40: Charlotte Shane
writer and publisher
Charlotte Shane is an author, essayist, co-founder of TigerBee Press, and host of monthly reading series Bad Advice For Bad Women. Her books include Prostitute Laundry, N.B., 3 Conversations, and On Balance.
Elena Mudd is a Brooklyn-based photographer who explores the relationship between individual and social identity from a feminist (or humanistic) perspective. The intimate portrait, conceived as collaborative process with her subject, is her specialty. Her subjects range from family members to strangers she meets on the street. She works with film media, both 35mm and medium format, and with digital.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on February 18, 2018. Elena Mudd photographed Charlotte Shane in her Brooklyn apartment.
SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.
CHARLOTTE: I've tried to look up the distinction between city and town, like down to the population, and am still unsure. But the dominant industry where I was growing up was chicken farming.
SOPHIA: That sounds pretty townish.
CHARLOTTE: It's hard to imagine the chicken farming city.
CHARLOTTE: I lived there throughout my childhood and adolescence. It was very isolated; even Baltimore or D.C. were several hours away. So it had that small-town feeling where its norms and values feel very absolute, and it’s hard to have perspective. It was very segregated, unsurprisingly. It was super white, and I was in maybe fourth grade before I met my first Jewish person. [laughs] It was sheltered and very intimate, because everyone kind of knows everyone, but I was introverted, and I felt like it suited me.
SOPHIA: How did your concept of femaleness transition as you grew older and started living a life that was not only metropolitan, but kind of cosmopolitan, in a way?
CHARLOTTE: I don’t think I thought much about femininity when I was a child. My mom never wore makeup. She and my father divorced when I was pretty young, and she worked. I had a lot of tomboy women in my life. The woman who took care of us while my mother was working was also always wearing jeans. She was a hunter, who raised a lot of beagles. It was kind of the salt of the earth, quintessential middle-American woman who is not indulging in a lot of hyperfeminine rituals. I didn’t think of myself as gendered at all, really.
Then I went to public high school, which I really wanted to do, because I was reading all these YA novels, and I really wanted a boyfriend. I was really interested in boys. And given what I had read, I very much believed that as soon as I got into a bigger pool of my peers, somebody would see my inner beauty and respond to that, and I'd find my guy! My inner anthropologist really started flowering when I got there, which is common with a lot of writers. I would watch people and ask, “Ok, these are the popular people. Why are they popular?” I realized it's not really at all about looks. How they're positioned socially marks them as possessing a certain level of desirability that people conflate with the way they look. I realized all these kids dressed in this ultra-preppy, WASP-y way. Like a really basic/bougie idea of how someone dresses when they have money, which is like they're going to or coming from the country club. In a high school.
CHARLOTTE: So it was me figuring out how to approximate those looks on my mom's budget. It was a big wakeup call for me when I had been in high school for maybe a year and a half and realized that people aren't responding to me the way I thought they would.
SOPHIA: Why aren't they seeing my inner beauty? It's right here!
CHARLOTTE: Yeah! Like, I think I'm smart and fun and cool!
CHARLOTTE: I think my face looks fine! But people weren't responding to me the way I wanted them to respond to me. So then I was like, “Ok, it must be because I'm ugly.” This is the barrier between me getting close to other people —that I don't look good enough.
Then it became a project. Convincing my parents to let me get braces, which were cosmetic. I mean, how often are they not? And losing a lot of weight. It wasn't just that I wasn't eating, even though I was not eating. I would also exercise a lot.
I love my family and I don't feel like I hold grudges against them, per se, but what's most interesting to me about that period in retrospect is that I was so skinny, I wasn’t getting my period, and my mom knew, but she just… Her inability to broach the subject is really interesting to me. It’s such a common family dynamic, where the family has these weird secrets and they can't ever make them explicit, even when they're super obvious.
I had similar anxieties in New York, actually. When I first moved here, I almost had a panic attack when I was out. I just felt like…my body's not right for this place. I was repulsed by my own physicality, and didn't know how to alleviate it or what to do about it. I wanted to be outside of my body.
SOPHIA: The newsletter, or now, the Tinyletter, has sometimes been regarded as a feminist project. Like, “Art For Ourselves” called it, “a way for women to avoid public appraisal and return to a culture of correspondence prefaced on community.” In your opinion, are there differences between the diary, the newsletter, and confessional literature? How do you position your first-person work within these genres, and what are your thoughts about them being female things?
CHARLOTTE: Now everyone has a Tinyletter, including many men. Although actually, the men I can think of who have Tinyletters are mostly queer-identifying. I think it is because we think of the first-person as being sort of feminine. Not because men can't talk about themselves [laughs] Obviously. I think it's because when a man talks about himself, it's the “universal man.” When a woman is using “I,” it's usually small and specific. It is hard for me to imagine a straight man doing something like Prostitute Laundry for a variety of reasons, but with the content aside, it's hard for me to imagine a straight guy writing “here's what happened in my life this week” letters.
Talking about it with you now, I wonder if it's one of those things where something women do is ghettoized, but then we lean into it. Like, “Yeah, this is a girl thing. We talk about ourselves and our sex lives.” But it's a little bit behind the ball. We don’t start off doing it as a feminist thing; it’s more like the resurgence of knitting or something.
CHARLOTTE: A lot of guys subscribe to my letter. A lot of men supported the Kickstarter, and a lot of men would write and be like, “I was really moved by this. Thank you for this,” which always surprised me. But that feels like my own limitation, like I didn't extend to them the ability to read and respond to my work.
There's also probably something to say about the way that most outlets exploit women's first-person stories. You know, the “It Happened to Me” thing. Particularly in the time when I started the Tinyletter, many women would write stories that were not about themselves, and they would get edits back that were like, “So how do you feel about this? You should talk more about your own life.” There’s a demand to offer that up for usually very little money and to not have control over it. So the newsletter does feel like a different way to talk about personal things while retaining dignity and control. I would feel weird writing about it for XO Jane for like $150, where they're going to put a clickbait headline on it and people are going to leave cruel or unhelpful comments. Taking back some of that control makes sense to me, but it still seems more reactive than a proactive vision.
SOPHIA: You've written that sex work “pose[s] the questions many of us have had running in our head since puberty: Is she prettier than me? Does he think I'm cute?” From the way you write, it seems like there's a similarity between reading/writing and sex work in that they both position you at the front line of human drama. I was wondering how you think those things are like and unlike each other.
CHARLOTTE: You know how they say that every writer is always writing about the same thing?
CHARLOTTE: Or a couple is always having the same fight even if it's wearing a different costume? I'm in the process of writing this new book, and I think I’m finally beginning to realize and accept that it's the central project of my life to try to understand heterosexuality!
CHARLOTTE: The inquiry behind most of what I write, even if it's not something I've articulated to myself, is the same curiosity that got me into sex work and kept me in sex work. There’s this dissonance between what I had been told about men and my firsthand experience. And I am continually having to go back to this encounter and get something more satisfying out of it than what felt available already. It’s that same sort of anthropologist.
That was the same impulse behind a lot of sex work stuff, too. When I started on webcam, I was just dismal. If you calculated some of my hourly rates for my early sessions, I would have been making like $3 an hour. But I sort of liked the challenge. I was like, “Ok, I'm going to be the highest paid performer in this studio in a year.” And I did it! It's that application of study and putting it into action which writing is, too. You let something marinate for a while, and then you get it out and reshape it.
I feel done with sex work, and that writing is what I'll do for the rest of my life, which is what I expected when I was a kid. But I'm glad I did it. It's what I did for all my twenties. I think of it in the way that really young moms feel about getting raising their kids out of the way. [laughs] I put in my time early, and now I can live for myself in a different way.
SOPHIA: I don't know if you read the interview I did with Jenny Zhang, but we talked about the danger of sacrificing the core of yourself if you're involved in particularly performative or “unnatural” romantic or sexual relationships. People speak about it like this pretty commonly —that when you're involved in some romantic or sexual encounter, you're incapable of “finding yourself” or “knowing yourself.” Life as a sex worker seems to be an extreme case of that, in that it's incredibly performative, it's very isolated, and it's constant. And I was wondering if you had anything to say about how doing that work has influenced your development of your relationship to yourself.
CHARLOTTE: When I was sex working, I learned that a lot of women felt like, when they were working, they were putting on a persona that was fairly unlike who they “really are,” and they needed that sense of delineation in order to feel confident doing that work. For me, it was more like, although it’s a persona, it was still all parts of me. Like, if my personality were made of all these different beads, I'm making one particular necklace. I never felt like something was so foreign that it was a mask or I wouldn't do it in real life. There are so many habits I acquired and things I learned during sex work that are really integral to how I now think and behave, and it's hard to imagine that they would be there in the same way if I hadn't done sex work. There's probably some theory of selfhood that says they would've manifested anyway, but it feels pretty particular to me.
But stopping that work did leave this void in my life. When I was an escort, I had an excuse to dress up and be in all these glamorous situations, and not being able to do that felt drab and disappointing for a while. I imagine it's like if you were a superhero and you don't get to put on your costume anymore. You have this other part of yourself that nobody knows about, which you don't really get to show off or indulge in as much.
SOPHIA: How have you come to understand glamour? I know you have been hesitant to describe specific details of your lifestyle because you didn't want to glamorize it. But at the same time, you've also talked about how although people imagine that very glamorous lifestyles are only available to the absolute highest echelon of conventionally attractive women, sex workers are actually pretty normal looking, and can still maintain these incredibly unlikely lifestyles.
CHARLOTTE: There was this woman who ripped off my website, and it worked. A bunch of my clients started seeing her. It was fine; my regulars were still my regulars. But I kept having to hear about her because the guys I saw every now and then would talk about her. I was always really curious about her, and when I quit, basically all my guys went to go see her. So I was looking at her photos online, and I was talking to my friend about how hung up I was on how beautiful she looks. And she was like, “Come on. You know that every escort, when you see her in real life, is just a girl.”
I keep thinking about that. Because I’m looking at her Instagram, and I realize, “I don't think there's anything about her life that I envy or feel like I'm excluded from.” I don't know if I'll ever absorb it, but I’m constantly reminded of the fact that beauty is so limited. Which isn't to say that it doesn't matter —we all have affinities.
Webcam was my first introduction to how profoundly femininity, particularly mediated by camera, is a performance, and is all about artifice. If you just do these sort of really basic things, you can usually…“trick” is not the right word, but you can trigger someone's brain in a way that makes them think you're beautiful. I would put on a ton of eye makeup which looked awful in real life, but on webcam it looked all sultry! And an awful wig, which on webcam made me look like a cute blonde girl. So there's a way in which I think glamour is really accessible if you are able-bodied, and if you have the stamina or the patience to teach yourself certain things like makeup tricks, or how to assemble wacky outfits with thrifted clothes. People will respond to and reward that in a pretty predictable way. If I'm looking at Instagram and feeling bad about myself, I remind myself that that [manufactured beauty] is exactly what I used to do when I was escort marketing. I don't want to use the word “artificial” because I don't want to be pejorative. It's not bad; it just is what it is. Which is limited. It doesn't have the longest shelf life.
I was just reading this story by Kathleen Hale for Harper's Bazaar, “Is Teenage Plastic Surgery a Feminist Act?” And she writes a lot about this idea that it's empowering. I don't know how true it is anymore, because boobs are not “a thing” the way they used to be. It's more like butts now.
CHARLOTTE: But I know there are many strippers who have implants, and didn't really want them, but got them because implants made them more money. There's a very strong moral streak in America, influenced by second-wave feminism, that says that any time a human is objectified, something bad is going on. Any time you objectify yourself in any way, something has gone wrong. If you ever feel alienated from your own body in a particular way, something has gone wrong. Unfortunately, what the feminist project ended up doing is adding another layer of guilt and shame over a layer that it did not eradicate. So it's like, you look in the mirror, and you think, “I don't like this about myself,” and then you immediately think, “I shouldn't not like that about myself. I should be practicing self-love. Who's gonna love me if I don't love myself?” It really spirals out of control.
So for me, there's an alleviation that comes from feeling a little separate from your body, so that you can be like, "Maybe I’ll try getting implants. Maybe I'll like them; maybe I won't. Maybe they'll make me feel great; maybe they won't. There's no way for me to know until I do it.” I think the demand to justify it is where it becomes overstated. There isn't the space for women to just say, "Getting older sucks because people treat me worse. There's nowhere I can look to be told that I am beautiful or valued if I'm 45 and don't look like Sofía Vergara, so I got some filler in my lines and I feel better.” It’s seen as a sign of weakness if you do something like that out of anxiety, so you have to present it as making you feel powerful and you taking control.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women need or can do for each other presently?
CHARLOTTE: This extends beyond women, but probably trying to give each other the benefit of the doubt. If you witness someone say something that doesn’t seem particularly well thought out, maybe just give them the benefit of the doubt that it wasn't well thought out, instead of trying to attack them or force them to publicly apologize.
It’s probably a testament to me spending too much time on social media, but it’s also where people, myself included, get assignments, so it’s hard to give it up entirely. Did you read Sarah Schulman's Conflict is Not Abuse?
CHARLOTTE: It’s a very controversial book. But I think its core message is a very universal one, which is that we have to be able to talk to each other. I have friends and acquaintances who have concerning politics. They're not Neo-Nazis. It's not like, “I'm pretty sure they're white supremacists, but we'll put that aside.” [laughs] They’re definitely leftists, but I think they’re defensive about certain things —whatever. Sometimes I try to have conversations with them and they're not receptive to it, and that’s fine. But it means a lot for me to be able to trust my friends, and for them to be able to tell me if I need to rethink something. I guess I just wish there were more space for that, and for forming our tribes around something other than rejecting people.
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