Recent Work By Arielle Bernstein

When I first read The New York Times write-up “Fiona Apple Faces Outwards”, I am struck by how deeply her transformation over the past seven years from big-eyed girl-woman to gaunt and isolated artist has affected me. Apple was always talented, but this write-up of The Idler Wheel encapsulates how Apple has transcended the fleeting pop stardom that is often offered to young, attractive female artists and has instead become a full-fledged musical auteur.

In her 2005 book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy argues that women have been duped into embracing “raunch” culture, wherein women and girls objectify themselves and other women in crude, sophomoric ways. Levy argues that “raunch” culture pretends to be about women liberating themselves, but is really about keeping women in their place as objects for the male gaze.

In recent years we’ve seen a similar trend, where women have been encouraged to buy into “asshole” culture. While some may argue that we have always tolerated certain types of male bad behavior, it seems there has been a cultural shift in recent years where we actually applaud watching male characters behave like jerks.

 

When I was a freshman in college, I wrote an essay for a writing class wherein I described myself as being a “girl.”  I was eighteen years old, a burgeoning writer, naïve in many ways but generally adept at language. The word seemed precise, if not necessarily inspired. My professor, a white man in his late twenties, whom I have slightly more empathy towards now that I am in my late twenties, pulled me aside and told me he was uncomfortable with my usage. “Girl” evoked a kind of innocence and vulnerability he thought it best I distance myself from as a young woman in a university.  The word was x’d out in red pen and “woman” was squiggled definitively on top.

Years ago, when she was around my current age, my mother went to Mexico and was robbed.  She had just been granted American citizenship, so it was very important that she was able to find her papers.  The story has been passed down to me since puberty, as a word of caution for a woman entering the world: freedom is a risk.

Cling

By Arielle Bernstein

Essay

I was happy to see a baby at the funeral. It was a big baby, with creamy white skin and lots of baby fat, a docile and calm thing.  When his mother went to put earth on my grandmother’s grave, as part of the Jewish tradition of burial, she didn’t even put him down. She kept him pressed close to her abdomen and heart; he waited silently, wrapped around her waist, while she shoveled big heavy clumps of red earth into the empty space of the grave. I hadn’t been nearly as effective. I took tentative little handfuls of soil and grazed them over the top of the pine box.

In Miranda July’s latest film we are asked to identify with a cat in a cage that could potentially be euthanized.While many film critics cite using a cat as a narrator as another one of July’s drives toward sentimentality, I actually view this move as incredibly, unequivocally ballsy.A recent New York Times write up of July cites her as a somewhat polarizing figure, and, indeed, many reviews of July’s latest film, The Future, characterize the film as being contemplative while also imperfect and uncomfortably sentimental.

Harvest

By Arielle Bernstein

Poem

In my poems, I like to imagine that I’m a gardener
getting ready for harvest:
with great care I plant the new bulbs
tend the lilies, pull the weeds

In real life, I leave the flowers on the counter
freshly cut, already dying.

You ask if they shouldn’t be put in water
and I tell you it’s already too late:
that winter has already come
full of small deceptions
full of things I can’t heal

You remember that morning I came home from class
with a shoebox under my arm, a baby bird inside.
It had broken its wing and we drove all day
Trying to find the local shelter

We were proud of ourselves when we dropped it off
Didn’t find out until weeks later that they usually kill
The smaller ones who are less likely to survive

I remember that despite its size the bird was actually quite heavy
I had to be careful not to drop it, had to carefully place it in the box
Close the lid tight so it wouldn’t try to fly from me

This is how I spent my whole life learning to love:
with one hand carefully mending, the other already waving,
already lost, already far away

For my 10th birthday my family took me to a steakhouse. This was the last time in my childhood I really enjoyed eating meat. I ordered steak tips medium rare. Before they brought the food they brought out tin buckets full of peanuts. My brother and I finished an entire pail, cracking the shells open with our fists, crunching the remnants on the floor. When our meals came, I could still feel the empty shells crushed under my feet.

When Alexandra Wallace posted a YouTube video of herself complaining about the “hordes” of Asian students at UCLA and how their existence on campus interfered with her student performance (in the video Wallace mocks the way Asian students speak on their cell phones in the library. “Ching Chong, Ting Tong, Ling Long” she sneers, holding an imaginary phone up to her ear) the response was venomous. Tons of insulted students of all races, creeds and genders logged online to insult her back, oftentimes relying on racist and sexist stereotypes designed to insult and intimidate. Most of these insults drew attention to her cleavage and the fact that she was a “stupid, slutty little white girl”, rather than a bigot. Though the rage that Wallace provoked was certainly merited, as noted on blogs like Racialicious and Colorlines, the use of equally appalling slurs to shame her begs the question of what kind of dialogue we aim to promote in our current culture. Though there has been considerable backlash about what is politically correct and incorrect to say in our culture, the constant influx of these type of insult matches demonstrates how often discussions about racism, sexism, orany other “ism” end with piled on insults and relying on hurtful stereotypes in order to shame the other. This is the current landscape of 2011, a far cry from the days where politically correct labels were slapped on to anything in order to minimize conflict. These days, people want their conflicts right out there in the open. The question is, are these types of conversations actually working to minimize hate?

Just before and throughout my time in graduate school I worked at a bookstore. It wasn’t a local bookstore. It was a big chain, and one of the pleasures of working in a big chain bookstore (there are a few) is recognizing just how many different types of readers are out there. Sure, chains are, to a certain extent, a bit soul-sucking. Chains don’t try to promote the same sense of self-satisfaction that local bookstores tend to do. Go into a local bookstore and you are suddenly part of a self-congratulatory community of people who think they are better than everyone else because they are such avid readers they seek out specialty books.You have your elite bookstores where you find specially brewed eight dollar cappuccinos and second-hand chairs that look a whole lot more comfortable than they actually are, as well as books that cost a heck of a lot more money than if you went to a chain. In these places you pay for the experience of feeling like a smart member of a smug elite. Another type of local bookstore you may have experienced is a “second hand” bookstore. People who go to these types of bookstores are also part of a smug elite, but they are, unfortunately, poor members of that elite. People who habitually visit these kinds of bookstores claim they love books so much they don’t even care what it is they are reading. They go in and walk out with a pile of ten books, each which has looked as though it has survived some kind of fire-the pages are yellowed, the covers are torn. This seems to somehow cement the fact that the books are important, that they’ve survived so many hardships, even though half of the books people walk out with in these stores are pretty terrible-–hardware manuals, guides to pregnancy from the ‘40s, outdated medical supply guides. But people who visit these types of bookstores are less interested in content than aesthetics (even though no one will admit to that).

Successful Hollywood films have an overwhelmingly ballsy, brassy and over the top obsession with the hero’s journey. While many people point to the cheap and easy way Disney films use the same formulaic music scores and elements of “imagination” from one film to the next, less has been said to criticize this same pattern in Hollywood movies aimed at adults. Perhaps this is because we are pretty comfortable with this motif. When The Social Network was first released, many critics marveled at how the director was able to make a film that was ostensibly about computer programming interesting and fun. In reality, this was done using the same formula used for any successful Hollywood movie. We were given booze and boobs, and a bunch of geeky college students suddenly transform into warring tribes, both on campus and in the courtroom.

In the 1970’s, the television show, All in the Family, was one of the most popular shows in the nation and a real cultural mainstay. One of the reasons for its enduring popularity (aside from great acting and interesting plot lines) was the fact that regardless of where you fell on the political spectrum, All in the Family offered a humorous portrayal of the generational divide. The show’s creators (and many viewers) felt that the show clearly illustrated Archie Bunker’s bigotry and was therefore critical, rather than condoning, of his prejudices. In reality, studies actually showed otherwise. In, True Enough, Farhad Manjoo points out a study that showed that bigots and non-bigots each found the show equally humorous but that they also, “harbored very different ideas about what was happening in the show.” The psychologists Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach, who conducted this study, found that people of low prejudice saw Archie Bunker as closed minded and a bigot, whereas people of high prejudice saw Archie Bunker as, “down-to-earth, honest, hardworking, predictable and kind enough to let his daughter and son in law live with him.”

Embers

By Arielle Bernstein

Essay

When Adile and I see each other for the first time in five years, our embrace is awkward. “I forgot how tiny you were,” she says to me. There is nothing specific I can point out about Adile, immediately, that has changed. My memory of her is distant and charged with sentimentality, an echo of her voice emblazoned on my brain, a silhouette impression in the back of my eyes. Big black curls cascade down her shoulders. She isn’t wearing glasses like she did in high school so her eyes stand out even more than usual. Her black eyeliner is thick like an Egyptian goddess. “I didn’t remember you were so blonde,” she says to me, touching my hair as if I am a little doll.

This summer when I took the train up to Montreal for a conference, I sat next to a scruffy hipster dude in his forties who told me he was from Brooklyn. The whole ride he lamented the lousy hipster kids who had moved into his ‘hood, saying they turned a dirty patch of city space into a slice of Martha Stewart. He told me the real people in every city hate the gentrifiers, but no one knows how to stop them, and he never realized I thought he was one of them, before he started talking.