I don’t understand why I like this picture so much. Maybe it’s because I took two others within an hour, one in which she looked ten years older, very poised, and another where she appeared ten years younger, child like. Her life could go in any one of four different directions from this moment, and we could look back and say, yeah, you can see it in her face. Vulnerable, yearning, secretive and self-possessed in different measure. To be seventeen is to be elastic.
We’d walked through the secret stairs of Whitley Heights, then we went to Birds for a nostalgic and very disappointing meal, and on the way back to the car I told her to stop in this doorway. She turned around, and for an increment of time wasn’t trying to look pretty. She was Mona Lisa. I suppose this means I like it for what she’s hiding from us.
A couple months ago, I went to Harvard and Stone in Hollywood with young Derek to buy him a round and wish him well on his first American tour. About 1:40 AM, we left the smokers patio and walked back to the bar to find a dozen young women dancing together while a DJ spun James Brown on vinyl. There were perhaps half that number of men scattered around the room. And by men, I mean people in their twenties.
Not one of them got up and danced.
No one made an approach.
Eventually the women gave up. They retreated to couches, curled up like cats, took out their phones and started swiping.
Admittedly, it had been more than a decade since I had closed down a bar in Hollywood, or anywhere, but the sheer absence of testosterone, properly channeled, was eye-opening. Then it was perplexing. James Brown,closing time, two chicks for every guy, grinding their booties in a hopeful manner, and the beta-males wouldn’t rouse themselves from their phones.
Something has changed.
As a coda, the Niece came out this week from Massachusetts for a visit and a sneak preview of her near future as an art student in Los Angeles. Her versatility at maintaining cross-country text conversations while simultaneously eating and talking to us was remarkable. An accomplished selfie-taker, she had a palette of poses she could comfortably try on and discard, like hats. She posed any way I wanted her whenever I pointed a lens in her direction. She spent much time on her laptop.
A diagnosis of teenaged narcissism would be misplaced. To my novice eyes, I saw not self-absorption but Gatsby-esque platonic self-conception on the female side of the phone. Personas being crafted and honed in the privacy of one’s room, where one can sort out the tension between how you see yourself and how you wish to be seen, bypassing the gatekeepers of family and frenemies before public presentation.
The male gaze is coming, and for centuries it has been on male terms. In the Americanized form, you got your prom photo, sitting on the swing against the same backdrop as every other girl in your class. That was pretty much it, unless you chose an acting career, in which case you got a portfolio created by men for the perusal of other men. The phone flips the power dynamic into female hands. Every girl can now be Cindy Sherman, in theory.
Mrs. UpintheValley, who I normally have to chastise into posing, was fascinated by that thing she does with her mouth. “How does she do it? It’s effortless.”
Except that it isn’t. She worked at it. It’s performance art.
To what end? In loco parentis, I can’t help but fast forward five years when she’s no longer a teenager, and she walks into Harvard and Stone with her art school friends. To what state of primordial adolescence will men be reduced by then? Will they be lined up at the bar wearing virtual reality goggles, texting interactive fart jokes to each other? Where is all this headed?
I think I understand what the women are trying to do. The men I don’t understand at all.