Last October, I came across a recipe for chickpea stew that was so deliciously buttery and savory, I made it at least five more times that winter. Before I knew it, this stew was popping up everywhere — Instagram, Twitter, emails from friends. I quickly learned I hadn’t discovered anything new. THE STEW was Internet famous, along with the woman behind it.
When I looked her up, I could immediately see the appeal. Alison Roman is talented and creative and witty, but perhaps the most attractive thing about her is that she has so few fucks to give. Roman is effortlessly cool. She is, as the title of her book suggests, Nothing Fancy. As someone who is overflowing with fucks at all times, and who counterintuitively tries so hard to be effortlessly cool, Roman’s brand is one I’ve always found aspirational.
The thing that has made Roman famous is that she’s not trying to be famous at all — she’s creative and unfiltered and not bogged down with ambition. This punk-rock-cool aesthetic came through in a now-viral interview with The New Consumer, in which Roman discusses her business strategy:
“I’m sure if I were smarter I would have, at this point, hired a business person to develop a strategy so that I could take all that I have and translate it into money, because I’ve never made less money in my entire life than during this pandemic. And I’ve never been more popular. So what does that tell you?”
What it tells us is that Roman’s anti-business attitude is an extremely effective business strategy, even if she doesn’t know it. The Internet loves authenticity and admitting you’re a creative mess who doesn’t understand business reads as authentic. By shunning how it all works, you’re raging against the capitalist machine, which only makes you more appealing to it, even if you’re not actively monetizing anything.
But Roman’s brand backfired recently when she called out two women of color in her interview. Specifically, readers took issue with these statements:
“Like the idea that when Marie Kondo decided to capitalize on her fame and make stuff that you can buy, that is completely antithetical to everything she’s ever taught you… I’m like, damn, bitch, you fucking just sold out immediately!
Like, what Chrissy Teigen has done is so crazy to me. She had a successful cookbook. And then it was like: Boom, line at Target. Boom, now she has an Instagram page that has over a million followers where it’s just, like, people running a content farm for her. That horrifies me and it’s not something that I ever want to do. I don’t aspire to that.”
For what it’s worth, I think Roman should be able to say what she wants. Disagreeing with other women, even if they are women of color, doesn’t make you less of a feminist or less of an ally. But Roman’s interview still made me wince. And it’s less about Roman, Kondo, or Teigen and more about the “too cool to care” narrative I’ve seen some of my favorite writers, creatives, and artists cultivate.
This effortless approach suggests it’s silly to care about money, business, or ambition and suggests that success comes when you stop trying. While valid, this view also lacks an understanding of how less privileged groups might navigate success.
Writers mock the idea of personal branding on social media. Artists scoff at other artists selling their work. As one semi-famous writer said on a panel I attended, “I’m not trying to be successful. I write what I want. If people like it — great.” This effortless approach suggests it’s silly to care about money, business, or ambition and suggests that success comes when you stop trying. Sure, that view is valid, but it also lacks an understanding of how less privileged groups might navigate success.
For people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, the “money is bad/I don’t care about success/business is stupid” narrative just doesn’t hit the same. When you grow up with generational poverty, as so many immigrant families and marginalized groups do, you don’t have the luxury of not giving a shit about money. When you’re a Black woman whose attitude and words are constantly under scrutiny, you may not have the privilege of being too cool to care. When I read Roman’s interview, I wasn’t so much offended for Kondo or Teigen as I was frustrated for every person of color who has worked themselves silly only to be viewed as a sellout or spoiled or privileged, especially if that work included navigating discrimination — and it always does.
Also, the word “privilege” is so frequently tossed around among well-meaning white progressives that it’s become borderline meaningless. But worse, in many cases, privilege has been used counterproductively. Acknowledging your privilege is often used as carte blanche to say whatever unfiltered, reckless, irresponsible thing you want. There are, for example, the personal finance stories of people who paid off massive amounts of debt in a matter of months — or reached some other nearly impossible milestone — and the reader casually mentions the privilege of having wealthy parents who made it happen, then proceeds to dispense advice that is not applicable to anyone who didn’t come from generational wealth. What’s the point in acknowledging your privilege if you’re going to continue to leave underprivileged people out of the conversation? The point is, I would love more substantive, inclusive conversations about money, success, and ambition.
It’s not Roman’s responsibility to include the perspective of every marginalized group in every statement she makes — it would be impossible. But a question I wish more people with platforms would ask themselves before self-indulging is: What is the larger narrative my voice is contributing to and is that narrative inclusive?
It’s hard for me to write any of this because there’s already too much policing on the words women use and how they use them — I don’t want to be a part of that. Also, it’s not Roman’s responsibility to include the perspective of every marginalized group in every statement she makes — it would be impossible. It would also be hypocritical of me to suggest that women shouldn’t be able to criticize other women when I’m criticizing one woman’s point of view, limiting as it may be. Let me be clear: Anyone should be able to say whatever she wants to say, especially in an interview! But if I could make an appeal, a question I wish more people with platforms would ask themselves before self-indulging is: What is the larger narrative my voice or opinion is contributing to and is that narrative inclusive?
Alluring as it is to be an absolute creative mess who takes risks, bucks the rules, and does her own thing, it is also a highly privileged way to approach life. The reverse snobbery of looking down on ambition is disingenuous but worse, it’s tone-deaf. It’s easy to suggest that selling a product or building a brand or making money any other way is selling out when you’ve not had to deal with the unique challenges that come with being a person of color. Many of the systems you’re fighting against — whether it’s a business, a line of cookware at Target, or just generally having your financial life together — are viewed quite differently depending on your racial, ethnic, or cultural background.
I’ll admit: I’m attracted to the creative mess. As someone who can’t even send out an email without wondering if I hurt the recipient’s feelings because I only used one exclamation point instead of two, I love when other women are unfiltered, irreverent, and messy. As a feminist, part of me is filled with glee when I see women being bold and judgemental and divisive with their opinions. And frankly, while I don’t agree with Roman’s statement, I do agree with its sentiment: I love the idea of living in a world where we don’t have to be so ruled by money and success. A big part of me aspires to be someone who doesn’t care about all that, does whatever she wants, and says things that might offend people. A big part of me wishes I had fewer fucks to give.
On the other hand, maybe there’s something to be said for having a filter. If it means listening and taking the time to consider how your words or opinions might impact other groups — especially groups that don’t have the same luxuries or experiences you do — maybe having a filter isn’t all bad. Being your boldest, most irreverent, in-your-face self seems to be good for business, but maybe our culture could use a few more fucks.
Image via YouTube