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west elm caleb and the feminist panopticon
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even with all things i hate about the west elm caleb story considered (and trust me, there are many), i am perhaps most bitter about the fact that i’m writing about it. I really did try to resist it, like i resisted writing about the similar vigilante tiktokification of couch guy or sabrina prater, mostly because this topic makes me violently depressed — but at a certain point today (shortly after i saw the west elm caleb -themed corporate advertisements) i could sense my boyfriend getting tired of me talking about it, so i sighed and opened up a google doc.
if you’re not familiar with the west elm caleb story, here are the sparknotes: west elm caleb is a man from new york city. he is 6’4, has a mustache, and works at west elm as a furniture designer or something. several women — including some popular influencers — realized through a series of viral tiktok videos that they had all had similar negative experiences with him: he allegedly ghosted them after a first date, slept with multiple women in the same day, and exaggerated his romantic interest in the interest of manipulation (which these girls refer to as “lovebombing”). the most serious allegation was that he had sent women nonconsensual nude photos, which is also the only allegation that nobody seems to care about. i’ll expand on this later.
lovebombing, by the way, is a specific pattern of sustained abuse that is used to trap people in unhealthy relationships. like so many other words of its ilk, it has a specific meaning, and that meaning is not “when you’re nice to someone for a day and then lose interest”. these dating experiences are certainly not good or acceptable, but the pathologization of complex interpersonal experiences in the language of abuse and psychiatry is never constructive — when we flatten a spectrum of experiences into language that effectively defines it as “abuse” or “not abuse”, we lose the necessary grey zone where 95% of human interaction happens anyway.
there is no doubt in my mind that west elm caleb was a shitty dater who did shitty things — i’ve dated guys like caleb, and i think a big reason for this movement’s momentum is that pretty much everyone has. the popular contrarian response to the west elm caleb debacle is for people to coolly insist that he didn’t do anything wrong at all, but i don’t think that’s right, either. part of why those videos connected with so many women is because it felt undeniably validating to see the hurtful behavior we’ve all experienced finally be deemed deserving of consequence: we’re all mad at the state of casual dating, and we’re mad at the partners that didn’t treat us with respect, and taking it out on a brooklyn playboy that seems to embody the last decade of dating woes feels like a girl-powered form of justice. but i don’t think it is.
within 24 hours of the caleb videos going viral, several million people had collaborated in mass-publicizing his face, full name, job, and list of past partners. thousands of people are working on a coordinated campaign to get him fired, and a series of blue-check brands have started using his name in advertising to try and shill everything from jeans to mayonnaise. i’ve talked about the sickening nature of the phenomenon before, when brands capitalized on couch guy for social media clout — i can think of few things more disgusting than companies profiting off the non-consensual commodification of real people’s lives. but there’s something even more sinister about it this time. the fact that hordes of women gleefully ate up tongue-in-cheek caleb-branded ad campaigns made it clear to me that any justifications of a high-minded feminist morale were purely aesthetic: either you admit that you’re cool with companies making money off of an abuse scandal, or you admit that the anti-caleb campaign was never really about abuse at all.
because typical casual-dating shittiness aside, west elm caleb did actually do something genuinely reprehensible — it was alleged that he sent non-consensual nude photos to multiple women. unwanted nudes are fucked up, genuinely harmful, and potentially even illegal, and his proliferation of them is a real reason to raise awareness about his presence in a local dating scene. when people have criticized the west elm caleb reaction as overkill or unnecessary, the nudes are typically brought up in response as a sole justification: this spectacle is FEMINIST NOW, because the nudes are obviously the only reason why anyone is participating at all!
here’s the problem, though — aside from the first one or two videos mentioning the allegations, nobody is actually talking about them. most people don’t even know it happened, because 95% of the west elm caleb content has relied purely on citing his “ghosting” and “lovebombing”. it’s the only thing he did that was truly objectively violating and inappropriate, but it’s also the sole facet that none of the campaign’s leaders or followers seem to give a shit about — except, of course, when it comes to justifying it all in the name of feminism. this is what discomforts me the most: the commodification of feminist rhetoric by young aesthetic progressives who seek only to silence criticism and justify self-interested consumption that, even if it did manage to yield some anti-abuse result, was clearly never about it in the first place.
to be clear, i don’t think the women who first posted about caleb are the core of the problem. i, personally, would point my finger at a culture that is utterly desensitized from years of media overload but still teeth-grindingly desperate for stimuli, and the algorithms that are optimized to cannibalize real people in order to feed its users’ appetites. like a drug user who needs to keep upping their dosage to get a rush, the public is bored of corporate reality TV and scripted influencer drama: now, to get their fix, the stakes need to be higher. they need to be not only watchers but active participants in a story that unfolds before their eyes, and nothing is more authentic than a story whose characters don’t want to be there in the first place.
we saw an extreme case of this with the gabby petito case, and again with couch guy, and now, again, with west elm caleb. trying to seek and destroy the lives of real people for a perceived moral fault that’s more posthumous justification than actual instigator is the choose-your-own-adventure for the 21st century.
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for the consumer, the problem with this, of course, is an ethical one: nobody wants to feel like a bad person. and so cultural puritanism collides with this phenomenon to alleviate any subconscious guilt and, perhaps more importantly, provide a never-ending lineup of targets. if we can only convince ourselves that these people deserve it because of their wrongdoings, we can sprinkle the ecstasy of the moral high ground on top of the dopamine rush of consumption.
and this isn’t to say that the people at the centers of these controversies haven’t done anything wrong, or don’t deserve an accountability process at all — it’s to say that there is no precedent or set of standards for what crime deserves an audience of millions banging at your door with no chance of a clean record. and, more importantly, it’s that this debacle isn’t actually about the literal specifics of their wrongdoing at all: it’s about a culture that compulsively flattens real people into interactive reality shows that exist for their pleasure alone, and the moral justifications they inevitably use to feel better about it.
here’s a reflection question: imagine the person in this world that hates you the most. maybe it’s someone from high school, a boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, a friend you hurt when you were at your lowest — if they had a platform of millions to tell their version of the worst thing you’ve ever done in the least flattering light possible, who would you be to the internet? what would you now deserve?
people in cities around the world are already posting in search of their own “west elm caleb”, but west elm caleb isn’t even the most egregious west elm caleb in brooklyn. ask any girl at any bar in nyc and she will know three guys who did everything he did and more in the past month alone. his role in this spectacle is not directly linked to any unique wrongdoing, because if it were, there’d be a new caleb every minute. he’s an average shitty guy who had the bad luck of becoming an individual metaphor for a systemic problem (and the arguably worse luck of matching with too many influencers on hinge).
getting this guy fired doesn’t fix the systemic problem of shitty, gendered dating dynamics, but hey — it is way easier! when it comes to larger systems of patriarchy and abuse, i can’t help but feel like the crucifixion of these individuals is ultimately a system of smoke and mirrors that obfuscates true systemic change while providing us with enough satisfaction to stop aiming higher.
but let’s say this was actually about cold, hard feminist justice. that brings us to a thought that is hardly novel or interesting but somehow still wildly controversial: doing something that causes harm is rarely an ethical justification for an infinite number of strangers to enact unending cruel and vindictive revenge. doing something nebulously wrong is rarely a good reason to lose all rights to privacy and safety. most importantly, and perhaps most controversially, most people should be allowed to do sort-of-bad things without having to worry that 15 million people are going to know about it the next day, or that it will still be the first thing people find when they google you twenty years in the future.
even as i type these words, it is difficult for me to fully commit to them. i am a militant feminist who knows that men as a whole are still not called out even a fraction as much as they should be; the implication that we are being too harsh on a man who has violated women feels strange and foreign in my mouth. so let me be clear: i think this man needs to radically change the way he engages with relationships, as many of us do. in a better world, word of his behavior would have spread around his circles and he would be held accountable in a private, personal, and ultimately more meaningful way. my problem with this situation is not that caleb is innocent, it’s that nobody engaging with it is doing it out of a virtuous desire to right a wrong: they are doing it because we are addicted to consuming the lives of others and bringing vicious suffering on those we deem to deserve it. anyone who thinks otherwise is lying to themselves.
when i think about the direction that feminism should be going, it’s to a place of transformative justice, intimate community care, and compassionate self-reflection. we should be reaching towards radical empathy, not striving for detached, gluttonous consumption of spectacle.
it’s frustrating for me, too, that this conversation is happening around west elm caleb at all. I don’t want it to seem like i’m defending this random shitty guy who looks exactly like all the random shitty guys who have hurt me! i don’t want it to appear as though i’m placing irrevocable blame on the girls who first posted about caleb, some of whom i know personally and believe to be very smart and very kind. but i feel like the ongoing trend of mass surveillance based in puritanical ethics needs to be called out when it is most visible, and I believe that the reaction to people like caleb — however distasteful they might be — normalizes a standard of violent and punitive participative spectacle that can and will be swiftly turned against more vulnerable people for even less reason.
tiktok, facebook, and twitter are apps created by tech oligarchs who prioritize nothing but the accumulation of monetary and political capital at the expense of society as a whole. these apps are not your friends, and they will never be a conduit for justice because they just were not designed that way.
and listen — it is a great injustice that the right has developed an ideological monopoly on discussions of so-called “cancel culture”, so much so that it feels vaguely right-wing to be discussing it in any capacity at all. we need to be having conversations about this dynamic as it relates to abolitionist academics being pushed out of office, journalists who get fired for supporting Palestine, racialized organizers being blacklisted from their communities, and political staffers let go for attending protests. these are the victims of this culture of spectacle that i care about the most, and i fear that their continued subjugation is enabled as we increasingly submit to puritanical moral policing with no ceiling on reasonable consequences.
i can’t help but feel as though self-policing measures of social control are being Trojan-Horsed into our cultural consciousness through lighthearted girl-power narratives about mean boys and unfaithful partners. we are building the panopticon every day, and feminism is being commodified and bastardized to support it.
we should be spreading awareness about shitty dating patterns, and the people that practice them certainly should be held accountable to some extent. but this punitive form of “justice” doesn’t help anyone, and we need to be honest with ourselves about where our motivations actually lie. after the first two or three videos about west elm caleb, the campaign against him was never intended to be about justice at all: it was intended to be a self-indulgent genre of mass entertainment with feminist buzzwords sprinkled on top to make everyone feel less bad about watching it. i want my feminism to mean something more than that.
thank you for reading this essay! i hope you enjoyed it! all my writing on here is free right now, but if you appreciated my labour on this one, feel free to toss me a couple dollars at ko-fi.com/raynecorp :)