Where queerness and pop culture meet, you will find writer Jill Gutowitz. And it’s that intersection she deftly explores in her debut book “Girls Can Kiss Now” (Atria Books, 240 pp., out now).
In her collection of essays, Gutowitz, 31, explores cultural shifts in pop culture, social media and the mainstreaming of lesbian culture, and how all three shaped her into the writer she is today, with a sharp wit and an even sharper pen. Between every one-liner and guffaw, Gutowitz delivers not just herself, but universal truths everyone can relate to.
“An investment in pop culture is a good thing, a natural thing,” says Gutowitz. “It’s having an interest in human stories.”
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Gutowitz is the latest in a long line of female humorists who doesn’t just make us laugh but also makes us think. Her new book shines a light on part of the female experience she is intimate with and has not seen represented enough: how pop culture and the toxic media landscape of the aughts shaped girls’ perceptions. Especially hers, a gay girl from New Jersey. And while she certainly does not claim to represent everyone, Gutowitz’s writing and ability to find humor in her life’s experiences transcend labels. Hers is a refreshing perspective, one often overlooked.
Gutowitz takes a comedic approach to recounting her formative years in the late aughts, producing a smart, searing look at a time and place that did not bring out the best in us culturally. Social media was in its infancy then and anything went. Nothing was private and everything was fodder as bloggers such as Perez Hilton mined every misfortune for a laugh.
“I think it kind of manifested in people like Perez Hilton, and men taking their anger out on young women in really outright malicious ways,” says Gutowitz. Having grown up in that toxic environment means much of Gutowitz’s humor comes from a dark place. Then again, tragedy plus time equals comedy gold.
Gutowitz remembers the aughts all too well. “I was in high school and unfortunately, my most formative years were 2007 to 2009-ish, which was such a weird time. But I almost feel like we have actively tried to erase from our memories because the culture was so tough.”
There was a lot going on then – particularly a global economic crisis and the birth of social media. “I think that the harshness really affected pop culture in this way and everyone got really mean.” Coming of age during that time was not for the faint of heart.
It was against that backdrop Gutowitz, as a teen, was questioning and coming to terms with her sexual identity in a world that made it difficult for her. She was particularly struck by the harshness with which the media treated such stars as Lindsay Lohan.
After a meteoric rise, Lohan went through a turbulent time that included a DUI, stints in rehab and a highly publicized relationship with DJ Samantha Ronson. She became a favorite target for the media, and many critics associated Lohan’s addictions and mental health issues with her sexuality.
“The conflation between drug addiction and mental illness with queerness was a really harsh message for me to endure,” says Gutowitz. “I came to see queerness as something that I needed to beat like a drug addict would beat an addiction.”
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Gutowitz found her worth despite the toxic messages the tabloid media projected in the late aughts. As a result, ‘Girls’ is a bittersweet comedic reminiscence of what was a tragic time in pop culture. In her essays, we commiserate with Gutowitz when she waxes philosophical about the “before times” of social media in “I’m a Famous Actress, MOM!” We nod in agreement when she culls a supercut of quintessential lesbian yearning in “The Ten Most Important Sapphic Paparazzi Photos in Modern History.” And we howl when and reminds us “you can’t choose your trauma soundtrack; your trauma soundtrack chooses you” in the hilarious “A Britney Spears Blackout – No, Not That One.”
When asked if there’s a writer who inspires her, Gutowitz immediately replies Chelsea Handler. “I think we were both from like the exact same area of New Jersey, both Jews from New Jersey. So I felt this closeness,” says Gutowitz. But it was more than that. Handler’s frank and funny takes on politics and sexuality were as inspirational as they were aspirational. “I think I just hadn’t seen stuff like that before. Not to say it didn’t exist because it certainly did, but for me, she really opened me up to this kind of writing.”
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When pressed for other influences, Gutowitz points to not just writers but performers from her youth who influenced her writing, particularly from “Saturday Night Live.”
“Growing up I was a big ‘SNL’ girl. Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wigg… I think I just didn’t find a lot of men that funny, you know? I was finally seeing people that I could relate to.”
With “Girls Can Kiss,” Gutowitz’s humorous missives on sex, politics and pop culture continue a tradition of women reaching out through their own stories to give new generations a voice to relate to as well.