Skirt the Issue Interview: Arielle Bernstein

Arielle Bernstein is a writer who lives in Washington, DC. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, The Rumpus, The Millions, Salon, and IndieWire. She is a Professorial Lecturer at American University and is currently working on her first book. For more about Arielle, visit her website.

I first met Arielle as an editor at The Rumpus, and her ability to refract pop culture out into larger questions and indications of our humanity sets the standard for “culture writing” online and beyond. Aside from being a glimmering talent, she is a classic fashion marvel, with a personal style that blends Lana Del Rey’s smolder with Wes Anderson’s whimsy.

Tabitha Blankenbiller
How did you get into pop culture writing? How did you fall in love with it?

Arielle Bernstein
I started as a poet. I went to grad school for poetry, and I took some creative non-fiction classes and I really fell in love with literary journalism. So during that time as I was working on my thesis, I kind of transitioned into writing personal essays. In undergrad, I was a philosophy major, so I’ve always been interested in cultural criticism. I was one of those theory geeks. I really like literary theory. I enjoy being able to find ways to apply it in ways that aren’t necessarily dry. To me that was always very important. And I think that that naturally lends into a lot of the really interesting, evocative conversations that are going on in online spaces. I actually feel very lucky to be living in a time where this is a type of writing that is valued, where I think we’re having a renaissance of it.

Tabitha Blankenbiller
I remember falling in love in the early days with a gossip and entertainment blog called Defamer that got eaten up by Gawker. What were some of your early influences that showed you that this style of writing was a thing?

Arielle Bernstein
At first I was writing for The Nervous Breakdown, then I fell in love with The Rumpus, so it’s been amazing to be able to continue to become a more active part that publication it over the years. I remember Jezebel when it first came out, I was very excited about all the amazing essays that were coming out. I would say that those were some of my big influences. But I think a lot of other online writing has gone in that direction. I was reading a New Yorker article recently that was talking about how film criticism has changed in the age of online criticism where you have more kind of a democracy of ideas right now, which is cool and exciting but also can be threatening, I think, to the status quo and the establishment, in both good and bad ways.

Tabitha Blankenbiller
You mentioned your working with The Rumpus, and you recently launched a new column, Torch, which features writing from immigrants. Can you describe its creation?

Arielle Bernstein
I come from a family of Cuban Jews who came to the US as refugees in 1968.. I shared a personal post with everything that’s going on politically, and I was amazed that so many people responded to it. I realized it’s important to talk about this because I know there’s a lot of other people who have important, intimate stories of their own experiences. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that a lot of Americans weren’t familiar with what it meant to be an immigrant or a refugee. That seems to be part of the problem. So I sent an email to the editors at The Rumpus to see if they were interested and they jumped on the idea. I have to say it’s just been so many different submissions and varied stories. Right now it’s a monthly series, and getting the opportunity to pick what’s going to be showcased every single month is really exciting.

Tabitha Blankenbiller
I’ve seen such a great social media response to it so far. Another essay that was very well-received on social media and beyond was your piece “Marie Kondo and the Privilege of Clutter” in The Atlantic.

Arielle Bernstein
I actually just gave a lecture over at American University on that piece, and I’m expanding those ideas into a book. So I’m very excited about it.

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Tabitha Blankenbiller
Oh my gosh, that’s incredible. Can you talk a little bit more about it?

Arielle Bernstein
Yes. The working title is Chasing Empty, and the book is similar to the essay that I had written for The Atlantic, keeping my personal stories but with more cultural analysis of why people have this fraught kind of relationship to stuff in our culture. What does it mean to be making these kinds of big choices about the things that we keep and the things that we’re getting rid of? The book is a critique of the modern minimalism movement—I’m definitely not anti-minimalism though. I actually appreciate and enjoy a streamlined aesthetic. But I think that there’s been a transition with the minimalist movement into conspicuous consumption.

Tabitha Blankenbiller
That will be so good. I think that touches on what we’ve talked about before together, which is technology and the advancements we’re seeing, and how that feeds into these ideas of pop culture and fashion and image and branding and feminism, and how they all coverage into strange and lovely things. Like your Instagram page. It’s gorgeous. What I’ve been surprised about is seeing so many writers and literary journals embrace Instagram. To me it’s interesting because writers don’t have the reputation as being stylish. We’re supposed to be “above that” or whatever. What are your thoughts on what appeals to people and drives them to put an image out there?

Arielle Bernstein
I think that for writers, and especially for female writers, it’s a little fraught because on the one hand, we want to be seen as intellectual heavyweights. Especially with the way that our culture often treats fashion. It can sometimes be seen as diminishing  if we’re too interested in style. And yet style is such an important part of who we are, and I know it’s an important part of who I am. Both as a writer and as a person. There’s certain aesthetic choices that I make that I think are really important to me and that really – I think if you look through my Instagram or you look through my Twitter, I think that you actually do get a sense for who I am as a woman and as a professional.

It’s also about building relationships with other female writers. Many of the women I admire, our conversations are about intellectual things, but we’ll also mention, I love that lipstick shade, or I really like those shoes. And that can be a way of bridging a lot of different gaps.

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Tabitha Blankenbiller
I think it takes down a barrier, too, because it can be intimidating when you see a writer who is getting a lot of recognition. There’s so much rivalry in writing, and it can be diminishing. Like oh, I don’t know if she wants to talk to me. She’s a bigger, better writer than I am. But with fashion and beauty and the image we put out, people become more approachable. You can ask oh, where did you get that lipstick? We can share something versus that constant feeling of competition that I think happens because of the nature of what we do.

Arielle Bernstein
Yeah. It definitely feels like a kind of camaraderie.

Tabitha Blankenbiller
Among the college students that you teach, what do you observe in their relationship with social media? Is its presence helping their self-image, or is it exacerbating the issue of wanting to be “good” enough?

Arielle Bernstein
I’m teaching a class right now on intimacy in the digital age, and I think that there’s an assumption that recent millennials or generation Z are totally in touch with technology. I think some of them are, but I think a lot of them actually will get Facebook accounts specifically because they go to college and they’re that they need to use social media for professional reasons. There’s a little bit of a myth that they’re so much more well-versed in these technologies than our generation is. A lot really depends on the individual student.

But I do think that they love Instagram. That’s probably one of their favorite places, one of their go-to places, and there is a heck of a lot of conversation about the image that they’re uploading and how important it is. Like, how many hearts do you need to get on Instagram? It seems very, very important in terms of how they socialize with one another.

Tabitha Blankenbiller
So, not to promote totalitarian impulses or anything, but if you were queen, and you could mandate that everyone had to at least try one of your favorite beauty products, what would it be?

Arielle Bernstein
Oh my gosh, I have to think about that. I’m a big fan of Clinique, and I really like getting their little sample bags that come every month. I always did that with my mom growing up, and she’ll still go to Clinique and bring me back a bag to try on those little samples and things. I’m a big eye makeup person, even though I feel like in today’s amazing eyebrow game, I have a very simple eyebrow.

Tabitha Blankenbiller
I think that’s more than okay.

Arielle Bernstein
But yeah, I like playing with eye makeup and having a natural, vintage-y look. I love Lana Del Ray and her type of style. That’s something that I know I’m always trying to emulate, so I’d say her long, wavy hair has been my more recent fashion trend. One thing I was thinking about, and may still potentially do, is dye my hair a rose gold shade.

Tabitha Blankenbiller
I’ve seen that! My hair stylist posted a Trends of 2017 article, and rose gold was at the top. You would be right on trend. I love it.

Arielle Bernstein
Excellent.

Tabitha Blankenbiller
How do you learn how to do your makeup, say in that Lana Del Ray siren style? I remember going to the Clinique counter. My mom took me there when I was in middle school because I had no idea how to put on makeup. It’s been an uphill climb ever since. What’s your method?

Arielle Bernstein
I guess through trial and error. I’m still not particularly good at doing cat eye even though I love the look. I usually keep my makeup pretty simple and I still kind of get excited when I experiment and try to do something new. About a year ago, I was invited by a makeup company to do a shoot with them, and that was really interesting because they really knew how to do makeup. It was surprising to see how much time it takes to professionally do some of those looks.

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Tabitha Blankenbiller
How did that photo shoot come about? I love that you got to actually be a model!

Arielle Bernstein
It was pretty cool. A friend of a friend saw one of my wedding pictures that was shared, and then the company reached out and said they’d love to have me try a new product line. I had never done something like that before, and it gave me a very different view of what I could wear. They went for a much darker makeup than I was used to. I think my lipstick was almost purple in one scene.

Tabitha Blankenbiller
I love that it’s sort of like the writing world. Like somebody shared your piece, and then you got hooked up with the people that were looking for that. It’s so serendipitous. I love it.

Arielle Bernstein
It surprised me, how much I enjoyed it. I think being feminine has always been a major part of my identity. But I never thought that I would enjoy doing a makeup shoot so much, and it’s something that, if someone asked me to do it again, I would totally be up for it.

Tabitha Blankenbiller
I’m glad you took the opportunity. Have you written about it?

Arielle Bernstein
No, I actually didn’t write about it. This is the first time that I’ve ever been asked to really talk about beauty or style.

Tabitha Blankenbiller
Speaking of which, if you could go shopping with any fashion icon, who would it be?

Arielle Bernstein
I love Janelle Monae, and I’ve been really excited to see her CoverGirl ad series. She does such interesting things with fashion. She’s probably my biggest fashion style icon aside from Lana Del Ray.

And also Rihanna, because I mean, Rihanna. I still think that her see-thru 1920s dress was just fabulous. She has such amazing style.

Tabitha Blankenbiller
Rihanna is The Best. The end.

 

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