In Retrospect - Episode 32

EPISODE 32 – THE RUTGERS WOMEN FIGHTS BACK (PT 2)

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

[00:00:00] Susie Banikarim: Hey everyone, this is part two of our episode about the 2007 Rutgers women’s basketball team. If you haven’t listened to part one yet, I recommend starting there. And just a note that we discussed racist and sexist language in this episode. In April 2007, Don Imus, a popular and prominent radio host, callously dragged a group of young female college athletes into a press storm.

[00:00:26] Essence Carson: I was blown away by what was said, although I was no stranger to racism and the nuances of it. I didn’t necessarily think it would be possible, and especially towards a group of young women like ourselves. 

[00:00:39] Susie Banikarim: But Don Imus was about to get caught in his own storm. 

[00:00:43] Jemele Hill: He had done it before, and there was a track record of him particularly saying and espousing some pretty dangerous tropes about Black women and, finally, I think a lot of people said enough is enough. 

[00:00:57] Susie Banikarim: After a week of silence, the team was finally ready [00:01:00] to respond, to take control of the narrative. I’m Susie Banikarim. 

[00:01:06] Jessica Bennett: And I’m Jessica Bennett. 

[00:01:07] Susie Banikarim: And this is In Retrospect, where each week we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

[00:01:13] Jessica Bennett: And that we just can’t stop thinking about. 

[00:01:15] Susie Banikarim: Today, we’re talking about a college basketball team that was thrown into the national spotlight against their will. But we are also talking about who is allowed to respond in anger when they are publicly targeted, and who gets centered when these stories get told.

This is part two. 

[00:01:31] Jessica Bennett: Okay, to recap: so, the Rutgers women’s basketball team has just been to the national championships. And shock jock radio host Don Imus goes on his show and calls them an offensive slur on the air. 

[00:01:43] CLIPS: That’s some nappy headed hoes there, I’m gonna tell you that now. 

[00:01:47] Jessica Bennett: The backlash is growing quickly at this point, with people like Al Sharpton and Barack Obama calling for his resignation.

This all happens inside of a week, is that right? 

[00:01:56] Susie Banikarim: Yeah, the Rutgers team initially stays quiet. They take [00:02:00] time to think about how they want to respond and to let it play out a little bit. And then they decide the best way to do this is with a press conference. 

[00:02:08] Jessica Bennett: What happens at the press conference? 

[00:02:10] Susie Banikarim: So, exactly a week after the comments, they have this really emotional news conference.

Coach Vivian Stringer, who I’ll remind you was this very famous Hall of Fame coach, decided that the way to best approach this was to really emphasize the humanity of the girls beside her. 

[00:02:27] Jessica Bennett: Okay. 

[00:02:27] Susie Banikarim: So here’s what she said. 

[00:02:29] CLIPS: These young ladies that you have seated before you, before you are valedictorians of their class — future doctors, musical prodigies, and yes, even Girl Scouts. These young ladies are the best this nation has to offer. And we are so very fortunate to have them here at Rutgers University. They are young ladies of class, [00:03:00] distinction. They are are articulate. They are brilliant. They are gifted. 

[00:03:07] Susie Banikarim: She also didn’t shy away from clearly calling out what Don Imus had said as unacceptable slurs. 

[00:03:13] CLIPS: We had to experience racist and sexist remarks that are deplorable, despicable, and abominable and unconscionable. And it hurts me. 

[00:03:25] Susie Banikarim: And then a couple players spoke, and Essence was one of them. She was introduced as a straight A student who could walk out here and play Moonlight Sonata on the piano without looking at the notes, which I know is true because I watched a video of her playing piano. And she expressed the team’s great hurt, anger, and disgust.

[00:03:45] CLIPS: Not only has Mr. Imus stolen a moment of pure grace from us. But he has brought us to the harsh reality that behind the faces of the networks that have worked so hard to convey a message of empowerment to young adults, that [00:04:00] somehow some way the door has been left open to attack your leaders of tomorrow.

[00:04:06] Jessica Bennett: Wow, you can hear how young she is there. 

[00:04:08] Susie Banikarim: Yeah, I mean, a lot of the commentators who were watching that day noted how young and vulnerable the team appeared. And this press conference was terrible for Don Imus. The Wall Street Journal would call it devastating for him. But the Rutgers team did say at the end they had agreed to meet with him.

[00:04:26] Jessica Bennett: So, we just heard Vivian Stringer as being very composed and super gracious in that press conference, but has she ever talked about how she reacted privately? Because I imagine she was pretty pissed. 

[00:04:38] Susie Banikarim: Yes. Her private reaction was very different. Years later she recalled in a 2018 profile that in the days afterward, and I’ll read this. I kept reading those words and I was so upset. I kept thinking, why would he say that? He doesn’t know us. I remember busting my hand on the wall and I was crying because it was bleeding. 

[00:04:58] Jessica Bennett: Hearing all this, [00:05:00] it like honestly makes me so sad because she’s just like, he doesn’t even know us. Like there’s so much bias coursing underneath the surface to what they’re saying, even in the press conference when they’re having to reiterate that these are brilliant, articulate young women. And it’s like, trying to object or subvert the tropes while responding to the thing. 

[00:05:24] Susie Banikarim: Yeah, that’s really is what’s happening. I mean, she has to put on this professional face and she has to prepare her team for a meeting with this man who’s caused them so much pain because she knows that’s what’s expected of her. I mean, she doesn’t really have a choice. 

[00:05:38] Jessica Bennett: And then of course she doesn’t really have the luxury of getting publicly angry, right? Like of course she has to slam a wall behind closed doors because what would they possibly say if she showed anger in public? 

[00:05:51] Susie Banikarim: Right. Then she’d become an angry black woman. That’s another trope that they have to make sure they’re not feeding into. And I think intrinsically they understood that [00:06:00] they had to appeal to people by laying bare their humanity, which is just not right, right? We shouldn’t have to lay ourselves bare to convince people we are worthy of not being treated terribly. And I was really struck by that too. So I asked Essence if they were conscious of that. 

[00:06:16] Essence Carson: I think it’s Black women, you know, we have to somehow figure out how to navigate this place. How to navigate life in a way where you are able to show how strong and powerful you are, how intelligent you are, but at the same time do it in a way where you don’t ruffle any feathers, where you don’t intimidate people.

You know, we should just take what’s given to us. Or, you know, the more we fight for ourselves and for others, as we often do, it’s almost just like, “Hey, you, you right there, yes, you, you specifically, be quiet.” What you grow to understand is that what [00:07:00] happens in sports, it’s like a microcosm of what society is.

[00:07:07] Jessica Bennett: What she’s talking about here is the double bind, right? Like, that these women, these young women had to grapple with the isms of both race and gender. And so, like, God forbid they would be labeled as angry. We saw how that played out when Serena Williams yelled at that ref. Even though research actually shows, and I will just point this out to clarify the record, that black women are in fact less likely to show anger when criticized or disrespected.

[00:07:36] Susie Banikarim: Because they know that this is a Catch 22, right? Especially in sports. In sports, you’re supposed to be aggressive. How are you also going to be docile? Like, it’s this insane thing where Serena Williams gets, you know, weeks of headlines about how she was unsportsmanlike. But in tennis, I mean, think about John McEnroe. Those guys were crazy and they never got dinged in the way she did. 

[00:07:58] Jessica Bennett: That’s the thing too, right? Like when [00:08:00] men express anger, they’re viewed as passionate, and their status actually increases, whereas when a woman expresses anger, she’s just crazy and nuts. 

[00:08:09] Susie Banikarim: Right. So as women, you know, right? You know that you have to kind of make yourself softer in some way to be considered professional. You have to put a bunch of exclamation points in your emails, and you have to be likable. 

[00:08:20] Jessica Bennett: Yeah. And in fact, they did come off as very likable. It seems like they effectively threaded that needle in this press conference? Is that what the response was? 

[00:08:30] Susie Banikarim: Yes, they definitely did, and it was an extremely successful press conference, and Essence really credits Vivian Stringer for that. She really was a pro, so she knew how to frame this in a way that would be effective. But one thing that’s interesting about the response to it is that a lot of the coverage remarked about how graceful they were, their dignity, their poise, and pundits repeatedly marveled at how articulate and gracious they were.

[00:08:58] Jessica Bennett: They actually used the [00:09:00] word articulate? 

[00:09:00] Susie Banikarim: Yes, yes. 

[00:09:01] Jessica Bennett: Okay. 

[00:09:01] Susie Banikarim: And, you know, the subtext of that is that it’s surprising that they were those things, which feels racist in a less obvious way. So, I want to bring back Jemele Hill to talk about this. As you know, Jemele is an acclaimed sports journalist, and she wrote about this story for ESPN at the time.

[00:09:18] Jemele Hill: Well, there’s the indignity that you suffer of being dehumanized, and then you have the extra indignity of having to react to it politely, because you’re always aware of the fact that your reactions are scrutinized and judged a lot differently. For them to be angry in that moment, for them to express any rage, it says everything about race in America that that would have been considered to be a classless reaction, but not what he said.

Their reaction would have been considered, had they chosen to be angry, and chosen to exhibit a more forceful emotion, would have been considered to be more egregious than the actual offense. I would have loved for them to be able to express however [00:10:00] they feel. But it’s unfortunately the burden and the responsibility that a lot of Black people have had to live with a long time.

Because not only are we often the victims of racism and institutional racism and white supremacy, we’re also not only tasked with being kind and polite to it, we’re also tasked with fixing it too. 

[00:10:17] Jessica Bennett: It’s so interesting because it’s like what they had to do there was predict the racist undertones or tropes that were going to be used against them and then like preemptively combat them.

[00:10:32] Susie Banikarim: Yes, they definitely had to go into this with the understanding that It was their responsibility to somehow make this better while also making it clear how unacceptable it was to them. 

[00:10:48] Jessica Bennett: Right. And how do you do that if you can’t be firm because firm might be interpreted as angry. 

[00:10:56] Susie Banikarim: I think that is actually the brilliance of Vivian Stringer. She is really [00:11:00] firm here, but she’s doing it in a way that really engenders empathy.

And you can tell this isn’t her first rodeo, right? 

[00:11:08] Jessica Bennett: Right, right. 

[00:11:08] Susie Banikarim: She knows what she’s doing. 

[00:11:10] Jessica Bennett: It’s just like there’s so many layers to this that you have to peel back and constantly be aware of. 

[00:11:16] Susie Banikarim: Right. Because you have to experience the racism, but then you also have to respond in a way that’s not going to create more racism, that’s not going to make you more of a target.

It’s really complex. And I think it’s also worth noting here that there was this kind of deep historical and cultural significance to the way that Don Imus chose to be offensive, right, by calling them names that were tied to their sexuality and to their hair, it was tapping into this long standing cultural baggage around Black women’s hair in this country.

It’s been stereotyped and stigmatized for so long, as we mentioned earlier, and Jemele was really interesting on this topic. 

[00:11:56] Jemele Hill: Hair is very central to the identity of Black women. Back during [00:12:00] the times of slavery, they used to make Black women bind their hair in various cloths basically so it wouldn’t publicly be seen.

And the reason they did it, it was because it was this crazy sort of thesis that if because Black women were elaborately styling their hair and that was part of their expression, there was this crazy idea that that would lure white men. And so when you call a group of Black women nappy headed hoes, you’re not only trying to dehumanize them, you’re also trying to make sure that you are sending the message that their beauty is not respected, regarded, or even wanted.

You’re trying to make them feel undesirable. That is the whole point of this, right? And so that’s something that Black women have also faced throughout the history of our lives is that we have been made to feel not only as if we don’t matter, but that we’re just not even beautiful or desirable enough to even be considered in the same way and [00:13:00] regarded in the same scope of femininity that everybody else is.

And so by planting the image that we are hoes, it makes it seem as if, historically, that the type of sexual abuse and sexual trauma that Black women have suffered is really their fault because they’re hoes and they’re loose. And that is another stereotype in a narrative. that we have had to fight throughout the course of our beings.

[00:13:34] Jessica Bennett: Susie, let’s go back to the fallout for Imus. Did he end up facing any consequences? 

[00:13:39] Susie Banikarim: He did. After the press conference, general outrage grew because it had been really effective, right? It had really emphasized that the Rutgers players were just kids for the most part and they weren’t, So 

[00:13:51] Jessica Bennett: It did what they wanted it to do.

[00:13:52] Susie Banikarim: Yeah. And they weren’t journalists or politicians who were choosing to go on Imus’s platform and mix it up with him to sell books or whatever, [00:14:00] right? These were just hardworking girls who had done nothing but dare to play basketball while being black. So it really, was a critical moment in this story. He did try to continue to spin things afterwards.

He did talk a lot about how he’d done all this charitable work, which is true. He had done a lot of charitable work with children with cancer, and he felt the need to mention that some of them were Black, which it’s like, oh, well thank God you didn’t weed out the Black kids from your cancer and illness ranch. Like, it just was kind of a crazy. 

[00:14:32] Jessica Bennett: And so it’s basically like that, but I have a Black friend. 

Susie Banikarim:  Yeah, it was a version of that, but almost worse because he was using these sick children as a way to defend himself, which it’s hard not to see that as a cynical way to try and change the conversation. He launched a telethon to benefit three children’s charities while all of this was happening, which just does feel a bit like a stunt.

He also defended himself by saying that the Black community had [00:15:00] used the word and said horrible things about Black women. And he argued that because rappers routinely, and this is a quote from him, defame and demean Black women and call them, in quotes, worse names than I ever did. Like how was he supposed to know that this was offensive?

And You know, that conversation is also, to me, just ridiculous, like, what that has to do with his decision to go after these girls for no reason, I don’t know, but it worked as a distraction. 

Jessica Bennett: It did? 

[00:15:31] Susie Banikarim: Yeah, a lot of conversation at the time around hip hop and whether it was a double standard, that Black rappers 

[00:15:38] Jessica Bennett: Oh, interesting. So that actually became a story. 

[00:15:40] Susie Banikarim: Yeah. Time did a story at the time. Oprah Winfrey did a town hall with Black leaders about whether or not hip hop needed to be held accountable for calling women bitches and hoes. 

[00:15:51] Jessica Bennett: Huh. Okay. 

[00:15:51] Susie Banikarim: So it is this crazy sideshow that happens. In fairness, Oprah, she had also done an episode with the girls from Rutgers, but still, [00:16:00] okay.

Jamele said when I spoke to her that this whole thing was just a way to continue to avoid accountability. 

[00:16:04] Jemele Hill: It was a way to let Don Imus and other people who think like them off the hook because I can tell you I can’t think of a single Jay Z lyric where he said the Rutgers women’s basketball team are nappy headed hoes.

Not one. Often what we see unfortunately in conversations about race is that at some point in these conversations, the people who don’t want to be accountable, want to then blame the people that they have either insulted, demean or dehumanize for their own treatment. So it’s not about Don Imus saying this about the Rutgers women’s basketball team.

It then becomes, Oh no, Black people deserve this because that’s ultimately what he was saying. They deserve to be called nappy headed hoes because of something that Tupac said. That’s basically what he says. 

[00:16:55] Susie Banikarim: It’s just a diversionary tactic, essentially, and it becomes such a big part of [00:17:00] the story that Snoop Dogg ends up responding to it.

[00:17:03] Jessica Bennett: Oh my gosh, he did? Yeah. I don’t remember this. Okay. 

[00:17:05] Susie Banikarim: He said in an interview with MTV News, which was still a thing then, that we’re not, as he puts it, old ass white men sitting on MSNBC going hard on Black girls. We’re rappers. This comes from our own experience, and it’s relevant to what we feel, and we’re not going to let people say we’re in the same league as this man.

[00:17:22] Jessica Bennett: That’s interesting. Yeah, I mean, that’s true. Like, he’s not a news person on major news programs who is supposed to have some sort of journalistic standards, even though we know that he didn’t. 

[00:17:34] Susie Banikarim: Right. It’s just a totally different thing. And also, as is well established now, but I guess wasn’t as well established at the time, being part of a group does give you license to have different kinds of conversations about them.

That is just a fact. And to pretend like that’s not a fact and clutch your pearls and be like, well, why do they get to say this, but not Don Imus? It’s like, we know why. We don’t need to pretend we don’t know why. 

So the [00:18:00] pressure continues on CBS and MSNBC, particularly to fire him, particularly from Black leaders, Al Sharpton, who I already mentioned, who’s a well known civil rights leader, and also Jesse Jackson, who’s also a well known civil rights reader, and women’s groups continue to also put a lot of pressure on. I think the thing that this really highlights is that while Imus’s audience had gotten used to his antics, the larger public wasn’t so familiar with them. So this clip ends up being really shocking to a broad audience, and then all these previous clips that we mentioned come in.

And others that we didn’t mention because there were so many of them. So advertisers begin to bail. And as you and I both know, when the money goes is when the pressure really comes on. And once advertisers start pulling out, CBS and MSNBC realize that the suspension isn’t going to be enough. And MSNBC cancels his television simulcast, right, because they don’t actually produce the show they just, air it. 

And [00:19:00] eight days after he made the comments, Don Imus is finally fired by CBS. 

[00:19:05] Jessica Bennett: Okay. 

[00:19:06] Susie Banikarim: And in a, In Retrospect, cameo, twist, as per usual, the person who fires Don Imus is Les Moonves, because no matter what a list of bad men always crops up in every story. 

[00:19:20] Jessica Bennett: Les Moonves to remind people the former head of CBS who was then pushed out over egregious sexual harassment.

[00:19:27] Susie Banikarim: Yes. Yes. It’s just a reminder that the bad men are everywhere. So one other thing I just want to mention here because I think it is wild is that when I was researching this story I found that it had become such a huge story at the time that it inspired not one, but two Harvard Business School cases. 

[00:19:50] Jessica Bennett: Oh, really?

[00:19:50] Susie Banikarim: About how as a leader you should handle a crisis like this. So, 

[00:19:54] Jessica Bennett: oh, fascinating. 

[00:19:55] Susie Banikarim: This really did capture the national attention far beyond [00:20:00] the local New York story that it might have been in a different world.

[00:20:19] Jessica Bennett: It’s so interesting because this is the kind of stuff that now plays out all the time. 

[00:20:23] Susie Banikarim: Yes. 

[00:20:24] Jessica Bennett: And is probably tackled much more quickly. So it’s interesting to think about how that has shifted. It’s just so much more common, I think, now for Big companies to be put under pressure by the public and then advertisers to make a decision about a thing that happened.

[00:20:42] Susie Banikarim: It’s interesting because on the one hand, I think that’s true, but then I think about like a Joe Rogan on Spotify and how Spotify has basically just kind of let Joe Rogan do whatever he wants. And I think the other way in which the landscape has shifted is that there’s an expectation that certain people are going to be who they [00:21:00] are.

And so we don’t. Get as much backlash if a Joe Rogan says something, but obviously if a mainstream network TV person says something, that’s going to have a different impact. But there are different rules for different people now in a way that I don’t think existed then because they’re just 

[00:21:17] Jessica Bennett: how many listeners are yours? How many listeners are you bringing in for the platform? I mean, that was the whole thing with Joe Rogan, right? 

[00:21:23] Susie Banikarim: Right. Well, with Joe Rogan, Spotify doesn’t rely on advertising, right? So they make their own decision about what happens on their platform. 

[00:21:29] Jessica Bennett: It’s hard to pressure them. Yeah. 

[00:21:30] Susie Banikarim: Yeah. So it’s interesting. And look, I think you can look at even Tucker Carlson. Advertisers left Tucker Carlson in droves when he was at Fox News, but that’s not what finally got him fired, right? What finally got him fired is that, by all accounts, Rupert Murdoch finally got sick of him pushing conspiracy theories.

[00:21:48] Jessica Bennett: OK, so, you mentioned that the team did agree to meet with Don Imus. I imagine that must have been crazy. Did that happen? What exactly happened [00:22:00] at that meeting and what do we know about it? 

[00:22:01] Susie Banikarim: So the meeting did happen. Coincidentally, the meeting was scheduled for the evening of the day he ends up getting fired.

So the meeting happens also eight days after he made the initial comments and it’s a pre arranged meeting with the coach, Vivian Stringer, and the whole team at the New Jersey governor’s mansion. 

[00:22:22] Jessica Bennett: Oh, wow. It’s at the governor’s mansion? 

[00:22:23] Susie Banikarim: It’s at the governor’s mansion, but strangely, the governor never makes it to the meeting. As a weird aside, he gets in a car accident on the way and is like injured, so they have the meeting without him. So he’s not involved, but it’s at the governor’s mansion. 

[00:22:38] Jessica Bennett: But that is interesting that this has made it to the highest level of state politics. Yeah. 

[00:22:42] Susie Banikarim: Yes, definitely. And I think also New Jersey really rallied around this team. Like they felt real pride in them as they were making their way up to the Final Four. So I think they felt protective of them, right? So it became a New Jersey story in that way. So the meeting lasts about three to four [00:23:00] hours. 

[00:23:00] Jessica Bennett: That’s long. 

[00:23:01] Susie Banikarim: Yeah. It’s a long meeting. And I think a lot of people on the team talk. And afterwards, Imus leaves without commenting, but Stringer does say that the meeting went well, and that Imus apologized, and that they accepted his apology because he came to the meeting in spite of the fact that he’d lost his job. So, they give him credit for that, or at least Coach Stringer gives him credit for that.

And she also makes the point that That the basketball team had not called for Imus to be fired. 

[00:23:31] Jessica Bennett: Yeah, that’s pretty interesting. 

[00:23:33] Susie Banikarim: Right. I think that is interesting and worth noting because you get the sense that even as all of this is playing out, she’s conscious of not wanting the team to be blamed. She doesn’t want to be responsible for whatever happened to him, again, because I think they’re conscious of this possibility that there will be backlash, that somehow this will kind of push back on them. 

[00:23:55] Jessica Bennett: Well, and also at the end of the day, probably she’s just trying to stay in her lane.

Like this [00:24:00] is a team, this is an athletic team, these are girls, they never wanted to be weighing in on national racial politics in the first place. 

[00:24:08] Susie Banikarim: That’s correct. I think that is definitely part of it. She’s just like, I’m just protecting my team, and I don’t want to be blamed for whatever decisions other people need to make about this.

The team has not talked about this meeting very much. They’ve never really spoken about what happened, but I did ask Essence what the meeting was like from her perspective, and this is what she told me. 

[00:24:30] Essence Carson: I felt like we got what we needed to say off of our chests, each and every one of us. We shared what we needed to share, what we wanted to share about how we were feeling, about what it caused, and really allow him to put a face to those characters, because essentially he diminished us and, and, It made us characters, right?

So I think that at that time we were able to kind of humanize ourselves [00:25:00] as much as we could, right? As much as he cared.

[00:25:08] Jessica Bennett: It’s so interesting to think of them all there together. And what Essence is saying is, still pretty graceful and giving this guy a lot of grace in going to this meeting and, you know, wanting to show that they’re real people, not going in and being like, fuck you. Yeah. 

[00:25:25] Susie Banikarim: Well, we don’t really know what happened in the meeting.

[00:25:29] Jessica Bennett: True. 

[00:25:29] Susie Banikarim: Imus did eventually talk a bit about this meeting, and he did say that one of the player’s moms really was very mad at him and really expressed to him in ways that made it clear to him that what he had done wasn’t okay and wasn’t funny. And he said, it was good that I lost my job before this meeting, because it didn’t feel like I was just there to try and save my job.

I was really there to apologize. And I was grateful that they accepted it. 

[00:25:59] Jessica Bennett: I [00:26:00] mean, I guess to his credit, he could have canceled the meeting. 

[00:26:02] Susie Banikarim: I think he genuinely … He did feel very shamed by this chapter. And he said afterwards, he made a promise to them that he would not make them regret forgiving him because they had accepted his apology.

And I think for the most part, he did try and live up to that. But whatever his regrets, it did not stop him from suing CBS for 40 million claiming wrongful termination. So his regrets did not last very long. 

[00:26:32] Jessica Bennett: Did he get that money? 

[00:26:33] Susie Banikarim: He got a lot of it. CVS announced a settlement with him for an undisclosed amount in August, so this happened in April, so not that many months later, and the reporting at the time was that he got 10 to 20 million dollars.

[00:26:45] Jessica Bennett: Okay. 

[00:26:46] Susie Banikarim: That same day, one of the Rutgers basketball players, Kia Vaughn, who went on to play for the WNBA, filed a suit against Imus, his executive producer and all the media companies involved citing slander and libel and defamation of [00:27:00] character. 

[00:27:00] Jessica Bennett: Okay. 

[00:27:01] Susie Banikarim: And she was the only one to pursue legal damages, but you get the sense that they did really just want to move on. So, a month later, she drops the lawsuit saying she just wants to concentrate on her studies and basketball training. And I think they do just move on from this and try not to talk about it much afterwards. 

[00:27:19] Jessica Bennett: And so where does Don Imus go from here? 

[00:27:22] Susie Banikarim: Well, Jessica, you might be surprised to know that Imus was back on the air at another network, WABC, by the end of that same year.

[00:27:31] Jessica Bennett: Okay. 

[00:27:32] Susie Banikarim: In a deal that was reportedly worth five to eight billion dollars a year. It may also surprise you to know that his first guest included Pulitzer Prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and Senator John McCain. So, it really didn’t last long, the backlash, and on his first show back, he described that meeting with the team and said the things that I just mentioned about how it made him realize that it wasn’t funny.

He diversified his show, he [00:28:00] added some black comedians to his existing crew, and to give you an idea of how much he did or didn’t change, he ended his opening monologue by saying this. 

[00:28:13] CLIPS: But other than that not much has changed. Dick Cheney is still a war criminal. Hillary Clinton is still Satan. And I’m back on the radio.

[00:28:29] Jessica Bennett: Okay, so he’s clearly signaling to his audience that sure, he may have changed in this one realm, but he’s still the same guy who calls Hillary Clinton Satan. 

[00:28:39] Susie Banikarim: Yes. 

[00:28:40] Jessica Bennett: I mean, it is interesting because it’s like, okay, can people make, in his case, racist mistakes, apologize, do the work, as we like to say, and move forward, or can they not?

Like, it is an interesting question. Should he have been [00:29:00] kept off the air forever? This seems pretty quick. 

[00:29:03] Susie Banikarim: It’s just indicative of the fact that while he did get his hand slapped, he didn’t really lose that much. Much. Right? In the end, maybe he lost Some amount of money. But in the numbers we’re talking about here, tens of millions of dollars, whatever that money was, didn’t make a dent in his overall wealth.

And honestly, I think the thing that’s More interesting is that it didn’t take long for him to fully rehabilitate his image. Almost a year to the date of the original comments, Jesse Jackson, who had literally been one of the people leading protests and calling for his firing, appeared on his show. 

[00:29:41] Jessica Bennett: Okay.

[00:29:42] Susie Banikarim: To discuss the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which you may know that Jesse Jackson was there when MLK Jr. was assassinated. And that booking would have seemed impossible a year before. So it is an interesting question of how long does it take to [00:30:00] Rehabilitate or what is considered rehabilitation, but frankly, this feels like it wasn’t much within a year he was already sort of buddying up with the people who had been calling for accountability. 

[00:30:12] Jessica Bennett: Did Jesse Jackson ever talk about why he made the decision to go back on? 

[00:30:16] Susie Banikarim: I think the honest answer is people wanted access to his platform. It’s why people went on before knowing exactly who he was. You know, in the end, access to power is extremely seductive.

And I think that’s what the Imus story is in a lot of ways. People really tolerated a lot from Don Imus. Things they knew weren’t okay even before these comments because they wanted access to his platform. And I assume for Jesse Jackson, whatever he may have said at the time, that was essentially the same reason he decided it was okay to move forward with this guy.

[00:30:50] Jessica Bennett: Okay, so this is all interesting, but what, to what extent do you think he actually did mean it when he told the players, I am not going to make you [00:31:00] regret having accepted my apology? 

[00:31:02] Susie Banikarim: I mean, I think to some degree he did. I actually asked Essence about this and she was like, I don’t know, man, I did not continue to follow this man’s career.

When this was over, I put this chapter away and like, I just didn’t care to track him. And I think that’s very fair on her part. I think he made an effort not to use really racially charged language. What was in his heart, I mean, I think we just don’t know. There were a couple smaller incidents where he denied the kind of racial undertones that other people saw in them. So I do think he was under scrutiny. 

[00:31:39] Jessica Bennett: And did he ever talk about it again?

[00:31:41] Susie Banikarim: He did address the comments again in 2018. So Imus past in 2019, but he retired from his show in 2018. So that gives you a sense of how much longer he was on the air. He went back on the air in 2007 and stayed on for 11 more years.

And he gave an interview to CBS Sunday morning when he retired, which [00:32:00] also just gives you an idea of how much his image was rehabilitated, right? That CBS Sunday morning ran this glowing profile of him upon his retirement. And when the correspondent asked him if he had any regrets, he said that the Rutgers thing, that’s how he framed it, the Rutgers thing, I regret.

The correspondent asked, what do you regret about it? And he just said, because I know better. And he also added that it was because it changed thinking about making fun of some people who didn’t necessarily have a mechanism to defend themselves. I mean, I don’t know if it’s the kind of deep regret I might have expressed in this scenario.

[00:32:38] Jessica Bennett: Well, it’s interesting when he says, because he knew better, which sort of hints at, He knew it was bad at the time. 

[00:32:46] Susie Banikarim: Well, and I think also he just genuinely always resisted the idea that he was racist in any way, that the things he did had racist implications. Like so much of the way he defended himself at the time [00:33:00] was to be like, I am not a racist.

And, you know, that doesn’t really inspire the sense that he did a lot of self reflection. Because obviously a man who feels comfortable saying the N word and also just like spewing out this kind of casual racism all the time does have some racism to contend with. I just think that this idea that when you’re confronted with something about yourself, you get to just say, that’s not true about me.

I just said a bad thing, but it doesn’t mean anything about what I actually believe or who I actually am. That kind of does feel like a cop out. So I don’t know that he ever fully came to understand what this episode meant for him. I don’t know if narcissists are capable of that.

[00:33:52] Jessica Bennett: Okay, I’m sick of Imus. Yeah, fair. Let’s go back to the players. I want to know what became of these players. Where are [00:34:00] they now? 

[00:34:00] Susie Banikarim: Well, Jess, unlike a lot of stories we tell here, I’m happy to report that this story does have a happy ending. So Vivian Stringer would go on to become one of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time.

She was the first coach in men’s or women’s basketball history to take three different schools to the final four. 

[00:34:19] Jessica Bennett: Okay. 

[00:34:19] Susie Banikarim: She was the fifth women’s basketball coach to reach a thousand career wins, and she was the first Black coach to achieve that goal. So, 

[00:34:26] Jessica Bennett: Amazing. 

[00:34:27] Susie Banikarim: She is an icon in college sports and just an icon in women’s sports. And I think is retired now from Rutgers, but is a beloved figure there. So she had a great career. Essence had an amazing career also. She was drafted by the New York Liberty when she graduated from Rutgers. She went on to have a long and successful basketball career, has played for a number of other WNBA teams and the U. S. national team, and she played overseas for some time. And now she’s a music executive. So she’s doing great. Kia Vaughn, who you may remember as the [00:35:00] student who did try and sue him briefly. She would go on to be drafted by the New York Liberty when she graduated. 

[00:35:06] Jessica Bennett: I didn’t realize so many of these original Rutgers players were on the Liberty.

[00:35:10] Susie Banikarim: Yeah, well a lot of them just went on to the WNBA. Kia eventually would go on to other WNBA teams and play internationally and she helped win championships for some of the teams she played on in Europe. She retired in 2022, so not that long ago, and she works for the Atlanta Dream 

[00:35:26] Jessica Bennett: Oh, I love that. 

[00:35:27] Susie Banikarim: There were other players who joined the WNBA, Epiphany Prince who was one of the players won the WNBA championship in 2020 with the Seattle Storm.

[00:35:35] Jessica Bennett: My hometown team. That’s so interesting. I didn’t realize. 

[00:35:38] Susie Banikarim: This was a powerhouse team. 

[00:35:40] Jessica Bennett: Like the Liberty our team in New York. Yeah. And the Storm, my hometown team. 

[00:35:43] Susie Banikarim: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s the thing, right? Is that this was a truly remarkable team. You know, that is the story that sometimes got lost in the coverage of this at the time.

And others went on to have other careers, finance, healthcare, hospitality, whatever, but they had the lives they [00:36:00] always were meant to have, and they didn’t let this chapter derail them. And I think that is a really nice way to end it. And you know, I want to let Essence have the last word here about what she took away from this experience.

[00:36:13] Essence Carson: It showed that you can have a voice. No matter how small you are, even if it’s just you yourself, you can have a voice and you don’t have to be the subject of anyone’s jokes. You don’t have to be labeled that angry black woman. You can speak with eloquence. You can convey your thoughts in a way, in a manner, in which hits home with people.

You can focus on the similarities between individuals to bring people together rather than focus on the differences in order to drive them further apart. You can be great in your own right, no matter what it is that you do. And if you are given [00:37:00] talent that you’re born with, right, please make sure that you use it for good.

I think it just kind of changed what my outlook on life moving forward would be, a part of the purpose. It changed all those things and it happened at an early age. Would I rewrite the story? No, I wouldn’t because then I wouldn’t be who I am today and I wouldn’t have the effect on people. The way that I do, just from learned experiences.

If I can use what I went through to help someone else, definitely would. That’s just a part of who I am now.

[00:37:38] Susie Banikarim: That feels like a really nice place to end it. Yeah, it does feel like a good place to end it. And I just want to thank Essence again for talking to me. I know that this is not a subject she loves talking about, and I really feel like we learned so much from her. 

[00:37:53] Jessica Bennett: Susie, you have a pretty personal episode coming up next week. What are we talking about? 

[00:37:57] Susie Banikarim: So next week, I’m going to talk to my friend and fellow [00:38:00] Iranian, Porochista Khakpour, who is a bestselling author, and we’re going to talk about the movie Not Without My Daughter, which was really one of the only representations of Iranians in popular culture when we were growing up.

And so we have a lot of opinions about it. 

[00:38:16] CLIPS: Occasionally people would ask me, have you seen it? I’d be like, yeah, yeah, of course. And then sometimes they would watch it and then they’d be like, wow, this is such a terrible movie. Why doesn’t everyone just ignore it? Except the era made it so that we couldn’t forget it.

[00:38:32] Susie Banikarim: This is in retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a pop culture moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram at In Retro Pod. 

[00:38:46] Jessica Bennett: If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it you can post nasty comments on our Instagram, which we may or may not delete. 

[00:38:55] Susie Banikarim: You can also find us on Instagram at Jessica Bennett and at Suzy B [00:39:00] NYC. Also check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club, and This is 18. 

[00:39:04] Jessica Bennett: In Retrospect is a production of iHeart Podcasts and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer.

Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Emily Marinoff is our producer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer. 

[00:39:19] Susie Banikarim: Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Our mixing engineer is Amanda Rose Smith.

Additional editing help from Mary Dooe. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim 

[00:39:36] Jessica Bennett: and Jessica Bennett. We are also executive producers. For even more, check out Inretropod.com. See you next week!

LEARN MORE ABOUT IN RETROSPECT

In Retrospect - Episode 31

EPISODE 31 – RUTGERS WOMEN’S BASKETBALL & THE RACIST RADIO HOST (PT 1)

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Susie Banikarim (00:01):

Hey everyone, just a note that we discuss offensive, racist and sexist language in this episode.

(00:08):

In 2007, the Rutgers College women’s basketball team had a Cinderella season. Despite a rocky start and relative inexperience, they fought their way to the Final Four.

Clips (00:20):

You have to be so impressed with what Rutgers has done in this tournament. They have just been sensational.

Susie Banikarim (00:28):

Ultimately, they would lose the championship game to a powerhouse Tennessee team, but the Rutgers women had still achieved the unthinkable.

Essence Carson (00:35):

When we returned to New Jersey, it was almost as if we won. Our fans were so supportive, they were so welcoming.

Susie Banikarim (00:48):

And then the morning after the game, a hugely popular shock jock named Don Imus got on the air.

Clips (00:56):

So I watched the basketball game last night between a little bit of Rutgers in Tennessee, the Women’s Final.

Susie Banikarim (01:03):

And with a string of racist and sexist comments about the predominantly black team, Imus diminished their remarkable achievement and threw them into a national firestorm.

(01:17):

I am Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (01:19):

And I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (01:20):

And this is In Retrospect where each week we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

Jessica Bennett (01:26):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Susie Banikarim (01:28):

Today, we’re talking about a college basketball team that was thrown into the national spotlight against their will, but we are also talking about who is allowed to respond in anger when they are publicly targeted and who gets centered when these stories get told. This is part one.

(01:44):

Jess, do you remember this story? Do you remember when this all happened?

Jessica Bennett (01:48):

Yeah. I actually have quite a vivid memory of it because I was at Newsweek at the time as a young reporter and Newsweek, who would do the story of the week every week on the cover of their magazine, put this on the cover. I remember the headline was Race Power in the Media and it had an image of the basketball team against Imus looking sort of stern and forlorn, and it was a huge deal.

Susie Banikarim (02:14):

Yeah, I was at ABC when this happened and it was kind of an unavoidable story for a few weeks, right? It just completely dominated national headlines, so much so that I think there was a poll at the time where people said they felt like it was getting too much coverage-

Jessica Bennett (02:28):

Oh, that’s interesting.

Susie Banikarim (02:29):

… Which is something we experience a lot in media. I think stories become red-hot-

Jessica Bennett (02:33):

Right.

Susie Banikarim (02:33):

… And then they’re sort of obsessed over and then people kind of move on.

Jessica Bennett (02:37):

And it’s interesting too because I guess Don Imus was huge. That’s what I learned when this story came out, but I had never heard of him. I don’t know if that was kind of an elite East Coast thing to know about him or maybe I wasn’t running in those circles. I remember, didn’t he famously wear cowboy boots?

Susie Banikarim (02:54):

Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (02:54):

He had this essence to him. He was hugely popular, but I at the time was, “Who the hell is this guy?”

Susie Banikarim (03:00):

Yeah. We weren’t his demographic. And I think also, Jess, we didn’t commute to work in a car, so we weren’t as likely to be into talk radio.

Jessica Bennett (03:07):

Right. Well, okay. And so I remember him being a shock jock. I remember this stir was a huge deal, but I don’t really understand sports.

Susie Banikarim (03:17):

I’m not a big sports person either, as you know.

Jessica Bennett (03:20):

I’m kidding. Yeah, I understand them enough, but I’m not a huge sports person either. And so what exactly does he say and why?

Susie Banikarim (03:26):

So we didn’t play the Don Imus comments in the introduction because I have to say they’re quite jarring. I remember hearing them all the time when it happened, but for some reason, going back and listening to them again feels really strange. They’re so offensive, and I’m going to play them for you now because I do think it’s important to hear them for yourself. But let me give you a little context. The Rutgers women’s basketball team has made it to the Final Four. They’ve had this crazy season where they were not expected to be a powerhouse team. They are having this amazing moment and the next morning, Don Imus gets on his radio show that he does every morning.

Jessica Bennett (04:10):

Wait, and quickly, how many people are tuning in to Imus at this point?

Susie Banikarim (04:14):

Oh, millions. He has millions of daily listeners across the country. He’s available on more than 70 stations and in addition to that, his show is actually simulcast on cable, on MSNBC. So he wasn’t just a radio show, he was also a morning show on television where they literally just filmed him and his crew at the mics in the studio.

Jessica Bennett (04:33):

Oh, okay, just talking? It’s like very early podcast.

Susie Banikarim (04:36):

Yeah, very early podcast and roughly an additional 300,000 people are watching on TV. It’s a sizable audience, and he has a lot of influence.

Jessica Bennett (04:46):

Okay, so back to the comments.

Susie Banikarim (04:48):

So the comments come on April 4th, 2007, the same day the team has returned home from the championship game and at the end of this historic season, and Don Imus has this exchange with his executive producer on the show.

Clips (05:03):

So I watched the basketball game last night between a little bit of Rutgers and Tennessee, the Women’s Final. Had some rough girls from Rutgers, man, they got tattoos. Some hardcore hos. That’s some nappy-headed hos.

Jessica Bennett (05:18):

Jesus, it’s like, you know how they talk about bystander intervention? It’s like these are these guys who are just egging each other on and there’s no sane person in the room to be like, “Whoa, hey, it’s not funny and what you’re saying is deeply offensive.”

Susie Banikarim (05:33):

Yeah, it’s just disgusting and there’s something so stark about how casually he’s talking about this group of college girls. And also something that really bothers me about it is the way they’re giggling like they just love how funny they’re being.

Jessica Bennett (05:47):

Right.

Susie Banikarim (05:47):

The other thing I think is interesting is that he often would say, Don Imus, that it was like a locker room.

Jessica Bennett (05:53):

He would say that his show was like a locker room?

Susie Banikarim (05:56):

Yeah, like this is a locker room.

Jessica Bennett (05:57):

Oh, wow. That is much more meaningful now in the Trump era.

Susie Banikarim (06:01):

Yes. It makes me think of that whole thing when Donald Trump was like, “Oh, I said, I grabbed women by the pussy, and it was just locker room talk.”

Jessica Bennett (06:09):

Right. It was just locker room talk. So this is Don Imus’ personal locker room.

Susie Banikarim (06:12):

And I think what’s hard to listen to here, the idea that this is just what a group of white men say to each other when they think no one’s listening or-

Jessica Bennett (06:23):

Except when they think people are listening,

Susie Banikarim (06:26):

… Even when they think people are listening, listening. Right, like they felt right. Totally comfortable saying this. They did not feel like this was wrong in any way. They don’t seem even a little hesitant about it.

Jessica Bennett (06:36):

And you actually cut some of this. This isn’t even the full clip. Correct?

Susie Banikarim (06:40):

Yes. There’s a longer version of this. We did not include all of it because everything they say is really offensive. And the part that really got the most attention at the time was when, and I just want to say even repeating this makes me uncomfortable, but when he called them nappy-headed hos.

Jessica Bennett (06:59):

Right. I remember that as being the headline.

Susie Banikarim (07:01):

Yeah and that’s a really complicated insult. We’ll get into why that has cultural and racial underpinnings that make it even more offensive than you might initially realize. But again, these are kids, these are girls, and he’s calling them whores.

Jessica Bennett (07:27):

This is the kind of trash that Don Imus was known for, correct? But who was Imus? Can you tell me more about him?

Susie Banikarim (07:35):

Yeah, so he was kind of an odd character. He was this really tall, lanky man who always wore a cowboy hat and he carried a gun for protection. He had this very famous ranch in New Mexico he would go to a lot of the time when he wasn’t recording. And in the ’80s, he actually had a pretty serious alcohol and cocaine problem-

Jessica Bennett (07:56):

Wow.

Susie Banikarim (07:56):

… And admitted later that he was often drunk or high during the show. So even though he was really popular, he was very erratic. He missed a 100 days of work in one year-

Jessica Bennett (08:08):

Oh wow.

Susie Banikarim (08:08):

… He would sleep on park benches, he would show up barefoot, but he was the number one DJ in the country, so he got away with a lot of that. And then eventually, they had to cut him loose and he cleaned up his act and he went and did a radio show somewhere else in the country and eventually made his way back to New York. So he wasn’t under-the-influence when he made these comments. And he had, at this stage, established himself as a very mainstream figure in politics and journalism despite this crazy past.

Jessica Bennett (08:47):

I’m assuming he was a Conservative.

Susie Banikarim (08:49):

No, actually he wasn’t conservative. In fact, he had endorsed Bill Clinton in his first run. So what’s interesting is he was kind of equal opportunity. He disdained all politicians and railed against them and said they were all phonies, but he did occasionally endorse some and Bill Clinton was one of those. But what’s interesting is that the audience was most likely Republican than Conservative because Republicans and Conservatives were about twice as likely to listen to talk radio at that time. And I think the thing about Don Imus is his audience was very varied, meaning a lot of Washington elites listened to him and also just random Joe Blow in the country. But his fan base was very attached to him, I think partially because he was on the air for so many hours, it felt like you were kind of part of this-

Jessica Bennett (09:36):

Right.

Susie Banikarim (09:37):

… Party, I guess, for lack of another way of saying it.

Jessica Bennett (09:38):

Club, locker room.

Susie Banikarim (09:39):

This locker room.

Jessica Bennett (09:40):

Part of his locker room.

Susie Banikarim (09:41):

This locker room.

Jessica Bennett (09:42):

Okay, and so Imus was considered a shock jock, which it sounds very like ’80s when we say it now, what does that mean exactly, other than doing wild antics, I think?

Clips (09:53):

Imus in the Morning. Here now is America’s original old timer, Crazy Bob with a little…

Susie Banikarim (10:01):

Yeah. So this was a term that was first used in the ’80s. It’s essentially a radio personality who is deliberately provocative and inflammatory and says really offensive things. So that was kind of Imus’ shtick anyway, but it was a term most associated with Howard Stern. I don’t know if you know Howard Stern.

Clips (10:19):

Okay.

Susie Banikarim (10:20):

… He’s a radio personality. He’s still on the air now, and he’s the person who gave rise to the concept.

Jessica Bennett (10:28):

Oh, he’s the original shock jock?

Susie Banikarim (10:30):

He’s not the original shock jock, but he’s the one most people think of when you say the word.

Jessica Bennett (10:34):

Okay. I’m looking at examples of what shock jocks [inaudible 00:10:38], like attempting to sneak toy weapons onto a plane at an airport, blocking off traffic lanes in San Francisco during rush hour while his sidekick got a haircut. I don’t know what the point of that would be. I do remember Howard Stern always doing creepy gross sex things like having women mud-wrestle or other things of that nature.

Susie Banikarim (10:58):

In his studio.

Jessica Bennett (10:59):

But I guess I just didn’t realize they were just doing dumb shit.

Susie Banikarim (11:03):

Yeah, it was incredibly juvenile. It was just silly. But occasionally, because there was this undercurrent of sexism and racism in a lot of these environments, sometimes the jokes crossed the line into things that were pretty unpleasant. Most shock jocks didn’t have the kind of platform Imus did, right?

Jessica Bennett (11:22):

Right.

Susie Banikarim (11:23):

Imus went from being this kind of thing, this kind of jokester who was just crank-calling a politician to ask if he wanted to join showbiz or calling a phone operator and asking her if she wanted to mess around. He went from that to being a more national figure because he actually was kind of intellectual. So he started to ask people whose books he read and whose ideas he was interested in to join the show. And over time, that became a really big part of the show. So Bill Clinton, who I mentioned he endorsed, appeared on his show regularly during his Presidential campaign, senators regularly appeared on the show and Joe Biden was one of those senators, John McCain, John Kerry, and really famous journalists at the time, Tim Russert, who was the host of Meet the Press for a long time, Tom Brokaw, who was a very famous… It was a common place to go for journalists who wanted to mix it up and show that they weren’t as stiff or staid as they appeared on the air.

(12:22):

And interestingly, Barack Obama had once been on the show and I think that just was because he had a lot of power. He was on the air for many hours a day, five days a week and as I said, millions and millions of people were watching and his influence was very broad. He was reportedly making almost 10 million a year when this happened, which sounds like a lot, but his employers at CBS were actually making $50 million a year off his show. So he had the kind of power you have for making that kind of money also.

Jessica Bennett (12:58):

Right. I imagine even someone like Charlamagne tha God or Joe Rogan would probably be the modern equivalent of that, right?

Susie Banikarim (13:06):

Yes, probably the closest thing we have, but to be honest, it’s just not the same because you still make the choice to listen to those guys in a way that if they were on your radio for four hours a day or on national television four hours a day-

Jessica Bennett (13:18):

And you didn’t have another option.

Susie Banikarim (13:19):

… And you didn’t have as many options as we do now, you would just happen upon them a lot. And because there’s no obvious modern equivalent, I actually called Jemele Hill, who you and I both know. She’s an Emmy award-winning sports journalist, who in 2007 was actually an ESPN columnist and she covered this story as it unfolded.

Jemele Hill (13:38):

Don Imus at the time was considered to be probably the most powerful radio personality in America. He had an enormous, massive platform. So if he says something on that show, it’s not hitting with a whisper. It’s hitting like a thunderclap.

Jessica Bennett (13:55):

That’s like the perfect quote. It’s just making me think back to this team. They’re basically kids. They’re at a school like Rutgers that’s not necessarily a national brand. They’re not in the spotlight in that way and then suddenly like, bam, this guy is weighing in on them and it’s reaching a million listeners.

Susie Banikarim (14:14):

Yeah and Jemele talked about that too.

Jemele Hill (14:16):

These women had just played on the biggest stage in their sport. They had a phenomenal season. They were led by an incredible coach. And so in that moment, even with the disappointment of losing in the Final Four, it was still very much a celebratory achievement for them. And just upon hearing those comments and to see how it went from people celebrating them to them just being degraded in the next moment, it was disheartening to say the least. I just really felt for those young people because they had achieved something really, really spectacular and it just felt like the moment was stolen from them.

Susie Banikarim (14:58):

In a lot of ways, what Jemele is saying is why I wanted to look back at this, this idea of having the moment stolen from them because obviously we were both working in news when this happened, but I remember even at the time, it really struck me how young the team was. It was five freshmen. So we’re talking about genuinely 18 and 19-year-old girls. And as I said, they were a majority black team and these comments just felt so cruel and ugly at the time, and the headlines were so intense, right? It was as if they went from the end of their season, where they should have just been able to enjoy that and chill and finally have a moment to reflect, to being in the hottest spotlight you could possibly be put under.

Jessica Bennett (15:46):

Right. And the hottest news story of that moment.

Susie Banikarim (15:48):

And you and I know that when you get thrust into these really hot spotlights, we’ve worked on these kinds of stories-

Jessica Bennett (15:54):

Right.

Susie Banikarim (15:55):

… It can feel like it obliterates everything else in your life and that you’re just completely taking it in from all sides, trying to figure out how to navigate it. So I really wanted to understand that part of the story better. And I reached out to Essence Carson, who is a WNBA superstar. She played for the New York Liberty among others and is now a creative executive, but most relevant for this, she was the captain of the 2007 Rutgers women’s basketball team.

Jessica Bennett (16:23):

I just want to note that Essence Carson is a really big deal.

Susie Banikarim (16:45):

Yeah, she’s obviously had this amazing career and been able to put this in her rear view mirror. She doesn’t actually talk about this very often for obvious reasons. So I was really grateful that she agreed to talk to me, and she said to really understand how deeply these comments cut at the time, you have to go back and understand what the team had gone through just to get to the championships.

Essence Carson (17:05):

Just that group that was at Rutgers in 2007, it was a very unique group. We all come from all walks of life, but we all bought into the idea of that championship and how we weren’t going to allow the lack of experience be the one sole thing that keeps us away from that.

Jessica Bennett (17:25):

You’ve mentioned this a couple of times too, that they were inexperienced.

Susie Banikarim (17:28):

Yeah. The Rutgers team went into the season as underdogs because they were a very young team. There were no seniors.

Jessica Bennett (17:34):

Okay.

Susie Banikarim (17:34):

They had lost a lot of their really strong players that year before. So it was mostly made up of recent high school graduates now starting at the college level. So the beginning of the season was rough. They were losing games. There was a game early on that they lost by 40 points at home. That was pretty much unheard of at Rutgers.

Essence Carson (17:54):

It was a tough pill to swallow. It was embarrassing. No true competitor ever wants to lose in that fashion, but it happened, and that was the beginning of the wake-up call.

Jessica Bennett (18:08):

Okay, wow. So things were going really poorly, but then they turn it around. What does that?

Susie Banikarim (18:14):

Honestly, it seems like it was just sheer grit. They had an amazing coach, this Hall of Fame coach, Vivian Stringer, who was very famous in women’s college basketball, and Essence told me that she very aggressively pushed them to get their act together, and they did, really coming together as a team.

Essence Carson (18:29):

The road in the beginning was a bit bumpy, but what truly makes a great team is how you overcome adversity. And after overcoming a slow start, we were able to regroup and figure things out leading us to a Big East Championship and onto our historic run in the NCAA tournament.

Susie Banikarim (18:49):

Will you tell me what it felt like going back when you won that last game that meant you were going to the Final Four, and just did that feel amazing? I can’t imagine what that felt like.

Essence Carson (18:58):

I’m not sure if there are any words to describe that feeling, right? Imagine losing everything and getting it back and at that time, winning it all. You know when you’re looking at the Big East Tournament, that was just one step and then it was like, “Oh, we can keep going. We can keep this thing going.” There were just truly no words that can explain that. It was an unreal ride, for sure.

Jessica Bennett (19:24):

That’s interesting. I really hadn’t realized how up and down the season had been for them.

Susie Banikarim (19:29):

Yeah, it really had been a wild season, but sadly, like all good things, it does come to an end. So as I said in the introduction, they go up against this powerful top-seeded team in Tennessee for the championship and they lose, but there’s still a lot to celebrate.

Essence Carson (19:44):

It was definitely bittersweet. Of course, there were tears shed in the locker room after that loss ’cause it was like, “Oh, you were so close. You almost completed the Cinderella story. You were so close.” Of course, those feelings set in, but in the same breath, we were reminded that what we had done was amazing. When we returned to New Jersey, it was almost as if we won. Our fans were so supportive, they were so welcoming. The fanfare was amazing. Even the people at the airport, the firefighters, everyone, the entire state of New Jersey was so proud of us. It was like they went on that ride with us. It was like they climbed from the bottom with us. They wanted to remind us that, “Hey, good job.”

Jessica Bennett (20:33):

I love hearing her describe how they arrive home to this kind of hero’s welcome. But at what point then did they actually hear about these comments?

Susie Banikarim (20:41):

So Essence said she first heard about the comments right after they had a pep rally.

Essence Carson (20:47):

Immediately after it concluded, it was almost like it was still going on a bit until, I don’t remember what we had to do next, because this moment actually kind of just took over everything. I remember coming down and we were on the court and our SID at that time, Stacey Brann, she would handle the publicity, the media requests for the team. She came to me and asked me did I hear what was said or what happened, and I had no clue what she was talking about. And then she gave me what happened blow-by-blow and even had the transcript, and I was blown away by what was said, mainly because I couldn’t fathom anyone being able to say things of that sort live on air. Although I was no stranger to racism and the nuances of it, I didn’t necessarily think it would be possible, and especially towards a group of young women like ourselves.

Susie Banikarim (21:47):

Had you heard of Don Imus when this happened? Did you know who he was?

Essence Carson (21:51):

No. No, but I also don’t think I was his demographic.

Susie Banikarim (21:56):

Do you remember when you actually heard it for the first time?

Essence Carson (21:59):

I think I heard snippets at first. It was being played everywhere, so you would hear snippets. Even if you didn’t want to encounter it, you kind of just did.

Jessica Bennett (22:10):

It’s maybe hard to remember now because we don’t have radios and televisions on all the time and we’re always on our phones, but to describe just how saturated the news was with what she is talking about. Truly, I remember it was on every cable news channel. It was playing on the radio at all times. It was on the cover of the weekly magazines. It was in the paper, and every single article was repeating the comments over and over and over again. So you can just imagine, they get home and suddenly they’re just hit in the face with this statement.

Susie Banikarim (22:42):

Yeah, that really struck me too ’cause it’s just this idea that even if they had wanted to get away from it, they didn’t have that choice. Initially, they tried to ignore his comments. They chose to go home early. It was Easter. So they went home to spend Easter with their families, but they were being bombarded with requests for comment, and also just every time they turned on a TV or walked into a store where the radio was on, it was just being played everywhere.

Jessica Bennett (23:06):

I imagine too, the reporters are camping out at the school trying to get statements. It probably was a very tabloid-esque situation.

Susie Banikarim (23:15):

Yeah. She said they were being accosted even when they were just trying to go to class or go to the cafeteria-

Jessica Bennett (23:20):

Okay.

Susie Banikarim (23:20):

… But they were trying to see how the story played out before they decided what to do and the story just kept growing. What’s interesting about this is that it was an early example of something going viral. You can imagine if this happened today, it would be all over TikTok and Twitter immediately, but back then, that’s not really how a story grew.

Jessica Bennett (23:41):

Do we know how it initially took off, who noticed that this had occurred and how did it spiral from there?

Susie Banikarim (23:48):

It was actually a guy at Media Matters, which is a left-leaning media group who flagged the clip. He had gotten a tip and he dug it up and he sent it around to their newsletter and then it was posted on YouTube. And YouTube had launched in 2005, so it had just pretty recently become really huge. And for context, in one of the articles I read, they mentioned that it was such a huge story that this YouTube video had gotten a million hits, which is a lot of hits, but today it would get like 10 million hits.

Jessica Bennett (24:18):

Right. Right.

Susie Banikarim (24:19):

So, this might’ve been missed or ignored.

Jessica Bennett (24:22):

That’s so interesting because had this happened even a few years before, yes, he’s got this huge following on radio, but a thing happens on radio and then it’s over. You’re not recording the clip and sending it around.

Susie Banikarim (24:32):

Right, like you’re not with a cassette tape.

Jessica Bennett (24:34):

Right, exactly. So maybe some people would’ve been offended, but it would’ve just disappeared.

Susie Banikarim (24:39):

Yeah, and that’s the world Don Imus really knew, right? He’d been a radio host for a long time pre-internet. So when the internet changed the landscape, I think it was a real shift for him and this was the first time he really came to understand that. And CBS and MSNBC, who were his employers, CBS ran his radio show and MSNBC simulcasted on the air, I think they were both waiting to see if this would blow over-

Jessica Bennett (25:02):

Okay.

Susie Banikarim (25:03):

…Like the other things he had said because he did have a history of saying really awful things.

Jessica Bennett (25:08):

I guess I’m asking you to repeat all the awful things, but what are some of the awful things? Can you say the ones that aren’t that awful? What are the ones you can say on our air?

Susie Banikarim (25:18):

I can say them carefully, and yes, he and his merry band of idiots just had this horrible history of saying controversial or offensive things, and I literally cannot go over all of them ’cause there’s so many racist and sexist and antisemitic and homophobic things, Islamophobic-

Jessica Bennett (25:36):

Checking all the boxes.

Susie Banikarim (25:37):

Yeah, they checked all the boxes every day as far as I can tell. But the one that really stood out to me is that after the Rutgers slurs, Gwen Ifill, who was this groundbreaking and widely-admired journalist and relevant for this conversation, a black woman, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about how Imus had once said about her when she was a reporter for The Times, “Isn’t the Times wonderful. It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.”

Jessica Bennett (26:06):

Wow.

Susie Banikarim (26:07):

Right? It’s just disgusting.

Jessica Bennett (26:08):

He said that to her face?

Susie Banikarim (26:10):

No, he just said it on the air about her.

Jessica Bennett (26:11):

He said it on the air. Oh my God.

Susie Banikarim (26:13):

Yeah. He said it on the air about her, and she said she suspected it was because he had once or twice asked her to be on the air and she just hadn’t had time to go on. So he had held this grudge against her, but it’s just a really terrible way to talk about someone. And I mentioned Howard Stern. Interestingly, Howard Stern and Don Imus did work together briefly in the ’80s and then became bitter rivals. They hated each other for the rest of their careers. And despite his own history of controversy, Howard Stern came forward during this time and said that when they had worked together in the ’80s, he had heard Imus call a black female co-worker the N word, and Robin Quivers, who was one of Stern’s co-hosts, said that he had also called her the N-word to her face when they were working with him.

Jessica Bennett (27:00):

Wow.

Susie Banikarim (27:01):

And just to put a cap on that, Imus had also called Howard Stern a Jew bastard on the air in 1984 and suggested he should be put in an oven.

Jessica Bennett (27:12):

Wow. What is mind-boggling to me is that this is a man saying these things who then turns around and has all of these really prestigious people on his show.

Susie Banikarim (27:24):

Right, Howard Stern was also controversial, but he didn’t have Senator Biden and McCain on his show, so I think he just didn’t reach this level of scrutiny. Another example that comes out after all this is that in 1998, when Don Imus was doing an interview for 60 Minutes, he told one of the producers off camera that his executive producer was hired to perform N word jokes. And to be clear, he didn’t say the N word, he said the word.

Jessica Bennett (27:52):

None of these cases he’s saying N word.

Susie Banikarim (27:55):

Right, but he’s saying the word.

Jessica Bennett (27:57):

What does that even mean?

Susie Banikarim (27:59):

What it means is that he wants someone making those jokes and so he hired this man to be the racist on the show so he could be a little less racist, I guess.

Jessica Bennett (28:09):

Honestly, it’s shocking that he was still on air.

Susie Banikarim (28:11):

Yeah. 2007 doesn’t feel like that long ago, so it is shocking that he had gotten away with this blatant bigotry for so long, but the internet wasn’t the same as it is now, and Don Imus wasn’t used to being held accountable. So initially, in the day after he makes the comments, he goes on the air and he says he’s heard a few people are upset, but basically everyone needs to calm down because it’s just an idiot comment that was meant to be amusing. But pretty quickly it becomes clear that this time is going to be very different for Don Imus.

Jessica Bennett (28:55):

Susie, before the break, you were giving us a rundown of some of the terrible things that Don Imus has said about various people, but the comments he made about the Rutgers women’s basketball team really weren’t blowing over. So what happened next?

Susie Banikarim (29:08):

Actually, Jemele Hill, who, as I mentioned, was a columnist at ESPN at this time, played a role in making sure the comments were heard pretty broadly.

Jemele Hill (29:18):

It struck me because of his having that kind of platform, and for a lot of his listeners who maybe have never heard about this team or didn’t know anything about them and the very first thing that they hear about is them being called nappy-headed hos. He ridiculed them, he demeaned them, he denigrated them. And as a black woman in sports myself during that time, all of things resonated deeply inside of me. And so I felt like I had to speak out about it and make it known that this crossed so many lines for so many different reasons, from a gender perspective, a racial perspective and I thought it would be a disservice for somebody not to stand up for those women.

Jessica Bennett (30:00):

That’s so interesting what she’s saying in terms of all the different ways that it crossed these lines. How does Jemele make sure that the story gets national attention?

Susie Banikarim (30:08):

Well, what happens is the day after the comments, Jemele hears them and sends them to the e-mail list for the National Association of Black Journalists-

Jessica Bennett (30:19):

Oh, okay.

Susie Banikarim (30:20):

… And then they become really widely circulated among black journalists in general, and by the next day, the NABJ issues a statement saying that they’re outraged and disgusted and they demand an apology, but also they call for him to be immediately fired.

Jessica Bennett (30:37):

That’s so interesting too because with so many of these stories like this, it takes someone in some position of power to really raise the alarm on it. And so having someone like Jemele in a position of power who can then reach out to this whole association of black journalists like her who can put out this statement, goes to show why it matters so much to have media be representative.

Susie Banikarim (31:00):

And she actually explains why she thinks there was more of a reaction this time.

Jemele Hill (31:05):

It was different because we’re talking about college kids and we’re talking about young women, and I think it resonated a little bit differently. Sometimes when you have people like that who constantly say the same things or the same type of destructive things about people, it starts to become a little bit of white noise. Not that it was ever right with the other things that he said, but it was who he picked, he had done it before and there was a track record of him particularly saying and espousing some pretty dangerous tropes about black women. And finally, I think a lot of people said, “Enough is enough.”

Jessica Bennett (31:40):

I think what Jemele is saying about the tropes is such an important point. And I know that she’s going to talk to us about this a bit more later, but I think it’s worth noting that part of what she’s referring to, I presume, is the incessant conversation about black women’s hair texture, on how it has been used against them.

Susie Banikarim (31:58):

Yeah, I think this idea that black women’s natural hair is somehow unkempt or untidy or unclean, that is really a racist trope that black women have had to fight against for a really long time. So he is tapping into something with real historical context.

Jessica Bennett (32:19):

I want to take us back to the timeline. So okay, the team has returned, they’ve gone home for Easter, they are being bombarded by the press. As we just heard, Jemele say, the National Association for Black Journalists has now called for his firing, but Susie, does Don Imus ever finally apologize?

Susie Banikarim (32:37):

He does finally apologize.

Jessica Bennett (32:41):

A-ha.

Susie Banikarim (32:41):

So a few days later when it is obvious that it is not just going to blow over, he issues a formal apology on his show. Here’s what he said.

Clips (32:48):

I want to take a moment to apologize for an insensitive and ill-conceived remark we made the other morning referring to the Rutgers women’s basketball team. It was completely inappropriate and we can understand why people were offended. Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid, so, and we’re sorry.

Susie Banikarim (33:08):

Clearly a scripted apology, not his usual off-the-cuff remarks.

Jessica Bennett (33:14):

Right, right. Not how you expected Don Imus to issue an apology.

Susie Banikarim (33:18):

Exactly. It obviously wasn’t from the heart. It was clear that he was starting to feel some heat here, but it was too little too late and it did not stop the backlash, and more mainstream press started to pick up the story.

Jessica Bennett (33:32):

Okay.

Susie Banikarim (33:32):

And significantly, Al Sharpton, who as you know, is a long-time civil rights activist and who has a big media profile, especially at that time, enters the fray and also demands that Imus be fired. He says that he’s happy to accept his apology, but he wants his bosses to accept his resignation as well. So it’s not dying down, and Imus agrees to go on Al Sharpton’s show, who also has a radio show at this time-

Jessica Bennett (33:59):

Okay.

Susie Banikarim (34:00):

… As sort of a mea culpa and to deny that he’s a racist. And he says that he and his sidekicks were just trying to be funny and that he understands now why it wasn’t funny, but that he was never intending to be racist. I mean, okay-

Jessica Bennett (34:13):

Okay.

Susie Banikarim (34:15):

… Sure. Yeah. Ultimately though, it starts to get contentious and he makes things much worse because he says, at some point, to Al Sharpton and his black co-host, “I can’t get anywhere with you people.” It’s like if you’re trying to apologize, perhaps you don’t use another widely understood racial trope, which is to call black people you people.

Jessica Bennett (34:38):

You people. Wow. Okay. So I guess my next question then is what are his bosses doing while all of this is going on and he seems to be just digging himself deeper?

Susie Banikarim (34:50):

This is a great question. They are panicking. By all accounts, they are doing meetings with their internal staffs. Black employees are going to NBC bosses to be like, “What the hell?”

Jessica Bennett (35:02):

Okay.

Susie Banikarim (35:02):

CBS is trying to decide what to do, but remember, they’re making $50 million, so they are very reticent to fire him. So instead, they try to just suspend him for two weeks and hopes that that stops the damage and that is again not well received, no. And now we really see a cascade of media people, sports people, politicians, even Obama.

Jessica Bennett (35:25):

Okay, I was wondering. I had wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to mess up our flow.

Susie Banikarim (35:29):

Great question. So as I said, Obama had been on the show. He was a senator from Illinois at this time. He has already announced he’s running for President and so people are asking about it, and he does also demand that Imus be fired. He says, “He didn’t just cross the line, he fed into some of the worst stereotypes that my two daughters are having to deal with today in America,” which does again, really remind you that these are just kids.

Jessica Bennett (35:55):

So is this all happening over days or weeks? What is the timeframe here?

Susie Banikarim (35:59):

It’s really over the course of a week that we get to the apology and then the Sharpton show and all this backlash, and then finally the team decides that they have to respond. They can’t wait any longer because at this point, it’s really becoming untenable for them to just go to class-

Jessica Bennett (36:16):

These students.

Susie Banikarim (36:17):

Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (36:17):

Continue to play basketball.

Susie Banikarim (36:18):

So they decide to do a press conference and here’s Essence again on why they decided to do that.

Essence Carson (36:23):

The press conference. Well, the press conference was seen as the best way to move forward. Why? Because you have a group of young women somewhere in between the ages of 18 and 20 that aren’t only athletes, but they’re students. So when you’re trying to go to class or you’re trying to, I don’t know, go get some lunch at the caf, just basic things, you’re being chased by media outlets, you lose your privacy. And at the end of the day, we like to get our education. So Coach Stringer and the rest of the staff came up with the idea of a press conference ’cause then that way, you can address everyone at one time. So making sure that we were able to get together collectively and take a stand together and control our narrative ’cause it was already spinning out of control.

Susie Banikarim (37:17):

Jess, I think actually this is a pretty good place to end it with Essence having this last word because things are spinning out of control, but the team is about to take control of the situation, and there will be a turning point with this press conference. So please join us next week for part two, and we will tell you all about it.

(37:44):

This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a pop culture moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? E-mail us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (37:58):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram, which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (38:08):

You can also find this on Instagram @jessicabennett and @susiebnyc. Also, check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This is 18.

Jessica Bennett (38:17):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeartPodcasts and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Emily Marinoff is our producer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (38:31):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Our mixing engineer is Amanda Rose Smith. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (38:48):

And Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.

LEARN MORE ABOUT IN RETROSPECT

In Retrospect - Episode 30

EPISODE 30 – CAN LIP GLOSS TEACH US ABOUT FRIENDSHIP?

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Jessica Bennett (00:04):

And I think in some ways the sharing of lip gloss is akin to girls sharing secrets. There’s something sweet about it, even though you, Susie may think that it’s also repulsive.

(00:17):

I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (00:18):

And I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (00:20):

And this is In Retrospect, where each week we revisit a cultural moment that shaped us.

Susie Banikarim (00:24):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Jessica Bennett (00:26):

Most of the time we’re digging deep into moments or artifacts from the past. But today I thought we could talk about something that applies to both past and present. That is the extremely journalistic and very hard-hitting subject of lip gloss.

(00:44):

So Susie, I recently found myself in the bathroom of a high school girlfriend in Seattle, and I was instinctively rummaging through her medicine cabinet.

Susie Banikarim (00:57):

Sorry, hold on. You instinctively were rummaging through her medicine cabinet?

Jessica Bennett (01:01):

Yes. I’m getting to that.

Susie Banikarim (01:01):

Okay, I’m going to just make a note of that for when you’re at my apartment.

Jessica Bennett (01:04):

Because I needed lip gloss.

Susie Banikarim (01:06):

You were just going to take her lip gloss and use it?

Jessica Bennett (01:08):

Yes.

Susie Banikarim (01:08):

Oh my God. I have a lot of thoughts about this.

Jessica Bennett (01:11):

And so I just went, it’s like we’ve been sharing lip gloss since we were teenagers, so I was like, she may be a mother of three now, and an adult person and a very successful lawyer, but she’s got to have some lip gloss in her medicine cabinet. And so I went in there searching for it. And then there was a moment when I did stop to say, wait, is this weird?

Susie Banikarim (01:31):

I have a touch of the OCD as you’re aware, which means that I’m a little germophobic. So I don’t share lip gloss because I don’t want to have something on my lips that someone else has had on their lips. Let’s just be honest for a second. Were you looking for anything else in the medicine cabinet?

Jessica Bennett (01:49):

No, I was genuinely, I needed lip gloss.

Susie Banikarim (01:51):

Because there are people who are just snoops who look in the medicine cabinet just because they’re curious.

Jessica Bennett (01:55):

I mean, she’s one of my best friends. I know it’s in her medicine cabinet.

Susie Banikarim (01:57):

Okay, fair.

Jessica Bennett (01:58):

I think it was like I felt comfortable enough, because she’s one of my best friends to be like, yeah, obviously I’m going to use your lip gloss.

Susie Banikarim (02:05):

Yeah, or take a Tylenol if you need it or whatever. That makes sense.

Jessica Bennett (02:07):

Exactly.

Susie Banikarim (02:07):

Then I think it’s kosher.

Jessica Bennett (02:08):

Okay, thank you. But it got me thinking about, well lip gloss. And also about friendship, because to me, in that bathroom, needing some glass for my lips and also knowing this is one of my best friends since childhood, those two things were kind of intrinsically linked.

Susie Banikarim (02:28):

Yeah, it’s interesting. I think makeup for me in general is something that really makes me think of female friendship. I just remember in college getting ready together or I did my sister’s makeup for her wedding. So it’s this very intimate moment-

Jessica Bennett (02:41):

It’s intimate.

Susie Banikarim (02:41):

When you put makeup on someone else’s face. So I think lip gloss is a representation of that kind of larger phenomenon, which is that makeup is a thing girls do with each other from a very young age. It’s sleepovers. Even before you’re wearing makeup in public, you’re playing with makeup.

Jessica Bennett (02:58):

I just have thinking about this a lot because we all have these kind of funny rituals. A lot of them that probably happen in our youth that establish closeness. They show intimacy. They are like bonding exercises. And I think for me anyway, sharing lip gloss like I did with that friend whose bathroom I found myself in, was one of these rituals to establish closeness. It was a bonding exercise of our era.

Susie Banikarim (03:29):

And I think also one thing that needs to be said is that lip gloss was a cultural artifact of the ’80s and ’90s as you said when we started the show, it’s like I have a very vivid recollection of those Lancome Juicy Tubes and the smell and when they became famous.

Jessica Bennett (03:46):

Those are for the fancy girls.

Susie Banikarim (03:47):

Yeah, I had one of those, so I guess I was a fancy girl.

Jessica Bennett (03:50):

That’s actually interesting you should raise that because I was going to take us through a little bit of the hierarchy of ChapStick and lip gloss.

Susie Banikarim (03:55):

Okay, great. Let’s do it.

Jessica Bennett (03:57):

Because it’s almost like you could organize the entirety of middle and high school girls based on their ChapStick use.

Susie Banikarim (04:06):

Yeah. It’s actually sort of similar to how you could kind of put smokers in categories.

Jessica Bennett (04:11):

Oh that’s funny.

Susie Banikarim (04:11):

I don’t know you ever smoked cigarettes, but I did. And if you were an American Spirit girl, that meant something different than if you are Marlboro Lights girl.

Jessica Bennett (04:18):

Yes. What did your lip gloss say about you?

Susie Banikarim (04:20):

Yeah, so what did your lip gloss say about you?

Jessica Bennett (04:22):

So let me just talk through some tears here. First there’s the kind. So Lip Smackers.

Susie Banikarim (04:29):

Yes, Lip Smackers.

Jessica Bennett (04:30):

Lip Smackers are still popular. They were invented in the 1970s, but they were super popular in the ’80s. You could get the small ones that you put in your pocket or you could get these really big ones that were often attached around a string that you put around your neck.

Susie Banikarim (04:44):

Like a rope? I remember those. Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (04:45):

Lip Smackers were almost like a gateway drug to lip gloss.

Susie Banikarim (04:50):

100%.

Jessica Bennett (04:51):

You could get flavors and they had amazing flavors. Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper was my favorite, cherry, and they would give a little tint to your lip, but it wasn’t full-fledged makeup.

Susie Banikarim (05:01):

Yeah. So I think part of this is kind of around what your parents’ rules were, right? I was allowed to buy Lip Smackers or ChapStick and stuff at the drugstore before I was allowed to wear makeup, right?

Jessica Bennett (05:15):

Yes. And that was the big difference between Lip Smacker gals who got their makeup at the drugstore, and Juicy Tube gals who had to go to the department store, which is why I was like, oh, so you were fancy. Because I remember saving up for Juicy Tubes, and going to the mall in the Nordstrom or whatever and having to go to that counter. And I can still taste the smell of that watermelon Juicy Tube. I mean they actually did smell and taste amazing.

Susie Banikarim (05:42):

Oh. I mean, I remember them as smelling and tasting amazing too. I wonder if I would feel that way now, just because-

Jessica Bennett (05:48):

I feel like I found an old one recently. That was the other thing too. Lip gloss doesn’t go bad, I don’t think.

Susie Banikarim (05:55):

Well, so this is an interesting thing about makeup in general. It does actually technically go bad.

Jessica Bennett (05:59):

Like, allegedly.

Susie Banikarim (05:59):

You’re supposed to throw away makeup so much more often than I do.

Jessica Bennett (06:02):

Yeah, than we do.

Susie Banikarim (06:03):

So as someone who’s just mentioned that I have germ issues, it’s probably not a great sign that I probably do have some lip glosses that I’ve had for too long.

Jessica Bennett (06:12):

I mean, I’ve found some in my parents’ house from actual middle school, there was a Softlips that is still in my parents’ cupboard.

Susie Banikarim (06:22):

Oh, Softlips. I remember Softlips.

Jessica Bennett (06:22):

That I have used recently. Those ones came, they were like the Capri cigarette-

Susie Banikarim (06:26):

Yeah, they were like really thin.

Jessica Bennett (06:26):

Really thin and chic.

Clips (06:27):

Say goodbye to waxy, greasy lips. Introducing Softlips.

Jessica Bennett (06:32):

But okay, wait, I want to finish taking you through the other hierarchy.

Susie Banikarim (06:35):

Hierarchy, yes.

Jessica Bennett (06:35):

So I was on Accutane, which was that acne medication that so many people were on.

Susie Banikarim (06:40):

Oh, yeah. People still take that, yeah.

Jessica Bennett (06:42):

It’s part of the reason I have all sorts of stomach issues. It turned out to be very bad.

Susie Banikarim (06:46):

But beautiful skin.

Jessica Bennett (06:48):

Thank you. It made your face and your lips really dry. So Lip Smackers was not cutting it. So I also had to have Carmex at all times.

Susie Banikarim (06:56):

Oh, I was just going to ask if you ever used Carmex.

Jessica Bennett (06:59):

Yes. And so Carmex you remember came in the tub.

Susie Banikarim (07:01):

Yeah, it was like a little tub with a yellow cover.

Jessica Bennett (07:02):

And so you’d rub your finger in it. And so sharing that, probably equally gross, honestly. But a friend wasn’t touching it to their lips.

Susie Banikarim (07:10):

Yeah, I still was okay with that.

Jessica Bennett (07:11):

Okay. So there were Carmex people who had actually chapped lips.

Susie Banikarim (07:15):

But do you remember also that then people started to tell us that Carmex actually, you became addicted to it.

Jessica Bennett (07:20):

Was addictive, yes.

Susie Banikarim (07:20):

That there was something in it that your lips began to need.

Jessica Bennett (07:23):

I know. Was that ever true or was that just a wives’ tale.

Susie Banikarim (07:25):

I honestly can’t imagine. But it was literally, it was making your lips more chapped, so you were addicted to it. And then there was Blistex, which was a similar kind of thing.

Jessica Bennett (07:33):

Yes, so that was always the warning, but then if you wanted to have some tint to your lips, you always had a Lip Smacker with you. And then later, Lip Smacker also created these rolly ball ones where it had one of those little balls on the end.

Susie Banikarim (07:45):

Oh, I loved those.

Jessica Bennett (07:45):

That rolled on. And those were a little more glossy,

Susie Banikarim (07:47):

Those were like stickier.

Jessica Bennett (07:47):

Yes.

Susie Banikarim (07:49):

Stickier and glossier.

Jessica Bennett (07:50):

And so then there were the actual variations of lip gloss, which were stickier, more glossy, shinier. When I was in high school, the Philosophy brand vanilla birthday cake one was what we all used.

Susie Banikarim (08:04):

I did not use that.

Jessica Bennett (08:07):

It came in this sort of, it was like a sparkly yellowish tint, and it smelled like actual birthday cake, which is so nauseating to even think about.

Susie Banikarim (08:13):

You know Glossier makes a birthday cake flavor now of their lip gloss.

Jessica Bennett (08:17):

And the thing with that one that I distinctly remember is it was so sticky, which for my really chapped Accutane lips was actually good. You wanted it to stick on your lips all day, maybe sometimes more effective actually than Carmex. But I would drive to school and I would get out of the car, and then I would be walking to the front door and it would be windy and all of the grime-

Susie Banikarim (08:38):

Oh, and the hair.

Jessica Bennett (08:39):

And the hair would stick into your lips. And so you would walk into class and you would see your friend and you’d be trying to get the grime out of your lips because you’d have this disgustingly sticky lip gloss.

Susie Banikarim (08:51):

So I never used that in particular, but I used Mac Lipglass. Do you remember that? That was another in the Juicy Tubes. It wasn’t as popular as Juicy Tubes, but in New York at least, it was very popular for a time. And that stuff was literally putting glue on your lips and then you would just have hair stuck to your lips all day. But it gave you a really high sheen.

Jessica Bennett (09:13):

Well, and then later on, this was before the age of Sephora. So then later on Sephora came around and you could get, do you remember Lip Venom?

Susie Banikarim (09:20):

Yes, of course I remember Venom.

Jessica Bennett (09:21):

Which was, it was cinnamon and so it was like putting cinnamon straight on your lips and it was supposed to plump your lips pre the age of fillers.

Susie Banikarim (09:27):

So lip plumpers apparently are having a comeback. Lip plumpers were very popular when I was, I think in my early ’20s. And I actually kind of love that feeling. It makes your lips feel like stung almost.

Jessica Bennett (09:39):

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a good way to describe it.

Susie Banikarim (09:41):

And some people really hate that. I love that feeling. So I bought a lip plumper again recently, and I’ve been using it and I just was reminded by how much I enjoy that tingle.

Jessica Bennett (09:49):

Okay, interesting.

(10:04):

Okay, so that’s the taxonomy of types. I’m probably forgetting some.

Susie Banikarim (10:09):

Well, you didn’t mention one of my favorites, which was when ChapStick started adding flavors and colors.

Jessica Bennett (10:14):

Oh yeah. That’s true.

Susie Banikarim (10:14):

So for a long time, ChapStick was just like one plain ChapStick, but I think partially because of the rise of Lip Smackers and all those things, although I mean I’m not 100% sure, so maybe someone should fact-check us. But they started to add colors and flavors to ChapStick, which is where we get the Katy Perry song I Kissed a Girl and I Like It.

Clips (10:33):

The taste of her cherry ChapStick.

Susie Banikarim (10:36):

And she mentions the cherry ChapStick.

Jessica Bennett (10:38):

Taste of her cherry ChapStick, which we can all, I think remember the scent of, or the flavor of. Yeah. Then there was this taxonomy of who your friends were based on your ChapStick habits with them or your shared ChapStick habits. And I almost feel like there were friendship tiers based on lip gloss habits. So okay, your best friends, this is my high school girlfriend, best friends. These were the people you’d share your lip gloss with, tube to mouth, finger in, however you wanted to do it, you are sharing your lip gloss with them. They were your real friends. You knew their signature scent.

Susie Banikarim (11:17):

That’s so funny.

Jessica Bennett (11:18):

They knew yours. Maybe you would swap sometimes, but this was a known thing. It was like being in the inner circle.

Susie Banikarim (11:25):

So we didn’t have this. This is so interesting to hear someone else’s middle school and high school rituals, because I don’t have this, I mean, I’m as you know, obsessed with makeup. I have way more than I need, and actually interestingly than I wear, I don’t think if you just hung out with me, you would automatically be like, this is someone who loves makeup. But I don’t have a lot of memories around this kind of sharing. I definitely have memories around makeup in general. But it’s interesting that for you, there was this real relationship with lip gloss that indicated also your relationship to your friends.

Jessica Bennett (11:59):

Absolutely. So then there were the cool popular girls who you didn’t share lip gloss with, but you wished that you did.

Susie Banikarim (12:08):

Yeah. And they all had the fancy stuff.

Jessica Bennett (12:10):

And they probably all had the fancy stuff, or just so many people would come to school with baggies full of every flavor of Lip Smacker or whatever it might be, or the ones that you put around your neck where you’d have multiple flavors. And then there was always, I think in every friend group, the one friend that probably was sort of on the outside, and she always wanted to share the lip gloss kind of annoyingly, and you didn’t really want to share with her. And then you would do it reluctantly and then talk shit about her to your friends later.

Susie Banikarim (12:39):

Oh, I feel so sorry for this poor girl.

Jessica Bennett (12:40):

I know.

Susie Banikarim (12:41):

That doesn’t exist.

Jessica Bennett (12:44):

I do too. And you’d dramatically wipe the lid off.

Susie Banikarim (12:47):

That’s so terrible.

Jessica Bennett (12:49):

Or the top off.

Susie Banikarim (12:49):

I was probably the one dramatically wiping it off.

Jessica Bennett (12:52):

Well, for everyone, yes.

Susie Banikarim (12:53):

For everyone.

Jessica Bennett (12:54):

And I mean, the other thing too, is this was the era of cold sores. So you were also pretty conscious, I think, of what people’s mouths were looking like when they asked to use your lip gloss.

Susie Banikarim (13:06):

So I have a point of clarification, something I need to ask, which is, was there an era of cold sores? Are we out of the cold sore era? I think people still get cold sores, right?

Jessica Bennett (13:15):

Well, but in middle school, wasn’t everyone kissing for the first time?

Susie Banikarim (13:19):

Oh, I see what you’re saying. I think it was the first time you became aware of cold sores as a thing because you were actually-

Jessica Bennett (13:25):

Do you know anyone that gets full-blown, I feel like a lot of people in middle and high school, they would come to school and maybe this is also a relic of the time. And you’d be like, so-and-so’s got one on their lip this week.

Susie Banikarim (13:35):

Well, I think it’s because we’ve aged out of making out with a lot of people.

Jessica Bennett (13:38):

Well, maybe that’s it.

Susie Banikarim (13:39):

You know what I mean? It’s like I’m definitely not making out with as many people as I might’ve at certain points in my life.

Jessica Bennett (13:47):

And also you’re doing other stuff. Middle school’s the age when you were just spending a lot of time kissing, there was a lot of lip contact.

Susie Banikarim (13:55):

I want to say for the record that I was not spending a lot of time kissing in middle school. I did a little kissing. But I think you might’ve been more popular with the boys.

Jessica Bennett (14:03):

Well, but even in high, I mean if it was before you were having sex, there just would be more kissing involved.

Susie Banikarim (14:09):

Oh, right, yes.

Jessica Bennett (14:10):

I just mean prolonged time with mouth-to-mouth contact.

Susie Banikarim (14:13):

Wow, okay. That’s an image. That’s an image.

Jessica Bennett (14:16):

Anyway, so that was another thing that you were conscious of in terms of sharing lip gloss. There was always a friend, and maybe this was sometimes me, where they would fish out their lip gloss and there would be crumbs stuck around.

Susie Banikarim (14:29):

Oh God, I can’t.

Jessica Bennett (14:30):

And you kind of knew, you learned who those people were. I mean, for what it’s worth, I don’t think we were conscious of all of this at the time, but now thinking back to it, I’m like, yeah, you totally knew who the person with the lip gloss with the crumbs in it was. And you didn’t ask to use theirs. And all of it, there was a girl code to lip gloss.

Susie Banikarim (14:49):

Yeah, I mean, that’s what I’m thinking about a lot while talking. What’s interesting to me about this is this idea that there is sort of just these unspoken rituals and language among girls, and I think they’re all very identifiable. Even though I did not have this particular relationship to lip gloss you had, when you explain the hierarchy or you talk about that friend, I automatically can picture exactly who you mean. And there’s lots of little ways in which girls have indicators for each other.

(15:19):

Part of what you’re doing in middle school is figuring out who you are and how you fit in and how everyone else fits in. So there are these little ways in which you categorize people. You’re like, that’s that kind of girl, and I’m this kind of girl, and what does that mean? So it’s just interesting. I’m trying to think of other things that would fall into this category.

Jessica Bennett (15:38):

Yeah, I mean, I do think makeup is really intimate, and this is sort of the era before, because you’re not wearing full-fledged makeup in middle school, I don’t think.

Susie Banikarim (15:46):

Yeah, no, I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup. And I think that’s another reason why lip gloss was so appealing to me because I was still allowed to buy it, but I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup. So I would go to school and I would go to the bathroom and put on my lip gloss. And I think I had a little bit of other contraband I was using, like makeup contraband, maybe mascara, I can’t even remember.

Jessica Bennett (16:03):

You would bring it to school.

Susie Banikarim (16:04):

But I remember we would all be lined up in the mirror in the bathroom at Stanley Middle School in Lafayette, California, and there’d just be a row of us and we’d be teasing our hair. You might not have had this, but I was the era where you just spiked your bangs. You just put hairspray just in this one patch of hair. I don’t know why we thought this was an attractive vibe.

(16:27):

Also, that was the era where you would do just one earring. The one like cubic zirconia earring. That was a very cool thing to do. I remember they did a whole episode of Family Ties about how one of the daughters did that because she was trying to be cool. So she was like, “I have one earring on.”

Jessica Bennett (16:43):

Oh wow.

Susie Banikarim (16:44):

So there were these things that made you part of the in group.

Jessica Bennett (16:48):

Yeah, all the women. And even today, so you’ll go to an event, you’ll be in the bathroom, there’s another woman next to you applying lipstick, and there’s a bit of a shared experience there.

Susie Banikarim (16:58):

Yeah, there’s a moment.

Jessica Bennett (16:59):

That’s kind of bond-ish. And the other thing is, I think because this makes me think of something, which is because this was pre-lipstick, lipstick, you need a mirror to apply to your face for the most part. There is a very specific in-between type of lipstick lip gloss, which is Clinique Black Honey.

Susie Banikarim (17:19):

Oh, I love Clinique Black Honey.

Jessica Bennett (17:20):

Which I believe you do not need a mirror to put on.

Susie Banikarim (17:24):

That’s true. It’s like a very sheer lipstick.

Jessica Bennett (17:26):

But it has tint. This was wildly popular in the ’90s, now it’s popular on TikTok again because everything is back. But with all of these things, you could kind of stand in a group and apply them together. There was a communalness to it because you didn’t need to individually go look in a mirror. You could just sit there and apply your lip gloss while you were talking about last night’s episode of Dawson’s Creek or whatever it might be.

Susie Banikarim (17:50):

Just some throwaway example.

Jessica Bennett (17:53):

And you could do it in any place. So you could do it in the back of the school bus on your way to school. You could do it during first period. You could do it during lunch, on the soccer field. I remember taking breaks to go apply ChapStick.

Susie Banikarim (18:05):

Well, I think also wearing lipstick indicated again, it was sort of a marker of being a different kind of girl. I never really wore lipstick in the traditional sense until probably after high school, probably until college.

Jessica Bennett (18:17):

Yeah, I don’t think I did either.

Susie Banikarim (18:17):

And I think a girl who was wearing a bright red lip in middle school was telling you something about was either really fashionable or was making some kind of statement. Lipstick felt like a strong choice. Whereas lip gloss-

Jessica Bennett (18:30):

I don’t think anyone was wearing lipstick in my-

Susie Banikarim (18:31):

I can’t remember anyone wearing it in my school either.

Jessica Bennett (18:32):

It wasn’t as popular then. Well, I guess we’re a little bit different eras. Like gothy-ish kind of grungy dark-

Susie Banikarim (18:40):

Yeah, I guess there were people wearing black lipstick if you were into goth.

Jessica Bennett (18:44):

Yes, but nobody was doing a red lip back then.

Susie Banikarim (18:47):

Yeah, like the Taylor Smith red lip. That didn’t exist.

Jessica Bennett (18:49):

Yeah, I don’t think so.

Susie Banikarim (18:50):

Did I just call her Taylor Smith? I just want to be clear that I mean Taylor Swift. God, what is happening to my brain?

Jessica Bennett (19:10):

So in going down this rabbit hole of all these different intricacies and minutia and nuance to lip gloss, I looked up some pop culture references.

Susie Banikarim (19:20):

Great.

Jessica Bennett (19:21):

Because almost-

Susie Banikarim (19:22):

I love a pop culture reference as you know.

Jessica Bennett (19:23):

I mean, so many of the films and shows from this era reference lip gloss in some way. It’s usually not a focal point of the plot, but there’s always a lip gloss moment.

Susie Banikarim (19:34):

Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (19:35):

So Pen15, I don’t know if you-

Susie Banikarim (19:38):

So I’ve watched a couple episodes, but I’m not a diehard, where so many of my friends are.

Jessica Bennett (19:41):

It’s such a good show. And if people haven’t watched, the creators play themselves as teenagers, so they’re like women in their ’30s playing teenagers.

Clips (19:51):

How do I look though?

(19:51):

You look so good.

(19:53):

No, I don’t.

(19:53):

Yes, you do. Like so good.

(19:53):

This is just like, it doesn’t fit me.

Jessica Bennett (19:57):

And there’s an amazing scene in one of the starts of the episodes where it’s kind of panning to the different groups at school on the first day of school and it’s middle school, and there’s the group who’s all applying their lip gloss and Lip Smacker slowly.

Clips (20:12):

Oh my God.

(20:12):

Connie M. is totally best friends with Heather now.

(20:17):

Oh my God, it’s fricking true?

Jessica Bennett (20:20):

And that very much was the vibe in my middle school. Cameron Diaz in the Sweetest Thing. Do you remember that movie? Did you ever watch that?

Susie Banikarim (20:27):

I vaguely remember that movie. I think I did see it when it came out, but I haven’t seen it since.

Jessica Bennett (20:32):

Well, so it’s kind of this rom-com and she and Christina Applegate are close friends, and there’s this scene where they’re driving in the car and Christina Applegate’s character has dropped her lip gloss onto the floor and Cameron Diaz is going to pick it up. And she’s sort of bobbing as she’s doing so. And there’s some gross guy on a Harley driving by who just sees her head bobbing up and down and gives them a thumbs up.

Susie Banikarim (20:58):

That’s hilarious.

Jessica Bennett (20:59):

Like ew. But kind of funny.

Clips (21:02):

Okay, I found it. Jesus, I almost got smothered down there.

Jessica Bennett (21:05):

There’s also a scene in Mean Girls. I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but this is after they’ve performed at the school.

Susie Banikarim (21:13):

Oh yeah, of course. I remember, yeah. They do the Christmas dance together.

Jessica Bennett (21:17):

The Christmas dance. And Regina George, her boyfriend’s trying to kiss her and she stops him and she’s like, “Lip gloss.”

Clips (21:24):

That was the best that ever was.

(21:24):

That was awesome.

(21:24):

Lip gloss.

Susie Banikarim (21:24):

Which fair?

Jessica Bennett (21:31):

It’s like, do not mess this up. Do not smear it all over my face. This stuff is sticky. It will get everywhere. So that was really funny. And then a more recent show, Euphoria, there is a scene when Maddy is putting lip gloss on Lexi, and it felt very kind of share and tie to me in that it’s this intimate moment. They’re doing each other’s makeup. She’s telling her that 90% of life is confidence in this scene.

Clips (21:59):

90% of life is confidence. The thing about confidence is no one knows if it’s real or not.

Jessica Bennett (22:04):

Maybe that’s true. And some of it also is connected to lip gloss.

Susie Banikarim (22:08):

Well, there’s also two things in Breakfast Club that I remember having to do with lip gloss. One is the scene where the Ally Sheedy character is having the makeover. And so Molly Ringwald is doing her makeup. And I think the last thing is she’s like, she does her lipstick or her mascara, but also, I don’t know if you remember this, but there’s this thing where they’re talking about what special skills they have, and Molly Ringwald puts her tube of lip gloss into her boobs and then she can put it on hands free.

Clips (22:38):

I can’t believe I’m actually doing this.

Susie Banikarim (22:40):

And they really give her a hard time about it.

Clips (22:42):

My image of you is totally blown.

Susie Banikarim (22:44):

It’s kind of this thing where she’s considered this princess character and the way in which they’re indicating that is her relationship to makeup and lipstick and lip gloss, which I think sort of gets again to this idea that we kind of categorize girls as the things they’re into. So if you’re into makeup, it means something, which is sort of interesting. Because I feel like I was kind of a nerdy bookish girl. I collected stamps when I was 10. I was not some princess, but I just loved makeup. And I think there’s this kind of interesting way in which we put girls into categories, but they don’t really hold. We can be all sorts of things. But in that era, you were making a statement if you were into a certain thing versus another thing.

Jessica Bennett (23:31):

Well, I mean, I think that was true, which kind of JanSport backpack you were wearing.

Susie Banikarim (23:36):

I definitely did not have a JanSport backpack. I mean, it’s worth mentioning here that I went to boarding school in New England, so a lot of things that were traditional rites of passage for kids in America just don’t really apply to boarding school. So I think I missed some of these things.

Jessica Bennett (23:49):

You went to boarding school for middle school also?

Susie Banikarim (23:51):

No, I went from ninth grade to, I did it for all of high school, but for example, we didn’t have prom, we didn’t have cheerleaders, and also we didn’t have a lot of the things that would make girls popular in other schools. The thing that was really revered was this very specific New England look, very natural blonde girl next door plays field hockey. That’s not, I think what the popular girl archetype is based on all the high school movies I’ve seen. We just had a slightly different, I wore less makeup I think in high school than I probably were in middle school, which I think is very uncommon. So that’s partially why some of this stuff doesn’t resonate for me in the same way.

Jessica Bennett (24:28):

I mean really what this is about to me at the core is something you mentioned at the top, which is makeup is intimate. And girls, and this is true of research, this has been documented, but girls find interesting ways to bond when they’re growing up. Telling secrets is a really important way that girls bond when they’re in elementary and middle school. And for boys it’s really different. They’re often playing. There’s more action associated, less talking. But telling someone a secret indicates that you are close. And I think in some ways the sharing of lip gloss is akin to girls sharing secrets. There’s something sweet about it, even though you, Susie, may think that it’s also repulsive.

Susie Banikarim (25:12):

Well, I don’t know that I was as insane as I am now about the germ thing back then. I also don’t share drinks, which I think people find odd. But I will say that I also think a big part of this language was sleepovers. Did you do a lot of sleepovers? I had this best friend in middle school who I’ve stayed friends with and who was just a really important part of my life. And she would sleep over, we would sleep over at each other other’s houses almost every night of the week. We just switched from house to house.

Jessica Bennett (25:39):

Oh, even on weeknights.

Susie Banikarim (25:40):

Yeah, because we didn’t have a lot of rules, either of us. Our parents were pretty lax, so we would literally spend weeks at a time together.

Jessica Bennett (25:46):

Oh, wow.

Susie Banikarim (25:47):

And that was also part of this way in which you indicated that someone was your best friend. It’s like how much time you spent with them. We didn’t have social media, so that amount of time spent with someone was just time with them. You weren’t doing a million other things when you were together.

Jessica Bennett (26:01):

So there’s this linguist that I love, and I was looking back at a couple of her books because I thought they might apply to this. Her name is Deborah Tannen and she’s written a number of books about the sexes and linguistic differences. And she also wrote a book called The Power of Talk. She’s a professor and she also wrote a book specifically about the language of women’s friendships called You’re the Only One I Can Tell.

(26:23):

And so I was paging through trying to get some context for lip gloss, and I was emailing with her as well. And so the way she describes how girls communicate and bond is that, like we said, they tend to share secrets. They often play with a single best friend or in small groups, and they really spend a lot of time talking. They language to negotiate how close they are. And as she puts it in the book, the girl you tell your secrets to can become your best friend. So I almost see lip gloss as analogous in some way to sharing secrets. You do it in an intimate space, often it’s in a bedroom or in a bathroom. It, I think has the power to, I may be taking this a little bit too seriously, but also with a grain of salt. It can be intimacy, it can reinforce closeness that I think is central to the lives of girls.

Susie Banikarim (27:17):

It’s making me think also of the other thing you share that’s sort of in this category is clothes. I remember in college getting ready with my friends and sharing skirts and tops, and that was another way in which you indicated this was a close friend, that was the line. If some random girl in your dorm came in and was like, would I borrow this? You’d be like, no.

Jessica Bennett (27:35):

Though there always was someone who wanted to borrow that was not appropriate to lend to.

Susie Banikarim (27:37):

That was not appropriate. Yeah, or your jewelry, we would share jewelry. So there are all these things that you indicate closeness by sharing with another person. And the one other thing I thought of when you were saying that is that we talked on the phone a lot, which isn’t a thing now, but when we were growing up, one way in which you were like, this is a close friend, is they called you on the literal phone, like your house phone. And then you would just stay up for hours. I don’t know what we talked about for so long.

Jessica Bennett (28:05):

Well, sometimes you weren’t even, there would just be long silences where you’d be like, I just remember doing other things. You would be lying on the floor on the carpet of your bedroom with your phone to your head, just sort of living, but on the phone with another person.

Susie Banikarim (28:23):

Yeah. Sometimes you play songs for each other or you’d watch TV together. And I was wondering, you did this thing for the Times about being 13, and I’m curious because they don’t obviously talk on the phone. I’m sure they would think that was crazy.

Jessica Bennett (28:35):

God forbid, yeah.

Susie Banikarim (28:37):

So what are the ways in which they are sharing? Are they also sharing lip gloss still? Is that still a thing?

Jessica Bennett (28:43):

Yeah, actually that’s funny. So the piece, it was this big interactive project, it’s called Being 13, and I followed three 13-year-old girls throughout the course of their eighth grade year to try to understand what life is like to be 13 with a cell phone at a time when girls’ self-esteem tends to really be under threat. And so I wanted to see the intersection of that.

(29:06):

So there were many findings, but they absolutely share lip gloss. It’s actually funny, when we were thinking about this, I texted one of them to be like, “Do you guys still share it?” And she was like, “Oh, of course, yes.” And in fact, I went back to some of the, the girls kept diaries for me, and they also shared voice memos about their days. So I went back to some of my notes and there was a whole passage about she and her best friend sharing their lip glosses. I think they were more ChapSticks or Lip Smackers, and they each had a signature scent. One was cocoa, one was lavender.

Susie Banikarim (29:41):

Oh my God.

Jessica Bennett (29:41):

And they knew that about each other. And so yeah, I think it absolutely still happens. I mean, there’s of course the ways that people bond are different now. Yeah, they’re not talking on the phone. But I do think these little moments of closeness can be a central ritual of growing up female.

Susie Banikarim (30:00):

That’s really kind of heartwarming in a way that it sort of transcends time that girls today still have some of the same rituals we did. That’s really what I loved about that piece is that I expected to feel like their lives were so different from mine in middle school, but I could relate to each of them so much. So many of the issues are the same. Sometimes the way in which they play out are different because they’re happening online. But being a middle school girl is so evocative of a very specific feeling. And we all know what that feeling is the minute you say that.

Jessica Bennett (30:30):

I know. I mean, I can channel my 13-year-old self pretty clearly, and I don’t remember anything. My memory is terrible. But that year, seventh, eighth grade of middle school, I remember so vividly I think because your feelings are just so intense.

Susie Banikarim (30:47):

so intense.

Jessica Bennett (30:47):

And that’s estrogen, that’s hormones. That is a fundamental fact of being that age as a girl. But yeah, for these girls, it was fascinating to see them go through many of those same things like trying to figure out who you are, trying on different identities, figuring out your place in the social hierarchy, whether that is related to lip gloss or not, puberty, boys, girls, friendships, all of it against the backdrop of having this phone that makes everything feel like you have an audience at all times.

Susie Banikarim (31:19):

Well, I’m glad to hear that there are still some physical things that connect girls and I feel like we can leave it there and hopefully everyone who’s listening can think back to their favorite lip gloss and scent and this will have taken them down like sort of a nice memory hole. Although middle school is rough, so if it’s bringing up sad things for you, go find a new lip gloss to change your life with.

Jessica Bennett (31:47):

Susie, we have a really great episode next week, a two-parter. Can you tell us about it?

Susie Banikarim (31:52):

Yes. We are talking about a college women’s basketball team that was dragged into a national political debate about racism after shock jock Don Imus called them an offensive slur. And we have two really great guests, Essence Carson, who is a WNBA superstar and Jemele Hill, who is an acclaimed sports journalist.

Clips (32:14):

I just really felt for those young people because they had achieved something really, really spectacular, and it just felt like the moment was stolen from them.

Susie Banikarim (32:28):

This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a pop culture moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected], or find us on Instagram @Inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (32:42):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram, which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (32:51):

You can also find us on Instagram @jessicabennett, and @susiebnyc. Also check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This Is 18.

Jessica Bennett (33:00):

In Retrospect, is a production of iHeart podcasts and the Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Emily Marinoff is our producer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (33:15):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindu Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Our mixing engineer is Amanda Rose Smith. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim…

Jessica Bennett (33:32):

And Jessica Bennett. We are also executive producers. For even more, check out Inretropod.com. See you next week.

LEARN MORE ABOUT IN RETROSPECT

In Retrospect - Episode 29

EPISODE 29 – WHAT ‘SASSY’ MAGAZINE MEANT TO 90s TEENS

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Susie Banikarim (00:00):

I just have to say that my 13-year-old self is dying. I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (00:13):

And I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (00:14):

This is In Retrospect, where each week we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

Jessica Bennett (00:19):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Susie Banikarim (00:21):

Today we’re talking to Jane Pratt, the woman behind Sassy, an iconic teen magazine that shaped a generation of 90s girls, including us. Jane Pratt, thank you so much for joining us today.

Jane Pratt (00:34):

I am so excited to be here.

Susie Banikarim (00:36):

I think I told you a story that I will start with, which is that when I was, I think I was a freshman in high school, I went to boarding school, as did you. I went to boarding school in Connecticut to a much less prestigious school than Jane did, for the record.

Jane Pratt (00:50):

Oh, hello. I was barely surviving at mine, by the way. The whole impetus for Sassy Magazine came out of what a loser I was at that school.

Susie Banikarim (00:57):

I was not the coolest either. But I was in town, my sister was at Barnard and I came to town to visit her, and she knew how much I love Sassy, and she was like, “You know what? Let’s go visit.” And she took me to the offices and we just came, which is a crazy thing for us to have done, and we just went to the front desk and my sister was like, “This is my sister. She’s obsessed with Sassy.” And I don’t remember the names of anyone, but everyone was so nice to me. They gave me a tour, I think they gave me copies of the magazine. It was just this really formative experience for me, and I just thought, oh my God, this is so cool. This is what people get to do for a living. So I feel like I should thank you for that.

Jane Pratt (01:40):

I actually have a recollection, because I was basically living in those offices at that time. I think it was when we were at One Times Square?

Susie Banikarim (01:48):

Yeah.

Jane Pratt (01:49):

Yep, and we had a neon Sassy when you got off the elevator, that was our big fancy little thing. And I remember Andrea Lynette, who worked at the front then and then became a beauty editor and then went on from there. I remember her telling me that when I was in a meeting, this girl and her sister had come by the offices, so I think it might, that was you.

Susie Banikarim (02:09):

Oh my God, that’s so amazing.

Jane Pratt (02:11):

Isn’t that crazy?

Susie Banikarim (02:11):

Yeah. What a full circle moment this is for me.

Jane Pratt (02:13):

I know.

Susie Banikarim (02:15):

Yeah, it really was so special. And I think it really speaks to just what Sassy was. It was just this really accessible place for girls to go. It felt like a community more than even a magazine, which really did feel ahead of its time.

(02:29):

So let’s start at the beginning, just for people who might not be as familiar with Sassy as I clearly am. You famously became the editor of Sassy Magazine in 1987 when you were just 24 years old, which blows my mind, because what I was doing at 24 was not running an iconic magazine. And I think that made you the youngest editor in history at that time. Tell me how it happened.

Jane Pratt (02:57):

It’s so funny. My daughter is now turning 21 this week, and so I too now have contact with people that are the age that I was on a pretty regular basis, and I mean, it seems crazy to me now too. At the time I thought, God, I’ve been out of school for a year and a half and I haven’t gotten this magazine started yet? Come on. This is crazy.

Susie Banikarim (03:20):

You felt like you were behind the eightball?

Jane Pratt (03:23):

Behind. Really, seriously, I was really agonizing about it. But it was really the foresight of the original president of our publishing company that was based in Australia who saw that someone young could actually be more adept at accessing the way that young people talk to each other, and better able to produce this magazine for teenage girls.

(03:48):

So my age actually was helpful to me, but I knew so little. I just knew nothing. Because what happened was there was word out that this Australian publishing company was interested in getting into the American market, and they were interested in the teen market in particular. So I was like, well, that is exactly what I’ve wanted to do since I was 15 years old. So I made up a whole presentation. I accidentally, in my presentation, I did a fake editor’s letter and I said something about panda bears instead of koala bears for Australia.

Susie Banikarim (04:20):

That’s funny.

Jane Pratt (04:22):

I’ll never forget, oh my God. But I did a whole presentation of what the magazine would be if I were to do it. And I also remember that in the meeting with her, with Sandra Yates, she asked me something about what causes I supported, and I had just recently given some money to NARAL the National Abortion Rights Action League. And I mentioned that to her because I kind of wanted to be right up front with who I was and what I was going to do with this magazine if we got to do it, and she was really supportive of that. And so anyway, from there I got a chance to start it. And I hired a bunch of people, mostly slightly older than me, but all within the same age range for the most part. It’s like a group of kids.

Susie Banikarim (05:09):

I am curious, did it feel like an enormous amount of pressure, or were you so young that you had the confidence of not knowing what you didn’t know?

Jane Pratt (05:16):

Thank you. Thank you for recognizing that. I mean, I was ballsy, and then funnily enough, when I went to start Jane Magazine, which was, nobody needs to know about this, but it was maybe eight years later than that after Sassy had been going on that long, I did not have the same confidence. It took me so much longer to get it going, but this was just one of those, “Yeah, I deserve this. I have a good idea. Let’s get it out there.”

Susie Banikarim (05:41):

How did you conceive of the magazine at the time? Because one thing I think about a lot is how much intention we ascribe to art in retrospect, and often I think lots of things happen by instinct, and I’m curious for you , how much of this was just instinct?

Jane Pratt (05:58):

Yeah, it was very, very cause oriented. I remember from very early days talking to Christina Kelly, who was one of my first hires as an editor there, and I remember us saying, “Well, we don’t know that this magazine is going to be around forever, and that’s not our goal. Our goal is to really make an impact on society with what we’re doing.” And at that time, Reagan was president, and I had just been able to vote, I think twice at that point. So I was, that’s how young I was, right?

Susie Banikarim (06:33):

Yeah.

Jane Pratt (06:33):

But I remember saying, well, with what we’re doing here, we could have an impact on the next election because they’re not that age yet, but they will be. Because it was 14 to 19 year olds that we were gearing toward. And so it was always about changing the world. That was always the goal, and that was very intentional.

Susie Banikarim (06:53):

And how did you conceive of the subject areas or the coverage areas? I know for example, you referred to your three most popular writers as sex, drugs and rock and roll, which I love.

Jane Pratt (07:06):

Yep. Christina was rock and roll, catherine was drugs because she did all the kind of nitty-gritty reporting stuff, hardcore reporting, and Karen Catchpole was sex, because she wrote about sex in a very open way. I hired her from Australia. She was one of the few people I brought over from there, because it was really hard to find somebody in this country at that time, this sounds insane, but who could write so openly to women about sex. And even… I mean, you would think that’s crazy. You would think Cosmo had been out for many years, but particularly for this age group, so there was just no, there wasn’t even sex information for girls out there. There was no birth control, there was nothing like that.

Susie Banikarim (07:51):

That’s interesting, because I feel like, of course, Cosmo existed, but Cosmo was still very geared towards landing a man. So much of the stuff that was out there, the other teen magazines at that time were really focused on how to be thin, how to get a boyfriend, how to make yourself this very stereotypical, almost 1950s ideal. So was that something you were really conscious of, or was that just not what you were interested in?

Jane Pratt (08:15):

I was extremely conscious of it, and it’s funny because in thinking about talking today and thinking about what am I proud of, and a lot of what I’m proud of with Sassy is what we didn’t put in. I had a list of mandates to anyone writing or contributing that included things like no diets, no calorie counts. If a reader… A lot of what we did, there were advice columns in the magazine. So if a reader wrote in and said, “My crush has been ignoring me” or whatever, nobody was allowed to assume that that crush was a boy.

Susie Banikarim (08:48):

I mean, but that’s a big deal, considering sort of the context of the time. Reagan’s America was not particularly LGBTQ friendly.

Jane Pratt (08:55):

Right, right, exactly.

Susie Banikarim (08:57):

And the voice was so specific and irreverent. Is it something that you sort of did consciously or were you just like, this is the way I talk?

Jane Pratt (09:04):

I knew that I really wanted it to be completely different from what was out there, but it was intentional. Then what I would do is I would hire a lot of people that were not writers, but I liked their personalities and what they had to say, and I would just have them speak and record it, and transcribe it.

Susie Banikarim (09:23):

Oh, interesting.

Jane Pratt (09:23):

And yeah, that was easier than hiring people who had been at other publications, because they were in that mode often of having been trained to do things like use the words tresses and locks instead of hair, and all that kind of stuff. So it was easier to just get somebody who just talked and had good things to say.

Susie Banikarim (09:56):

I know this is probably an impossible question, but there were so many iconic covers. Do you have a favorite?

Jane Pratt (10:03):

It would be hard to say that I have a favorite cover because, and I don’t have a collection of Sassy, so it’s not like something I look at regularly, but it’ll pop up when they’re on sale on eBay or whatever, and make me wish that I had saved them, because they’re worth a lot more now.

(10:18):

But I would say that every single issue that I look at has battles that went into it that I remember vividly. Whether it was the quirkier-looking model that was on the cover that I had to fight for, and to be able to run this cover with this cover model that didn’t look conventional. To the point where readers in the early days would write in and they would say, “We know you’re just getting started, but maybe soon you’ll be able to afford the good models that the other magazines use.”

Susie Banikarim (10:56):

What are some of the battles you remember most?

Jane Pratt (10:58):

Yeah, there were tons of them. The very first issue had the word sex on it. It was, “So, you think you’re ready for sex? Read this first.” And I thought that was very, very tame. I actually didn’t love that cover line, because I thought it could be a lot more enticing than that. I thought that’s pretty measured. But we went with that in a compromise, and that was hard to get through because of the fact that people weren’t talking to teenage girls about sex at that time.

(11:28):

I remember also a cover where, this is one where I ended up losing the battle, even though I fought it, which was putting a black model on a cover that was one of our traditionally bigger selling months, and finally getting it pushed through to where we got permission to have the black model on the cover of Sassy. And then the publisher, I guess got cold feet and they put on the newsstand copies, they poly-bagged a copy of a beauty booklet with a white model on the cover on top of that.

Susie Banikarim (12:07):

Oh my God.

Jane Pratt (12:08):

So on the newsstands, yeah, it didn’t come out on the newsstands the way that it was intended.

Susie Banikarim (12:14):

How did you react to that?

Jane Pratt (12:15):

It was terrible. I think that this doesn’t paint me in the best light, but I think that a few of us, we went to the press quietly and leaked that this had happened, because we thought that they should be called out for it. So I think it came out somewhere, the Village Voice or something like that.

Susie Banikarim (12:34):

It’s interesting that you sort of say it doesn’t paint you in the best light, but to me what it speaks to is that even as the editor-in-chief of the magazine, you didn’t have the power to change that. That was the only way you could do it. You had to be subversive. Right?

Jane Pratt (12:48):

Right. Absolutely, that’s absolutely right, and there was a lot of that. And probably my age might have hurt me in that regard, or my lack of experience might’ve hurt me in that regard, because I didn’t necessarily know all of the ways that all of that worked to be able to get in there and make things go exactly my way. But there were battles constantly. I was thinking too about people now talk a lot about that Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love cover.

Susie Banikarim (13:17):

Yes. That’s I think, the most iconic Sassy cover.

Jane Pratt (13:20):

It’s so funny because that was a battle too, because I remember going into my meeting with the publisher, the president of the company, and having to pitch Kurt Cobain as… Basically, I painted him to be one of New Kids on the Block or Backstreet Boys.

Susie Banikarim (13:38):

He would’ve hated that.

Jane Pratt (13:40):

He would’ve hated it. And yes, he would’ve hated it, but that was what I had to do to get them to accept it and to say, it’s going to sell really, really well, and moms are going to love it, and all this kind of stuff.

Susie Banikarim (13:53):

That’s amazing.

Jane Pratt (13:55):

So we got permission to do that. It did not sell particularly well at the time, but it has definitely stood the test of time, that’s for sure.

Susie Banikarim (14:03):

How did it come to be? How did you have the idea, how did you approach them about it? Were you there for the shoot? What was it like?

Jane Pratt (14:09):

Christina Kelly, who was the music entertainment editor, she was talking to the photographer Michael Levine, and he had photographed Courtney Love, and he had photographed for us as well for Sassy. So Courtney said to him that she loved Sassy Magazine and would he consider photographing her for that, and he came to us and we thought that was a great idea, and to do it with Kurt would be even better.

(14:35):

I did not go to the photo shoot, but I remember right when that came out, when that issue came out, I got a phone call from a friend of mine who worked at Rolling Stone at the time, Chris Connolly, and he called me after right when that issue came out, and he said that at the photo shoot, it was so obvious in the writing that Kurt and Courtney were doing drugs, and did I think it was irresponsible of us to run that story, and especially in a magazine for teenagers without disclosing that they were doing drugs, and was it journalistically sound-

Susie Banikarim (15:13):

Oh, that’s interesting.

Jane Pratt (15:14):

… to run that story, which I thought was really interesting. But the funny thing was I had to tell him that we didn’t know they were doing drugs. We were very naive. We were kids, really. So we hadn’t done those drugs and we didn’t know much about them, and we didn’t… So anyway, we just ran it as a love story between Kurt and Courtney.

Susie Banikarim (15:36):

One of the most famous things that came out of the Sassy era was It Happened to Me, which is a column that you carried over when you went to Jane Magazine and you had at xoJane, which was the digital publication you eventually launched. Why do you think that sort of first person confessional style of writing resonated so much with the audience for Sassy?

Jane Pratt (15:58):

I was carefully reading all of the other teen magazines as I was getting ready to launch Sassy, and I knew that when I read these articles, that they were running, particularly on the more serious subjects, I would zone out and skim when it came to, Dr. So-and-so from Harvard Medical School advises you to do dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.

(16:20):

So I thought what teenagers are going to trust is someone else their age who’s going through it and telling them about it, not someone who has a degree or is considered an expert. And so I said, why don’t we have a column called, It Happened to Me, where it’s strictly first person. And we don’t clean up the language, we don’t make it sound magaziney, we just leave it the way that they wrote it and keep it raw so that they’ll know that this is really real and was a true experience. And I actually had to get my sister to do the first one, because nobody was reading it, of course.

Susie Banikarim (16:56):

So you had no submissions.

Jane Pratt (16:57):

We had none, and then we got overflowing submissions after that, and all coming through the US Mail, but tons and tons of people’s stories. And so she was my first one writing about her abortion, which was also very controversial. The advertiser who was opposite that, they were not happy.

Susie Banikarim (17:18):

Someone once said that you foresaw the dawn of the age of oversharing. And I think that is sort of true, right? Something I’ve thought a lot about is how Sassy predicted the self-confessional era we live in now, and it explored the impact of trauma even before that was part of the vernacular, or the way we just talk about things. Why do you think that was something you were so drawn to?

Jane Pratt (17:42):

I think it comes from being that isolated boarding school student who felt really, really alone in what I was going through. And any media that I would turn to for solace would make me feel more alienated because I wasn’t being reflected in it. I didn’t look like those girls, I thought about other things that they were not talking about. So I think that that’s where it came from, is just how good it can make someone feel to hear somebody else’s true story that they are oversharing.

Susie Banikarim (18:18):

It’s just being able to see yourself in the work.

Jane Pratt (18:20):

And being able to not have shame and be free to say whatever you want. It’s that basic, really.

Susie Banikarim (18:27):

But at times, I feel like there’s been criticism of that. I think Slate once called it the first person industrial complex. And I think especially with the rise of the digital age, there’s more cost of that sort of confessional work, because now women get harassed online. Have you thought about that, and how you respond to that criticism?

Jane Pratt (18:50):

Yeah, that came up more at xoJane also because it was digital, and so we were getting more and more backlash about things that we would run that could be hurtful to maybe not the person that was oversharing, but someone else who was implicit in it, or something like that.

(19:08):

At the same time, I do still believe in the idea of people being that open and the benefits that come from that. So, I don’t stand behind every single thing that we published. There was some stuff that really ended up being really hurtful to people that I wish we hadn’t done, but I still believe in the concept, and I think that it’s more good than bad. And there’s a section in the new publication that I’m working on that goes even deeper.

Susie Banikarim (19:41):

Oh, interesting.

Jane Pratt (19:42):

So yeah, that takes it even one step further than It Happened to Me.

Susie Banikarim (19:46):

Well, it’s interesting, right, because it’s an authenticity.

Jane Pratt (19:48):

Yes. There’s nothing I like less than fake authenticity, and even the word, even someone calling something authentic is already, it already feels like, uh-oh, that’s already probably fake. So I really think it’s so important to keeping it really real and raw for all of us, because everyone’s going through stuff, and just to have it out there in the real way I think is just so therapeutic.

Susie Banikarim (20:16):

It is interesting though because it is so much of what we sort of think of as social media now, although I think a lot of social media is that performed authenticity versus real authenticity. Right?

Jane Pratt (20:28):

Yes, yes, yes, absolutely.

Susie Banikarim (20:31):

I do think one of the reasons we don’t see things like Sassy and Rookie is that they’ve been to some degree replaced by influencers or content creators.

Jane Pratt (20:43):

Right.

Susie Banikarim (20:43):

And that’s not necessarily bad. I mean, that is really young women talking to each other in the same way that Sassy did, to some degree. In some ways, it has inherited that ethos, but it doesn’t create community in the same way.

Jane Pratt (20:58):

That’s right. You just nailed it, because I was just thinking that. I was just thinking that I really do appreciate the people that are out there who are being truly real about who they are and getting an audience for that, and influencing in all those good ways. I really appreciate that.

(21:17):

At the same time, I feel like that, it’s not what I’ve ever been interested in, because what I needed back in those days, and still not what I need, whereas I feel like I need community. I need to be able to then respond back and say, well, this is my reality, and have us all kind of group together and come to some mutual understanding. Maybe it was going to Quaker schools when I was a kid that got me. But that part of it, that component of the community where it isn’t just all of us listening to one person and what they think, because that’s not the point. It’s not what that person thinks or feels or went through, it’s all of us together.

Susie Banikarim (22:08):

There is just this generation of women where Sassy really was such an iconic influence. I mean, women collect the magazine, they trade them. Barnard now has every issue, it has an official archive. It really has had this enduring influence, and I’m wondering what you think that is, why it really has captured the imagination of that generation of women in the way that it has?

Jane Pratt (22:35):

Man, oh man. I think that it was how really, again, I go back to this, but how real it was. How, when we were producing Sassy, we were living every word. I could practically recite for you every single article that came out over the first number of years of Sassy. And everything that we did, we were really involved in it ourselves. It was never talking about something, it was always living it and reporting on it from that perspective. And I think that still has a rawness to it when you read it. It’s still kind of… Some of it is still surprising, even so many years later, and even with so many people doing that same kind of voice.

Susie Banikarim (23:18):

It really does hold up. I mean, I went back and looked at old issues and I mean, I’m sure there are things you regret, right? Like any editor does from a certain period of their career.

Jane Pratt (23:26):

Oh God, yes.

Susie Banikarim (23:27):

But for the most part, it holds up, right?

Jane Pratt (23:30):

Absolutely. I think it really does too. And then there were also the little subversive things we would do that are just funny. We make up a slang word just to see how… Because we knew that 17 Magazine was copying us, so we’d make up a slang word and start calling everything that word daggy or whatever it was, an early one that we took. And we would do that and see how long it took for it to show up in 17, usually about three to four months because of the lag time with publication at that point.

Susie Banikarim (24:00):

Okay, that’s hilarious.

Jane Pratt (24:02):

Yeah.

Susie Banikarim (24:02):

That’s so funny.

Jane Pratt (24:03):

We were doing a lot of little inside stuff like that too, which is just funny. There’s a lot to read between the lines there, I’ll say that.

Susie Banikarim (24:10):

Oh, that’s amazing.

Jane Pratt (24:10):

And so that keeps it interesting. I think it was also, it was truly a no-judgment zone and very, very open, and I think that still carries a lot of weight. I do think also the fact that we knew that we were the first ones to run a lot of the kinds of content that we ran, and that doing it for teenage girls was really controversial. And so when the Moral Majority got ahold of it, and a group of women that were part of that called Women of Glow, they went out and they went to newsstands and told them they wouldn’t shop there if they carried Sassy Magazine, and they had these little note cards that they all wrote basically the same thing on that were sent in mass to our advertisers, saying that they wouldn’t buy their products if they advertised in Sassy Magazine because of things we did, like stories on gay teenagers, all kinds of things like that.

Susie Banikarim (25:12):

I mean, it’s still hard to run ads against a lot of these kinds of topics, right? I mean, I think that’s one of the things we’re seeing.

Jane Pratt (25:18):

It really is crazy to me in looking back at all this how society has made so many inroads in terms of acceptance of gender fluidity, queer rights, all of that. But how the stuff geared towards women and stuff involving women is still, it just moves at a snail’s pace, and keeps going back.

Susie Banikarim (25:39):

I see kind of the landscape, and it’s hard to kind of understand why we don’t have voices like Sassy or even Rookie now. I mean, you were actually listed as the fairy godmother of Rookie, right?

Jane Pratt (25:50):

Yeah.

Susie Banikarim (25:51):

So you were involved in that as well. But those voices for girls, it feels like we have less of them as time goes on. And with the recent sale of Jezebel, why do you think it is such a challenge?

Jane Pratt (26:03):

It is really something. And when I learned about Jezebel, I was so bummed out because that just showed me at once again, how far we have not come. And the fact that I think that an issue there was the advertising not being there to support it, but the readers were certainly there to support it. And I think that it’s that model that in the advertising world, we’re still dealing with, for one thing, a lot of men, a lot of white men in particular, older, who just don’t get that that actually can work and can appeal to people who actually do buy things.

(26:40):

As a matter of fact, the company that I worked for at Sassy bought Miss Magazine to make it their second publication, way back when-

Susie Banikarim (26:47):

I remember, yeah.

Jane Pratt (26:48):

… and made it subscription only, yeah, because of the advertising battles with that.

Susie Banikarim (26:53):

It’s interesting, because I was running the newsroom at Vice when Black Lives Matter happened, and one of the things we found is that despite the fact that all these companies were espousing their support for Black Lives Matter when it came to advertising dollars, they still didn’t want to be around a lot of the content we were creating around it.

(27:12):

And I think that’s something that’s pretty invisible to the audience. You can still have a lot of traffic, you can have a big audience, but if the things you’re writing about don’t feel brand safe to the brands, it really doesn’t make a difference. And I think that’s why we’re actually seeing the ecosystem for really interesting, voicey digital brands contract in the way we are. Because even if there’s an audience, for some reason, brands are just really nervous about being around it, and I don’t know that I can think of a good solution for that. I guess it’s subscriptions, but that is really challenging. It’s a challenging market for that.

Jane Pratt (27:50):

That’s right. That’s right. And I do think it’s subscriptions, or it’s selling your own products through your publication, or one of those other revenue streams, because the advertising model doesn’t allow for what Jezebel did, for what Sassy did, for all of that still. If you tried to come out with a Sassy now, it would still have I think many, many of the same battles.

Susie Banikarim (28:13):

Do you think it’s also because it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it means to be a publication for women now?

Jane Pratt (28:19):

Yes, and as a matter of fact, that’s just one little part of my new project, which I actually wanted to do back when I started Jane Magazine, but I wasn’t able to because it was ad supported. So with that, I had to be able to present to advertisers that it was a demographic of women, 18 to 49, that kind of thing.

(28:41):

But I’ve wanted to ever since then do a magazine that is not gender based. And so that’s actually one of the things I’m working on now. And so it’s not geared toward any specific gender. And at the same time, and the next battle that I want to wage is about age. And this particularly does hurt women, I think, but in general, I think that it’s ridiculous that when you read something or learn something about someone, within the first paragraph is their age, almost always. Why? Why is that significant? And I think the same way that the gender thing is finally getting broken down and people taking control of that themselves, I think that the same thing is going to happen with age, where it’ll just be considered not cool to mention someone’s age.

Susie Banikarim (29:31):

I love that. I feel like it’s, especially for women, you can really be aged out of a lot of things in a way that-

Jane Pratt (29:37):

Absolutely.

Susie Banikarim (29:38):

… doesn’t feel consistent with how we experience age anymore. Like the world has changed so much in terms of how you experience life that… I mean, I love so many teen things. And so I don’t know, I don’t want to be aged out of that. So I’m very excited to see what you do next. Does it get harder, I mean, I think about this a lot. When you’ve had so much success at such a young age, is it harder to do things without worrying that you’re not going to be able to recreate the magic?

Jane Pratt (30:08):

Definitely it does. And I think that in some ways I won’t recreate what Sassy was, and what it was for that audience at that time. But I’m still always surprised when I look at, for example, with the project I’m working on now, when I look at it compared to what’s out there, I’m still surprised that I can still, at this old age, I can still shake things up and do things that nobody else is doing.

(30:33):

So I’m happy about that, and happy to be able to do that, and to get the chances to keep doing it is kind of remarkable. But it does get harder. As I said, starting Sassy, I think I got that launched in a couple months. Cut to Jane Magazine, a couple of years. Cut to xoJane, five years. Each subsequent project does get more… Yeah, there are more questions around it.

Susie Banikarim (31:00):

Well, I can’t wait. I know it’s going to be amazing. Jane, I am going to end, speaking of age, with a party trick I know you’re famous for, which is that you can tell people what their emotional age is. So I’m so curious-

Jane Pratt (31:15):

Oh my God-

Susie Banikarim (31:15):

… if yours is still 15, and what you think mine is.

Jane Pratt (31:20):

This is such a great question. Okay, mine is still 15, absolutely. My daughter, who is chronologically 21, is way older than I am, at this point, especially. But okay, so now let me key in, because I haven’t been doing it, and it is something I have to get in the mindset of. I want to say that you… Okay, let me just take a moment. I could see you being also a teenager, but slightly older than me. So I would give you about 17.

Susie Banikarim (31:54):

I like that.

Jane Pratt (31:55):

Because you still definitely have that teen thing. Yeah, that’s what I would give you. Does that ring true at all?

Susie Banikarim (32:03):

Yes. That feels very right.

Jane Pratt (32:04):

Okay. Yay. So you’re my slightly older friend. You’re like a little wiser than I am, you can help me.

Susie Banikarim (32:09):

I love it. I love being the slightly older friend, which is crazy because I feel like Sassy Magazine was my cool, older friend. So that’s a perfect way to end it. Jane, thank you so much for doing this. It really was so lovely to have this chat with you.

Jane Pratt (32:23):

Thank you. And thank you for doing this amazing podcast, I love it.

Susie Banikarim (32:31):

Jess, what do we have coming up next week? And is it something you would’ve read about in Sassy?

Jessica Bennett (32:37):

Yes, actually, it probably was. And also YM, which I also read. It is about lip gloss.

Susie Banikarim (32:43):

Oh, I hope we get some really good product placement out of that.

Jessica Bennett (32:46):

I mean, honestly, me too. We could use some lip gloss, but this is really about lip gloss as a symbol of teen girl bonding. So we’re going to go a little deeper.

Susie Banikarim (32:58):

This is In Retrospect, thanks for listening. Is there a pop culture moment you can’t stop thinking about, and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected], or find us on Instagram at @InRetroPod.

Jessica Bennett (33:12):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify, or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram, which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (33:21):

You can also find us on Instagram @jessicabennett, and @susiebnyc. Also check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club, and This is 18.

Jessica Bennett (33:30):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeart podcasts and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derek Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Emily Marinoff is our producer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (33:45):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Our mixing engineer is Amanda Rose Smith. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (34:02):

And Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.

LEARN MORE ABOUT IN RETROSPECT

In Retrospect - Episode 28

EPISODE 28 – ‘GENERATION CATALANO’ AND YOUR OTHER SUGGESTIONS

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Susie Banikarim (00:00):

This was exactly the thing that My So-Called Life was trying to counter, but instead of lasting one season, lasted many seasons. And one of the critics actually said it was arguably one of the worst long-running shows on television.

Jessica Bennett (00:19):

I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (00:20):

And I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (00:22):

And this is In Retrospect, where each week, we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us

Susie Banikarim (00:27):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Jessica Bennett (00:29):

Today, we’re delving into some of the great ideas that you, our listeners, have sent in. We’ve been asking for your suggestions, and these are some of the moments that you can’t stop thinking about.

Susie Banikarim (00:39):

Jess, people sent in so many good ideas, and some of them were things we had thought of, but some of them weren’t. And this first one we’re going to talk about was something I didn’t even know existed, which is a suggestion that we talk about Generation Catalano, which is based on a character in My So-Called Life, a show you and I were both obsessed with. Will you tell us about it?

Jessica Bennett (01:03):

Yeah. So Generation Catalano is based on Jordan Catalano. Snaps to Lisa, who sent this in, because I am still in love with Jordan Catalano.

Susie Banikarim (01:15):

Yes, me too.

Clips (01:16):

The fact that we come here, let’s keep it like our secret.

Jessica Bennett (01:21):

He was played by Jared Leto. And to be clear, I’m not saying this about Jared Leto, I’m saying it about the character. But My So-Called Life was this show that ran for one season, tragically, only one season.

Susie Banikarim (01:32):

Tragic. Absolutely tragic.

Jessica Bennett (01:32):

And it was a high school drama. It made Claire Danes famous. She played the lead character, who was also the narrator, Angela Chase. And Angela’s love interest was Jordan Catalano.

Clips (01:45):

The thought that I might be seeing Jordan Catalano in a few hours was, like, impossible to comprehend.

Jessica Bennett (01:52):

There was also her two best friends, Ricky and Rayanne. This was a high school drama that didn’t have the kind of saccharine earnestness or afterschool special sense vibes that Dawson’s Creek did. It was for emo types who wore flannel and Docs, and were really in their feelings.

Susie Banikarim (02:13):

Yeah, so I wore flannel and docs, but I would never have described myself as emo. But when you say that, I feel like I should confess that I wrote really dark, lame poetry at this time of my life, so maybe I did qualify as emo, but this concept that Lisa sent in, this concept of Generation Catalano, I had not heard about this before. What does it mean?

Jessica Bennett (02:34):

It basically describes where you and I meet, which is this generation between Gen X and millennials. Like I’m a millennial, you are Gen X, but we have this focal point, this reference between us.

Susie Banikarim (02:47):

Yes. Because I never really felt quite Gen X, so I love that there’s this other microgeneration.

Jessica Bennett (02:52):

I mean, it’s another way of saying cusp, right?

Susie Banikarim (02:54):

Yeah, exactly.

Jessica Bennett (02:54):

But more fun. And actually, I feel like we should note that I mentioned that, tragically, My So-Called Life only ran for one season, and that was despite the best efforts of our producer, Lauren, who when she was a teenager, wrote many letters to the creators of that show to try to get it to continue. And I remember that being such a thing. We were devastated.

Susie Banikarim (03:17):

Devastated. I was devastated when it was canceled. It was kind of like Freaks and Geeks, although I did not watch Freaks and Geeks when it was actually on the air. I watched it many years later. So I did not feel that tragedy when it was canceled after one year. But I remember being so upset when My So-Called Life was canceled.

Jessica Bennett (03:33):

So upset. I rewatched My So-Called Life a few years ago, and it does hold up. I cried.

Susie Banikarim (03:37):

Oh, you did?

Jessica Bennett (03:38):

It really brought me back. Yeah, it was a high school drama. It was love interest, friends, parents. There was a coming out story with Ricky. But it just had so much raw emotion behind it, and it really brought me back to that age.

Susie Banikarim (03:52):

Oh God, I really should rewatch it too. And I feel like this is a good time for me to tell you about my proudest fashion moment of all time, which is that when I was at ABC News, I interviewed Claire Danes for something.

Jessica Bennett (04:05):

Oh, you did?

Susie Banikarim (04:06):

Yeah, I was wearing a cool black suit, and I was wearing these baby blue sneakers with it, which wasn’t so common at that time. And she was like, “I really like your sneakers.”

Jessica Bennett (04:18):

Oh, that’s cool. Wait, this was later? This was like Homeland era.

Susie Banikarim (04:21):

Yeah, this was Homeland era. This was when I was working in news, so I must have already been in my thirties.

Jessica Bennett (04:27):

I feel like we should also note that, in the show, she had this dark red hair, kind of long bob, and I spent so long trying to get that hair color. It would never really work in my hair because I have dark brown hair. Everyone wanted that hair.

Susie Banikarim (04:44):

Yes.

Clips (04:45):

School is a battlefield for your heart. So when Rayanne Graff told me my hair was holding me back, I had to listen.

Susie Banikarim (04:57):

Well, she just was very cool, even though the character she was playing wasn’t supposed to be popular or cool in the way that traditional teen shows set that up. So that’s, I think, the other reason it felt very relatable, because she was a cool person, but she wasn’t necessarily cool in high school, which is not the same thing.

Clips (05:15):

People always say how you should be yourself, like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster or something.

Jessica Bennett (05:25):

She was saying the uncool thing that you were thinking on the inside, which is like, “Why won’t this guy acknowledge me?” There’s something here. We feel something. And there was so many just tense stares.

Susie Banikarim (05:35):

So much angst. So angsty.

Jessica Bennett (05:35):

Like longing stairs through the hallway. Oh my God. But then, he’d ignore her later, which anyone who’s been in high school and had a love interest remembers, but particularly maybe in this time. But she says it out loud. There’s a scene where she’s like, “Why are you like this?”

Clips (05:55):

Why are you like this?

(05:56):

Like what?

(05:58):

Like how you are.

Susie Banikarim (06:00):

I do want to say that Lisa is not the only person who suggested My So-Called Life. Actually, my friend, Lauren’s husband, has become addicted to the show. She said she got him addicted to it.

Jessica Bennett (06:10):

Oh, thanks, Lauren’s husband.

Susie Banikarim (06:11):

And Lauren is an old friend of mine from ABC, and she sent me a text saying, he thought we should do My So-Called Life or Working Girl, because we’ve mentioned that movie a few times, and I think that’s a really good idea. He also wanted to give us a little intel on something we talked about in the Amy Fisher episode, which is that Joey Buttafuoco was really into arm wrestling. And he wanted to let us know that there was an effort in the eighties to make high stakes arm wrestling a thing on Long Island. So he just wanted to give us-

Jessica Bennett (06:41):

Oh, he’s from Long Island? Okay.

Susie Banikarim (06:41):

… a little piece of … Yes.

Jessica Bennett (06:41):

A little piece of Long Island history.

Susie Banikarim (06:46):

We wanted to us to give us a little update on that. Yeah, a little piece of Long Island history.

Jessica Bennett (06:48):

I’m sure my Long Island relatives will appreciate that.

(07:06):

Let’s get to our next suggestion. This one came from, again, a number of people, Betsy Watson, Jamie Kramer, and Shannon Paris. Thank you all for writing in. And this is that moment between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

Susie Banikarim (07:22):

The infamous clubbing herd around the world. Yeah.

Clips (07:24):

Kerrigan was hit several times on the leg around the knee by what’s being described as a club of some sort.

Susie Banikarim (07:30):

So I definitely remember this. This was a story I was very into, and for people who haven’t seen it, I, Tonya is such a good movie about this. But the background here is basically that in 1994, Harding and Kerrigan were two of the best ice skaters in the world.

Clips (07:48):

Tonya Harding has delivered her challenge. Will it be enough for the national title? We’ll find out when we come back, as Nancy Kerrigan looks on.

Susie Banikarim (07:57):

And they had always been pitted against each other, because Nancy Kerrigan was this kind of sweet girl next door, and Tonya Harding had this kind of trashy cheap vibe that people often commented on, which feels really nasty in retrospect.

Clips (08:14):

Tonya has a more complicated life than a lot of these other women competing here.

Jessica Bennett (08:20):

I mean, she was poor. She didn’t come from money. She had a hard upbringing. She couldn’t afford the fancy glittery uniforms, whereas Nancy Kerrigan was like this beautiful kind of upper-crust type.

Clips (08:32):

Doesn’t she look elegant?

(08:33):

Oh, she looks like a little angel.

Susie Banikarim (08:35):

Well, that’s actually one of the interesting things about this story, is it turns out they actually were raised in similar economic conditions. Like Nancy wasn’t from that well off a family, but Nancy had a loving family who supported her. And Tonya’s mother was, by all accounts, pretty abusive to Tonya. Her upbringing was really unstable. But the controversy itself was that they are about to compete against each other in the Olympics, and Tonya Harding’s husband at the time orchestrates an attack on Nancy Kerrigan.

Jessica Bennett (09:08):

In which somebody hits her leg with a crowbar, correct?

Susie Banikarim (09:13):

I don’t know if it was with a crowbar, but basically she’s coming off the ice where she’s practicing, there are cameras all around, and this guy comes out of nowhere and hits her knee, trying to make it so that she can’t compete.

Clips (09:24):

I don’t know. Some hard, hard black stick. Something really, really hard.

Susie Banikarim (09:32):

In the end, she does compete, and she does really well, and Tonya Harding does really badly.

Clips (09:35):

Nancy Kerrigan skated the performance of her life.

(09:38):

Katarina Witt wound up seventh. Tonya Harding, eighth.

Susie Banikarim (09:41):

But the intention here was to derail her career. And because there were all these cameras around, it was captured. And so, it was this really huge national story. And then, over time, it came out that actually it was Tonya Harding’s husband who orchestrated this. There was some question about whether or not Tonya herself had been involved in the attack. And eventually, she did plead guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, for trying to cover up for him.

Jessica Bennett (10:09):

But to be clear, this happened in real time. Do you remember watching this? I mean, I remember. I was so … I love the ice skating in the Olympics, and I remember being with my parents. And the scene of Nancy Kerrigan in all white, on the ground, holding her leg, crying, and saying like, “My leg!” Or something,

Clips (10:27):

Why?

Jessica Bennett (10:30):

That was played on repeat, on repeat, on repeat. It was like the cover of every news story. I so distinctly remember watching that, and it being everywhere.

Susie Banikarim (10:39):

Yeah. And also, just the unfolding of was Tonya involved, wasn’t she? That whole kind of mystery,, and then the unpeeling of it, I think just really captured the imagination for a long time. And it became a classic media narrative, which as you and I know, people love, which is it was really framed as good versus evil, right? Nancy was good. Tonya Harding was evil. And this effectively ended Tonya Harding’s career. But then it got a revisiting with this movie, I, Tonya, and it really added more nuance to the picture. So that has changed the way a lot of people thought about it. At the time, there was not a lot of nuance.

Jessica Bennett (11:14):

When that revisitation occurred, one of those layers that was peeled back, like you mentioned, is that turned out she was in this very abusive relationship with the ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, who was then later found to have committed the crime or orchestrated the crime. And so, that too is just a complexity that was not there in this sort of good/evil narrative.

Susie Banikarim (11:38):

Speaking of feuds, women who have been pitted against each other, I think the next one is a suggestion that we talk about, Brandy versus Monica, and The Boy Is Mine. This came in via Aisha Johnson and also Jenna McCollum.

Jessica Bennett (11:54):

Okay, so I remember this so much because I loved this song. This was like the Jam of the summer of 1998.

Susie Banikarim (12:00):

It was a good song.

Jessica Bennett (12:01):

It was a song called The Boy Is Mine by Brandy and Monica. It was a duet. And at the time, Brandy and Monica were both pretty popular and well-respected singers in their own right. They were also notably teenagers. And yet, as often happens when there are two women doing somewhat similar things, and you can’t possibly have two of them. And so, all of these rumors started sprouting up that they were in this feud. And so, then I just learned this in doing additional research, I thought that the feud began with the song, because in the song, they’re basically fighting over a boy.

Clips (12:37):

(singing)>

Susie Banikarim (12:39):

Right. It’s like, “That boy is mine.” “No, he’s mine.”

Jessica Bennett (12:41):

Yeah. “He’s mine.” “I’m sorry. You seem to be confused. He belongs to me.” “The Boy Is Mine.” “The Boy Is Mine.” On and on and on. But actually, I read that in fact, the rumors of the feud had gotten started earlier. And so this song was originally written as a solo song for Brandy, but she brought in Monica to do it as a duet so they could squash their beef or their fake beef or whatever it was.

Susie Banikarim (13:04):

Interesting. Weren’t there rumors that the feud was kind of manufactured to get them both attention? But then, eventually, it became so real that there was an incident at the Grammys?

Jessica Bennett (13:11):

Yeah, there was an incident at the Grammys, where maybe they got into a fight of some kind. And so, there was always this sense around this that, was this real? Was this manufactured by the producers? And certainly, the tabloids, who, at that time, were running the world, didn’t seem to care, so the feud was everywhere.

Susie Banikarim (13:29):

The feud was everywhere. But one of the things I read in preparing for this was that it’s kind of an enduring mystery. They’ve never really addressed what caused the actual break between them, because then they really weren’t friends for a really long time. And recently, they did this Verzuz battle. In 2020, they did it.

Jessica Bennett (13:48):

Oh yeah, I remember this.

Susie Banikarim (13:50):

Yeah. And they said, during that, they hadn’t spoken in eight years.

Clips (13:54):

Believe it or not, it’s our first time in the same room for how long?

(13:59):

I think eight or nine years.

(14:00):

That’s a long time.

(14:01):

That’s too long.

Susie Banikarim (14:02):

It really did become a real thing, but we still don’t really know why.

Jessica Bennett (14:05):

So actually this is a random aside, but Jessica Bennett, one of my doppelgangers, who is a writer for Vibe.

Susie Banikarim (14:12):

Interesting.

Jessica Bennett (14:13):

I frequently get her Google alerts, and recently, one of her Google alerts was an interview with Monica about this, and I was like, “Oh my God, thank you. This is so useful.” Anyway, funny. Small world. But in this interview with her, Monica said, “I wish people would stop putting the two of us against each other and stop attempting to compare who sings better, who looks better, who outdid the other one, because I never came into this space with the spirit of competition anyway.” And I think that what we now kind of understand is that, yeah, they were two really different people. Maybe they didn’t totally get along. But who cares? Artists don’t have to get along. But the fact that they were these two young teenage Black women who were operating in the same space created this storm, and probably ultimately made that song do better. That song was everywhere.

Susie Banikarim (15:00):

Yeah, it’s an iconic song.

Jessica Bennett (15:01):

I could recite every word.

Susie Banikarim (15:03):

Me too. And I can never recite the words to songs. Like an ongoing joke about me with my friends is that I get every word wrong in a song, but I know all the words to The Boy Is Mine.

Jessica Bennett (15:11):

To be clear, we had in fact thought about doing a whole episode on this, but it’s too expensive to license.

Susie Banikarim (15:17):

Yes, yes. I will say that there’s obviously still a lot of interest in this because that Verzuz battle, I mentioned 6 million people tuned in to watch it live.

Jessica Bennett (15:25):

Really? Wow.

Susie Banikarim (15:26):

Yeah, it was a live stream.

Jessica Bennett (15:27):

And the fact that Kamala Harris.

Clips (15:30):

All right.

(15:30):

Oh my God.

Susie Banikarim (15:31):

Yes. She was on it. She appeared on the live stream with Monica and Brandy. I thought that was hilarious.

Jessica Bennett (15:36):

I love that.

Clips (15:37):

And I just wanted to thank you ladies, you just you Queens, you stars, you icons.

Jessica Bennett (15:45):

And was she just a fan, or did she say-

Susie Banikarim (15:47):

Yeah, she was encouraging people to vote, so it was a way to get out the vote, but I think also she is a fan.

Jessica Bennett (15:52):

I love that.

(16:04):

Okay, so there’s another show that I want to talk about that Claudia Juliana sent in. And I just remember occasionally the show would be on TV. It must have not been on cable because we didn’t have cable. And so, when there was nothing else on, I would watch this show, and I always hated it so much. And that show is 7th Heaven.

Clips (16:24):

(Singing).

Susie Banikarim (16:24):

Yeah, 7th Heaven, which was, objectively speaking, a pretty terrible show. When Claudia Juliana sent this in, she said that we should talk about how nineties TV was very into life lesson messaging and very Christian forward, and I think that’s true. It was really the era of afterschool specials. And this show, which I never watched, Touched by an Angel was very popular. But I did watch 7th Heaven. And looking back on it, it’s absolutely wild. It was about a minister and his wife raising seven children.

Jessica Bennett (16:59):

Okay, so it was kind of Christian?

Susie Banikarim (17:00):

Yeah, It was overtly Christian. There were so much saccharine morality. Every episode was like someone had a secret or had done something wrong, and then eventually it was discovered and solved, and then they each would get a speech from either their minister father or his angelic blonde wife about how to do the right thing.

Jessica Bennett (17:18):

And this is the show that gave us Jessica Biel, correct?

Susie Banikarim (17:21):

It is the show that gave us Jessica Biel. And also, unfortunately, it is the show that gave us Steven Collins, who played the minister dad, and turned out to be a pedophile?

Jessica Bennett (17:31):

Oh my gosh.

Susie Banikarim (17:32):

Yes. In 2014, he confessed to sexually abusing underage girls.

Jessica Bennett (17:38):

Oh my God, that’s so disturbing.

Susie Banikarim (17:38):

One of whom 10, after audio of him talking about it in a marriage counseling session leaked. So he didn’t even deny it. He actually said he had sexually abused three underage girls, but denied being a pedophile. So not a lot of people watch the show anymore. I think at that time, it got pulled from reruns.

Jessica Bennett (17:56):

Yeah, you would think.

Susie Banikarim (17:57):

But I will say that 7th Heaven was one of the first major hits for the WB, which people may not remember, but it was a teen channel that went from 1995 to 2006 when it became-

Jessica Bennett (18:06):

Gave us Dawson’s Creek,

Susie Banikarim (18:08):

… the CW. Yes, it gave us Dawson’s Creek

Jessica Bennett (18:10):

And so many other shows, right?

Susie Banikarim (18:12):

So many other shows. This was really the teen cable channel. And then, it merged with another channel to become the CW, and then that became the Teen Channel.

Jessica Bennett (18:20):

Okay. And actually, it’s funny that you say this because this is sort of like, where we started this conversation on My So-Called Life, which was the kind of anti-afterschool teen special.

Susie Banikarim (18:29):

Yes. This was exactly the thing that My So-Called Life was trying to counter. But instead of lasting one season lasted many seasons, and one of the critics actually said, it was arguably one of the worst long-running shows on television.

Jessica Bennett (18:43):

Yeah.

Susie Banikarim (18:44):

Because it was just like Christian propaganda, essentially.

Jessica Bennett (18:48):

Oh, wow. Okay.

Susie Banikarim (18:48):

I should also mention here that there’s this guy who’s been watching 7th Heaven, and doing recaps on TikTok that are always going viral.

Jessica Bennett (18:54):

Oh, amazing.

Susie Banikarim (18:55):

And they’re very funny.

Jessica Bennett (18:56):

Wait, do you know his name?

Susie Banikarim (18:57):

His name is @heartthrobert. So check out his TikTok.

Jessica Bennett (19:02):

Oh my God. Great. Okay. It’s like heart throb but @heartthrobert.

Susie Banikarim (19:04):

Heart throb but @heartthrobert.

Clips (19:07):

I’m rewatching 7th Heaven. Please, just listen to the plot of this episode I just finished, where a white guy is a victim of racism.

(19:13):

Simon finds a homeless girl on the street, and he brings her home-

(19:17):

Can I keep her?

(19:17):

… to keep her is a pet.

(19:18):

This episode with a drunk aunt is so good.

(19:20):

Simon’s friend has an older sister, her name is Karen, and she is in a gang.

(19:24):

White Christian problems of the nineties.

Susie Banikarim (19:26):

So like all good things, TikTok has found a way to make 7th Heaven funny.

Jessica Bennett (19:31):

Amazing.

Susie Banikarim (19:31):

It was never intentionally funny, but it is a very funny to look back on.

Jessica Bennett (19:35):

I wonder, has TikTok discovered My So-Called Life yet?

Susie Banikarim (19:38):

I don’t know. But I feel like a lot of these TikTok recaps are for shows that are ridiculous, and I hope that they are not making fun of My So-Called Life.

Jessica Bennett (19:47):

That’s true. Although, do you remember, I guess, I forgot, 10 years ago on Tumblr, the Claire Danes cry face was a big meme.

Susie Banikarim (19:55):

Oh, really?

Jessica Bennett (19:55):

Do you not remember this?

Susie Banikarim (19:56):

I don’t know about the Claire Danes cry face. I remember the Kim Kardashian cry face.

Jessica Bennett (19:59):

Okay, yeah, no, before Kim Kardashian had a cry face, there’s a very distinct Claire Danes cry face. And I think that during the Homeland era, this was going around. But it really started with Angela Chase, [inaudible 00:20:10]. If you’re feeling interested, Google that.

(20:15):

There were so many good things that people sent in. We will probably do another episode devoted to them. But there were a few that we felt like needed honorable mentions.

Susie Banikarim (20:22):

Yes.

Jessica Bennett (20:22):

So I’ll start with the first one. This is from Tara Alene, and this is cracking me up, she writes about the time that Tom Cruise jumped on the couch during his interview with Oprah.

Susie Banikarim (20:33):

Oh my God.

Jessica Bennett (20:33):

Talking about how in love he was with Katie Holmes. I know you remember this.

Susie Banikarim (20:36):

I remember this, and I was watching it live.

Jessica Bennett (20:39):

Okay. And then this idea that he kind of paraded her around and on People Magazine and at parties like she was prize. This is Tara’s words.

Susie Banikarim (20:49):

Well, there was also, very obviously, some tie to Scientology.

Jessica Bennett (20:53):

Yes, exactly.

Susie Banikarim (20:54):

He had gotten divorce from Nicole Kidman, and the rumor was is that he had essentially had Scientology audition girlfriends for him. So he went on Oprah to convince people that his love for Katie Holmes was real.

Jessica Bennett (21:06):

Oh yeah, it was like true. Yes.

Susie Banikarim (21:08):

But he really overdid it, and literally stood up on her couch, and started jumping up and down.

Jessica Bennett (21:14):

Because I was working in a newsroom then, and I don’t think I watched it live, but it was played on repeat over and over. I mean, that moment, dissecting the body language, we was like freeze framing him. He was so out of control.

Susie Banikarim (21:24):

He seemed unhinged, so it really didn’t do what he was hoping, which is quell rumors that it wasn’t a real relationship.

Jessica Bennett (21:29):

Oh my gosh.

Susie Banikarim (21:31):

Another honorable mention we have here is from someone named Klerby. She was listening to our High Yields episode and it made her think of the color Red, the Lady in Red. She was curious when this color became the sexy color for women. And I think that’s actually a really interesting topic.

Jessica Bennett (21:46):

That is. Also, I’m thinking of that song Red Red Wine.

Clips (21:50):

(Singing).

Jessica Bennett (21:50):

I mean, I guess there’s a lot of red in a lot of places.

Susie Banikarim (21:52):

I mean, I love Lady in Red.

Clips (21:54):

(Singing).

Jessica Bennett (21:58):

Anyway. But yeah, Klerby notes that color theory, especially between men and women, could be a good topic for us, and I totally agree.

Susie Banikarim (22:05):

Rebecca Carroll, who’s a friend of the podcast, also messaged me to ask if we’d considered Blue Lagoon. And I’ve never seen Blue Lagoon. Have you?

Jessica Bennett (22:12):

I swear that I have seen Blue Lagoon, but now I’m conflating it with all of those other type of movies. Hold on. Can we Google it?

Susie Banikarim (22:20):

Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (22:21):

Blue Lagoon.

Susie Banikarim (22:21):

Well, I think it’s vaguely pornographic, maybe?

Jessica Bennett (22:25):

It was like that sexy water movie time.

Susie Banikarim (22:29):

Sexy Water movie is a great way to put it. I think it’s about two very young teenagers stranded on an island, but there’s a lot of nudity and sex.

Clips (22:36):

Imagine a boy who didn’t know he had become a man.

(22:40):

My heart’s beating so fast.

(22:44):

Mine too.

Susie Banikarim (22:44):

It’s Brooke Shields, right?

Jessica Bennett (22:45):

It’s Brooke Shields? Okay. Yes, it’s Brooke Shields.

Susie Banikarim (22:45):

Yeah, so that’s definitely a topic we should probably explore at some time.

Jessica Bennett (22:51):

Oh, okay. This is coming back to me now. And I think Brooke Shields has since talked about this, because she was so young and probably didn’t have a lot of agency in how she was portrayed.

Susie Banikarim (22:59):

Or actually, if you haven’t watched the Brooke Shields documentary, which I saw, I went to the premier of, that is a great look back on her career from her perspective, and just like how she could never win. She was either always accused of being too sexual or not sexual enough, and that is just a wild thing, where people would openly ask about her virginity when she would do interviews on television when she was still a teenager. It just feels crazy to look back on, so that’s a recommendation, if you haven’t watched that.

Jessica Bennett (23:28):

And then, maybe this is a good one to end on, but this is our friend Rachel Sklar, who is Grease obsessed.

Susie Banikarim (23:36):

That’s so funny.

Jessica Bennett (23:36):

And I think we actually probably have to come back to this and do more on it, and maybe she needs to make a guest appearance, but she talks about Stephanie on the stepladder in Grease 2 specifically.

Susie Banikarim (23:46):

That’s so funny, I don’t really remember Grease 2 that well, I’ve definitely seen it. But I do remember Grease. I was obsessed with Grease. I wasn’t allowed to see it when it first came out because it was considered too racy for me. So, of course, it just made me want to see it more. And I just love this movie. There’s so much to mine in it. There’s Rizzo, who is just one of the best characters ever, and that song she sings, that there are worse things she could do than go with a boy or two.

Jessica Bennett (24:12):

Oh my God.

Susie Banikarim (24:13):

And then, of course, there’s the Sandra Dee transformation, that she goes from being sort of the sweet, innocent girl next door to being like, va va va voom. So I really feel like Greece has so many themes we could mine.

Jessica Bennett (24:25):

I’ve now clicked on a link to Grease ladder scene on TikTok, and there’s hundreds of videos of women reenacting-

Susie Banikarim (24:33):

The stepladder scene?

Jessica Bennett (24:36):

… stepladders. So clearly, we need to refresh our memories of what this scene actually is. Hilarious.

Susie Banikarim (24:44):

So I think that’s enough for today, but we’re going to do more of these. We really appreciate you guys sending them in. We love hearing from you, so keep telling us about the moments that you think about and that impacted you, and we’ll keep sharing them.

Jessica Bennett (25:00):

Susie, I am really excited for our next episode. Can you tell us what’s in store?

Susie Banikarim (25:04):

Yes. It’s an interview with one of my personal heroes and amazing editor, Jane Pratt, who was founder of the iconic teen magazine, Sassy,

Clips (25:14):

People. Now talk a lot about that Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love cover. I remember going into my meeting with the publisher, and having to pitch Kurt Cobain as … Basically I painted him to be like one of New Kids on the Block or Backstreet Boys.

Susie Banikarim (25:39):

This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a pop culture moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected], or find us on Instagram at @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (25:53):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram, which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (26:02):

You can also find us on Instagram at @jessicabennett and at @susiebnyc. Also, check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This is 18.

Jessica Bennett (26:11):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeart podcasts and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Emily Marinoff is our producer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (26:26):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Our mixing engineer is Amanda Rose Smith. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (26:43):

And Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.

LEARN MORE ABOUT IN RETROSPECT

In Retrospect - Episode 27

EPISODE 27 – THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF THE MILF

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Jessica Bennett (00:00):

If you grew up in the ’90s, you probably know the scene from American Pie that I’m about to tell you about. No, not that scene. This one takes place in a suburban living room at a raging party with bad music and red solo cups full of beer, and a group of horny teenage boys who are gathered in the hallway to admire a photo of Stifler’s mom played by Jennifer Coolidge.

Clips (00:22):

That’s Stifler’s mom?

(00:24):

Yep.

(00:25):

Shit.

(00:27):

I cannot believe a fun woman like this produced a guy like Stifler.

(00:31):

Dude! I took some MILF.

(00:33):

What the hell’s that?

Jessica Bennett (00:35):

Yeah. What the hell is that? A MILF? That is…

Clips (00:38):

M-I-L-F. Mom I’d like to fuck.

(00:43):

Yeah.

(00:48):

Oh yeah.

(00:48):

MILF! MILF! MILF. MILF.

Jessica Bennett (00:49):

MILF. It’s a familiar term now, but where did it come from? And why won’t it go away? I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (00:58):

And I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (00:59):

This is In Retrospect where each week we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

Susie Banikarim (01:05):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Jessica Bennett (01:07):

Today we’re talking about MILFs, a term popularized by the movie American Pie, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

(01:17):

Susie, we’re talking today about American Pie which for those who don’t know or didn’t grow up in the ’90s and early 2000s like we did, this was the wildly popular 1999 movie about four high school virgins who are on the prowl to lose their virginity, are essentially horny beyond belief and perhaps defined cringe, before cringe was a term that we used.

Susie Banikarim (01:41):

I mean, we should probably clarify that all the virgins in this particular story are boys.

Jessica Bennett (01:46):

Oh, yes. True.

Susie Banikarim (01:46):

Now we might have a movie like this about female virgins also trying to lose their virginity. In fact, I think we have had those movies, but at this time it was only boys who wanted to have sex.

Jessica Bennett (01:54):

It was only boys. But as far as sex goes, I’m pretty sure this was the film that, for a certain cohort of our generation, really served as sex education.

Susie Banikarim (02:05):

I mean it certainly had a lot of sexual tropes.

Jessica Bennett (02:09):

I mean, not even tropes. Just like actual sex acts in the most awkward way imaginable from masturbation and the fear of mom walking in on you, of course, which happens. Premature ejaculation, spying through a webcam on a foreign exchange student, sex on prom night. It had jocks and cheerleaders and band geeks. It had edging. You could really… It had everything. And many of these moments are seared into my teenage brain. How about you?

Susie Banikarim (02:39):

I definitely saw it at the time, but it’s not one of those movies I’ve seen a million times. This feels like a movie some people have seen a lot. I only remember having seen it once or twice and I had to rewatch it to remind myself what happens. But of course, the scene that I do remember, that I will always remember, is the one where Jason Biggs, who is the star of the movie, has sex with an apple pie.

Clips (03:06):

That’s not what it looks like.

Jessica Bennett (03:08):

I mean first he fingers the apple pie and then he has-

Susie Banikarim (03:10):

Yes, first he fingers it-

Jessica Bennett (03:11):

… sex with the apple pie.

Susie Banikarim (03:11):

… which is in and of itself… You’re like, “Oh God, what’s happening?”

(03:15):

It’s interesting because… I must have seen this movie when I was in my late teens, and I don’t remember being shocked by it at the time. I remember just being like, “Oh, this is a funny movie.” And now it feels more shocking somehow because I’m an adult. So I’m just like-

Jessica Bennett (03:32):

Hah, that’s funny.

Susie Banikarim (03:33):

I know. I don’t know why. It just feels like I notice how raunchy it is-

Jessica Bennett (03:38):

Disgusting?

Susie Banikarim (03:39):

… in a way that I think I just took for granted at the time. It’s worth mentioning there are a lot of really famous people in this movie.

Jessica Bennett (03:46):

Yes, there are a ton of famous people-

Susie Banikarim (03:46):

I’d forgotten that.

Jessica Bennett (03:47):

… and people who then became famous after it. Jason Biggs, of course, you mentioned who was the main character. His father is played by Eugene Levy. It’s the father who then ends up walking in on him while he is having sex with the pie. There’s Natasha Lyonne, Tara Reid, there’s of course Jennifer Coolidge. Really big names.

Susie Banikarim (04:06):

Yeah. And Alyson Hannigan, who is a star on How I Met Your mother. So it’s a lot of recognizable faces. Mena Suvari’s in it. People who went on to have big careers after this.

Jessica Bennett (04:16):

Yeah.

Susie Banikarim (04:17):

So okay, obviously there’s the famous apple pie scene, and that is the thing most people remember. But the label of MILF is also something that I remembered. I just didn’t really trace it back to this particular movie. So what made you want to talk about this?

Jessica Bennett (04:31):

I’m fascinated by language and this kind of stuff is fun for me to track down the origins of.

Susie Banikarim (04:37):

Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (04:37):

And I started thinking about that actually when you and I were recording last season, our episode on Dawson’s Creek and Mary Kay LeTourneau, which of course is about younger boys in relationships with older women, and how that is perceived. And I just kept thinking about this term MILF, and wondering where it had actually come from. And was it really from American Pie? Because that’s what I remember and where I remember first learning about it, I think. But that can’t possibly be the first usage of it. So anyhow, that led me down a rabbit hole.

Susie Banikarim (05:11):

I do love when you go down a linguistic rabbit hole. But before we get into it, can you remind me what’s happening in American Pie when the term MILF is first used in the movie?

Jessica Bennett (05:20):

Yeah, let me just set the scene for you a little bit. The guys, the virgins, they’re at Stifler’s house. Stifler is the classic rich, arrogant douche bag guy that everyone puts up with because he throws all the parties.

Clips (05:33):

What’s up, dude?

(05:34):

You’re coming to party tonight, Ozzie, you fuck face?

Susie Banikarim (05:36):

Every teenager has one of these-

Jessica Bennett (05:38):

Yes. Every-

Susie Banikarim (05:39):

… and every teen movie has one of these, I feel like.

Jessica Bennett (05:42):

Absolutely. And so they’re all standing around gawking at this photo, Stifler’s mom on the wall, and it’s all the guys. But one of the really funny things I learned later is that the guy who actually defines the term MILF that we all heard there, is referred to in the credits at the end of the movie, simply as MILF Guy #2.

Susie Banikarim (06:00):

That’s amazing because it’s actually an actor I recognize. I just couldn’t figure out from where.

Jessica Bennett (06:04):

Well, I think you recognize him now because he’s John Cho, who would later star in Harold and Kumar. But at the time, I don’t think he was a recognizable name.

Susie Banikarim (06:13):

Wow. MILF Guy #2 really paid off for him though.

Jessica Bennett (06:16):

Apparently. And so later in the movie, what ends up happening is that one of the virgins, Finch, he’s like the intellectual old soul of the group. He drinks single malt whiskey and reads books on tantric sex. He loses his virginity to the MILF, Stifler’s mom, and this happens on a pool table during yet another party at Stifler’s House on prom night.

Susie Banikarim (06:38):

I had forgotten that detail, but I don’t know how. It’s so evocative.

Jessica Bennett (06:42):

And Finch has this rivalry with Stifler throughout the movie. So him sleeping with Stifler’s mom in a way is the ultimate teen boy “fuck you.” It’s like literally, “I fucked your mom.”

Susie Banikarim (06:55):

Yeah. I mean it’s also just such a teenage fantasy, right? It’s wild.

Jessica Bennett (07:00):

And so in the final scene of the movie, the boys are at a diner post prom, and they’re like giving each other the details, and Finch says…

Clips (07:07):

No, I just got to say that women, like a fine wine, only get better with age.

Jessica Bennett (07:13):

And with that line, MILF, I think the word, but also the concept gets cemented into the cultural zeitgeist.

Clips (07:21):

MILF! MILF! MILF! MILF.

Jessica Bennett (07:25):

Now I think it’s worth exploring if we can stomach it in our prudish older years-

Susie Banikarim (07:31):

By which you mean my prudish older years.

Jessica Bennett (07:33):

Well, no, it was pretty gross. But just how raunchy American Pie was because, honestly, like you said, it is pretty shocking to rewatch. And we only mentioned a couple of scenes, but there were so many other gross ones in the film.

(07:48):

I was reading one of the early reviews of the film, and there’s this funny line from the New York Times film critic, Stephen Holden, where he says, “Which scene is grossest? The beer scene? The pie scene? The toilet scene? All over the country during the next few weeks, teenagers able to wrangle their way into the R-rated comedy will be comparing notes and debating.”

Susie Banikarim (08:08):

First of all, I think it’s funny that the New York Times took this movie seriously enough to do a full review of it.

Jessica Bennett (08:13):

Well, we’re very serious=

Susie Banikarim (08:13):

That’s amazing to me.

Jessica Bennett (08:17):

… serious of the New York Times. And I should note it wasn’t that kids were only debating. One kid in Idaho actually decided to stick his penis into a pie in real life and ended up getting third degree burns.

Susie Banikarim (08:27):

Okay. I actually feel like I remember this. And I would wager to say that a lot of teens tried this because most of them were smart enough not to do it on a piping hot pie. So we don’t know about it because they didn’t get third degree burns.

Jessica Bennett (08:41):

Yes, exactly. You have to let the pie cool first.

Susie Banikarim (08:45):

I mean, I think the other thing I want to say is that there’s a lot of raunchy things in this movie, but there’s also things that we would consider illegal now. They record a woman without her consent undressing and livestream it, which I don’t even know that I knew at that time what livestreaming was.

Jessica Bennett (09:03):

No, I don’t think we did. But yeah, this is the Nadia scene, right? She’s the hot foreign exchange student, and she asks Jim if he will tutor her, and he’s basically falling all over himself responding…

Clips (09:14):

Absolutely. That would be great sometime. How about tomorrow?

(09:19):

Well, I have ballet practice. Perhaps I could come by your house afterwards? I could change clothes at your place.

Susie Banikarim (09:27):

Right? Of course she’s going to change clothes at his place. What an extremely fortunate twist for Jim who is dying to get her naked.

Jessica Bennett (09:35):

Right.

Susie Banikarim (09:35):

And then the weirdest part in this movie of very weird things is… then while she’s naked in his room, she goes through his things and finds his porn magazines and is like, “Oh, you know what I’ll do right now while I’m in this, essentially, stranger’s bedroom? I’m going to masturbate here.” It’s so unrealistic.

Jessica Bennett (09:54):

Right. And then it not only streams to his friends, but to the whole school.

Susie Banikarim (09:58):

Yes, he’s accidentally sent it to the entire school, and that’s never acknowledged as weird. That whole storyline ends basically at that point in the movie, because the next scene, Jason Biggs is like, “Yeah, her host family sent her home.” And you’re like, “What about the crime?”

Jessica Bennett (10:14):

Right.

Susie Banikarim (10:14):

At the time I think we just thought “teenage shenanigans.”

Jessica Bennett (10:17):

Also, there’s the semen in a cup scene.

Susie Banikarim (10:20):

Oh my God. That scene. It’s so horrifying.

Jessica Bennett (10:24):

Where Kevin’s girlfriend has given him a blowjob and he ejaculates into a beer cup and-

Susie Banikarim (10:28):

As one does. Yes.

Jessica Bennett (10:30):

I feel like you can picture these red solo beer cups everywhere throughout this movie, but this one is actually clear, naturally.

Susie Banikarim (10:40):

Of course.

Jessica Bennett (10:40):

And so then Stifler picks it up and takes a sip of it.

Susie Banikarim (10:42):

Yeah. Which is first he gives it to a girl and she takes a sip of it. I mean, this is just gross out comedy.

Jessica Bennett (10:49):

Yes.

Susie Banikarim (10:50):

And those moments don’t shock me as much as I’m just like, “Oh, no. No. Stop.”

Jessica Bennett (10:56):

I don’t know. It’s not even sexy. It’s just so gross in a lot of ways.

Susie Banikarim (11:00):

Yeah. The movie isn’t sexy. It’s just about sex.

Jessica Bennett (11:02):

Right.

Susie Banikarim (11:03):

Which I think is an interesting thing. There’s no pretense that you’re going to watch this movie and it’s going to feel hot. It’s not a hot movie.

Jessica Bennett (11:10):

Well, another scene actually that this reminds me of was the flute band camp scene.

Susie Banikarim (11:15):

Yes, of course.

Jessica Bennett (11:16):

So you mentioned Alyson Hannigan. She plays Michelle, and Michelle is the band camp dork who plays the flute. And at a certain point Michelle is telling Jim a story at one of these parties, and he seems pretty bored with whatever she’s saying until…

Clips (11:35):

Oh, and this one time at band camp, I stuck a flute in my pussy.

(11:42):

Excuse me?

(11:43):

What? You don’t think I know how to get myself off?

Susie Banikarim (11:46):

It’s so funny because I do feel like maybe I remember this movie better than I thought or maybe it just became such a popular part of the vernacular. Because I do remember that for a long time after this movie people would just say, “One time at band camp.”

Jessica Bennett (11:58):

Exactly. I mean there were so many things about this movie that permanently lodged in the zeitgeist, maybe without us even knowing I was in the orchestra in high school. I played the violin. And so from the moment we all watched that movie, I don’t think any of the female flute players in the orchestra could ever be looked at with a straight face again. That was permanently their cross to bear.

Susie Banikarim (12:42):

Jess, American Pie came out in 1999, right? So can you just give us a sense of what’s going on in the culture at that time that set the stage for it?

Jessica Bennett (12:51):

Absolutely. Because it was really this era in the late ’90s of not just shock comedy but like, “Sex. Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex.” Viagra has just hit the market.

Clips (13:01):

Who’s asking about Viagra? Maybe it should be you.

Jessica Bennett (13:07):

Bill Clinton has denied, of course, having sexual relations with “that woman,” which is Monica Lewinsky.

Clips (13:11):

I did not have sexual relations with that woman.

Jessica Bennett (13:15):

But no matter what he has said, the late night hosts have made a complete heyday of making fun of him and talking about the cigar that was inserted into her vagina.

Susie Banikarim (13:26):

Oh, God.

Jessica Bennett (13:26):

And sales of cigars have gone up.

Clips (13:28):

Now let’s see what’s going on with Monica, or as President Clinton calls her, “my little humidor.”

Jessica Bennett (13:32):

Anyway, this is in the political culture.

Susie Banikarim (13:35):

Yes.

Jessica Bennett (13:35):

And then I’m sure you remember the movie There’s Something About Mary.

Susie Banikarim (13:39):

Who could forget?

Jessica Bennett (13:41):

And I’m sure you remember the scene in There’s Something About Mary.

Susie Banikarim (13:45):

Yes. He has semen for some reason on him, and she thinks it’s hair gel and she puts it in her hair.

Clips (13:50):

Is that a hair gel?

(13:51):

Yeah.

(13:52):

Great. I could use some.

(13:53):

No, no, don’t. You don’t have to.

(13:56):

I just ran out.

Susie Banikarim (13:58):

It’s all so disgusting.

Jessica Bennett (13:59):

Because obviously you’d just take a thing that’s hanging off someone’s face and put it in your hair for hair gel. So yes, There’s Something About Mary-

Susie Banikarim (14:06):

This episode is really something.

Jessica Bennett (14:08):

… that was very gross and… memorable scene has just come out. And this is also the era of Dawson’s Creek, which we’ve talked about before, and all of the hilarious, so on the nose, over the top, sexual innuendo that went along with that.

Clips (14:21):

Be proactive and grab him by the dipstick.

(14:23):

How often do you walk your dog, huh?

(14:24):

What?

(14:25):

Jerking his gerking.

(14:25):

I’m just engaged in a little innuendo in the hopes that maybe someday it’ll lead to something a little more tangible.

Jessica Bennett (14:32):

I hadn’t realized until digging into this research that the year that American Pie came out was such a huge year, more broadly, for teen movies. So Varsity Blues, Never Been Kissed, Cruel Intentions, Election, all of these movies came out in 1999. So really big moment for teen movies.

Susie Banikarim (14:51):

Yes, all great movies and also all movies that… I mean, I guess all teen movies to some degree center on sex and the ways in which it’s confusing for teenagers,

Jessica Bennett (15:01):

And I think American Pie had a lot of lasting impacts, but MILF is one of them. And I think that after it came out, it kicks off what we might now refer to as the MILF era.

Susie Banikarim (15:14):

The MILF era? How formal. How does that play out?

Jessica Bennett (15:21):

It basically becomes popularized both as a concept and a term. So in the months and years following this movie, tens of thousands of MILF-branded T-shirts and mugs are sold online. There is this whole new genre of books in the “hot mom” book realm.

Susie Banikarim (15:39):

So it’s moms who embrace this because they want to be known as MILFs?

Jessica Bennett (15:43):

I mean, maybe? Or it’s publishers, it’s people knowing that it will sell. But things like Confessions of a Naughty Mommy, the MILF Anthology, The Hot Mom’s Handbook.

Susie Banikarim (15:53):

I really would like to read Confessions of a Naughty Mommy. I feel like that would be hilarious.

Jessica Bennett (15:59):

I haven’t read any of these things, but it’s not just the term itself that’s being used. There’s this moment happening in television and film and elsewhere of hot “older” women, and I’m using air quotes on older because oftentimes the older was-

Susie Banikarim (16:13):

40?

Jessica Bennett (16:13):

… a bit younger than us.

Susie Banikarim (16:14):

Yeah. Oh, no. Don’t-

Jessica Bennett (16:15):

But-

Susie Banikarim (16:16):

I don’t want to know.

Jessica Bennett (16:17):

TV shows like Desperate Housewives. And as you know well, this is when The Real Housewives began, when the Real Housewives franchise began.

Susie Banikarim (16:26):

Although I would argue that those were not particularly hot women, but maybe at the time they were considered hot.

Jessica Bennett (16:31):

However you define it. And then remember the Fountains of Wayne’s song, Stacy’s Mom?

Susie Banikarim (16:35):

Of course.

Clips (16:37):

I’m in Love with Stacey’s Mom.

(16:37):

Stacy’s Mom.

Jessica Bennett (16:40):

In 2003, it was the number one most downloaded song on iTunes-

Susie Banikarim (16:44):

Oh, wow.

Jessica Bennett (16:44):

… which was the year it came out. And then, actually around the same time this other hilarious thing happens and this is maybe indicative of my home state. I’m not sure exactly what this is indicative of. But in Washington State a resident, not from Seattle, I will say, applied for a GOTMILF vanity license plate and was approved, which is kind of funny. I mean, whatever.

Susie Banikarim (17:06):

That’s funny.

Jessica Bennett (17:07):

It’s funny. Got Milk? GOTMILF. But then people complained and he ended up having to surrender it because on the application he had explained that what MILF stood for was manual inline lift fluctuator, which he claimed was some kind of automotive gizmo.

Susie Banikarim (17:22):

I mean, honestly, that also sounds dirty. I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell that dude.

Jessica Bennett (17:25):

It’s true.

Susie Banikarim (17:26):

But manual inline lift fluctuator sounds like a sex toy,

Jessica Bennett (17:29):

Yes. But then the actual complaints about it, which were written in, and then the documents were revealed by The Smoking Gun. Remember that website?

Susie Banikarim (17:36):

Yes, yes.

Jessica Bennett (17:37):

They were like, “I’m not sure what you people with the DMV have been watching, but you clearly don’t know what this actually means. Here’s what it actually means.” And so they revoked the license.

Susie Banikarim (17:46):

It’s probably also worth mentioning that Got Milk? was this huge ad campaign at the time, so they probably weren’t so happy at the Milk Foundation or whoever ran that campaign.

Clips (17:56):

Got Milk?

Susie Banikarim (18:00):

Okay. So Jess, I think we can finally get to the linguistic rabbit hole. What is the etymology that you discovered?

Jessica Bennett (18:08):

First, let me just caveat. There’s two things. There is MILF, the word, and then there is MILF, the idea. And so when we talk about MILF, the idea, obviously we know that there’s this fascination with sexual mother figures that has always existed or at least existed back to Freud days and the Oedipus complex.

Susie Banikarim (18:27):

Yeah, there is this weird fascination or sexualization of mothers. And for people who don’t know, the Oedipus complex is this concept that all sons secretly want to have sex with their moms. I feel like I’ve always known, but must have been introduced to me in some way.

Jessica Bennett (18:43):

I think it’s in mythology. And then Freud took it on and was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is so Oedepal,” as Freud did.

Susie Banikarim (18:48):

Yeah. And I think they’ve since said that there’s no empirical evidence that that’s a thing, but for some reason it just stuck culturally that all men have some weird affection for their mom.

Jessica Bennett (18:58):

I mean, the most famous example I think is the cult classic, The Graduate, which introduces the character of Mrs. Robinson.

Susie Banikarim (19:06):

Amazing move.

Jessica Bennett (19:07):

This came out in the 1960s.

Susie Banikarim (19:08):

Although in fairness, Mrs. Robinson is not his mom, it’s his girlfriend’s mom.

Jessica Bennett (19:13):

Right. And then you get the song Mrs. Robinson. So there’s this mythology/enduring fascination that has existed for a very, very long time, but the term itself is a different story. Where did this actual acronym come from? And the answer to that, or at least the answer that I’ve seen – I have not or I could not independently confirm this – is apparently an early 1990s issue of Motorbooty magazine.

Susie Banikarim (19:39):

Okay, first of all, I am so happy to learn that there is a Motorbooty magazine.

Jessica Bennett (19:44):

As was I. But I have to tell you, Susie, it’s not what it sounds like. It’s not a raunchy car magazine. It’s actually like an alternative music and comedy magazine.

Susie Banikarim (19:57):

Oh, all right. I mean, I guess that’s cooler-

Jessica Bennett (19:57):

Right? I don’t know.

Susie Banikarim (19:58):

… but I was picturing a lot of women and would take their booties out on top of cars which is what I was-

Jessica Bennett (20:01):

I know, very… I don’t know. Confusing? But that one’s really hard to confirm. What I am absolutely certain of, because I reached out to a pal of mine, Ben Zimmer, who is a linguist, is that the actual first usage case for which I have seen the official proof was in 1991 in a Buffalo, New York newspaper. It was the name of a rock band-

Susie Banikarim (20:28):

Oh, wow.

Jessica Bennett (20:28):

… who apparently adopted it because they’d heard lifeguards at Fort Niagara State Park using it to refer to the women, I guess?

Susie Banikarim (20:36):

Wow. This is actually fascinating that you were able to find the-

Jessica Bennett (20:40):

It’s super interesting, right? This is in 1991. It appears in a local Buffalo newspaper announcing a show for this band. And funny side note, the other bands that they were playing with in this show in Buffalo, New York were called The Tails and Tugboat Annie, which I feel like are also MILF-ishy names. I don’t know. Something?

Susie Banikarim (20:57):

Yeah. And so what is the proof that Ben provides you that made you think this was definitely-

Jessica Bennett (21:02):

Well, so Ben actually spoke to the band members-

Susie Banikarim (21:05):

Oh my God! Okay.

Jessica Bennett (21:06):

… who confirmed because it is basically… Ben was doing research. Ben is a columnist at The Wall Street Journal who writes about language. He’s also a linguist. And he actually MCs the Annual Word of the Year Convention every year for the American Dialect Society.

Susie Banikarim (21:18):

Amazing. We should go to that.

Jessica Bennett (21:19):

It’s very fun.

Susie Banikarim (21:20):

Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (21:21):

So he was trying to find out the first usages, and he found this little band thing, but you couldn’t be sure that Milf meant “mom I’d like to fuck.” So he actually reached out to this band member and was like, “Is that what it stood for?” And the band member, who didn’t want to be named because of course he has a real job so hence-

Susie Banikarim (21:37):

Yeah. He’s probably gone on to things that don’t involve-

Jessica Bennett (21:39):

… didn’t want it on his LinkedIn or whatever, was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was it.” Which was super interesting because then the next reference that we can trace is all the way in California in 1992, somehow between ’91 and ’92 this term makes its way from New York to California, and we’re not sure why. But in ’92 it appears at a conference at UC, Berkeley where a linguist named Laurel Sutton gives this presentation about various words, derogatory words used to describe women. And so she’s collected all of these different terms used by undergraduate students to refer to women, and MILF is one of them.

Susie Banikarim (22:19):

I mean this is actually why I love that you love language so much, because it’s so interesting that words just take on a life of their own like this.

Jessica Bennett (22:26):

They do. They absolutely do. So what you see from there is that it starts being used on early internet message boards and in particular talking about a playboy pictorial of hot moms.

Susie Banikarim (22:37):

Oh, okay.

Jessica Bennett (22:38):

It was called Fabulous After 40.

Susie Banikarim (22:40):

How progressive of Playboy in 1995.

Jessica Bennett (22:43):

I know, right? So it actually makes sense.

Susie Banikarim (22:43):

Fabulous After 40. Yes.

Jessica Bennett (22:46):

And so another funny aside is that the linguist who presented that conference at Berkeley, Laurel Sutton who I mentioned, she would actually go on to write a paper about these findings, and it would be called Bitches and Skanky Hobags: The Place of Women in Contemporary Slang.

Susie Banikarim (23:01):

Also something I’m dying to read, so I will be reading Bitches and Skanky Hobags after this.

Jessica Bennett (23:06):

You absolutely should. Another funny little thread here is that years later in 2013, Ben Zimmer, who’s the other linguist I mentioned, he had to actually let Laurel, the author of Bitches and Skanky Hobags know that her mention of MILF in that paper was actually getting this linguistic honor as one of the first usages in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Susie Banikarim (23:28):

Amazing.

Jessica Bennett (23:29):

So this is jargon for us, but it’s a huge nerdy honor if you’re a linguist. And so at the time she wrote on her blog that she was, quote, “both gratified and mortified.”

Susie Banikarim (23:39):

I’m so happy for Laurel. That’s beautiful.

Jessica Bennett (23:42):

I know, right? I think it’s really cool.

Susie Banikarim (23:42):

Yeah, it’s cool.

Jessica Bennett (23:43):

But she has this funny statement where she says, the word in question is an awful acronym I first ran across while in graduate school when I was doing data gathering on slang used by undergrads. Then as now and always, there was an abundance of words that reduced women to their desirability, mostly of the negative type. If the words themselves aren’t insulting like skank and hobag, they’re condescending, which is what I said about MILF in my paper. She then goes on to say the citation will live on long after she’s gone, and she can only hope that future generations will find this word quaintly offensive and say, “Sure glad we don’t talk like that anymore.”

Susie Banikarim (24:20):

Wow. But we really do talk like that still.

Jessica Bennett (24:22):

We have very much, unfortunately, disappointed Laurel. And now the term is actually in every dictionary. It’s often categorized under vulgar slang. But if you look up Merriam-Webster dictionary or even dictionary.com, it is there as an acronym that stands for “mom I’d like to fuck.” And then in dictionary.com it says, “which is often said by teenage boys about their friends’ attractive mothers or just about women in general who are considered of middle age.”

Susie Banikarim (24:50):

I think the other thing is this just feels like it’s so part of the vernacular now. Isn’t it almost always in the top five searched porn terms in this country? I feel like people love-

Jessica Bennett (25:00):

Yes.

Susie Banikarim (25:00):

… looking for MILF porn.

Jessica Bennett (25:02):

I mean that part is so disturbing, but it’s not a far jump from this definition saying that teenage boys often say it about their friends’ hot moms too. Then imagining those teenage boys searching MILF on porn sites.

Susie Banikarim (25:15):

I actually looked because I was curious.

Jessica Bennett (25:16):

Love that.

Susie Banikarim (25:16):

And in 2022, PornHub had it as its number three search term in the world. Not just in America, in the world. But it’s also just fascinating that these kinds of words go from being online searches to being in the dictionary. Didn’t they just put the word “rizz” in the dictionary? Which makes me feel a hundred.

Jessica Bennett (25:36):

Okay. Well, so separate thing, dictionary and Word of the Year are different. And I only know these really fine distinctions because I used to go to the Word of the Year conference every year.

Susie Banikarim (25:47):

Okay, wait. That sounds so fun. And why have you never told me about this before?

Jessica Bennett (25:52):

I don’t know. I’ve written about it. I guess you’re not reading my articles, Susie.

Susie Banikarim (25:55):

Oh my God. You know that’s not true.

Jessica Bennett (25:58):

But it’s honestly my the most joy [inaudible 00:26:03]-

Susie Banikarim (26:03):

You get out of an assignment?

Jessica Bennett (26:03):

… my life is going to the annual Word of the Year conference. It’s hosted by the American Dialect Society every year, and people can present papers on linguistic trends, and there’s all these academics there. And then they have this event which people can go to and vote on/debate and argue for the words of the year. So there’s now multiple words of the year contest, and it all gets very confusing. But I just saw that delulu had been nominated for the American Dialect Society’s. That’s for delusional.

Susie Banikarim (26:34):

Which is definitely one of the best words. I feel silly using it but I definitely do use it. Is this how you know all these linguists that you reached out to for this article?

Jessica Bennett (26:45):

Yes, that’s how I know some of them. Yeah.

Susie Banikarim (26:46):

Wow. Impressive.

Jessica Bennett (26:47):

Yeah.

Susie Banikarim (26:48):

There’s always things I’m uncovering about your career.

Jessica Bennett (26:50):

Love linguists. They’re very fun.

(27:06):

Okay, so back to the word MILF. So American Pie we have now established didn’t create this term, but it certainly pushed it into the mainstream, both in term but also in concept. Stifler’s mom became the hottest MILF in America and it seemed, at least in that time, like MILF was everywhere.

Susie Banikarim (27:25):

And Jennifer Coolidge is truly the original MILF, right? Nobody will ever be more MILF than her.

Jessica Bennett (27:32):

Right. Right. And actually I want to pause on her for a second because she’s talked about this quite a bit. And I think in some ways she hasn’t really been able to escape that title or that role, but it also has ended up being good for her in a lot of ways. She plays it super well. After American Pie comes out, Eugene Levy ends up recommending her for Best in Show. I don’t know if you remember that campy movie. She plays this trophy wife character.

Clips (27:55):

We both have so much in common. We both love soup and we love the outdoors. We love snow peas and talking and not talking.

Susie Banikarim (28:10):

She was very MILFy in White Lotus too.

Clips (28:13):

Don’t spend your life chasing emotionally unavailable men.

Jessica Bennett (28:19):

She is always MILFy. It’s also great… The thing is you can’t age out of being a MILF.

Susie Banikarim (28:25):

Yeah, it’s true.

Jessica Bennett (28:26):

For women in Hollywood-

Susie Banikarim (28:27):

I guess you can become a G-MILF like a grandmother, a GILF.

Jessica Bennett (28:30):

Yeah, it’s fun. Maybe it’s good because in every other world it’s like, “Oh, she’s too old.” But if you’re a MILF, you can always be a MILF.

Susie Banikarim (28:37):

But she still does talk about this MILF reference because I’ve seen interviews in the last year where she’s talked about it. She embraces it. I don’t think she rejects it. I think she recognizes that it really did help her become a breakout star.

Jessica Bennett (28:51):

It also apparently led to a lot of sex for her.

Susie Banikarim (28:54):

I mean, good for Jennifer Coolidge.

Jessica Bennett (28:59):

I know, right? And I don’t know if this is a joke or not, she is a comic, but she talks about how there were 200 sexual partners she had after that movie because everyone wanted to sleep with her after American Pie.

Susie Banikarim (29:10):

I mean that makes sense to me. She was an icon of that era. But this reminds me, there was another MILF reference after this that I thought was hilarious. Britney Spears at the height of her fame, wore a T-shirt that said, “MILF in training,” which is pretty funny, and it was before she had kids. So it’s sort of this idea that being a hot mom is something everyone should aspire to.

Jessica Bennett (29:31):

You’re reminding me of something that I think is helpful in understanding the backdrop or the context to when this term was emerging. Because as this is all going on, as this is gaining popularity, as Britney Spears is wearing her T-shirt, the U.S. Is actually seeing a rise in young single mothers like Stifler’s mom.

Susie Banikarim (29:49):

Oh, interesting.

Jessica Bennett (29:50):

And also the postponement of marriage and parenthood. So it’s like these things are juxtaposed against each other or maybe they’re all intertwined, because research also found that young adults were living at home longer than ever before, which you can imagine probably impacted the perception of moms as sexual beings, or single women, and young men just hanging around older women more.

Susie Banikarim (30:15):

I guess it is interesting that there were obviously young mothers before, but young single mothers mean that you have to acknowledge that your mother to some degree is a being who dates and has a romantic life.

Jessica Bennett (30:27):

Right, right.

Susie Banikarim (30:27):

So that would be a shift in thinking.

Jessica Bennett (30:30):

There’s a moment that I really remember from that show, Weeds. Did you watch that?

Susie Banikarim (30:34):

I loved that show. Yes.

Jessica Bennett (30:35):

I mean, I know you’re a weed enthusiast, so figured you’d watched it. So this is Mary Louise Parker, she plays a 43-year-old… I guess you could call her a MILF, but that’s pretty young. And she plays this widowed suburban mom who deals pot to support her kids. And so there’s this amazing episode where she’s introduced to Snoop Dogg who plays himself-

Susie Banikarim (30:57):

Iconic.

Jessica Bennett (30:58):

… and she’s introduced as a MILF. And he says, “I’d do you.”

Susie Banikarim (31:03):

I mean, of course. Of course he does.

Jessica Bennett (31:06):

And then he smokes her weed and declares that it’s MILF weed and performs this hilarious MILF weed rap.

Clips (31:13):

(singing)

Jessica Bennett (31:19):

But that is so funny because I remember smoking weed that we called MILF weed or referring to weed as MILF weed. Or that became a thing, there’s a culture of it-

Susie Banikarim (31:25):

It must’ve become a strain.

Jessica Bennett (31:26):

… at some point.

Susie Banikarim (31:27):

Yeah. Have you smoked MILF weed?

(31:29):

I haven’t smoked MILF weed, but I bet you if I searched for it in the dictionary of weed strains, which exists online. Yeah, here it is on Leafly, which is where you go to research strains of marijuana for those who are not stoners, it is listed.

Jessica Bennett (31:45):

Does it describe it?

Susie Banikarim (31:47):

It does describe it. “MILF is known as MILF weed from Mother Chucker’s Seeds takes its name from an acronym from Marijuana I’d Like to Flower.”

Jessica Bennett (31:56):

Oh, right?

Susie Banikarim (31:56):

That can’t be true.

Jessica Bennett (31:57):

Okay.

Susie Banikarim (31:57):

“The MILF strain tends to be led by a strong heady buzz that elevates your mood.”

Jessica Bennett (32:02):

That’s so funny. Yeah. I mean, it is as if the term took on a life of its own, and then people started to ascribe other things to it. Do you remember that Fergie song called M.I.L.F. $?

Clips (32:12):

(singing)

Susie Banikarim (32:16):

I do not remember the song, but it feels like I should.

Jessica Bennett (32:20):

I don’t think it’s a good song or anything, but it supposedly redefine the term as Moms I’d Like To Follow.

Susie Banikarim (32:27):

Okay. That’s how [inaudible 00:32:28].

Jessica Bennett (32:27):

Oh well, that doesn’t make any sense. And then it had… You probably remember this part. There were all these celebrity moms in various provocative scenes, including Kim Kardashian showering in milk.

Susie Banikarim (32:37):

I do have an image of Kim Kardashian showering in milk, so it must be from this but I did not realize that.

Jessica Bennett (32:42):

Right. So there have been various spinoffs of this term. Some actually using the term and others like SMILF, that was a popular show on Showtime, made by a friend of mine, Frankie Shaw, which stood for “single mom I’d like to fuck.” And it was about her life as a young single mom.

(32:57):

Do you remember recently, Martha Stewart… She is 81 now and she was the oldest woman to pose for the swimsuit cover of Sports Illustrated.

Susie Banikarim (33:08):

Yes. She looked great.

Jessica Bennett (33:09):

And so she was then crowned by the internet as a GILF.

Susie Banikarim (33:12):

I did see that, yes. I mean, also it feels like now there are DILFs, right? Or is that zaddy? Are those different things?

Jessica Bennett (33:22):

Well, I think that there’s a little bit of equal opportunity MILFing happening right now.

Susie Banikarim (33:25):

So now there’s DILFing?

Jessica Bennett (33:28):

Especially with the popularity of these actors like Pedro Pascal, everyone calls Zaddy. There was some big thing about whether Timothee Chalamet, who obviously does not have children and is maybe also a child, was a DILF.

Susie Banikarim (33:40):

Timothee Chalamet is so young to be a DILF. I think of MILF as comparable to a cougar, right? It’s like a hot older woman.

Jessica Bennett (33:49):

Yeah. So it’s worth making that distinction. They are different. Both are used to describe older women, but a MILF is a woman who’s desired. I see that as someone where the horny teenage boys are pursuing her, whereas a cougar is the aggressor where she is pursuing the younger man.

Susie Banikarim (34:08):

Oh, right. That makes sense. So the cougar has more agency, I guess.

Jessica Bennett (34:15):

We’ve been talking about early 2000s, 2010s, but this is very much still occurring today. There is a new, I think it came out last year, reality TV show on TLC called MILF Manor.

Susie Banikarim (34:28):

I’m sorry, how did I miss this?

Jessica Bennett (34:30):

How did you miss this? Because the premise is that eight older women are dating each other’s sons.

Susie Banikarim (34:36):

I’m sorry. They’re dating each other’s children?

Jessica Bennett (34:40):

Yes.

Susie Banikarim (34:41):

That is a bizarre concept for reality show.

Jessica Bennett (34:44):

That’s the premise.

Susie Banikarim (34:44):

I mean you’ve got to give it to TLC. They know how to really go there.

Jessica Bennett (34:48):

I guess it goes to show there is this enduring fascination with mother figures. It’s so weird. And I guess in some ways they’re often viewed as tragic. I don’t think anyone is aspiring to be on MILF Manor, I hope.

Susie Banikarim (35:05):

I mean that feels tragic to me. But I don’t know that the concept of MILF has ever felt tragic to me because it’s kind of cool and aspirational, right? I feel like-

Jessica Bennett (35:13):

Well, is it? Or is it objectifying?

Susie Banikarim (35:16):

So that’s the thing, right? Often in culture I feel like women embrace, or find aspirational, being objectified. It’s just so rooted in the way we think about what it means to be sexy, is to be objectified in some way. I told a friend of mine we were recording this, and she has children, and she was like, “I am available for an interview.” You know, it’s like a joke that we all embrace.

Jessica Bennett (35:38):

So she’s considering it a point of pride.

Susie Banikarim (35:40):

Right. I think if you’re a mom and you have kids, you want to still feel like you’re a sexual being. You want to still feel like you’re desirable. So while it’s objectifying, I think we do have a complex relationship. I mean, as women in general with things that are objectifying you want to be hot enough to be objectified, but not objectified.

Jessica Bennett (35:58):

Yeah, you’re right.

Susie Banikarim (36:00):

It’s like a weird conflict-

Jessica Bennett (36:01):

Right.

Susie Banikarim (36:03):

… that we have about all of these kinds of terms.

Jessica Bennett (36:03):

That cyclical idea is interesting too because… So American Pie is a wild success. Then it goes on to franchise. There’s a number of American Pies and the-

Susie Banikarim (36:12):

Oh, I didn’t know that.

Jessica Bennett (36:13):

Yeah. And the MILF idea becomes a major plot point in them. Basically, Finch goes off to college but he only wants to be with Stifler’s mom. And so he’s teaching himself how to be a better lover.

Clips (36:25):

You learn to channel your body’s energies, your chakras. When you can do that you can have sex for hours, even days.

Jessica Bennett (36:33):

And it goes on and on and on until he ends up ultimately with somebody his age who is age appropriate. But it’s funny because in the first, the main American Pie that we’re talking about here, you don’t ever learn the name of Stifler’s mom. She’s just Stifler’s mom, similar to Stacey’s Mom, the song.

Susie Banikarim (36:51):

Right.

Jessica Bennett (36:52):

It’s just Stacey’s Mom.

Susie Banikarim (36:53):

Well, there’s no character beyond just being the sex object, right?

Jessica Bennett (36:57):

Exactly.

Susie Banikarim (36:57):

She’s just a very flat two-dimensional character. She’s just a hot mom.

Jessica Bennett (37:01):

Exactly. And so then later at the very end of American Pie 2, you learn that Stifler’s mom is actually named Janine and-

Susie Banikarim (37:11):

Wow. That is not a hot name, isn’t it?

Jessica Bennett (37:11):

Isn’t that so funny? And we only learn that because Finch drives off with her to have sex, and we hear him call out her name in an erotic way, and she tells him to call her Stifler’s mom.

Clips (37:21):

Ah! Stifler’s mom!

Susie Banikarim (37:25):

Wow. I guess apologies to all the people who are named Janine I probably just offended-

Jessica Bennett (37:29):

It’s going to be okay.

Susie Banikarim (37:29):

… but I really wasn’t expecting Janine.

Jessica Bennett (37:31):

I don’t know. It’s just funny to think about how these terms evolve and how, in that case, it was a joke. It was a punchline. But she doesn’t really get to have a developed personality.

Susie Banikarim (37:42):

I am genuinely fascinated though with this idea that all things that can initially be good or bad, eventually become embraced as aspirational among a certain set of women. Even cougar, which may have been at some time predatory. There was eventually a TV series with Courtney Cox in it called Cougar Town, right?

Jessica Bennett (38:06):

Right.

Susie Banikarim (38:06):

So people eventually embraced that term, and also were-

Jessica Bennett (38:10):

Or did they though?

Susie Banikarim (38:10):

… like, “I want to be a cougar.”

Jessica Bennett (38:11):

I mean there are a lot of things about how MILF makes inherently sexy a character, then in a lot of these pop culture representations is actually a predator. That’s a very real thing.

Susie Banikarim (38:25):

Right. Where it’s like there’s this predatory thing that happens with older women that we’ve turned into something that’s funny or-

Jessica Bennett (38:33):

Right? And often it’s like you had the boys, the virgins, or whomever, they’re high-fiving about it. They’re not referring to it as a statutory rape.

Susie Banikarim (38:41):

Right, of course. Which it is, even in this-

Jessica Bennett (38:44):

That just has become a plot point in so many films, I think.

Susie Banikarim (38:47):

Right.

Jessica Bennett (38:48):

Of course, it wouldn’t be the same if the genders were reversed.

Susie Banikarim (38:51):

Right. Like if a father had sex with a 16-year-old virgin.

Jessica Bennett (38:54):

I mean that’s the Lolita trope, I guess.

Susie Banikarim (38:57):

Yeah, that’s the Lolita trope.

(39:03):

I think the other thing that’s interesting about this is just this concept that women stop being attractive or appealing after a certain age.

Jessica Bennett (39:13):

Right.

Susie Banikarim (39:14):

So I guess part of the reason women sometimes embrace these monikers is because that is just not true. There is this rejection of the idea that you are put out to pasture.

Jessica Bennett (39:26):

Right. Well, I mean, that’s why there needed to be this term in the first place because it goes against the conventional wisdom, which is you can’t be attractive after a certain age or after you have children. And so thus you are defying the norm, and we’re going to call you a MILF.

Susie Banikarim (39:39):

Right.

Jessica Bennett (39:40):

But you know what’s actually super interesting? I was talking about this subject with my students and one of them who is very, very online. She spends a lot of time on Stan Twitter. She knows everything that’s going on on the internet.

Susie Banikarim (39:52):

Yeah?

Jessica Bennett (39:53):

She was telling me that MILF is now being used as a compliment.

Susie Banikarim (39:57):

What?

Jessica Bennett (39:58):

Not just for a mother, and not for a middle-aged woman, but for anyone gender not withstanding, who is serving, giving icon status. You know how people use mom and mother as a compliment these days?

Susie Banikarim (40:12):

Yeah. They’ll be like, “Taylor Swift is mother.”

Jessica Bennett (40:14):

Yes.

Susie Banikarim (40:14):

And what they mean is, “She’s like an icon.”

Jessica Bennett (40:16):

Yes, she’s an icon. She is queen mother. It’s like another way of saying queen or giving a compliment, paying a compliment to someone. You often see it in comments on posts.

Susie Banikarim (40:25):

Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (40:25):

So MILF has just sort of slotted in there with that. So it’s like Margot Robbie is a MILF-

Susie Banikarim (40:32):

Wow.

Jessica Bennett (40:32):

… even though she doesn’t have children. Or Billie Eilish could be a MILF based on something interesting or cool that she said. Or Timothee Chalamet, maybe he’s even a MILF.

Susie Banikarim (40:44):

Okay, this is blowing my mind. I had no idea this was a thing.

Jessica Bennett (40:47):

Isn’t that so interesting? And then she was pointing me to these Twitter accounts. There’s one called archive milfs, and there’s one called archive dilfs. And from what I can tell they’re basically just long, long scrolls with many, many followers, daily content of DILFs. Which is hot guys, I guess?

Susie Banikarim (41:07):

Yeah. These are just pictures of hot people-

Jessica Bennett (41:09):

It’s just pictures.

Susie Banikarim (41:09):

… but we’re just calling them MILF-

Jessica Bennett (41:10):

It’s just pictures.

Susie Banikarim (41:10):

… and DILF.

Jessica Bennett (41:11):

And we don’t know if they have children. We don’t know what age they are. It’s just become maybe another term for a hot person. Or maybe not even hot, maybe just intellectually sexy.

Susie Banikarim (41:20):

Wow. Laurel Sutton would be so proud. We have reclaimed MILF.

Jessica Bennett (41:25):

Yeah. I actually think that’s a nice place to end it, that this term has in effect evolved from a sexual thing reserved for, I guess, moms or middle-aged women to something that’s just a compliment for anyone who’s really bringing it.

Susie Banikarim (41:42):

Yeah. I mean, look at us. We’ve really evolved as a culture, I guess.

Jessica Bennett (41:46):

Susie, you’re MILF.

Susie Banikarim (41:48):

Thank you so much, Jess. That means so much to me.

(41:53):

Jess, I want to tease what we’re talking about next week because it’s a fun one.

Jessica Bennett (41:57):

Ooh, do we finally get to talk about my boyfriend, Jordan Catalano?

Susie Banikarim (42:01):

Yes. We do get to talk about Jordan Catalano-

Jessica Bennett (42:03):

Yes!

Susie Banikarim (42:03):

… who was everyone’s boyfriend in the ’90s. And we also get to talk about a lot of other subjects our listeners suggested.

Jessica Bennett (42:10):

Can’t wait.

Susie Banikarim (42:15):

This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a pop culture moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (42:29):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram, which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (42:39):

You can also find us on Instagram @jessicabennett and @susiebnyc. Also, check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This Is 18.

Jessica Bennett (42:47):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeartPodcasts and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Emily Marinoff is our producer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (43:02):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Our mixing engineer is Amanda Rose Smith. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim…

Jessica Bennett (43:19):

And Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more check out inretropod.com. See you next week.

LEARN MORE ABOUT IN RETROSPECT

In Retrospect - Episode 26

EPISODE 26 – WHEN IS A WOMAN ‘PAST HER PRIME’?

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Susie Banikarim (00:04):

We are not just talking about physical aging, right? We’re not talking about just how your face looks. We’re talking about how you communicate or indicate that you are not past your prime. I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (00:19):

And I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (00:20):

And this is In Retrospect where each week we revisit a cultural moment that shaped us.

Jessica Bennett (00:25):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Susie Banikarim (00:27):

Usually we zero in on a particular moment from the past, but today we want to talk about what happens when the past catches up with you and your face. So Jess, today I want to talk about something that I feel like is coming up a lot these days when you and I talk just more often when we’re on the phone late at night.

Jessica Bennett (00:46):

When you forcibly call me on the phone in a verbal assault of my millennial-ness.

Susie Banikarim (00:52):

Listen, first of all, I know you like talking to me. Stop pretending like you hate it.

Jessica Bennett (00:56):

Can it be said in a text message?

Susie Banikarim (01:00):

I know you would always prefer to be texting.

Jessica Bennett (01:02):

I’m in a studio with you all day long.

Susie Banikarim (01:04):

Okay, listen, stop pretending like you don’t love me and you don’t want to talk to me all the time. No, I mean, I get it. Jess really does hate phone calls. I insist on them because I’m the older one.

Jessica Bennett (01:11):

Gen X.

Susie Banikarim (01:12):

But also it takes forever to type things out. So now I’ve just resorted to voice memos with you.

Jessica Bennett (01:17):

Actually that I think is a good compromise.

Susie Banikarim (01:19):

That’s a good compromise. Okay, so we’ve settled on voice memos for us, but I think that actually gets to this idea of aging. I’m a little bit older than you, so I definitely have some habits that are slightly different. And I think one interesting thing is that my relationship to aging is changing because of this podcast in some ways. We are taking a lot of pictures, we are doing a lot more public appearances, and I think I have started to examine my face for signs of aging in a way that I did not use to do or just really hadn’t thought about.

Jessica Bennett (01:55):

Well, also because traditionally you’ve been running things behind the scenes.

Susie Banikarim (01:59):

Yeah, I’ve been very invisible and I think that’s been very deliberate for me. I never wanted to be on camera. And so it’s been a bit of a weird experience. And I think you and I’ve talked about this a lot. I got Botox for the first time recently.

Jessica Bennett (02:13):

Congratulations.

Susie Banikarim (02:14):

Thank you. I just really-

Jessica Bennett (02:16):

Baby’s first Botox.

Susie Banikarim (02:17):

Yeah, baby’s first Botox. I was really kind of afraid of it and it was totally fine, but that experience also made me more self-conscious in a way, because I don’t know about you, but the woman who does buy Botox, she requires you to take a picture of your face, a closeup without makeup and send it to her. And then when you do the Botox, she takes pictures, and then in a month you take more pictures to show the progress.

Jessica Bennett (02:39):

So you’re just constantly examining?

Susie Banikarim (02:41):

Yeah, you’re just looking at your face. So I feel like now I’m slathering more things on my face. I am fighting this thing that I didn’t know I needed to fight. I’m trying to kind of readjust that thinking back to a normal way of experiencing my face, which is, “It’s fine. Nobody cares if I have a few wrinkles.” But a thing that made me think about this also is there’s this recent Vogue cover where the supermodels of the 90s, this group of women who were just hugely famous during our childhood graced the cover, and they released a documentary on Apple Plus about their fame and how they experienced that as a group. And the supermodels I’m talking about are of course, Cindy Crawford, Christie Turlington, now known as Christie Burns, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista. Do you have-

Jessica Bennett (03:32):

Who are all in their 50s now?

Susie Banikarim (03:33):

Who are all in their 50s now. Do you have a memory of the supermodel era in the 90s?

Jessica Bennett (03:38):

Yeah. I mean, of course I remember Cindy Crawford in those Pepsi ads, and I remember that George Michael music video that they were all in that I think you have a lot to say about. But wasn’t the whole thing with this cover that they were… in their 50s now they were reflecting back on their careers, and yet they looked, they appeared utterly ageless on that cover?

Susie Banikarim (04:02):

Yeah. There’s a little bit of a distinction between how they look on this Vogue cover and the documentary that presumably this cover is-

Jessica Bennett (04:08):

Is promoting.

Susie Banikarim (04:09):

Is promoting. In the documentary, they’re seen much more just going about their business. But it is interesting that there was a bit of a backlash to the cover because they had been so airbrushed as is Vogue’s want to do. And so there was the sense of, “Why weren’t they embracing their more natural beauty?” But I think that’s a really high expectation. I think it expects a lot of women to just embrace aging when society is so clear that aging as a woman is seen as a negative. These women all became really famous when they were teenagers except for Cindy Crawford who was 20, I think, when she really arrived on the New York modeling scene. And even that is interesting to me. I really have a clear recollection of them. I can close my eyes and see each of them in their most famous moments. And Cindy Crawford especially, I just loved Cindy Crawford.

(05:09):

I did not think of them as young. I mean, I think that’s interesting. They were so larger than life, they seemed… To me, I would’ve told you they were in their 30s, which is crazy. No models start in their 30s, but I was a teenager so to me, they seemed impossibly sophisticated and cool. And so these are women who were children when they were revered and have to varying degrees embraced getting older. But it’s a lot to ask of them to just show up on Vogue bare face. They’re not going to do that, I think, unless there are extraordinary circumstances. And one thing that occurs to me when I look at this cover is that actually the way we think about magazine covers has changed. When we were growing up, these were the women who were on fashion magazines. They were extremely young, but sometime in the late 90s, fashion magazines very deliberately moved towards putting celebrities on the cover instead of models, they just found that it sold more magazines. We do actually see older women on covers now just much more regularly. We’re just exposed to more beauty. That’s not 20.

(06:21):

The cover right before this one was Angelina Jolie, who is 48. So it’s not such a big deal to have women in their 50s on the cover of a magazine anymore. There was a time when that would’ve been just wild.

Jessica Bennett (06:31):

But it’s like, “Do they look 50?”

Susie Banikarim (06:35):

Well, that’s the interesting thing in general is what we consider looking 50 and what 50 looks like now, I feel like especially celebrities of 50 is so different. If you think about what J-Lo looks like, that is not what I in my mind as a teenager would’ve pictured a woman in her 40s or 50s looking like, right? Because there’s so much you can do now to fight the aging process. There’s so much that’s expected of you.

Jessica Bennett (07:01):

I mean, Botox just celebrated its 20th anniversary. So for 20 years now, people have been getting Botox and all of the different procedures have only progressed and become more sophisticated since then. But didn’t Linda Evangelista actually have a terrible plastic surgery experience? Did she talk about that in the cover story at all?

Susie Banikarim (07:24):

She did talk about it herself, I don’t think… but they did touch on it because it’s become sort of a big story that’s surrounded her in the last couple of years. She had done this procedure called CoolSculpting, and she alleges that as a result of that procedure, she was in her own words disfigured by it. And where she was trying to remove fat, which is what CoolSculpting does, it’s non-invasive removal of fat, she’d actually developed hard pockets of fat, which does sound terrible. I would be really traumatized by that too. And she did settle a lawsuit against the company. I don’t know what the company admitted or didn’t admit to, but it certainly is an example of the fact that there are so many procedures that are going on now that just haven’t been around that long. There are consequences to this. I think Botox might be 20 years old, but it’s certainly really in the last 10 years that it’s become just very common to use fillers and things that freeze your face.

(08:23):

That just didn’t exist in the cultural space in the same way it does now. I think partially because of the Kardashians, they do so much to themselves and it’s become so normalized, and I think influencers do so much to themselves.

Jessica Bennett (08:37):

Well, plastic surgery used to be something that you hid, and now it is something that you talk about.

Susie Banikarim (08:42):

Well, in some cases you brag about. I think a certain kind of influencer wants to be like, “I am rich or famous enough to need this.” So there’s a different relationship to plastic surgery. And certainly I think we just are more aware that that is a common tool that everyone uses or a lot of people use. I shouldn’t say everyone, because I think outside of New York and LA, maybe it’s not quite as common. But here, I was really shocked when I started to think about getting Botox to find that every woman I knew had essentially done it already, and I was the last of my friends.

Jessica Bennett (09:30):

But back to this cover for a second, did they actually talk about the aging process or that’s not what it’s about? It just that became the backlash to it?

Susie Banikarim (09:39):

Yeah, so it’s not really what it’s about, actually. The documentary itself is really about retelling their stories. These four women became incredibly close. They represented a time in modeling that doesn’t exist anymore, this era of the supermodel. And this was a very nineties cultural phenomenon. They became celebrities in their own right.

Jessica Bennett (10:00):

They were all in that George Michael music video, right?

Susie Banikarim (10:04):

Yeah. In some ways, I think that video really cemented their fame and is a sort of a bookend. One of the bookends to the beginning of the height of their fame.

Jessica Bennett (10:15):

The song Freedom.

Susie Banikarim (10:16):

The song Freedom. This is this very famous George Michael video, which he doesn’t appear in because he’s starting to have a relationship with fame that’s complicated. For those who don’t know, George Michael was gay and not out of the closet. So he talked about how he wanted to start deconstructing his image as a sex symbol, but his music really was very sexy. He literally had a song called I Want Your Sex. To replace himself, he asks these four models to be in the video, and the models are all lip-syncing to his song, and they’re in various states of undress. And this video played all the time. It was a huge hit for MTV, and it became such a huge thing that a year later, Versace ended his fashion show, the finale look was these four women coming out to the song Freedom. And that is in many ways, seen as the moment that put supermodels on the map.

(11:12):

So this cover is really about that, but I just naturally assumed… I mean, these are four women in their 50s who made their living off of beauty standards. I assumed there just would be a lot of conversation about it. And Linda Evangelista does talk about it a little bit, but basically, she’s the only one in the Vogue piece at least. And she says, “I don’t mind aging. It’s a sign that we’re growing and I want to grow old, and I want to stick around.” And that’s obviously how we all feel. I’m sure it’s better to age than not age, the alternative isn’t great. But I think as women, there’s just a lot of evidence that aging is not something that helps your career or helps how you’re seen by the world. You just lose cultural currency in our world.

Jessica Bennett (12:05):

Everything you’re seeing here is really reminding me of a thing that happened last year involving former CNN host Don Lemon, who I believe this contributed in part to his firing, or at least allegedly so, in which he noted that a woman of a certain age is “past her prime.”

Susie Banikarim (12:25):

He was talking about Nikki Haley, who by the way, is 51 not past her prime by any definition I would use. Apparently it’s a definition Don Lemon would use. We’ll play it so you can hear it for yourself.

Clips (12:38):

Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime, sorry. When a woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s-

(12:44):

[inaudible 00:12:46].

(12:45):

That’s not according to me.

(12:46):

Prime for what?

(12:48):

It depends. It’s just prime, if you look it up. If you Google, when is a woman in her prime, it’ll say “20s, 30s, and 40s.” I don’t necessarily-

(12:55):

So I got another decade.

(12:55):

Not saying I agree with that. So I think she has to be careful about saying that politicians aren’t in their prime [inaudible 00:13:03].

(13:02):

I think we need to qualify. Are you talking about prime for child caring or are you talking about-

Susie Banikarim (13:07):

And this is so awkward because he’s talking to Poppy Harlow who is in her 40s. It is crazy that he’s using the definition of childbearing years for being president. I mean, he was suspended for this and he did apologize for it. But I think this really speaks to how men think about women in a lot of ways.

Jessica Bennett (13:28):

Well, by the way, Don Lemon is 57. I think what you’re getting at is this is not just among men, but there is a belief. There’s a societal belief, and it is backed up by research and data and economics and everything else that when women age, they somehow lose their cachet, they lose their currency, they’re past their prime, they become old hags. And when managed, they are distinguished and wise. And for politics, you literally can’t run for office until you’re 35 years old. So actually Nikki Haley, for what it’s worth, is literally in her political prime, whatever you think of her.

Susie Banikarim (14:08):

And what’s interesting is that what Don Lemon is responding to, the reason he says this about Nikki Haley is because she has made a comment about Joe Biden being too old to be president. She’s essentially saying that she should be the candidate because both Biden and Trump are too old and they’re in their 80s. The idea that you would compare a woman who’s 51 to men in their 80s and be like, “It’s the same, so she shouldn’t comment on their age,” that is a wild reach on his part.

Jessica Bennett (14:37):

Well, what you’re getting at and what this clip and this exchange and all of it crystallizes is really an age-old belief that a woman can be past her prime and that there’s this enduring double standard when it comes to women and age.

Susie Banikarim (14:53):

Actually, what’s so interesting is when I was doing research for this, I was looking up the supermodel documentary, and I came across this documentary from 2012 actually, that had aired on HBO, that was literally about supermodels in aging. It’s what I thought this was. And there’s this wild quote in the New York Times piece about it from Sheila Nevins, who at the time was running HBO documentary films, and she’s promoting the film. So she obviously thinks these women are interesting and have value, but what she says when she’s describing the film is, “Beautiful women getting older, women who decay, that’s always intriguing.” The decay is so wild in this context to me.

Jessica Bennett (15:37):

I mean, I’m sure she’d probably use that word for men too. Well, you’re talking about super models. I guess in a way, you are… I mean, you’re decaying towards death but-

Susie Banikarim (15:48):

Also, I don’t know why that word is so vivid to me. I would never describe humans as decaying.

Jessica Bennett (15:53):

It’s jarring.

Susie Banikarim (15:54):

It evokes a picture of a mummy in my mind. And I think that is so ingrained in us. I’m sure she wasn’t saying this to be insulting. She goes on to say, “They are their own instruments. What do you do when you’re a Stradivarius that’s losing your strings?” She’s essentially saying these supermodels have lost their tools when they become older.

Jessica Bennett (16:13):

Right. Which I mean-

Susie Banikarim (16:15):

That’s fair given how people feel about older women.

Jessica Bennett (16:18):

And I mean, honestly, you probably don’t even need me to give these statistics because maybe it’s so known at this point that ageism exists and that there is a double standard for women. But I’ve actually done a lot of writing on this subject. And a few years ago when I was at Newsweek, we actually conducted this major survey looking at hiring managers and ageism in the workplace. And this now, I think is probably not so surprising, but 84% of managers said that they’d hesitate and that other employers would hesitate in hiring someone who is a visibly older candidate. This is very real.

Susie Banikarim (16:53):

That feels very real. As a woman, I know that it is going to be harder for me to get jobs the older I get. That’s how I feel about it, certainly.

Jessica Bennett (17:02):

And it’s not how you feel. That’s literally a fact.

Susie Banikarim (17:04):

I mean, fair. It is literally a fact.

Jessica Bennett (17:05):

I can cite the studies.

Susie Banikarim (17:07):

I mean, I think ageism exists across the board, but especially for women. And what we do is a job that requires some access to cultural currency, and women are seen as having less access to that as they get older. I run digital newsrooms. I’m not going to be seen as being able to think of the right stories or have a sense of the right cultural moments, which I think is absolute bullshit, but something I’m very aware of the older I get. And I’ve become more resistant to telling people my age, actually, I thought I would become more willing as I got older, because when I was younger, it was always like, “You’re too young. You look too young for this job.” I remember getting a lot of feedback that I like, “Are you old enough?” Whatever.

Jessica Bennett (17:51):

Well, that’s actually a really good point. I think what you’re describing and being a leader, especially in newsrooms as you age, where you’re expected to know what the kids are doing, you can be penalized. And I think that’s probably true for anyone. But as women, you spend the first 10 years of your career trying to convince everyone that you’re not too young to be experienced or have wisdom at all. And then there’s this maybe couple year blip when you’re okay, and then suddenly you’re too old.

Susie Banikarim (18:22):

It’s instant. One night you’re one thing, the next night you’re the other.

Jessica Bennett (18:25):

I don’t think that that is true, or to the same extent for most men.

Susie Banikarim (18:30):

I mean, definitely not, because most of the newsrooms I’ve worked in have had older men in charge, and no one asks if Marty Baron knows what the kids are doing. Do you know what I mean? Everyone just assumes that he’s a man who’s earned his position, and he knows how to hire people who know what the kids are doing. But there’s just more of an expectation of women that you’re supposed to be all the things. And if you really want to stay relevant, you better look like you are not that old.

Jessica Bennett (19:12):

The other thing that is confusing about all of this is that nobody looks their age anymore. What even is that? Do you remember in 2020 when J-Lo and Shakira did the halftime show at the Super Bowl?

Susie Banikarim (19:26):

Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (19:26):

And they were in their leotards or whatever, J-Lo was 50 at the time, Shakira was 43 and they were dancing, and they were singing, and they did this amazing act, and people were like, “Oh my God, they’re incredible. They have more stamina and athleticism than some of the guys on the field,” which yes, they absolutely did. And power to them snaps to that.

Susie Banikarim (19:46):

Snaps to that.

Jessica Bennett (19:47):

But I remember looking at J-Lo and thinking, “Is that what 50 looks like?”

Susie Banikarim (19:53):

I mean, how many people can look like J-Lo? She looks amazing.

Jessica Bennett (19:55):

And so I don’t know that too. So, on the one hand you have a 50-year-old who shows no visible signs of aging. I mean, maybe if you were to see her face to face, she would, but certainly not in any of the public platforms. And then you have Pamela Anderson. This is another semi recent example where she was at Fashion Week in Paris, and she went totally makeup free. Amazing. She’s in her 50s. She looked incredible. She looked basically her age, and everyone’s saying like, “Oh my God, this is a rebellion. This is so brave.” And you kind of want to be like, “Is that really brave? Is that what bravery is?” And I get it on one hand-

Susie Banikarim (20:35):

I mean, Malala is brave.

Jessica Bennett (20:37):

Right. I guess, it is sort of brave to go out without a made up face when you’re a person whose appearance has been the entirety of your career and you’re a woman. But by the same token, is that what we call bravery now? I can think of a few things that are a little bit more, actually. This is my whole thing about linguistic play. Can we not call it brave if it’s not actually?

Susie Banikarim (20:58):

It’s actually interesting, right? Because I just said, when you talked about J-Lo, J-Lo looks amazing, but I also think Pam Anderson looks amazing. And one of those women looks her age. I think Pam Anderson has just embraced a more natural approach to aging. And I love that.

Jessica Bennett (21:11):

Well, by the way, for people listening who may not have seen her recently, she really does go makeup free. She hasn’t done any plastic surgery in a long time, but of course, the early years of her career, she admitted openly that she did tons of plastic surgery. I mean, that too, in and of itself is an irony. It’s like, “So now we’re healing the person who in fact created the unrealistic beauty standards as being so brave for now tearing them down.”?

Susie Banikarim (21:39):

And I want to be clear, I have no judgment actually about plastic surgery. I obviously just admitted that I got Botox, and if I want to do some nips and tuck, I’m not going to feel any kind of way about that. The truth is, we live in a society that’s going to judge me based on how I look, and if I have to do things to feel more comfortable or confident, I don’t feel any shame about that-

Jessica Bennett (21:57):

Or better your career?

Susie Banikarim (21:57):

Or better my career.

Jessica Bennett (21:58):

I mean, that’s the screwed up part about it. Anyway, carry on.

Susie Banikarim (22:01):

But I don’t feel shame about that, and I don’t shame anyone else for it. But there’s one person who I do sort of feel a little bit conflicted about this on because I love her so much, which is Madonna. To me, Madonna is the icon of the 80s and 90s. I just worshiped Madonna when I was a kid, and I felt like she broke so many boundaries. She really showed us that you could be a woman who owned her sexuality, who owned her ambition, who was willing to be entirely herself and didn’t feel all this pressure to conform. But the way her plastic surgery looks now, and maybe this is unfair because it’s just like, “I don’t like what she’s chosen to do.” J-Lo looks good to me, so I accept the choices she’s made.

(22:50):

But there was this recent furor last year about Madonna at the Grammys, she’s just gotten a lot of filler, and her face looks really puffy. She just isn’t recognizable physically. She doesn’t look like herself, and not in a way that’s flattering, unfortunately. And she’s talked about how hard it was to hear that feedback. I mean, people really openly talked about her.

Jessica Bennett (23:14):

So the thing that confuses me is, if you’ve seen Madonna in the last few years, this is what she looks like. So why is everyone suddenly now upset? But people were up in arms. Everyone was criticizing her. It was in every single tabloid, it was all over the internet. And I don’t know, we live in a culture that makes women do this, and then you’re going to pounce on her for doing it?

Susie Banikarim (23:35):

I mean, and she’s 64, so she is doing what she feels she needs to do to continue to stay in the spotlight. And I do think social media makes it so that she must also be looking at her face all the time. She has to do Instagram, she has to do all these things that maybe wouldn’t have put as much pressure on her before.

Jessica Bennett (23:51):

In my fantasy of Madonna, because I also love her and think she’s incredible. She was doing this as a fuck you to everyone else. She was like, “Yeah, this is what I look like. You might not like it. This is what women have to do. I’m going to put it in your face.”

Susie Banikarim (24:06):

She actually has said that. She responded to this by saying it was ageism and misogyny. And I think she said something like, “I look forward to many more years of subversive behavior, pushing boundaries.” But I think this gets back to what you were saying about Pam, what feels like more subversive behavior in this world it’s actually allowing yourself to age. And so that is a little bit of the conflict. It’s like, “I’m not at all surprised that Madonna feels pressured to look young but I wish that she felt about it the same way she felt about a lot of other things in her career, which is, ‘fuck the standards everyone else is setting. I’m going to be the person I choose to be.'” And she’s saying that this is that. And so I want to take her at her word, but it is interesting that it brings up something for me. I feel a certain way about the choices she’s making.

Jessica Bennett (24:51):

And clearly so many other people do too.

Susie Banikarim (24:52):

And so many other people do.

Jessica Bennett (24:54):

I mean, it’s easy to say we wish that she could age naturally and still be doing what she does. But would the culture let her, would music executives let her, would the Grammys let her? I don’t know.

Susie Banikarim (25:07):

Well, I mean, Pam Anderson’s a great example, right? She is doing that and it’s working for her. She’s actually getting-

Jessica Bennett (25:12):

Right, but she’s not in a show. She’s attending fashion week of her own accord without a stylist just as a private citizen.

Susie Banikarim (25:20):

That’s true. I mean, it’s really hard to know what you can and can’t get away with.

Jessica Bennett (25:26):

And we should also mention too, by the way… So Botox has been around for years. In general, all of these procedures have increased, but they’ve increased more for men than they have for women. I’m not saying that more men are doing them than women now, but I believe the data would show that the increase has been higher for men because it’s now becoming normalized for men to do it too.

Susie Banikarim (25:46):

Oh, a hundred percent. I mean, I think it’s so interesting. I actually remember the first time I realized men in the spotlight got plastic surgery. I was working with a very well-known woman in the public eye.

Jessica Bennett (26:00):

You can’t say that. You have to tell us.

Susie Banikarim (26:00):

I mean, I just won’t out her for this. And we were watching just randomly an Oprah show. It was just on in the background in the newsroom, and she looked up and it was Tom Cruise being interviewed by Oprah, not the famous Tom Cruise, a previous Tom Cruise appearance.

Jessica Bennett (26:17):

Not the jumping on the couch-

Susie Banikarim (26:18):

Not the jumping on the couch. And she said to me, “Wow, his work is so good. I wonder who he’s using.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” I did not realize that Tom Cruise in his 40s was getting work done. To me, that was a real revelation. And as I was in the TV business longer, I realized a lot of male anchors were getting plastic surgery. But I think it used to be something that men in the public eye did and hid. But now we’re pretty aware of the fact that everyone knows that Joe Biden is getting facelifts and using Botox. We just expect it now.

Jessica Bennett (26:55):

Do we know?

Susie Banikarim (26:56):

I don’t know how you could not know it. I mean, the man is 80 with the skin of a 50-year-old man.

Jessica Bennett (27:01):

Is it?

Susie Banikarim (27:02):

I mean, have you looked at a picture of him?

Jessica Bennett (27:03):

No. I mean, I have.

Susie Banikarim (27:03):

Google a picture of Joe Biden right now.

Jessica Bennett (27:06):

His skin looks… Anyway, I of course would not be surprised.

Susie Banikarim (27:11):

Well, and I think Joe Biden has to, right? Because if he looked truly 80-

Jessica Bennett (27:14):

Well, especially if the major criticism against him in this moment is that he’s too old.

Susie Banikarim (27:20):

And then you look at someone like Nancy Pelosi. Nancy Pelosi has obviously also had a lot of work done to maintain the appearance of youth to some degree. She doesn’t look like she’s 30, but she certainly looks younger than her years. Because I think just being in the public eye forces you to look a certain way. And we have a different expectation of what ages are supposed to look like now because the needle has moved so much. We don’t actually know what 80 is really supposed to look like.

Jessica Bennett (27:49):

Well, that’s the thing. I mean, look, this is all really complex. Even Gloria Steinem has admitted to having some work done. So how are you supposed to think about it? It would be great if everyone aged naturally and we could all just look like our actual normal selves. But we’re too far past that at this point. When I was reading up on this subject a little bit and trying to remind myself what I had written in the past, I was rereading this essay that Deborah Spar, who used to be the president of Barnard, where you went to college.

Susie Banikarim (28:18):

I’m familiar with Deborah Spar.

Jessica Bennett (28:19):

Wrote for the New York Times. And she was talking about the feminist conundrum of getting work done and how she and her peers had done everything right. They had worked their way up in their careers. They had found partners who were going to change the diapers and support them. They put off their fertility so that they could establish their careers in time, and then they hit a certain point and suddenly they’re all getting work done, but then lying about it or trying to hide it. And I think that’s an enduring thing. I mean, that was written I think in 2016, and I think people are talking more openly about it now. But I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know what the solution is. I know that for me, my job, which is in many ways, my livelihood, is very intimately connected with the ability to understand what’s happening in the culture. And oftentimes the people that are creating the most interesting culture are young people. And so you have to know about that.

(29:20):

So is getting a bunch of work done to look younger going to do that for me? No. But we’re living in this interesting period, I think now where the internet has allowed people of every age to consume the same things. On some level, it’s we’re listening to Olivia Rodrigo and crying in the shower, while doing so. And the teenagers that I document in my reporting, or my students in the class I teach are all wearing the clothes that I literally wore when I was getting my first period at age 13 at Washington Middle School in Seattle. And so there’s this weird flattening of culture that’s occurring, and it’s like, “Who’s young? Who’s old? How do we tell? I don’t look my age, neither does anyone else. Young people are doing makeup tutorials on TikTok that make them look so old.”

Susie Banikarim (30:12):

People are dying their hair gray now as a fashion trend, which I mean, I guess that’s not now that’s been around for a couple of years. But this gets to something I think that’s interesting, which is we’re not just talking about physical aging. We’re not talking about just how your face looks. We’re talking about how you communicate or indicate that you are not past your prime.

Jessica Bennett (30:34):

I mean, yes, that is. And how do you communicate that?

Susie Banikarim (30:37):

Well, you had this interesting piece in the Times about what it feels like to no longer be the group that everyone is quoting, right? You’re a millennial. And I think that that’s also interesting that there is this thing that happens as you get older, which is that you start to feel like you’re not as relevant to the conversation because the conversation’s no longer directed towards you.

Jessica Bennett (30:57):

Right. I mean, I entered my career at a time when everyone was desperate to figure out millennials. It was every headline was asking about millennials. People were always coming to me at my various jobs where I was an intern or whatever, being like, “So what are the kids doing?” And there was a full year after I moved to New York after college where I was working in a bar and I was taking market research surveys online where the only requirement was that I had to be a millennial, and I would just answer questions about whatever random thing. They just valued my opinion as a millennial so much. And so you start to feel like the center of the generational universe, and you get used to that. I think I did get used to that a little bit. I was the cool one. I was the one that was telling people what was happening on the internet. I started my career at a time when people didn’t care about the web, but they simultaneously knew that they needed to understand it, and how were they going to understand it? They were going to ask me.

Susie Banikarim (31:59):

I love that you just referred to it as a web. I mean, I think you started at a time when we called it the web, right? We don’t call it that anymore. But truly, I think it’s like you’ve been replaced by Gen Z, which is now the age group that advertisers are courting and everyone wants to understand. And so I think this is just a natural progression, it is time to pass on the baton in some ways. But also, there is one thing I came across in the research that I’ve actually been trying to really absorb for myself, which is that I told you I found that older supermodel movie from 2012, and in it, Carol Alt, who was also a very famous model in her time, said something that I think is true and that it’s easy to forget, which is, she said, “Aging isn’t necessarily bad.” And this was her quote, “There comes a point at which you are a precious commodity because there is nobody else like you.” And I think that’s an important thing that we should all really try and take to heart.

(32:57):

There’s value in aging, and we forget that a lot in this particular society, but it’s real. And I’m not looking to be 20 again, for sure.

Jessica Bennett (33:14):

Susie, I want to quickly tease our next episode, which actually pairs nicely with this idea of aging.

Susie Banikarim (33:19):

Ooh, is it about Botox?

Jessica Bennett (33:21):

It’s not about Botox. It’s about American Pie, which can you believe is 25 years old this year?

Susie Banikarim (33:27):

Oh, no.

Jessica Bennett (33:28):

And it’s also about how that movie popularized the Milf.

Susie Banikarim (33:31):

This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a pop culture moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (33:50):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram, which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (34:00):

You can also find us on Instagram @jessicabennett and @susiebnyc. Also, check out Jessica’s books Feminist Fight Club, and This is 18.

Jessica Bennett (34:09):

In Retrospect, is a production of iHeart Podcasts and the media. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Emily Marinoff is our producer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (34:24):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Our mixing engineer is Amanda Rose Smith. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (34:41):

And Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.

LEARN MORE ABOUT IN RETROSPECT

In Retrospect - Episode 25

EPISODE 25 – WHAT ‘THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA’ TAUGHT US ABOUT AMBITION

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Susie Banikarim (00:01):

There’s a scene at the end of The Devil Wears Prada, where the character, Miranda Priestly, a famed and famously demanding fashion editor, gives her young assistant, Andy, a rare compliment.

Clips (00:12):

I see a great deal of myself in you.

Susie Banikarim (00:14):

This comment comes after a turning point in the movie, where Miranda has just saved her own career by brutally betraying someone who has been enormously loyal to her. So Andy is horrified by this comparison, and she rejects it. She says she’s not sure that she wants to be like Miranda.

Clips (00:33):

I mean, what if I don’t want to live the way you live?

(00:36):

Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Andrea. Everybody wants this. Everybody wants to be us.

Susie Banikarim (00:45):

But does everybody want the glamorous, punishing life at the center of this story? That’s the central question of the movie and this episode. I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (00:58):

And I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (00:59):

And this is In Retrospect where each week, we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

Jessica Bennett (01:05):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Susie Banikarim (01:07):

Today, we’re talking about The Devil Wears Prada and the way it depicts women’s ambition. But we’re also talking about how a cautionary tale about sacrificing everything for your job ended up glamorizing exactly that. Jess, as we’ve said, we’re talking about the Devil Wears Prada today, a movie starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway and this fraught relationship they have. Anne Hathaway is a recent college grad. It’s her first job, and Meryl Streep plays her famous and powerful boss. And this is a circumstance you and I are somewhat familiar with in lots of different variations.

Jessica Bennett (01:47):

No, no comment. No comment. Not at all.

Susie Banikarim (01:49):

Exactly. Yeah. We’ve both worked for some famous and powerful women, some not so famous, but certainly complicated women, is how I would describe a lot of them. I think that’s partially why I feel so connected to the movie, and it is a movie I have seen countless times. It came out in 2006, and I honestly can’t tell you when I first saw it. I don’t remember if I saw it in the theater, but have you seen the movie? Do you remember what you thought about it or what you’ve thought about it over the years?

Jessica Bennett (02:19):

I mean, I of course saw it, and I think it came out at a time when I had just moved to New York and had dreams of becoming a journalist. So I was very interested from that perspective. Obviously, it’s not that true to life, but it’s really fun. Though, I forgot a lot of the details, so can you give me the Cliff Notes version?

Susie Banikarim (02:39):

Yeah, I think the more recent version is Spark Notes, but same thing, I will give you a little summary of the movie. So Andy, who I said is played by Anne Hathaway, has moved to New York right after college to pursue a career in journalism. She was the editor-in-chief of her college paper. She has this dream of working at The New Yorker or someplace serious like that.

Jessica Bennett (03:02):

Of course, this is what all my students want to do also.

Susie Banikarim (03:04):

So Andy goes to interview at a big publishing company thinking she’s going to get a job at some serious place, but randomly, the HR person tells her there’s availability to be the second assistant to Miranda Priestly, who is the editor-in-chief of Runway magazine, which is a fashion magazine. That character is played by Meryl Streep and is widely understood to be a very thinly veiled depiction of Anna Wintour, who is the famed longtime editor of Vogue magazine. So despite this amazing opportunity, Andy knows nothing about fashion or fashion magazines. She gets the job because she has this moment while she’s standing in Miranda Priestly’s office where she pitches herself as hardworking and smart, and Miranda decides to give her the job.

Jessica Bennett (03:56):

So we all know Miranda is just brutal as a boss, but paint us a little bit of a picture.

Susie Banikarim (04:00):

She’s pretty terrible. She’s cold and demanding, and she makes really unreasonable requests that are essentially impossible. At one point, she demands that Andy find a flight for her during a literal hurricane, and it’s like, why can’t you get me out of here? And then there’s another example where she demands that Andy get her the unpublished manuscript of the next Harry Potter book for her daughters, and Andy actually achieves that one. But Andy is determined to survive this job for at least a year because everyone keeps telling her that a million girls would kill for this job and that if she can just stick it out and succeed, that Miranda will be able to help her get those serious jobs she really wants.

Jessica Bennett (04:43):

Which is not dissimilar from what these types of bosses actually do promise in real life.

Susie Banikarim (04:48):

No, I mean it’s exactly what these bosses do promise. So initially she fumbles and she doesn’t really hide her disdain for fashion. There’s all these moments where they’re doing fittings and she’s kind of making a face or snickering, and that is very much noted by Miranda who finds it super annoying. And then there’s this first assistant played by Emily Blunt. So Andy is the second assistant. Miranda has two assistants, and that’s a seniority thing. The first assistant is more senior than the second assistant, and Emily Blunt is just hilarious in this. She steals a lot of the scenes and she just cannot understand Andy. She doesn’t think she’s deserving of the job, she doesn’t understand her fashion. She’s just kind of like, Miranda’s decided to hire you, but I’m just putting up with you essentially.

Clips (05:35):

Oh, I’m sorry. Do you have some prior commitment, some hideous skirt convention you have to go to?

Susie Banikarim (05:40):

But one of the other fashion editors played by Stanley Tucci takes Andy under his wing and she goes from being this unfashionable rube to hot and stylish.

Jessica Bennett (05:49):

Of course. Could have predicted that.

Susie Banikarim (05:51):

And in the process, she becomes seduced by the environment and this desire to please Miranda. So that is the context of the movie, and that is where we are when we get to this scene that we played at the top of the episode.

Jessica Bennett (06:04):

Yeah. Okay. So the scene. What drew you to this scene in particular?

Susie Banikarim (06:07):

Well, I love the scene. I think I always have, but over time I’ve become kind of more drawn to it because it really encapsulates for me the central tension in many women’s careers, in my career, in the careers I see of my friends. I think when you’re young, you do want this life. You want to be hugely successful, you want these big jobs, but you don’t really fully understand the sacrifices you’re going to make. You’re told that there will be sacrifices, but as you go through, you see what that really means for your life, and that is really complicated. So this dynamic, this tension between them is a reflection of, I think, something that we all struggle with internally, really.

Jessica Bennett (06:48):

And the scene begins where this tension is playing out.

Susie Banikarim (06:51):

So the scene comes at the end of the movie after Andy has gone through her transformation.

Jessica Bennett (06:56):

Her fashion transformation?

Susie Banikarim (06:58):

Yeah, her fashion transformation. Now she’s wearing amazing clothes and has a great haircut, and she does look, I will say, impeccable. And she has seemingly bought into this world and kind of in a Stockholm syndrome kind of way. You see that all of her relationships are in tatters. She keeps ditching her friends and family, and she and her boyfriend have just broken up because she’s so obsessed with her work.

Jessica Bennett (07:23):

Oh, that’s right. Because she’s obsessed with her work. I feel like that’s also another frequent plot line in these types of things. It’s like the boyfriend can’t handle how devoted to your career you are.

Susie Banikarim (07:30):

Yeah. Can’t handle it. And they’re in Paris for Fashion Week. And even coming on this trip to Paris is supposed to be an indication that Andy has lost her way because it is Emily the first assistant who is supposed to go on this trip. It is a huge deal to go to Paris Fashion Week. And Emily has been talking about it for months, and now Andy has gone instead because Miranda has taken a liking to her and has said to Andy, you can come to Paris instead, but you have to tell Emily.

Jessica Bennett (08:02):

Oh, right. She’s pitting them against each other.

Susie Banikarim (08:04):

And now in Paris, Andy has discovered that Miranda is about to be fired and replaced by a much younger European editor, and she’s desperately trying to get to Miranda to warn her. And then unbeknownst to Andy, Miranda has already been aware of the plan and has outmaneuvered the publisher by getting the younger editor another job. And it’s a particularly brutal move and moment in the movie because Miranda has saved herself by giving the job that had been promised to the character played by Stanley Tucci to this other editor to get her out of the way. And so Stanley Tucci, who is this really loyal deputy who’s worked for her for years, who, you see in an earlier scene, is so excited about this new role now is stuck still at Runway magazine with her. And now Andy and Miranda are in a car together. And Andy is reeling from this because she has seen all of this go down and Miranda acknowledges that she saw how hard Andy tried to warn her and was impressed by that. And then she says to her…

Clips (09:15):

I see a great deal of myself in you.

Susie Banikarim (09:18):

And obviously Miranda means this as a compliment, but you can see just by the reaction on Andy’s face that she does not hear it as a compliment. And she objects. She says, “but I would never do what you did, Miranda.” And Miranda reminds her that she already did…

Jessica Bennett (09:35):

She already has.

Susie Banikarim (09:35):

… to the other assistant she replaced to go on this trip.

Clips (09:38):

No, no. That was different. I didn’t have a choice.

(09:41):

Oh no, you chose. You chose to get ahead. You want this life, those choices are necessary.

(09:50):

But what if this isn’t what I want? I mean, what if I don’t want to live the way you live?

(09:57):

Don’t be ridiculous, Andrea. Everybody wants this. Everybody wants to be us.

Jessica Bennett (10:06):

It’s so funny because she truly can’t conceive a world in which people don’t want what she has and what she has to do to hold onto it.

Susie Banikarim (10:16):

Yes.

Jessica Bennett (10:16):

So yeah, it is a very poignant moment in that way, because Andy has realized that she’s doing the same thing.

Susie Banikarim (10:25):

Right. And just to finish this moment, when they arrive at the event they’re going to, Andy turns and leaves Miranda alone. And while she’s walking away, Miranda calls her and you see Andy look at her phone and it shows Miranda’s name, and Andy throws her phone into a nearby fountain.

Jessica Bennett (10:42):

That’s right.

Susie Banikarim (10:43):

So she’s like relinquished this life, and we don’t know how she gets back to New York. We don’t know anything else, but she has walked away in the middle of the most important week of Miranda Priestly’s year. And back in New York, we see Andy go to a job interview at a newspaper, the kind of serious publication she has said all along she wants to work at.

Jessica Bennett (11:01):

Right, she’s back in her dowdy clothes.

Susie Banikarim (11:05):

Although still with a much more fashionable touch, I will say. She still has a fabulous haircut. And so this editor who is interviewing tells her that he’s reached out to Miranda for a reference, and you see the look across Andy’s face. And he says he received a note back saying that Andy was the biggest disappointment, but he’d be an idiot not to hire her. And ultimately, that’s how we know this is a cautionary tale. Andy has made a deal with the devil, the devil in Prada. She’s lost her way. She’s disappointed her friends and family, but by the end, she’s seen the error of her ways she’s saved herself. And luckily for her, because it’s a fantasy, she’s reaped the benefits anyway. She’s now gotten this other job because Miranda has still given her her seal of approval, which it is a fantasy. So it is the fantasy we all have that boss who was terrible to us secretly thought we were amazing. That is the redemption we all want.

(12:07):

So obviously this movie is not high art. I don’t want to make it seem like we’re going into the ins and outs of this movie because I think it’s the best movie ever made, but it is the rare chick flick that isn’t centered on a man. It’s about a girl and her ambitions and figure out what she wants. The boyfriend storyline is a secondary plot point, and they don’t end up together. And the role of Miranda Priestly is not something we saw a lot in this way. A woman who is highly successful, unapologetic, fully in charge, and is really seen as a leader in this industry.

Jessica Bennett (12:44):

I mean, it reminds me of, like, there’s those movies about female ambition, in a way, from the eighties, I am thinking about Baby Boom and wasn’t there Working Girl?

Susie Banikarim (12:53):

Yes. Those are both movies I love, and they are both about women trying to make their way in their working lives. But in both those movies, the romance is still very central, and they do end up with a hot guy at the end, and that is seen as part of the happy ending. And here the happy ending is that she gets the job she wants, right? That’s a really big difference.

Jessica Bennett (13:16):

Did you relate to Andy in watching it at the time? I remember, yes, I too wanted to be a serious journalist, but I don’t know that I ever thought I would be capable of walking away in the same way she did.

Susie Banikarim (13:27):

I definitely didn’t relate to that. I mean, I felt like I had to do whatever it took to succeed, and I was willing to do that. I was not the girl who was going to throw her phone in the fountain. I had bills to pay and student loans and did what I had to.

Jessica Bennett (13:43):

Immigrant mentality probably, too.

Susie Banikarim (13:45):

Yeah, definitely immigrant mentality. I did not feel like I was in a position where I had a safety net, so there was no place to go.

Jessica Bennett (13:52):

I mean, I guess that’s the fantasy aspect of this movie is that most people are not in the position to throw their work phone into the fountain and just hope that you’re going to get another job.

Susie Banikarim (14:03):

And I actually, I went back to my LinkedIn, because I couldn’t remember where I was in my own career when this happened.

Jessica Bennett (14:08):

In 2006? Yeah.

Susie Banikarim (14:08):

So in 2006, I was working at ABC News. At that time, George Stephanopoulos was the host of This Week, which I think he still hosts sometimes. And I did have a very intense female boss who definitely had some Miranda Priestly-like demands.

Jessica Bennett (14:26):

Okay, so now you have to tell us what kind of demands those were.

Susie Banikarim (14:29):

One thing that seems very Miranda-like is that she needed her daily papers to be unwrinkled. So before she came in, her assistant would put her papers on her desk and she had to make sure she got only unwrinkled copies, which I’m not even sure how you guarantee that. I know she wasn’t ironing them, so that’s a very funny thing. She must have gone to the newsstand and selected…

Jessica Bennett (14:52):

Oh, unwrinkled copies of the papers. I thought you just meant papers in general. Oh, the newspaper.

Susie Banikarim (14:58):

The papers. Like the newspaper.

Jessica Bennett (14:59):

The newspaper. So she had to make sure she wasn’t getting the top one at the bodega. She had to dig deeper.

Susie Banikarim (15:03):

Yeah, she just had to make sure that whatever New York Times or New York Post she was picking up, they were pristine.

Jessica Bennett (15:09):

Hilarious.

Susie Banikarim (15:09):

And then we had a very intense rule that you would get in trouble for if you didn’t, when you sent an email, on the “to” line, the names had to be an order of seniority. If I sent an email to two people and one of them was junior, they had to be second on the chain, or…

Jessica Bennett (15:28):

I think that I do do that. I don’t demand other people do it…

Susie Banikarim (15:29):

I still do, too.

Jessica Bennett (15:33):

… but I think that I do do that because it just kind of makes logical sense. But I’m sure younger people where email was not their primary way of communicating or who came up on Slack, probably think that’s insane.

Susie Banikarim (15:44):

And I also do that still too, just because locked into my brain, I can’t get it out of my brain. But the other one that I think is particularly funny is if we had a cake in the office for someone’s birthday, the assistant had to make sure to hand out the pieces of cake in the order of seniority.

Jessica Bennett (16:01):

That’s so funny. So, true hierarchy to everything, very hierarchical.

Susie Banikarim (16:06):

It was this kind of obsession with order. Things had to be a very specific way, which just were not chill at all.

Jessica Bennett (16:14):

I will say though, that with so many of these stories, it’s like there are plenty of male bosses that do this kind of shit too. Maybe not with the cake. Maybe it’s like the menu just playing out in different ways, but we don’t necessarily call them demanding in the same way we just call them men.

Susie Banikarim (16:31):

Well, I will tell you a great story I know like this about a male boss at ABC is, I have a friend who was an assistant to an executive producer, and he used to make her follow him to the bathroom, and he would continue to shout notes at her through the door, and she’d have to take notes while he was peeing, which is disgusting. But yeah, I don’t remember anyone ever calling that guy a diva. And to be clear, this is a woman who I enjoyed working for enough that I went to work for her again. She was demanding and difficult, but I saw that as just the way you had to be, to be in these jobs. I didn’t have a lot of examples of people in these jobs who were kind and compassionate and wanted to coddle me. This was the deal.

Jessica Bennett (17:15):

And also, for what it’s worth, if you’re running a company or whatever the job may be, you probably don’t have time to coddle your assistant. On some level, maybe I’m sympathetic a little bit to some of this. Cancel me.

(17:40):

Am I remembering correctly that this movie was based on a book?

Susie Banikarim (17:43):

Yes, it was based on a best-selling book of the same name. It was written by Lauren Weisberger, and the book came out in 2003. And the book was itself a cultural phenomenon. It was really popular. It came out at the peak of the Chic-Lit era. And most relevant is that Weisberger had actually been Anna Wintour’s assistant at Vogue, which is why it was so widely understood that Wintour was the inspiration for Priestly.

Jessica Bennett (18:10):

It’s probably worth spending a little time, for those who might not know as much as we do, talking about who Anna Wintour is.

Susie Banikarim (18:17):

Yeah. She is not just the editor of a fashion magazine. She has literally been called the single most important figure in the $300 billion global fashion industry. As you might expect from a famous fashion editor, she has a very distinctive look, this classic bob that she’s had for years, with bangs. She’s often seen wearing sunglasses. She’s always flawless. And I was actually thinking, I wonder if I’ve ever seen her in casual clothes?

Jessica Bennett (18:47):

Yeah, I haven’t.

Susie Banikarim (18:49):

So I googled Anna Wintour and jeans, and apparently she does have jeans because I found some pictures of it and she looks great in them, but she is sort of, in your mind, if you’ve seen lots of images of her, which I have, and I’m sure you have too, this very polished person, and she became the Vogue editor in chief in 1988. Isn’t that crazy? Thirty-five years ago.

Jessica Bennett (19:11):

Is she the longest serving? That’s a huge amount of time for an editor in chief, to be clear.

Susie Banikarim (19:16):

I mean, most people last two years in a job in media. So the fact that she’s been atop the most famous fashion magazine in the world for 35 years is really an achievement. And just wild. I mean, she’s been in that job longer than a lot of people have been alive. And she was promoted in 2013 to Conde Nast’s artistic director. So she doesn’t just lead Vogue anymore. She is the editorial leader of all the titles of Conde Nast, which include The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, and Wired and a bunch of other things.

Jessica Bennett (19:49):

Yeah, I remember watching that documentary about her, what was it, The September Issue?

Susie Banikarim (19:53):

Yes. There is a documentary about her called The September Issue. It was released in 2009. And the thing about Anna is, she’s very much seen as a visionary, as someone who can see things coming down the line and lead rather than follow. So she’s credited with seeing the power of celebrity culture really early in the cycle and realizing before other people did that it made sense to put celebrities on the cover. It used to be models on the cover of Fashion magazine. It’s Anna who’s really credited with changing that.

Jessica Bennett (20:24):

And she runs the Met Gala too, which is the biggest celebrity event of all.

Susie Banikarim (20:28):

Yes, she throws the Met Gala, which is a benefit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

Clips (20:33):

It’s the first Monday in May, which means fashion’s biggest night is finally here.

Susie Banikarim (20:39):

Just running that would make her a huge cultural figure. Celebrities are desperate for invites to that. So it’s really hard to overstate her power and influence. But also she is famously inaccessible. She is famously kind of known to be someone with very high standards.

Jessica Bennett (20:55):

Isn’t the rumor that if you are an assistant or a junior editorial person at Vogue, you are not allowed to make eye contact with her in the elevator? That’s what I’ve always heard.

Susie Banikarim (21:04):

Yes, I’ve heard that you’re not allowed to say hello to her or make eye contact. And frankly, that’s been true of other bosses I’ve had. So that does not surprise me as a rumor. I feel like that could very much be real.

Jessica Bennett (21:17):

Okay. So how close to reality do we think the book and the movie and actual Anna Wintour are?

Susie Banikarim (21:23):

That’s a great question. The Devil Wears Prada is technically fiction. So I reached out to Samhita Mukhopadhyay, who worked for Anna Wintour as the executive editor at Teen Vogue and happens to also be the author of an upcoming book on women and work and ambition. Of course, Samhita was an editor, so she obviously had a very different job than Andy did in the movie. But here’s how Samhita describes being interviewed by Anna Wintour.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay (21:48):

I was very anxious to meet her. It just was never a position I’d ever thought I’d be in, which would be to interview with her. And when I had that opportunity, unlike Andy, I researched like crazy for how I would show up that day.

Susie Banikarim (22:01):

You prepared.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay (22:02):

Yeah, I prepared and there were multiple articles written about what to wear and what not to wear the first time you meet Anna.

Susie Banikarim (22:07):

So what are you supposed to wear and what are you not supposed to wear?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay (22:11):

Well, interestingly, a lot of the articles say not to wear black, that she doesn’t like black. And this has kind of been a long rumor for her that she just prefers color and brightness. Upon meeting her, I don’t think it would’ve mattered at all what I wore. And so it was deeply humbling to be like, oh, this is this big character that exists that’s a larger than life character, but you are actually just a person that’s trying to make the proper business and editorial decision for this brand that you oversee.

(22:39):

It was a big wake-up moment because I planned so much for what I was going to wear, and I bought myself a Gucci handbag and I practically wore it hanging around my neck. None of it was necessary. She really just wanted to talk about my editorial experience and my taste in culture. So it was definitely one of those myth-busting moments where I was… And she wasn’t wearing sunglasses either, by the way.

Jessica Bennett (23:06):

Okay, I love all the behind the scenes interview stuff, but I have to say the points Samhita made about Andy not preparing for her interview is the least relatable thing to us as journalists. Why would you not prepare for an interview where you’re trying to prove you want to be a serious journalist?

Susie Banikarim (23:21):

Yeah, it’s so weird to me. You would at least just do some research. And also, it’s hard to believe that any woman in America who wanted to work in media would just not know who the editor of the biggest fashion magazine in the world was. That is still a big job in media.

Jessica Bennett (23:35):

Any person in America.

Susie Banikarim (23:37):

Yeah, it feels true. But the idea that Anna is actually a much more complex character than the cultural characterization of her isn’t surprising, right?

Jessica Bennett (23:45):

Or the cultural caricature of her in a way.

Susie Banikarim (23:48):

And that’s something that I feel like you discuss a lot in your work.

Jessica Bennett (23:51):

Yeah, I mean, I feel like that’s something we keep coming up against in this podcast, which is there’s often more complexity to the characters we are looking at, and especially with women.

Susie Banikarim (24:00):

Yeah, and I think we’ve seen that a lot with people like Robin Givens whose identities are so flattened by these characterizations of them, or Britney Spears who had her complexity denied and was just dismissed as crazy. And in general, I think that’s what’s really smart about this movie, going back to Devil Wears Prada, which is that it takes something that is also dismissed as frivolous and for women fashion, fashion magazines, and it explores the ways in which they’re actually serious and worthy of examination.

Jessica Bennett (24:31):

Yeah. Isn’t there a famous scene where Miranda Priestly sort of schools Andy in how she got her sweater or something like that?

Susie Banikarim (24:37):

Yes. The speech you’re thinking of is the Cerulean Speech, which is a color blue. They’re in a meeting and someone has presented Miranda with two belts and Andy has snickered and said, “those two belts look exactly the same to me.” And she’s sort of expecting everyone to be like, ha ha, yes. But Miranda is really icy in her retort.

Clips (24:56):

You select, I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean.

Susie Banikarim (25:13):

And it was introduced on this runway and that runway, until you fished it out of some bargain basement. It’s like a very funny moment. And that speech has become pretty famous because it does, in a really succinct way, explain why fashion does have meaning in people’s lives, why our lives are all impacted by the way fashion works.

Jessica Bennett (25:33):

Right, and so she’s basically saying, you think you chose that sweater, but actually let me tell you that sweater chose you.

Susie Banikarim (25:39):

Yeah, exactly.

Jessica Bennett (25:47):

Susie, I want to go back for a moment to the Miranda character in the book because the book is actually pretty vitriolic.

Susie Banikarim (25:54):

I mean, I reread the book last night actually, and it is so vitriolic kind of in a shocking way to me now looking back. At points, book-Andy calls book-Miranda a bitch. She talks about how much she hates her. I mean, my takeaway from the book is that the author hated working for Anna Wintour.

Jessica Bennett (26:15):

Okay. Not a lot of complexity. It’s like that’s what it is.

Susie Banikarim (26:18):

Yeah, it’s a pretty one-dimensional character and she’s just awful. And interestingly, the limo scene is not in the book at all. The ending plays out completely differently. So in the book, the way their relationship ends is that Andy says to Miranda, fuck you, Miranda, fuck you.

Jessica Bennett (26:39):

Wow.

Susie Banikarim (26:40):

She’s fired obviously for swearing at her boss, and the whole thing in the movie about how Miranda writes her a good reference and there’s kind of this redemption moment from Miranda, that doesn’t happen in the book at all.

Jessica Bennett (26:54):

So this is a revenge book.

Susie Banikarim (26:55):

Totally.

Jessica Bennett (26:56):

Essentially, she’s trashed.

Susie Banikarim (26:58):

It’s like a revenge fantasy. I don’t think this happened in real life. I see. So I think this is the book she’s written about what she wishes she had done when she left Vogue. I mean, that’s what it feels like as a reader for sure.

Jessica Bennett (27:11):

So do people like this book? Is the book bad? What’s the response?

Susie Banikarim (27:15):

I mean, the book is controversial. Much more so than the film, because it is really a takedown, and I guess at this time it was seen as sort of bad manners to gossip about your former boss in this way, which feels kind of quaint now in the post-Gawker era.

Jessica Bennett (27:31):

That’s like what literally everyone does.

Susie Banikarim (27:33):

But the New York Times actually had two negative reviews of this book, and the first one was written by famed critic Janet Maslin, where she refers to it as a “mean-spirited gotcha of a book.” And the other one is called “Anna Dearest,” and it has this line that is so interesting because I think in a lot of ways it encapsulates kind of what we’re talking about in a larger sense here. “She had a ringside seat at one of the great editorial franchises, but she seems to have understood almost nothing about the isolation and pressure of the job her boss was doing, or what it might cost a person like Miranda Priestly to become a character like Miranda Priestly.”

Jessica Bennett (28:11):

I bet that was written by a woman.

Susie Banikarim (28:12):

Yes, it was written by a woman. And I think it is the truth that these jobs do come with isolation and pressure. It is a reality that it’s not quite so simple. And so the movie really makes an effort to humanize Miranda in a lot of ways.

Jessica Bennett (28:30):

Right. Movie-Miranda is more complicated.

Susie Banikarim (28:33):

The director has actually said that early versions of the script even felt too vengeful. And I suspect what he is leaving kind of unsaid in that is that’s because the book was vengeful. It was this really mean-spirited book. So when it comes time to make the movie, the movie is being made by people who probably have had these senior positions. There are two scenes that give you a real window into Miranda’s personal life and what her career has cost her on that front in the movie. At one point, Miranda is having an argument with her husband, and Andy walks in and the argument is about how she’s missed a lunch with him.

(29:08):

And he says, “I could tell everyone was looking at me and thinking, there he is waiting for her again.” Which feels like a thing a lot of women go through when they’re more successful than their partner. And then later in Paris, there’s this very vulnerable scene where she tells Andy she’s getting a divorce. Miranda’s without her usual armor. She has no makeup on, and she’s in a robe. And she talks about knowing what they will write about her, dragon lady, career obsessed, snow queen drives away another Mr. Priestly. And she tears up as she laments what it will do to her daughters.

Jessica Bennett (29:44):

Actually, I had forgotten until you were mentioning the Harry Potter part of the movie that she even had daughters. That too is an interesting thing because you expect a woman of the stature or a woman who behaves like this to be this cutthroat careerist who doesn’t have a family.

Susie Banikarim (30:00):

Right, and what’s kind of interesting in this moment in the movie is that when Andy expresses sympathy for her and says, “is there anything else I can do?” Miranda kind of snaps back into being herself for lack of a better way of putting it. And she just says, “yes, your job.” And that is kind of the encapsulation, right? She’s had this moment of vulnerability, but then she has to keep going. What choice does she have? She is the editor of Runway at Paris Fashion Week. She can’t fall apart. And EW did an oral history of the film and the director said something that I thought was really interesting. He said that in his vision, Miranda is the heroine of the piece, not the villain, because it’s a coming of age story for Andy to learn about what it takes to be great at something. Isn’t that so interesting?

Jessica Bennett (30:49):

Oh, that’s interesting. Yes. So it’s really about how she, Miranda, was ultimately successful, not just a terrible bitch.

Susie Banikarim (30:58):

It’s really a movie about what it costs to be Miranda and teaching Andy that she may not think it’s okay, but eventually she’s going to have to make some of these hard choices too. And that is really why the limo moment is so critical to the film and why I chose it. It’s fundamentally a film about what it costs to have this kind of life, this kind of career, the isolation, the pressure. And that’s something I think Meryl Streep really conveys in this portrayal and why in a lot of ways, Andy feels hopelessly naive to me. Even when I saw this the first time, it seemed to me like Andy had a lot of growing up to do.

Jessica Bennett (31:51):

So Susie, we obviously both related to this movie, I think, when we first saw it in a different way than we might now. Back then we were aspiring journalists or young journalists, and now we are more the established journalists. So I was curious for you, I mean, you have run really big newsrooms. You’ve been a boss in a lot of these jobs. What do you think the costs of that success have been for you, if any?

Susie Banikarim (32:18):

I think for me, the costs are really personal in terms of just how I operate in the world. It takes a lot out of you just physically to do these jobs. You have to be willing to work just an enormous amount of hours and you have to be emotionally available to a very large group of people because you’re managing a big team and all of those things take a toll on you. I think there are people that can do these jobs that don’t have that experience, that learn to have a set of clear walls where they’re not taking in a lot of the energy around them. Or frankly, I think we know because there have been studies that a lot of leaders are actually sociopaths or psychopaths, I think, is what the studies say.

Jessica Bennett (33:10):

It says leaders are sociopaths?

Susie Banikarim (33:12):

Yeah. There’s one study I remember reading that claimed that as many as one in five business leaders have some psychopathic tendencies, so that’s 20%.

Jessica Bennett (33:20):

I don’t know why I’m so surprised by that.

Susie Banikarim (33:23):

So I think if you are able to have that kind of separation from you and the people whose lives you to some degree hold in your hands when you’re managing a large team, I think it can be a lot easier. But for me personally, that has been a real struggle and I think it kind of has reoriented me in terms of how I think about ambition and whether or not I want to have these big jobs, whether or not I think these big jobs make sense anymore.

Jessica Bennett (33:56):

Yeah, I mean I think that the headline here is that we hold women leaders to higher standards. I guess Miranda Priestly, I don’t know that she was in a position you were speaking of where she really cared about the emotional wellbeing of her entire staff. It was more like she was in charge and she had these assistants. But we expect women leaders to be nice, and we don’t expect male leaders to be nice. So was Miranda Priestly kind of a bitch sometimes? Yeah, but if she was a man, would we call her a bitch or would we just call her demanding.

Susie Banikarim (34:27):

Decisive.

Jessica Bennett (34:28):

And so she clearly put Andy or her assistants or whatever in precarious situations, but that’s happened a million times before. And so I think that what we know is that there’s this likeability trade-off for women. The more power they gain, the less we like them, statistically proven time and time again. And it applies to business or it applies to politics. And so women are always having to adjust their demeanor to try to make up for this. And I think what Miranda Priestly represents is someone who wasn’t willing to adjust her demeanor, and thus she was kind of like a frigid ice-cold ice queen bitch. But is that fair? It’s a little more complicated than that.

Susie Banikarim (35:11):

Yeah, and I do think this is something when you’re a woman in a leadership position, you’re constantly trying to thread the needle on, because on the one hand, you need to be somewhat decisive and you need to be someone who moves things through. You can’t just be spending all your time being emotionally accessible or whatever. But on the other hand, I think my entire career, I have been given the note that I need to soften myself. I need to be less blunt. I need to work a little less quickly and assume that people aren’t always following. Those are notes I’ve gotten repeatedly in my career. And I think I really struggle with that still because I am not naturally a very soft, sweet person. It’s like I am pretty blunt and straightforward, and I sort of think that’s one of my strengths.

Jessica Bennett (36:10):

Well, that’s kind of what you need to be a leader, in fact.

Susie Banikarim (36:13):

But as I’ve gotten older, I can see when it has an impact on someone, and I try and dial it down because I recognize that not everyone can deal with that.

Jessica Bennett (36:22):

Well, and that’s part of the pressure, right? You’re in charge of all these people and to some degree their wellbeing, but you have to discipline. There is hard stuff. Sometimes you have to do layoffs. Thankfully, I have never had to do that, but I can imagine that’s hard no matter who you are.

Susie Banikarim (36:38):

Oh God, I can’t believe you’ve never had to do a layoff that is really lucky in this media environment. But just even aside from those pressures, it’s just hard to show up as your best self every single day. Sometimes you just don’t. Or you make mistakes and the stakes feel higher because you’re the boss and everyone’s paying attention.

Jessica Bennett (36:57):

A bad day can have more extreme consequences.

Susie Banikarim (36:59):

Yeah, I mean, everyone I know in the leadership position struggles with that at times. And actually we have a friend who runs a newsroom who said to me recently, it’s not fun to be in charge anymore. And that makes sense to me. People are just so self-conscious all the time. They’re so worried they’re going to do something that’s going to get them canceled in some way.

Jessica Bennett (37:18):

Which I guess is good on the one hand that we’re all more conscious of creating the kind of workplaces we want to be in. But it’s also complicated.

Susie Banikarim (37:27):

I think part of the reason I have sometimes felt like I’m groping around in the dark trying to figure out how to be a good leader, is that there just weren’t a lot of great examples of leadership. Most of the leadership I saw was Miranda Priestly-type leadership from men and women. So it’s not like there were all these models for me that I could be like, okay, here’s who I’m trying to be. I was sort of trying to figure it out on my own. I’m still trying to figure it out to some degree.

Jessica Bennett (37:56):

And there’s still not great models, to be honest. I mean, I think that’s why we’ve seen a lot of women leaders who rise up really quickly and then immediately get shot down.

Susie Banikarim (38:08):

And that actually leads me to something I want to talk about, which is the whole “Girl Boss” thing from a few years ago. I’ve always joked that all these toxic Girl Bosses were just women who saw The Devil Wears Prada. And instead of seeing it as a cautionary tale, they saw it as a path to success. They agreed with Miranda Priestly that everybody wanted this life, that for better or for worse, she is a depiction of unapologetic female power. And we don’t see that a lot. So they emulated it.

Jessica Bennett (38:38):

Wait, should we define the Girl Boss? So this was a term that was popularized in 2014 when Sophia Amoruso, who had founded a wildly successful company called Nasty Gal, wrote a book called Girl Boss. And Girl Boss was framed as the reaction to Lean In, which was Sheryl Sandberg’s blockbuster book.

Clips (38:59):

Big debate being sparked by Sheryl Sandberg.

(39:01):

Her brand new book is generating a kind of feminist firestorm.

(39:06):

She calls it leaning in, gunning for the corner office, not the cubicle.

Jessica Bennett (39:11):

And so if Lean In was saying, go strive, rise up the corporate ladder, Girl Boss was saying, no, actually you can be scrappy. You don’t have to come from money. You can do it your way. And over time, there was this generation of leaders who rose really quickly and were very media savvy. They were all very attractive. They started populating the cover of every magazine, and they were sort of heralded as this new generation of women leaders, but a lot of their businesses failed. A lot of them were criticized for various things. And so ultimately that term now is more of a pejorative. It’s used on TikTok to criticize people who are seen as too ambitious. There’s that phrase, “don’t Girl Boss too close to the sun.” They had too much unbridled ambition and it came to bite them in the ass.

Susie Banikarim (40:02):

Right? Also, that meme Gaslight Girl Boss Gatekeep, right? It’s basically talking about how the Girl Bosses were actually also positions of privilege, and they sort of gate-kept other people out of the arena. But I feel like part of what the issue is there isn’t really a clear definition of what a Girl Boss is.

Jessica Bennett (40:22):

I mean, it’s a fake word. It’s a made up word that was created as a joke and then became a real thing. I’m like, why are we calling women Girl Bosses anyway? They should just be bosses. So I sort of am like, you can’t define… It came to represent a striver.

Susie Banikarim (40:38):

Like a very earnest striver who embraced a certain kind of corporate feminism.

Jessica Bennett (40:42):

Yes.

Susie Banikarim (40:43):

And equality in this world was just getting to be the boss. You were an unapologetically ambitious woman like Miranda, but with a feminine twist. So if you’re a Girl Boss, you’re less threatening in a way. You’re certainly not the crazed, desperate career woman of the eighties we talked about in the Newsweek marriage episode, you’re not Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, you’re like a fashionable and millennial pink feminist.

Jessica Bennett (41:07):

Well, and in some ways the media and society has enforced that by adding “girl” in front of your title.

Susie Banikarim (41:20):

But ultimately, the Girl Boss, as you said, was pretty limited. And Amanda Mull wrote a great piece in the Atlantic where she talked about why that was. So there was some idea that there was equality just based on advancement. It kind of ties capitalism up with female equality, which I think feels inherently flawed. And then she said something that I thought was really smart. She said, “the Girl Boss argued that the professional success of ambitious young women was a two-birds-one-stone type of activism. Their pursuit of power could be rebranded as a righteous quest for equality and the success of female executives and entrepreneurs would lift up the women below them.” But that’s not really what we saw. In fact, even the person who popularized the term Girl Boss, this woman Sophia Amoruso, she eventually resigned. The company went into bankruptcy a couple years after that book came out, and there were a number of complaints about discrimination and toxic management accompanied by lawsuits from her employees.

Jessica Bennett (42:24):

I mean, I think it’s slightly more complex. A lot of these stories and downfalls were flattened a bit in the media narrative. I’m actually profiling Sophia now for a piece for Elle. And so it’s been interesting to actually dig into what really happened versus how the media, though I hate saying “the media”…

Susie Banikarim (42:44):

Us, we are the media.

Jessica Bennett (42:45):

… yes, portrayed it, but certainly it represented something.

Susie Banikarim (42:49):

Right, and I think she wasn’t the only one. In fairness to her, there were a slew of other examples of female leaders who were lauded as Girl Bosses or who leaned into that branding, but eventually came under scrutiny and were forced to step away from the companies they founded. Just like off the top of my head, there’s the CEO of Glossier, the luggage brand Away, to that woman who ran Thinx underwear.

Jessica Bennett (43:11):

I think there was a shift at a certain point in what was perceived as acceptable boss behavior, particularly for these companies and these founders who had branded themselves as socially conscious, if not overtly feminist.

Susie Banikarim (43:25):

And I think also what you’re saying is that these power structures were built by men. So if these women were replicating these power structures, it wasn’t like they were doing something unique. It’s just the case that if you’re a woman, you’re more likely to face an immediate backlash. Look at Elon Musk. I mean, he has had a million of these kinds of complaints around him.

Jessica Bennett (43:47):

Right, or Adam Newman of WeWork or Travis Kalanick of Uber.

Susie Banikarim (43:52):

And all three of those men are fine. And actually, Samhita Mukhopadhyay who we spoke to earlier, and as I mentioned is writing a book about women, work and ambition also talks about the hypocrisy she sees in the Girl Boss downfall.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay (44:09):

I’m always cautious when we too eagerly tear women down. I’m not going to All Women’s Matter this or something. Obviously women are capable of the same heinous atrocities and labor oversights as men. But I do think that when we go after women for a specific behavior that is considered completely normal in men, my eyebrows raise a little bit. I’m like, yes, no leader should be toxic. We should absolutely be creating environments that are equitable. We should not expect people to work and sacrifice everything.

(44:40):

None of those things are sustainable. They are not things that we should support in workplaces, but also they are a result of under-resourced environments. Often women-led companies don’t get as much money as male-led companies. Definitely true for startups in a ridiculous way. And then you add to that these kind of toxic dynamics or leaders that don’t have enough experience to successfully lead in those kinds of environments. Or a lot of times, people that would fit into this Girl Boss mold, the very characteristics that make them good for those roles are literally what make them bad as leaders.

Susie Banikarim (45:15):

Yes, can confirm.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay (45:16):

So being judiciously committed to your vision, being really good on stage, being really good in the press, it’s like those people are monsters behind the scenes. But putting that to the side, the majority of women that are starting businesses aren’t these kind of “Girl Bosses.” They’re young women that are trying to find their voice and their name. Or a lot of times women become entrepreneurs because they hit the glass ceiling at work and they were not getting the recognition that they deserved, and so they decided to go out on their own. And so it is worrisome when you focus a lot on a small number of people when there’s this kind of broader ecosystem of women trying to create things on their own terms.

Susie Banikarim (46:10):

Samhita has written about how while the Girl Boss concept is flawed, it did provide a model for women who don’t always see a path to leadership, like women of color. And people like Samhita and I are often excluded from those kinds of spaces. So there are some things about this that weren’t all bad, but any model of female leadership generally does eventually face a backlash. I mean, we’ve just seen that in this country, any kind of female advancement eventually faces a backlash.

Jessica Bennett (46:40):

And in fact, I think we’re seeing that more now after these, so-called Girl Bosses toppled, a lot of the investment to female founded companies actually went down.

Susie Banikarim (46:51):

By the way, investment to female companies was always really low. And that’s also partially what was kind of interesting about this being a media-created story. Women receive, I think, less than 2% of VC funding. So there were never a huge number of Girl Bosses to start with. So the disproportionate attention they got in the beginning and then in the backlash is also indicative of something, which is, we love a story about a woman rising and then falling. That’s just a thing we love in this country.

(47:29):

Also, it’s probably worth noting that in terms of the backlash, the Miranda Priestlys or in the real world, the Anna Wintours of the world didn’t emerge completely unscathed, but interestingly, not really about their years of boundary lists or potentially inappropriate leadership styles. I think when Black Lives Matter happened, there was a lot more focus on the ways in which fashion and fashion magazines really reinforced a certain kind of whiteness. And Anna did have to apologize for that in June of 2020, after facing a lot of criticism.

Jessica Bennett (48:07):

Oh, that’s right.

Susie Banikarim (48:08):

She issued an apology for not doing enough to address diversity issues at Vogue. And she said, “I want to say plainly that I know Vogue has not found ways to elevate and give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers, and other creators. We have made mistakes, too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I take full responsibility for those mistakes.”

Jessica Bennett (48:29):

I mean, pretty big a deal that she apologized. She’s not the type to stand down or apologize, I don’t think.

Susie Banikarim (48:37):

Yeah, I don’t think so either. But I think this was obviously a more serious allegation in some ways.

Jessica Bennett (48:42):

Yeah. Well, and then also interesting that she was able to keep her job after that.

Susie Banikarim (48:46):

She kept her job after that apology, unlike the Girl Bosses who kind of toppled and then maybe found their way back in some smaller way, she has stayed on top of the Conde Nast editorial operation. And obviously I don’t want to conflate white supremacy and bias with slightly toxic or even very toxic behavior. This is obviously a deeper issue, but it shows that she had sort of gone from being immune to this kind of criticism. At the point in which The Devil Wears Prada is made, it didn’t lead to some kind of backlash towards her like, oh, I can’t believe you treat people this way. It was considered kind of charming or funny or whatever. And now she’s sort of gotten to the point where she’s not given a pass completely in that way.

(49:27):

And actually that same year in 2022, a few months later, the New York Times published a really lengthy piece asking if her diversity push had come too late. And former employees said that Anna had fostered a workplace that sidelined women of color, and she had helped set a standard that favored white, Eurocentric notions of beauty, which isn’t a surprise. That’s something you also see in the movie, right? There’s a real central focus in the movie about a very classic beauty standard. There’s a lot of focus on thinness. In the movie, there’s this famous line where Emily, the first assistant says, “I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight,” which is a thing me and my friends always jokingly say to each other.

Jessica Bennett (50:12):

I mean, people, yeah, everyone says that.

Susie Banikarim (50:13):

Everyone says that, right?

Jessica Bennett (50:14):

Or said. Maybe Gen Z doesn’t say right now.

Susie Banikarim (50:15):

Because maybe they have more sense than we did? And it wasn’t just Anna who set these standards, but as arguably the most powerful person in fashion, she did play a large role in this kind of centering.

Jessica Bennett (50:29):

The other thing too is that in particular for women of color, but really for any marginalized group, is that you’re often forced to represent your entire demographic.

Susie Banikarim (50:39):

So if you’re a gay leader, there’s also this expectation. If you’re a trans leader, it’s like you are doing more than just your job. You’re representing an entire category of people, and your success or failure carries that weight. And I do think to some degree, that gets back to this idea or this thing I was saying at the top, which is it does feel like you’re carrying a lot of weight in these jobs. You’re not immune to the understanding that you’re not just representing yourself. When I was given the opportunity to run newsrooms, I was almost always the only woman of color, or the first woman of color to have that opportunity in that role. So I was clear that I wasn’t just doing a job, but I was also representing a kind of progress. And if I did it badly or if I embarrassed myself, I was letting down much more than just my own mental health, you know what I mean?

Jessica Bennett (51:37):

More than just yourself or your employees, you’re letting down everyone who strived to be in a role like that and who maybe had not gotten the opportunity.

Susie Banikarim (51:44):

Well, and also the other thing I think is that you recognize that you are the representation for a lot of people. I recognize that in those roles, there were women in the newsroom who saw me in that role and were like, oh, I can do that too. So if I did it poorly or I was not a good example, that I was not setting a good example for them. I was not giving them a path. Because they were like, well, I don’t want to be that bitch.

Jessica Bennett (52:11):

Which is terrifying in a lot of ways.

Susie Banikarim (52:14):

Yeah, it does really weigh on you. I do think it does take a real toll. I’m someone who struggles with a lot of anxiety. I have in my life had very serious depression, and it is the case that when I am in these jobs, it triggers a lot of those issues for me. And the reason I often leave these jobs is because I’ve gotten to a point where I no longer feel like I can balance, and I need to sort of step away to re-center myself. And I think that is a good segue into kind of where we are now in terms of how we’re thinking about work as women and where women’s ambition is. Where does all of this leave us? If we’re not going to be the Miranda Priestlys, we’re not going to be the Sheryl Sandbergs, we’re not going to be the Girl Bosses, like what’s left now?

Jessica Bennett (53:02):

Lazy girls. Lazy girl jobs.

Susie Banikarim (53:02):

Lazy girls. Job quitting, great resignation. It’s like I feel like it’s kind of the end of ambition in my mind. I think, do we want to have it all? I don’t want to have it all anymore. I just want to have enough.

Jessica Bennett (53:15):

So as you know, I am very skeptical of all of these little phrases that enter into the same case.

Susie Banikarim (53:22):

And validly so, validly so.

Jessica Bennett (53:24):

No, it’s not the end of ambition. And also when we talk about ambition, are we really just talking about women’s ambition? Nobody asks, is it the end of ambition for men?

Susie Banikarim (53:31):

Yes, that’s true.

Jessica Bennett (53:32):

And yet, these trends, these memes, this kind of linguistic popularity of terms like, yeah, lazy girl jobs or quiet quitting or I don’t dream of labor. Everything that you see on TikTok these days, which is essentially anti-work rhetoric, is largely being pushed by people of all genders. So I don’t know. I think that gender bias even creeps into the way that sometimes I talk about this issue, but I also think that there’s a little bit of delightful, in a way, idealism when it comes to young people, but also naivety about the fact that, all right, kids, you got to work. Yeah, I want to be a lazy girl too. I’d love to bed rot all day. That would be awesome. I don’t want to have a job.

Susie Banikarim (54:26):

I know I’d be great at goblin mode all day, every day.

Jessica Bennett (54:29):

Let’s just self-care all day. Yeah. What other terms can we insert here? But you still need money to live, and I know that sure, we’d want to reject capitalism, blah, blah, blah, but we are still living in a capitalist society, and so I take some of this anti-work rhetoric with a grain of salt, though I do believe that hopefully by questioning things like this Girl Boss culture or hustle culture, or the way that we have devoted our entire beings and entities to work over the past 10, 20 years is a good thing.

Susie Banikarim (55:02):

Yeah. I want to throw to Samhita one more time because she had something interesting to say about this too.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay (55:07):

Workplace hierarchy isn’t really going anywhere anytime soon. We have to figure out how management structures that are equitable, that work, that play to people’s strengths, that support them in being as innovative and creative and impactful as possible. That’s why I think we’re frozen in time right now because we know that we don’t want this kind of unfettered ambition at any cost, toxic workplace, all bad words. We know we don’t want that, but we don’t know how to apply that in our lives yet.

(55:35):

I think that’s led to this trend in quiet quitting or lazy girl jobs or people really calling it in at work, which ultimately isn’t going to actually make people happy. What actually makes you happy in your life is living a life of integrity and authenticity and joy. When you’re checked out of something, you’re not finding joy in your life, and that’s fine. I think we all go through phases we have to do that, but that’s not a model for women’s advancement in the workplace, right? It’s a problem and it’s a wake-up call for working conditions. But it’s not ultimately a strategy that’s going to be successful or make us happy if that’s ultimately the goal.

Jessica Bennett (56:11):

I think Samhita is right, and this isn’t the end of ambition generally, but it’s hopefully a workplace shift that is happening. Susie, where does that then leave you?

Susie Banikarim (56:22):

I mean, I guess what I’m doing is projecting, to some degree. Because maybe it’s just the end of my ambition. Maybe the reason those memes speak to me is that I have come to kind of want a quieter career. One where I have less responsibilities, one where I get to chat with you.

Jessica Bennett (56:41):

But I will just say that’s not unambitious, that’s a different kind of ambition. And so I think part of the problem is that we have come to define ambition in these really rigid ways that involved climbing up the corporate ladder, being a boss, having a big team, being in management. And there are so many different ways to be ambitious. And so I guess that’s what kind of gives me hope to what you’re saying.

Susie Banikarim (57:05):

Oh, yeah, that’s actually a really good point. I’ve never thought about it that way. It’s true that I’m not lacking in any ambition. It’s just my ambitions have really changed. I’m not trying to get the bigger job. I’m not always trying to get the bigger paycheck. I’m just trying to do work I love and work that feels creative and work that I hope is kind of meaningful or is certainly at least meaningful to me, even if it’s not that for everyone else. So that’s actually a nice way to think about where that leaves us and maybe we leave it there.

Jessica Bennett (57:39):

Susie, I want to tease our next episode. We’re going to be talking about what it means for a woman to be “past her prime.”

Susie Banikarim (57:46):

Which I don’t think happens, for the record, but we are going to talk about aging and what that means for us, but also just how women are treated as they age in the culture. So I think it’s going to be a really interesting one. This is in Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a pop culture moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram at @Inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (58:17):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram, which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (58:27):

You can also find us on Instagram @JessicaBennett and @SusieBNYC. Also, check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club, and This Is 18.

Jessica Bennett (58:36):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeartPodcasts and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Emily Marinoff is our producer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (58:50):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Our mixing engineer is Amanda Rose Smith. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim…

Jessica Bennett (59:08):

And Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out Inretropod.com. See you next week.

LEARN MORE ABOUT IN RETROSPECT

In Retrospect - Episode 24

EPISODE 24 – GAY & HORNY TEENS ON SCREEN WITH EMMA SELIGMAN

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Emma Seligman (00:05):

I think that once I figured out that I was queer, had lived a little bit of a queer life for a few years, I think that that just changed every sort of movie that I dreamed up in my head.

Jessica Bennett (00:18):

I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (00:19):

And I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (00:21):

And this is In Retrospect, where each week we revisit a cultural moment that shaped us.

Susie Banikarim (00:25):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Jessica Bennett (00:28):

Most of the time we look at the past, but sometimes we want to hear from someone who is changing the pop culture future. Today we’re handing over the pod to our amazing associate producer, Sharon Attia. She’s talking to Emma Seligman, the director of the delightfully funny gay fight club comedy, Bottoms, which Harper’s Bazaar called a horny masterpiece.

Sharon Attia (00:47):

Hi, I’m Sharon Attia. I’m the associate producer and researcher on the show, and I also happen to be Emma Seligman’s best friend. Emma is the writer and director behind my favorite movies of all time, Shiva Baby and Bottoms.

(01:00):

Shiva Baby is this claustrophobic indie hit that follows a college student who runs into her sugar daddy and ex-girlfriend while at a shiva with her parents. And Bottoms is a recent blockbuster about two lesbian losers who start a high school fight club to try and lose their virginities to the hot cheerleaders.

(01:16):

Since Emma’s films are redefining the canon of queer comedies, movies that we’ll for sure look back on in retrospect, and because these are exactly the kinds of things that Emma and I talk about, I invited her on to chat about movie making today, queer representation, and how that’s changing. Here’s our conversation.

(01:35):

Hi, Emma.

Emma Seligman (01:36):

Hello.

Sharon Attia (01:38):

That’s my intro for you.

Emma Seligman (01:40):

I love that. That’s such a sweet intro.

Sharon Attia (01:42):

So, for our listeners who don’t know your meteoric rise and just every amazing thing that you’ve ever done, maybe we’ll give them just some brief background.

Emma Seligman (01:56):

Yeah. Okay. I’m from Toronto, where I am right now. And I feel like I just grew up in a family of film lovers. No one in the industry, but in a community of people who love watching movies, which is honestly most of the city of Toronto, I would say, because of TIFF, the film festival here.

(02:16):

There’s just something about living here where everyone’s very culturally in tuned with what’s out. And I was always interested in movies. When I was nine, I submitted a movie review for this contest to become a juror for the kids’ film festival that TIFF ran.

Sharon Attia (02:34):

Do you remember what the movie was for, that you wrote the review?

Emma Seligman (02:38):

So my parents never took me to kids’ movies, and they barely let me watch kids’ TV shows if they were in the room because they were bored by them. So because this was my choice, because I got to see the movie, I really wanted to see this Ice Cube movie called Are We There Yet?

Clips (02:58):

A comedy about how far one man will go-

(02:58