Joan Didion and Jennifer Aniston: Imagined Conversations
December 17th, 2014
Jennifer Aniston’s go-to drink is a dirty martini. And if you were a teenage girl who watched Friends everyday after school, it might have been yours too. After all, Jennifer Aniston would know how to be at a party; Jennifer Aniston would know how to be. So if someone offered you a beer at a party in a suburban basement, you’d say, “I’d love a dirty martini” because that’s what a cool, grownup woman would do—and you’d Googled what a dirty martini was, and how could anything with olives not be delightful? And you were sure that if you ever ran into Jennifer she’d have all sorts of advice for you. Naturally, on family trips to New York, you’d look for her in obvious places that she might be like Times Square restaurants or the bathroom at Saks.
A couple of weeks ago—and many years after I’d figured out the Jennifer Aniston doesn’t shop there—I was at Saks for many hours. I was trying to find a top to go with a skirt—simple, right? All I needed was a top that looked pulled together but not like I was trying too hard, young but sophisticated, timeless but not costume-y, elegant but causal, in a good color, and one that did not make my boobs look too big. I mean totally simple, right? I texted a friend, “I’m at Saks and just had to explain to the salesperson who Charlotte Rampling is. It’s like I’m in a rejected scene from The Mindy Project only instead of buying a top to wear to meet a boyfriend’s parents, I’m buying a top to wear to lunch with a mentor.” A minute later I, self-consciously, texted my friend again, “I think I’m a little emotionally stunted.”
Why did I feel the need to undercut my own emotional experience and priorities? Why does society make us feel that putting importance on female role models or mentors is somehow childish—the terrain of silly, imitative teenage girls—and simply less important than other relationships in our lives?
Since starting The Interval, I have had the privilege of interviewing twenty-four amazing and diverse women. Yet the one thing that they all have in common is, from teaching to advocacy to taking time at the stage door, these are women who take actions in their day-to-day lives to try and help other women. Everyone at The Interval has certainly benefited from the efforts of all of the incredible ladies. And not just in the obvious ways. We’ve all commented that we’ve noticed changes in our own behavior. We’ve become more confident and more self-possessed, which stems, no doubt, from spending time in the presence of women who, all in their own ways, are both those things—and much more. Because reading about cool, grownup women is one thing—actually being at the same table with them is another. As Joan Didion wrote in her seminal essay On Self-Respect, “In order to remember it, one must have known it.”
You know how there’s that thing when people say of a woman, “She’s good with kids”? Well, the ladies that we’ve talked to are good with 20-something girls. This is a real skill—we know, we’re in our twenties. Culture often portrays us as both clueless and threatening; adults but children. Your twenties are a complicated and confusing time; the real decade when one comes of age. How lucky then to have women who are compassionate towards that; who know when to say “yes” and when to say “no,” who know when to set the bar high and when to say “that’s enough,” who know when to stay on the pedestal you’ve put them on and when to show some cracks in the armor, and who know a thing or two about respect—both for others and for themselves.
Those women sound important, right? And, yet, they are hardly ever treated that way. How many times have you seen a movie or a TV show or a play depict an intimate relationship between a woman in her twenties and a woman a decade or two older that’s non-familial? I can’t think of a single example (the examples of this sort of relationship depicted between men are plentiful). And there’s barely even a word for it. Sure, there’s “mentor.” But even the term mentor sounds un-natural; it sounds like a construct or something you go to the doctor to have removed. Yet we have women like this in our own lives; women who offer guidance and who are every bit as important as a best friend or boyfriend or family member. They’re complex, messy, and emotional relationships that can be some of the most important and defining ones of your life.
Originally, the plan for this Editor’s Letter was also to talk about what people could do to help support other women in their day-to-day lives—how to follow the examples set by all of these amazing women. Yet, every time I tried to write those paragraphs they came out sounding angry. I realized it was because I feel guilty about the number of times that I have sat with people (including other women) in bars or coffee shops or classrooms and listened to the very same women we’ve just been praising be spoken about in completely inappropriate and undermining ways—and I sat there and didn’t say anything. It’s easy to talk about all the things the theatre community—that ephemeral body—should be doing to help support women in theatre, but it’s much harder to talk about the things we should be doing in our daily lives to make sure women are treated well. What do you do when you’re with a group of friends and one of them calls a successful woman you know and admire “a bitch” or “a slut” and everyone laughs? It’s a situation that’s easy from the outside, but hard from the inside because what does it do to that friendship and what does it do to everyone else at the table? But this behavior is so toxic for women.
I wanted to be able to offer some ideas of things people could do to counter that or advice on those situations. I haven’t really come up with anything that isn’t obvious or easy to say but hard to do. However, I did come up with three things that, hopefully, aren’t that hard (we are all going to try doing them too). So here it goes:
(i.) Say thank you to the women in your lives that have been mentors to you and let them know how important they are. And let your friends know too. For example, if you’ve talked for ten minutes about a fight you had with a friend, take ten minutes to talk about that awesome meeting you had with a teacher/boss/actress you’re kind of stalking (ii.) Teenage girls emulating Jennifer Aniston aren’t silly and neither are older girls freaking out at Saks over lunch with a mentor. So let’s stop treating that behavior like it’s something to “grow out of” be embarrassed by. It’s not; it’s how we figure out who we want to be. (iii.) You know what is silly though? The word “mentor.” Let’s try and find a better word that actually encompasses the impact and importance these women can have on our lives. No, really. Let’s do this. If you have an idea for a word, e-mail it to us. We’re going to make a list of suggestions and get them into the vernacular.
Happy Holidays! And if any of you know Jennifer Aniston, please pass along our e-mail to her because we’d totally love to get dirty martinis with her.