All The Lives I Want (2017)

by Juniper Fitzgerald on July 26, 2017 · 0 comments

in Books, Reviews

Alana Massey’s new collection, All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers, is a fucking love song to sex workers. Yet, Massey’s own erotic labor—both licit and ambiguous—is not the focus of the work. Massey interrogates “our collective ownership” of considerable female figures like Britney Spears, Scarlett Johansson, Amber Rose, Lil’ Kim, and others in 15 brief essays. Throughout the book, her own sex work plays a more subtle role in her analytic critique of what, exactly, it means to be owned. But being metaphorically owned—by the public, by stringent gender roles, by a lack of resources, etc.—sits at the intersection of class and race, and Massey isn’t afraid to have those complicated conversations.

In her examination of 25 female celebrities, from Anna Nicole Smith to Princess Diana, Massey looks at how the public consumption of famous women influences the construction of gender and sexuality more generally. “Britney’s body is everybody’s,” Massey says, before expanding on the public’s “particularly pathological focus on her [Britney’s] claim to be a virgin.” This pathological focus on virginity is of course in stark contrast to Massey’s own erotic labor, where her own virginity is never in question. While Massey does not belabor the point, All the Lives I Want is centrally about the organizing force of the Madonna/Whore complex in the lives of all women, using celebrity culture as its lens.

Notably, Massey writes of listening to Beyonce while dancing as a stripper. She reflects on the “curmudgeonly old-guard feminists” who lampoon Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” because of claims that “women do not, in fact, run the world.” Standing in seven-inch heels and grinding on a crotch, Massey concludes that “girls run the world in the sense that they perform the invisible and unappreciated labor that keep the world on its axis. That is different from doing what everyone wants to do, which is rule the world.” She is neither overly optimistic about her role as a sex worker under patriarchy nor does she apologize for it. Likewise, she is not seduced by the pretty things of femininity but rather describes them as a necessary force of destruction.

Curiously, however, “sex work” is not Massey’s preferred term when delving into her personal narrative, despite her forthright descriptions of blowing sugar daddies and fucking strip club regulars. Even the dust jacket of All the Lives I Want references the juxtaposition of Massey’s sex work with her opulent cultural critique as, merely, “an exploration into the female economy.” While perhaps this is calculated, linguistic sorcery from the wands of editors, a means by which Massey’s work can be distinguished from the over-saturated genre of white, cis sex worker memoir, I could not help but notice the its omission. Similarly, at times Massey’s class status feels distracting. While I admire her truthfulness, I am admittedly unfamiliar with, for example, “low grade cocaine,” which she references in an essay about attending NYU with Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. As a once seasoned coke user myself, I’ve never heard the expression. My understanding of the drug has always been that it is either “good shit” or “bleach.” To place the drug in a hierarchy of grades is completely foreign to me. This foreignness is just one example of the necessity for critical reflection on lateral whorephobia, a conversation that is thankfully happening more frequently. It is important to acknowledge these socioeconomic differences, even between sex workers. Massey has the choice to exclude “sex worker” from her self-identification, and that is a privilege that is not extended to all of us.

However, I do not wish to discount the ways that Massey clearly struggles. The title—a sorrowful plea from the notoriously melancholy Sylvia Plath—appears on the cover emblazoned in gold glitter. To the untrained, civilian eye, the use of Plath mourning, “I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want […]” seems like a nod to the alleged prettiness of female suffering. But only a sex worker knows that glitter can be as dark as the agony that precedes its application. In reference to a $900 antipsychotic prescription, for example, Massey states, “I knew the shortest distance between me and $900 was the length of a hot-pink nylon-and-spandex minidress covering a quarter of my body.” Indeed, these pretty artifacts of femininity—glitter the reigning objet d’art—are every bit as severe as the crushing insistence, whispered through the winds of patriarchy, that women stick their heads in an oven. And in this book, Massey demands a rearticulation of female suffering through the sparkling lens of sex work and celebrity, two cohorts of women whose lives and bodies are ruthlessly consumed by an unforgiving public.

It was serendipitous to read Massey’s work while I also revisited David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster and French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s America. Sex workers feature prominently in both narratives, which are also highly critical of American pop culture. But in these influential male narratives, sex workers exist as comic relief at best, spectacle at worst. Wallace writes of his experiences at AVN in Las Vegas, mocking porn star Alex Jordan for famously dedicating her suicide note to her pet bird. Wallace, like most powerful literary men who wear sex workers as accessories, is in on the cultural joke—women are one dimensional playthings; our suffering is hierarchical and based on our sexual currency. Baudrillard concludes that whores—and women more generally—are “the sexual scenario.” Massey knows that she is “the sexual scenario” in the debauched fantasies of literary and powerful men, but she uses it to her advantage. She is well aware that her sex work affords her access to powerful and philosophical spaces earmarked for men, but she accesses those spaces in order to set them ablaze.

I found myself weeping as Massey addresses the heartbroken wives of her sex work clients, wives often called “crazy bitches” by the very men for whom Massey dances. She avows, “I took their money and your side every time.” In an industry designed to suit the needs and fantasies of men, and in a sociopolitical environment in which even self-proclaimed feminists espouse disdain for the women who sell these erotic fantasies, I found Massey’s statement is to be a sort of battle cry in support of a new, burgeoning brand of feminism—a pro-whore, pro-femme, and pro-working class feminism that refuses to pit Madonnas and whores against one another. She rejects the cultural insistence that some forms of female suffering are hilarious while others are beautiful, despite the fact that as a white, thin, blond, and brilliant woman, Massey’s suffering is likely interpreted as the latter. In this simple, concise proclamation of sisterhood, Massey sings her affinities for women, femmes, and the whole of feminine suffering. But her words are not shallow cries for unity—they are rooted in the intersectional criticism of patriarchy that makes her book so special. She is not demanding we hold hands and sing “Kumbaya”. Instead, she demands a revolution in which the value of femininity ceases to be measured against its proximity to patriarchal power. Massey knows that fucking another woman’s husband wouldn’t be nearly as threatening if women weren’t reliant on men for cultural capital.

In one of her more notable essays, Massey analyzes the classed spectacle of female suffering in her in-depth look at sex worker heroine Anna Nicole Smith. The essay is heart-wrenching in its exploration of cultural fetishes with poor women, particularly poor women turned rich women by way of gold digging, women who nevertheless stumble through the etiquette necessary for a true rags-to-riches narrative. “Even as a stripper,” Massey writes of Smith, “she did not dance especially well.” And in a culture marred by tales of meritocracy, Anna Nicole Smith was punished thrice over for her lack of talent. She was humiliated first for being a sex worker, second for being impenitent about it, and third for having none of the traits valued by a society where poor women are measured in value like trained monkeys. But Massey rewrites this narrative: “[Anna] was functionally illiterate and deeply traumatized. Yet she made it happen. She turned nothing into something […] That is skill. That is ambition. I do not hesitate to say that it is genius.”

Similarly, in an astute analysis of Lorena Bobbitt, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Princess Di, Aaliyah, and crazy ex tropes, Massey writes: “A knife-wielding nag. A greedy arsonist. A jealous trophy wife losing her shrine. A childish, petty country girl. The public consciousness has effectively trapped these women inside their breaking points […] we like our ex-girlfriends and ex-wives one-dimensional.” This recurring theme of feminine one-dimensionality which Massey explores is intimately tied to the perpetuation of the Madonna/Whore Complex. Indeed, it is Massey’s focus on the Madonna/Whore Complex that seems to befuddle critics, and this befuddlement seems as much a part of the narrative as the book itself. Because of Massey’s cheeky use of glitter, celebrity, sex work, and the feminized personal narrative, a New York Times reviewer tacitly wondered if there is, indeed, a place for women to write cultural analysis, even referencing Massey’s style as part of “the personal essay industrial complex”. The underlying public question is, “Is Massey’s work serious?” Which is code for, “Does femme stuff matter? Do femmes matter?” By comparison, neither Wallace nor Baudrillard were saddled with such patronizing interrogations into their pop culture rife perception of reality, as their cultural critiques could never be anything but serious. Powerful literary men have always mattered, whether they are appropriating the narratives of melancholy whores or glorifying child rape while simultaneously demonizing the ways that actual, real women reclaim our rapes, sometimes through sex work.

Massey stands apart from this grotesque masculinity even as she profits from it. She is living proof that a love song to hookers, gold diggers, and eccentric women can be a serious and timeless work of cultural criticism.

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