Photo by Chris Abney Unsplash

Recently I've noticed that a significant percentage of the women I look up to seem to own a lot of plants.

There also seems to be a clear overlap between women who have overcome difficulties to find happiness and women who own and care for huge rooms of green, glorious ferns, shoots, and sprawling palms.

This New Year's Eve, Maisie Williams added herself to the list when she posted about her newfound love for gardening.

"2020 will probably be filled with more days spent tending our pot plant children which sounds perfect to me," she wrote in an inspiring Instagram post, which also detailed her journey into the land of self-love and self-actualization. (I don't think she was talking about *that* kind of pot, but the message is overall quite inspiring).

One of my all-time idols, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is also open about her plants (and how they connect to her own growth). The congresswoman has spoken out about how her gardening hobby is a form of "self-care" and "mindfulness," and in one Instagram story, she wrote, "I feel like plants are a great accountability partner because they literally die if you don't take time to tend to yourself and to them."

GND Gardening - @ocasio2018

The examples go on and on. Sex-positive activist and artist Favianna Rodriguez also has a lot to say about the benefits of gardening. In a post about how her life has changed a year after leaving an abusive relationship, she wrote, "I focused on unlearning my patterns and creating new practices and ways of being. The most powerful thing I did was to shift my attention to doing things for myself, like having plants, having a garden, masturbating much more, and adopting a plant-based diet. By shifting towards ways I could love myself, either through my own body or my environment, I was learning new ways of being."

What I notice about many plant-loving women is that their love of plants seems to coincide with a personal growth trajectory, a movement towards internal healing and taking up space. This doesn't seem like a coincidence.

The Plant Girl: The New VSCO Girl, or Something More?

I've heard whispers of a "plant-girl" prototype around social media, which makes me worried that plant-owning has or will just become another act of performative wellness—like Kylie Jenner lips or fitbloggers. It's already been connected to millennials, whom the New York Times recently accused of "opting to fill their voids — both decorative and emotional — with houseplants." Even worse, it might become a new version of the #VSCOGirl stereotype, a meaningless term that somehow became yet another way of putting down teen girls on the Internet.

Still, something about all the posts tagged #plantgirl feels—if not outside of Instagram capitalism and media commodification then, at the least, not streamlined to fit into it. A lot of them are grainy and slightly out of focus. They seem to be taken by people whose phones don't capture everything in magical high-definition. Different from the cabin or van-bloggers, plant-tenders seem less focused on external beauty, more focused on internal growth, small moments, and reclaiming stolen space.

Certainly, this work is not easy. Being a plant girl seems like a lot of effort—just like being AOC is certainly a lot of work, or finding self-love after a childhood spent on Game of Thrones is probably also a moderate amount of work. But maybe that's the point. Plants yield a little oxygen, a little greenery, and sometimes a little nourishment; they don't provide the immediate thrill that so many of us are conditioned to seek out in our daily lives, and instead require repetitive yet careful attention. There is no end-point to their growth. In a world where we're all constantly seeking that dopamine rush of success, maybe plants could be part of the antidote.

I'm sure that men and people of all genders could benefit greatly from plant-growing; the "plant girl" or "plant lady" archetype doesn't necessarily have to be gendered. Also, many plant-growers don't use social media or have been growing plants for generations, of course.

But I'm interested in that specific intersection between healing and femininity and coming-of-age in the twenty-first century because I think survival during this time might be found at some crossroads between these things. If plants aren't the key, they might be vital hints.

Gardening: An Old Trick for Modern Times

The fact that gardening is beneficial for your health is not news, and indeed, it's been proven many times that the benefits of plant-keeping are innumerable. Gardening can work as a counter to the toxicity of modern life in so many ways—for example, the simple act of putting your hands in soil can be a valuable balm for the monotony of the cubicle life. "When you sit at a desk all day, there's something about literally putting your hands in the dirt, digging, and actually creating something that's really beautiful," said seasoned gardener Gillian Aldrich.

Gardening can also combat attention fatigue that stems from our overwhelming 24/7 news cycle. In a world where we're constantly asked to devote our total attention to flickering stories and images, the persistence of a steadfast potted plant can be immensely healing.

Growing A Jungle In My New York

Gardening can also help alleviate symptoms of depression, dementia, bipolar disorder, and much more, according to a multitude of studies. If you've got an outdoor garden, the benefits of spending time outside are countless.

But indoor houseplants can also be vital in terms of removing toxins from the air and even boosting your mood. One recent study even found that women who live their lives surrounded by plants lived significantly longer and had better mental health than those who did not. And horticulture therapy, a practice that uses gardening as a form of healing, has been used for hundreds of years and has helped everyone from returning veterans to hospice patients to suffering communities.

Of course, plants have been used as medicine since ancient times. Though the scientific community is just waking up to the benefits of things like psychedelics and the importance of the mind-body connection, this is age-old knowledge.

Many people who do use psychedelics report feeling a deep, profound connection to nature, and some even report that they can hear plants speaking while on the drug. While growing your own plants isn't the same as actually communing with them, many people have long believed that plants can interact with humans on subconscious levels, realigning negative wavelengths just as they convert carbon into oxygen and sunlight into energy.

Secret life of Plants

We All Need to Start Gardens

Not all of us can be Maisie Williams or AOC, and not all of us can suddenly change our lives and start gardens and suddenly heal.

Personally, I know I'm not yet ready to be a plant mom. I'm still too irresponsible to risk anything other than a few succulents. Also, plants are expensive and require a certain amount of care and intuition that many people simply cannot afford in this day and age, even if they could gladly provide it.

But is it so stupid to imagine that this paradigm could change and that in the future, more of us might have gardens? That more of us might live more sustainably? That more of us might be content with small victories, with tending to things rather than forcing them into doomed spirals of exponential growth? Is it stupid to imagine that someday, I might be a plant lady? Is it crazy to imagine that the planet could heal?

Maybe it is—maybe we're doomed—but then again, every forest starts with a single seed. I'm sure my desire to start a garden is really emblematic of a desire to take better care of myself and the world around me. I think it's connected to a fear of what's happened to the planet, as we can see in the Australian bushfires that are ripping apart the Australian continent, and a desire to ground myself in the beauty of the earth if only to remember what matters now and then.

I think Hayley Heynderickx puts it best in the song "Oom Sha La La," off her debut LP, I Need to Start A Garden. "I'm tired of my mind getting heavy with mold," she sings, and then her voice shifts to a scream. "I need to start a garden." She shouts the last line over and over again as the music builds.

It's the sound of panic—and of hope, placed in the earth one seed at a time, with care and dedication, and in faith that someday, something might grow.


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What Netflix's 'Bonding' Gets Wrong About Sex Work

While the show may have intended to illuminate and subvert the stereotypes facing sex work, it's gotten a lot of heat because of what many dominatrixes claim to be a misrepresentation of BDSM culture.


Photo by Thibault Penin on Unsplash

Sex positivity is a buzzy term people love to throw around these days, and while it's a good thing that more and more content creators are exploring the stories and experiences of those involved in sex work, it shouldn't be treated as another clickable trend.

When content focused on highlighting the sex work industry isn't handled with the proper nuance, research, and sensitivity required, it can yield some pretty ugly results.

In 2018, the U.S. Senate passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) / Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) bill, which was intended to curb online sex work. In actuality, the legislation silenced and endangered sex workers by forcing them off of their safe, online platforms––essentially their legal storefronts––and deterred the actual policing of online sex trafficking.

The ramifications of the bill––which conflated consensual sex work with nonconsensual sex trafficking––were felt across the internet. Forums that provided services and community for legal sex workers were shut down almost overnight, from the classifieds section of Craigslist to the escort service Cityvibe, and even the furry dating site Pounced. Now that websites are being held liable for the content created on their platforms, many platforms have resorted to shadow-banning: a practice that restricts an account's ability to be found or searched, preventing new people from following and discovering the page. Twitter is one of the main offenders, restricting and filtering out accounts related to sex work from hash tags, searches, and discovery features.

So when Netflix's new BDSM-centric dark comedy, Bonding, created the Twitter account for its protagonist Mistress May, adorned with a blue check and all, many sex workers saw it as a slap in the face. But the Twitter account was just one problem of many that members of the Dominatrix community have vocalized since the show's premiere.

Bonding chronicles the life of Tiff (Zoe Levin), a grad student who pays her bills by working as a Dominatrix under the title Mistress May, with the help of her best friend and aspiring comedian, Pete (Brandon Scannell), who gets roped into her BDSM world. While the show clearly intended to illuminate and subvert the stereotypes facing sex work, it's gotten a lot of heat because of what many dominatrixes claim to be a misrepresentation of BDSM culture.

In an Instagram post, Doyle outlined the show's inception, explaining that Bonding is loosely- based off of his real life experience of becoming the "assistant" to a dominatrix when he first moved to New York City. He wrote that his intent for the show was tied to "dissecting the many ways the patriarchy has had a stranglehold over sexuality and shame." The show's saturated visuals, he explains in the NY Post interview, are a creative choice meant to "subvert your expectations of what you think dominatrix culture is." He admits that the show's plot is "highly fictionalized," and that he is less interested in creating a show about himself and more interested in creating something that reflects what he learned about sexuality along the way. In the same interview, he states "The important thing about the show for me is we are exploring this world, but not exploiting it."

Reporting from IndieWire and RollingStone has shed light on various dominatrix's criticism of the show. Mistress Blunt, a dominatrix, reviewed the show for Vice. Blunt writes,

"The show purports to unpack the stereotypes of life as a dominatrix, but really just reinforces them at every turn. The main character is reduced to an archetype of an angry, traumatized woman who aggressively yells at men and is a control freak. Like most mainstream portrayal of BDSM, a nuanced understanding of power dynamics, consent and negotiation are utterly missing."

Bonding's flaws range from fundamental to technical. Many have commented on Tiff's ill-fitting corsets, party-city-looking whip, and inept basic rope work. Other pointed out that if Tiff is supposed to be New York's premiere Dominatrix, then why does she operate out of an underground dungeon? But then there are more critical issues like her inability to properly negotiate consent and boundaries with her clients and friends.

The show especially misses the mark when it comes to consent awareness, a major pillar of sex work. For one, Tiff tricks Pete into doing kinky things he's not comfortable with. Her reasoning is "if I told you what we were going to do before we did it, then you wouldn't do it." Some of Tiff's experiences with her clients align less with the tenets of BDSM and more with straight up abuse. This depiction undermines some of the main principles of BDSM practice such as risk-aware consensual kink (RACK) and Safe Sane Consensual (SSC).

Tiff is characterized as icy and self-serving, often brandishing a couldn't-care-less affect and even putting the people around her in precarious situations. It's a portrayal that reinforces the 'heartless b*tch' stereotype, rather than highlighting a dominatrix's care-taking and empathetic qualities. There's also the optics issue: Tiff is an attractive, young white woman who enjoys all of the privilege that comes with that. The show would do well to feature a more diverse range of sex workers from different backgrounds and modes.

One Domme named Mistress Velvet tweeted: "Am I the only person not here for @bondingnetflix ??? It's superficial and unrealistic. Like as an ACTUAL PRO DOMME I'm SO OVER mainstream portrayals of BDSM that erase risk aware and trauma informed care / consent. We are not one dimensional / not heartless. We are caretakers."

Other episodes reveal that perhaps the show's writers aren't familiar with the proper procedures and safety precautions that sex workers use. In another episode, Tiff skips vetting her client because of an offer-you-can't-refuse sum of money, which would be considered a case of risky malpractice for anyone in the industry.

There's also the storyline about Tiff's trauma and sexual assault, which they imply led her to sex work. It's a harmful stereotype often associated with sex workers' that undermines many Domme's experience of freely choosing to get into the business, not as a result of trauma, but as a road to empowerment.

One SW wrote on Twitter: "None of us are the target audience, nor does it seem we were considered during the production process. This is for college age civvie women who want to dip their toe into SW for lols without ever taking on any of the risks."

When considering the issue of target audience, one has to question whether this show was written for sex workers to relate to or as an introductory, simplified glimpse for a demographic who's never been exposed to the industry. If it's the former, it's failing. But if it's the latter, then perhaps credit is due for Bonding's attempt to de-stigmatize the stories and lives of sex workers.

People aren't necessarily knocking this show once and for all, but rather calling out the way the show misses the opportunity to create a more accurate and authentic reflection of life as a Dominatrix. Many have pointed to the sex-worker written web series Mistress Mercy, as a model of what real representation could look like. If Bonding were to bring kink educators and professional dominatrixes into their writing room who have actually experienced the sex work industry they would gain valuable consult into the intricacies, norms, and experiences of sex work. But until then, Bonding will likely continue to fall short of its potential.

Sara is a music and culture writer.

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