was obviously tackled and should have been awarded a penalty kick. The call was inexplicable and unexplained; nobody knows what Coulibaly thought he saw. Oh well. The most memorable moment of the comeback, however, was the first goal scored by the US, a shot by Landon Donovan that hot up like a mortal rocket at about a 75 degree angle, seeming to take the goalie’s eyebrows with it. Fantastic.

A DAY AT THE RACES

One should always take the opportunity to associate oneself with the Marx Brothers. Yesterday Ginny and Cara and I went to Belmont Park in Queens for a day of races capped off by the Belmont Stakes. It was fetid afternoon in the metropolitan apple, but sitting in the lower grandstand, under the overhang, we enjoyed a modest breeze, and everything was relaxed. It was a very pleasant and even lazy atmosphere; very 19th century. We best all the races, and the best we did was short-odds winner that paid us $4.40. Otherwise, Ginny had a strong run of second place  finishers and in the tenth race picked two of four in the Super Perfecta, which means she had a rather ordinary Imperfecta. In the big race, the 14:1 Drosselmeyer under Mike Smith emerged from a starless field and legged out his rivals in a five-wide cavalry charge to the wire, and almost as quickly, off we went to the parking lot.

HEAR, HEAR!

Having indulged for the last couple of years an almost perverse interest in the health of liberty in Great Britain, I am happy to report that with the ascension of the new coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, democracy seems back on track in the green and pleasant land. This from a speech delivered by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on May 19: ““It is time for a wholesale, big bang approach to political reform. That’s what this government will deliver. It is outrageous that decent, law-abiding people are regularly treated as if they have something to hide. It has to stop. So there will be no ID card scheme. No national identity register, no second generation biometric passports. We won’t hold your internet and email records when there is just no reason to do so. CCTV will be properly regulated, as will the DNA database, with restrictions on the storage of innocent people’s DNA. And we will end practices that risk making Britain a place where our children grow up so used to their liberty being infringed that they accept it without question. There will be no ContactPoint children’s database. Schools will not take children’s fingerprints without even asking their parent’s consent. This will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state. That values debate, that is unafraid of dissent. That’s why we’ll remove limits on the rights to peaceful protest.  It’s why we’ll review libel laws so that we can better protect freedom of speech.”

Very good. The test, of course, will come the next time a bomb goes off in Picadilly.