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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Is a Vibrant, Devastating Work of Art

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meet ma rainey viola davis

The hardships, repressed frustration, and vulnerabilities that come with suffocating under systemic oppression are ever-present in the work of the late, great playwright August Wilson. He intimately understood the experience of Black Americans; the tone and cadence, the mannerisms and use of AAVE (African-American vernacular) in his plays specify that his theatrical experiences are meant for Black audiences. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the third of Wilson’s works to be adapted for the screen, rhythm and blues are the vehicle through which our characters deal with daily exposure to white supremacy.

The film opens with a mesmerizing montage of performances by the “Mother of Blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). She is in command of the stage and beloved for it, but tension rages between the singer and one of her band members, Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his final performance). The trumpeter craves everything Ma has: the art, the spotlight, the applause. The two compete as their bandmates look on, and the forthcoming trouble is palpable.

The following day, the band is scheduled to record a collection of songs in a Chicago studio run by the economical and unhelpful Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). An afternoon of stories, arguments, jokes, and philosophy unfolds amongst the band members before any music is even recorded. Though this is Ma Rainey and Levee’s story, each character in the ensemble is critical to getting that story told. Colman Domingo as trombonist Cutler adds this film to a string of exceptional supporting roles, once again elevating what’s on the page to new heights. Glynn Turman as Toledo, a pianist who ponders race in America and Black masculinity, plays the beats of misapplied and misunderstood knowledge with grace, dispelling and dismissing tension with his natural rhythm. Michael Potts does equally wonderful work with minimal dialogue as bassist Slow Drag; his exasperated expressions are a striking storytelling device.

As Levee, Boseman is multi-layered and electric. So many of his past performances require a sense of regal stillness; here, he stretches muscles in ways we’ve never seen. It’s a joy to watch him play reckless, a character who doesn’t have to contain himself. Levee has a rude yet likeable charm rooted in unresolved childhood trauma, and as the film revolves around his volatile ambition, Boseman rises to the challenge of the spotlight—a performance so full of life and conviction, it’s a devastating reminder we won’t see more of his multifaceted talent. It had not even begun to reach its full potential.

Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

David Lee

When Ma Rainey arrives with her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown), her ego enters a boxing match with Levee’s. Ma is demanding and delays the recording until her needs are met, just as Levee expresses a dangerous interest in Dussie Mae. All this pales in comparison to the enormous task of recording “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a mission that plays more of an antagonizing role than any one character could. In pursuit of a perfect record, the song brings out the worst competitive and divisive urges amongst this group of people.

Ma is uncompromising and abrasive, and Davis is powerful in the role, her presence large and boisterous but still controlled—the character takes over as she voices her struggles. Ma is an absolute diva, and Davis is clearly enjoying the material: Her performance is precise and assured, and her moments of comedic levity land every time. Though Ma’s behavior may read as unlikable, she explains her reasoning in a conversation with Cutler: “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that. And they gon’ treat me the way I want to be treated, no matter how much it hurt ‘em. They back there calling me all kinds of names. Calling me everything but a child of God. But they can’t do nothing else ‘cause they ain’t got what they wanted yet. As soon as they get my voice down on one of them recording machines, then it’s just like I’m a whore. They roll over and put their pants on. They ain’t got no use for me then.”

Ma understands her social standing as a Black woman in the 1920s: She is wanted solely for the entertainment and monetary gain of the white patriarchy. To maintain any semblance of dignity and to simply survive, a harsh demeanor is essential to getting what she deserves. Levee also believes these sentiments are the key to success, but takes a different approach: By playing within the white system while claiming to understand its pitfalls, he thinks he’ll get what he wants. But Levee will learn that for Black people, this worldview does not work in your favor.

ma rainey's black bottom 2020 l to rglynn turman as toldeo, chadwick boseman as levee, michael potts as slow drag, and colman domingo as cutlercr david lee  netflix

Glynn Turman as Toledo, Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, and Colman Domingo as Cutler in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

David Lee

Theater adaptations too often feel stilted in transferring the magic of a stage play—few locations, a limiting structure—to film. For the most part, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom makes the crossover. It knows exactly where to open up, and the story feels richer as a result. But at other moments, the film slows down—to match the speed of a character pausing to give background, for example—and the leap doesn’t always land gracefully. However, director George C. Wolfe, a New York theater artist, never gets in the way of Wilson’s words, and makes up for pacing issues with beautifully crafted blocking, staging, and camera movement that creates an intimate, in-the-same-room experience. Each actor balances the grand scale of dialogue written for theater with the intimacy required for cinema, and their larger-than-life performances transcend the screen. Everything, from the almost musical fluidity of the actors’ interactions with the camera to the sumptuous costumes and production design, makes for an invigorating experience.

The film ends on a strong, shocking, and sharply bleak note that crystallizes its philosophy: To move through a world that values what you can do for it and not vice versa weighs heavy on the psyche. Being Black in America is walking a tightrope which, if not tread carefully, will leave you feeling undervalued, stranded, and unforgiven. Hopefully, the film reminds viewers of the beauty and misfortune from which the blues come, and the timeless work of August Wilson that extends beyond Fences. Packed with soulfully poignant performances, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a solid, vibrant, and extravagant work of art.

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See How Kim Kardashian Celebrated Chicago’s Birthday, Complete With New Frog Pets

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chicago west 3rd birthday

Chicago West, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s third child, turned 3 years old on Friday, and she celebrated with a lavish party. The toddler’s mom posted photos of her celebration on her story, and truly, the floral decor is on par with some weddings I’ve attended.

Based on the images, Chicago seems to really love two things: the color purple and frogs. There were tables of purple flowers, a stuffed rainbow frog, and…a tank of two frogs apparently named Elsa and Anna.

Kim Kardashian Instagram

chicago west birthday

Kim Kardashian Instagram

chicago west bday

Kim Kardashian Instagram

“My Chi Chi princess 👑 today you are three!!!,” Kardashian wrote in her birthday tribute for Chicago. “You have the sweetest little high voice that I could listen to all day! You bring so much magic into all of our lives. My heart is so full that you chose me to be your mommy ✨ I can’t wait to celebrate you with slime and LOL Dolls today! Happy Birthday Chicago.”

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In recent weeks and months, Kardashian has kept her Instagram focused on her latest work ventures and posts about her kids. But on January 5, Page Six reported that multiple sources had told them that divorce was “imminent” for the couple and parents of four.

“They are keeping it low-key but they are done,” one source said. “Kim has hired [top celebrity divorce attorney] Laura Wasser and they are in settlement talks.”

A source told People this week that this has been coming for a while and said that “the love story between Kim and Kanye has been over for a long time, more than a year. They adored each other but have too many differences.” Another source told the magazine that “Kim and Kanye’s marriage is beyond repair,” though Kim “isn’t in a rush to file for divorce. But it is on her mind.”

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Ranking the Best Theories About What’s Happening

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wanda and vision in wandavision

By the end of 2020, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had started to feel a bit…stale. Part of what makes the superhero genre so universally captivating is its ability to go places that seem too far for other mediums. But by the end of Avengers: Endgame, the MCU was closing the door on a chapter that, no matter how wildly successful, had followed a series of predictable patterns. While that doesn’t make watching Tony Stark save the world any less satisfying, it does make it less nerdy. And no matter how mainstream superheroes get, there’s always a part of the genre that deserves its place in the realm of the nerd, where fan-fueled calculus thrives.

Now, with the explosion of new MCU series rolling out on Disney+ (at least four by the end of 2021), the superhero empire is reigniting fan theory fervor. When WandaVision dropped on January 15, the sitcom-turned-horror-show experiment heralded a bold new path for comic-book narratives. Turns out, superheroes can make for pretty hilarious sitcoms! But, most importantly, WandaVision—at least initially—seems intent on not spoon-feeding fans a story they’ve seen before. Which means, of course, that the fan theory machine is running hot.

WandaVision takes place after Endgame, and it stars Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany as a delightfully well-matched Wanda Maximoff and Vision, basking in newlywed (?) bliss in the quaint 1950s-era suburb of Westview. They don’t exactly know how they got here, or what they’re doing in the 1950s. But they roll with it: befriending neighbors, hosting talent shows, nearly spoiling dinner with Vision’s boss, and trying not to wither under the critical eye of local Karen, Dotty (Emma Caulfied Ford). But increasingly, Wanda has a feeling something isn’t right. She keeps hearing voices on the radio, and at the end of episode 2, she and Vision watch an ominous beekeeper rise from beneath a manhole cover.

New episodes drop every Friday, and as the puzzle pieces come together, we’re gathering the best fan theories from around the internet. Here, we’ll try to make sense of what’s happening to Wanda—and why it matters for the next phase of Marvel stories.

Marvel Studios/Disney+

Theory #1: WandaVision is a spin on the comics arc House of M.

If you’ve spent any time digging around Marvel fan forums, you’ve probably already stumbled on this theory. In 2005, Marvel Comics released a storyline called House of M, written by comics legend Brian Michael Bendis, in which an insane Scarlet Witch (aka Wanda Maximoff) has a mental breakdown and attempts to recreate the universe. You see, she’s lost her two children—Billy and Tommy—as well as her grip on reality. The other Avengers and X-Men (in the comics, Wanda is a mutant) realize they must consider killing Wanda, because her reality-shaping powers pose an enormous threat to humanity if she cannot recover her sanity. Yikes.

Hearing the news of her pending execution, Wanda creates a new world, an almost-perfect utopia where her children are alive, her superhero teammates are happy, and mutants rule the world. But it’s a dangerous lie, and when Wanda realizes what she’s done, she decides the solution is to rid the world of mutants like her. (You might have seen a comic panel circulating of Wanda whispering, “No more mutants.”) At that point, the majority of the mutant population lose their powers.

Marvel

House of M by Brian Michael Bendis

It’s unlikely WandaVision will mirror House of M exactly, because at this point in the MCU, the X-Men and Avengers’ worlds have not yet collided. But it’s certainly possible that Wanda has created an alternate universe out of grief. If you remember the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, you’ll recall that Wanda is forced to kill Vision while extracting an Infinity Stone from his forehead. He does not return to life in Endgame, and she tells Thanos, “You took everything from me.”

It’s not far-fetched to think Wanda created a new universe after Endgame, one in which she lives a picture-perfect sitcom life with Vision. But perhaps, like in House of M, the real world is not as simple as it seems, and someone is trying to bring her back to her senses.

Theory #2: WandaVision will tie directly into Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness.

This theory is less about if than how. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige confirmed WandaVision will tie into the film, and Olsen will star alongside Benedict Cumberbatch in March 2022’s The Multiverse of Madness. So, what does that mean? Well, the theory of Wanda creating her own alternate reality within the multiverse is almost definitely true. And if she shows up in the next Doctor Strange, someone must pull her out of the sitcom-verse—and it could be the Master of the Mystical Arts himself.

Theory #3: Agnes is actually Agatha Harkness.

agnes in disney's wandavision

Marvel Studios/Disney+

Here’s one that requires you to know a bit more comic lore. You met Agnes (Kathryn Hahn), Wanda and Vision’s deliciously wry neighbor, in the WandaVision pilot. Sure, she could just be a quippy side-character, but it’s likely she has a more meaningful role in the series.

Several fans think she must be Agatha Harkness; in the comics universe, Harkness is an old (like, was-alive-before-the-sinking-of-Atlantis old) witch who escaped the Salem Witch Trials and went on to master mystical arts, later teaching them to a young Wanda Maximoff. In other points throughout the comics, she serves as Wanda’s antagonist, and she’s also the one who, after Wanda gives birth to twins Billy and Tommy, reveals to Wanda that the children are not, in fact, hers, but were born of more demonic origins. We don’t need to unpack all of that, but the point stands that Agatha has an important role in Wanda’s life—so it makes sense she’d appear in Wanda’s TV show.

Theory #4: The beekeeper is a S.W.O.R.D agent.

You probably noticed a particular symbol that pops up throughout the first two episodes of WandaVision: it appears on the miniature helicopter Wanda discovers in her rosebush, as well as on the suit of the terrifying beekeeper who rises out from the manhole. You could keep waiting for the show to reveal its secret, but most comic fans will recognize that logo immediately: It’s the symbol for S.W.O.R.D, otherwise known as the Sentient World Observation and Response Department. Basically, it’s S.H.I.E.L.D. but for Outer Space.

S.W.O.R.D was created alongside Nick Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D to deal with extraterrestrial threats, much like the ones that plagued Tony Stark with nightmares after the events of the first Avengers. We know from Captain America: The Winter Soldier that Fury felt the need to up his arsenal after witnessing the many threats hurtling toward our little blue dot, and it’s extremely possible he created S.W.O.R.D sometime around or after Natasha Romanoff released S.H.I.E.L.D’s secrets into the universe.

So, then, who’s the beekeeper? One Reddit fan mentioned it’s likely a S.W.O.R.D agent. Possibly, it’s one wearing a hazmat suit. Once he entered Wanda’s picturesque reality, her mind changed the hazmat suit into a beekeeper’s suit to better fit the quaint suburban surroundings.

Another option? Beekeeper is part of AIM, an organization hell-bent on scientific discovery at all costs. We haven’t seen them since Iron Man 3, but since their goons wear hazmat suits and are sometimes referred to as “beekeeper guys” in the comics, it’s possible.

The other option is that Beekeeper is Swarm, a Marvel villain who fused his consciousness with a bunch of bees. But let’s hope not.

the beekeeper in wandavision

Marvel Studios/Disney+

Theory #5: The series’ big bads are either Mephisto or Nightmare.

Now let’s get deep into the weeds. WandaVision has given us little to no clues as to who its major antagonist will be this season—except for, perhaps, Agatha Harkness. But fans are skeptical Agatha will be the supreme villain. They expect a larger power at work.

The prevailing option seems to be Mephisto. His character has been around since the 1960s, and he’s based on the Mephistopheles of German legend. Basically, he’s a demon-like creature who’s often confused for Satan. He’s evil through and through, and he likes making the Avengers’ lives miserable. One key bit of context: In the comics, he was a servant of Thanos, much like Ronan and other big bads, and he can alter time. So it stands to reason that he’s manipulating Wanda, or that the two of them made some sort of pact—think of it as a deal with the devil. Perhaps, in return for Vision being brought back to life, Wanda agreed to enter Mephisto’s domain, and become trapped in his reality.

Or, we could be on the lookout for Nightmare, one of Doctor Strange’s core villains. He’s a demon and a ruler of the so-called Dream Dimension, where humans are brought during their hours sleeping. He feeds off the human need to dream and can, to some degree, control them through their subconscious. One clever Reddit user developed an entire theory around Nightmare’s inclusion in WandaVision. We’ll summarize it here:

  • Agatha Harkness is alive in the “real” world (aka, Earth-199999), but her child has recently died.
  • Nightmare has lost much of his powers due to the “snap” in Infinity War erasing much of humanity’s population.
  • Agatha promises to help keep Nightmare alive if he helps her get her son back.
  • Agatha meets a grieving Wanda after Endgame and, with the help of Nightmare, sends her into a dream world where she can live with Vision in peace.
  • Even with much of humanity restored, Nightmare isn’t strong enough to keep cracks from showing in his dream world, and that’s why Wanda gets the sense something isn’t right.
  • In the real world, Wanda is producing “energy surges” that spell trouble for the universe, so Nick Fury and S.W.O.R.D attempt to penetrate her mind to pull her out of the dream.
  • When they do pull her out, she’s so grief-stricken and enraged that she tears a hole in the fabric of reality, leading to the events of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

    Theory #6: The folks in the WandaVision commercials are Wanda’s parents.

    Let’s tackle those fascinating commercials, shall we? Each promises a different Marvel Easter egg, and already, fans are dissecting screenshots for clues.

    In both “commercials” during episodes 1 and 2, a couple appear and advertise different products: The first is a Stark Industries toaster and the second is a Strücker watch. If you’re an avid MCU fan, you’ll of course know Stark Industries is Tony Stark’s company, and Strücker is the last name of Baron von Strücker, the Hydra leader who recruited Wanda and her brother Pietro before Age of Ultron and gave them their powers.

    Why is this significant? As one fan pointed out, the ads seem to be revisiting Wanda’s trauma: A Stark Industries bomb killed her parents, and Strücker corrupted Wanda and her brother.

    But who are the man and woman in the commercial? One Twitter user suggested they could be Wanda and Pietro’s deceased parents, alive again either in her memory or her dream universe.

    the man and woman in the commercials in wandavision

    Marvel Studios/Disney+

    Theory #7: Wanda and Vision’s children could pave the way for Young Avengers.

    At the end of episode 2, it’s revealed Wanda is pregnant, seemingly as if by magic, and we know from previously released trailers that she gives birth to twins. These are almost definitely her twins from the comics, Billy and Tommy Maximoff, who have superpowers similar to Wanda and Pietro’s—hex abilities and super-speed.

    Billy and Tommy are stupendous characters in their own right, and they eventually become leaders of the Young Avengers, another popular franchise that Marvel might have plans to cinema-tize. But they also have complicated origins: They’re actually created from fragments of a demon’s soul, and that realization is part of what originally drives Wanda insane during House of M.

    So what if some larger power wants Wanda to have children—and for those children to have something evil lurking within them? A Reddit fan mentioned how ominous it was for the denizens of Westview to repeat “for the children” prior to the talent show. Maybe Mephisto or Nightmare have crafted a sort of “incubator” for super-powered mutants. The MCU has done crazier things before.

    wanda and vision with wanda displaying her pregnant belly in wandavision

    Marvel Studios/Disney+

    Theory #8: Wanda will create mutant-kind.

    How about we go even bigger and bolder? If we know anything about the MCU, it’s that the creators aren’t afraid of ambitious storylines. Plus, more franchises = more $. And the X-Men franchise is a money-maker.

    Disney owns the rights to X-Men, which is why you’ll see those films on your Disney+ queue. So it’s probably not absurd to assume the Avengers MCU and the X-Men universe will eventually collide on the silver screen, as they do in the comics. WandaVision could be what makes that happen.

    One Reddit fan suggested that, after Wanda escapes from her sitcom reality and realizes Vision and her children aren’t real, she might have the ultimate mental break—one that results in the creation of mutants like her, spawning a bridge between her universe and the world of X-Men. Maybe it’s a stretch. But let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised.

    This story will be updated each week after new episodes of WandaVision drop.

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Julia Rothman and Shaina Feinberg on Their New Book Every Body

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Julia Rothman and Shaina Feinberg on Their New Book Every Body

Every Body, a new book from illustrator Julia Rothman and writer and filmmaker Shaina Feinberg, is an inclusive, awkward, tender, silly, discomfiting, emotional, and, above all, candid collection about what it means to be a living person. Vignettes about sexual experiences—culled from impromptu on-the-street interviews and anonymous online submissions—are paired with a range of personal essays, discussions with experts, and erotically-charged art. The book addresses a wide range of experiences, from being horny to unlearning religious inhibitions to drunk sex to watching porn to enduring a miscarriage, all while demystifying stigmas and clichés, normalizing uncertainty, acknowledging trauma, and celebrating desire and playfulness.

Rothman and Feinberg, who have a New York Times column about money called Scratch, are also close friends. ELLE.com Zoomed with the duo to discuss creative collaboration, being a good listener, and how people are waaaaay coyer about money than sex.

How did you meet and start working as a duo?

Every Body: An Honest and Open Look at Sex from Every Angle

Rothman: A friend of ours was filming a video and I met Shaina there. I was kinda shy, and Shaina came up to me and said, “Hey! How’s it going?”

[Both laugh]

Feinberg: I saw Julia and I could tell…she felt very New York-y to me, so I was like ‘Oh! Let me strike up a convo.’

Rothman: I ran into you a few times and then invited you to a party. And then—she asked me to do a drawing for one of her films. We started doing more projects together. Shaina wanted to do this thing about how there were no women directors nominated for Academy Awards one year, so I illustrated the piece and she wrote it. And we’re like, ‘Hey, let’s do more of that!’ We did another one for Cup of Jo, and then I was approached by the New York Times to do a column. I was like, I’m going bring Shaina on with me. We like to say the column is basically about small businesses and big personalities.

Feinberg: We were already working on Every Body at that point.

Rothman: That’s true—I brought her on to help me with the book before the Times.

Feinberg: We started the book in April [2019], but the Times didn’t start until August. I think that’s part of why it made sense—we’d already been working so much in concert, as they say.

Rothman: I needed someone who could help me organize and edit. Shaina can come up with crazy ideas I would never do; she has a different brain than I do. I had made a website that I was using to collect stories for the book. I felt the stories were all coming from one type of person: a white woman around my age. I told Shaina I wanted stories from more people and she was like, “Let’s just go on the street and talk to people.” I would never have done that on my own, or even thought of it. That really changed the entire project, which was wonderful. We did it in New York and went to New Orleans and collected a lot of stories.

Feinberg: For Scratch, we were going on the streets and asking people how much debt they’re in. It was similar, going to ask people about sex.

Rothman: People were more scared to talk about debt than they were to talk about sex.

Feinberg: Way more.

Rothman: People did not want to say how much they owed, but they were like, “Let me tell you about my threesome.”

Did you have ideas about what you wanted to cover, or did the conversations and encounters shape the book?

atieh sohrabi

An illustration by Atieh Sohrabi.

Courtesy

Rothman: The stories informed the topics. There were stories we heard that made us realize, we didn’t think of that. We had made a list of everything we wanted to cover, but then there were things like pegging—we didn’t think a bunch of men would tell us they wanted to do that.

Feinberg: We checked off so many things we wanted to get but were just not hearing about certain things, so we were like, we have to make sure to ask people about this.

Rothman: Like menopause. We actively looked to talk about that, because nobody was offering that information. We had to target talking to some older people.

Feinberg: When older women would talk to us, it was more about memories, like when they had sex in 1971. So when we talked to them, we would ask pointedly, “Have you gone through menopause? What was that like?”

Rothman: The most common thing people wanted to tell us about was sexual assault. So many people couldn’t wait to tell us what had happened to them, which was really hard. Also vaginismus, which is when your vagina tightens involuntarily and nothing can go up and people don’t know why it’s happening to them. And women still being virgins when they’re in their 30s and 40s. It felt like an overwhelming number of stories on those three topics.

I imagine you had a copious amount of material. How did you narrow it down?

Feinberg: We went through it a million times. The first time, it was almost all yeses. The noes would be like, “This makes no sense, actually.” We had to say “maybe” to some of them.

Rothman: Ultimately, it came down to getting a diverse group of people. We took statistics. It was anonymous, but we asked about ethnicity, religion, etc. on the website. If we had five stories about vaginismus, and four women were 40 and white and one was 20 and Black, we made sure [the latter] was in there, and that it was a good story—it was weighing all those things.

How did you balance the anonymous narratives with the writers and illustrators you purposefully assembled?

an illustration by eleni koumi

An illustration by Eleni Koumi.

Courtesy

Feinberg: With the essays and interviews, we made a dream list. Like when you’re making a book about sex, you want to talk to Betty Dodson. She just passed, but she was an amazing sex educator for generations.

Rothman: We wanted some funny people and some serious experts. We wanted some sex workers. One guy uploaded his experience onto the website and it was so good, we decided to pay him as an essayist instead of considering him an anonymous anecdote.

Feinberg: Some of it was, we want that writer or interview; some of it was, we want that topic.

Rothman: I’ve done a lot of books and organized and curated lots of illustrated compendiums. For this, I looked at art that had already been done that was sex-related and asked to reuse it for a fee. The art doesn’t relate to the stories. The stories are separate and the illustrations are their own voices.

Feinberg: That’s what it feels like when you flip through and see the illustration “Pardon my hard-on.”

Rothman: I was inspired by how the New Yorker does their spot illustrations. They tell their own story. I reached out to friends, which is the best, and new people to me. Instagram makes it feel like everyone’s so close to each other. But I was, again, looking for a diversity of styles and backgrounds—making sure it had a range.

In addition to statistical diversity, you mention needing tonal diversity in the book—that you had to fish for more positive stories because negative stories were so recurrent.

Rothman: There were so many sexual assault stories. It was draining. I remember when I first read some on the website and cried. I was so upset and not able to sleep. There were some where I was like, I want to reach out to this person and say something but I can’t, but I’m feeling all these feelings about it. I want to say, “Sorry, and it’s okay, and I hear you and I see you.” There was nothing I could do—it’s someone submitting a story to a site. On the street, when people would talk about a terrible thing, we would ask, “Do you also have a good thing that’s happened?” or, “What do you like about your body?”

From the sheer cumulation of stories, did you see patterns emerge? Did you arrive at any sociological or anthropological conclusions?

Rothman: I came away with: Everyone feels alone and like they are weird and different from everyone else. But they’re not.

Feinberg: There’s an interview with Eric Garrison, who’s a forensic sexologist, and he says basically everyone has one question: “Am I normal?” He tries to reframe it as, “Everything is natural and on a spectrum.” What we came away with is, people genuinely wanted to know if what they feel is okay. And yeah, it is.

Rothman: We’re not doctors, and we’re not experts, we’re not therapists. We’re trying not to have judgment. I remember once by NYU, a young woman sat and told me, “I don’t know who I’m attracted to; I can’t tell if I like men or women, and I’ve never had an orgasm.” I can’t say, like, “That’s okay!” I just listened, you know? But I want to say: “That’s okay! Maybe you need to do some exploring on your own and touch yourself.” It was really hard. If you want something overarching: “Everybody is struggling.”

Feinberg: I think everyone is questioning. Everyone is curious. We weren’t giving advice. But my general take from the whole thing was that everyone is struggling—the person next to you or across from you. We all have these bodies, and we’re doing stuff to them.

Rothman: We’re all trying to understand our relationship to them.

an illustration by jasjyot singh hans

An illustration by Jasjyot Singh Hans.

Courtesy

Aside from finding enormous amounts of empathy, has this project pushed you in any new direction, whether it’s your own personal reflection or how you will tackle future projects?

Rothman: I feel like I have yet to find out how this project affected me personally. In terms of work, I realized how much I like talking to strangers. Doing the Times column—it’s my very favorite thing to do, ever. There’s definitely going to be more of that: talking to people and listening to what they have to say, all kinds of people that are really different from us. It feels exciting. It’s like an addiction. I can’t wait until we do it again.

Feinberg: For me personally, I have struggled with body dysmorphia since I was in sixth grade, and working on this book definitely helped me. I felt like I was privy to so many people’s relationships with their bodies. And seeing and hearing about so many kinds of bodies helped me rethink and see that we’re all just bodies, and it’s cool.

Shaina, you discuss this in the conclusion.

Feinberg: It’s so easy, especially as neurotic [slips into accent] “New Yawkahs,” to get out of your body and just be in your brain. This book really helped me to be like, “Oh yeah, I have boobs—let me love them!” Or whatever.

Rothman: We spoke with somebody who had breast cancer, somebody who has a colostomy bag…there’s so many things people are dealing with.

At the start of each section of the book, there are snippets of dialogue between the two of you. How did those come about?

Rothman: Our voice is just to talk back and forth. So we asked each other, “What would you say?”

Feinberg: Some of it was natural. But also I was like, is this too silly for words?

It was grounding! Amongst all these disparate stores, the reader comes back to you as the trusted guides. And you feel the friendship too, which is so endearing.

Rothman: When we met, we were, like, [claps]: done. It wasn’t like, “will we be friends?” It was like: ‘we’re friends.’ It’s a New York Jewish thing. We’re familiar with each other.

Feinberg: It was so easy. With gathering sex stories, there’s a lot of emotion we’ve shared. With Scratch, there’s a lot of things that are—

Rothman: —stressful. Deadlines…

Feinberg: …or someone who shows us their gun in their pants when we’re interviewing them! Like, we were fine, but still, you’re like: let’s wrap this up!

Rothman: [Laughs] We’ve experienced a lot of things together.

Feinberg: And we’ve spent a lot of time together. There’s no TMI anymore, you know?

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