This website was archived on July 21, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.

Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Gender Rules

“I love everything my sister loves, but I will not admit it. I know she and her friends will make fun of me. I know my parents will chastise me and correct me. I am learning the rules, and I am learning that boys liking girl things is a very high stakes issue. I am learning that adults react the same way to my interest in makeup as they do to my interest in matches and lighters. [¶] As if maybe, by being what I am, I might burn down something very important to them. Something that makes their life more comfortable and easy.” — Jennifer Coates

Pretty Stereotypes Of City Women

Excessive lyricism lies ahead. Sometimes I can’t resist over-writing.

I love cities, but I don’t want to live in one. Every time I visit San Francisco it smells more like piss, you know? For me, home is a mid-size town, a suburb on a hill. But of course I’m grateful to be able to access urban cultural nodes, to watch live theater and buy pricey drinks, to browse bookstores and pretend the panhandlers aren’t talking to me. Momentary immersion is exciting. High-profile cities are glamorous despite all the grime — the word “cosmopolitan” accrued its connotations honestly.

girl fixing her motorcycle
Photo by Mike Babiarz: “My downstairs neighbor Marni doing some maintenance on her Yamaha XS650.”

City women are easy for me to idolize. Do people find the opposite of their own attributes attractive, or is that just me? I’m drawn to sophistication, to convincingly affected indifference. What’s more enchanting than the ability to stroll past mounds of trash without paying attention?

city woman walking past garbage in NYC
Photo of NYC’s Greenwich Village by Ryan Vaarsi: “There is not, despite appearances, a garbage strike underway at the moment.”

I’m not a city woman. I could never be a city woman. I care too much about how I’m perceived, and the temperament for regular cocktail parties has never been my strong suit.

Yes, realistically, my two-dimensional idea of a city woman doesn’t exist, but let’s roll with it.

Nicole Kidman as Marisa Coulter in the movie version of The Golden Compass.
Nicole Kidman as Marisa Coulter in the movie version of The Golden Compass.

I think of Mrs Coulter from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Vaguely evil under the tight dress and well-cut wool coat. (In Mrs Coulter’s case, extremely evil.) A tool of power who nevertheless wields it, a woman among men who relishes her feminine influence because the alternative is recognizing their masculine advantage.

I realized while writing this that all of my notions about femininity are particular facets of an inferiority complex dressed up by certain aesthetics. The observation is not new. Besides, I have the same reaction to, like, indie music. I’m such a born hipster but I feel mad defensive about it. (A reaction that became classically hipster immediately after the phenomenon achieved meme status.)

I want to be aloof and reserved and brash and sassy and especially never self-conscious. I want to have Marie Antoinette’s cake and eat it too. Okay, fine, I want to be Blair from Gossip Girl, even though she’s excruciatingly self-conscious.

I am continually trying to parse femininity, to practice ladyhood, and stumbling on contradictions. Being human is weird. (QED.)

cosmopolitan fashion collage
Collage by Joana Coccarelli.
graffiti woman, red lipstick
Photo by Sarah Murray.

Do Women Want To Compare Orgasm Stats?

Startup SmartBod boasts, “We make learn­ing about your arous­al and or­gasm less like fum­bling alone in the dark and more like dis­cuss­ing your Fit­bit’s step count with friends.” WHOA, SIGN ME UP. Except don’t because that sounds terrible? People want to do this? Founders Liz Klinger and James Wang think so. Masturbation should be competitive; that’ll improve the world!

According to Clare Thorp, “The statistics generated by the app will also allow you to see how your satisfaction compares with other users[,] like a leaderboard for orgasms. […] Liz Klinger hopes that it will give women reassurance, and cut through the nonsense that people peddle about their sex lives. […] It’s the ultimate answer to that perennial question: ‘Am I normal?'”

Instead of telling everybody that they’re normal, which is statistically impossible just like everyone being exceptional, why not encourage people to accept their orgasm profiles—or whatever term SmartBod plans to use—the way they are? Klinger and Wang are kidding themselves if they don’t realize that people are going to worry about climaxing too quickly or needing super intense vibration. Look at how people react to disparities in Instagram likes.

hors d'vours.jpg
Photo by tox brown.

Based on the SmartBod website and a story by Patricia Yollin, Klinger and Wang are motivated by the admirable desire to help people understand their bodies and optimize pleasure. As Yollin explained, “Klinger and Wang figure that the urge to quantify, measure and explore one’s body should logically extend to female excitement.” Often I read sentences to which I react, “This is everything that’s wrong with Silicon Valley,” but seriously, this is everything that’s wrong with Silicon Valley. Though earnest, the metric-based attitude is extremely clinical. Example: “One beta tester was able to talk to her partner and say, ‘Look, here’s data. We should have foreplay for this long.'” Granted, that information is potentially sex-enhancing, but geez, what a bloodless way to present it! Oh baby, gimme them statistics.

To be clear, I don’t think that the SmartBod vibrator is an entirely terrible idea. I’m all for dispelling shame and having unabashed discussions about sexuality, especially female sexuality. Helping people have more and better orgasms is a good thing. What I am saying is that I agree with Jim, a commenter on Yollin’s article:

“Hard to imagine this going mainstream. […] I just don’t think anyone wants to turn pleasure into some kind of lab experiment, homework, study topic, [or to] and share this kind of info, presumedly on Facebook or something.” I feel ya, Jim.

1950's relaxation
Photo by frankieleon.

There is something about SmartBod that actually disturbs me, rather than merely setting off my “dumb startup” alarm. Rampant gender essentialism. Which is true of most sex-toy companies, and basically most of the world, but if you’re going to position your company as enlightened and progressive, perhaps you should attempt to actually be progressive. From the SmartBod website:

“Using advanced biometric sensing and statistical methods, we help you characterize your sexuality—how fast you get aroused, how long it generally takes to orgasm, and when sex would feel best—both individually and within the diverse sexual spectrum of the aggregate female population. Finally, as a company with strong female technology, design, and executive leadership, our product is women-centric at its core, from our choices to use the same materials as those used in medical devices to tailoring our device’s ergonomics to how woman [sic] actually hold vibrators.” [Bold added.]

It’s great to be a feminist company with a “women-centric” product. (Although I must note that they steer clear of citing feminism by name.) I am all about lady-focused businesses that put their money where their mouth is. However, conflating vaginas with womanhood is transphobic. The end. Doing so is violent to women who don’t have vaginas, and violent to men who do.

As always, I’m interested to see how this plays out. Send me links (@sonyaellenmann). Hat tip to Dave Pell’s newsletter NextDraft. For more brand-behavior mysteries… The Miraculous Bumbling Starbucks!

Arresting Quotes From The Blazing World

Last month my book club read The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt, which is about a frustrated woman artist. The novel is remarkable, but this is not a review. I want to discuss a couple of quotes that grabbed me.

On being best friends:

“We were a team of two against a hostile world of adolescent hierarchies.”

That resonates. Being a teenager sucks in myriad ways, one of which is the constant feeling of social alienation. I don’t know if that feeling is universal, but certainly a lot of people experience it. During middle school and high school my friendships were self-protection against the brutal clique-ism, against the shame of eating lunch alone. Manufactured terrors of teenhood. You’re nobody if you’re not surrounded. I didn’t submit to it entirely: I spent hours in the library watching My Little Pony on YouTube or surfing Know Your Meme, which is super embarrassing in retrospect. But I still think “How’d it get burned?!” is the funniest thing.

The friendships that I’ve kept, that I still maintain, are based on genuine connection. My best friend recently messaged me on Facebook, just to check in, and I felt a surge of affection. A warm glow arises whenever she gets in touch. Forgive the cliche, but we’re kindred spirits.

On the irrepressible subconscious:

“Mysterious feelings: ingrown, automatic, thoughtless. Before words. Under words.”

I love the idea of “before words”. It makes me think of HP Lovecraft. In his fiction, monsters destroy the people who glimpse them, even if the characters aren’t attacked directly. Every horrible creature he writes about is supposedly beyond description, beyond the power of reason and language.

It makes me think of Sylvia Plath and her Freudian obsessions.

“Before words” makes me think of the sensation when I wake up from a dream with a vague concept, more like an impulse, unable to remember exactly what was happening. But I wish I could act on it.

Gonna Go Down In Flames

screenshot from "Style" music video, Taylor Swift

Manipulated screenshot from the music video for Taylor Swift’s “Style”. In case you can’t tell, it’s trees and sunset. (Sunrise? Hard to know which.) I made this ages ago and I forget why I wanted to post it. Here’s what the scene actually looks like in the video:

Taylor Swift music video screenshot

“Style” is my favorite song from 1989. In general I think the album is pretty mediocre. Still, I can sing along. “Blank Space” is appealing, but it’s no “Mama’s Broken Heart”. I love me some crazy girl chic but I also like dynamic… dynamicness. Dynamitude? And more than one clever lyric. My favorite is a mashup of “Style” and “Blank Space” by Louisa Wendorff. Her version combines the good parts of both songs, and the arrangement is lovely.

Now I’m listening to “Mama’s Broken Heart” and it’s just sooo much better than “Blank Space”. Miranda Lambert singing, “Run and hide your crazy, and start acting like a lady”—that breaks my heart in the right way. See also: “Better Dig Two”. Crazy vengeful country ladies make me feel better about the world.

Sign up for my newsletter to stay abreast of my new writing and projects.

I am a member of the Amazon Associates program. If you click on an Amazon link from this site and subsequently buy something, I may receive a small commission (at no cost to you).