The Sly Capitalist Seduction Of “Fifty Shades Of Grey”

Beneath the BDSM trappings of Fifty Shades lies the fantasy that wealth will set us free. Warning: Spoilers!

Universal Pictures

The most dramatic reveal of Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t the Red Room of Pain. It’s not Dakota Johnson’s pubic hair, or even Jamie Dornan’s abs. It’s Christian Grey’s penthouse: bathed in 50 shades of West Elm, with a panoramic view of Seattle. The proceeding scenes had functioned as capitalistic foreplay: We see his towering office buildings, with the crisp white and stainless steel that connote very important business going on here.

The women wear tight but super-formal suits with French twists, the actual embodiment of sexy fancy money. Grey’s suits are tightly fitted, and his repeated action of standing up, buttoning his suit jacket, and sitting down at his desk to unbutton is filmic shorthand for seven-figure income. Then there’s the matter of his driver and helicopter: two things that subtract all that’s unglamorous or uncomfortable about getting from one place to another. And more than fancy fabrics or expensive diamonds, that’s what signifies luxury today: freedom from inconvenience.

Grey’s apartment seems a natural extension of that luxury. He steps off the helicopter and directly into his home, where all manner of high-class goods — clothes, food, wine — magically appear. One look at the Focus Features website designed around it, complete with tours of each room, wine and food suggestions, and the opportunity to take a screenshot of the space and share it with your social network, and the actual fetish objects of the film become stunningly transparent.

In this way, the sexual fantasy that undergirds Fifty Shades of Grey is inextricable from the class fantasy: No one would be compelled by the fantasy of a man who gets off on restraining and whipping a woman in trailer park, or even a suburban split-level. The eroticism is rooted in desire, in lack, in curiosity: What would my life be like if I were sexually submissive? is just as a central question as What would my life be like if I never had to worry about money?

Christian even articulates as much. He conceives of control not as punishment, but the ultimate in liberation: to be oneself, to experience pleasure, to revel in the absence of choice.

In his “contract,” Grey outlines all the ways in which Ana must be submit to his demands: He’ll control her health, her drinking, her diet, her method of birth control; how many nights they’ll stay together; when and how she’ll respond to his sexual demands; how she’ll be treated if she disobeys him. We’re meant to understand that Ana doesn’t have taste (she can’t dress herself; she drinks cosmos) or means (she drives an old Volkswagen Beetle; her computer is dead), so someone controlling that taste and offering her means, however circumscribed, is something like freedom — freedom from thinking, from deciding, from choosing: all the things that characterize our exhausting and overstimulated existence within capitalism.

Here, Grey reproduces the rhetoric espoused by cultures past and present in which submission to patriarchy is figured as emancipation from vanity, worry, and self-consciousness. Every woman should be so lucky as to have someone to tell her how to live her life. It’s not difficult to see how this scenario, however seemingly regressive, morphs into fantasy: Sure, you surrender a modicum of free will, but free will is exhausting.

Universal Pictures

And even though we never get the sense that Ana is a gold digger, she’s absolutely awed by Christian’s bounty. When we see the view from the penthouse, or the 360 of “her room,” or even a beautifully poured glass of wine, it’s all shot with the wonder and beguilement as seen through Ana’s eyes. And Ana, like Twilight’s Bella Swan character with whom she shares significant DNA, is a classic cipher: a fairly undeveloped character onto whom female readers of the book can map themselves and, by extension, surrender more fully in the fantasy scenario.

You can feel Ana’s desire and apprehension when Christian first climbs on the bed and eats a bite of her toast; you feel her writhing anticipation as he binds and blindfolds and slips an ice cube down her chest. But you also feel the glee at having a fashionable and expensive outfit waiting for you every morning, and the revelry in a massive, open-design kitchen fully stocked with infinite breakfast items and beautiful kitchenware. And no need to clean up! It’s like a scene straight out of a harried, working mother’s daydream.

Unexpectedly, Fifty Shades, at least in its filmic version, does something fascinating with this fantasy space, examining just how hollow this vision really is once obtained. Christian, after all, is a hollow version of a capitalist: His wealth simply is; his “business” consists of one scene of yelling Get it done in 24 hours! into a phone. Only the appearance of business, no actual labor. And the capitalist fantasy — of the penthouse, of her own room — soon seems shabby, even seedy, once held up to closer scrutiny. It’s almost as if the last third of the film was shot through a different, darker lens as the luxuries reveal themselves, like Grey’s business, to be little more than a front to cover a gaping emotional and psychological abyss beneath.

Ana’s hesitancy to sign the contract — which would render her a component of his financial and emotional enterprise — signals her dubiousness toward the entire scenario. The fancy dresses are nice, and so are those early (assumed) orgasms, but she sees that even a fully furnished room of her designing is still a room in which she must spend her nights alone.

When Ana leaves Christian at film’s end, it’s ostensibly an indictment of his inability to open himself up to love and vulnerability. But she’s also grown disillusioned with the “freedom” of luxury: She returns the glossy MacBook he bought for her and asks him to return her VW, only to learn that it’s been sold. Instead of an actual mode of transportation, however old and clunky, she’ll be left with a barely enough to buy bus fare — literally stranded by her faith in the fantasy of wealth. Ana rejects Christian’s vision of control and subsequent liberation through sex, but she’s also saying fuck you to the theory that a life of luxury will inure a woman to the lack of true companionship, respect, communication.

For Fifty Shades to end as it does, with such a clear rejection of both Christian and the lifestyle he promises, is a radical act. The scene in which Christian whips Ana — and forces her to count along, complicit in her own abuse — is a searing commentary on what women are willing to endure for the promise of love. Ana is essentially rejecting the ideals (hot dudes, perfect body, endless privilege) to which popular culture has taught us to surrender and, in so doing, she explodes them. The hot dude is rotten inside; his version of BDSM isn’t about mutual pleasure, but using his capital to compel women to endure sex that they don’t like so that they can enjoy the lifestyle they do.

Universal Pictures

That’s an uncharitable understanding of any man’s intention, but the text, with its flimsy characterization and hackneyed psychology (childhood abuse yields adult perversion) gives us little reason to believe otherwise. Yet fully drawn character and cohesive plot has never been the point. People didn’t buy this book or see this movie merely because it’s erotica. It can, in a spare number of scenes, genuinely arouse, but what’s really compelling about Fifty Shades is the way in which it negotiates the knife-edge between control and release, freedom and submission, both sexual and financial. BDSM simply becomes the taboo playground on which those larger, enduring, and never more essential ideas are set out.

Like all fantasy, it’s less about actually submitting or dominating and more about thinking about it. We’re not meant to treat Fifty Shades as a how-to book, which is why most (but not all) debates over the way in which it might inculcate domestic abuse lack nuance. Such thinking harkens back to old, thoroughly disabused theories that a film, book, or song is a hypodermic needle that, once injected in its viewer, reproduced its values in its new host. Instead, women — and some men — are watching Fifty Shades and processing how that vision of surrender, and Ana’s ultimate rejection of it, meshes with their own ideas of freedom. That’s how we consume media: We digest it.

The problem, of course, is that the full Fifty Shades narrative doesn’t end with Ana’s rejection. It’s a momentary pause before the pair are reconciled at the beginning of the second movie. Love and communication “fix” Christian’s perversions, leaving the pair to marry, have children, and live out the bourgeois fantasy that soured so effectively at the end of the first movie. Indeed, the biggest spoiler of the Fifty Shades trilogy is that a potential deviant text so thoroughly and unproblematically reifies the status quo. On its own, however, this first Fifty Shades might just be an indictment not only of capitalism, but the exploitative sexual contracts, formal or implicit, that women submit to in its service.

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How Men’s Rights Leader Paul Elam Turned Being A Deadbeat Dad Into A Moneymaking Movement

Paul Elam has become the face of the modern men’s rights movement by rallying against false rape accusations and divorce courts that favor mothers. But exclusive BuzzFeed News interviews with his estranged daughter and ex-wife show that his pet causes are very, very personal.

The first time Bonnie met her father, Paul Elam, he cried like a baby. It was a summer day in 2005, nearly 25 years after Elam relinquished his parental rights in court and refused to pay child support for Bonnie, whose name has been changed, and her younger brother. Bonnie and Elam felt awkward at first as they smiled through their tears across a restaurant table, marveling at how much they looked alike. Elam told Bonnie that he was sorry he had failed her and that he wanted to develop a relationship.

The last time Bonnie saw Elam was in 2011, after Elam spanked her son for opening a refrigerator door. In the years between, Elam struggled to be a good father to Bonnie and a good grandfather to her sons, and Bonnie and Elam eventually became strangers to each other once more. But Elam did become a father figure of sorts to scores of men who feel disenfranchised from what they see as an increasingly feminized society. They call themselves men’s rights activists. Over the past few years, Elam has established himself as their most vocal and controversial leader.

The men’s rights movement, which emerged in the 1970s as a response to second-wave feminism, may still be a fringe phenomenon in the United States, but Elam has revitalized it for the social media age. In 2008, he founded A Voice for Men, now the movement’s most popular website, which has birthed a broader online community where aggrieved men swap memes and commiserate. His work has helped fellow activists attract sympathetic media attention, launch franchises all over the world, and seek mainstream acceptance. Some politicians now use the movement’s talking points to enforce antiabortion laws and attract voters who care about “fathers’ rights.” Popular conservative pundits echo the movement’s critiques of feminism when talking about the government’s response to sexual assault on college campuses.

Paul Elam Adam Serwer / BuzzFeed News

Elam’s takes on gender are often attractive to men dealing with the painful aftermath of divorces, custody battles, and rejection. He preaches the gospel that men’s failures and disappointments are not due to personal shortcomings or lapsed responsibility, but rather institutionalized feminism and a family court system rigged against dutiful fathers, as well as a world gripped by “misandry,” or the hatred of men.

The men’s rights movement has some dedicated critics, such as David Futrelle, who has chronicled the movement’s rise on his blog, We Hunted The Mammoth, for years. But A Voice for Men is often portrayed in the media as a relatively sober voice of reason in the abrasive world of men’s rights. “If Men’s Rights Activism has a Gloria Steinem, it is Paul Elam,” Emmett Rensin wrote this week for Vox. “The website is one of the oldest and, if there is such a thing, most respected hubs for MRA activity. Elam and his staff do, at the very least, engage in genuine advocacy on behalf of men.” Rensin didn’t cite any examples of said advocacy. This is not surprising, given that the site’s advocacy efforts are difficult to discern.

What is clear is that Elam has amassed tens of thousands of followers — and lined his pockets with their donations to the for-profit AVFM, which are estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. (When asked how this money is spent, Elam told BuzzFeed News that A Voice for Men’s finances were “none of your fucking business.”)

Elam is equally tight-lipped about where his inspiration comes from. He likes to remind his followers that he knows the sacrifices men make thanks to his own experiences, which he speaks of often. But in telling his life story again and again, Elam has conveniently left much out.

Now, exclusive interviews with Elam’s ex-wives and daughter and newly uncovered court records shed light on a man who, they told BuzzFeed News, has depended on and emotionally abused the women in his own life.

For example, although Elam compares the family court system’s treatment of fathers to Jim Crow, he abandoned his biological children not once but twice. Although Elam says that “fathers are forced to pay child support like it was mafia protection money,” he accused his first wife of lying about being raped so he could relinquish his parental rights and avoid paying child support.

His ex-wife and his daughter said he has only been able to make A Voice for Men his full-time job because of the women who have supported him throughout his life.

“People come to Paul for advice on parenting, even though he has two estranged biological children that he did not raise or take care of,” said Bonnie, who, along with her mother Susan, Elam’s first wife, spoke publicly for the first time to BuzzFeed News. (Susan’s name has been changed, because, like Bonnie, she fears Elam’s followers will retaliate against her.)

When Bonnie tracked Elam down back in 2005, he told her that he would understand if she hated him for abandoning her as a baby.

“I said hatred wouldn’t solve anything, and he was floored,” Bonnie recalled. “He thought I would be this maniacal, stark-raving crazy woman. Or at least, that’s what he wanted me to be.”

Elam was born in 1957. In his own words, his father, Gerald, was a “rigid, authoritarian” Army veteran who was “physically abusive and violent” to Elam and his older brothers. His mother, Ann, was a nurse, as well as a “very hardworking housewife” who took care of the children. Yet, as Elam recalled in a recent interview on AVFM, “There was something wrong with the picture. It took me a long time to figure out that it wasn’t my father who was in charge.”

Men’s rights activists often cite the first time they realized it’s a woman’s world. They call these “red pill” moments, after the scene in The Matrix when the main character is faced with the decision to swallow a red pill and recognize the true nature of the world or take a blue pill and continue living a lie. For Elam, that revelation came at age 13, when his mother tried to force him to take his diarrhea medicine.

Elam’s brothers held him down on the kitchen floor while his mother screamed and hit him with a wooden spoon until a concerned neighbor knocked on the door. “I felt like I was engaged in the battle of my life,” Elam said. “I was a rebel from that moment on … I’m still that 13-year-old kid on the floor that won’t take the medicine.”

When Elam was 17, his mother grabbed a photo of his high school crush out of his hands without asking him first. When Elam took it back from her, his father belted him. Elam’s analysis of the incident was that his father’s life was solely about serving his mother — “and nothing else.”

“I followed in many ways in my father’s footsteps,” Elam said. “If I was attracted to a girl … it was my job to please her, and to be and do anything to please her. My instant reaction to women was to please and serve without question.”

Elam wrote in his biography on the site that he did a quick stint in the Army before he met 18-year-old Susan in San Antonio, Texas. As Susan recalled it, Elam first approached her at a local bar, where they played pinball. Susan’s parents didn’t approve — they thought she was too young to date — but the two were married in March 1978 regardless. Susan was 19 and Elam was 21.

They had no money and no place to live, so Susan joined the Army and started basic training. Eventually, she was assigned a placement and the two moved to Tacoma, Washington. In the meantime, Elam was drinking heavily and using drugs, and sold Susan’s belongings to go on a trip to Florida, Susan said. According to records, he was arrested in Fort Lauderdale just three months after their wedding for sleeping on the street. (When asked about the incident, Elam told BuzzFeed News that he had “no idea what you’re talking about.”)

Elam expected Susan to “run around the house barefoot taking care of everything,” she said, but also didn’t appear to be very interested in making money or supporting her in other ways. One day, Susan said, she was raped by a friend of Elam’s. Soon after, she was pregnant, and too scared to tell Elam what had happened.

When Bonnie was born in 1979, Susan breathed a sigh of relief: Her daughter was white, like Elam, and her assaulter was not. Soon, the truth came out. “I couldn’t hide it anymore,” Susan said. Elam told her she had asked to be raped, and that she had slept with his friend because she was bored with her marriage. “I told him he had no idea,” Susan said. “How could he have? He wasn’t even there.”

When asked if what Susan said was true, Elam told BuzzFeed News, “My personal history in a relationship from fucking 20, 30 years ago — is this how desperate you’re getting?”

Two months after Bonnie was born, Elam was arrested for violation of Washington’s drug laws and illegal fishing, according to state records. A few months later, Susan was pregnant again. Before her son was born, Susan left Elam, who, she said, was drinking and using drugs regularly.

Susan received full custody of both children after their divorce in February 1981. Elam was granted visitation rights every other Sunday afternoon, but only if he wasn’t “under the influence of alcohol or drugs or in the company of people under the influence of alcohol or drugs.” He was also ordered to pay child support every month as well as some previously owed child support and a variety of other debts and court fines. But he didn’t. So Susan took him to court again. Finally, he wrote a petition to the court explaining that he didn’t believe he should be held in contempt of court or pay attorneys’ fees because he didn’t think Bonnie was his.

“Susan has a history of promiscuity which never, to my knowledge now, ceased during the three years that we were married,” Elam wrote in the petition. He said he would take a paternity test, but that he felt he had “paid enough for the unfaithfulness” of his ex-wife. Susan said she never read the petition in which Elam questioned her fidelity. But, at the time, her parents convinced her to end the legal battle and cut Elam out of her life without forcing him to prove his paternity. They had never liked Elam, and told her they’d help her raise her children.

According to records, Elam was ultimately held in contempt for failure to pay child support. His punishment was a $100 fine and 30 days in jail. He was ordered to pay $1,200 in unpaid debts, upon which, both parties agreed, his parental rights would be terminated.

Susan didn’t hear from Elam again for years, until he sent her parents a letter apologizing for his actions, chalking them up to his drug use. She didn’t write back. Less than a year later, Elam was married to another woman.

Now, Elam often writes about false rape allegations. “Should I be called to sit on a jury for a rape trial, I vow publicly to vote not guilty, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the charges are true,” he once explained in a blog post, due to how often he believes women lie about being assaulted.

Another favorite topic is how unfair family courts are to fathers. He once wrote, “The day I see one of these absolutely incredulous excuses for a judge dragged out of his courtroom into the street, beaten mercilessly, doused with gasoline and set afire by a father who just won’t take another moment of injustice, I will be the first to put on the pages of this website that what happened was a minor tragedy that pales by far in comparison to the systematic brutality and thuggery inflicted daily on American fathers by those courts and their police henchmen.”

While Elam has written many more posts on these pet causes, he has never publicly acknowledged his own turbulent history with rape accusations and divorce courts.

Growing up, Bonnie only knew two things about her biological father: his name, which was on her birth certificate, and her mother’s recollection of him as a deadbeat, drug-addicted loser. “He’s probably in jail if he’s not dead,” Susan used to tell Bonnie.

But Bonnie didn’t have an easy childhood without Elam, either. She says she was molested by a neighbor and physically abused by someone Susan was dating. When Bonnie was 26 and pregnant with her second son, she decided to track Elam down for herself so she could learn more about her genealogy.

After his divorce from Susan, Elam became a successful drug and alcohol addiction counselor; he’s said he was the clinical director of three substance abuse recovery programs as well as a private contractor. But by around 1999, Elam said he quit to be a truck driver. He had also been married and divorced two more times.

His second wife did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ repeated requests for comment. His third wife would not speak on the record — because she believes Elam will retaliate against her if she does — other than to say: “I never want to have any contact with him ever again, ever.”

Elam has said he was a “zombie” before he read MRA founding father Warren Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex, published in 1993 and considered the bible of the men’s rights movement. After reading it, Elam fine-tuned his melodramatic flair for writing about “evil women” in a series of published letters to the editor of the Houston Chronicle about “opportunistic feminism.” “Male-bashing feminists, contemptuous of the patriarchy and the traditional role of women in it, are alive and well and more politically powerful than ever,” he wrote in a July 1999 letter to the editor.

But by the time Elam received Bonnie’s letter, he was still years away from launching his own website. He wrote her back on May 30, 2005:

I was totally shocked to get your letter today, but I am glad to tell you that your efforts have paid off. I am the person you have been trying to find.

Elam went on to explain that he wasn’t sure he was her biological father, despite the letter he had sent Susan’s parents years ago, apologizing for his behavior while under the influence. But, Elam said, he didn’t want to focus on logistics:

If I can divert things for a moment here, all this business is rather sordid and cold, and there is something else on my mind I’d rather be saying. Bonnie, I hope I am your biological father. [Your brother’s] too. I owe both of you a tremendous debt whether I am the man who fathered you or not. There was a time that I held you while you went to sleep and looked at you seeing the most beautiful thing in the world. I just said some unflattering things involving Susan, but the more important truth here is that I failed both of you.

Elam offered to pick up the tab for a paternity test, and they agreed to meet to discuss further. But when the two locked eyes, Bonnie said, Elam wept. “Now we know,” she remembered him saying. They decided it would be a waste of money to go forward with testing.

“It wasn’t even like, do we kind of look alike?” Bonnie said. “I was looking at myself. I saw myself in him from my face to the bend in my elbow. It was weird. Your whole life, you go around not looking like anybody, and all of the sudden your doppelgänger is sitting right in front of you.”

Bonnie and Elam hit it off right away. They didn’t just look alike: They both loved sushi, hated American politics, and shared the same dry, sarcastic sense of humor.

Elam was on the road for weeks at a time and wasn’t around all that often — Bonnie guesses she only saw him for a total of two weeks over six years — which is why she thinks it took some time for “the honeymoon period to end.” The first time Bonnie remembered noticing Elam had anger issues was around eight months in. She took a trip to Houston to visit him on her own without her husband and kids. They planned to eat Vietnamese food and play Rock Band. Bonnie heard Grandmaster Flash was playing at a local museum event, and asked if Elam and his girlfriend wanted to go.

“He freaked out for no reason,” Bonnie recalled. “He said, ‘Absolutely not, I’m not listening to this n****r rap shit.’” (“Of course I didn’t say anything like that,” he insisted to BuzzFeed News.)

This outburst made her cry. “I was like, wow, it’s only OK to have a relationship with my dad when I’m agreeing with him.” Still, the relationship continued to progress. One night, the Elams went to dinner as a family: Bonnie, Paul, Susan, and Bonnie’s brother, from whom the family is now estranged — he’s been in and out of jail on drug charges for years. Unsurprisingly, it was awkward.

“I looked at Paul and said, ‘You accused me all these years of being unfaithful, and I never was; the only time I ever was, was when you put me in a situation where I got raped,’” Susan recalled. “He got up and walked away mid-sentence, and that was that.”

She told Bonnie she wasn’t happy that they were in touch, but said she knew Bonnie had to make her own decisions about her father for herself.

When Elam was on the road, he would entertain himself by participating in what Bonnie called “internet troll wars” about men’s rights. Elam has said that he “started AVFM from a semi truck, with a laptop, driving 10, 12 hours a day.” (“I’m a determined person,” he told BuzzFeed News.) By 2008, he was blogging under the name “The Happy Misogynist.” Bonnie was his first subscriber. He wrote to her in August 2008 from his brand-new blogging email address to thank her for her support, calling her “Lonely Girl” since she was not only the first subscriber, but also the only woman.

At first, Bonnie was happy her dad had a hobby; she was interested and supported his passion and was proud when he began to gain a real following. As the mother of two sons, she was concerned about resources for young men, and thought his perspective — he said he was a drug abuse counselor and noticed men were getting abused so he made it his mission to find them resources — was admirable. She said she remembers Elam made thousands of dollars through online fundraising in just days to launch A Voice for Men that year.

“I thought, Wow, this is the culmination of all his hard work,” Bonnie said. “He wanted to be a writer, and now he had a platform. Who doesn’t want something like that to happen for them? He was doing work he loves, he was getting people excited about a topic that needs more light, and I thought he was really going to change things.’”

What she termed her father’s “shock jock” rhetoric didn’t bother Bonnie in the beginning. But by July 2009, he was penning things like “A Message to Women”:

There is a problem with the women in this culture… And the “freedom” women gained on this frenzied path of vengeance and victimization went to its final end? It doesn’t appear to have settled well. Women are growing increasingly violent. They are matching men in domestic violence, blow for blow, and they are causing the lions share of injury and death to children in the home.

None of this quite resonated with Bonnie, who thought of herself as “the antithesis of everything” Elam was describing. She had been abused and molested, and had a tough childhood, but had raised two sons with her husband of 17 years. She didn’t even consider herself a feminist, but “pro equal rights.”

Elam assured Bonnie that he was only being sensational to drive his point home. “He does a lot of stuff just to get a rise out of the public,” she said. “He said there’s no such thing as bad press. He knew in order to get something out in the spotlight, especially something as niche as men’s rights, you have to overblow it.”

When asked how AVFM has grown so quickly, Elam told BuzzFeed News, “By provoking the feminist establishment. The readers come to our site and find out they’ve been lied to.”

Men’s rights activists say they are driven by what they see as gender-based prejudice shaping culture, driving disparities in unemployment, education, criminal justice sentencing, and outcomes in family court. They complain that laws like the Violence Against Women Act discriminate against male victims of sexual or domestic violence because men have been demonized by feminists and their allies as inherently violent. Since women can choose to terminate a pregnancy, they argue, it should be easier for men to opt out of paternity. They believe there is an epidemic of false rape claims shattering the lives of innocent men.

Comprehensive data on custody battles is difficult to produce because of the multiplicity of relevant factors such as age, legal representation, income, employment, and child-rearing responsibilities at the time of divorce. Mothers are almost always the custodial parent in the event of a divorce, but the vast majority of custody arrangements are not contested, and the percentage of women gaining sole custody has decreased sharply since the 1980s. Though many in the men’s rights movement are convinced of an epidemic of false abuse and sexual assault accusations, studies show that there are few false accusations of rape and abuse, even in the context of custody battles.

“You don’t have to look too hard to see that for the most part men are in charge of the Congress, of the major corporations, of income and wealth and opportunity, and at the same time a lot of men aren’t benefiting from that,” said Kim Gandy, a former president of the National Organization for Women who now runs the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “Men are disproportionately benefiting from it compared to women, but there are plenty of men who have been left out of that.”

Many of the issues men’s rights activists point to are real, or at least grounded in reality.

Many of the issues men’s rights activists point to are real, or at least grounded in reality: There is a growing gender gap in higher education — though an increasing number of both men and women are earning college degrees. Studies have found gender disparities in criminal justice sentencing that can be explained by multiple factors, but likely also involve internalized stereotypes about men and women. Men are actually less likely to attempt suicide but more likely to succeed at it. In a society where prison rape remains a familiar punch line, male victims of domestic and sexual violence are often ignored or stigmatized.

Other claims are less grounded. The Violence Against Women Act is so named because women still suffer the brunt of domestic violence, but gender nondiscrimination is written into the statute. Fatal intimate partner violence has fallen drastically since its passage, but more dramatically for violence against men than violence against women. (Elam himself has written, “I am 6’8” tall and 285 pounds. If a woman five feet tall and 110 pounds soaking wet hits me, I am going to hit her back.”)

Men’s rights activists have attacked the “ever-expanding definition of rape, for women” by the Centers for Disease Control and the FBI, accusing them of ignoring male victims of sexual assault. Yet the definition of rape was indeed expanded in 2012 — to include men. The prior language defined rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.”

Elam calls AVFM “the largest men’s human rights group of its kind anywhere,” though it does few of the things human rights groups typically do. It provides no services, offers no legal aid, and litigates no cases. It does not regularly lobby lawmakers, advise candidates, produce public policy proposals or original research. Elam told BuzzFeed News that A Voice for Men focuses on “bringing attention to injustices” by “pushing for a change in the dialogue” and publicizing the plight of men mistreated by society. On occasion, A Voice for Men has drawn attention to custody battles on behalf of men they feel are being railroaded by the legal system.

And it does provide villains, most frequently women, feminists, and their male allies, mocked in MRA circles as “manginas” and “white knights.” Elam’s efforts have also gone into podcasts and other ancillary projects, like the website Register Her, which once listed the personal information of women who were deemed to be hateful toward men or were believed to have made false rape allegations, and a recent online imitation of a domestic violence charity. Last year, one podcast featuring Elam promised to help men deal with “crazy” women, positing that “getting rid of her without resorting to the use of duct tape, plastic bags, and shovels can get a lot more complicated.”

In 2011, after feminist writer Jessica Valenti’s personal information was added to Register Her and Elam went after her on his radio show (“We’re gonna be all over her like Ron Jeremy on a drug-addled bimbo,” he said, calling her a “chickenshit” and “scared little girl”), Valenti was so inundated with threats that she contacted the FBI and, she said, left her house until things died down.

Projects like these are why Elam and his website have become known less for political or policy advocacy than for his abrasive approach to debate. In one post, Elam wrote that “all the PC demands to get huffy and point out how nothing justifies or excuses rape won’t change the fact that there are a lot of women who get pummeled and pumped because they are stupid (and often arrogant) enough to walk [through] life with the equivalent of a I’M A STUPID, CONNIVING BITCH – PLEASE RAPE ME neon sign glowing above their empty little narcissistic heads.”

“The claim that Elam and his friends are merely trying to have a conversation about the rights of men in modern society is bogus. What it’s really about is the defamation of women as a group; that’s called misogyny,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has described AVFM as part of a network of “misogynists” and “women haters.”

Bonnie said she and Elam stayed close as he continued to grow his audience. Once, he even posted a photo of himself and his grandsons to social media. “It is a matter of pride and love,” he wrote. “These two are a gift from my beautiful daughter. Of all the amazing art she creates, these two are without compare.”

“The unfortunate thing is that there were really good moments, where he wasn’t totally narcissistic and self-centered and mad at the world, or if he was he hid it well,” Bonnie said. “Sure, they were few and far between, because he never really had to raise a kid and only had concern for himself, but we did have good times.”

Things started to fall apart in 2011. Elam told Bonnie he stopped working due to an injury and stopped responding to her, shutting himself in for months. He used to take her out to dinners and pay her cell phone bill, but now Bonnie was paying his. When she didn’t hear from him, she would drive to Houston to make sure he was OK and try to snap him out of it.

“I am struggling to find work, living off Stacy and have used up every dime of savings. I am in a state so bad the only thing I can compare it to is when I was shooting dope,” Elam wrote in an email to Bonnie in 2010. “I have buried myself in writing because it numbs the pain and makes me think of other things, like instead of feeling like a failure.”

She said that he would “flake” on her to spend time with his girlfriend, Stacey, whose father was ill. When Stacey’s father died in 2011, the couple moved into the apartment her father had been living in, according to public records. Eventually, Bonnie said, the two weren’t even dating — she called them “roommates” — Bonnie said he was driving Stacey’s car and spending Stacey’s money. He didn’t go back to truck driving.

“Here he is on the internet bashing women, yet he’s living off a woman,” Bonnie said. “She facilitated him living off his passion. And online, he was like, ‘Don’t give that bitch a dime,’ or whatever. That’s when I realized he was making excuses.”

Elam invited Bonnie and her family to see his new place, decorated with “expensive furniture and a big Sub-Zero fridge.” The trip didn’t go well: Bonnie felt like he just wanted to show off his new stuff, and he didn’t seem to have the attention span to spend much time with her children. Then, Bonnie said, Elam spanked one of her sons for simply opening the fridge. That’s when she decided to leave.

The two didn’t talk for three months, until Elam called Bonnie on her birthday and left a message with an apology that wasn’t enough for her. Bonnie didn’t call back, figuring she had been easy enough on Elam by letting him into her life so quickly — she wanted him to try harder. That was over three years ago.

“I think it’s weird that he advocates for fathers and he had an opportunity to step up, but the one time something got uncomfortable he bailed. He didn’t fight for me. He should fight for me. I think I’m worth fighting for.”

As she’s watched his star grow, she thinks that he probably rationalizes her actions. “I think he probably feels somehow that this is all my fault because I wasn’t willing to call him back and beg for his forgiveness, even though he hit my child and put me in an uncomfortable situation,” Bonnie said. “He probably compartmentalizes fuel for justifying how he feels about women. He’s probably found some way to explain that it’s my fault we are not close anymore, or that he’s not obligated to me.”

Elam told BuzzFeed News that his personal life was “none of your business,” but he did not deny any of Bonnie and Susan’s story, other than Bonnie’s allegation that he referred to Grandmaster Flash’s music as “n****r rap shit.’”

“You talk to whoever you want to, you print whatever you want; you fuckers are not digging into my personal history,” he said. “I owe you nothing.”

Illustration by Jonathan Rodriguez for BuzzFeed News

Last June’s international conference on men’s rights was not just an important moment for the movement, but also a bid for mainstream attention and acceptance. Originally slated for the DoubleTree Hilton in Detroit, the conference had been moved after local feminist activists protested the venue and there was a demand for further security costs from the hotel after it was deluged with threats.

Elam has credited Farrell’s writing with being a catalyst for Elam’s immersion in the movement; Farrell returned the favor by presenting Elam to around 200 of his fans.

“I saw that [A Voice for Men] was not just a website,” Farrell said. “This was a person who had reached out to thousands of people, all around the country and the world, that was piecing together pieces that no one else in the history of men’s issues had ever been able to piece together.”

Elam told reporters at a Q&A session set up for the press that this was not “a gender war.”

“What we’re talking about in a men’s movement to address these issues is not pointing at where women got it wrong, but where society got it wrong.” Elam referred obliquely to his past incendiary remarks by comparing them to the moment at the 1968 Olympics when black American athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in a black power salute to protest racism in the United States. “Have there been moments in the rise of this burgeoning movement that have resembled a raised fist in the face of a shocked society? Yes, but that is the nature of all movements for justice denied,” Elam said.

Many speakers at the conference were representative of Elam’s rhetorical style — and many were women, a fact that Elam and his followers often emphasize.

Photograph by Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork

Before the conference, seeking to raise money to “defray the costs of added security and insurance,” Elam raised more than $32,000 in a short time, blaming “fascists and ideological thugs who would use heinous threats to maintain control of a public discourse that is in dire need of balanced, sane change.” Shortly after the conference, and after he had used the alleged threats to raise cash, Elam wrote that he believed the threats had been “concocted nonsense on the part of the Hilton.” He did not say whether or not he would be returning the money.

A Voice for Men is a for-profit limited liability corporation, and so its finances are nearly opaque from the outside. Asked repeatedly by BuzzFeed News how the donations were spent — including those raised for “security” related to the conference — Elam said, “It’s none of your fucking business.”

The first meeting of A Voice for Men’s International Conference on Men’s Issues at a VFW hall in Saint Clair Shores, Michigan, on June 27, 2014. Fabrizio Costantini For The Washington Post / Getty Images

Later, however, Elam acknowledged in a post excoriating “dumpster divers from MSNBC” that “every dollar goes right in my pocket,” but that it is nevertheless well spent in advancing the cause. “The way I look at it is that the donations are given freely by people who get a really great website (that they could just get for free) and who believe that I use this operation to further issues that they think are important to them.”

One place where it does not appear to go is to the more than 30 staffers who, according to Elam, work for A Voice for Men.

“Everybody who came in is a volunteer,” said John Hembling, the site’s former editor who has since left A Voice for Men and has dedicated himself more to writing and his own activist group — named Community Organized Compassion and Kindness — which he said will soon offer a domestic violence hotline for men. “For a short period of time I was getting paid a fairly token amount as an AVFM employee, but as far as I know nobody else is getting paid simply because we’re really too small for that to be viable at this point.”

Asked by BuzzFeed News whether his staff was compensated or volunteers, Elam replied, “Volunteers.” A 2014 assessment by the firm Dun and Bradstreet cited one employee on the books and estimated “sales” at $120,000 a year. The site’s store, called The Red Pill Shop, sells T-shirts, cell phone covers, and Christmas ornaments.

“I really don’t think Paul is making an income from this,” Hembling said. “I think he’s basically floating at about level and he’s got some other sources of income that help to keep things running. I’ve been part of the fundraisers for a number of years while I was with AVFM and I know that we’re always looking at, are we gonna break even this month?”

Illustration by Jonathan Rodriguez for BuzzFeed News

Bonnie still holds out hope that Elam might use his platform and funds to create real change.

“I really believe in and care about men’s rights,” she said. “If they were focused on legislation, or even just creating an open dialogue, I could see a true validity for what they are doing, but they haven’t done that. They have no intentions of actually creating a solution. It’s been almost 10 years and they have nothing to show for it.”

It makes her angry that Elam has made himself into a martyr when his history speaks to the contrary. “Here you have men asking him for advice on how to get kids back, and he doesn’t say, ‘I was a really shit dad and a drug addict and I hate women and I’m not going to talk about my estranged kids or spanking my daughter’s son for opening up a fridge.’ He says women are awful, but I’m a woman. I raised two boys. I’ve been a victim of abuse but I didn’t let it affect me. He says women are needy, but I reached out to him in his time of need. The list goes on.”

Susan and Bonnie have repaired the rift that opened between them when Bonnie decided to give Elam another chance.

“He sits there taking all these people’s money and all he’s doing is sucking them dry,” said Susan. “That’s what he’s done all his life — to say it’s the woman’s fault, and not make men look at their own mistakes.”

Bonnie said that if Elam wanted to change and “show some accountability and humility,” she would still be open to a relationship with her father, but she isn’t holding out hope.

“It’s his loss,” she said. “I have a great life, and he chose not to be a part of that. I don’t want to be a prisoner of my past.”

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This piece was updated to include a portion of a 2010 email from Elam to Bonnie clarifying his living situation and state of mind at the time. BF_STATIC.timequeue.push(function () { document.getElementById(“update_article_update_time_4888540″).innerHTML = UI.dateFormat.get_formatted_date(‘2015-02-06 15:22:21 -0500′, ‘update’); });

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The Funniest Woman In Hollywood Is In Search Of Her Next Big Role

As Season 10 of It’s Always Sunny gears up, Olson looks ahead to what a life after Sweet Dee would be like. Sometimes I’m like, Oh well, they just wanted a young pretty person, rather than a funny person.”

Kaitlin Olson is hating having her picture taken right now. The 39-year-old star of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia doesn’t say this out loud, but it’s not hard to tell that she is deeply, deeply uncomfortable — though she’s nowhere near as awkward in her own skin as her character Sweet Dee, a caustic and narcissistic would-be thespian, on the FX (and now FXX) cult comedy. “Could you play a bit with the tree?” the photographer gently asks her.

It’s an unusually warm Friday afternoon, and Olson is standing in the backyard of her contemporary Sherman Oaks home. The lawn is sprawling, with a trampoline on one end and a pool at the other; toy cars and pint-sized seats, the cast-offs of her two young children, litter one corner. A stylist fixes Olson’s hair as she begrudgingly twists her fingers through the tree’s branches. “Just hanging out, touching my tree,” Olson says out loud, to no one in particular. “You like photo shoots? It’s pretty great, standing by yourself, taking photos.”

For a seasoned actor like Olson — who’s been working consistently for the past 15 years in comedy roles, turning up on Curb Your Enthusiasm as Becky, Cheryl’s loud and opinionated sister; as Mimi’s vengeful nemesis, Traylor, on The Drew Carey Show; and currently on New Girl as the free-spirited girlfriend of Jess’ dad — it’s surprising that she’s not used to the being the center of attention by now. But she’s decidedly not.

The truth is, though, that Olson feeling anxious about this interview and photo shoot is entirely understandable. She’s heading into a 10th season of Sunny, and while that’s a place any actor would envy being in, she’s also arriving at a crossroads in her career. As Sunny begins to wind down, Olson will soon be leaving a show on which she’s been a linchpin for 10 years, and will have to look around the corner to see what lies ahead for her career.

“Could you maybe relax your shoulders a bit more?” the photographer asks her, trying a different tack. “I don’t know,” Olson says, laughing at the word relaxed, “because I’m definitely not.”

Photograph by Macey Foronda for BuzzFeed

The biggest role in Olson’s career to date remains the 10 years she’s spent on Sunny as Deandra “Sweet Dee” Reynolds, a horrifying example of a human whose self-centered streak is often a driving force in the storyline. Such as in the Season 8 episode “The Gang Gets Analyzed,” when Dee’s therapist calls her out for lying about being the first choice as the female lead in The Notebook, and the episode ends with Dee repeating, “Tell me I’m good,” until her therapist finally relents. Or in a third season installment, “Dennis and Dee’s Mom Is Dead,” when Dee hears from a lawyer that she won’t be getting any inheritance, because she was “a mistake” (despite being Dennis’ twin), and her knee-jerk reaction is to dig up the grave so she can steal the jewelry off her mother’s dead body. But rather than be repulsed by her character’s more detestable nature, Olson has been able to connect with Dee.

“I can’t tell if I relate to her anymore or if I’m just so used to playing her and love her so much that it’s second nature,” Olson says. With the photographer and stylists gone, Olson finally seems more at ease, sitting at a long wooden outdoor table in her backyard and tucking her legs into her chest. “There’s a certain element of desperation and wanting people to like you… I was really shy. But I think because that was so sad for me when I was little, that it’s so hilarious and sad now, that I relate to that. I like this character’s way of handling it, way more than how I handled it. Which is, like, aggressively and angrily. Maybe it’s cathartic. I don’t know.”

“I was really proud to make Larry [David] laugh. The more I would yell at him the more he would laugh.”

And Olson not only relates to the idea of needing to fit in, but it’s something that’s apparent just from talking to Olson. Often she’ll end sentences with “I don’t know,” like she’s trying to take back what she just said in case you don’t like it. Several times, she stops herself from answering a question with “I don’t know if I can answer that question. I don’t want you to print anything I have to say,” or “I don’t know how to answer that, again, without having it in print sound like I’m being a real arrogant asshole.” Refusing to answer tough questions about Hollywood and her role in it proves doubly problematic though, and she softens the blow by pointing at the recorder and saying, “I’ll tell you when your thing’s off.”

That need to be liked started long before Olson made it to Hollywood, and it’s what initially led her to start performing. Olson grew up in perhaps the most un-Hollywood setting — on a six-acre farm in Oregon. Olson says her mom would whistle when it was time for dinner, and if you wanted a snack, you just ate out of the garden.

“Nobody was an actor,” Olson says of her family. “I started doing summer camp stuff in elementary school and loved doing the plays. I liked making people laugh. I remember that specifically, being really young and having my parents being in the audience and laughing. It wasn’t really a Oh, I’m the center of attention feeling, it was more Oh, I’m making them so happy right now feeling. I liked that.”

Olson — with Julie Payne, Cheryl Hines, and Paul Dooley — rails at Larry (Larry David) on Curb Your Enthusiasm HBO

That sense of accomplishment — of making someone happy — is what drove her to attend the University of Oregon and major in acting, and it’s what would eventually take her to Los Angeles to fully commit to her vocation. “I thought it was beautiful. It was so sunny. It’s so cloudy and gray and rainy in Oregon,” Olson says of moving to Los Angeles. “I didn’t understand how anyone could ever be sad or depressed here. It was so beautiful.”

She took classes at The Groundlings and eventually made it into the Sunday company. To support herself, Olson worked three jobs: as a recruiter for a biotech company; as a receptionist in a hair salon; and as a salesperson at a boutique shop. “I worked hard,” Olson says. That determination paid off when she landed an audition for Larry David’s HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. “I’m not the ballsiest person, so I was very proud of myself for getting it,” Olson says. “I was really proud to make Larry laugh. The more I would yell at him the more he would laugh. Which was really fantastic. I loved that.”

Patrick McElhenney/©FXX / courtesy Everett Collection

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia originally started as a “writing exercise,” according to Rob McElhenney, who made a $200 homemade video pilot with Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton in an apartment. That pilot then sold to FX in 2005, and was given a budget of $400,000, less than a third of the cost of a traditional network comedy. It was shot with the caveat that they’d need to reframe the original storyline from being centered on three actors in Los Angeles to a group of friends who tend bar in Philly.

According to Howerton, one of the show’s executive producers, who also plays Sweet Dee’s twin brother, Dennis Reynolds, on the show, Olson came up against some stiff competition for the role of the hilariously vulnerable Dee; the final two actors considered were Olson and Kristen Wiig, according to Howerton, but in the end Olson landed it. (Wiig’s publicist did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

“I knew her work from seeing her in Curb,” Howerton tells BuzzFeed News. “We wanted to find somebody who could be as funny as the guys, and we felt a lot of times in comedies, girls are so often relegated to the ‘oh, you guys’ role.”

Day, who fans know best as the ever-screaming and always emotionally unstable Charlie Kelly, echoes the sentiment that casting Olson was a no-brainer.

“We were blown away by how funny she was,” says Day. “I can’t think of an overall impression other than our general excitement that we found someone who was really right for this part.”

Oddly enough, it was McElhenney — to whom Olson is now married — who was less than convinced about her. During the audition, Olson accidentally left out a critical line in the script they’d given her, and McElhenney was nonplussed, to say the least.

Howerton and Olson in an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia FX

“I left the room and Rob was like, How did she leave out the funniest line that was in there? and he didn’t want to cast me,” Olson says. “Rob, who I’ve now married, had to be talked into hiring me.”

The first time Olson and McElhenney met was during her audition, and despite any apprehension he had, she was cast as Dee, and the show premiered in 2005. Somewhere during filming Season 2, the pair started dating, though they wouldn’t officially come out as a couple until the show’s third season.

“Literally, the stupidest thing you can do in the entertainment industry is start dating your co-star on a television series that’s expected to continue,” McElhenney says in a phone interview. “Potentially, we could’ve ruined the dynamic of the TV series, but we jumped in anyway. I guess because I started to fall in love with her.” His voice softens as he says it.

They married in 2008 and have two sons, Axel (age four) and Leo (age two).

Mary Elizabeth Ellis, who plays The Waitress on Sunny and is married to Charlie Day in real life, first met Olson when they were on a flight to shoot the pilot. “The guys flew to Philly early, and I flew on a flight with Kaitlin,” Ellis explains. “We had a lot of cocktails together and were like, OK, you’re great, we’re going to be best friends.”

Ellis vividly remembers the moment when she found out Olson and McElhenney were dating. It was during a press junket, and they all sat down in a hotel room. “They were like, ‘We have something to tell you guys,’ and Kaitlin just starts crying and says, ‘I love him. I love him so much, you guys. He’s such a great person. We don’t want you guys to be mad at us because we’re dating and on the show,’” Ellis says, laughing. “It just made us laugh so hard, because it was such a funny way to reveal that they were dating for the first time. They’re just so great together.”

Patrick McElhenney/FX

None of this would have happened if Olson had chosen not to take the role of Sweet Dee, which she considered in those early days.

The character was written as the typical straight man, which Olson had no interest in playing. “There were three episodes that were already written that I had to do that were just very like, ‘You guys. Come on, you guys. That’s stupid, you guys,’” Olson says. “But I was very clear about not wanting to do that.” (“I don’t think we did a great job writing her character the first season,” Howerton says.)

It speaks to Olson’s character that she wasn’t willing to just simply lay down and read the lines she was dealt; she took an active role in shaping the character and how she wanted to play Dee. “She pulled Rob aside, because he was the showrunner, and said she didn’t want to do the show if her character wasn’t funny,” Howerton says.

Olson only took the role after many conversations with McElhenney about how the character of Dee would be shaped. “He was like, ‘Look, we just don’t know how to write for a woman, but we’ll figure it out,’” Olson says. “And I was like, ‘Well then, don’t write for a woman. Just write — look at all these great funny characters you wrote. Just write one of those. I’ll make it female.’”

Despite initial character setbacks, the Dee of the past nine seasons is hilarious, and the most physically comedic role on the show. (Witness her free-form dance moves.) Dee’s actions don’t fall victim to the conventions usually dealt to women in comedy. Dee was Bridesmaids before there even was a Bridesmaids. She is crude beyond belief at times. She flails her arms and spits venomous, half-baked threats at anyone within earshot. She falls — a lot — and fake-vomits so convincingly that it’s become a running gag on the show. “I’ve never heard somebody do a gag so funny,” Howerton says. “You know, suppressing puke, it’s just a weird gift she has.”

Olson runs head-first into a parked car on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia FX

In the second season episode “Charlie Gets Crippled,” Olson wears a back brace and hobbles on crutches as she drags her legs behind her. In “Who Pooped The Bed?” she runs out of a shoe store in stilettos and slams headfirst into a car so hard that there’s a dent, a stunt Olson performed without a stunt double.

“We had a stuntwoman do it, and it didn’t look very real, and then Kaitlin did it, and actually ran into the car, probably almost breaking her neck,” Day says with a laugh. “It’s just one of the funniest moments of physical comedy I think in the history of the show.”

Olson furrows her brows as she stares across the lawn. “I don’t want the stunt double to do it, unless it’s like a quick thing, because that’s part of the acting. I want to do that,” she says. “There’s a lot of acting that happens in between the running out and the head-hitting.”

The only problem is that Olson is extremely clumsy. “If there is a tack on the floor, she will step on it,” Howerton says. During the filming of Sunny, Olson has broken her back, her foot, her heel, and while on set, she fell through a floorboard and ripped her calf open on a metal spike.

“Our idea of Dee was not as physical as Kaitlin is,” McElhenney says. “It’s something we sort of found with the way she carries herself.”

Olson sighs. “I’m very long,” she says. “I’m very unaware of how long my limbs are and I bash into things a lot, and Rob makes fun of me a lot… I’ll do something and Rob will tell me to do it again and I didn’t even know it was funny.”

Photograph by Macey Foronda for BuzzFeed

Olson is, as Howerton says, nothing like her Sweet Dee character, though fans of the show often have a hard time accepting that. “They assume I’m drunk and loud and that I want to do shots and stay up all night,” she says, laughing.

The home that Olson shares with McElhenney is immaculate, despite the fact that they have two children under the age of four. When her youngest, Leo, comes home from school, her entire face lights up and she wraps him in a warm hug before excusing herself to put him down for a nap. And an ideal Friday evening is one spent at home, according to both Olson and McElhenney. “A perfect night is coming home, having dinner, putting the kids to bed, and opening a bottle of wine and watching Game of Thrones,” McElhenney says.

Olson is often described by those who know her as nurturing and protective — “I think of her as a lioness,” McElhenney says. “She’s extremely protective of her children, like I fear oftentimes for my life if I cross a line. I’m afraid she’s going to snap my fucking neck. The way a female lion might with her cubs.” — very un-Dee qualities. She was “raised by hippies” in Oregon (McElhenney’s words) and cooks organic food, grows herbs in her garden, and uses homeopathic remedies.

“My motherhood life is sort of private … it’s so special to me I don’t want it attacked or to have that part be annoying to people.”

“She’ll pick something from the garden to heal a wound and it will magically disappear,” her friend and fellow actor Tricia O’Kelley (of Gilmore Girls and Devious Maids) says. Day: “In the 10 years that we’ve been doing [the show], I don’t think I’ve ever seen her get a cold. That’s quite an accomplishment.”

Her weakness is watching any of the Real Housewives shows, and she says that if she ever does get time to relax, she’ll check into a hotel nearby to “literally just order room service with a girlfriend and get massages and drink wine and watch Bravo.”

And because her private life is so starkly different from her television persona, she tends to keep it under wraps. “I feel like people only want to hear me say funny things. Like, I don’t tweet about my kids or being a mom ever, because I’m very aware that that’s annoying for people to hear,” Olson says. “So everything is true, but I just feel like my motherhood life is sort of private, because it’s so special to me I don’t want it attacked or to have that part be annoying to people.”

And everyone around Olson mentions how her role as a mother is an enormous part of her identity. “Motherhood has changed her a lot for sure, it’s by far her number one priority is those children,” O’Kelley says. “Everything else comes in a distant second. Her family as a whole — Rob, their marriage — her family is her priority.”

When asked what he sees as being next for Olson, her husband agrees that while her career is a priority, family will always come first for them. “She would love to build out a movie career and see what’s next in television,” McElhenney says. “But I do know the thing that’s most important to her now is to make sure these boys are raised well.”

Olson concurs. “Parenthood has become number one,” she says. “So I’ll only take something if it fits in, and if it doesn’t interfere with my ability to be a good mom. And that’s the truth and that’s how it will always be, because I feel that.”

Photograph by Macey Foronda for BuzzFeed

Motherhood might be Olson’s priority at this point, but acting is a very real and large part of her world. “I would love to do more film,” she says at one point. “I really like TV, but yeah, in the interests of doing something different I would love to do more films.” She pulls at her silk shirt. “I’m not having any more babies. I want to work.”

In a year when Time named 2014 the “Best Year for Women Since the Dawn of Time,” it’s still a year where female-led comedy shows like Selfie, Super Fun Night, and Trophy Wife were canceled. And a year in which the most anticipated female-driven comedies — Tammy, Obvious Child, and They Came Together — made a very small dent in the film landscape. Obvious Child grossed just $3.1 million at the box office, and They Came Together grossed under $1 million. While Tammy was a financial success, making close to $100 million at the box office, if you compare that to male-driven buddy comedies like 22 Jump Street (which grossed close to $200 million), there seems to be a disconnect between what Hollywood is offering and what Americans are seeing.

“Look, I’m never going to understand what Middle America wants, because I’m on a show that Middle America doesn’t necessarily like, but I think is really funny,” Olson says, wrapping her arms across her chest. “I think there’s definitely a shift, and no one’s funnier than Melissa McCarthy and she’s doing really well, you know, so hopefully.”

Sasha Roiz and Olson on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia FX

Whether or not middle America likes Sunny or Olson, there does seem to be a shift happening. Ellen DeGeneres hosting the 2014 Oscars led to an 8% increase in viewership, and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have hosted the Golden Globes for the past three years, but is that enough? “For sure, there’s not enough funny roles for women in Hollywood, period,” Howerton says. “I’m happy to say that we personally — in Sunny and other things that we’re working on and have written — always try to make it a priority to write funny female roles.”

Even if what Olson and Howerton say is true — that Middle America doesn’t like the kind of comedy Olson wants to do, and there aren’t enough comedic roles for women in general — what does that mean for Olson as she leaves Sunny to explore other roles? Where do you go when the film and television landscape isn’t in your favor?

Olson doesn’t seem entirely sure, other than that she’d like to try out a character who isn’t quite so heightened and extreme as Dee. “I don’t know that I want to do something super dramatic. Our show and our characters are so heightened; I would like to do a more realistic person, who’s going through something really hard, but deals with it in a humorous way,” she says. But at the moment, those aren’t the parts she’s being offered.

“What I get a lot of is ‘We know you can make this funny.’ Stuff that’s like, it’s OK, but then I’m supposed to make it funny,” Olson says. “It’s a great compliment… But I don’t know if I’m interested in taking something that’s OK and being the one that’s responsible for making it funny.”

“I think a lot of men are scared to act opposite a woman who is as funny as they are.”

When asked why she thinks she hasn’t been offered more roles at this point, Olson says, “Sometimes I’m like, oh well, they just wanted a young pretty person, rather than a funny person. That’s discouraging, because there’s nothing I can do about that.” Olson pauses, and then softens the blow with, “I love my job. I got really lucky. I love my character and this circumstance, but it is a little confusing why, in my off time, I’m not doing more. I can’t really blame it on ‘oh well, I’m pregnant’ anymore.”

The actors who have worked with Olson know what she’s capable of, and vehemently speak of her potential. “I’m pissed off at the world that she’s not a giant movie star,” Ellis says of Olson. “I just think she has so much to offer: She’s a great comedian but she’s also a great actress.”

For his part Howerton offered his own take. “I just think it’s a shame that she hasn’t been more recognized, and that more roles have not been thrown at her. I think a lot of men are scared to act opposite a woman who is as funny as they are, and who will give them a run for their money for being the funniest person in that project,” he says. “And I think a lot of times she doesn’t get cast in things because she’s so funny, and I think that’s fucked up.”

When asked if this was at all true, Olson appears hesitant to answer and seems borderline uncomfortable. She pauses before responding. “I hope not, but I feel like that’s happened a few times. I just hope that, if it is true, it starts to shift soon. Because it’s a shame. I don’t know if I can answer that question. I don’t want you to print anything I have to say.”

After a long pause — where she leans across the table, then sits back and re-tucks her legs into her chest — she says, “Yeah, I just, I love Glenn for saying that and for recognizing it, and, well, you know, Rob says all the time, he’s like, ‘Look. That must not be what America wants because if it were, you’d see more of it.’ People, women, want to see women being pleasant. But for some reason, we want to see men be really funny. I think that’s starting to change, you know, ever since Bridesmaids really. So that’s really awesome. I think that’s the part that I’ll focus on and just hang in there.”

During a time where Olson does have to consider and weigh every word she says, because those words could lead to her next big role or prevent her from landing it, it’s clear that she’s nervous about it all — about posing with the tree, how she’ll be perceived by viewers, and what people think of her, and wanting to be liked by an audience larger than the one she’s cultivated with Sunny. “I hope it’s not threatening for me to be as funny as I can be and work with a really funny man,” she says emphatically, straightening her posture and finally relaxing. “To me, that sounds like an amazing movie.”

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Hell Yeah, I Wear A Fanny Pack

It may not be the purse we want, but it’s the purse we need.

Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed

A few years ago, I started slowly downsizing my shoulder bags and eventually settled on a small cross-body bag. It wasn’t the smallest bag out there, but it was pretty small, and I liked how low-fuss that felt. But a month after I relocated to New York City in late 2014, this bag was no longer working for me, mainly because it was a pain to put on and take off over my huge winter jacket. You know, the coat every woman in NYC has right now — the one that basically looks like someone sewed the top half of a costume from the Broadway Lion King to a sleeping bag.

After wrestling with the strap and the hood one too many times, I realized what I needed: a fanny pack.

My mom, a tomboy her entire life, hated purses and carried a fanny pack for several years. The bags were — are — pretty universally unfashionable, no matter how hard American Apparel and Jared Leto try to make them ironically cool, and my aunt and I always teased her about it. Between our snark and her growing need for more bag capacity, she eventually started carrying a messenger bag, and then, finally, a purse.

I had forgotten about this dark chapter in my mom’s fashion history until 2013; I was planning a trip to Cedar Point with my mom and brother and needed a roller-coaster-friendly way to carry my phone, my camera, and my wallet. When I raised this concern, my mom looked at me like I was stupid and told me I needed a fanny pack. Apparently, she would not be making room for my things in the advanced-level fanny pack she uses for events like this, the one that I refer to as a “double wide” because it has holsters that allow her to carry a water bottle on each hip.

So, before our trip, I went to Walmart and found a plain black fanny pack for $5. It was small, almost (hopefully?) discreet. After filling it with the essentials, I stepped out of my mom’s minivan and clipped it onto my waist. As we walked through the parking lot, I was surprised how light I felt. And just…liberated. I left that park thinking, My mom was right when she said I’d one day outgrow my love of roller coasters, and also, My mom was right about the practical beauty of the fanny pack.

Rachel Wilkerson Miller


Despite this, despite the epiphany that this was clearly the best way to transport my shit, I didn’t stick with it once I got home to Houston. But later, after three weeks in New York spent dealing with my coat-purse-scarf wrestling match at least four times a day, I realized I could no longer relegate the fanny pack to special occasions. The nylon one I’d worn to Cedar Point felt too casual for everyday wear, so I started looking for one that was leather or leather-ish. Maybe even stylish.

Unsurprisingly, it was not easy to find something that fit my list of requirements. No offense to the $595 Gucci-logo-print fabric fanny pack (actually: much offense to that SIX HUNDRED DOLLAR FANNY PACK), but I was looking for something leather (or leather-ish) that cost less than $100. After about a month of searching (during which I never found the courage to tell sales associates what I was looking for when they asked) and finding nothing, I spotted just the right little black bag at the C. Wonder going-out-of-business sale. I strapped the fanny pack to my waist the very next day, and never looked back.

Lauren Zaser / BuzzFeed

Now I wear it whenever I’m out and about, under my “lion sleeps tonight” winter coat, leaving my shoulders blessedly unencumbered. When I step out in it, I feel insanely carefree. And I often find myself thinking, Is this how men feel every day? Because if so, holy shit. I will go on the record that this is the first time I’ve ever experienced penis envy.

The fanny pack is small, but it holds a slim card case, my keys, a pen, my phone and charger, an eyeliner pencil, Chapstick, and lipstick. It can even hold a super tampon when necessary. So, basically all I need.

But an unintended side effect is that it’s not big enough to hold everything other people might need. This is actually a feature I really appreciate. Because, while I love my husband, maybe he should just carry the car keys for once. And the nail scissors, the ibuprofen, the Band-Aids, and whatever other care items women are sort of expected to have on hand during any given outing.

I am constantly negotiating the things I will and will not do in my ongoing quest to be both accepted by society and also have a soul and fight the good feminist fight. And I’ve realized that while I will (or at least have) let a stranger pour hot wax on my vulva, I draw the line at carrying a big-ass shoulder bag.

Since I no longer spend my commute focused on not slapping people in the face with my shoulder bag, I’m able to observe what’s happening around me, and I’ve started noticing all the women who are carrying large bags, and multiple large bags at that. These bags are filled with their book club books, the uncomfortable heels they’ll put on in the office, the laptops they took home so they could work a little more the night before, their homemade salads and their healthy snacks, their workout clothes and shoes for their post-work cycling class. It’s “having it all” in sartorial form. For years, I too carried the need to do it all on my shoulders every day. But now I’m letting go of the idea that I need to have fucking Band-Aids with me at all times. There’s a drugstore on every corner for a reason.

As for how the fanny pack looks, well…any fucks I have to give about that actually won’t fit in my awesomely tiny, hands-free bag, so I’ve had to let them go! I’m not hip/thin/rich/white enough to trick people into thinking it’s normcore, so maybe everyone is thinking what my co-worker recently (and not meanly!) said aloud: “Rachel…are you wearing a fanny pack?” To which I replied with some variation of, “Hell yes, I’m wearing a fanny pack.” Because SERIOUSLY. The only shame I have about it is the shame that it took me this long to realize what freedom feels like.

Lauren Zaser / BuzzFeed

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15 Reasons Ava DuVernay Is Your New Fashion Icon

When she’s not behind the camera, Ava DuVernay steals the show. Here are 15 of the Selma director’s most stunning red-carpet looks.

1. There are endless reasons to admire writer-director Ava DuVernay: She became the first black woman to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, and has been crafting powerful, diverse narratives ever since.

Her achievements behind the scenes are remarkable, but let’s take a minute to acknowledge that when it’s time to floss, the girl brings it every. single. time.

2. Here she is rocking her locs in a pompadour, while wearing a navy gown with a train. Could she be any classier? The answer is no. No, she could not.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

3. How bout this feminine, lace-embroidered top paired with a floor-length, textured skirt?

Tim P. Whitby / Via Getty Images

4. Clevage: so passé. LOOK AT THAT NECKLINE! Is it not thee most intriguing neckline you’ve seen on a red carpet garment?

Dimitrios Kambouris / Via Getty Images

5. Yes, you can rock a grown and sexy tutu if you want. Ava says so.

Alberto E. Rodriguez / Via Getty Images for NAACP

6. So many things are being executed perfectly in this look: perfect collarless blazer execution, perfect grounding of the florals, and perfect midi-length skirt-wearing.

Jason Kempin / Via Getty Images for Variety

7. Here’s Ava in head to toe silver. Other folks might have looked like the Tin Man in such a daring color, but not Ava. Never Ava.

Imeh Akpanudosen / Via Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards

8. School is still in session here, people. Some fashion “experts” advise against wearing a red gown on a red carpet. But there’s no fear of Ava ever blending in. Behold:

Rob Kim / Via Getty Images

9. And here she is later in the same night, making a statement for social justice with her Selma cast on the steps of the New York Public Library.

Ray Tamarra / Via Getty Images

10. Eff anyone who says natural hair is not elegant. Here, Ava dons locs and an African wax fabric dress, and she does it like a true ~queen~.

Alberto E. Rodriguez / Via Getty Images for AFI

11. In this one, Ava has a handsome, matching accessory: frequent collaborator David Oyelowo. Perhaps equally as handsome are her golden pillbox clutch, oxblood mani, and radiant smile. It’s all in the details.

Frazer Harrison / Via Getty Images

12. Satin joggers, pointy-toed pumps, matching bold lip? Check, check, and check.

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Even her business casual is aspirational.

13. Why, yes, that is a crop top. And a long skirt, with pockets.

14. This, children, is how you mix prints. Florals with black and white stripes, done the DuVernay way.

Imeh Akpanudosen / Via Getty Images for Deadline

15. As you gaze upon this white column dress, you might also notice one other thing about Ava — curves for days. Ava is tall and curvy and doesn’t hide her assets. Celebrate yoself.

16. And this was in Essence magazine, not a red carpet, but Ava taught perhaps the most important lesson of all, as she accepted — nay, appreciated — her “flaws.”

“…to my Mom for making me wear braces to close the gap in my smile but I never wore the retainer so the gap became crazy crooked and now I like it.”

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