It wasn’t on my bucket list but, in hindsight, it feels like it should have been: “I want to irk Gloria Steinem and cheer Miley Cyrus in one day!” Imagine telling someone that! I’m sure the response would be “Not a chance.” Despite the odds, on Saturday, I managed to achieve both of these things.
That afternoon, the Columbia Daily Spectator — the undergraduate newspaper for Columbia University — hosted the Columbia Women’s Leadership Conference.
As the first female chair of the Spectator’s board of alumni trustees (and, I think, the second woman on the board), I made it a point to attend. Well, “chair” is what the students call me. When I wrote new bylaws for Spectator in 2010, I used the word “chairperson.” But when I introduce myself in casual conversation or email, I delight in using the word “chairman.” I wrote about this on the blog previously. For decades, I have carefully used gender-neutral or gender-inclusive terminology, because, when women are shut out of a lot of roles, it is crucial to use words that indicate being male isn’t required for the job. Most of those words have now become commonplace and I still use them 99.999999% of the time: firefighter instead of fireman, police officer instead of policeman, flight attendant instead of stewardess, spokeswoman/spokesperson instead of spokesman.
My one exception is chairman, applied to me only, of course. I enjoy giving people that tiny un-PC shock, especially since it does nothing to change the fact that I’m a woman in that role. A rose by any other name, you know! I partly credit bad-ass Empress Wu, the 7th-century Chinese ruler and one of my jewelry inspirations, who, during her lifetime, called herself “emperor” — the only female ruler of China to do so. I fucking love that. I felt like she was saying, “I’ll take your job, I’ll take your title and I’ll take everything else I want too.” It aggravates me that history insists on calling her “empress” now. Figures! No one could push her around during her lifetime, but after she was gone, people stripped her of the title she chose for herself.
Historians have referred to Wu as a “dragon lady,” as a pejorative, but after I decided she’d be proud of that, I was inspired to make the best dragon jewelry I could come up with in her honor.
I’ve also co-opted the insult “man-eater” for my Maneater ring series, which I most recently wrote about here. What can I say? Is it so surprising that someone who made swear rings and an IDGAF necklace likes to mess around with bad words of all kinds?
Anyway, there were two excellent panels at the conference. The first one featured my gorgeous and groundbreaking friend Lynn Povich, the first female senior editor at Newsweek magazine.
Not a lot of conference panels impress me, but this one was full of good advice.
Susan Lyne, the chief executive officer of AOL, who was also on the panel, made many excellent points.
The second panel was just as good.
Kat Cole, the president of Cinnabon, has a particularly fascinating biography. The daughter of a single mother and an alcoholic father, she got a job as a Hooters girl in high school. By 19, she dropped out of college to concentrate on opening international Hooters franchises. By the time she was 26, she was an executive vice president at Hooters. She wound up going back to school to get her MBA, without ever getting an undergraduate degree. By the age of 32, she was president of Cinnabon, the pastry company with close to $1 billion in annual sales. After the event, I listened to her chat to some attendees who were asking her about her background at the very un-PC Hooters. She pointed out that, because Harvard MBAs weren’t beating down the door to work there, she got an opportunity she wouldn’t get anywhere else. During her panel, she noted that she “looked bad on paper”: alcoholic dad, struggling mom, college dropout. But when she got a foot in the door, as she did during her waitressing job, she was able to blow people away with her hard work and intelligence.
Another thing that stuck with me was the lesson she said she learned when her mother finally left her father.
The panels were the lead-up to the keynote conversation between Jane Eisner, the first female editor-in-chief of the Forward, and feminist activist and icon Gloria Steinem. Gloria had celebrated her 80th birthday on March 25, and she looked AMAZING.
So much for style experts who say you shouldn’t wear black after a certain age.
Gloria was well-spoken and funny and brilliant. I took video from the second row. I don’t know why it’s practically inaudible! If you put your ear to the speaker in a quiet room, you might be able to hear what Gloria is saying here.
I agreed with every word Gloria said about every subject. I’ve always admired her immensely. So it was clearly the angry ghost of Empress Wu who prompted me to go up to Gloria at the reception later and introduce myself as “the first female chairman of the Spectator.” That led to this:
Gloria, looking at my student-provided ID badge reading “chair”: “You mean ‘chair.'”
WendyB, cheerfully: “Personally, I prefer chairman.”
Wendy: “It irritates people.”
Gloria: “I’m one of those people.”
Bwah! I should have had an inkling things would go wrong because this took place in the same building where, over 25 years ago, during my undergraduate career at Columbia College, I spoke to a women’s studies professor I admired tremendously about switching my major from English to her department. The only problem was that I liked fashion, and I liked writing, and I thought maybe I would write about fashion someday. Were fashion magazines compatible with women’s studies? No, I was told. They’re oppressive, they’re objectifying, they make women anorexic, etc. I walked out near tears, because I didn’t think it was going to be possible for me to unlike fashion on command. Eventually, I decided I liked what I liked, and I would have to be a fashion-liking feminist with a degree in English. Like Sammy Davis Jr., I gotta be me!
By the way, after I graduated, I did not go to Vogue or another Conde Nast magazine, though I did have several interviews and take the mandatory typing test that they had you take because of all the secretarial duties you’d be handling in your “editorial” role. I didn’t do anything related to fashion. Instead, I accepted a job at a business-news wire service — a truly frightening environment where I was one of only three women on the main news desk for a while. (And I was terrified of one of the other women.) I learned fast to be as tough and nasty as the guys, which earned the admiration of the old dudes, though a few years later a younger guy tried to block me from a job in a different department by telling them I was a bitch. Typical. I wonder what Professor-No-Fashion would have thought about that job. Was THAT the right move? Did I deserve a gold star for being groundbreaking or a slap on the hand for being too much like a man? What are the rules here? Someone let me know … so I can break them more efficiently
Back in the present day, after antagonizing Gloria, I ran off to get ready to see another kind of icon, Miley Cyrus, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. I couldn’t find a women’s studies professor to take an outfit picture of my Columbia outfit, but it was the exact same ensemble I wore to another Columbia event in 2012, so who cares. For Miley, I changed into a version of my recent concert outfits.
What Wendy Wore
Shearling vest and arm warmers: Stacy Lomman (2012)
Shorts: JC de Castelbajac (2013)
Tights: Pretty Polly (2014)
Boots: Fiorentini + Baker (2013)
Purse: Prada (purchased on eBay in 2008)
Lipstick: Doll by Ka’Oir
I almost didn’t get the Miley tickets, but then I remembered how much I regretted missing Britney Spears at her peak. A performer only has one chance to be THE cultural obsession/nemesis and this is Miley’s time. When I got to the stadium (with MrB, who happily came along), I nearly cried from the cuteness of the audience. Jon Pareles of the New York Times nailed it in his review — called “Bad-Girl Pop Idol Is All Heart” — of Miley’s Thursday concert in New Jersey:
“On the evidence of her arena crowds, Ms. Cyrus, for all her raunch and bravado and tight unitards, isn’t attracting the male gaze; instead, she’s a heroine for women who want a good time on their own terms.”
It was like my first Madonna concert in 1985 all over again. (On Saturday, the queen herself was there to eyeball the newcomer. Amy Odell tweeted several pictures of Madonna.) The crowd again was mostly young girls, flaunting their puppy fat in belly shirts and carefully doing their hair like their favorite singer. Sure, the specifics were different. In the ’80s, the Madonna wannabes tied their messy curls hair with lace. The Miley-ites wore two topknots, like Miley did during her controversy-causing, star-making turn at the MTV Video Music Awards last August at Barclays. Where the Madonna crowd wore leggings, the Miley crowd wore Miley-inspired short shorts. Madonna’s fans had loads of accessories: fingerless lace gloves, dozens of rubber bangles, rosary necklaces, Boy Toy belts and Madonna-inspired dangling star or heart earrings. Miley’s fans were pretty streamlined. But they screamed the same, they danced together the same, they sang all the words the same. They thrilled to Miley saying sexually provocative things that parents don’t like, because it’s no fun to go out with your parents, so you need to like someone they can’t stand. Some of the girls were wearing pot-leaf-print tops and leggings, like Miley, but I think I caught one or two wimpy whiffs of pot the whole night. Definitely nothing compared to the contact highs I suffered while seeing the Rolling Stones, Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode, all of whom cater to a much older crowd. Hell, someone’s granddad even lit up inside Carnegie Hall when I went to see Neil Young this year. Carnegie Hall! Have some goddamn respect, Pepaw!
From what I could see, Miley’s fans were mostly high on life and music and the excitement of dressing like a bad girl. As I predicted on my blog and the Huffington Post, the controversy ruined Miley’s career as much as it ruined Madonna’s, meaning not the tiniest little bit. It made her a star. All the things that she’s been criticized for — her wagging tongue, her animal costumes, her twerking, the foam #1 hand that was actually from Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video until Miley stole it out from under him during their duet at the VMAs — are now Miley’s distinct image, very visible during the show. I love that she made her entrance by sliding down her own giant tongue. (Note: I am convinced that Missy Elliot once also made an entrance through a huge replica of her own face, but I can’t find it anywhere. Please tell me if you know anything about that!) At around 1:45 in this video, you can hear the already hysterical female audience lose its collective mind as Miley appears.
All those years as Hannah Montana turned Miley into a seasoned professional. She owned the crowd, whether she was lounging on a giant bed with her dancers like Madonna in 1990; dancing with a little person or a plushie; weeping about her recently deceased dog; advising the audience to check out Bob Dylan’s discography; or performing godmother Dolly Parton’s classic country hit “Jolene” with some NSFW ad libs.
“She put on a great show and seemed to be having fun doing it,” declared MrB later.
I left Miley’s concert certain of one thing. The next time I accidentally irritate someone awesome with my imperfect feminism and strange sense of humor, I won’t slink away feeling morose. Nope, not me. Instead, I will proudly sail off on a giant hot dog …
… into a shower of confetti.
In fact, that’s the only way I’m going to make an exit from now on.
- For all of my Miley Cyrus concert pictures, click here.
- For my well-researched Huffington Post story about how society comes to accept controversial performers such as Miley, Madonna and Elvis, click here. It’s worth it just for the 1956 remarks on Elvis.
- For more great quotes about old musical scandals that didn’t fit into my HuffPost story, click here.