All year, lists and parodies of lists have been appearing regularly in newspapers, magazines and books throughout the country. There have been so many “best of” shows on television, it must soon inevitably spawn the List Channel. In the last few months of the millennium it’s bound to get worse.
There are two general types of lists — action or information. We all have action lists. I have lists of lists — things to do, people to call, things to pick up at A&P. Of course sometimes, this organizing principle can list into the realm of obsession and post-its flutter around me like queens around Cher. Thank goodness for the glass-encased “to do” list of my Palm Pilot.
We’re all crazy busy people and we need to get our info fast. We’re curious. So if someone — anyone — presorts for us, we are only too happy to be list-served. Whether it’s Internet info overload, acute David Lettermania, some final millennial spasm of cataloguing of all of the above, we are undeniably in taxonomic shock.
Curiously, despite our thousandth year anniversary, it is an oddly 20th century-centric moment. There are no “Neat Folks of the Millennium” lists — the Queen of Sheba , Joan of Arc and Shakespeare , Suleiman the Magnificent , Catherine the Great . We can’t seem to handle anything but the twentieth century foxes
VH1 just aired “The 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll.” PBS broadcast the best in photojournalism, which was great if you can’t get enough of war. Award shows are nothing more than prioritized lists with prizes. Awesomest Babe of the Universe. The People’s Choicest Awards. MTV has their cheeky Movie Awards. [Sidebar: let me be the first to nominate MTV for their coverage of Woodstock II in the category of Best Straight White Race Riot.]
Coffee table books like The Century [the American is understood] are selling fast, especially if they are long on photos. Fortunately Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings have taken time out of their busy schedules as anchor hawkers and self-appointed grief counselors, to explain everything to us in their books that Stephen Speilberg hasn’t gotten around to yet.
The New York Times Magazine, in their listing tour, has busily catalogued the most powerful thinkers, inventors, celebrities of the century. The ratio of people of color in the top 100 is so mathematically minuscule, it feels more ration then ratio. If these lists were discovered in a time capsule centuries from now, historian could only conclude that Bill Cosby and Jesse Jackson were very busy men. And there are hardly any black women because apparently they are all too busy taking care of the children of the New York-based magazine editors who are busy making lists of those who matter.
The Times seems to be listing to the right these days. Their separatist issue “Women, the Shadow Story of the Century” entitled them not to talk about women again until 3000. I found the article online, typed in the word “lesbian,” and hit the Find button on my toolbar. It was highlighted three times and the coded “same-sex” was used twice. Five glancing references to lesbians in the century, but who’s counting? I am.
Of course, retrospectives are by definition retro. Whenever I pore over these century lists, I feel as if I am paging through the yearbook of some giant Straight High School: 2 straight 2 be 4 gotten. I feel like I used to feel watching for gay clues in early Lily Tomlin specials, looking forward to the bimonthly gay question in Sunday’s Parade Magazine, or waiting for someone to choose Paul Lynde to block. It’s very retro, this looking for representations of myself and my friends, made more desperate, incredulous, hopeful, furious by the great closet-smashing work of the Gay 90’s of this century.
It has been the Straight White Century. True, lists are not history. But next time around, I say, “No taxonomy without representation.”