or, how high anxiety and, um, a global pandemic made me rethink my materialism
I am my father’s daughter. Which is to say, more specifically: I am the way I am, in large part, because my father played Mel Brooks movies around me a lot, maybe too much—definitely too early—growing up.
If it was a Sunday in our house, the TV remote could only be under his command, and good luck persuading him to put on something you actually wanted to watch. Sunday mornings, I learned, were not the time to invest yourself in some new story; rather, they were a time to slip into the comfort of an old, well-worn favorite. For my father, this more often than not meant something by Mel Brooks. It was rarely a well received choice. My mother always objected loudly the moment the first remotely dirty joke hit: “This is not appropriate,” she’d say, stern, shrill, exasperated, like she had acquired a fourth unruly child to parent. I didn’t always like it, either; often, I only sat down to watch because I was told gruffly that I had to. My protests weren’t so much concerned with propriety (although “why is this okay but MTV is not?” came up plenty) as they were with variety. I wanted something new, wanted one of my favorites for once instead of his. But here’s the thing: No amount of sheer stubborn will to remain unamused could keep me from at least cracking a smile. That’s the undeniable humor of Mel Brooks for you.
When I say “I am the way I am,” of course I’m being hyperbolic—but even exaggerations are rooted in truth. When I say “I am the way I am,” I mean that I can point to these Sunday morning movies as very real explanations for the person I am today: Why I lack the ability to skillfully compromise on what to watch; why I have an unhealthy knowledge of pop culture made before I was born; why I favor humor that is a little irreverent and lovingly obsessive; why I have no choice but to make fun of my own anxieties for fear that if I don’t crack a joke, someone else will do so first.
I am my father’s daughter, but I am also a child of the aughts, which is a way of saying I came of age in the time of The Simple Life and My Super Sweet Sixteen; of Juicy Couture tracksuits and Seven for All Mankind jeans paired with tiny rainbow monogrammed Louis Vuitton bags and heart-shaped Return to Tiffany & Co. charm necklaces; of Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada. It was a time where designer logo flaunting was considered neither garish nor camp, but stylish and trendy and, above all else, deeply aspirational. “Eat the rich” was not a common refrain back then; we still thought we could be the rich if we really worked hard enough. In the meantime, we could at least dress like them.
As a child of the aughts, there were few jokes in the entirety of Mel Brooks’ canon I loved more than the sight of Madeline Kahn’s Victoria Brisbane, dressed in a monogrammed pantsuit, emerging from a monogrammed car while carrying a monogrammed bag in High Anxiety. (Casual viewing of the film passes this off as Louis Vuitton, but upon closer inspection, the gag is even more detailed: It is not, in fact, intertwining LVs adorning her suit and car; rather, VBs.) Details aside, it’s the final escalation of a running sight gag throughout the film; Kahn’s send-up of a classic Hitchcock blonde is rarely seen without an imitation-Vuitton accessory, be it leather clutch or stuffed animal. The progression of its presence to consume not only her entire outfit, but vehicle, as well is funny in part because it goes completely unacknowledged.
There are other films by Mel Brooks that we watched more than High Anxiety, ones that are funnier, ones that are simply better, ones that have gone into the time capsule where all great films from the past we have since categorized as classics go. Of course The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein are nearly perfect in every way—you don’t need me to tell you that. Be it an old Western or a silent film, Brooks’ satires are often created with the precise, obsessive detail of someone who is a fan first, filmmaker second, and while his best parodies stand on their own, they always hit best when the viewer has some working knowledge of the source material. High Anxiety is no exception, although it never ascended to the same status as Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein. Enjoyable as it is, its plot is too reliant on its source, the jokes are too inside baseball. Its attempts to satirize an already witty filmmaker—which, really, how do you do that—devolve instead into a greatest hits mashup of Hitchcock’s best bits. As a kid, I felt this acutely: Many of Brooks’ jokes went over my head, but High Anxiety’s especially so. We owned a VHS box set of Hitchcock’s 1930s films, but I certainly never touched them. I did the viewing in reverse; by the time I got around to the more iconic Hitchcock films, it felt as if I had seen them before. Only then did many of High Anxiety’s cracks really click.
There are funnier sight gags in Brooks’ oeuvre, obviously, there are; funnier gags in High Anxiety, too. But this—this was a joke I got right away without needing it explained to me (which, of course, always immediately makes a joke unfunny). I laughed because I recognized my current culture, not the culture in which it was made. It was a visual gag that has only become more relevant as time has passed and consumerism as grown. (Look no further than Dorit Kemsley wearing a similarly-inspired look on a recent episode of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.) But I also laughed because something told me I needed to learn how to laugh at myself so others’ laughter at the gag didn’t register so much as at me but with me. As a 12 year old, image-obsessed girl waiting impatiently for the day I could grow up and be a “fancy adult lady,” I saw Kahn’s character—who looked like so many other wealthy, glamorous women I knew growing up and wanted to emulate in spite of, or maybe because of, their oblivious privilege—and thought “that is what I’d like to be when I grow up.” But that someone was someone everyone else was laughing at—even me—though I didn’t fully understand why at the time. “Laughter is a strange response,” Madeline Kahn once said. “I mean, what is it? It’s a spasm of some kind! Is that always joy? It’s very often discomfort.”
I am a child of the aughts but I am also an adult of the now. And as an adult today, I am someone who likes nice things, and when I say nice things, I mean beautiful things, and when I say beautiful things, I often mean expensive things, which are not always mutually exclusive, though for a large part of my life I thought so. And although I often jokingly say it’s because I am a Taurus, the real reason is much more complicated than that. It’s more like: I am someone who likes nice things because I am a Taurus, sure, but also because, growing up, the value of well-made nice things was drilled into me and nice things were not so commonplace that I could understand why they were special; because I have learned the hard way as an adult that the not-nice things, the shortcut version of things, often end up being more expensive than nice things in the long run; because the procurement and having of nice things made—make—me feel something, some sort of pleasure that I can’t quite succinctly sum up with words.
Growing up working-middle class in an upper-middle class community—and even now, still decidedly middle class in an upper class workplace—I have known what it is like to want things. I have known the small feeling of pride that comes with buying myself nice things with money I earned, and I have known countless women like Victoria, women for whom nice things have always been and always will be a given, and thus are tossed on without a second thought and discarded just as easily. I have known what is like to assert my own worth in material goods. Never mind if I can really only afford to do so by shopping at consignment stores or the holy trinity that is TJ Maxx, Nordstrom Rack, and Century 21; having the ability to own something well made and with a “name” or a price tag that made me think long and hard or save a little before purchasing made me feel like I was someone really making it in the world. But I have also known the shame of wanting things, for I’ve never gone without. I’ve always had enough, so why do I want more?
Every year when my mother asks for my Christmas list, after much protest—I’m an adult now, I make my own money, the things I really want make me feel like a snob—I provide her with a few items like a new pair of Lululemon leggings or a silk blouse from J. Crew, clothes that are certainly not luxury items to some, but pricey to many; nice items that are investments to me, ones I wouldn’t (couldn’t) frequently purchase myself. They are clothes meant to publicly impress, whether at work or at the gym. This year, my list is dowdy wool socks and sweatshirts and clogs. When luxury loungewear appears on one editorial gift guide after another—“Why not feel nice while you’re stuck at home?” they all croon—I put a pack of plain long sleeve Hanes tee shirts on my list instead. I know better.
Once, while standing in the front row of my kindergarten holiday concert, I became so overwhelmed with anxiety that I froze, lifted the hem of my dress—my nice dress—and proceeded to chew a hole in its hem. It’s a stress response I have never been able to shake entirely; this year it came back, violently. Entire necklines of shirts have been destroyed, chewed up beyond recognition. It would be nice to feel nice while stuck at home, but I know enough to know that nice things are only nice if they are kept that way.
I just don’t see the point in nice things this year, I told my mother. This year I am not going anywhere. This year I have ruined things I know won’t be seen by anyone outside of my apartment. This year I have no need to impress. I don’t need $100 leggings that make my ass look great; who’s going to see it? The $12 ones from the kids’ section of Target get my workouts done just the same. This year I am content to just be alive, with a warm place to live and a body that can still go through the motions of daily life. This year I don’t need nice things. This year I have only the most basic need to survive.
Mel Brooks makes mocking movies, but he does not make mean movies; there’s a difference. For one, mean movies are not Sunday morning movies. In this hell year, I found myself watching more films I had already seen than not, returning repeatedly to those of the Sunday morning variety, including many of Brooks’. I wanted worn-in comfort food movies, movies that are warm and silly and feel a little stupid even though they’re often deceptively smart. In 2020, I just wanted to turn my brain off for a little bit. In 2020, I just wanted to laugh.
Brooks never overtly judges Victoria for her materialism; aside from a subtle double take when she emerges from the car, he never even really acknowledges it. The bit itself only lasts about fifteen seconds, just barely long enough for your brain to register it. And it’s funny, the same way all seemingly throwaway bits are funny. It’s a spoof, after all, it doesn’t get that deep. What High Anxiety does is remind us that it’s okay to laugh at these aspects of human behavior, that, really, they’re not hurting anybody, even if they’re kind of silly. Sure, he’s poking fun at her, but he’s not doing so with any cruelty. If he wanted to do that, he would have made her look grotesque, and trust: she looks fucking good, the way so many young girls aspire to look: cool and collected, elegant and chic, with bouncing blonde Barbie doll hair. Maybe, at the end of the day, what Brooks reminds us of is our collective stupid humanity; we’re all just a bunch of smooth brained idiots walking around, every last one of us—no matter how good we look—deserving of some gentle mocking.
Brooks is a master of jokes, but he doesn’t use them superfluously. If anything, he exercises constraint. Being funny is important, but serving the story comes first. (Never forget he nearly cut the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” scene from Young Frankenstein, concerned it wasn’t doing just this.) Maybe, if we’re lucky, they’ll make us think a little too, but that isn’t always necessary. Victoria’s Vuitton-obsession is a joke, but it’s also an insight into who she is as a person, one that goes deeper than superficiality. Look at her, so together she even coordinates with her car. But she only appears to possess the same kind casual elegance and effortless-seeming confidence as Grace Kelly or Eva Marie Saint. Moments later, she is exasperated: “My life is just all topsy-turvy!” she cries. “I mean, how much more can a girl take? My nerves are cracking! I feel like I’m going to die! I think I am going to explode!” Each word comes out punctuated, a sharp staccato rhythm of anxiety. She takes a breath, lets out a roar. The image is just a facade; underneath her clothes, she’s a neurotic mess, full of all the same insecurities and fears as the rest of us.
It’s not bad to want nice things, of course it isn’t. But how much are nice things a constructive act towards happiness—the if you look good, you’ll feel good mentality—and how much are they flimsy scaffolding giving the appearance of real work despite just barely holding us together? It would be nice to dress up my despair in silks and cashmeres, but it would not change my mood, not really. It would just look like it. Managing your appearance is a way to exert control when it feels like everything else is spinning out, a clever illusion to convince others—and even yourself, sometimes—that you are well and good and fine, even if you aren’t. Clothes are often spoken about as art, and, by extension, a form of self-expression, but they are more than that: they’re a way to create your own narrative.
This is an increasingly visual world, and I am an active participant, posting all those ‘fit pics on Instagram and retweeting jokes about how women don’t dress for men, but for the approval of female colleagues in the work bathroom and buying new clothes I don’t really need to impress a date who I will likely never see again. For a long time, I thought that if I dressed a certain way and looked a certain way, I could change my narrative, I could erase all the feelings of unworthiness or anxiety or fear. Maybe money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you the appearance of it.
I’m not saying it’s frivolous to want nice things, not projecting some faux-piety that I have rid myself of the desire to want more than what is necessary to have. I won’t pretend I don’t lose hours scrolling through online retail, pining for heels and dresses I can wear out one day when this is all over. You can’t erase nearly three decades of materialism that easily, and I am getting tired of the joyless act of just surviving. When we’re through with this, I will put on my most extravagant outfit, my most ridiculously nice, my most overdressed for the function attire, my most Victoria Brisbane-level of extra. I will feel joy. Of course I will feel joy. But I hopefully will have reconsidered my reliance upon nice things to deliver it.
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