In the course of promoting her latest movie, Iron Man, Gwyneth Paltrow has been seen in at least three incredibly short dresses.
There was the black Preen bandage dress, which barely reached the top of her thighs; the Sonia Rykiel sequin number with the vague image of a face patterned into the glitter; and a blazer over what looked to be about one yard total of lacy shiny black, from LBD. Rounding off these outfits was an array of footwear that would feel at home in a fetish-dungeon or on a drag queen: shiny black patent leather Burberry shoe boots, five-inch Alexander McQueen stilettos, seven-inch platform boots by Pacchini.
The 35-year-old mother of two seemed to be channeling a hybrid of Carrie Bradshaw and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. And the legs, the heels, said one thing: Naïveté is over; innocence is done; Cutie has been replaced by duty.
“I sort of look at some peers of mine and I think, ‘No, you’ve got it all wrong!’” she told a reporter for InStyle back in November 2005, when she was working the shlumpy, froggy-princess yogini look. “I just want to tell them all to have babies and be happy and not get sucked into that Hollywood thing.”
But that was at the end of the Era of Gwyneth of the careless post-Spence shmattes, of the Wes Anderson and Royal Tenenbaums and her sweet candied-goth look. Gwyneth was to the ’90s what Mia Farrow was to the ’60s, impossibly adorable and … Twee, both in the old British sense—twee was adorable baby talk for “SWEET”—and in the Indie Sense as well, in which Twee was old-fashioned-looking Wellingtons, fresh vegetables, T-strap Mary Janes, fringes or bangs, marmalade, anoraks and tea in a pretty teacup.
What is Twee?
Here are some sample lyrics from the song “White Collar Boy,” from the last album by Belle and Sebastian, who take their name from a French novel and television series from the 1960s about a 6-year-old boy and his dog that live in the French Alps:
White collar, scared to be bored
Blue collar, she’s opening doors
White collar, boy on the run from
The law, the law, the law
Get on your bike
Get on your horse
The music of ordinariness and naïveté has from time to time taken hold among young people. In 1986, the magazine New Music Express marketed a cassette tape titled C86, featuring a group of British bands with names like the Shop Assistants and the Mighty Lemon Drops. The tape, though it exhibited several different kinds of indie pop sensibility, was quickly influential with young people who had gotten kind of sick of songs about war and suicide and sex and drugs. Bands started forming.
The British music critic Simon Reynolds famously documented what he called the “revolt into childhood” these Cutie (or “Twee”) bands represented. And the lyrics, the jangly-happy guitars and the outfits that defined this movement were collectively referred to by the British fashion magazine i-D as the “Cutie” scene.
“Childlike innocence and assumed naivety permeate the Cutie scene,” the report read. “Their clothes are asexual, their haircuts are fringes, their colours are pastel. Cuties like Penguin modern classics, sweets, ginger beer, vegetables, and anoraks.”
And Millard Fillmore. And suburban drum corps. And Nico. And Frank Capra. And camping out at the museum. And naming their children Apple?
In 2004 Ms. Paltrow told Oprah Winfrey why she gave her daughter that name.
“It sounded so sweet, and it conjures such a lovely picture for me; you know apples are so sweet and they’re wholesome, and it’s biblical and it’s just, they’re so, and I just thought it sounded so lovely and …”
“Clean,” Ms. Winfrey chimed in.
“Clean,” Ms. Paltrow agreed.
That was before she had to reenter the market: She was still sweet, child-affected, candied, Harvey Weinstein’s “Queen of Miramax,” Manhattan’s Pumpkin Girl. Many retched at Gwyneth in the old days, as they often do at a coquette. She was America’s sweetheart, in a Manhattan kind of way. But things have changed. Compare Gwyneth of the ’90s, for example, to Ellen Page, the twisted niece of Twee, via Christina Ricci in The Opposite of Sex. Now there is still Twee, but it’s shelled and girded—Tough Twee.
Ms. Paltrow herself didn’t embrace Tweedom until after she won an Academy Award, became Audrey Hepburn for a millisecond, and, for a brief time, America’s most important young actress, engaged to Brad Pitt and gamboling in the sun, waiting for the next wonderful thing. But with Pitt, Ben Affleck, Shallow Hal, the stewardess movie and the tabloid reporters behind her, she fled to London with her Twee-named children, Apple and Moses, and her Twee husband, rock star Chris Martin.
She made herself into a child’s vision of an old-fashioned stay-at-home mom. But in a recent interview that aired on the BBC, Ms. Paltrow—who once called Sex and The City “shocking”—registered only slight surprise when the host said that he would like to get his wife’s permission to fuck her. (His word.)
“It was all in good fun,” Stephen Huvane told the outraged British tabloid press later on. Ms. Paltrow was not, he said, offended.
Clearly, one of the things that had to go by the wayside for Ms. Paltrow’s reinvention was all that business about the Simple Things in life. Domesticity can be stifling, and has a way of making itself absolute.
But, of course, the most important thing is, Toughen Up, Babe—You’re Going Back in the Marketplace! What are your legs for? What are heels for? You can have a Twee interior, but your body better sell on the lot, fast. So off went the flip-flops, on went the Givenchy black leather, double-buckled open-toed shoe boots (which Ms. Paltrow wore with black toenail polish).
“I reached a place in my life where I thought, It’s okay that I have a passion for something besides my family. I love making films,” Gwyneth told Entertainment Weekly at the Sundance Film Festival last year after it was announced that she was going to play “Pepper Potts” to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man in the big-budget yet indie-credentialed blockbuster, sounding every bit as though she were on the verge of discovering the sexual revolution, or had just read The Yellow Wallpaper for the first time.
The reentry of Gwyneth and Her Legs into the culture is not a casual business. It’s a tougher, colder world than the one she left. And even the cute have to learn to be carnivores. Just look at Owen Wilson, Scarlett Johansson, Claire Danes and Miley Cyrus, all once Twee, now post-Twee.
THERE IS A video for a song, released in 2005 by the wildly popular indie band Arcade Fire, called “Rebellion (Lies).” In it, the band members find themselves walking down a well-manicured suburban street, one of them banging a snare drum. Lush lawns flank white houses with black shutters. It looks like a colorized Mayberry, and they are a sort of ad hoc indie military parade.
Unaccountably, sleeping on doorsteps and under big shady trees are all these children. They are dressed either from the children’s clothing section of ABC Carpet and Home or else by the firm that brought you the costumes for Oliver!—it’s hard to tell. As the drumbeat awakens them from their slumber, they follow the band through the streets of the town to the door of another suburban house, where they hang out and play instruments and one of them appears to take a nap.
Arcade Fire is one of those bands that declared itself early in this year’s presidential primary for Barack Obama. And they have been taking that senator’s message of hope to young people all over the country—or at least, to the young in Ohio and in the college towns of North Carolina. They are the second core Obama demographic—the Eloi elite who are the implied target of Hillary Clinton’s “hardworking Americans, white Americans” statement: college educated, young, largely white. They are the “soccer moms” of this primary: a group of people with a political aesthetic—because it is more of an aesthetic than a set of beliefs—that suddenly, surprisingly makes a perfect match with an individual candidate. That candidate was not Hillary Clinton.
At a rally and performance in Carrboro, N.C., lead singer Win Butler delivered a few remarks before his large band, which includes violins, took the stage.
“People weren’t excited about Franklin Delano Roosevelt because he was the first candidate to do the wheelchair,” he told the crowd. “They were excited because when people were down, they were like, they asked him: ‘Can we survive?’ And he said, ‘Yes we can!’ And they asked him: ‘Can we get back to how we used to be?’ And he said, ‘Yes we can!’ And then they asked, ‘Can we make ourselves better than we used to be? And he said, ‘Yes we can!’”
“It’s finally our turn to have a great president,” he said, and at this point the crowd was going wild. “I’m sick of fine presidents and good presidents and mediocre presidents. I’m sick of Rutherford B. Hayes and James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore. We got Barack Obama! Barack Obama, for crying out loud!”
In other words, Win Butler was going for the naïve moron vote. The crowd that was somehow equating Hillary Clinton and Millard Fillmore was not the Oxford Union debating society. But still, elevating Barack Obama beyond the stage of the Children’s Crusade was turning him into the Tough Twee candidate. Why Tough Twee? The crowd had the affect and information base of children, the idealism of the truly protected and insular—the province of child-voters since the beginning of the republic.
But Mr. Butler’s remarks, like Arcade Fire’s video and its lyrics, reek of a certain quirky ordinariness. (“Three cheers for my parents/ Lonely failed experiments!”) It’s the aesthetic of the middle-school history textbook, and its natural accompaniments are a lunch box and pencil case.
THE PAST DECADE, during the Bush years, post 9/11, even with the background of the war in Iraq, has been a conservative social revolution: Settling in and marrying young; setting up 401(k) plans; leafing through Martha Stewart for “ideas.” Fueled by advice gurus like Suze Orman, they put people first, then money, then things. Which category does going out at night fall under? “Clubbing” for this set is something you want them to stop doing to seals. Carrie Bradshaw can go suck an egg.
Their ordinariness is the past viewed through a kind of unironic gauze, one that filters out the unpleasantness that many of us grew up with: mayonnaise, divorce, Inspector Gadget, gray-green plastic soldiers, alcoholism, postpartum depression, AIDS, poverty and other forms of bad taste.
The soundtrack for this way of life is nothing new. If you have ever not muted a Target ad, you’ve heard it. Think Nico’s voice over a Phil Spector song. A few songs written from a kid’s point of view. And all over an air of pleasant, suggestive insubstantiality, suburban neighborliness and nostalgic pastiche.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy hit the Twee nail on the head. A great battle is taking place, and by a series of unfortunate circumstances, the little Hobbits have gotten involved.
J.R.R. Tolkien described the race of tiny creatures he invented thusly: They are “unobtrusive.” They “love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-farmed countryside was their favorite haunt. They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill or a hand-loom, though they were skillful with tools.” They are “shy of the Big Folk.” Hobbits were Twee Pioneers. But at least they took on Sauron frontally and beat the crap out of him.
And they look a lot like the kids in that Arcade Fire video, except these modern-day Hobbits are armed with laptops (possibly engineered by steampunks or Wes Anderson types so that the plastic keys are replaced with old typewriter keys).
It’s not hard to see how Hillary Clinton failed with the Twee Folk. Her tactic, which was to call Barack Obama naïve, simply backfired.
Naïveté did not make him a state senator or a U.S. senator. The endless campaign refrain, “Yes We Can,” seems like a truism when you look at what Mr. Obama wants to accomplish, which is an agenda distinguishable from Hillary Clinton’s only at a very granular level. He promises to make America a little better than it was, by consensus and conversation—which won’t happen!—but it sounds good to anyone who’s not interested in a bloody revolution. And, let’s end this nasty business in Iraq.
That business, rather grandly, has been credited for generating the New York literary magazine n+1. And it has therefore given us, in turn, one of the few real public literary disputes of our day.
Keith Gessen, one of the founding editors, has said that the magazine was started in part out of an impulse to rectify several popular critics’ reticence to criticize the war in Iraq.
“Certainly leading up to Iraq, the commentary of some of the people we most admired felt misdirected, off,” Mr. Gessen told an interviewer from the Web site The New York Inquirer in 2006. “I’m thinking in particular of Paul Berman, George Packer, Michael Walzer—writers grouped around Dissent and The New Republic, two magazines that have meant a lot to us for different reasons.”
But it was also a reaction to several popular magazines’ reticence to criticize anything.
McSweeney’s, the magazine founded by the writer Dave Eggers, was disappointing to the founders of n+1 because of its “orientation toward childhood,” by which he meant the magazine’s Wes Anderson-like devotion to being a cabinet of curiosities.
Then there was McSweeney’s child, The Believer, founded to erase snark, and written to bring out its own enthusiasms rather than to find things to tell its readers not to read.
“When we launched, it seemed like they were the ideal representatives of a certain kind of literary position, which states that (1) reading, in any form, is good, that writing is good, that literature is good; (2) all these things are imperiled, and therefore (3) that anything done in the service of these things is good. We disagree with all three parts of that, even No. 2. And we’ve said so a number of times,” Mr. Gessen said.
Years on, that dispute is still largely about procedure. Between The Believer and n+1, you will be hard-pressed to find a disagreement of substance. Their questions are not ones of policy but of best practices: What is the point of criticism? What is the purpose of writing? Is there any way of telling whether something is good or bad? What do you do with the bad stuff, anyway?
In this it is unlike other literary disputes of the past—Marxism versus the New Criticism, say; the founding beliefs of T. S. Eliot’s The Criterion or the swiftly tilting politics of the Partisan Review.
But it is like this year’s Democratic primary. That is, once you get past the war, on which everyone is pretty much agreed, the only active question is, what’s politics for anyway?
It’s often been said that Barack Obama is an “empty vessel,” and to mix the metaphor in the common way, that things are then projected onto him. But when an aesthetic movement takes on a political cause—think of all those rich young lady Fabians in England!—emptying the vessel and projecting is all just part of the operation.
In terms of policy, Barack Obama seems to offer much the same answer any thinking Democrat would who has watched the depredations of the legacies of Bill Clinton, the Warren and Burger courts and, yes, F.D.R., under the current administration.
“We all agree that at this defining moment in our history, a moment when we are facing two wars, an economy in turmoil, a planet in peril, a dream that feels like it’s slipping away for too many Americans, we can’t afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush’s third term,” Mr. Obama told his supporters in his victory speech in North Carolina. “We need change in America. And that’s why we will be united in November.”
In other words, it’s a repair job. By “we,” he means Democrats. And by unity, he means to say that, on the most important points, Democrats all agree.
So why Obama, then?
“Yes, we know what’s coming,” he told the crowd. “I’m not naïve.”
No, he’s not. Maybe today’s Cuties will forgive him for that, or find a way to gloss over it. Maybe the Obama Oval Office can still feel indie even after the first incident forces him to choose between upsetting Palestinians or upsetting Israel; organizing trade with China and protesting Tibet; saving the economy or offering middle-class taxpayers a break. Like Iron Man—a movie with a big indie heart and a giant budget and record-breaking box office.
On second thought, scratch that. I just want to tell you all to have babies and be happy and not get sucked into that Washington thing.
Follow Tom McGeveran via RSS.