Invisible Designs: On Bohumil Hrabal


Illustration by Maelle Doliveux

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, Jan. 12, 2016

BOHUMIL HRABAL DIED only once — in Prague, on Feb. 3, 1997 — but there are at least two versions of the story.

In the first, Hrabal — one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century; the scourge of state censors; the gregarious bar hound and lover of gossip, beer, cats and women (in roughly that order) — slipped from a window while feeding birds at the hospital where he was being treated for arthritis.

In the second, Hrabal, whose books had been periodically banned by the government and burned by dissidents, now tormented by loneliness, became consumed with jumping from the fifth floor of his apartment, “where every room hurts.” He wrote about others who had fantasized about jumping from the same floor: Kafka, Rilke’s character Malte Brigge. And on a winter’s day, a couple of months shy of his 83rd birthday, he threw himself from a fifth-floor hospital window.

Because this is Hrabal, in whose work beauty, pity, sorrow and high silliness come tightly braided, both versions have prevailed; there is no official narrative. He leapt and fell to his death. He died of an excess of despair and enthusiasm, both retreating from life and nourishing it.

It’s a death out of his own fiction, with the grave absurdity of his greatest novels — “I Served the King of England” (1971); “Too Loud a Solitude” (1976); “Closely Watched Trains” (1964), made into an Oscar-winning film in 1966 — that mournful laughter in the dark. He once said his comic sensibility was shaped by a warning on a dry cleaner’s receipt: “Some stains can be removed only by the destruction of the material itself.”

Today Hrabal is revered, if rarely read outside his homeland. But a book of his has recently been translated into English for the first time, a violent and merry collection of stories from the 1950s called MR. KAFKA AND OTHER TALES FROM THE TIME OF THE CULT (New Directions, paper, $14.95). It’s a slender book, perhaps his bleakest, and a reminder that we ignore Hrabal to our detriment. The “political novel,” so frequently an anemic assemblage of thesis statements, is, in Hrabal’s hands, antic and unpredictable, full of eccentric strategies for imaginative resistance. “One single book by Hrabal does more for people, for their freedom of mind, than all the rest of us with our actions, our gestures, our noisy protests,” Milan Kundera wrote.

But this approach, which I put forth so ponderously, is gauzy in Hrabal, lightly, artfully deployed. He is a spider of a writer: subtle and sly, patient, with invisible designs. He never proclaims — he never needs to. He envelops. His muse was his Uncle Pepin, who once arrived for a two-week visit and didn’t leave for 40 years. Lazy, loquacious Pepin had the comic melancholy of Chaplin, Hrabal recalled, and a meandering storytelling style. From him, Hrabal must have learned how to snare the reader with charm and plain language and logic slightly, sweetly askew. Many of his books take the form of digressive monologues — the novel “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age” famously unfurls in one 90-page sentence — by stouthearted, ­simple-minded narrators. Ditie, from “‘I Served the King of England,” is representative: He’s whiling away his time as an apprentice waiter in a series of crumbling hotels, scooping ice cream into his boots to cool his aching feet, when he bumbles into history by marrying a Nazi.

Hrabal’s own date with destiny came earlier in life. Born in 1914 in Moravia, he was first a poet, in thrall to the French surrealists. Sediments of this fascination can be detected in his prose: a taste for the unexpected detail, for cockeyed metaphor — in “Mr. Kafka,” a man vomits and “the liquid runs out of his mouth as though he’d dropped a pocket watch on a chain.” Continue reading

Is Cultural Appropriation Always Wrong?

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 25, 2015

IT’S A TRUTH only selectively acknowledged that all cultures are mongrel. One of the first Indian words to be brought into English was the Hindi ‘‘loot’’ — ‘‘plunder.’’ Some of the Ku Klux Klan’s 19th-century costumes were, of all things, inspired in part by the festival wear of West African slaves; the traditional wax-print designs we associate with West Africa are apparently Indonesian — by way of the Netherlands. Gandhi cribbed nonviolence from the Sermon on the Mount.

We sometimes describe this mingling as ‘‘cross-pollination’’ or ‘‘cross-fertilization’’ — benign, bucolic metaphors that obscure the force of these encounters. When we wish to speak more plainly, we talk of ‘‘appropriation’’ — a word now associated with the white Western world’s co-opting of minority cultures. And this year — these past several months alone — there has been plenty of talk. In film, there was the outcry over the casting of the blonde Emma Stone as the part-Chinese Hawaiian heroine of Cameron Crowe’s ‘‘Aloha.’’ In music, Miley Cyrus wore dreadlock extensions while hosting the V.M.A.s and drew accusations of essentially performing in blackface — and not for the first time. In literature, there was the discovery that Michael Derrick Hudson, a white poet, had been published in this year’s Best American Poetry anthology under a Chinese pseudonym. In fashion, there was the odd attempt to rebrand cornrows as a Caucasian style — a ‘‘favorite resort hair look,’’ according to Elle. And floating above it all has been Rachel Dolezal, the presiding spirit of the phenomenon, the white former N.A.A.C.P. chapter president who remains serenely and implacably convinced of her blackness.

Questions about the right to your creation and labor, the right to your identity, emerge out of old wounds in America, and they provoke familiar battle stances. The same arguments are trotted out (It’s just hair! Stop being so sensitive! It’s not always about race!) to be met by the same quotes from Bell Hooks, whose essays from the early ’90s on pop culture, and specifically on Madonna, have been a template for discussions of how white people ‘‘colonize’’ black identity to feel transgressive: ‘‘Ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.’’ It’s a seasonal contro­versy that attends awards shows, music festivals, Halloween: In a country whose beginnings are so bound up in theft, conversations about appropriation are like a ceremonial staging of the nation’s original sins.

It can feel like such a poignantly stalled conversation that we’re occasionally tempted to believe we’ve moved past it. A 2013 NPR story on America’s changing demographics and the evolution of hip-hop made a case that the genre has lost its identification with race, and that young people aren’t burdened by anxieties about authenticity. ‘‘The melding of cultures we’re seeing now may have Generation X and Generation Y shaking in their boots with claims of racial ‘appropriation,’ ’’ the rapper and performance artist Mykki Blanco said in an online discussion about fashion’s debt to ‘‘urban culture.’’ ‘‘To Generation Z, I would clearly think it all seems ‘normal.’ ’’ Hip-hop culture is global culture, according to this wisdom: People of Korean descent have dominated the largest international b-boy championships; twerking is a full-blown obsession in Russia. ‘‘We as black people have to come to grips that hip-hop is a contagious culture,’’ Questlove, the drummer and co-founder of the Roots, said last year in an interview with Time magazine in which he defended Iggy Azalea, the white Australian rapper derided for (among other things) affecting a ‘‘Southern’’ accent. ‘‘If you love something, you gotta set it free.’’

But many of the most dogged critics of cultural appropriation are turning out to be the very people who were supposed to be indifferent to it. Continue reading

How ‘Privilege’ Became a Provocation

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, July 14, 2015

THIS SPRING, THE novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put a new spin on the commencement speech, that most staid of genres. Speaking at Wellesley College, she didn’t emphasize how the graduates had been helped by their education, but how they had been hindered by it. She invoked their privilege — and her own — to describe how ‘‘privilege blinds.’’ As a highly educated woman, she told them, she hadn’t always been alert to the ‘‘nuances’’ of people who were different from her. ‘‘Privilege blinds, because it’s in its nature to blind,’’ she said. ‘‘Don’t let it blind you too often. Sometimes you will need to push it aside in order to see clearly.’’

Adichie was speaking to her audience in their own language. The word ‘‘privilege’’ has become ubiquitous on college campuses — but in her coolness, in her ability to claim her own privilege without anxiety or abjection, she restored some dignity to an overstuffed, overheated word.

‘‘Privilege’’ is as old as society itself and initially referred to wealth: ‘‘We have got to fight against privilege,’’ George Orwell wrote. ‘‘And if the rich squeal audibly, so much the better.’’ But when social scientists began using the word to refer to the unearned benefits afforded a group of people, the term experienced a resurgence. It has prompted flamboyant disputes on cable news, memorably between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly, who debated whether privilege really exists at all. It inspires college students to fire off indignant editorials about how identity politics on campus and a culture of ‘‘checking your privilege’’ — examining how your perspective is shaped by your advantages — is going too far or not far enough. President Obama has been asked if he is doing enough to address white privilege in America. On the Internet, it makes for trusty kindling, and in the popular imagination, a cudgel: When people think of ‘‘privilege’’ being used, it’s almost always as an epithet, to shame.

In the 1930s, W.E.B. Du Bois had an insight that privilege isn’t only about having money — it’s a state of being. He noted a ‘‘psychological wage’’ of whiteness: Poor whites felt that they outranked poor blacks; they could at least vote and access public schools and parks. In 1988, Peggy McIntosh, a women’s studies scholar at Wellesley, expanded on the idea, publishing a list of 46 benefits of being white (for example: ‘‘I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time’’; ‘‘I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection’’). ‘‘I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage,’’ she wrote, ‘‘but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.’’ For many, this idea of privilege was their introduction to thinking about racism not as ‘‘individual acts of meanness,’’ in McIntosh’s words, but as ‘‘invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance.’’ And for people of color, it was yet another powerful confirmation of their perceptions, their feeling that there were different sets of rules in place. It also made the case that failing to reckon with your privilege meant settling for a partial view of reality — Adichie’s very point.

But the shine has come off this hardy, once-­helpful word. It looks a little worn, a bit blunted, as if it has been taken to too many fights. Instead of clarity, it has sown confusion: ‘‘I’m white, my husband is Latino,’’ one woman commented on a blog post about confronting your privilege. ‘‘We have a Latino last name. Does that mean I lose some of my white privilege?’’ Even those who find it useful in certain contexts say the word swallows too many subtleties and individual variations. ‘‘You need to know that I was privileged,’’ Ta-­Nehisi Coates wrote on his blog for The Atlantic. ‘‘I can run you all kinds of stats on the racial wealth gap and will gladly discuss its origins. But you can’t really buy two parents like I had.’’ My own allegiance to the word is atavistic — growing up, it was one of the few words I had to understand the racism I felt so surrounded and mystified by. But now I find myself wielding the word warily, like the devalued currency it has become — dismissed as jargon or used to hector. The only reliable effect it seems to produce is panic.

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On ‘Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty’


Cheshire (Wangechi Mutu) – Marilyn Minter

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, June 25, 2015

MARILYN MINTER IS partial to spit, ­spatter and redheads. Hers is a “Black Mass brand of femininity,” in the words of the poet Eileen Myles, and she’s become best known for candy-colored shots of dirty feet in designer heels, puffy pubic hair, navels ringed with beads of sweat; paintings and photographs that blur high art and high fashion, photorealism and abstraction. It’s a body of work that’s playful and nasty and full of surprise.

“Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty” has been published in conjunction with her first major retrospective, now at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. It contains her work from 1969 on, and encomiums from the likes of Richard Hell (“She is a filthy sensualist, just like God”); and it marks a career pocked by notoriety and periods of paralysis — elevated, now, in her 60s, by sudden fame. Excommunicated from the art world in the early ’90s for her cheerful paintings of hard-core pornography — Minter said feminists accused her of sexism — today she shows her work at the Venice Biennale; she’s collected by the Guggenheim and Jay Z and is a godmother to a new generation of artists experimenting with what she calls “the feminine grotesque.”

Like her images, “Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty” is seductive and glittery, an ­object of desire. It highlights what appears to be almost innate talent (Diane Arbus was a fan of her student work) and an equally preternatural ability to attract censure — as well as some faithful obsessions.

Minter taught herself to draw by tracing princesses and the comic-strip heroine Brenda Starr, a well-upholstered “lady reporter” modeled on Rita Hayworth. She’s always been moved and amused by the trappings of gender, its rites and representations in pop culture. In her 20s, she began to tap the seam central to her work, what she calls “the pathology of glamour.” As a student at the University of Florida, she took the photographs that would become the “Coral Ridge Towers” series (1969), featuring her mother, a Southern belle gone to seed, posing stoned and imperious as she freshens her lipstick and dyes her eyebrows. Minter took just 12 shots, six of which are included in this book. It’s astonishing to see her themes emerge so fully formed: the eroticism of the beauty ritual, the armature of glamour, the pathos and delicious anarchy that ensue when the mask begins to slip.

Minter’s classmates, however, were less entranced; they found the photographs cruel and unfeeling. She dropped the project in favor of more conventional feminist images in the vein of Laurie Simmons and Cindy Sherman — critiques of domesticity and consumerism, pointillist paintings of housework, a series of photographs of “female traces”: lipstick on cigarettes or napkins. To publicize an art show, she bought 30-second advertising spots during late-night television talk shows and produced a commercial called “100 Food Porn,” featuring her images of a woman’s hands suggestively fondling vegetables and cutting into meat.

In 1989, Minter began her infamous pornography series, included in this book. The work seems surprisingly tame today, noteworthy only for the furor it once caused — and, oddly enough, for its humor. “Just people having a good time,” she would later wistfully recall.

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Mothers of Invention

Alice Neel, Ginny and Elizabeth, 1975, oil on canvas, 42 × 30

Alice Neel, Ginny and Elizabeth, 1975, oil on canvas, 42 × 30″.
© Estate of Alice Neel, courtesy David Zwirner, New York

By Parul Sehgal, Bookforum JUNE/JULY/AUG 2015

AS AN INSTITUTION, the family is in the curious position of being regarded as both crucial to human survival and inimical to human freedom. It bears a note of bondage down to its root; family, that wonderfully warm, nourishing-sounding word (it’s the echo of mammal, mammary, mama, I suspect), derives from the Latin familia, a group of servants, the human property of a given household, from famulus, slave. Since its beginnings, family has carried this strain of being bonded—and not just in body but in imagination. “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God,” says Ishmael, setting sail in Moby-Dick. On shore, we are to understand, our minds remain manacled, too absorbed with the hearth to look up at the stars. The first thing the Buddha did in pursuit of enlightenment was to leave home (after naming his newborn son Rahula—fetter”). For writers, the family has been posited as an especially hazardous pastime; as Cyril Connolly’s lugubrious forecast goes: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

But a swarm of recent books have been freshly interrogating the family as experience, institution, and site for intellectual inquiry: novels like Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill and 10:04 by Ben Lerner; memoirs like The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, and Making Babies by Anne Enright; essay collections like 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl; and cultural studies like On Immunity by Eula Biss. In each, the arrival (or the imminent arrival) of a child prompts a constellation of questions about selfhood and artmaking and the ethics of care. Many of these books adopt a copious, fragmentary form and gesture, some a bit shyly, toward radical possibilities for the domestic. On canvases big and small, they test out new answers to ancient questions: How best can we live this life and how best can we write about it, to what ends and with what compromises?

We can detect familiar DNA throughout, echoes of defining memoirs like Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (1976) and Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work (2001), both controversial in their time for addressing the tedium and isolation of caring for small children. And if there’s a presiding spirit, it’s gentle, generous D. W. Winnicott, the child psychotherapist who reified the power of “the ordinary mother in her ordinary loving care.” (Winnicott’s ghost also hovers over Alison Bechdel’s memoir Are You My Mother?) The books couldn’t be more diverse in tone, though: Ben Lerner’s metafiction is sweeping; Jenny Offill’s is stiletto-sharp. Sarah Manguso’s memoir is elliptical, and Sarah Ruhl’s and Anne Enright’s share the cozy chaos of Shirley Jackson’s recently reissued Life Among the Savages (1953). Eula Biss approaches the tinderbox of the anti-vaccination movement with every possible safety precaution in place—the carefully neutral tone, the extensive research. And Maggie Nelson’s book is a lava pool of shifting selves—she becomes pregnant while her fluidly gendered partner, the artist Harry Dodge, takes testosterone and has top surgery.

These books are committed to a kind of candor that surpasses confessionalism; there is an ethos of radical transparency at work, an interest in revealing just how the book we’re reading was produced, to out the kinds of labor that usually remain invisible. Rachel Cusk set the tone in A Life’s Work: “The issue of children and who looks after them has become, in my view, profoundly political, and so it would be a contradiction to write a book about motherhood without explaining to some degree how I found the time to write it.” She details the arrangements she made, how she cared for her daughter for the first six months while her husband worked, after which they moved from London to the country, him quitting his job, her writing full-time, a domestic experiment with very mixed results. Anne Enright follows suit in Making Babies: “I have flexible working hours, no commuting, I have a partner who took six weeks off for the birth of his first baby and three months for the second (unpaid, unpaid, unpaid). He also does the breakfasts. And the baths.” And Ben Lerner merrily shows his whole hand. His novel 10:04, which hews close to life, and also hinges on the birth of a child, contains descriptions of everything from how the book was conceived, pitched, and sold to how the author cannibalized his other writings to create it. There is no fantasy of a book’s immaculate conception here, just the good, grubby details.

If child care is, as Cusk writes, “profoundly political,” so too is the labor of writing, so too are the questions of who writes and what about—and how can they afford to. In Dept. of Speculation, our narrator, a thwarted writer and new mother, recalls her early ambitions: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.” These books reveal the rigging behind the art monster: Who licked the stamps on the applications for grants? Who minded the children? Who paid the bills, and how?

“The form our creativity takes is often a class issue,” wrote Audre Lorde. She was praising poetry, the most “economical” art form, the “most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper.” Toni Cade Bambara was fond of the short story for the same reason—its “portability”: “I could narrate the basic outline while driving to the farmer’s market, work out the dialogue while waiting for the airlines to answer the phone, draft a rough sketch of the central scene while overseeing my daughter’s carrot cake, write the first version in the middle of the night, edit while the laundry takes a spin, and make copies while running off some rally flyers.” (One can’t help but think of Karl Ove Knausgaard; would his avalanche of prose—those six volumes of minutely detailed domestic life—have been possible without Scandinavian social services, the day cares to which he and his poet wife were able to entrust their four children?)

Offill, Ruhl, Manguso, and Enright take to the fragment and to short bursts of prose for reasons aesthetic and epistemological, certainly, but also, one feels, out of some deeper exigencies—“I cannot hold my baby at the same time as I write,” Nelson writes. Enright says she wrote Making Babies in a frenzy while her babies slept and later assembled the book from her notes. The narrator of Offill’s Dept. of Speculation composes on grocery lists in the car, and scribbles on the backs of credit-card receipts. (Offill herself wrote her book on index cards.)

These aren’t the fragments—or the kinds of emotional fragmentation—made famous in the ’70s by Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Renata Adler, whose nervy, slender sentences evoked the chic ennui of women coming elegantly apart. This is a different kind of drift, a more painful unmooring. These shards are jagged—but they’re less a performance of alienation than a passionate effort at reconciliation. Continue reading

On ‘The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century’

Credit Brittany Hutson/

Credit Brittany Hutson/

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, May 14, 2015

“Thrive, cities,” Walt Whitman wrote in “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry,” one of his great love songs to urban life. “Expand” but “Keep your places.”

This tension is at the heart of DW Gibson’s “The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century,” a noisy, tender tour of New York much in the mode of Studs Terkel, and a companion volume of sorts to Mr. Gibson’s “Not Working” (2012), which featured interviews with people who had recently lost their jobs. The new book is a slurry of voices. Mr. Gibson talks to the gentrifiers and the gentrified, state senators and the homeless men of the Bowery Mission, developers and community organizers, celebrated artists and the brokers who hype real estate as the art form of the moment.

“The momentum that was in the music business in the ’90s, where it was just so the place to be — that’s what’s going on in Brooklyn in the real estate market right now,” a wonderfully profane real estate agent says. “There is an energy that I can swim around in all the time.” He adds: “You either get down with it, or you gotta get out.”

“The Edge Becomes the Center” is set in a city of awe-inspiring inequities, with an affordable housing shortage that is approaching full-blown crisis. The book is primarily focused on gentrifying Brooklyn, especially Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, largely black neighborhoods that have seen seismic changes in recent years. In 2011, the white population in Bedford-Stuyvesant grew by 633 percent — and rents have soared.

Mr. Gibson’s sympathies are plain. He refers to gentrification as “violence” and quotes the Marxist geographer Neil Smith frequently and approvingly. But he’s also keen on unseating certainties and is wary of arguments that pit an “us” against a “them.” His book strives to show how, in New York, the categories of landlord and renter, gentrifier and gentrified aren’t as discrete as one might suspect. And he’s not especially hot on the word “gentrification” to begin with. It’s a skimpy sort of word, he says, a simplistic term for complex, idiosyncratic behavior.

“Each of us defines gentrification in accordance with our own relationship to a piece of land, a neighborhood,” Mr. Gibson writes. “We have hopes for what the land may bring us — profits, security, community — and we have fears about what it can do, what it might become.”

It’s surprising, then, that the book should feature more confluence than clash. An architect who cheerfully describes herself as a gentrifier says, “How do you put the betterment of our city into the hands of the community. What are those structures that we could make happen?” That question is repeated by land rights lawyers and state senators.

Most of the people Mr. Gibson talks to also agree that development is welcome — it is displacement that is feared. “We want the coffee shops. We want the safety,” one woman says, recalling the urban activist Jane Jacobs’s maxim: “Fix the buildings. Keep the people.”

“The Edge Becomes the Center” touches on the expansion of Columbia University, the construction of the High Line and the way landlords in Crown Heights conspire to eject long-term tenants so they can hike up rents, among other examples. In the book’s most chilling chapter, a Hasidic landlord matter-of-factly describes cheating black tenants out of their apartments. “Every black person has a price,” he says. “The average price for a black person here in Bed-Stuy is $30,000 dollars. Up over there in East New York, it’s $10,000 dollars.”

Throughout, Mr. Gibson is a skilled and sensitive interlocutor with an eye for the revealing gesture — for how one fastidious subject guards his goatee while eating or how another “always — always — yields to the car trying to take the lane in front of him.”

But he can get carried away. There are some dismal “literary” flourishes and, more frustratingly, a real lack of internal logic. The first few chapters move sinuously — one character introduces us to another and so on. The structure, however, soon grows scattershot. Characters crop up randomly; we’re occasionally given diligent descriptions of age, sex and race, but often the subjects remain ciphers — or worse, are identified only as nebulously “dark-complected.”

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On ‘Flawless’ as Feminist Declaration

Illustration by Javier Jaén

Illustration by Javier Jaén

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, March 24, 2015

The word “flaw” is some 700 years old. It was born from fire and ice, first used to mean “ember” and “snowflake” — some fragment of a whole gone astray. It evolved to signify “defect,” initially in surfaces and soon after in character. But recently, it has become associated most closely with appearance, thanks to the popularity of its opposite, “flawless.” On social media, “flawless” has a celebratory sheen: Women apply it tenderly, reverently to one another — and triumphantly to themselves.

The word was ushered into its new usage by Beyoncé’s 2013 song “***Flawless,” whose declaration of proud, almost swaggering femininity was taken up by women on the Internet. A much-shared photograph of a woman in a hijab with dramatic, winged eyeliner is captioned “flawless”; so is one of Rihanna on a New York street, wearing a tight white skirt and holding a bright blue umbrella. A teenage girl shows off her “flawless” braids. A young woman embraces a pregnant friend in a hospital room: “Fixing to have a baby & still flawless.” Plus-size fashion bloggers upload a video of themselves dancing to “***Flawless.” And there’s Rihanna, again, in a pale pink pantsuit and matching fur stole.

It’s perhaps our first untroubled word for human beauty, free of the whiff of sexism that clings to many others. It doesn’t denote marriageability (like “nubile”) or beauty born of fragility (“comely”). Unlike its close relations “fair,” “perfect” and “immaculate,” it carries no overt religious connotations. And unlike “beautiful” itself, with its associations of perishability and status, “flawless” feels vigorous. It’s a word for integrity and excellence of execution. Over the years, this publication has reserved it for Babe Ruth’s swing, Sarah Bernhardt’s turn in “Cléopâtre” and a few especially strong competitors at the Westminster Dog Show.

Something interesting happens when a word that suggests action is applied to beauty: It recasts beauty as something that can be done, pulled off — not just possessed. On Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter, when “flawless” is used as praise, it implies a friendly interest in workmanship — in a brow arched just so, in contouring cream ingeniously applied, in effort and experimentation as much as the final effect. True, “flawless” has its own conventions and idiosyncrasies: It usually refers to a certain kind of regal woman — think Beyoncé, Rihanna, Michelle Obama — with a sculpted look that feels achieved (also, possibly, complicated and expensive to maintain). But its abiding spirit is generous and even vaguely campy; it honors the artifice in all beauty and is skeptical of anything wanly “natural” or “authentic” that conceals the trouble it took. Its ethos could be Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman.”

The idea of beauty as performance — and as successful gender performance — is not what’s new. “Women are all female impersonators to some degree,” Susan Brownmiller wrote in the ’80s; “flawless” has been part of drag argot for years. (It even provided the title of an appalling 1999 comedy in which Philip Seymour Hoffman starred as a drag queen giving singing lessons to Robert De Niro’s brooding bigot cop.) Joe E. Jeffreys, a historian of drag culture who teaches at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts, told me he can trace the word back to at least the 1960s. “It’s an underground word,” he said. “People sometimes say that they ‘spooked your beard,’ meaning they can see through your makeup foundation to your facial hair and see that you’re a guy. To be ‘flawless’ is to be the opposite of that. There’s nothing to see through, it’s so perfect.”

This usage, he says, can probably be linked to one individual: Flawless Sabrina, a legendary godmother of American drag. William S. Burroughs was her lover; Andy Warhol, a supporter. Diane Arbus photographed her in Central Park looking gaunt and glorious, with her narrow body and bright bulb of hair. In the years when cross-dressing could get you arrested (and long before “Paris Is Burning”), she established a national circuit of beauty pageants for drag queens, traveling across America in the ’50s and ’60s. Jeffreys suspects that the term “flawless” followed her. Flawless Sabrina, now in her 70s, cautiously agrees. It was “tongue in cheek,” she says of her name. She was attracted “to the irony of it,” she adds. “This idea of a paragon of perfection. God knows I was anything but perfect.”

In its current life online, however, the word has shed some of this irony; it is now deployed with earnest self-satisfaction. Continue reading