The Case For Frivolity (Yes, Even Now)

It's not just misogynistic and inaccurate to believe people who care about 'superficial' things like fashion don't also care about reproductive rights. It's also short-sighted

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Stacy Lee Kong

May 06 2022

14 mins read

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Image: instagram.com/instagram

This newsletter was brought to you by At The End Of the Day with Hannah Sung, a new podcast by journalist, podcaster and all-around gem Hannah Sung. Episode one features Ann Pornel, a host of The Great Canadian Baking Show and a big fan of BTS, who joins Hannah to talk about how the things we love can get us through hard times and ways to cultivate joy in our own lives. It's well worth a listen!

On Monday, when Politico broke the news mid-Met Gala that someone within the U.S. Supreme Court had leaked a draft opinion indicating it would soon overturn Roe vs. Wade, some people on Twitter almost immediately began using the news as an opportunity to shame those who were posting about the Met Gala. How could anyone be interested in fashion at a time like this?! Didn't they know them tweeting about celebrities who just did not understand the assignment is the reason abortion rights are slipping away?!?!? (An actual opinion from model/writer/nepo baby Romy Reiner, btw.)

‎This is… awfully misogynistic. As I pointed out on TikTok earlier this week, the implication is that it's mostly straight women and gay men who are interested in fashion, and they are superficial and shallow in contrast to ‘serious’ people who virtuously reserve all their attention for politics. First of all, that’s a false dichotomy. It’s entirely possible to care about both. (Ask me how I know 🙄) But even more importantly, it’s remarkably short-sighted. I think it’s clear that things are going to become even grimmer than they already are, which means we’re going to need to hold on to joy whenever we can find it.

‎Fashion has always been political, FYI

If you’ve read Friday Things for a while, you probably already know what I’m going to say here, but humour me, okay? So: despite our society’s persistent trivializing of ‘light’ or ‘frivolous’ things that are coincidentally (cough) categorized as feminine, like romance novels, steamy TV shows and, yes, fashion, these things are all valid art forms that are inherently political and deserving of real critique. They’re also important because they are massively popular, so we have to consider the scale of their impact, and there are injustices within their respective industries that it would be irresponsible to ignore.

This is why fashion criticism, uh, exists, and has for more than a century. The roots of contemporary fashion criticism can be found in the work of 19th-century poet, essayist and art critic Charles Baudelaire, whose writing about artists including Eugène Delacroix, Édouard Manet and Jacques-Louis David contributed to the development of cultural studies as an academic discipline, and playwright, author and journalist Oscar Wilde, whose lectures and writing on aesthetics and dress were also deeply influential in the late 1800s. (His essay “The Philosophy of Dresswas the springboard for his literary career.)

‎And as our world has become more visual, fashion critics—particularly, but not exclusively, those from marginalized backgrounds—have helped us parse the images we’re constantly surrounded by to illuminate the implications of, and context behind, specific lighting, colour or sartorial choices. The New York Times’ fashion director and chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman recently explained why Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s army-green t-shirts aren’t just practical workwear but “one of the defining images of the conflict.” Robin Givhan’s analysis of Vogue’s infamous Kamala Harris cover helped explain why an aesthetic concept that would telegraph approachableness with another subject instead read as disrespectfully over-familiar. And in 2018, when she was fashion editor at The Cut, now-editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner’s article on being Black in fashion illuminated the racist scaffolding that touches every area of the industry but, at that point, hadn’t been comprehensively addressed in a mainstream publication. 

This Met Gala itself has been the subject of plenty of analysis—and deservedly so

The implication that people who cared about the Met Gala didn’t care about ‘serious’ issues was also annoying because it ignored weeks of discourse around the event. The red-carpet theme for the Gala, Gilded Glamour, specifically referenced the Gilded Age, a 30-year period of rapid—some might say ostentatious—economic growth in American history. (Literally, Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as a “period of gross materialism and blatant political corruption.” I know they mean ‘gross’ as in blatant and not as in icky, but both definitions apply, so…)

During this period, so-called ‘captains of industry’ (who could just as easily be classified as robber barons) like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Randolph Hearst, Leland Stanford and J.P. Morgan generated massive wealth, often through questionable business practices. That's how they could afford to build their very fancy compounds and fund thousands of civic institutions—but don't be fooled. Their philanthropy was intended to obscure their “ruthless accumulation of economic capital and, of course, political power,” as writer Matthew Wills put it in JSTOR Daily, and the fact that their actions pushed tens of thousands of people into poverty. According to the History Channel, they contributed to wealth inequality so extreme that “by 1890, the top 1% of the U.S. population owned 51% of all wealth. The top 12% owned an astounding 86%. The lower 44% of U.S. population—almost half the country—owned just 1.2%.”

If this sounds familiar to you—and it should—you’re not the only one. A lot of people blasted the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute (for which the Gala is the primary source of funding) and Anna Wintour (who has been the chairperson of the event since 1995 and reportedly controls everything about it) for encouraging wealthy celebrities to glamourize an era synonymous with inequality when we are currently in what some experts have deemed a second Gilded Age thanks to new captains of industry, like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. The latter was actually invited to the Gala, which was a little too on the nose for me.

‎The irony of the theme was especially evident when 350 Condé Nast staffers released a letter to their corporate overlords asking them to recognize their union, specifically pointing to the Gala as a reason why one was necessary. “While the cameras are pointed at the red carpet, there are countless invisible hands making sure every moment goes off without a hitch. These are freelancers, assistants, and producers who work tirelessly starting months before events like the Met Gala but receive no spotlight or recognition for their work. It’s the universal Condé experience on an even larger, more intense scale, proving that there would be no Condé Nast—or Met Gala—without us,” the union wrote on Instagram.

And, as the Guardian’s Amelia Abraham pointed out post-event, the fact that most celebrities delivered neither a “full embrace of the theme, or an interesting subversion of it” became another point of critique. “The Met’s own head of costume has said; ‘I think the power of fashion is that it can reflect the zeitgeist.’ So what does last night’s Gala tell us about the time we’re living?” she asked. “Ironically, by saying nothing as the world burns around them, the guests gave a very clear sense that we’re still living in a gilded age.” (There were a few exceptions to celebrities’ overwhelming silence on the topic of inequality: Riz Ahmed, Gabrielle Union and Questlove all chose outfits that paid homage to the poor and disenfranchised.)

We shouldn’t feel bad for seeking out moments of joy

Usually, when I talk about why so-called ‘frivolous’ things are worthy of serious critique, I do what I’ve been doing in this newsletter so far—I point out how they’re political and make feminist arguments for why we should take them seriously. And that’s obviously true. But I had a conversation this week that made me realize what I haven’t been saying: it’s actually also okay if you just want to look at pretty outfits and judge celebrities for how well they played dress-up.

This revelation is courtesy of my friend Talya Macedo, who’s a publicist, image and brand consultant and my go-to fashion expert. We did an IG Live on Tuesday to debrief the Met Gala and, in addition to discussing the attendees we thought actually nailed the theme (Cardi B, Lizzo, Dove Cameron, Paloma Elsesser, Billie Eilish), Kim Kardashian wearing Marilyn Monroe's dress, which Macedo rightly characterized as a stunt, and why it was particularly egregious that most of the men wore such boring outfits this year, she pointed out that there’s no need to feel guilty for enjoying fashion solely in terms of aesthetics.

‎“The Met Gala is such a great place for critical thought and a little bit of judgement because it’s a place where I think we can be guiltlessly ‘frivolous’ and talk about things that seemingly don’t matter," Macedo said near the end of our conversation. "We’re already in such a difficult era, and I think it’s important for us to be happy people. It’s great to find joy in these moments. We have so little right now!”

And you know what? She’s right. It feels like we are about to enter yet another deeply scary, heavy and draining period on top of the scary, heavy and draining periods we’ve already experienced over the past few months/years/decades. And I don’t just mean that because we’ll be paying close attention to what’s happening south of the border. As many, many people have already pointed out this week, reproductive rights are vulnerable in Canada, too. A June 2021 report by a Senate committee for human rights found Indigenous women are still being forced or coerced into sterilization. And while abortion was decriminalized in 1988, making it free and legal at all stages of pregnancy for any reason, there are no federal laws governing the procedure, which means “it’s left up to the provinces to decide where people can access abortion and what services are exempt from being publicly funded through provincial health-care plans,” according to a 2021 Global News explainer.

That means it can be harder to access an abortion if you don’t live in a big city or have the money to travel. According to the Toronto Star, Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon do not have a single rural clinic. There are four rural clinics in Ontario and one in B.C. Different provinces also have different gestational limits—according to Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, abortions in PEI are only available until 12 weeks, while Quebeckers can access abortions up to 24 weeks. While most abortions in Canada happen during the first trimester, there are good reasons why people might need one later than that, including not being able to schedule an appointment, not having the money to travel, not knowing they were pregnant or the health of the pregnant person or the fetus.

‎Also? The access we do have is more fragile that I’m personally comfortable with. According to the most recent data from the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, 74% of Conservative Members of Parliament (88 out of 119) take a publicly anti-choice stance. Of those Conservative MPs, 39 have been endorsed by Campaign Life Coalition, Canada's biggest anti-choice lobbying group. (No NDP, Green, Bloc Quebecois or Independent MPs are publicly anti-choice. 3.1% of Liberal MPs, 5 out of 159, do take a publicly anti-choice stance, but all Liberal MPs are required to vote pro-choice on any abortion-related bills or motions.) And when it comes to provincial politics, Sam Ooosterhoff, the Conservative Member of Provincial Parliament for Niagara West, said in 2019 that he wants to make abortion “unthinkable in our lifetime.” So yes, I understand that we don’t want fearmongering or misinformation. But… I really do think a degradation of our right to safe and legal abortions is possible, and that’s extremely scary.

This week, it has been tempting to doomscroll incessantly, to keep reading painful, heartbreaking stories from people who know what it’s like to be denied bodily autonomy. And to a certain extent, we do need to understand what it means not to have the right to safe and legal abortions. What's more, those of us with the most privilege must advocate for the people in our communities who will be hardest hit if these rights are rolled back—Black, Indigenous and other POC, people with disabilities, poor people, trans and gender non-conforming folks.

But isn't that all the more reason to seek joy when and where we can?

Further Reading & Orgs to Support

Abortion is Freedom by Tina Vasquez. A powerful reminder.

Anti-Abortion Laws: A War Against Poor Women by Manuella Libardi. As with any injustice, the people who will be most impacted by rollbacks on abortion rights are people who are poor, racialized and/or disabled. That’s on purpose.

How the Right to Legal Abortion Changed the Arc of All Women’s Lives by Katha Pollitt. “Without legal, accessible abortion, the assumptions that have shaped all women’s lives in the past few decades—including that they, not a torn condom or a missed pill or a rapist, will decide what happens to their bodies and their futures—will change.”

The Real Origins of the Religious Right by Randall Balmer. It is not, and has never been, about babies.

How The Death Of Savita Halappanavar Revolutionised Ireland by Kitty Holland. As someone on Twitter pointed out this week, the treatment for ectopic pregnancies and incomplete miscarriages is abortion, and if you are denied access to that care, you will die. The tragic story of Savita Halappanavar is just one example.  

The Only Moral Abortion Is My Abortion by Joyce Arthur. I first read this when I was in high school and I still think about it all the time.

In Canada, you can donate to:

Action Canada, which administers an emergency abortion fund and advocates to improve abortion rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights in Canada and globally.

LEAF (Women’s Legal Education & Action Fund), which advocates for reproductive justice.

SHORE (Sexual Health Options, Resources & Education) Centre, a Kitchener-Waterloo non-profit that operates Choice Connect, a tool that connects people with abortion providers across the country.

In the U.S., you can donate to:

Independent abortion funds. Planned Parenthood has a huge budget, and these grassroots orgs definitely do not. The National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) maintains a state-by-state list; find one close to you and donate directly. (Twitter user @helmsinki has also compiled a list of abortion funds in every state.)

These Puzzles Fund Abortion Too, part of NNAF’s current fund-a-thon. Proceeds are split evenly between seven abortion access funds and donors receive a pack of crossword puzzles themed around social and reproductive justice.

Keep Our Clinics, an ongoing Abortion Care Network fundraising campaign for independent abortion clinics across the U.S.


And Did You Hear About…

The Grey’s Anatomy writer who told Shonda Rhimes she was pulling from her real-life experiences with cancer. She lied.

Barbie’s TikTok. (Which might actually be the best TikTok?)

The reason North American potato chip flavours are so boring.

This wannabe Eat, Pray, Love-style personal essay, which I think might be the worst thing I’ve ever read—on multiple levels.

Slate’s fascinating look at defamation suits, and why celebrities aren’t using them as intended.

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