The Ms. Q&A: What Alexandra Robbins Learned as an Undercover Greek

It’s been nearly 15 years since author and journalist Alexandria Robbins famously went undercover at an unnamed college to write Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities. The controversial exposé about collegiate women’s experiences in Greek life earned Robbins both critical acclaim (Pledged was one of five of her books to become a New York Times bestseller) and furious criticism (largely from Greek organizations, some of whom banned their members from reading the book).

Nevertheless, Robbins persisted in writing about unknown legends. The Overachievers: The Secret Life of Driven Kids landed her an interview on The Colbert Report; The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School was awarded a Goodreads Choice Award for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year.

Robbins has an intuitive way of foreseeing grit that her peers would do well to strive for. While other journalists shuffle after politicians and celebrities, stirring the gumbo pot of bewildering controversy, Robbins instead chooses to stand back—decoding the big picture before deciding when to zoom in, and pursuing not what might garner the most clicks but what contributes the most imperative knowledge.

Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men is born of that mold—but not in the same way as Pledged. That was a different era, a different lens. Fraternity, an unfiltered, candid examination of toxic masculinity in Greek life, is absolutely a product of the #MeToo movement—yet there are no villains or clear bad guys. Writing an anti-fraternity manifesto would likely have been an infinitely easier choice for Robbins, but it wasn’t the path she took. Instead, she sought successfully to weave hope from chaos.

Robbins spoke to Ms. about patriarchy on campus, going undercover in the Greek system and what it might take to reshape college culture.

Pledged is an infamous investigative exposé of the Greek system. Fraternity seems more educational and straight-forward. What motivated your approach?

I think both books are fast-paced stories that also happen to be educational and straightforward—and surprising, unexpected viewpoints that the public hasn’t heard before. (As of now.) The difference in the books is the way people perceive the subcultures.

In my work, I strive to represent voices that are not heard. When I wrote Pledged, the public knew little about sororities beyond their pearls and purity image, so it came across as an exposé. Today, the public knows little about fraternities besides what they see in the headlines, which misrepresent many of these undergrads.

I wanted to represent what it’s like to be a college guy today, from the point of view of the guys themselves. Because of the times, Fraternity is also a broader look at masculinity in America. Readers—whether they are students, parents, educators or just interested in a good story—haven’t seen this approach to this topic.

I had a journalism professor once refer to those kinds of characters—members of under-represented or misrepresented communities—as “unknown legends.” What draws you to them? 

I like that: “unknown legends.” As a storyteller, I prefer to tell the tales that people haven’t heard before. I try to write them in a way that both makes them root for the real-life “characters” and gives them useful information in the process.

In the case of Fraternity, readers will learn a lot about the pressures and mindsets of boys of all ages—and their thoughts about masculinity, which is particularly crucial to understand in today’s landscape. My favorite kinds of books are the ones you can’t put down because of the story and that you remember after reading because you feel like you’ve learned something important and helpful in the process. Like a smart beach read. So that’s what I strive to write.

How did you find Jake and Oliver, the two “lead” characters in Fraternity? How did you know that they were the right men to follow in this adventure? 

I was looking for good guys: intelligent, nice, genuine and committed to having a positive, healthy fraternity experience. Neither of their stories turned out how I had expected, and there were some unexpected twists and surprises during the year. I also wanted to follow guys who were self-aware and willing to share with readers even the intimate details about their lives. Jake was amazingly candid about not just his fraternity life, but also his quest to conquer his social awkwardness, and even embarrassing details about hookups.

Did you see anything in them that you saw in Vicki, Sabrina, Caitlin or Amy—your “leads” from Pledged?

Finding sources for Pledged was a bit of a scramble, because my plan to openly embed in a sorority house was derailed at the last minute by the chapter advisor. With Fraternity, I had much more time to get to know Jake and Oliver before their year-in-the-life stories began. With that said, I’m fans of all the “main characters” from both books. They are all good people whom readers like, and they were all willing to share everything about their college lives so that readers could get the full picture.

One reason why Pledged became so popular was the undercover method of reporting you used—but that approach would be near-impossible for a woman trying to cover fraternity life. What tactics did you use instead?

Fraternity is also a voyeuristic, fly-on-the-wall look inside Greek houses. It’s similar to Pledged in terms of the stories and secrets, though Fraternity had more unexpected plot twists.

I can’t go into details about the process, but suffice it to say that readers will feel like they’re right there with Jake and Oliver—and there’s a reason for that. I can add that there were some covert techniques involved in the reporting, and that the process took about the same time as it did for Pledged. The storytelling should read similarly, I think.

Do you believe that social media has had a significant impact on fraternity life overall? (Within the actual fraternities, I mean, not viral photos or videos of fraternity members doing problematic things.) 

I believe social media has had a significant impact on all students, whether or not they’re Greek. Social media can take up a ridiculous amount of time when students feel they have to constantly monitor their public image. And it heightens the distinctions between people who are going out often and people who aren’t, which can put pressure on students who think they’re not having the college experience they “should” be having.

Social media posts also exacerbate misperceptions—making students think that their peers are drinking more, hooking up more, and having more fun than they are. So that’s a negative. I’ve seen statistics that show that teenage girls use social media more than teenage boys; the boys are more likely to be gaming. Anecdotally, I’d guess that sororities are more likely to use social media to post selfies and pictures of events while the fraternities are using it more for private threads among brothers.

Do you think there will be as strong of a reaction to Fraternity as there was with Pledged? I worked as a Greek beat my freshman year, and even the most simple stories about fraternities led to about a dozen hate-emails and DMs from fraternity brothers. Have you prepared for possible backlash? 

So far, so good. I think Greeks will be pleasantly surprised by this book, because it’s not the caricature that’s typical of media coverage of these groups—both the stories and the information for parents and students are balanced and written from the perspectives of fraternity brothers themselves. As a broader look at campus masculinity, the book might spark healthy debates and discussions, but I don’t consider that a bad thing.

In any case, I’ve received hate mail before—and there’s not much I can do to prepare for it other than to respect that everyone’s entitled to their opinions, and that sometimes these issues can be polarizing. But the book makes clear that I’m pro-students.

What lessons about masculinity do you hope boys and men should take from Fraternity

The book is written for college and high school students, parents and general nonfiction readers, whether they like a good story or they want to understand more about masculinity today. It’s meant to have broad appeal so that it can be a tool to spark important discussions.

It’s crucial for everyone to understand the pressures, stereotypes and expectations that young men are dealing with in America right now. There are countless ways to be masculine, and an individual’s identity should not be wrapped up in how he or she fulfills a gender role. We need to let young men know that they should feel free to be who they are.

You can connect with Robbins on Twitter @AlexndraRobbins and learn more about her work at

Austin Faulds is a student studying journalism at the Indiana University and a feminist-fueled filmmaker. Coffee, cats and punk rock are some of his favorite things.

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The Gender Gaps Shaping the Grammys

Awards season is upon us—and, along with it, much ado about persistent gender gaps in the entertainment industry. New research from the USC Annenberg Inclusivity Initiative serves as a powerful reminder that the Grammy Awards should be no exception—and that the music industry at-large has far to go to get to equal representation across lines of gender and race.

Staggering gaps in women’s representation across the music industry impact the Grammys—and shape culture. (James Munson / Creative Commons

Analysis by USC researchers of 700 chart-topping songs by 1,455 artists found that only 21.7 percent were by women—and only 12.3 percent of the songwriters and 2.1 percent of the producers were women. These numbers show that women make up a significant number of popular recording artists, even if they remain underrepresented—but that the people in control of their content are largely men.

Despite a stronger showing for artists of color—44 percent of the songs analyzed featured a non-white singer, and the recording artists with the most credits were Rihanna, the leading woman with 21 solo credits, and Drake, the leading man with 33—only four women of color producers were listed out of 871 total mentioned in the study. The numbers of songwriters, too, suffered from double-binds of racism and sexism: Max Martin, a white man, led with 39 songwriting credits; Nicki Minaj, who was the leading female songwriter, only had 18.

When 75 woman songwriters and producers were asked by USC researchers to name their biggest barriers to success, 43 percent reported that their skills were discounted by others in the industry. These gender gaps shape the Grammys: From 2013 to 2019, only 10.4 percent of Grammy nominees at-large were women.

The study’s authors outlined solutions that could help the music industry reach parity, including fostering all-female spaces and “creating environments where women are welcome.” The experiences of those same 75 women showed what impact that could have: 39 percent said they had been objectified, 28 percent said their ideas were dismissed and 25 percent said that they were the only woman in the room.

Gaps in gender representation across the music industry don’t just prevent women from advancing or achieving acclaim—they push them out of the studio. Time’s up on that kind of sexism. Instead, it’s time to demand action.

Ashley LeCroy is an editorial intern for Ms. and a passionate self-identified feminist who aims both to advocate and make space for the world’s most marginalized communities. Ashley is currently pursuing a dual degree in Political Science and English with a minor in Anthropology at UCLA—where she writes for FEM, the student-run feminist news magazine, and works on the Art Series staff for the Cultural Affairs Commission.

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Picks of the Week: Three Awkward, Activist, Women-Driven Coming-of-Age Stories Streaming Now

Picks of the Week is Women and Hollywood’s newest resource. We are often asked for recommendations, so each week we’ll spotlight the women-driven and women-made projects—movies, series, VOD releases and more—that we’re most excited about. Sign up for the Women and Hollywood newsletter at to get each week’s pick delivered to your inbox.

Netflix Series of the Week: “One Day at a Time”

Created by Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce

Still from Netflix Series of the Week: "One Day at a Time" 

“One Day at a Time” accomplishes something that is beyond most sitcoms’ abilities: it’s joyfully entertaining and yet incredibly educational and pointed politically. In just the first two episodes of the new season, the Netflix series manages to talk about coming out, male privilege and toxic masculinity. (I didn’t want to watch them all at once—so I could spread out the joy.)

Over the first two seasons, Elena, the teenage daughter played by Isabella Gomez, dealt with her sexuality. She now is finally out. At a family funeral, she spots a cousin who she is convinced is gay and in the closet. Turns out that cousin has been out—and that the whole family even attended her wedding.

The second episode deals with the objectification of women: When mom Penelope (Justina Machado) discovers her son’s private Instagram page and realizes that his version of a joke is actually really hurtful to women, she not only teaches him about toxic masculinity, but brings her lessons to work and schools the sexist co-worker whose behavior has been rubbing off on her son.

Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce have created a gem of a show. “One Day at a Time” uses the specificity of one family of color in Los Angeles to examine the social issues affecting everyone. (Melissa Silverstein)

Season 3 of “One Day at a Time” will be available on Netflix February 8.

Short Documentary of the Week: Song of Parkland

Directed by Amy Schatz

song of parkland still

It’s been less than a year since 17 people died at the hands of an active shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—but a lot has changed. The gun control movement has been reborn thanks to the teen activists who survived the shooting. There have been massive protests across the country calling on elected officials to put the public’s safety ahead of the NRA’s agenda. Following the events of February 14, 2018, there has been a palpable shift in the way our culture responds to gun violence.

In other words, beautiful things have formed in the tragedy’s aftermath. That’s the main idea of Amy Schatz’s new short HBO doc, Song of Parkland.

The film centers on Marjory Stoneman Douglas drama teacher Melody Herzfeld and her students, who decide to put on their annual children’s musical when the school re-opens. It’s an emotional ordeal, but a cathartic one as well. Herzfeld and her kids believe that the musical, “Yo, Vikings,” will bring some much-needed joy to the community—and they’re right. The show also allows them to express their grief and hope in a creative context.

A memorial for those who lost their lives on Valentine’s Day last year, a testament to resilience and art and a call to action, Song of Parkland reminds us that the personal is inherently political. It’s impossible to watch the Marjory Stoneman Douglas drama department stage their production and not think, “Why didn’t we protect them?” (Rachel Montpelier)

Song of Parkland will air on HBO February 7 at 7 p.m. EST and subsequently be available on HBO GO and HBO NOW.

Hulu Series of the Week: “PEN15”

Created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle and Sam Zvibleman

"PEN15" still

If you combined the early-aughts setting of Lady Bird; “Eighth Grade’s” honest, cringe-inducing depiction of middle school; and the surreality, comedy, and lovely central female friendship of “Broad City,” you’d get something akin to “PEN15.” Named after a schoolyard prank, the new Hulu series is about best friends Maya and Anna (played by co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle) navigating seventh grade in the year 2000.

And here’s the best part: Erskine and Konkle are both in their early 30s but are playing 13-year-old versions of themselves. However, the rest of their middle school peers are portrayed by actual adolescents. It’s weird, but it’s also kind of genius. Who among us doesn’t occasionally still feel like an awkward, clueless 13-year-old?

Also wonderful is “PEN15’s” frankness regarding puberty, and what it’s like for girls. Maya and Anna have a burgeoning interest in sex and thongs, but they also still enjoy playing with dolls and watching Ace Ventura ad nauseum. Even though they’re played by adults, these characters are recognizable, relatable and among pop culture’s best depictions of girls on the verge of womanhood. (RM)

All episodes of “PEN15” Season 1 will be available on Hulu February 8.

Women and Hollywood educates, advocates and agitates for gender diversity and inclusion in Hollywood and the global film industry. The site, founded in 2007 by Melissa Silverstein, sets the standard, defines the conversation, fuels coverage and reinforces messages throughout the specialized and mainstream media to call for gender parity on a daily basis. Follow W&H at @WomenaHollywood and Melissa @MelSil.

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The Ms. Q&A: How Reema Zaman Found Healing in Her Own Story

When Reema Zaman began writing the book that would become her fierce debut memoir, I Am Yours, she endeavored to assuage the personal pain and despair that emerged from her experiences with intimate partner abuse, sexual violence and anorexia. She thought that becoming the author of her own story would not only clear the path for her own healing, but perhaps provide healing for anyone else who needed it.

The “shared memoir,” in bookstores February 5, embodies a revolutionary act of compassion. Though uncannily timely and resonant in this era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, the lasting grace of I Am Yours resides in her exquisite and lyrical voice, at once tender and searing, that bravely seeks to portray the timeless complexities of the female condition and speak truth to power. Her writing—woven out of threads pulled from her Bangladeshi childhood; her struggles to meet impossible standards of beauty and perfection in her former career as model and actress; her painful wounds carved from emotional abuse and sexual violence; and her courage in reclaiming her life, and voice, as her own—unpacks fraught and complex themes with piercing precision and eloquence. 

Zaman has launched her literary career to the sound of widespread critical praise. “I was enthralled by this beautiful book,” Cheryl Strayed, celebrated author of the bestselling memoir Wild, said of I Am Yours, “from the first page to the last.” 

The chorus singing praises in anticipation of Zaman’s memoir is a testament to the transformative nature of her story and the aching beauty of her words—and for this installment of the Ms. Q&A, she spoke to another author, Melanie Brooks. Zaman opened up about the journey that became I Am Yours, the power of stories as agents of empathy and who she hopes hears her warrior cry.

Reema Zaman’s memoir I Am Yours explores her experiences with intimate partner abuse, sexual violence and anorexia.

The story that fills the pages of I Am Yours of your resolve to liberate your voice from its place of silence resounds with so many of the conversations that are dominating our current and unprecedented cultural narrative. Your courageous and unflinching portrayal of your experiences with sexual assault, an abusive marriage and anorexia are necessary and relevant. Did the themes inherent in this particular cultural moment influence your writing?

This book began as a response to my own spirit, not a cultural movement. I began the writing process in 2013, feeling that very few people would want to read of my experiences with trauma. When I researched agents in 2014, many of them specifically wrote “will not read about terrorism or rape,” so I had to figure out how to write about trauma in a way that could retain the reader’s attention.

In acting, we’re taught the two things that retain attention are comedy and beauty. I knew if I wanted to go deep, I couldn’t use humor as my audience retention. It had to be beauty. I learned to write poetic language because it helps the reader stay inside the pain with me, as I guide them through the dark ocean to reach the other side of healing, closure and strength. Beauty in any form helps soften the cruelty of life.

I started writing the book on November 28, 2013, and I was working on it until October 16, 2018, right up to the moment it went to press. Over these five years, I’ve evolved, society has evolved, so the manuscript evolved. From Trump’s election, to the #MeToo movement, to the Kavanaugh hearings, I’ve returned to the manuscript to become more deliberate and forthright about the political resonances of this personal story, to be more articulate in the topics I explore—healing and rising from sexual assault, navigating intimate partner abuse, understanding the disease that is anorexia and the social constructs that are tied to its roots, understanding patriarchy, understanding how a woman reclaims and uses the power of her voice. I’ve realized that although I didn’t ask for my experiences, I can serve this cultural moment in an impactful way.     

In I Am Yours, you allow your readers an intimate look at your process of reclaiming your voice and we become part of your writing journey in a meta way. Was talking about writing your story as you were writing it a conscious choice from the start?

Talking about authoring one’s voice felt like the perfect metaphor for a woman coming to life—especially with my background as an actress where all the words I ever spoke were the ones assigned to me. In my past life, I didn’t feel like a disembodied voice—I felt like a dis-voiced body. The call to action, Only I author my life, is pertinent to us all, but it felt vividly significant for myself, a woman who had been ritually silenced by so many forces.

To reclaim my body and my voice, I had to speak myself into being. It felt logical to parallel the journey of the writing process with my journey into independence. In memoir, there is a penultimate journey, and different memoirs will use different adventures as the spine of that journey. In Eat, Pray, Love it’s a geographic journey—Italy, India, Indonesia—or the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild, another physicalized journey.

I’d already gone through a physical adventure in my first 30 years—through the challenging terrain of Bangladesh, Thailand, New York—and the final act was one of homecoming. Homecoming to my mother and homecoming to my body and my voice. The most powerful homecoming and the most accurate metaphor would be writing this book. 

So much of your book’s beauty lies in its form. You shape it as a love letter to yourself—to your ever-present inner voice—and you offer your readers snapshots of pivotal moments in your life’s chronology that both nourished and starved her. Did the writing take that form initially? Were there intentional decisions that you made along the way to develop that structure?   

One of the huge accidental benefits for the book and for my voice is that I don’t have any formal training. I had never read a memoir with the intent, “Now I’m going to use this to learn how to structure my own memoir.” The shape of I Am Yours comes from that complete openness of having no preconceived notion of how one should structure a book if one wants to succeed.

I’ve kept a journal since I was 10 yours old, but it wasn’t until I was married that I began to write essays, daily, to make sense of the gaslighting in that relationship. The writing was my inner voice’s survival instinct, the words sent as its last dying gasps to stay alive. In my marriage there was less and less opportunity for me to speak. The more abusive he grew, the more insistently my inner voice began to write, my brain and my soul intuiting that by making sense of what was happening, I’d give myself the nourishment needed to stay alert. The writing gave me the strength to speak back to him, to strategically detach from that life, from that man. Typing those essays gave me self-esteem and a sense of solidarity, even if the solidarity was my voice and I on the page. It was enough. The page and my voice were the only friends I had.

I was 28 when he and I separated. I realized that as my writing had been so crucial in my freedom from him, perhaps, if I developed those words into a book, it could hold power for others. As an actress, to prepare for a role, I’d create a timeline of the pivotal events in a character’s life. This backstory of the character, with quintessential scenes from her childhood and young adulthood, wouldn’t be in the actual play but would inform my portrayal of her.

After my ex-husband and I separated, I mapped the timeline of my own life. Age by age, I went through my entire history, asking: how did I become this woman? On the page, I saw my truth: from girlhood to late twenties, the list of the formative wounds I had encountered in life that resulted in my silence, and the cruelties I had witnessed and sensed happening to other girls and women in my family, in school, on the subway, out in the world. I saw so clearly that the silencing of a person’s voice will result in a splicing between the authentic self and the inner wounded child.

At the bottom of the timeline I wrote: “I won’t be sliced any longer. I need to align.” It was a warrior cry for myself, my refusal to live as a narrative of pain. I realized this was the story I was born to tell: the silencing of a girl, the reclamation of a voice.

I kept that timeline in the final book–it’s the axis on which a woman’s life swings. From there, my daily assignment was to wake up and write, age by age. Today, “I am 3,” and I’d write that section to completion. Tomorrow, “I am 4.” The following day, “I am 5,” and so on. The book developed chronologically; I healed chronologically. I chose that simple, straightforward structure so that any reader can heal along with the narrative—the ages and wounds in their life that are similar to mine.

I wrote I Am Yours for anybody who has gone through something similar, and for people who haven’t gone through a similar experience but want to become more empathic and aware of what happens within that experience, so that we can evolve as a society. Publishing a book is a huge responsibility. The biggest goal and purpose of this book is to provide medicine: a call to action, an invitation of empathy, a healing balm.

You’ve published excerpts of this memoir leading up to its release, you’ve performed publicly some of its scenes, you’ve spoken to different audiences about its themes and content, so you’ve already received feedback from people who are reading or hearing your story and identifying with your circumstances. What have those responses meant to you?

It’s been incredible. I’m feeling a deep sense of connection and sense of place in this world from hearing how my words have been empowering for so many strangers—people who are no longer strangers because once you’ve read my work, we become family. To hear their loving praise gives me such pride and gratitude, and the affirmation that this is precisely what I was born to do. I’m so honored to serve others in their journey into their bravest, boldest self. To speak is a revolution. To know that my voice is now igniting others is the most profound fulfillment.

You are about to send your child into the world with the launch of I Am Yours on February 5th. Can you describe what this moment is like for you?   

The metaphor of a book being like one’s child is accurate, but for me, my memoir was also my parent. Writing this book helped me re-parent myself, and it was definitely the thing that kept me alive.

I Am Yours healed my anorexia—which is no small feat—and it gave me a new ability to live without existing inside a slow demise. Releasing this book into the world feels so right because I don’t need it anymore. It doesn’t need me anymore. That’s really beautiful. I’m a grateful, lucky conduit for this book. My job has been to carry it, protect it, give it all the nourishment I possibly can—and now I’m overjoyed to let it travel. It’s been an honor to be its parent and its child, and now I have to let it do the work it’s meant to.

My hope is it arrives in the hands of those who need it—to midwife them through their healing, to hold their hand as they navigate their trauma, to be their embrace through any heartbreak. To be their person in the dark.

That’s one of the final lines, and one of my favorites, in the book: “You have been my person in the dark. Perhaps I have been yours. How lovely that being human soothes the ache of being human.”

Melanie Brooks is a professor at Northeastern University, Merrimack College and Nashua Community College and a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in publications including the Washington PostCreative Nonfiction, the Huffington PostModern Loss, Hippocampus, Bustle and Solstice Literary Magazine, and she is the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma. Melanie is completing a memoir, All the Things I Couldn’t Say, about the lasting impact of living with the secret of her father’s HIV status. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband, two children and yellow Lab.

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Picks of the Week: Complex, Female-Led Stories Come to Life in “Russian Doll” and “Daughter of Mine”

Picks of the Week is Women and Hollywood’s newest resource. We are often asked for recommendations, so each week we’ll spotlight the women-driven and women-made projects—movies, series, VOD releases and more—that we’re most excited about. Sign up for the Women and Hollywood newsletter at to get each week’s picks delivered to your inbox.

This Week’s Pick: “Russian Doll” (Series)

Created by Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler

Like Groundhog Day and Happy Death Day before it, Netflix’s “Russian Doll” sees its lead character re-living the same day over and over. Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) can’t escape her 37th birthday celebrations alive. She gets hit by a car, falls down stairs and finds death lurking behind pretty much every corner. The gifted video-game engineer is determined to find the bug in the universe’s code that brings her death—and re-birth—day after day.

A surreal story about mortality, morality and what it means to be human, “Russian Doll” reveals layer after layer in each 30-minute episode. Hilarious and tragic by turns, creators Lyonne, Amy Poehler and “Sleeping with Other People” writer-cum-director Leslye Headland go far beyond “Russian Doll’s” gimmicky-sounding premise and take it to unexpectedly deep and dark places.

The series is a great showcase for Lyonne’s talents—she also co-wrote “Russian Doll” and directed an episode. (All eight installments are helmed by women. Joining Lyonne behind the camera are Headland and her “But I’m a Cheerleader” director Jamie Babbit.) Plus, “Orange Is the New Black” fans will be happy to see that some of the multi-hyphenate’s cast-mates from the prison dramedy have come along for the ride. (Laura Berger)

“Russian Doll” premieres on Netflix February 1.

This Week’s Pick: Daughter of Mine

Directed by Laura Bispuri; Written by Laura Bispuri and Francesca Manieri

Sometimes it’s hard to watch, but Daughter of Mine is a film filled to the brim with empathy. The story centers around a girl about to turn 10, the woman she believes is her mother and the biological mother who just wasn’t ready for parenthood. Laura Bispuri’s second narrative feature explores love, maturity and desperation—and refuses to judge any of its characters.

Tina (Valeria Golino) has raised Vittoria (Sara Casu) pretty much since her birth, when Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) gave her up. Tina and Vittoria are incredibly close, but things aren’t perfect: Tina’s entire identity is wrapped up in her motherhood and Vittoria has no friends. Angelica is a free spirit who’s always short on money and is as passionate about life as she is volatile.

Facing the prospect of leaving town due to a cash flow problem, Angelica decides to get to know Vittoria while she still can. Vittoria is quickly smitten: she sees Angelica as the fun, worldly older sister she’s always wanted, a person to have fun with who isn’t her mom. As Vittoria and her birth mother grow closer, Tina feels more and more threatened—and frightened she’s losing her daughter. Angelica, however, becomes more and more maternal toward Vittoria, but she knows deep down she doesn’t have the capacity to raise a child.

The best part of Daughter of Mine is that there is no hero or villain. Instead, Tina, Angelica, and Vittoria are all just human. As you watch the emotional desires and needs of these three characters collide, you wish there was some way both mothers could have Vittoria. And you pull for Vittoria to receive the stability and care she requires and the friendship she craves. There’s no right answer, and that’s why Daughter of Mine sticks with you. (Rachel Montpelier)

Read Women and Hollywood’s interview with Laura Bispuri.

Daughter of Mine opens in NY and LA February 1. Find screening info here.

Women and Hollywood educates, advocates and agitates for gender diversity and inclusion in Hollywood and the global film industry. The site, founded in 2007 by Melissa Silverstein, sets the standard, defines the conversation, fuels coverage and reinforces messages throughout the specialized and mainstream media to call for gender parity on a daily basis. Follow W&H at @WomenaHollywood and Melissa @MelSil.

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Ms. Smith Goes to Washington: Inside the Modern Send-Up of a Classic Political Story

Hundreds of feminists, seated in long wooden benches under the vaulted ceilings of the Los Angeles City Council Chambers, bore witness last week to a historical revisitation fit for the current political moment: a gender-bending update on the classic 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Director Stephen Sachs adapted the classic screenplay to feature a female Senator in the titular role and include discussions of gender in politics through the lens of corruption in Washington post-World War II. Before one-night celebrity reading of Ms. Smith goes to Washington began, hosted by The Fountain Theatre at a part of their 2019 FemFest, he called for ongoing partnerships between city governments and local artists.

“We believe that theater,” Sachs explained, “can be a trigger for social action.” The cast—including Joshua Malina (Scandal, The West Wing), Jeff Perry (Scandal), Sam Waterston (Law & Order, Grace and Frankie) and Bellamy Young (Scandal)—helped him prove that night just how powerful that vision can be.

Each member shone in their roles, but some of the most poignant moments of the evening were delivered out of the mouths of babes—specifically, 16-year-old Aurelia Myers. She played a young girl who inspires her father, the Governor, to appoint Ms. Smith to the Senate, disobeying the corrupt boss of a political machine in their state. 

At one moment, Myers made space for levity and also called to attention the gender disparity in the chamber—where women currently hold only 25 percent of seats. “Dad,” she exclaimed at once to laughter from the audience, “this is 1939, not the Dark Ages!” 

Sachs avoided naming a specific state or political party in his adaptation, and in maintaining the story’s 1939 setting, the performance was able to tow the line between a night of entertainment and a rallying cry. But in the shadows of the City Council chambers’ marble arches, the evening also felt like a celebration of the feminists currently fighting for equality in Washington—just like Ms. Smith.

“It is the arts that remind us of our common humanity,” Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell (CA-13), an event sponsor, said when he opened the reading—adding that, when the division and disappointing defining Capitol Hill today become history, “we are going to owe the arts and women a great deal.” 

During Myers’ plea to her father, she echoes the sentiment in a declaration that, no matter the era, remains revolutionary: “Sometimes the best man for a job is a woman.” 

Madison Pontz is a passionate storyteller and driven communications professional with on-the-ground campaign experience and expertise in editorial writing and real-time social media management. She graduated summa cum laude from The George Washington University with a B.A. in Political Communication and a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies and is currently the Development Associate at the Feminist Majority Foundation.

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Ms. Muse: Mary Oliver’s Escape

feature image via Charlotte Olivia on the official Mary Oliver Facebook page.

We’re carving out a new discovery place for riotous, righteous and resonant feminist poetry to nourish and give voice to a rising tide of female resistance—and you’ve clicked right into it. Click here to read more Ms. Muse.

“I don’t like buildings,” she said matter-of-factly to Krista Tippett in a rare 2015 interview.

As a girl, Mary Oliver often wandered alone in the woods with a copy of Whitman’s poetry in her backpack, a small notebook and a pencil. Of her habit, she said: “I think it saved my life. To this day, I don’t care for the enclosure of buildings.”

Photo: Vivian Felten

Oliver’s repetition of the word “buildings,” such a clunky noun, might seem an awkward generalization coming from this great American poet, our bestselling poet, a woman who made a life of selecting words with care and precision.

And who doesn’t like “buildings” categorically? On average, Americans spend 93 percent of their lives passing from one building to another, day after day, decade after decade. Here is a woman who usually woke around 5 a.m. and spent entire mornings walking and “scribbling.” Is this partly because she never in her adult life felt fully comfortable indoors—not even her own home?

In 2011, Oliver told Maria Shriver in an interview that her father had sexually assaulted her as a child. With Tippett, she spoke briefly of her “very bad childhood” and the “very dark and broken house” into which she was born. In her poem “Rage,” she wrote what she described as “perfect biography, unfortunately—or autobiography.”

She added: “I couldn’t handle that material except in the three or four poems that I’ve done—just couldn’t.”

The narrator speaks of a father:

stumbling through the house
to the child’s bed,
to the damp rose of her body,
leaving your bitter taste.
And forever those nights snarl
the delicate machinery of the days.
When the child’s mother smiles
you see on her cheekbones
a truth you will never confess;
and you see how the child grows–
timidly, crouching in corners.

The speaker’s reference to an unconfessed truth foreshadows a damning end: “in your dreams you have sullied and murdered, / and dreams do not lie.”

“Yeah, well, he never got any love out of me—or deserved it,” Oliver says of her father when Tippet inquires further. “But mostly what makes you angry is the loss of the years of your life, because it does leave damage. But there you are. You do what you can do.”

The image of “crouching in corners” suggests bent, elbow-like corners of rooms holding a huddled human figure. Oliver’s words echo in my head: “To this day, I don’t care for the enclosure of buildings.” The word “enclosure” means “to close in,” “to surround,” “to fence off for individual use,” “to hold in” and “confine.”

This claustrophobic take on “buildings” reminds me of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s take on doors. I recall the research psychologist saying she had a second front door. Who has a second front door installed in their home?

In her testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Blasey Ford recalled a counseling session with her husband. “In explaining why I wanted to have a second front door,” she explained, “I described the assault in detail.” I envision the narrow stairwell and the upstairs bedroom in which she describes a young, drunk Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulting her in front of his male friend. Then only 15, she escaped and locked herself in a bathroom.

What happened within Ford in that small room? She knew she was still not safe, that she had to exit. She had to go down the stairwell on which she’d just heard Kavanaugh and his friend drunkenly bumping against the walls like ping pong balls. She heard their voices combine with others downstairs. She knew she had to pass them to get out the front door—the only front door.

Ford managed to leave that house quickly—and she has never stopped making sure she can leave, making sure there’s a second exit strategy.

Trauma affected both of these women to such a degree they changed their daily habits and/or environment to accommodate their suffering. For a young Oliver, the scene of the crime was “home,” and so the natural world became her escape. She left her father’s house the day after her high school graduation and spent the rest of her life leaving by wandering and writing about the woods, ponds, fields, estuaries, harbors and beaches into which she disappeared.

“And I escaped it, barely, with years of trouble. But I did find the entire world in looking for something,” she goes on to say. “I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world.” Exiling herself from the man-made world, to whatever degree she could, Oliver’s daily ritual defined both her life and work.

Photo: Vivian Felten

As a young woman first reading Oliver, I loved the meditative, prayer-like power of her voice. But I was a city girl raised on Watergate and Vietnam, and wondered why Oliver seemed to ignore more urgent subjects like injustice, oppression and war. She wasn’t known for addressing racism, sexism or classism; nor did she focus much on environmental issues, a paradox I couldn’t figure out. The challenges of being gay and being out never seemed to make it into her poems. She often seemed to me a famous white woman living a rarified life, spending long mornings strolling and dreaming. Did she hire a housekeeper, I wondered? I tried to picture Oliver and her life partner, Mollie, vacuuming, much less scrubbing floors.

Sure, Oliver may have read Rumi every day, but what did she know of the 21st century? Her poems seemed like dispatches from paradise. I remember reading Oliver, loving Oliver, but wishing she’d walk around a major city, find a massive parking lot and write about the beauty of the world from that perspective. Write about people’s faces, graffiti, gleaming metal, litter, trees pushing up concrete—and buildings.

Mary Oliver seemed a stranger to the world I knew, but I learned to accept all she offered instead of asking her to speak a language foreign to her. I entered her poems and took what I could get. And they never stopped giving.

I also learned that before Oliver became one of America’s bestselling poets, she’d chosen a minimal life so that writing could be her day job. “Best selling” and “poet” are not words that know each other well. They are not usually found next to each other, and the first two rarely modify the latter. Remarkably, Oliver’s tendency to avoid the pursuit of money and objects had brought her unsought, unlikely commercial success. But along the way, on her long walks, she often gathered clams, mussels, mushrooms and berries. She searched the dump—an image incongruent with my ignorant assumptions. As a girl, she’d made a list of all the things she was prepared to never have if she became a writer.

“I had a $100 car I used to stop by hitting a brick wall,” she once told students at a college Q&A. “It was a wonderful life.”

After Mary Oliver died on January 17, I read her 2011 interview with Shriver for the first time. Near the end, she spoke of wanting to write about “personal material,” wanting to be “braver and more honest” about her life. In that moment she chose to reveal publicly her childhood sexual abuse for the first time.

When Shriver asked if age—she was 76 at the time—had made her braver, Oliver instead credited “the forerunners who have dared to tell.” Again, I thought of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, then America’s most recent “forerunner” who “dared to tell.” Of course, Oliver is technically a forerunner, but admitted having been surprised that she’d even written a handful of poems like “Rage.” She also described being “very moved by Eve Ensler’s courage.”

The next words out of Oliver’s mouth stunned me.

Photo: Vivian Felten

“I now know it is a subject or theme I will not be avoiding,” she declared. “There will always be birds, but I’m gonna broaden out a little bit, or maybe a lot.” She also claimed to have one new “brave” poem that needed to be typed.

The fact that this master poet, in the last decade of her life, felt inspired by other women writers to be “braver”—and worked to write those new poems—suggests that Mary Oliver finally exited the building that had once sucked all the air out of her body, and escaped that “broken house” of her childhood once and for all.

Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms. and the author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year Awards in poetry. Her poems and essays are forthcoming or have appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, Salmagundi, Southern Humanities Review and Texas Observer, among others. She is at work on a nonfiction book about the double shooting of a lesbian teenage couple in Texas. Tweet her @ChivasSandage.

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Can Miki Come Back After Her Downfall at THINX?

She has always loved breaking taboos.

THINX founder Miki Agrawal at Burning Man.

It started when she and her twin sister faked their gender at age five, disguising their long hair under helmets and pulling on shin guards to break into a boys’ soccer game in the playgrounds of Montreal. By their teen years, Miki and Radha Agrawal reached the Canadian National Championships. The identical twins were in a race over who would be first to change the world.

But nearing age 30, Miki was burned out from running between her two successful organic pizza cafes in New York City. Radha had just broken off an engagement and become a fixture at a sports bar, drinking every night until she passed out.

The twins were spiritually untethered. They had no community. They began to feel the burnout that hits so many millennials, particularly entrepreneurs.

“I just love the taboo space,” Miki often said. Few words are more verboten than the one that describes everywoman’s healthy menstrual flow.

In 2010, when Miki hatched the idea of designing a luxury underwear line for “people with periods,” she had a tiger by the tail. THINX was the first major successful innovation to hit the women’s sanitary product market in 75 years, since tampons. Posters appeared one day wrapped around posts in Grand Central station, with beautiful young women showing off their bikini panties and sports briefs without a trace of embarrassment.

Miki earmarked a portion of the proceeds to go to a partner, Afripads, to serve poor girls across Africa. While traveling, she’d discovered many young women drop out of school at 13 or 14, ashamed to have nothing to hide their time of the month but unhygienic materials like rags, leaves, or bits of foam.

At the peak of Miki’s phenomenal success in 2017, she was scorched by scandal. The first hint of trouble was when her “public relations girl,” Chelsea Leibow, demanded a raise only a month after she was hired. The 25-year-old’s only previous employment had been as a nanny. Leibow gave herself the title of High Priestess of Period PR and insisted her name should be on all emails, not the founder of the company. Miki kicks herself for letting her antagonist stay on for a year.

Fired in December, 2016, Leibow re-appeared in the office to threaten her former boss, demanding $250,000 or she would go to the media with allegations of sexual harassment against Miki. Agrawal says she refused what she called an “extortion” attempt.

But serious problems with her company had been looming. Her executive life coach, Lauren Zander, saw that Miki was headed down a dangerous path long before the scandal. Working at breakneck speed to build her business, Miki took shortcuts and made decisions and deals that left her vulnerable. Zander told her outright that she had ignored the most significant aspect of building a successful team by turning the hiring of her staff to another person. And she had no HR department.

Many online blogs and magazines shared Leibow’s story: Agrawal had an “obsession” with the young woman’s breasts, touched them without consent, and asked her to show her nipple piercings to other employees. She and a few other staffers complained that Agrawal often disrobed in the office while trying on new products and would FaceTime into meetings from home while sitting on the toilet. Leibow also described her boss as having “an aggressive management style” that made Leibow too intimidated to speak up. Up to one-third of the 30-person staff had quit since January of 2017.

At a board meeting in New York that March, the CEO was forced to step down. “The board had been looking to replace Miki as CEO well before Miki left,” I was told by the new public relations manager of the reorganized company, Leesa Raab. Several other new executives told me they had wanted a corporate bottom-line person.

She had also made a classic mistake of new entrepreneurs— giving her board 51 percent of the company. Her board members took advantage of the scandal about to hit the press to fire the founder.

Miki’s “takedown,” as she calls it, happened just as the #MeToo movement was bringing sexual harassment into a serious national conversation. It was toppling scores of powerful men who would lose their exalted positions in places like Hollywood, Silicon Valley and all over the media.

There are no documented cases of women using their corporate power to intimidate women employees to offer sexual favors, on pain of losing their job. One former THINX employee explicitly said that she doesn’t believe Agrawal was actually pursuing a sexual relationship with anyone at the company; rather, she called it performative. “She’s not a predator and it’s not malicious, but that doesn’t make it right. And it all boils down to the fact that she has no conception of it not being right.”

Breaking the taboo against respecting employees’ privacy was not forgivable.

“I didn’t protect myself,” was all Miki would say at the time, given the “non-disparagement” agreement she had signed. Miki’s second book, Disrupt-Her, will be launched January 29, published by Hay House. The “manifesto for female entrepreneurs” does not address her professional or personal passage since the scandal.

The media today is rife with “cancelling” notable people, usually for disappointing fans’ expectations. People as seemingly bulletproof as humanitarian Bill Gates, Gwen Stefani, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West met this fate. Once people are cancelled, they are victims of human boycotting; no matter what they say or do, they are virtually written off. It’s perfectionism gone to an absurd extreme. No one who dares enough to become publicly successful does so without making a stupid mistake somewhere along the line.

This story is about a tribe that has saved this flawed female entrepreneur from cancellation.

A glimmer of enlightenment came to Miki Agrawal when she dared to go to her first Burning Man festival in 2011. She was 31. The ethos of Burning Man is to live in the moment, just what she needed.

Miki and her twin sister let their natural entrepreneurial minds flip the whole scenario of late-night clubbing. The twins’ inspiration was, “What if we took all the positives of nightlife—music and dance—and did that in the morning with no drugs, no mean bouncers; instead, a welcoming committee to give you hugs?”

I first caught up with Miki in 2012 when she was she was bouncing out of her Williamsburg, Brooklyn loft at 5:30 AM to run for the subway in her four-inch high stacked silver sneakers to beat the crowd of a thousand-plus that lines up at Pier 40 on the Hudson River for the tribal dance party they call Daybreaker. Dancing at dawn? That’s the point. This sober rave was meant to convert millennial office slaves and startup entrepreneurs from drug-blasted club-goers to sunrise lovers of yoga, dance and underground music.

The twins were DJ’ing together, joining in on this ground-breaking generation of female DJs  Their athletic figures were skimpily clad; Radha’s in a sequined bustier and fishnet stockings, Miki‘s in a braless crop top stenciled with “Feminista”—or was that Radha? It’s impossible to tell the twins apart. Both sported bejeweled captain’s hats.

These days, crowds of over a thousand are happy to pay $40 to join this cool phenom and dance for two hours while being ferried past the Statue of Liberty and filmed by a drone. In its first two years, it had become an urban craze.

The twins’ mother is Japanese and was passive in the face of their domineering Indian father.  He was the parent who instilled their burning urge to compete. They were sent to French school on weekdays, Japanese school on Saturdays and Hindi school on Sundays, emerging with a polyglot identity and the ability to fit in almost anywhere.

They left home at 19 to immigrate by themselves from Canada to the U.S. and strive for the utmost reaches of the American dream. With the help of financial aid, they both graduated from Cornell University and beelined to New York, where they both began careers as investment bankers.

That safe choice was blown to smithereens by 9/11.

Never before had Miki overslept her alarm. It kept her from being incinerated in the Deutsche Bank office in Building Two of the World Trade Center. “9/11 was my wakeup call—the aha moment,” Miki says. “Do I live an actualized life, or not?”

She wrote down three things she wanted to do with her life: play professional soccer, make movies and start a business.  Her soccer career with the New York Magic was cut short by multiple injuries. Video production was too confining. She wanted to be her own boss.

The usual generational solution for millennials who feel lonely and abandoned by America’s institutions is to live at home as long as tolerable. One-third of millennials between the ages of 25 and 34 still live at home with parents. Women in their twenties and thirties flee to Facebook for friends and to Instagram and Snapchat for followers. They desperately seek to portray a dream life from carefully curated images and videos, often signing off after many wasted hours only to feel more empty.  Too long diapered in internships and haunted by college debt, they may stick with a shitty 9-to-5 rather than risk trying out different career options.

Not Miki and Radha. They took gigantic risks and had the benefit of failing early, but they still felt isolated. “We were working our asses off to do startups. We had no safety net. At the end of the day,” Miki admitted, “we felt alone and drained. We needed a community.”

Older friends told the twins that Burning Man was a utopian experience in community living, unplugged from all the electronic devices and commercial transactions that run our lives. Everybody shares. In 2011, the twins joined some 68,000 creatives for a week to help build a city from sand in the barren Nevada desert and fill that magical canvas with art installations.

“Radical self-expression” is one of the principles giddily practiced—men love to dress up in tutus; nubile women show off their pastie-covered tits; strangers exchange gifts and favors, art and music and maybe sex, all in pursuit of a higher level of happiness.

Miki met her soulmate at Burning Man. Andrew Horn was not only handsome, he was already a social entrepreneur, like her. He was only 24, but he had started two non-profits—one for children with disabilities and one for disabled adults. Actually, they had met four months earlier, but Andrew admitted to me, “Of course I was intimidated. Miki is a force of nature.”

The young man was still trying to figure out who he was and, as he told me, not ready to get involved with a formidable woman seven and a half years his senior. Andrew brought his own tent to Burning Man, determined to sleep by himself. After too many mushrooms, he could barely pitch his tent.

Miki was not nearly so restrained. “He was the most romantic man I’d ever met and we made each other laugh.” So Miki searched the desert until she found Andrew in his tent at four in the morning. Peeking inside, she was overjoyed to see him sleeping alone. She planted herself outside and debated for an hour, “Should I crawl into this kid’s tent?”

Andrew awoke with a yelp. “‘Oh, Miki?” And he pulled her all the way in. “We spooned the rest of the night,” he told me. After the two spent four days radically expressing themselves together, they were “Burning Man married.” Andrew wore a gifted Brooks Brothers suit over his bare chest. Miki was also transformed, a swath of sheer white chiffon wrapped around her half-naked body. The ceremony was performed by a Rev. FunkPocket on an artistic replica of an ocean pier..

But it turned out that Andrew had been addicted to porn from age 12. He’d had some 70 one-night stands but never a relationship. The next year, the couple returned to Burning Man in an RV with six of their closest friends and dozens more who were eager to bear witness to their second, more serious, “Burning Man marriage.” It was still not an official paper marriage, but Andrew whispered to me: “We feel committed for life.”

It was out there, nowhere in the Nevada desert, where apocalyptic flamethrowers set a wooden man to burn, symbolic of letting go and starting fresh in life, that Miki and Radha hit on the idea of founding their tribe. They named their communal “family” Boom Spiral.

“It’s the opposite of the Doom Spiral in economics, where everything gets worse and worse,” Miki told me. “In our tribe, we enhance everyone’s well-being and awesomeness.”

That includes the “well-being and awesomeness” of Taylor Conroy, a 26-year-old meditating zen surfer who was obsessed with building businesses that make change in the world. He was close to folding his first startup, Change Heroes. Miki and Radha heard about the company that offered a video platform for young, purpose-driven philanthropists.

Miki held a pow-wow for him, and her tribe members all insisted: “You can do this—just power through.” Shaking hands with Conroy, Miki slipped him $10,000. He parlayed that pre-investment over the next few years to raise $3 million from donors in over 40 countries to fund schools, anti-sex trafficking efforts, and water projects—before he turned 30.

The anthropological definition of tribe is “a social group consisting of people of the same race”—okay, these are almost all white, except for Miki and Radha; “they speak the same language; hold the same beliefs”—de-commodification, self-sufficiency, human connection; “share customs”—half the tribe today are repeat “Burners”; “and a common purpose”—to use their success as entrepreneurs to change the face of education, eating habits, energy production, philanthropy, music, dance, media, toilet habits, you name it.

To house some of her tribe, Miki found a handsomely renovated 100-year-old Catholic church in Williamsburg. It had been turned into mini-apartments. “Three of our couple friends all moved onto the same floor with us,” she announced. The four couples could beg and borrow from one another, talk shop, or commiserate. Andrew saw their tribe as a new version of the sixties commune. I couldn’t hold back a laugh, having been a big sister of the Woodstock generation.

“But the sixties hippies followed Timothy Leary’s psychedelic prescription: ‘turn on, tune in, drop out.’” I pointed out. “They were anti-capitalists, living off the land, making bread and love and accidental children. Isn’t your tribe using capitalism to foster your social purposes? Maybe even to justify living well?”

Their pocket duplex rented for $4,375 a month. That’s no sixties commune. Andrew acknowledged they were different: “We balance the ridiculousness of the way we’re able to live by trying to make the world a better place, and investing our time in things that are helping people.”

Tribes need rituals. I followed the couple and their tribe to their next Burn and saw them begin to invent rituals to celebrate couplings to come, conceptions, anniversaries, births—both of children and startups—and all the other passages as they grew from stage to stage into adulthood.

“This is a unique group among millennials,” says Esther Perel, a couples’ therapist and best-selling author of Mating in Captivity, who Miki and Radha invited to coach the tribe on intimacy and sex. They were most curious about polyamory, usually defined as having a deep attachment to one partner but also able to have romances with others. Lots of players in rich single precincts like Silicon Valley declare their marriages “open,” but usually end in a breakup, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher.

“Open marriage didn’t work in the sixties, or when it was tried in earlier centuries,” she says. “We are a jealous animal.”

I asked Miki how she felt about polyamory. “Andrew and I talked about it. We’re just not ready. Maybe in 15 years when we’ve tried every position, but now I’m thinking about having a baby, so I feel like ‘mine, no one else’s, he’s mine.’”

Perel quickly assessed the tribe as “warm and loving, but living in a sensory-deprived age.” The first piece of furniture Miki showed me in her new shared apartment with Andrew was a huge, low Indian bed in the middle of their living room—“a cuddle puddle.” (The twins picked up cuddle puddling at Burning Man, where people drift into parties over the course of an evening, sit close, hugging, drinking, talking, stroking in a friendly setting, going as far as their boundaries allow.)

Miki had always imagined herself marrying and having children.  She confided in me her recurrent dream:  She is  in a birthing tub in a little country house with Andrew in the water beside her. The family of their tribe is gathered around the tub. If all goes well,  Miki will enjoy an orgasmic birth. A midwife will help deliver the baby and the father will assist. The newborn will be passed around members of the tribe each of whom pledge to help raise the child.

The couple secretly planned their ritual of conception. While friends assembled for a tribal member’s birthday party, Miki and Andrew disappeared into a bedroom and Miki “pulled the goalie.” They say they felt their baby’s spirit form in the moment of joining. “It was sublime.”

But, as the Beatles warned us, life is what happens when one is making other plans. In her fifth month of pregnancy, Miki’s other baby, THINX, was wrested from her in the space of a few weeks. Its earnings, privately held, had increased by 20 times in the first two years, according to Miki. She had fantastical plans. “I want this to be a billion-dollar brand that influences a billion lives and eliminates the menstrual taboo for a billion women,” Miki had told me.

Andrew’s startup had attracted 50,000 customers to use his Tribute platform to record eulogies for living loved ones. Among them were Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, Tim Ferriss.

In Joseph Campbell’s famous mythic Hero’s Journey, there are three main phases: The Call to Adventure, The Ordeal and the The Comeback.

When I saw Miki shortly after she had stepped down as CEO and the media had blasted out the story in every form, she was fit to be tied. Five months pregnant and swimming in hormones, she swore that she would carry bitterness to the end of her days. When I received an announcement of the birth of Miki and Andrew’s son, I couldn’t wait to hear if her dream delivery had come true. Did the tribe rally ‘round?

“Oh my god, two weeks after I was fired, they burst in here with a boom box, food and flowers and said, ‘We’re having a party!’”

Miki and her son.

The week before her due date, Miki had DJ’ed at Daybreaker, belly bouncing. When she began having labor pains two days late, Miki invited everyone over for a dinner party. It began like a big meditation circle, 15 people all gathered round the cuddle puddle chanting in unison with the birth mother’s vibrations: “Ooohhhmmm.” It helped ease her contractions.

As the pain became unbearable, Miki succumbed to going to the hospital. She was given a drug that forces contractions. Instead, it squeezed the heart of the fetus and drove its heart rate down. A vaginal birth was not safe. An emergency C-section was performed.

When I visited Miki at home three weeks after her son Hiro was born, she was still “on the hamster wheel,” as she calls her non-stop entrepreneurial quest to change the world. She had already churned out two new patents and applications for two more. Her other business, Tushy, a portable bidet for adults, had earned a million and half in revenue, she said, and her mother-in-law was encouraging her to write a book. “It’s going to be a modern woman’s manifesto called Disrupt-Her,” Miki announced.

How, I asked Miki, did she and Andrew weather the storm of such a public failure? Miki’s defiant armor loosened. “I talked like three times a day with my life coach, going through every emotion. Sometimes I lashed out. Andrew and I would go to our coach’s house for a weekend and talk through all the stuff we were holding.”

No progress can be made to restore one’s professional standing until, if and when, the “cancelled” figure can allow her or himself to be vulnerable. The inner comeback must come first. It’s a painful process of self-examination and self-correction before one can move forward without carrying bitterness or blaming others.

After the takedown, Miki immediately went to work with her Lauren Zander, the best-selling author of Maybe It’s You: Cut the Crap, Face Your Fears, Love Your Life.  “Miki was a mess,” the executive life coach told me in a recent interview. “She could not breathe. She couldn’t not cry. She felt devastated in every way. People didn’t believe her; she was betrayed by her board; the media piled on and on.”

Zander does not suffer whining. She is 48, a one-time teenage hellion who is now happily married. “We’re going to begin with a long list of post-mortems,” she told her client. The old Miki had to be put to rest in order to allow a rebirth. To help her come out of her bitterness and blaming, Zander told Miki she’d have to learn to take full responsibility for everything that happened around her.

How long did it take to lead Miki to the point where she could accept the truth? “Six to eight months,” Zander said. “She had to practice talking about it, coming to own it, and not being ashamed or venomous.”

The line that Miki and Zander kept rehearsing was “You let the fox into the hen house.” Miki was strapped for cash in doing her startup. The minute she realized she could get a better deal from another manufacturer, she insisted her current manufacturer give her a better rate. That was the beginning of the end. Zander smelled it. “I screamed at her: ‘This is dangerous, Miki!’”

But Miki was desperate to make payroll and grow the business. “She had high hopes that she could straighten out the problems later—don’t we all?” This is one of the biggest mistakes that startup leaders make. They’ll deal with the culture later, they just have to get the work out: “Everybody, heads down!” Zander has seen it happen so often to her clients, she sees it as the fatal flaw in building the culture of a startup.

“She needed to realize that because she’s such a force to be reckoned with— a visionary— she doesn’t see or hear what people are whispering behind her back—and she doesn’t care,” Zander told me. “The business was growing so fast, Miki paid no attention to whether people liked her or not. She didn’t take the time to develop relationships with the people working for her.”

In reality, the culture of a company is everything: the way the CEO runs a meeting, builds a team, manages deadlines, hears grievances and builds trust. Miki couldn’t see the impact her demanding style was having. Zander admits: “If you don’t really know her, you might assume she was a controlling bitch.”

To break through Miki’s wall of denial, Zander helped Miki establish three personal laws against repeating behaviors that alienate people: I will know whoever I hire, I will never try to be CEO again, I will always respect the art of building a great culture.

Miki and Andrew went through a lot of turmoil during her work on inner change. “Miki was accustomed to not needing help or nurturing,” Zander learned. From my observation of her demanding father and passive mother, the self-starter probably didn’t get much nurturing as a child. This crisis was the first time ever that she needed Andrew to take care of her, but she didn’t know how to ask.

“What Miki really needed was for Andrew to fight for her or let her cry like a baby,” Zander said. Andrew is a warm and loving person, but, like most men, Zander told me, his approach was how to “fix” the problem—by looking at all sides.

Miki has made great strides in how she handles talking about the takedown. Today, she is even able to bring it up: “If you Google me, you’ll read articles that say when I was four months pregnant, I was sexually harassing a woman I had fired.”

For all their work together, Zander knows Miki is still afraid that people won’t see her for who she is now. “I wish she loved her scarlet letter more— that she understood how special she is. She truly believes in changing the world, but she’s still afraid people won’t understand that about her and like her for who she really is.”

It had taken two years for Miki to help Andrew give up his porn addiction and fully enjoy their sexual intimacy. The couple had then begun pursuing what I call “slow love,” as opposed to the popularity of hookup culture and dateless sex. At every significant moment of their relationship, these two create a ceremony to deepen their commitment, which is witnessed and affirmed by their tribe.

Andrew designed her gold engagement ring with a space in the center to reflect their agreement to choose each other, over and over again, but also to maintain their separateness as individuals. Their deepening love and trust was endorsed by their tribe in many memorable rituals.

“When I think about my relationship with Andrew and all the obstacles we have overcome together, “ Miki said softly, “in business, in life, even in the sexual space—I’m so deeply proud of our partnership.”

On a visit to Miki, in June 2018, I caught her dashing in from a barre class in a running bra and biker shorts—still running. She summoned her babysitter to bring her infant son straight home. From the moment the nine-month-old baby boy appeared, Miki lit up as little Hiro pulled down her bra top to have a snack.

“If bad things hadn’t happen to you…” I began.

“…I wouldn’t have been able to be here for my baby,” Miki finished the sentence. “I was in the hamster wheel running so fast, I would never have been able to stop.” But stop she did, and her new M.O. as a calm and present mother was a stunning contrast to the driven disrupter of her first 35 years.

She cancelled 15 speaking engagements after being fired. She was now working from home, but on a book that could be set aside for Hiro’s dominant needs. The cuddle puddle was now a playpen strewn with toys.

And Miki herself looked different. A band of grey hair was showing. (She corrected me:  “Silver hair, I’m rebranding.”) Allowing her natural color to take over is another part of the passage into one’s late thirties—one day desperately wanting to look younger again, then embracing the reality of what I call not aging, but “sageing.”

“Silver connotes hard-earned wisdom,” she commented. “We should be proud to show it off.”

Miki’s dream now is to continue to break taboos through innovation. She hopes her book, Disrupt-Her, will expose the many ways in which women are indoctrinated to act out in business and life according to pre-prescribed behaviors.

In the afternoon, three of her male employees from Tushy dropped by to show her prototypes of a portable bidet. Her new CEO is Jason Ojalvo. She hired him away from Audible where he was head of the content production division. She doesn’t have to change her clothes or leave her baby.

I asked Miki if she still believes that it is possible to run a profit-making business in America’s market economy and at the same time pursue a social justice movement. “I absolutely do.” She spoke as an entrepreneur in the taboo-breaking business. “You weather the storms in business. But what’s most important is that you have people who love the shit out of you.”

Miki and Andrew moved into their new, fully grown-up home a month before their official marriage and seven years after their first Burning Man marriage—a testament to slow love. A gigantic sectional sofa sits in front of their new fireplace.

What happened to the cuddle puddle? Appropriately, it was moved upstairs to their new boudoir.

I asked Andrew how the usual distancing from friends once a couple has a child had affected the old closeness of their tribe. He barely grasped my point. “Miki and I exist as a central unit with a core orbit of about 80 tribe members around us,” he replied. “Concentric orbits of people in other cities and countries number, maybe 200.”

Being the romantic, Andrew had taken the last year to plan a DIY wedding where everyone would contribute to the tribal ceremonies. He found a rent-a-wreck boy’s summer camp near Cold Spring, New York—deep, really deep, in the woods of the Catskills. A private bus hauled the revelers up from Brooklyn and deposited them by dorms with wood-slatted camp beds. Most were then dressed in overalls and ready to prepare the outdoor dining area, bar and a stage in the amphitheater for a talent show of odes to love. Andrew had spent the last year planning it down to the yurt where wasted guests could get away from it all. I found him in his cabin writing his wedding vows.

Miki and Andrew at their wedding.

He showed me Miki’s wedding ring. He had designed it to slip into the space left between the two halves of her engagement ring. “That was when we wanted to be joined but separate. Now the wedding rings lock us together.”

That night, after a musical meditation and a buffet dinner, guests dressed in elegant versions of Burning Man outrageous picked up popcorn, Kombucha drinks and craft beers and disported themselves on blankets to watch a talent show. The twins put on an hilarious performance of a song they wrote together at age ten, constantly interrupting each other, ever the competitive performers, to the delight of their audience.

Saturday was the scene of two wedding ceremonies—one Indian, one Japanese—and a final inter-galactic joining, with Andrew in all white and Miki in sheer chiffon over a sparkly leotard with her signature Panama hat.

A couple of weeks before Miki’s book tour, I interviewed Miki and Andrew in the house the couple bought just before their marriage last September. It’s now the new HQ of the tribe with friends dropping in and out and an extra bedroom for out-of-town members to crash. Their son Hiro is center stage, a year and a half and kicking a soccer ball the length of the living room with his dad when he’s not racing toward Miki—squealing “Mama! Mama!” to jump into her arms and go dancing.

Andrew retreats to his study, where he’s preparing a podcast show. He launched his third social good business a year ago and now leads retreats for young men to work through a ceremonial rite of passage into mature masculinity. He’s what Miki calls a SNAG: Secure New Age Guy.

Radha drops in with her new husband. The twins live a 10 minute walk apart in Williamsburg. The uncomfortably overdo “geriatric” pregnant twin, already days past her delivery date, leaned back in a lounge chair so her beach-ball-sized belly could float up and take the pressure off. Radha talked about the greatest gift she’s had in life—an identical twin sister.

So much of our old B.S. is gone. Sharing motherhood has taken away all the silly competition we’ve had and replaced it with collaboration.” The sisters are on the phone 50 times a day, to which I can attest.

When I returned to Miki and Andrew’s place to say goodnight, they were at the kitchen island surrounded by friends all pitching in to make dinner. I had one last question: What does the couple do when they have a fight?

Andrew smiled. He will pull out the photo albums of their Burning Man experiences with the tribe. He piles them up on the cuddle puddle and waits for Miki to pore over them. It’s a reminder of all the beautiful times they have shared over the last seven years and an invitation to reconcile.

On one of the album’s last pages is their mantra: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Gail Sheehy is an icon of American journalism, a sought-after speaker and groundbreaking pioneer for women. She is the author of 17 books. Her landmark work, Passages, remained on The NYTimes Bestseller List for more than three years and has been reprinted in 28 languages. Gail was one of the original contributors to New York magazine and has been a contributing editor to Vanity Fair since 1984. She is a seven-time recipient of the New York Newswomen’s Club Front Page Award for distinguished journalism and three-time winner or finalist for National Magazine Awards. In 2013, she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by Books for a Better Life.

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The Ms. Q&A: What Diane Paulus Learned by Telling Gloria Steinem’s Story

Diane Paulus has led a storied life in the arts with a distinctly feminist twist: In 2012, she became the third-ever woman to win a Tony award for Best Direction of a Musical for her gender-swapped production of Pippin; in 2015, she worked with the first-ever all-female creative team behind a musical to bring Waitress to life on stage.

Her latest project, however, is far less fictional—and much more movement-oriented.

This season, Paulus directed “Gloria: A Life,” bringing the story of one of the modern women’s movement’s most famous faces to the Daryl Roth Theatre and issuing a nightly call-to-arms in the process. Each performance follows Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem, played by Christine Lahti, as she walks, quite literally, through her own life; along the way, it provides a pathway to understanding and empowerment for viewers rooted in a corrected version of feminist history that is more diverse and inclusive than any most of us have seen before.

The play’s unusual format—there is no intermission, and the second act is an open conversation between the cast, crew and audience about the issues that matter most to them—is distinctly Gloria. But the engaging performances that fill the black-box theater have Paulus’ name all over them.

Paulus spoke to Ms. about what drew her to the project—and how it challenged and changed her.

Diane Paulus (second from the right) with Gloria Steinem (center) and actors from “Gloria: A Life.” (@gloriatheplay)

I always start with an inception story: You have had a legendary directing career. How did you become a part of this particular play—and, by extension, Gloria’s story? What drew you to this project?

Daryl Roth, our producer, reached out to me about this project initially—and it was a no-brainer for me to get involved. I’m drawn to projects that I know will expand my mind and my soul. The chance to immerse myself in this project and deepen my understanding of Gloria’s life and work has been completely life-altering.

This is such a rich and uniquely interactive theater experience. How did this play upend the typical model of directing for theater? How did you begin to approach the task of telling Gloria’s story and calling the audience to arms in the process?

The whole point of telling Gloria’s story in Act I is to transform the audience and get them to a place where they are ready to share their own stories in Act II. We created an installation in the set design that was all about the audience sitting in an actual circle, so the physical space evokes the Act II talking circle. The audience is always present—there is no fourth wall; they are included and directly involved in the theatrical event.

What was it like watching this play come to life?

One of the most thrilling aspects of watching this play come to life was to experience the meaning this story had for our cast and creative team. The artists that collaborated on this play ranged vastly in age—from our youngest directing assistant, a recent high school graduate, to women in their fifities and sixties, all the way up to Gloria herself at 84. Throughout the process, everyone shared stories of their own lives, and in this way we learned about the history of the women’s movement up to the present moment through our own personal histories.

Watching Act II come to life has been similarly inspiring, hearing the audience share their own experiences about what resonated in the play for them. There have been so many emotional and galvanizing moments.

For so many, the play is a trip down memory lane. And for younger generations, it is an informative lesson of where we came from and what our mothers and grandmothers have been through.

This isn’t your first feminist feat, on stage or on screen. Such a major part of this play is the notion, I think, that Gloria’s story is, in some ways, part of our own stories—and that we have stories just as wild and wonderful to share with the world, and which we must begin to tell to one another. How do you think the feminist movement shaped your own life, and your work? 

I went to an all-girls school growing up: The Brearley School in New York City. There was never any question that we could be whoever we wanted to be and say whatever we wanted to say. In high school, I marched for the ERA and I lobbied for Planned Parenthood in Albany. I actually wanted to go into politics—my goal was to become the mayor of New York. In the end, theater became the way for me to channel that impulse to bring people together and make change.

Now, having done this project, I have an even deeper understanding of how everything that I have been able to do in my life is thanks to the efforts of the women’s movement. 

I am so grateful to have had the chance to see this play—I attended the night Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a Ms. Contributor, led the act two talking circle. It’s such an immersive and inspiring event. I’m so curious about the vision that guided everyone toward the shape it ultimately took. What impact were you hoping each performance would have on the audience? What impact has it had which made you most proud so far?

In the play, Gloria says “every social justice movement has started with people sitting in a circle—like this. We called it consciousness raising… It’s all about sharing what’s wrong and what to do about it.” I am most proud of the simple fact that we’ve created a space for people to sit in a circle and to recognize that their own stories have value. I know that audience members leave the theater newly energized and inspired to create their own talking circles.

Yes, absolutely. As the run winds down to a close this spring, I am confident a league of driven and bold women will emerge in its wake. Now, just for fun: If you could invite any five feminists—from contemporary times or ancient history, or anywhere in between—to see this play and then join you afterward for a talking circle, who would you save a seat for?

I would definitely want to include the figures in our play—Dorothy Pittman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller.

And Joan of Arc!

Ms. readers can save over 25% on tickets to “Gloria: A Life” on Ticketmaster or by calling 800-745-3000 and using the code GLP65.

Carmen Rios is the Digital Editor at Ms. , co-host of TRIGGER HAPPY on Binge Networks and co-founder of Argot Magazine. Her work has also appeared at BuzzFeed, Bitch, Mic, MEL, Everyday Feminism and Autostraddle. Like everyone else in LA, she once had a podcast; unlike everyone else, she stays pretty zen in traffic. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

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One Woman’s Search for Herself is at the Core of “I Am the Night”

Picks of the Week is Women and Hollywood’s newest resource. We are often asked for recommendations, so each week we’ll spotlight the women-driven and women-made projects—movies, series, VOD releases and more—that we’re most excited about. Sign up for the Women and Hollywood newsletter at to get each week’s pick delivered to your inbox.

This Week’s Pick: “I Am the Night” Miniseries

For “Wonder Woman” fans, “I Am the Night” is a nice holdover until the blockbuster’s sequel lands in summer 2020, as director Patty Jenkins reunites with stars Chris Pine and Connie Nielsen. For everyone else, this six-episode TNT miniseries is an entertaining, thrilling blend of LA noir and bildungsroman.

Inspired by the life of Fauna Hodel and set in 1965, “I Am the Night” is about Pat (India Eisley), a young woman who finds out she’s adopted and sets out to find her birth mother. Her biological grandfather is Dr. George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), a rich, well-regarded gynecologist with some very dark secrets. In fact, journalist Jay Singletary (Pine) torpedoed his career by reporting on Hodel’s alleged misdeeds. Jay—now working the sleazy stringer circuit to pay the bills—eventually teams up with Pat, aka Fauna, to find out the truth about her family.

As intriguing as the central mystery in “I Am the Night” is, Pat’s struggle with her own identity makes the show. She’s a light-skinned mixed-race girl being raised by a black single mother (Golden Brooks) in a small Nevada town. Like the other black citizens, she is routinely mistreated and harassed. But, for those who don’t know her, Pat passes for white. Things get even more complicated when Pat realizes she’s adopted and was born Fauna Hodel. Her birth certificate says her mother is white and her father is black. And that’s just the beginning of her journey. Each episode, it seems, Fauna discovers something new about herself.

“I Am the Night,” therefore, is the story of Fauna finding out who she really is. Hers is an extremely specific experience, of course, but it’s also recognizable to anyone who wrestled with their own sense of self as a teenager. Similar to her work in “Wonder Woman,” Jenkins—who directed three episodes and exec produces—gives her protagonist the space and screen time to pursue the truth about herself, process it and choose the best way to move forward. (Rachel Montpelier)

“I Am the Night” premieres on TNT January 28 at 9pm EST.

Women and Hollywood educates, advocates and agitates for gender diversity and inclusion in Hollywood and the global film industry. The site, founded in 2007 by Melissa Silverstein, sets the standard, defines the conversation, fuels coverage and reinforces messages throughout the specialized and mainstream media to call for gender parity on a daily basis. Follow W&H at @WomenaHollywood and Melissa @MelSil.

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