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the smallest and most important pair of shorts
everything sexy is a big joke
Hi friends. this essay is Halloween-themed, and I intended to send it on Monday morning. Then I had a stressful day on Monday (my Instagram account was part of the gigantic hack; my computer decided to install updates that rendered it unusable for the whole day) and then Halloween was over, and I was left with an unsent Halloween essay. I decided to send it anyway. It’s about other things—Kevin Kline and tiny shorts, but also love and desire and vulnerability—as much as it’s about Halloween, or at least I hope it is. (Our conversation pit discussion thread was meant to be on Tuesday, due to the above it’ll be tomorrow instead.)
Finally: Today is the two-year anniversary of this newsletter project in its current form. I’m overjoyed about the vulnerable, weird, old-internet space we’ve created here, and I’d love for more of you to be part of it. To celebrate, I’ve put yearly subscriptions on sale for the next week, so more of you can come see what the conversation pits and subscriber-essays are all about.
Happy Halloween, happy autumn, happy near-end of the year. Here’s to all our ghosts. xo
Two college pals, now aged into their thirties (the Boomer version, that is, greying hair and home ownership), get up early in the morning and go running. They have some kind of difficult conversation that doesn’t really resolve, on a small-town street in the autumn, with everything wrapped softly in fog. Two men try and fail to work out the difficulties of love and money, family and obligation, success and failure, while enormous cars move past them like sentient couches.
But this scene in 1983’s The Big Chill isn’t about any of that, not really. The scene is about Kevin Kline’s obscenely small running shorts. People in my parents’ generation talk about The Big Chill in terms of love and sex and adulthood and friendship, but to me and it was and always has been a movie about Kevin Kline wearing pornographic shorts. When I think of this movie, I think of a sexy Halloween costume.
A small but fervent group of us experienced some kind of awakening watching this foggy early morning scene in this overly serious and deeply mediocre film, and none of us in this group could tell you what the dialogue is about, or what happens between the two characters, or really anything else about the movie at all. When I wrote a few years ago about how I was a weirdo kid pretending to have a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio and other teen heartthrobs while actually having a crush on Kline as Otto in A Fish Called Wanda, any number of people responding to that piece also brought up The Big Chill or, more specifically, they brought up the shorts.
The shorts are ridiculous. They are so short. They do that thing where the garment somehow renders the body more obscene than it would be if the person wearing it were simply naked. I think the shorts were meant to convey here is a serious person serious about doing exercise but instead what they say is here is a very good-looking man who is very nearly nude, for your viewing pleasure.
My crush on Kline was already cemented before I saw this movie. It is easier for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for theater kid energy to be sexy and appealing, but Kline in his film work, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s, in the movies my parents were always putting on at home, managed to thread that needle persuasively. He appeared to have total awareness of the fact that his life and career were predicated on his cartoonish handsomeness, while at the same time understanding it all as one big joke. He made it seem possible that being sexy, being good looking, being desired and compelling desire in others, could be something other than a threat or a power play. What if it could be silly instead, a big happy joke, something that made people laugh, and made them happy, something like a sexy Halloween costume?
An actor who took himself more seriously, who wanted to pretend his success had nothing to do with being a sex object for weird bookish teens and overeducated wine moms, might have refused to wear shorts that put his whole situation on display the way these did. But the almost-winking quality of Kline’s sexiness in this scene cuts across the film’s self-importance the same way its soundtrack does and is, in my opinion, equally responsible for the film’s success. The Big Chill is a movie about a great soundtrack and a slutty Halloween costume.
All this October, one meme in particular was inescapable. It shows one of those cheap Halloween-store costumes-in-a-bag, and whoever posts it adds a photo and text to the front. The joke is that the “costume” is something that would never be a real Halloween costume ("Thirty Minute Phone Call," "Divorced Man"), sending up the joke's object by placing it in this nonsensical context ("Club Promoter" next a picture of Eric Adams).
Most of these jokes aren’t all that funny, but one made me laugh so hard I actually cried off a full face of makeup. It was by far the simplest version of the meme I’d seen anywhere: On one side, someone had pasted in a photo of Matthew Macfayden as Mr. Darcy in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and on the other side, where most versions of the meme put a big chunk of text about what the costume does and doesn’t include, it just said, in offhand lowercase, “slut.”
Explaining a joke is a trap but this one is good enough to make me embark on that doomed enterprise anyway: This is funny because so many Halloween costumes actually come down to just “slut,” and it’s funny because they are almost never the ones meant for straight men. It’s funny because Darcy, in particular as played Macfayden, is a character who takes himself very seriously and would hate this, and it’s funny because this is, in fact, how his character is regarded in popular culture. It’s funny because Mr. Darcy is probably the sluttiest thing a straight man could dress up as on Halloween. Unless, of course, he dressed up in Kevin Kline in his Big Chill running shorts.
Most sexy Halloween costumes are at least a little bit funny. Another joke format that goes around each year at Halloween is one in which people say that they’re going as “a sexy ___” and fill in the blank with the least sexy thing they can think of (“sexy neoliberalism”). In October, some people on twitter still change their display names to “Halloween” names, turning their real name into a spooky pun. But the cheap joke that always makes me laugh is the one where someone just adds “sexy” in front of their real name, otherwise not changing it at all. It’s funny because it says they weren’t sexy the other eleven months of the year, a thing we aren’t supposed to say about ourselves—- we are all always supposed to be striving to be sexy at all times, and we are never supposed to admit that we are trying to do so—and it’s funny because it implies that a sexy version of oneself is as easily available to put on and take off as a cheap Halloween Adventure costume-in-a-bag.
Trying to be sexy is inherently embarrassing, just like trying to be funny. The best part about Halloween is that all of it is embarrassing. Dressing up in public is embarrassing, but so is telling a joke, and so is trying to be attractive on purpose. Wanting anything, whether laughter in response to a punchline or desire in response to a sexy outfit, is always embarrassing. Sexy Halloween costumes are funny because they make explicit a thing that is meant to be kept implicit. They are funny because they’re embarrassing, and embarrassing because they’re funny, and they are still both these things even when they’re actually sexy.
Being attractive is supposed to be an accident. Looking like you’re doing it on purpose, we are often told, ruins it. But Halloween is a holiday about admitting that we want things. It’s a festival about desire and desperation, grabbing handfuls of candy out of the bowl. We want to eat sugar and chocolate and have our neighbors give us treats for no reason. We want people to laugh at our jokes, and to notice us, and to think that we’re sexy. It’s a night about masks that allows us— in some small and imperfect way— take off our usual masks. Children walk around demanding candy from grown-ups. Grown-ups pour effort into costumes that yield nothing except praise and attention, and sluts everywhere— like Mr Darcy— dress up in sexy costumes and insist that others find them sexy.
Non-sexy costumes are about wanting things, too. Very little seems more anxious to me than one of those Halloween costumes that’s meant to be a pun, or that jokily mashes two obscure concepts together. The awful vulnerability of telling a joke is increased by however loudly you say “I want people to laugh at this joke.” But Halloween is a night about living within our fears, not just fears of ghosts and monsters, but the fear of what happens if we admit we want praise, or desire, or attention, or love. Our own desires are always a haunted house, and often the big monster at the center is the desire to be desired, to be noticed, to be found funny, to be loved. In the haunted house we know that a joke is just another form of asking, of admitting our raging appetites and our ability for disappointment.
In 2020, Halloween was cancelled just like everything else. My husband and I ordered candy corn and mini Snickers bars off of the internet and stayed home. I am sure illicit parties were going on somewhere— any lockdown New York City had was certainly long over by the end of that October—but I didn’t know about them and didn’t want to. I was, by then, used to everything not happening. I expected the absence of each next thing that arrived, the space it would have occupied instead of the thing itself.
Maybe that was why we actually dressed up for Halloween that year, in the absence of it, in our small room, in the most finite and bounded possible space. I dressed up as a stupid joke (“Communism:” a homemade sheet-with-eyes-in-it ghost costume and a Lonely Planet guide to Europe); my husband dressed up as “slut” (Kevin Kline in The Big Chill in the running shorts scene, with the smallest workout shorts I own, slouchy grey socks, and a Michigan t-shirt he ordered from the University’s actual website) because he knew it was the thing I find sexiest in the world.
It was embarrassing; we were far too committed to a bit that was not even going to see the outside of our own apartment. Our Halloween took place in the space of ninety minutes in one room, but it was about everything it’s always about, the same haunted house where our desires and vulnerabilities jump out at us from around each corner, admitting we want to be sexy, and want to be funny, and want to be loved, asking for all of the candy in the bowl.
What we find sexy—just like what we find funny, or what we find scary— is an origin story, a way of stating who we are and what space we occupy in the world, a thing that connects us to others. I had shown my husband The Big Chill earlier that year when we were watching all of each other’s formative old movies while stuck inside, and I had talked through it the whole time about how important the running shorts scene was to me. He had ordered socks, and a t-shirt from a school he had never attended, on his phone that night so that he could dress up for Halloween, because he knew I would think it was sexy, because the one weirdo in the world he’s married to, when she imagines a Halloween costume in a bag labeled “slut,” imagines it with a photo of Kevin Kline wearing minuscule running shorts in the early-morning fog, while having a serious conversation, in a deeply corny movie from 1983.
The biggest fear waiting for me in the haunted house is that my own desires might be legible enough that someone who loves me could order the items necessary to make a costume out of them on the internet in under five minutes. But often sex, and love too, are about being scared and liking it, about seeing a house dressed up with gravestones and monsters and ghosts, and walking into it on purpose. It felt like Halloween because we dressed up, and because we made fools of ourselves, because we allowed ourselves to ask for the things we wanted, and maybe get them.
This year, Halloween was finally back, but we didn’t dress up this time. Maybe we felt like we couldn’t ever outdo our costumes from two years ago. Maybe I was just tired, as I am at the prospect of everything now, after two years of waiting for it all to start up again. Maybe all the real fears felt too big, and it was hard to get excited about the pretend ones; maybe time was simply moving too fast and I forgot to get ready for it, maybe I couldn’t face the fact of it being Halloween already.
But we went outside and walked around the neighborhood, where the streets were clogged with families and friend groups in elaborate co-ordinated costumes and kids trick-or-treating at bars and bodegas and fancy restaurants all up and down the avenue blocks. On the side streets, a few stately brownstones were done up in over-the-top decorations, and on their stoops families hosted whole parties complete with lights and spooky music and hot drinks and multiple bowls of candy. Neighbors sat around pointing at everybody else’s costumes, asking each other to laugh at their jokes, and recognize what they recognized, asking to be wanted, and noticed, and loved, asking for all the candy in the bowl.
We went home early; mostly so did everyone else. November arrived and demanded we forget all this foolishness until next year. Maybe Halloween’s permissions depend on being temporary, on how the night passes quickly and erases itself as it goes. You go into the haunted house, and ask for everything you want. You get up close with the monsters, and then you leave. If you want to, you can pretend it never happened. But most of the decorations were still up yesterday afternoon, bedraggled and looking a little foolish, as though they were embarrassed by their own behavior. Candy wrappers littered the curbs, and even in the afternoon party-goers still straggled home in halfway broken-down sexy costumes, blaring out the desire to be desired across the November landscape, like an autumnal version of that Frank O’Hara poem, it’s [the day after halloween] and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.
My husband still has the Kevin Kline costume. Occasionally, when he wears the Michigan shirt, somebody who actually went to Michigan will try to do the “hey man we went to the same school” nod at him. He does it back, but later we laugh about it, and how he wants to say to them “No, I didn’t go to Michigan, but haven’t you ever dressed up sexy for someone you love?”
It’s a big joke that this is my version of dressing up sexy, a character from a movie from before I was born that isn’t even all that famous, and isn’t meant to be sexy at all. It’s a bigger joke to actually do it, to live our stupid pedestrian fantasies into the world, to still have a teen crush on an aging dad-actor from the ‘80s, to have lived into my adult life and not shaken off this sort of thing. But it’s all a big joke; wanting anything, and loving anyone, and finding anything sexy. We pack up our costumes and put them in the back of the closet, but we still carry them around with us, underneath our soft November clothes, remembering that one night of the year where we all get to say the quiet part loud. I walk into November remembering when desire was as simple as a joke, as easy as finding a tiny, ratty pair of running shorts and wearing them because someone you love once had a crush on some old guy in a movie.
this is the public edition of griefbacon, but if you enjoyed this and want to read more of it more often, I would love it if you subscribed or upgraded to the paid version (yearly subscriptions are currently on sale!) thanks for reading, and happy (belated) Halloween.