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thEM x Miranda July

July 28, 2022

2/3 9:36:46 UTC
NightDay

Our collaboration with Miranda July features an exclusive badge and an in-depth conversation.

July makes films, books, and artworks that incorporate a version of feminist practice that’s slyly self-aware. Her debut novel The First Bad Man features a protagonist who works at a women’s self-defense nonprofit, teaching a method of combat fitness called Open Palm. 

Tune in to hear our chat with July, wherein we talk about choreographing a real-world version of Open Palm. Plus, chip-on-your-shoulder energy, and the downside of being a woman in power within a patriarchal system, among other things.

Joy Howard:

Welcome to the podcast version of Tools for Leaning Out, a resource for those of us who realize it's the system that's broken and not us. That's why instead of changing ourselves, we’re enjoying ourselves and changing the world. 

Today we're talking to an icon of leaning out, Miranda July. Miranda is an American film director, screenwriter, singer, actress, and author. Her body of work includes film, fiction, monologue, digital presentations, and live performance art. So Miranda, welcome to Tools for Leaning Out and thanks for joining us. 

Miranda July:

So glad to be here.

Joy:

As I go through your bio, you know, I think the first thing that would strike anyone who's not familiar with your work, which I hope they will be after this, is that you've done so much and you've worked in so many different media. Is there one that you haven't tried yet?

Miranda:

Well, actually when you said singer I sort of laughed, because I am definitely not a singer. I don't know how that got in there. I’m a terrible singer. No, I don't really feel like I'm ‘trying things,’ I really am just a filmmaker and a writer and an artist, and those things are all so interconnected that I really just make the distinctions for other people. For me, it's just my work. Yeah.

Joy:

I love that. And actually, you know, I think those distinctions are really helpful for other people, because everybody wants to put stuff in a box. I wonder, did you ever feel pressure to conform to those categories or to specialize and focus in any way?

Miranda:
Yeah, for sure. I remember after my first movie came out, a movie called Me and You and Everyone We Know, all the agents and studios did their job very well, you know, and their job is to find new talent and then kind of bring you into the film world, which was so exciting. But to me, the box of “indie filmmaker” …I had already been doing these other things for so long, and I had a book of short stories, I really wanted that to be my next thing. It took some, like … you have to be actually quite decisive to say ‘no’ to things that, you know, you kind of can't believe are being offered to you. It was really exciting. 

But taking the long view, I thought, “Well I'm going to be happier if I—you know, I don't want to be a filmmaker forever and then be like, Now I'm going to try my hand at a book.” I really want to establish myself as a writer at the same time, you know, or as soon as possible. But it seemed like, not striking while the iron's hot, exactly, but it worked out.

Joy:

It totally worked out, and it would seem like when people are offering things to you and they're like, “Oh, you know, she's this amazing indie filmmaker,” did you always just naturally believe that you would be, you know, so proficient across mediums because you're just doing your art in whatever way makes the most sense for you, or did you ever get this creeping pressure to think of yourself in the way that others defined you?

Miranda:

Oh sure, I mean, to this day, that's the only hard part of the job. You know, really

Everything else is, like, labor. Any labor is hard. But the doubt just is what it is. It's always there, and you're always trying to look past it. Early on, I think I had that sort of “chip on my shoulder” energy, where you're kind of like—I mean, because things are also not working out. 

A young woman filmmaker, especially at that time, you know, I had plenty of reason to feel somewhat like people just weren't sure. I'd never been to film school, I was really riding on short movies and performance at that point. But that “chip on your shoulder” energy is not to be underestimated. I ran off that for a really long time and it's really only recently that I realized that my ambitions had shifted a bit.  I had become more of a mentor.  It's an interesting moment when you realize, “oh wait, now I really just want to keep doing what I'm doing.” Of course each thing is challenging in its own way and seems impossible. So It's not boring by any means. But yeah, especially as a woman, I think, like, “the young woman coming up,” that's a real trope, because she can be helped, you know? That works well in a patriarchy, you know, to be powerless and need help. 

Joy:

(Laughs) So sexy.

Miranda:

(Laughs) Yeah. But once you actually have power, it's really like a completely different landscape, you know. I actually spend a lot of time now thinking about the women who—I mean, it was men too, but a lot of women, women quite significantly—stuck their neck out for me. Now I understand where they were coming from, and that they were in a pretty complex place. It's never simple, being a hardworking woman in power. But it's even complicated as you are helping young women. I don't think I was as grateful as I should have been, and  see varying responses to my own helping push people forward. And I kind of smile, because sometimes the people who barely say thanks, I'm like “Well, not particularly polite,” but on the other hand I think, “she's got what it takes, like she's pretty cutthroat and pretty confident and just kind of like, Eat my dust.” And so it’s a kind of rich moment as far as like, looking back and looking forward.

Joy:

Well, I mean, a desire to help other women is a big reason why we started the company, and so I'll say thank you on behalf of everyone that you've helped (laughs). And I definitely want to ask you some questions about activism in addition to art. Because those are the two things that we want to bring to this experience of being outdoors that we enjoy so much. But before I get to that, I hadn't planned to ask you about this, but you mentioned hard labor. So I want to ask you, how has being a mother affected this for you? How has it affected your art and everything that you do?

Miranda:

Yeah, I mean, I very consciously waited until after I'd made my second movie to get pregnant. I feel like it's important to say I had an abortion when I was younger, because I knew that my whole career was not really going to be possible at that point with the, you know, being as poor as I was. So thank you, Roe v. Wade. So I waited until I had essentially enough money to pay for child care and a partner who I knew would be an equal partner. And still, it's really hard. And I have moments, I mean especially during the pandemic, where it's just fucking ridiculous. I'm like, I kind of couldn't be in a better position, and it's almost impossible. I know that this is not functional, what's happening now in terms of schools and how that fell upon parents, and I think largely mothers. 

But in terms of creatively, there's not really a downside. As far as, if you’re in your craft to feel more, and learn more, and take on more risk, that's great. Having a life that you're responsible for that's always changing, you know… There's a great narrative thrust to a child. It's a page-turner. It's always changing, and it's so surprising. Of course, as you know, it's not one thing. But for me, it's something I always wanted, and I'm so glad I got to have it and keep working.

Joy:

Well, I think what you say about how rewarding it is will resonate with anyone who's had a child, but also what will definitely resonate with women right now is how hard it is. And I'm so thankful that you were able to have a child at a time when you felt like you were ready. And it almost takes my breath away to think that the world could have been deprived of your art had you not had that choice. So I appreciate you sharing that you had an abortion and that you waited to have a child when you were ready. You know, I'm thankful to everyone who has made that possible for you, also for me, and everyone who worked so that you could could have a rich creative career when you could really focus on that and now this rich creative career when you're incredibly taxed, but also enriched by the experience of being a mother. 

So let's just get right into activism, because another one of the reasons that we started the company is because I have this belief that women have become incredibly politicized over the last, four or five years, whether it's Trump or #Metoo or Black Lives Matter or intensified attacks on transgender rights or reproductive freedoms. Have you felt that too, and is it coming through in your work?

Miranda:

Gosh, yeah. I hope so, I hadn't articulated that in my mind. I think I'm always hoping women will—I was writing earlier today about how much we influence each other. And anyone who's marketed anything knows that's true. And it's not because we're leaves in the wind and we'll just do whatever our friend is doing. I think we take everything personally because it's personal, because on a foundational level, we actually are interconnected. 

A good example of this is like, one woman gets divorced and suddenly every woman in her circle, you know, has marriage upheaval of some sort. I mean, I don't know if you would call that “activism,” but I feel like it's a really good example of… I think it's often misconstrued as a sort of weakness, but it's actually our greatest strength, if we can use it for our own ends rather than only to sell products. 

I'm writing a book, I'm almost done with a novel right now, that really takes on aging and menopause and perimenopause and all things that I was absolutely horrified to be writing about, that I don't really want to be associated with. Like, that’s seemingly not the hill one would want to die on. And yet I was kind of like, “Well, it's all going to happen anyway.” I'm going to age anyways, and I guess I'd rather take my chances with being out about it and just changing the very, sort of, meager options for me, you know, as positives, than just hope that no one catches on that I'm getting older for as long as possible (laughs). And I kind of write about that in the book, because I feel like those anxieties, it's important to know you can have those anxieties and still continue on. You don't have to be one of those people who doesn't give a fuck in order to want to change things or have any kind of activism in this area. You can absolutely give a fuck and be worried and still proceed on a daring path. We'll see.

Joy:

Well, I can't wait to read it, and hopefully you'll normalize that aspect of being female and show us all a way to do it that is as exhilarating as every aspect of life that you've turned your lens on so far. I mean, to just get back to this sort of influence thing, I think everybody has been a marketer, and I think that whole idea of “Brand You,” which I've always found so noxious but is so inescapable in the world that we live in now where everything is, our whole lives are kind of like storyboarded out and then we kind of fill out the storyboard on social media. 

But I think one of the most pernicious aspects of that is this idea that it's just you. It's just me. We're on our own and it's like our individual story of striving.The story of divorce is pretty funny, but there's also all kinds of, it's almost like pathologies, that people see spread across groups. Divorce is not a pathology, but like, overweight or excessive drinking. It's okay if all of your friends are doing that, then the odds are really high that you're going to do it too. 

So it's really fun to flip that on its head and think about, “Okay, what are the things that we want to do that are more affirming of how we want to live our lives, and how do we bring other people into that, or support each other in doing it?” And the work of writing seems quite solitary, so I'm just going to probe a little bit on how you think about collaboration in your work. How do you think about other people that support you, and what role does that play in how you approach your work?

Miranda:

I think, because I do have this kind of core practice that is so alone – writing – it's very exciting when I'm doing something that inherently isn't like that, like making a movie. And at the same time, the second you're not alone, your communication and hierarchy and all these issues are suddenly … you can't function unless you put a certain amount of care and thought into that, and that also includes collaborations I do. 

I kind of have this history of unusual partners. I only can see this in retrospect because it always feels completely unique each time it happens. But most recently I collaborated with, I guess what you would call a telemarketer, or someone who called me, and who I just struck up a relationship with. She lives in the Philippines, a trans woman named Jay Benedictto, and we made a whole body of work together collaborating across the world during the pandemic and, oof, I mean for both of us. We'd never really worked or gotten so enmeshed with someone so different from us, someone whose daily life was so dramatically different, that some moments were very easy, and that was just incredibly sweet and moving. But it was really the challenges, and how we made our way through them. You know, our mutual biases that I think ultimately made us become friends more than just people working together. I think that all the discomforts around that are always really interesting to me, and part of the work. I'm reluctant to just rely on existing systems or hierarchies I guess, I'm often trying to sort of complicate them. 

Joy:

When you hit some of those discomforts, how did you move through some of the tougher parts of collaborating? Because it sounds very great in the abstract, say, “Oh, we need community and we need support.” But yeah, sometimes it's hard. 

Miranda:

I can think of multiple instances where I ended up getting in a fight with someone who I was collaborating with who was from a very different walk of life. And I think I remember saying that to a friend, and she was sort of horrified. Like, “Oh my god, this Uber driver, you know, whatever,” like this. And I was like, well, it is sort of like any other fight. You're really fiery, you're mad. You can't believe they did what they did, and then it kind of flips around and you're like, “Oh my god, I've been terrible too.” (Laughs) And then you try and figure out what the mutual vocabulary is on healing and forgiveness. 

In both the cases I'm thinking of, we're still friends. But I think especially when class and race are involved, it's easy to feel like if we're having a fight, I must have done something really wrong, rather than that it's kind of unavoidable that it's not going to go perfectly. So if you did something wrong, it was beginning this in the first place, you know? But given that you did, you took that on, maybe this is okay. Maybe it’s okay to sort of destroy each other's trust for a moment and then come back from that, because actually you are both humans and you've both done that a dozen times before with other people, and you can do it again with this person. So yeah, it's so easy to just feel so paralyzed, to the point where you don't reach out beyond your bubble. But that has so many other problems that I think it's worth it. Yeah.

Joy:

Yeah, hopefully through that pain and conflict there's some deeper truth that you get to as a result of it, or some deeper connection. It just requires courage, I suppose, to go through it and hope that that comes out the other side. You know, one of the other things that I wanted to ask you about, because of the company that we're building and the stuff that we're making, which is also a lot about getting outside and enjoying nature is, do you do that? And if you do, how?

Miranda:

(Laughs) I fear I'm not the ideal example in this case. I have not yet gone outside today. It’s almost 3, but I'm planning on it. I am in New York City, I guess sometimes it sort of catches you off guard, I was thinking about how I was having so much trouble sleeping, and I always do, and I have like fifty million things. I have to put on my teeth grinding guard and my earplugs and my eye mask and the gel for my dry eyes and it's like this whole sexy thing. And even then, you know, take, needless to say, fifty million different things to sleep. 

And then we went to Central Park on Father's Day and I was lying in the grass, and I just fell asleep (laughs). None of my stuff, totally not even quiet. There was literally someone singing like a few feet away, and I was like, “Huh. So do I just need to come to Central Park to sleep?”

Joy:

(Laughs) I think that could be a whole performance. An art piece.  Yea, let's go!

Miranda:

Now that's a bit . . . I'm very glad I have this home, and this bed to sleep in, but it is interesting to think, like, there was something there that I immediately connected to. I mean, I was literally lying on the Earth. You know, on the grass on the ground. I was just like, “God, I really wonder what lay lines and meridians and minerals, I'm not knowledgeable…” but I'm happy to believe whatever's foisted my way in terms of that . . .  something happened. Yeah.

Joy:

Well, my theory, is that one of the really powerful things about being outside, is just the feeling of being unselfconsiously in your body.  I don't know why you struggle to sleep, but I would imagine you have a very active mind and that can be at cross-purposes with the desire to sleep. That’s one of the things we're really trying to celebrate— this feeling of embodiment and unselfconsciousness.  Women have such complex relationships with their bodies, because so much of our consciousness is externalized. So that feeling of just being is so precious and so profound.

Miranda:

Yeah, yeah.  I should say, this is so meager to anyone who's incredibly active, but I had never exercised until three years ago when I began strength training. I began it because I was pretty depressed and honestly just for the endorphins. Now it's been three years. This last week was the first week I missed because I was sick.

The best way to put it is that it is sort of like I incarnated, I came into my body. It's subtle but it's a total difference. I'm so glad I got here before it was too late. I remember my gynecologist, starting at 40, saying, “Now you need to do weight-bearing exercise.” It really went in one ear and out the other, but now I'm that person too: suddenly really wanting all my friends to not have osteoporosis. These things that we hear all our lives… I get it now. If we're talking about wanting to continue doing our work and having these relationships easily, there's nothing like health, that's it.  Everything else is second.

Joy:

I love that you say that you incarnated and it reminds me, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an amazing article when she had breast cancer, called “The Cult of Pink Kitsch,” which is a hilarious sendup of that whole kitschy breast cancer culture. But there's a phrase in there where she talks about how she had always thought of her body as just this annoying shadow that she drags along with her everywhere. And that's a very different feeling from really being in it, which is powerful! 

But it's kind of impossible to talk about women outside without bringing up – especially because I think one of the things that women think about a lot, and we think about this in the designing of our clothing –  is: How are we being looked at? Do we feel safe or not? And I can’t  bring that up without talking about Cheryl Glickman and Open Palm. So for people who haven't read The First Bad Man, Cheryl Glickman is the protagonist and I'm just going to read a quote from her in the book. She says, “Have you heard of Open Palm? Self-defense that helps you burn fat and build muscle? I pretty much invented that.” (Laughs) It's so fantastic, because obviously it's absurd, but it's also kind of believable that we could be into that. So where did that idea come from? 

Miranda:

I actually always struggle with people's jobs in books. I hate that part of it. You know, it's like, I can do anything about someone's inner life. But then it's like, “Oh no, they have to have a job too?” But then eventually something sticks because it just serves the story so well, and that story's really about—a big part of it is about two women physically fighting and how that morphs into a shift in their relationship. 

I was not exercising at that time but I do remember having to write these really physical passages where I described how they were fighting, what they were doing with their bodies. I'd have to stand up and be like, “Okay, so if your hand is slamming someone's head down, how would you…” But maybe that was my unconscious being like, “Yes, and you too should, you know, move your body now.”

Joy:

You know, in the book, it starts as these group activities, and when I read about it, people are so into doing outdoor yoga classes and outdoor this and outdoor that – all kinds of group activities, and everybody play-acts being attacked, and it gets quite aggressive. And the men are really mean, and then the women have to act out the routines, and then at the end, everybody comes together and has cookies, and it's this really nice sort of catharsis. I kind of want to try to choreograph and prototype and run an Open Palm class or two. How would you feel about that, if we did that?

Miranda:

(Laughs) You should do it, especially if it makes your butt lift. You know, like, I don't know if everything can work, but that feels like that would be a selling point. Yeah.

Joy:

(Laughs) Well, men have a lot of pent-up aggression right now because of cancel culture, as you know, and maybe we could just help them get it out, and we could get really fit, and you know, it could just be, like, a win.

Miranda:

Ah, right? Right? Yeah, actually the other day in Washington Square Park, I saw a guy, and, you know, everyone's selling different things and playing their music and it's quite wonderful. In this park, there was a guy also trying to make money, and it was just him alone, and a sign, and it said, “Ladies, if you ever wanted to punch a guy in the face, now's your chance.” (Laughs). 

And that was what he was offering, and I saw him talking with a woman trying to get her to do it, and she was like, “I'm nonviolent.” I was like, “Wow, if I put that in something, it wouldn't seem real at all.” 

Joy:

It's like a modern variation on the Free Hugs guy, you have to actually have to pay to punch somebody. You can get a hug for free, but to punch someone you have to pay for it, I suppose. 

Miranda:

Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Joy:

Well, okay, I'll keep you posted on that if we actually try it. If you have any choreographers you think we should work with, you let us know. I just have a couple more questions for you. Not to put you on the spot, but we're so thrilled to be working with you and I can't imagine that you work with everybody. So is there anything about Early Majority that made you more willing to collaborate with us, and if so, would you share it with our community?

Miranda:

Yeah, I mean, honestly, I have a sort of entrepreneurial side that doesn't come out through starting a company, but it's always exciting to me when I see someone doing that, and getting to hear about where you come from and the interesting way you're trying to do this. I know it's different from art, but it's kind of related to me, when someone pitches their, whatever, performance. And you're like, “Oh my God. That's ballsy.” I hope you know I can't wait to see, and I feel kind of lucky to have gotten to hear about it while it's still in this stage that has so much to do with belief, and self-belief, and talking to other people. So yeah, it's a great idea, but I do think something about being part of the beginning is fun, it's the kind of thing I do anyways, honestly.

Joy:

Oh my gosh. Well, thank you. One of the most exciting things about working in a team is when other people on the team have babies. I always joke about the little babies, before they're one, they’re little slugs. You think they're really cute, but there's not really much there yet. But you believe they're going to be special. So thank you for working with us in the slug phase. Is there anybody that you haven't collaborated with that you still would like to?

Miranda:

Yeah, I mean, all the time—I'm kind of blanking out on people. There's a young filmmaker Amalia Ulman who wrote a movie called El Planeta, and I just saw her the other night. She's talking about her new movie, and she's also an artist who also has this multidisciplinary thing. I don't know, it's hard when there's two directors. Because it's like, you don't really have a purpose for each other. You know, it's not like an actor and a director, or even a writer. I was like, I wonder if we would destroy each other if we tried to work together. 

Joy:

Maybe you could just split screen. The whole movie.

Miranda:

She’s kind of intriguing because she has wonderful taste. Yeah, yeah.

Joy:

Well, we'll stay tuned for that, and hope that it happens. In the meantime, are there any parting words of advice that you'd want to give, especially to women in the community who are working? Either as artists, or trying to keep activism as a part of their lives? Any advice that you'd want to share? That's pretty open-ended. But maybe you've got some hot advice right on the tip of your tongue.

Miranda:

Yeah, well… this is going to seem depressing at first. But – as you know because I’d had to postpone this – I was just sick. Probably Covid, although I never got a positive test. And a friend texted earlier today, and he said he had Covid, and so I'll just say what I said to him, because I’m so fresh off it. Just to remember that, when you're sick, as we all are at some point, that at that point, you kind of get turned into your child self. From that point, you have access to all these things. It's almost like a sort of regression therapy. As miserable as it is –  and you know, I'm not going to pretend – it’s an incredible opportunity to have your core issues come to the surface. So many things kept coming to me. I mean, I'm feeling terrible, but writing down in my Notes app some of these things, because I was like, ‘Shit, all the therapy in the world isn't going to get me back here. So I better write some of these things down. So I remember them when I'm better.” Because so many issues really are about care and about asking for help and being vulnerable, and all our inabilities around there. I think it started when we were slugs, when we were babies, and so, you know, to be reduced to that again can be powerful. So to anyone who's listening to this podcast while they're sick, I don't know, maybe that's helpful. Somehow.

Joy:

Well, it is helpful, because it goes back to some of the things that you talked about earlier, that need to be connected to each other and support each other, so that part of us is there all the time and we just need to acknowledge that that is a big part of why we need to connect with each other, and listen to each other, and support each other, and, you know, build communities around being our authentic selves. If you believe in the authentic self. I don't know if you do.

Miranda:

Um, sure. (Laughs). Um, one of my many selves is authentic. Yeah, um, well. Well it’s been so awesome to talk to you. 

Joy:

Thanks so much for doing this. 

Miranda:

Oh my gosh, likewise. 

Joy:

It's so awesome to talk to you and meet you. And I actually forgot to ask you about the piece for the  badge. Could you tell folks a little bit about that art and the inspiration behind it?

Miranda:

Yeah, that was a piece called The Hallway, which is a 125-foot-long hallway with signs, so you walk down the hall, and you kind of weave in between these signs that are almost like pages in a book. They have text on them, and the text is sort of your internal monologue as you're making your way down the hallway. And the hallway kind of becomes almost like a lifetime, with all the fears and doubts of a life. And then you do, ultimately, come out the other end. And so one of those signs, we made into a badge. And it sort of vaguely relates to exercise. 

Joy:

It's actually on our website. It's in the context of walking and hiking, so let me just pull it up and I can read it out. 

Miranda:

Yeah, it's something like, “It's exciting, but also kind of boring. You keep walking.” I mean, you guys honed in on that one, and I was like, “oh, that's…that actually is how walking is.” Or like, a lot of exercise. Like I’ll have moments of feeling an adrenaline rush, and then be so devastatingly bored the next moment. 

Joy:

(Reading the badge text): “It's kind of exciting, but it's also kind of boring. You keep walking.” 

Miranda:

As we all should. 

Joy:

As we do. Perfect. Well, Miranda, thank you so much for this time. And, let's keep in touch. Hopefully we can fire up a killer royalty stream around Open Palm self-defense class. If we do, I'll definitely let you know and our entrepreneurial ventures will be entwined even more.

Miranda:

Yeah, cool. Well, I can't wait to see what happens with Early Majority.

Joy:

Thanks for coming, bye.