Ashleigh Young on why having a nemesis is no longer cool.
I might be wrong but I think the age of the nemesis might finally have turned. For a while there, if you were anyone, you had a nemesis. It was like SUVs, or tiny handbags – you looked around one day and suddenly everyone had one. Everyone was a superhero in their own universe. People spoke of their nemeses in dark, cinematic tones. The identity of one's nemesis was never publicly disclosed, because that would descend into bullying, which was vulgar and having a nemesis was an art. Your nemesis was not an enemy, exactly; they were someone for whom you not only held an eternal dislike but in whom your dislike found a worthy contender. "People often ask if, for example, the President is my nemesis," Roxane Gay wrote in July, "but that would absolutely be beneath me.' She had 10 nemeses, she said, and used an app to keep track of them. Gay, tweeting about her nemeses since 2011, was said to have fomented the global enthusiasm for nemesis-having.
The thing about the nemesis-having community was that it was entirely self-governed. Anyone was ripe for the picking. The selection process was often guided by envy – many nemeses seemed to live perfect lives, with brilliant career trajectories and lovely homes – or by a feeling of being wronged by someone who was cheerily oblivious to that fact. It could be someone who said "Awesome!" a lot. Someone who'd bought all of their Christmas presents by September. Someone who actually seemed really nice but was somehow unbearable, like a scratchy clothes tag on your soul.
"My nemesis is having a good year professionally and has clear skin. It's a lot to take," Gay tweeted last year.
Central to nemesis-having was the performance of the feud – the serving up of a petty beef for others' entertainment. It was like pro-wrestling – obviously theatrical, with all of the flinging about of bodies, chairs broken over backs and forks jabbed in the eye, but somehow it was also deadly serious.
As in any sport, the nemesis-haver had to abide by rules. They could not name the nemesis. They must never express a wish for legitimately terrible things to befall their nemesis, like death or personal tragedy; things like paper cuts and small professional failures were fine. In fact, ideally a person would grudgingly admire or value their nemesis ("I must reluctantly admit that my nemesis has been tweeting good stuff lately," tweeted Helen Rosner in March). Finally, your nemesis had to be slightly more successful than yourself – punch up, not down – thus encouraging you to up your game.
For a while, I scouted for a nemesis. I considered a poet at a poetry reading who read for way longer than anyone else. But this was hypocritical, because I'd done the same thing a bunch of times. Maybe the guy at the gym who practised his karate moves too earnestly. Maybe my landlord but he'd recently fixed my shower door and was a nice guy. I considered SUVs, but the power dynamic wasn't right – as a cyclist I was too far below them - or above them. Was the wind my nemesis? But then something happened that convinced me that the age of the nemesis was ending.
It was a minor riot on Book Twitter. Brooke Nelson, a young graduate student of a small university in South Dakota told her local newspaper that she didn't think the best-selling Young Adult author Sarah Dessen should be selected for the university's "Common Read" – the book that all the students would read that year. Dessen screenshot these remarks – cropping out the bit where Nelson recommended the memoir Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, about racism and inequity in America's justice system – and tweeted her sorrow to her 268,000 followers. A cruel pile-on against Nelson began, led by famous authors like Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner and Roxane Gay, who said: "And now you have a nemesis." Gay had broken the rule about punching up, not down. She's since apologised, but it felt like at that moment the concept of nemesis-having was called into question. It seemed hollow. Too easy to dump all of your insecurities on someone else, too easy to be applauded for it.
It also seemed exhausting. Imagine having 10 nemeses. Imagine if you all lived in Wellington. You'd have to rebuild your life in a series of tunnels and caverns underground. Nemesis-having also seemed an increasingly dull way of expressing yourself, like people whose slavering thirst for bacon is central to their identity. But most of all, it wasted energy that would be better employed elsewhere.
Just as Brooke Nelson championed a book about injustice, our nemesis-having energy could be redirected to things that really make people's lives worse, like inhumane asylum policies, corporations helmed by billionaires, racist relatives, the defunding of the arts - and SUVs. The rest of the world hasn't caught up with the end of the nemesis but we must be patient and not hold it against them. In the meantime, I hereby release each and every one of you from consideration as my future nemesis.
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Next week: Steve Braunias