This article was first published in VICE Canada
Alana Massey made her name as an essayist for publications like Buzzfeed, The Cut, The Guardian and Pacific Standard. In her first book, All The Lives I Want, Massey examines the lives of women she admires, both fictional, like the Lisbon sisters from The Virgin Suicides, to real icons like Sylvia Plath and Lil' Kim. Weaving cultural criticism with her own experiences, Massey uniquely touches on the complicated histories between famous women and the world that consumes them.
Having known Massey for the last two years, both professionally and personally, we spoke about what weaves these essays and women together. It's hard to imagine Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen having anything to do with Anna Nicole Smith or Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, but after reading All the Lives I Want, it makes a lot more sense than I imagined.
VICE: The first big essay I remember reading of yours was the first one featured in your book about being a Winona in a world full of Gwyneths. Was that what made you write this book?
Alana Massey: That essay was sort of the catalyst for me taking seriously the prospect of writing a book because it was successful in a very specific internet way that sort of fast-tracked me to more attention in the media and literary space. But I honestly wrote that essay in a sort of angry fit, and didn't have a home for it for months. Did the connections between your life and the women featured in the essay always kind of exist, or was it more of a 'this Gwyneth and Winona thing worked, these other women could work as well'? Because of course, so many of these essays are tied to really major life experiences.
A fun origin story is that it started with an internet comment. When Jezebel was reporting on GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow's newsletter, this commenter Curt Cole said something like, "I just imagine that Winona Ryder sits at home reading this while smoking cigarettes and drinking red wine, and laughing and laughing!" It was just such an amazing visual that it stuck with me. I immediately recalled that when I was doing the necessary Facebook stalking of this guy's new girlfriend during this really messy and painful relationship ending. I really did look through this new woman's Facebook and [thought] she was just so ultra-bland but like, attractive and whatnot, and I was just baffled. The essay sort of emerged from that experience as I sort of thought through the stark differences. In hindsight, I wouldn't have been so diminishing of Gwyneth Paltrow or this other chick, and I attempt to rectify it in the newer version of the essay in the book.
I really love Gwyneth Paltrow. Just as an aside, I love her to death.
Really? What do you like about her? That's interesting to me!
Yes, I think she's real in a way nobody gives her credit for. She's rich and popular always has been. She's not going to pretend to be something she's not for us regular people. I love how out of touch she seems.
I can see that, and that's sort of how I feel about Anjelica Huston. But like, Gwyneth does "affordable" versions of stuff in GOOP that are always so PROFOUNDLY out of touch, if you've even, like, walked past a J. Crew in your life. I think some stuff she does shouldn't get a pass.
There are so many good stories that lead into your essays. I really love that one about the cashier who totally blows it when meeting Anjelica, but I really do think it says a lot about how people see her legacy—Wes Anderson movies and Morticia Addams. I also think in a weird way she scared the shit out of me and still kind of does? It still only hit when I read your essay that she isn't given the respect she deserves in a lot of ways.
I think it isn't so much that anyone actively disrespects her or diminishes her, but that we have such a short memory for who our most iconic, glamorous couples are. Like, she won an Academy Award, she had numerous Vogue spreads, she spent 17 years with Jack Nicholson and wore gorgeous outfits during the whole ordeal. She was doing all of these things that make you a legend, but then when she wasn't in a famous [relationship] anymore, she just sort of receded from public memory as a glamorous woman and emerged as this sort of elegant matron. That's not a bad thing to be, but it doesn't do justice to the sort of things she represented, for better or worse, during her heyday. Hollywood history is littered with women we've treated like that. I feel like the last time I've seen either Huston or Lil Kim in the news, it was because of their faces. Looking now, there was a panel she [Anjelica Huston] was a part of in 2013, and it was about how her face looked. All the articles kept using the fact that she had admitted to using Botox or whatever against her.
Oh my god, the stigma of Botox is something I will never understand. I am 31, I've gotten Botox once and you know what, I looked fucking great! I felt great! It is a totally non-invasive, mostly comfortable treatment that uses safe chemicals to slow aging and smooth the skin and when I've admitted that on Twitter, these bored, sad, small men were like "SHE IS ADDICTED TO BOTOX" the next time they wanted to have a pile on. It's like, women are expected to conform to beauty standards that are rigid—impossible even—but we can never admit that we've attempted to conform to them. "Beauty secrets" are not things women keep from each other to get a leg up—beauty secrets are what men believe they should have kept from them so they can live in the delusion that women are perfect, and effortlessly so.
I think what you're saying goes back to the kind of women you've focused on writing about. Do you think there's a common thread between two women who appear as different as Sylvia Plath and Lil Kim.
Well, the first common thread that tied all of these women together was me being a fan who was angered by their treatment. Because this all started out as sort of a fan's attempt to rehabilitate the public's mind about these women (as opposed to rehabilitating them, which they don't need), I hadn't really thought a whole lot more of the connections between the two besides: [they're] famous, I love them, and [they've been] scorned in some way that angers me." But as I've sort of heard some of the critiques of the book and seen speculation that women like Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion don't belong in a book alongside Britney Spears and Lil Kim, it [has] become so evident to me what a narrow view we take of art and the compartmentalized way we talk about it. Like, if you don't realize that Lil Kim is a ground-breaking poet navigating female experience in a hostile world, and is doing so at the same level of skill and genius (if not above) as Sylvia Plath, then your understanding of art is profoundly, tragically impoverished. A scholar whose work on Lil Kim was really helpful to me was Professor Greg Thomas, and I remember he taught a class on Lil Kim that made headlines that were very much in the "HIGHER ED GOES TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET WITH LATEST GIMMICK" family of inflammatory headlines. [The fact] that it was dismissed out of hand was just so transparently racist. In a lot of ways, I think for so many women who come after trailblazers (in the case of Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj), the idea there can only be one is pretty much the default because there can ONLY be one successful black woman. Do you think this is something all women kind of internalize in a lot of ways?
I do think that all women are socialized to view other women as their primary competition. Like, when I see my own colleagues in media and publishing being jealous of people, it is usually of other women instead of ganging up on men. But I think that men reinforce that idea by remaining shut off from us: they aren't expected to be in solidarity with us. And in the same way, white women make it more difficult for black women to reach the highest levels of payment, recognition, and achievement because whiteness is so quick to congratulate itself for accepting one black artist into the ranks in this way that is really pernicious, because we think that our recognition of their talent is somehow a virtuous thing in and of itself rather than an incomplete and still condescending correction of white exclusivity. White people are deeply intimidated by black genius. I know this because I'm a white person! But it isn't news to black people, and especially not to black women. I really love how you incorporated fictional women into this—the horror girls and Lisbon sisters. When I was obsessed with The Virgin Suicides (both the book and movie when I was a teen), I think I was really into it because I found white girls so fascinating, as they were always represented in a way I knew I could never be. I was really interested in how it was kind of the same for you, but still different.
Right. There are different distances between me and the Lisbon sisters, and you and the Lisbon sisters, but I think there's this element of being transfixed by the ways that they are portrayed as so "other," when really they are just mainstream ideals, and as ideals, don't really exist. It's an interesting and sort of boring sleight of hand that male creators do when they put a cheerleader in a white linen dress and a flower crown, and pretend she is not the exact same beautiful, perfect girl as she was before. [A]nyone who is not quite there buys into it too. I think it says so much about our culture that we are so enamored [by] really sad, beautiful, white girls, because it's both so shallow of us to be like, "She is so beautiful, how could she be so sad?" And then it's also this obnoxiously white supremacist thing to give the sadness of beautiful white girls more power and legitimacy than any other kinds of melancholy. To be honest, your essay changed my whole opinion on how I read the The Virgin Suicides. The way you broke it down, I felt kind of embarrassed to not be like, "Oh my God, this is what it all means!"
I felt the same way when I reread it! I was like "Oh. OH…these boys…I don't want them looking in my windows. These girls…They all die in the end."
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This interview was edited for length and clarity. Lead image courtesy of Alana Massey.