On Mindless Mediatainment
Spring of 2020 marked the height of my tortured love affair with something I can only call sandpaper for the brain. As one of the privileged Americans who had found myself confined to my home—safe, cocooned, but anxious and under-stimulated—I became obsessed with peering inside the homes of other, even more privileged people. I devoured Architectural Digest interior design videos and The Cut apartment tours. I accepted the call to better myself, to “use my time productively,” and took up yoga and calorie-counting. I watched videos of models and socialites describing their diets, their workouts, their skincare routines. Eventually these videos blended with the house porn videos, which blended with the yoga videos, which blended with the labyrinth of lifestyle magazine YouTube channels, and the algorithm began to spit content at me that was increasingly detached from any sense of what we might call reality.
In one video from Vogue, a young and gauntly beautiful Italian painter guided me through her Parisian apartment, which was full of vintage couture and inherited antiques. The painter spoke nostalgically of her grandmother’s “palazzo,” tried on a Christian Dior dress her grandmother once wore to Buckingham Palace, sprawled on her cream silk couch and pretended to read Ulysses. (The cushions were made from vintage Hermès and Gucci scarves—presumably inherited.) She pointed out a painting she’d done, of an awkwardly splayed woman with red hair and one bare breast, floating in a murky brown void. “It was my transhumanism period, so I added the small detail of a chip on her arm, as if you could inject information into it, or take it out,” said the painter.
It struck me as unbelievably vapid to slap a chip on the arm of derivative female nude, painted with the stiff limbs and stunned expression of an 1980s Playboy model and the cautious brushstrokes of an AP Studio Art portfolio submission, and call it one’s “transhumanism period.” But I recognized myself, in a manner so on-the-nose that it feels only slightly less vapid to point it out: I didn’t need the chip.
I hated the video. I watched it three times. I keep coming back to it, now, as I write this essay. I let it wash over me. Let myself hate what it captures and want what it is designed to make me want: my own Parisian apartment, my own Hermès cushions, my own vapid art practice, my own comfortable life in which no critical thought is required.
The painting, I later learned, is called Tentazione.
James Baldwin wrote, in 1964’s Nothing Personal, of television:
I used to distract myself, some mornings before I got out of bed, by pressing the television remote control gadget from one channel to another. This may be the only way to watch TV: I certainly saw some remarkable sights … teeth gleaming like the grillwork of automobiles, breasts firmly, chillingly encased—packaged, as it were—and brilliantly uplifted, forever, all sagging corrected, forever, all middle age bulge—middle age bulge!—defeated, eyes as sensuous and mysterious as jelly beans, lips covered with cellophane, hair sprayed to the consistency of aluminum … hands prevented from aging by incredibly soft detergents, fingernails forbidden to break by superbly smooth enamels, teeth forbidden to decay by mysterious chemical formulas, all conceivable body odor, under no matter what contingency, prevented for twenty-four hours of every day … They happily blow smoke into each other’s face, jelly beans, brilliant with desire, grillwork gleaming; perhaps—poor, betrayed exiles—they are trying to discover if, behind all that grillwork, all those barriers, either of them has a tongue.
Later, in the same essay: “The America of my experience has worshipped and nourished violence for as long as I have been on earth.”
The easiest way to move towards a definition of brain sandpaper is to provide more examples. In addition to the house tours, it is a vlog titled “What I Eat in a Day as a Model.” It is a fashion influencer documenting her West Village apartment hunt. It is Vogue’s Beauty Secrets and Refinery 29’s Sweet Digs. It is shopping roundups on Man Repeller, Alison Roman’s chatty food column, the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen. It is a Pilates instructor talking about how her weight loss journey just flew by, she found the process so enjoyable. It is anything involving the words “clean eating,” or “vegan keto,” or “French girl.”
It is either mediocrity enshrined into an idealized aesthetic standard, or it is extreme wealth and privilege packaged as relatable lifestyle imagery. (Perhaps it has a dash of irreverence or self-awareness, which glides on but never penetrates the surface.) It is nominally liberal. Maybe it even borrows from an aestheticized leftism. But it is fundamentally conservative, rooted in possessing things, things one must wish to conserve.
It is visual background noise. It is a machine to elapse time. It is the disembodied phrase You, too, can have a body like mine, and it is the phenomenon critiqued by the novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, and it is the photo in Architectural Digest of the beautiful apartment possessed by a 32-year-old furniture designer, in which a hardcover copy of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine can be seen next to a handmade ochre vase on the nightstand.
It is the lie, and it is the act of swallowing the lie. My desire to watch a Victoria’s Secret model tell me that she lost three pounds by adding maca powder to her bulletproof coffee is legible only as a form of self-harm.
Or at least, this is my own experience of brain sandpaper: the stuff that I find both aspirational and repellent, soothing and enraging, appealing and boring. Like hell, sandpaper is personalized. It is whatever makes you feel pleasantly worse about yourself.
Crucially, the sandpaper is always selling something. The thing it is selling would be offensive to you if it weren’t so blandly seductive. You watch it to avoid thinking. You watch it to be placated. You watch it to—of course—sand down the rough edges of your life. You are not the masses being force-fed opioids, or whatever people used to say about religion and television: you know exactly what is being done to you. The numbing is the point.
Brain-sanding is not hate-reading, although they are related. You don’t seek out sandpaper to make yourself angry: you seek it out to decline the invitation to be angry. You use it to slip into an alternate reality in which you aren’t bothered by the things you know you should be bothered by. For me it might be “diet culture” and “wealth inequality” and “nepotism.” For you these might be different, or they might be the same.
It is rooted, structurally if not always literally, in whiteness.
It is a way of cosplaying apathy. This is what I tell myself. In reality I suspect that the performance of apathy can easily become its practice.
I started writing this essay in late May. I stopped a few days later. It feels perverse to reference those two events so closely together, but this is how I experienced them: the Alison Roman backlash peaked around May 20 and George Floyd was killed on May 25. The petty offenses of a Millennial domestic goddess were the biggest story on the internet, until they weren’t. The primary affect of the commentariat was boredom, until it wasn’t. The world did not necessarily change on May 25—except it did, of course it did, at least one world ended and many others would never be the same—but it shook itself awake.
By mid-July, the focus of the “national reckoning” had shifted somewhat from the deep material violence the state habitually inflicts on Black people to the socio-cultural norms and symbols that gesture towards that violence. Advertising, monuments, pop culture: Aunt Jemima was banished, Columbus beheaded, Missy from Big Mouth recast. These new conversations were not wrong. Nor were they exactly unimportant. But there is nevertheless something absurd about a culture that sees a police precinct set on fire and responds by pulling an episode of The Golden Girls.
And so when the reckoning came to media, it came most inevitably to lifestyle media—the sellers of brain sandpaper, the content I have just defined as that which erodes one’s ability to think.
Leandra Medine Cohen, the founder of the fashion website formerly known as Man Repeller (in a baffling rebrand, they’re just “Repeller” now), announced she would “step back” from the site after a letter she posted in vague support of anti-racism drew critiques of insincerity, and questions about where all the Black employees had gone. (Man) Repeller, as the name implies, always paid lip service to a peculiar kind of feminism: one in which being thin and rich and white and wearing a hideous $1600 designer skirt counted as praxis. It was never well designed to pivot towards intersectionality.
A similar change took place at Refinery29, the women’s lifestyle website known for fashion coverage and reader-centered features like Money Diaries. Christine Barberich, the site’s editor in chief and co-founder, stepped down after ex-employees of color described experiencing racism at the company.
And at Bon Appetit, the editor-in-chief, Adam Rapoport, was ousted after a photo of him in brownface resurfaced thanks to a tweet by the wine writer Tammie Teclemariam. The photo brought a long-simmering dysfunction at the magazine to a boil. Sohla El-Waylly, one of the few people of color to feature prominently in the brand’s videos, aired out Bon Appetit’s systemic racism in an Instagram story: “I’ve been pushed in front of video as a display of diversity,” she wrote. “In reality, currently only white editors are paid for their video appearances. None of the people of color have been compensated.” More reports of racist treatment and inequitable pay subsequently surfaced; the only two Black editorial employees left the company; many of the Test Kitchen video stars, including El-Waylly, Priya Krishna, Rick Martinez, and Gaby Melian, announced they would no longer appear in videos after contract negotiations broke down.
There were signs that something was wrong at Bon Appetit before the brand imploded. The kind of lifestyle the Test Kitchen Youtube channel showcased was not quite the opulence of Vogue’s Parisian apartment videos, but it was not so far removed from it, either. Navneet Alang wrote for Eater, during the height of the Alison Roman discourse, that
the aesthetics of food media are indeed white. That white aesthetic is not, strictly speaking, the abundant natural light, ceramic plates, strategically scattered handfuls of fresh herbs, pastel dining rooms, artisan knives, or even the butcher diagram tattoos that the food media so loves to fetishize. It is more accurate to say that the way we define what is contemporary and fashionable in food is tied to whiteness as a cultural norm—and to its ability to incorporate other cultures without actually becoming them … Only whiteness can deracinate and subsume the world of culinary influences into itself and yet remain unnamed.
Bon Appetit’s image of cool, casual, accessible elegance was always bolstered by such a deracinated “global pantry,” a belief in the primacy of using the “best” ingredients, and a sturdy foundation of intergenerational wealth. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the two seasons of the popular video series “Making Perfect.” In the finale of Season 1: Pizza, the crew gathered to bake their perfect pizza—topped with maitake mushrooms, homemade mozzarella, and sauce made from $7-a-can California tomatoes—at the Connecticut home of Carla Lalli Music’s parents, which happened to contain a wood-burning pizza oven. For the Season 2: Thanksgiving finale, which was filmed last summer, the chosen location was Claire Saffitz’s parents’ summer home in Cape Cod.
The entire media industry has deep problems with race; anything that is both prestigious and badly paid will be a refuge for children of privilege. But the beat we call “lifestyle”—fashion, food, beauty, interior design—is perhaps most inextricable from whiteness, because it is the most inextricable from property.
The American understanding of whiteness has always been rooted in notions of ownership. Cheryl I. Harris writes in her definitive article “Whiteness as Property” that
The origins of property rights in the United States are rooted in racial domination. Even in the early years of the country, it was not the concept of race alone that operated to oppress Blacks and Indians; rather, it was the interaction between conceptions of race and property that played a critical role in establishing and maintaining racial and economic subordination.
To be white was to be a person who could own property; to be Black was to be a person who could be made property. The prevalence of rape on Southern plantations both tested and codified this distinction. Blond-haired, blue-eyed people could be enslaved, and were, so long as they were “Black”; and Black they were, so long as they were enslaved. This understanding of race as a relationship to property was especially important in the tricky matter of inheritance. White children of slaveowners inherited their white parents’ property. Black children of slaveowners were not even entitled to inherit freedom.
These definitions were never absolute. There were occasional Black heirs in the 19th century—the evocatively named Amanda America Dickson, who was born in 1849 to a thirteen-year-old enslaved child and the wealthy white planter who raped her, inherited the bulk of her father’s estate in 1885 after a legal battle with seventy-nine white relatives—and there have always been poor white people. But the historical construction of race as a caste system, with definitional material implications for how racialized groups related to labor and property, makes it impossible to treat the privileged lifestyles that companies like Condé Nast document as arbitrarily white. The whiteness is the ground the whole business is built on.
Really, what is “whiteness” but property plus leisure—and what is “lifestyle” if not a different answer to the same equation? On the day I write this, the online homepage of T: The New York Times Style Magazine most prominently features a long article on the history of food and revolution, topped up with a photo of three Black women sitting before a Baroque spread of Creole chicken, braised oxtail, and jalapeno-watermelon salad, described in the caption as their “ideal meal for the resistance.” Next to this sits a piece about Jackie Kennedy’s iconic Gucci saddlebag, rebranded and available for purchase ($1,770); a piece about the iconic Camaleonda sofa, first showcased at MoMA in 1972, now rereleased and available for purchase ($4,350); and a piece about the Korean-German photographer Heji Shin, whose irreverent and often brutal work is available for purchase only implicitly. Vogue, meanwhile, responded to the protests with lists of Black-owned fashion brands to buy from. New York Magazine’s food vertical came out with a list of Black-owned restaurants. Again, none of this was wrong. These lists were well-intentioned, and many of them included roundups of places to donate as well as places to shop. But a white media establishment urging its readers to combat violent racism by purchasing a Telfar bag felt ever-so-slightly beside the point.
Lifestyle media is simply not equipped to deal with a growing repudiation of racial capitalism—which, according to Cedric Robinson, is really all capitalism. “Capital can only be capital when it is accumulating, and it can only accumulate by producing and moving through relations of severe inequality among human groups—capitalists with the means of production/workers without the means of subsistence, creditors/debtors, conquerors of land made property/the dispossessed and removed,” writes Jodi Melamed in “Racial Capitalism,” an essay building on Robinson’s term. These lists of Black-owned businesses for majority-white readers to “support” reframed consumption as reparation. Buying a pair of earrings or a takeout meal could then become, to the well-intentioned white reader, not an act of commercial exchange but rather one of benevolence, and even absolution.
Perhaps I was too harsh on that beautiful Italian painter. Perhaps I extrapolated a step too far when I described her life as one in which no critical thought is required; but if I reduced her life to what I saw in a lifestyle video I can at least feel secure in the knowledge that she did so first. Part of the pleasure of brain-sanding is the pleasure of disdain. The aspiration towards an upper-crust lifestyle mingles with a middle-class pretension to the moral high ground. As long as someone has more than you, there’s no need to direct the ire inward. As long as Vogue pumps out videos about “cloned rich artsy girls,” as one commenter put it, there is no need for me to implicate myself too harshly.
But the bed I sleep in, where I watch most of these videos, is a dark wood antique inherited from my great-uncle. The house I grew up in was purchased by my parents only with help from my grandmother. I may not have inherited Hermès cushions, but I have inherited a good life—a life inextricable from my inheritance of whiteness.
This is the double-sided problem with brain sandpaper. When the aspiration works how editors and advertisers want it to, the effect is reprehensible: we fetishize commodities, we aspire towards vast wealth, we fall in love with the aesthetics of inequality. But when this content works like sandpaper—when it smooths down rage, leaving only vague desire and vaguer disdain—the effect might be even worse.
It can be addictive, believing someone else is always the problem.
Maybe my desire to watch this crap has nothing to do with self-harm—maybe I am entirely invested in self-preservation. Social media is the new mass culture, more ubiquitous and yet more isolating than even the television of Baldwin’s time. The artlessness and thoughtlessness of mainstream YouTube content can be astounding. There is no pretension, even, in the proliferation of food diaries and haul videos and apartment tours, to entertainment value—nothing of the shock and color of spectacle-driven late 20th century television, much less any of the hallmarks of the thing we call “art.” Tasteful tedium is today’s stylistic calling card. So much cultural production that feels distinctly current—streaming shows categorized as “Easy Viewing,” Spotify playlists designed to fade into the background, apartments decorated in muted colors and line drawings of breasts—strains against invoking any thought at all.
Another way of defining whiteness might be as oblivion. The unmarked body, as Sara Ahmed called it, the white body that can move through the world easily and thoughtlessly, that can truly believe itself to be unmarked—this thoughtlessness, like property, like leisure, is racialized. Part of whiteness is never having to think about whiteness. Part of it is refusing to think about anything at all.
We are perhaps in a peak era of what Baldwin called the “sunlit playpen”: the state of mass culture “in which so many Americans lose first their identities and then their minds.” That we are also in a peak era of mass death is neither surprising nor an accident. It is difficult to imagine that this summer’s protests will be anything more than a blip in the continuous assault of brainless lifestyle content. There is too much at stake, too much money to be made from the too-deep pockets of too few people, for racial justice to be anything other than a cosmetic applied to the tightened skin of an aging society dame’s face.
I do not mean to imply that there have been no changes in the glossy media landscape. I also don’t want to suggest that the changes are automatically pointless. Radhika Jones’s Vanity Fair put out a September issue titled “The Great Fire,” guest-edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates and full of remarkable writing by remarkable Black writers: Jesmyn Ward on grief, Josie Duffy Rice on police abolition, Danez Smith on protest art. The issue is a far cry from anything you can imagine coming out of the Graydon Carter era. It’s an unqualified good that these pieces of writing exist. But will Condé Nast really be able to reorient itself around such a project’s promise? Would it even want to?
In an article for Business of Fashion called “Why It’s So Difficult for Condé Nast to Change,” Chantal Fernandez writes that Jones has received a particularly “frosty reception in some quarters internally, as Condé Nast struggled to sell the new Vanity Fair to fashion and beauty advertisers in particular.” Fernandez acknowledges that “Consumers still aspire to have more and prove it by what they spend money on, but key signifiers of status have changed: authenticity and vulnerability are prized as part of a growing desire to be more democratic, more raw.” But the realities of the business teams’ and advertisers’ preferences—for whiteness and wealth above all—stymie progress on the editorial side. Fernandez’s piece came out on July 1; I quite wonder what Roger Lynch, Condé Nast’s CEO, made of the advertising revenue that “The Great Fire” generated. Did it seem worth it, to him? Did it pull its weight?
Even if Condé Nast makes sincere changes, even if lifestyle media becomes more racially diverse, even if the twin gods of leisure and property become so ahistorically distributed as to render them no longer synonymous with whiteness—even if these things happen, the project will not have fundamentally changed. These publications will always need to be aspirational to be at all recognizable as themselves, and aspiration is the opposite of critique: it can be uneasy, even qualified, but at its core must always be hungry and raw and deeply insecure. Perhaps it would be preferable if Bon Appetit and Repeller just stopped pretending to be relatable or culturally relevant and went the way of Town and Country, which is at least honest in its cartoon villainy. (The August issue of T&C included an article titled simply “The Rich Are Buying Compounds During the Pandemic.” No spin, no apology, just pure uncut violent wealth accumulation!) And certainly it would be preferable for inequality to be less extreme, for aspiration to be less material, for whiteness to be less suffocating, for the state to be less violent, for beauty to be broader, for writing to be better, for diversity to be a given, for people to be more skeptical, for rich people to be more ashamed, for policing to be over, for basic needs to be universally met—but who, then, would advertise in Vogue?