What About a Woman’s Right to Idleness?
On the Work of Writing and Leopoldine Core's When Watched
The year 2016 gifted us with the term “athleisure,” a new word to capture a now-old truth: that hundred-dollar yoga pants and Beyonce-approved unitards aren’t really intended for the sweat-stains of athleticism. They’re not “even for you,” as Julianne Escobedo Shepherd writes at Jezebel. Athleisure is the proper garb of “the idle fit”: that is, people rich enough in time and money to spend their lives traveling “to and from their gym,” and powerful enough to be dressed, at all times, like assholes. Athleisure is for celebrities, in other words, and for those with the resources to emulate them.
It’s easy to imagine that the very idea of the idle fit is offensive to some fit people’s understanding of fitness. It is definitely offensive to an idle person’s understanding of idleness: If even our leisure must now impress others as “active,” does it really count as leisure? What do we do with an idleness that is neither aspirational nor athletic? And if a woman is neither at work nor working out, where—or what—exactly is she?
The rise of athleisure is also a useful reminder that, if you’re a woman, one of the surest ways to flaunt your unlikeability is to document your idleness. Consider how these instagram-famous Parisian teens account for the public’s disdain for them: “It’s easy to hate us, actually, because we are not doing something, because we really aren’t doing anything.” They could easily be describing the women on HBO’s Girls, who are often held up as the self-absorbed avatars of their generation, and seem to have inspired a renewed veneration of work ethic. Stylecaster wonders if Girls is “unhealthy for women” by confirming armchair diagnoses of millennials as “lazy” and “aimless.” Of the many complaints leveraged against Girls’ and its creators, it’s the shows depiction of privileged idleness that seems to rankle most: “New Yorkers are defined by ambition, not stagnation,” one viewer primly notes. We’re used to seeing male excess, laziness, and plain misbehavior as aspirational, or even adorable: think of the four goons in Entourage, or the entire canon and concept of “slacker comedies.” But the idleness of women remains the object of an indelible contempt, and frequently offered as proof positive of female narcissism.
In a culture where women’s “careerism” is still viewed with suspicion, indicting women on the grounds of idleness means there’s nothing they can do—including, literally, nothing—to protect themselves from disapproval. That double bind is especially asphyxiating for women whose labor is creative. With its irregular schedules and irregular pay, creative labor has always been easy to dismiss as a pajama-clad solicitation of the muse—as “leisure-leisure” in a world of athleisure. And when idleness is seen as a symptom of narcissism, all creative work risks seeming like a narcissistic enterprise. So does unemployment, or any condition that might prevent a woman from working or making her work visible.
That risk of disapproval has been taken up as a dare by a number of female writers and artists, fictional and otherwise: Girls’ Hanna Horvath does spend much of her time in her bed or the beds of others, quitting jobs and MFA programs; Frances Ha’s ditzy, dreamy titular character turns a European jaunt into a transatlantic nap, sleeping through an entire weekend in Paris. In these stories, scenes of idleness are often embarrassing, and evidence of supreme privilege. In their own way, they contribute to the lopsided conversation about women’s work. Idleness may be a privilege, but that doesn’t mean that some degree of idleness shouldn’t also be a right—to insist otherwise is to insist, perversely, that women have the right to work without the right to leisure.
“Leisure-leisure” is at the heart of Leopoldine Core’s debut collection of stories, When Watched, which often centers on scenes of women “in bed, … alone with their heads,” in the words of the author. At first glance, these women seem, familiar—members of the class of young, fictional New Yorkers whose lives appear to unfold in a horizontal stupor. Many of them are young, aspiring artists or writers in New York. They write only when they’re not at their demoralizing day jobs or otherwise occupied, though much of what occupies them seems to be nothing at all: the hours spent staring at the wall, overwhelmed by themselves. Her characters feel a lot, write a little, and generally live out the emotional peaks of their lives in bed-bound idleness. But Core depicts idleness as neither privileged torpor nor narcissistic indulgence. In When Watched, leisure coincides with privacy and solitude—with the right to unproductive time and an uncommodified inner life. Their idleness is neither aspirational nor athletic, and all the more necessary for it.
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Tellingly, the idleness of women has always been linked with the idleness of reading fiction. In The Anxieties of Idleness, Sarah Jordan quotes from an 18th-century conduct manual that describes novels as “at once the offspring and the food of idleness,” as well as potential aphrodisiacs, “apt to give a romantic turn to the mind.” In Emile, Rousseau writes that “reading, solitude, idleness” and “intercourse with women” are all “perilous paths for a young man,” leading him “constantly into danger.” Few things have proved as tempting an invitation to moralism as the image of a woman alone in bed with a book.
That image is an apt illustration of many of the stories in When Watched, and Core treasures what the Victorians scorned: the emotional ferment of people with idle minds and idle time. In “Polaroids in the Snow,” a woman “sits in bed with a mug of red wine and a book,” thinking about her ex-husband and “how glad she is to be exhausted.” The story “Paradise” opens with a man who “hasn’t moved in an hour” when his wife calls him to describe a “really pathetic sandwich.” Many of the stories in When Watched take place entirely in bed, either with solitary women or giggly couples, alternately blissful and despairing.
The women in Core’s fiction don’t so much waste time as starve for and squander it in equal measure. In the story aptly titled “Chubby Minutes,” that tension produces an idleness that’s bloated and unbecoming—the very opposite of athleisure. It begins with a woman’s terse, tantalizing encounter with a male acquaintance at a grocery store, where it occurs to her that “he is divorced now so technically it’s possible they could date. Or just have sex.” We learn little else about him or the terms of their relationship before the encounter, to the woman’s disappointment, ends chastely. They exchange boring pleasantries, and he heads home to his family. She heads home to agonized idleness. There, time slows around her, thickens, fattens. Minutes become “chubby.” She feels “tired of wading through the lard of her lifetime, the minutes and the hours.” In a telling projection, time takes on her own unsatisfied appetites, gorging as she goes hungry.
A similar tension animates Core’s depictions of age and ambition, both of which can seem to magnify time while accelerating it. In “Historic Tree Nurseries,” a young woman, Peanut, is on a road trip with her older partner, Frances, by whom she feels neglected. The two are traveling to adopt a dog, and the three-day journey alternates between unhappy, tactical silences and periodic bickering. It’s stressful, slow-going time, until it suddenly speeds up. Looking at Frances and their new dog, Peanut reflects on the uneven lengths of time allotted to her and her partner:
Peanut thought about time travel. How could she not? She thought about wormholes and machines from science fiction movies, all the magic that could save them. If only time were stretchy, she thought, then her sense of time could be sped up and Frances’s could be slowed down […] The problem with their relationship wasn’t moral at all. It was biological. It came down to the bodies they happened to have and the looming fact of death.
Even when time is portioned out at a slow, implacable pace, there still never seems to be enough of it.
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It might be fair to say that 50 percent of the stories in When Watched are about youth, desire, idleness and ambition. The rest are about death, and in the hands of a less able writer, that constellation of topics would retrace a familiar narrative—specifically Rent, which can be fairly blamed for perpetuating the sadistic myth that an “artist is something you are, not something you do,” as the essayist David Rakoff once wrote of the musical. In Rent, “creative types” signal their creativity by living out the Reagan administration and the AIDs crisis in “picturesque poverty,” “doing nothing” and singing the musical’s famous, inane refrain: “five hundred twenty-five thousand six-hundred minutes,” or the number of minutes in a year. “Indolence” is offered as “proof positive of prodigious gifts.” If Girls satirized the idleness of young people, Rent romanticized it, and in the process effaced the many emotional, intellectual, and financial costs of producing art.
Writing is work, in other words. And much of that work consists of masochistic patience and an ability to alchemically manufacture time: to turn the dregs of bad days and long weeks into usable moments and readable pages.
It’s hard to imagine how fiction could ever seem like the “offspring of idleness,” as it once seemed to the Victorians and apparently to Rent’s creator, Jonathan Larson. Idleness, after all, is easy; writing rarely is. Writing, to again quote David Rakoff, is composed not in bohemian torpor, or frenzied, frictionless inspiration, but in the “the necessary hours and hours of solitude spent fucking up over and over again.” Writing is work, in other words. And much of that work consists of masochistic patience and an ability to alchemically manufacture time: to turn the dregs of bad days and long weeks into usable moments and readable pages. That alchemy is the subject of Core’s story “A Career,” whose narrator documents the indignity of writing when it isn’t a career. No one in his family can “imagine doing the same thing for hours everyday simply because you’re compelled, though you’re not getting paid.”
But if that alchemy is claimed, at times, as the special work of the writer, it’s also the dream of anyone who’s yearned for anything at all. The genius of When Watched is the way its stories capture the dilation of desire—the way the twin impulses to make art and waste time circle back to essential concerns about living well with a small allotment of years. In “Like Baby,” a young photographer, Margo, asks her sister, “Do you think there’s enough time left on earth? I mean to have a whole life?” “Maybe just enough,” her sister replies.
Luckily, Core’s women artists never break into Rent’s “Seasons of Love,” although they are, in effect, counting down the minutes of their lives. Their small anxieties about time convert steadily into larger anxieties about how much time they have on Earth. Idleness lets them luxuriate in that vanishing time, which is not to say that their idleness is luxurious. Often, it’s quiet and queasy, menaced by dread and agonized by desire. Core never suggests leisure as a primal scene of narcissism as in Girls, or as the impossible bohemia of Rent. Far from being aspirational, or athletic, the idleness in When Watched makes time itself seem gluttonous and unsleek. This is all is true to life, at least for us non-celebrities. In the real world, doing nothing, even when you’re doing it in expensive yoga pants, advances no one’s career, improves no one’s fitness. That’s precisely why it matters: because it accomplishes nothing, and so lets the mind be alone with itself. Leisure-leisure is a privilege all of us are owed.