Mistress America: A Modern Type

‘You know the Bowery Hotel?… if you walk about a block South there is a laser hair removal centre that’s very hip. I did the waiting room,’ quips Greta Gerwig’s Brook to Lola Kirke’s Tracey in the film Mistress America (2015). Five months after its release, Mistress America has stayed in my mind for its zany account of someone who restlessly chases after new beginnings. Brook, the central character of Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s modern screwball comedy, is a 30-year-old multitasking dynamo with fingers in many pies. She’s a freelance interior decorator, specialising in the City’s ancillary spaces; a maths tutor and a spin-class leader.  When Brook meets 18-year-old Tracey, an insecure college student and her future stepsister, she’s about to launch Mom’s, her most ambitious project yet. Mom’s will function as an eatery, hair salon and sanctuary for frazzled Manhattanites. But when investment from Brook’s absent rich boyfriend Stavros falls through, and she is sent on an unlikely hunt for funds via a fortune-teller, her arch-enemy and an ex-boyfriend, Tracey suspects that Brook maybe headed for ruin. Whilst remaining on sisterly terms with Brook in person, Tracey, an aspiring writer, turns this to her advantage, by penning ‘Mistress America,’ a story where the central character Meadow is a scarcely-camouflaged Brook. With the  inexperienced sagacity of an eighteen-year-old, Tracey pathologises Brook for her combination of hare-brained schemes and lack of ‘follow-through.’

'Tracey, Welcome to the Great... White... Way!'
‘Tracey, Welcome to the Great… White… Way!’

Brook might fall into martial arts trainer George Leonard’s definition of a ‘Dabbler.’* According to Leonard, ‘The Dabbler approaches each sport, career opportunity or relationship with enormous enthusiasm. He loves the rituals involved of getting started, the spiffy equipment, the shine of newness… The Dabbler might think of himself as an adventurer, a connoisseur of novelty, but he’s probably closer to being what Carl Jung calls the puer aeternus, the eternal kid.’ The Dabbler, Leonard considers, will never achieve mastery in his career or relationships because he finds the inevitable plateau that follows the initial spurt of excitement, unbearable. He is unable to plough on with his work when he’s not making obvious progress and gets bored and frustrated easily.  Dabbler characteristics are anathema in martial arts and anything else where progress is slow and  achieved with persistent hard work. But isn’t Brook required to be a Dabbler of sorts to thrive in the modern metropolis? Isn’t it her ability to abandon failing projects and find new ones that enables her to get by?

Jack of trades
The Dabbler by another name…

If we strip back the screwball glamour of Brook’s eccentricities,  her character and lifestyle are hardly unique. She is essentially a young woman with abundant ideas and energy, who has been trying to not only survive in New York City, but contribute to its status as a hub of urban innovation. She has thrown herself into numerous projects, which have flash-in-the-pan satisfaction and limited currency.  By the time she haphazardly conceives the idea for Mom’s, she is ready for a more substantial commitment, which will liberate her from having to expend her energy on finite enterprises. Living in London, a city, which like New York, is a shiny jewel for magpies with artistic skills, education and ideas, I have met many variations on the Brook theme. As someone with myriad eclectically-financed projects on the go, I’m a version of Brook. Her trajectory through niche commissions, part-time jobs and wild-goose-chases for funds, feels both hilarious and authentic.

Patti oo
New York Dabblers and Artists: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Photo by Mapplethorpe

Post-recession, I would even argue that those who have forgone the cover of a  corporate graduate scheme or other equivalent stability, have had to show Brook’s level of versatility (and charm), in order to earn enough to survive, or to ensure that they collate the diverse portfolio of skills needed for an ever-changing job market. When short-term contracts and one-off commissions are the norm, even if you do want to stay in one role and achieve what Leonard terms ‘mastery,’ you have to move on. Or maybe your dream-job, that you’ve trained all these years for, is about as hard to come by as snow in June, (or December for that matter), so you’re taking baby-bird steps to get there, via serial loosely-related fringe roles.  Maybe you’re doing your dream job anyway, and don’t earn a living wage, so you have to scavenge for something that pays. Maybe mastery in one thing isn’t that important to you and you genuinely enjoy trying different types of work –  is that a valid reason for self-flagellation?  Whatever, the causes, ‘Mistress America’,  with more hats than the Mad Hatter and more wiles than Katharine Hepburn’s Susan in Bringing Up Baby (1938), is no mythic unicorn, but a real modern type. Interestingly, the original 1930s screwball comedies with their untoward plots, physical humour and scrappy heroes who were capable of improvising their way into and out of trouble, were made in an era of mass unemployment following the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Gerwig and Baumbach should re-invent a version of the genre for our own age of precarious employment and economic uncertainty.

Susan and leopard
A dotty theme: 1930s screwball heroine Katharine Hepburn and her Baby

I realise that this is an odd Winter Solstice post, but it resonates with what I’ve seen, heard and felt this year. There are beginnings everywhere, but how can we tell which ones have mileage and which ones will lead us on the quest for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? And if they do send us on a leprechaun path is that such a bad thing?

A golden apple tree grows near the Arsenal stadium...
Golden apples grow at the darkest time of the year near the Arsenal stadium…

*George Leonard, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment (New York: Penguin Books, 1991).

A date with no expectations

redshoe fade

One day, my flatmate* wandered in, looking flustered. ‘I really don’t know what to wear for this date,’ she said. ‘I have zero expectations’. She had her reasons for being so pessimistic: her date had been sending her mixed messages during their brief courtship, and just when she was beginning to forget him, six months later, he texted out of the blue, inviting her to an exhibition.

It was a sultry Indian summer afternoon, but she was not feeling the warmth. ‘This weather is confusing my soul!’ she complained as she scoured her wardrobe for something suitable. She finally settled on a long-sleeved Breton striped top and black jeans, and after I convinced her that she would broil in her chosen grey suede boots, replaced them with open-toed wedges. The date was abysmal. He had shown up 40 minutes late, so hung-over that they had to leave the exhibition half way through, and  made several confused suggestions that included a film, a massage, a drink in a pub far-away and then going home because he felt queasy. When she came back, understandably disappointed, she said again, ‘well at least I didn’t make an effort with my appearance!’

George Barkenton for Junior Bazaar
Comfort dressing. George Barkenton for Junior Bazaar

It then occurred to me that outfits and dates are intrinsically expectant. Clothes are for the most part success orientated: the coat that weathers all storms; the shirt that secures the promotion; the mini-skirt that pulls; the deconstructed trousers that signal alternativeness. Women’s clothes especially, are designed to enhance sex appeal, even when they are masquerading as work or sportswear; a certain neckline deepens a cleavage, while a slyly positioned stripe slims a thigh. Dressing for a date with no expectations is near impossible because you go against clothing’s fundamental optimism.

What my flatmate did, was to present the most armoured version of herself. The Breton stripes are her second skin (she wears them most days), while the black jeans and  boots she gravitated towards even on a sunny day gave her elegance, but more importantly, protection. It was as though she sensed her heart wasn’t safe with this flake, and she had better guard it tooth and nail.  After her absent expectations had come to pass, she was satisfied that her coolly demure outfit hadn’t given too much away. How galling it would have been to wear hope on her sleeve for one with a track record of disappointing her!

Beatific levels of expectation. Arnold Newman for Junior Bazaar.
Beatific levels of expectation. Arnold Newman for Junior Bazaar.

Having expectations in the very early stage of a relationship has become distinctly unfashionable. While it’s wise to run from anyone who displays a calculated spouse or shag strategy in the first five minutes, the current advice that you should date without attachment or expectation, so that you avoid being hurt, is misery-making. Ironically, by censoring hope that things should go well, we repress the most magnetic part of ourselves and end up more confused and jaded than ever.

Another type of great expectation
Another type of great expectation

But what can you realistically expect in the first few dates? In a few words: mutual attraction, connection and respect. If you don’t have a spark, can’t hold an engaging conversation or are being mistreated, then you should feel deflated. Disappointment hurts, but allowing yourself to hope and lose, rather than expecting nothing at all, puts you in touch with the reality of the situation and your desires. Being self-aware will help you actualise something greater in the future.

If your expectations have been dashed, choose your shade of blue or, in this case, sea (sick) green
If your expectations have been dashed, choose your shade of blue or, in this case, sea (sick) green

*Thanks to my flatmate for lending me her story. I’m a daylight robber, not a thief in the night.