Author Archives

Soraya Roberts
I am a writer based in Toronto and the author of In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life.

It’s Getting Hot in Here, So Take Off All Your Constructs

Bone Collector / Juicy J, Photo by Elsa / Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 |  7 minutes (1,984 words)

 

The album art for Megan Thee Stallion’s “Hot Girl Summer” has her riding a bottle of Hennessy like a bronco, with Nicki Minaj strapped in behind her. Both rappers have their arms up, their boobs out, their hair down. The flames around them are redundant. Before it was a song, Hot Girl Summer was a meme, with the 24-year-old freestyle genius dropping the mixtape Fever a month ahead of the summer solstice. That art is even better, a throwback to the flyest of fly blaxploitation: “She’s thee hot girl and she’s bringing thee heat” (more redundant flames surround her). Named Stallion for her statuesque beauty and with fans known as Hotties, Megan rebranded the aestival months as Hot Girl Summer. In the August issue of Paper magazine, she calls it a movement. The rapper told The Root that being a hot girl is not about being a certain type of sexy — it’s about “women, and men, just being unapologetically them.” But there are clear parameters here, which encompass a look — 5’11’’, hourglass — and a personality: “You definitely have to be a person that could be like the life of the party, and, you know, just a bad bitch.” Hot Girl Summer isn’t Taraji P. Henson in spectacles quietly doing actual rocket science, it’s Halle Berry in an orange bikini popping up out of the surf as Bond gawks. While Hot Girl Summer rejects the idea that a woman, notably a black woman, has to be answerable to anyone — a poignant reminder in a climate of rampant misogyny — the movement still implies a sexy young object of someone else’s desire. Read more…

Won’t You Be My Neighbor: An Anti-Hate Pop Culture Syllabus

Sony Pictures, Marvel Entertainment, Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 | 8 minutes (2,156 words)

The closing fight scene of the 1988 martial arts movie Bloodsport has the Muscles from Brussels (Jean-Claude Van Damme) growling prehistorically, flexing his pecs, and kicking like Nureyev as he beats his Asian opponent while blinded by dust. A bottle blond cheers from the stands at this homoerotic display of outdated, pumped-up white masculinity and, surprisingly, it’s not Donald Trump. This corny alpha-male fantasy, one of the president’s favorite movies, is loosely based on the life of U.S. marine Frank Dux, who — fittingly — made it all up. Trump watched Bloodsport on his private jet because of course he did. Apparently, he fast-forwarded to the action scenes because of course he did. It’s since been spliced into a video game because of course, of course, of course.

“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace,” said the Bloodsport fan-in-chief after two mass shootings earlier this month. “Cultural change is hard, but each of us can choose to build a culture that celebrates the inherent worth and dignity of every human life.” In case you inadvertently bought that, remember the guy reading those words has based his popularity on denigrating virtually every human life that is not his own. Because Trump appears to continue to reside in the ’80s, it makes sense that he never got (read?) the memo that studies have failed over the past three decades to show that popular culture incites violence. But even a stopped clock is on point twice a day and as much as it pains me to say, Trump is inadvertently semicorrect: We do need a change. Certainly, individual games or movies or shows or songs don’t have the power to pull a trigger, but put all of them together and it’s a slightly different story. Popular culture has been defined predominantly by the white patriarchal society that also formed Trump, and all too often shares his xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny. It established an assumption in which, while it may be frowned upon to shoot a movie theater full of people, it is also a man’s God-given right to bear arms, to dominate, to express himself with violence. So, sure, find comfort in the fact that including two accused rapists in a major international film festival will be unlikely to directly cause another man to behave the same way; perhaps less comforting is the realization that this perpetuates a climate in which it wouldn’t be so bad if he did.

Earlier this year, race scholar Ibram X. Kendi published two antiracist syllabi, one of which included a sprawling list of books “to help America transcend its racist heritage.” He cited titles like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Langston Hughes’s The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, works “that force us to confront our self-serving beliefs and make us aware that ‘I’m not racist’ is a slogan of denial.” (This month sees the publication of Kendi’s third book, How to Be an Antiracist.) His argument is that it is not enough to just claim you are not racist, you have to actively oppose racism. That gave me the idea of a syllabus for pop culture that is anti-hate: that doesn’t merely claim it doesn’t hate, but actively opposes it. These are the works — the movies, television, music — that don’t just offer representations beyond white male dominance but actively foster community and inclusivity, that normalize forms of gender and sexuality that don’t conform to tradition, that make space for anger while providing alternatives to its violent expression against the other. Individual shows or albums can’t kill or save us, but a critical mass either way shapes our cultural foundation.   

* * *

In the wake of last year’s Toronto van attack, I wrote in Hazlitt about how Mister Rogers imbued children’s programming with empathy — initially in the ’60s in Canada — by making feelings “mentionable and manageable.” The underlying mission of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was to encourage a sense of attachment and the idea that not only were the kids who watched cared for, but that they should care for others too. His was a guide to self-actualization within the context of community. As Karen Vander Ven, a psychology professor who went to school with Rogers, explained to me at the time, “When you don’t feel strongly attached then you try to find another way to be significant which is often to take the upper hand.” While there isn’t a strict profile for shooters, this is part of the primordial stew out of which they tend to form their pinhole worldview, which leads to some of them lashing out violently, often against women and people of color.

These men are the fullest expression of a cultural (and political) landscape we created, an extreme form of the everyday violence — from catcalls in the street to racial disparity in executive suites — that owes its normalization to this toxic marinade. The attackers at Dayton and Isla Vista and Toronto were misogynists, while the shooters at Poway, El Paso, Christchurch, Pittsburgh, and Charleston were racists, too. The reigning narrative of our time is the godlike hero, usually white, usually male, the embodiment of antiquated machismo, trouncing his enemies alone according to a combat-and-conquer plot, his personality and his emotions only significant insofar as they feed his weapon-fueled revenge. This is a story of male dominance, of white supremacy, of raging violence, told again and again and again. And this is the story of mass shootings. The hero wins the recognition he has always craved by emulating his chosen gods, men like him who use real guns to kill the real people they take for the fictional enemies inside their heads. Men who come from a place where the number one film of the year (so far) is Avengers: Endgame, which touts toothless representation while failing spectacularly to go beyond standard-issue good and evil. 

The stories we need, the ones that promote inclusivity, have begun to arrive — they’re just less pervasive. Though it made significantly less at the box office, last year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was the rare anti-hate superhero movie. The electrifying animation revolves around a 13-year-old superhero, Miles Morales, with a black father and a Hispanic mother, who is unsure of how to get a hold of who he is. This is a story that supplants a fictional moralistic binary with a more realistic take on the elasticity of identity. It shows how family and friends — in this case, a bunch of misplaced Spider-Men from parallel universes — form who we are, but also how the strength we pull from them allows us to create our own narratives, making us more valuable to our community and vice versa. “I’m Spider-Man,” Miles says, “and I’m not the only one. Not by a long shot.” Outside the world of genre, the storyline is reminiscent of GLOW, the Netflix series based on a group of real women wrestlers from the ’80s. This motley crew of various races, classes, and sexualities — and in one case, species — establish a loving community nonetheless. The violent torching of a drag show that happens toward the end of the latest season — “Die Fags Die,” reads the graffiti left behind — is a counterpoint to the safe space that the women provide for one another to self-actualize and that the drag community itself offers to Sheila the She-Wolf, who ultimately becomes closer to the group after throwing her disguise into the fire: “It was getting in my way.”

That sort of collective boost is reminiscent of the Tik Tok community that danced their Wranglers off to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” The viral country rap star was rejected by Billboard’s 75-year-old country chart — because it did “not embrace enough elements of today’s country music” — only to have his twangy hip-hop tune become the longest running No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 single after a bunch of suburban kids turned it into a meme. What must it be like for a fan of country radio to hear a gay black man, side by side with Billy Ray Cyrus, doing it better? Earlier this year fans also assembled online after Netflix canceled One Day at a Time, one of the rare series to explore the complexity of being Latinx, which, considering the administration’s continued dehumanization of Hispanic immigrants, was a definite choice. “There’s so many people that the story resonates with,” cocreator and showrunner Gloria Calderón Kellett told Vanity Fair last year, “about just being the ‘other.’” (CBS’s Pop channel eventually picked it up for 2020.) A growing number of black filmmakers has also been laying bare America’s history of white supremacy, from Jordan Peele’s social thrillers about the many ways the black community has been marginalized to Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America on the many ways they fought back. Meanwhile, Donald Glover’s “This Is America” single and his series Atlanta, play on the absurdity of your own home rejecting you. The FX series subverts tropes around black fatherhood, which, despite the main character’s shortcomings, constantly has him striving to provide for his daughter. 

A more fully formed expression of anti-hate masculinity is Shoplifters, one of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s many films about the various configurations a family can take. The husband in a poor household of six provides all the support he can — through shoplifting, but still — without claiming dominance, without being cold or sexist or violent. He chooses instead to be emotionally available, reinforcing the harmony the adults scrounge together, and setting an example for the kids despite also teaching them how to steal. As Kore-eda told the BFI, “Crime is something that we, as a society, own collectively; I think it’s something we need to reclaim and accept as our responsibility, rather than the individual’s.”

* * *

“Don’t send in a man to do a woman’s job” is the kind of cheesy line I would expect to hear in a remake of Bloodsport (which is apparently happening). But it does make sense that if you want pop culture to be anti-hate, that if hate has notoriously been embodied by white men, you go to the women. And it’s true, the women have been kicking ass in a way that Van Damme could only dream of. From Phoebe Waller-Bridge dismantling the power of the self in Fleabag to Janelle Monáe fucking up sex with Dirty Computer so much so that sexism can’t even get a handle on it anymore to Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, cocreators of Pen15, using surrealism to expose the most realistic depiction of racism a coming-of-age show has ever seen to Charlotte Madelon’s The Rose Garden, a zen antidote to first-person shooter video games that softly encourages you to wind down instead of loading up. And then there’s Rebecca Sugar, who rolls all of this anti-hate into one for the children like a latter day Mister Rogers. Steven Universe, the first animated series created by a woman, has been coined the “most empathetic cartoon” ever made. Miss Sugar’s Cartoon Network series dismantles the idea of the lone powerful white male hero before it has the chance to take root, replacing it with an open universe that lets everybody in, including actual aliens. “We need to let children know that they belong in this world,” she told Entertainment Weekly last year. “You can’t wait to tell them that until after they grow up or the damage will be done.”

The Anti-Hate Pop Culture List

Movies
BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, 2018)
Burning (Lee Chang-dong, 2018)
A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio, 2017)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018)
O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, 2016)
Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2018)
Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley, 2018)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
(Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, 2018)
Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski, 2018)
Us (Jordan Peele, 2019)

Television
Atlanta (FX)
The Chi (Showtime)
Derry Girls (Netflix)
Fleabag (Amazon)
GLOW (Netflix)
The Good Place (NBC)
One Day at a Time (Pop/CBS)
Pen15 (Hulu)
Pose (FX)
Queer Eye (Netflix)
Russian Doll (Netflix)
Steven Universe (Cartoon Network)

Music
Against Me!, Shape Shift With Me (2016)
Björk, Cornucopia (2019)
Childish Gambino, “This Is America” (2018)
Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer (2018)
Kendrick Lamar, Damn (2017)
Lana Del Rey, “Looking for America” (2019)
Lido Pimienta, La Papessa (2016)
Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road” (2018)
Lizzo, Cuz I Love You (2019)
Michael Marshall, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” (2019)
A Tribe Called Red, We Are the Halluci Nation (2016)

Games
Celeste
(Linux, Mac OS, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, Xbox One)
Don’t Starve Together (Linux, Mac, PS4, Switch, Windows, Xbox )
My Child Lebensborn (Android, iOS)
Please Knock on My Door (Windows)
The Rose Garden (Google Play)
Stardew Valley (Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, PS4, Switch, Windows, Xbox)
Super Mario Party (Switch)

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Death Proof

Sony Pictures, Illustration by Homestead

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 |  8 minutes (2,183 words)

At the start of Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 best seller about the 1969 Manson murders, there’s a “Cast of Characters.” The list includes all the people who investigated the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends and the “family” to which their murderers belonged. Their “casting” is a crude example of how the dead can be appropriated by the living for our entertainment. “The story you are about to read will scare the hell out of you,” the book promises in its ’70s twang. Tate and all the others who died so that tagline could live hover behind the whole enterprise like unnamed specters.

Quentin Tarantino was only a child in the late ’60s, an innocent among Hollywood’s innocence lost. His latest film, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, is set around that time, and he calls it his “most personal,” a “love letter” to Los Angeles. “I think of it like my memory piece,” he recently told Esquire. “This is me. This is the year that formed me. I was six years old then. This is my world.” In Tarantino’s ’69, a paunchy Leonardo DiCaprio plays a stuttering, aging Western star named Rick Dalton, who alternates driving around the city with his hotter stuntman Cliff Booth — Brad Pitt, somehow better-looking than ever — and drunkenly weeping in his trailer over his waning career as the hippies and film auteurs elbow him out of town. Bubbling up through the narrative like champagne effervescence is newcomer Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), not saying much, not doing much, her sun-lit beauty coming off as little more than a contrast to the storm ahead.

Tarantino explained that the film’s “good-hearted spirit” is supposed to leave the audience asking how Manson fits in: “It’s like we’ve got a perfectly good body, and then we take a syringe and inject it with a deadly virus.” What he didn’t explain was that he had the antidote: that in “the Quentin universe,” he interrupts Tate’s death, preserving her like a butterfly in his own showcase of history. But we kind of knew that already, because it’s what he always does. Tarantino is the god of his own nostalgia, fossilizing what he remembers of his past into a signature masterpiece, narrowing history into a vehicle for his own edification. Read more…

Free Solo

Hulu, Photo Illustration by Homestead

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | July 2019 |  8 minutes (2,101 words)


The original cut of the
Veronica Mars pilot had a cold open set to “La Femme d’Argent,” the first track from AIR’s 1998 debut album, Moon Safari. A neon take on noir, the scene has the 17-year-old titular blond (Kristen Bell) alone in her car in the middle of the night outside Camelot, one of her local “cheap motels on the wrong side of town.” Her camera — along with a calculus textbook — sits on the passenger side and her lips are glossed as she watches through the rain-streaked window of her convertible. The silhouette of a couple can be seen having sex in one of the motel rooms.“I’m never getting married,” she says.

Instead of this kick-ass intro — which accompanies the DVD version at least — the series, whenever it airs on television, opens on a brightly lit trio of cheerleaders tearing through a school parking lot to the pop-rock strums of the Wayouts’ “What You Want” (Bite, 1993), also under Veronica’s voice-over: “This is my school. If you go here your parents are either millionaires or your parents work for millionaires.” It’s simple exposition, with none of the mood or the bite of the original, and it sets Veronica Mars up as a teen show with a babe at the center, not the contemporary noir revolving around a precocious P.I. that it actually was. Rob Thomas’s series, which first aired on UPN in 2004, takes a typical sun-kissed California girl, murders her best friend, turns her sheriff dad  — and eventually Veronica herself — into an outcast, has her mom abandon them both, and, as if that weren’t enough, has her raped at a class party (the network tried to get rid of that part), then the new sheriff laugh down her report. All of this happens in the pilot, by the way. The whole ordeal turns Veronica into a cynic and ultimately her dad’s sidekick at his newly launched private eye agency.

Every time Thomas sees the actual opening, it breaks his heart, he recently admitted to Vanity Fair. He was proud of his version, but Les Moonves, the chairman and CEO of CBS (owner of UPN), was not into a prologue in which the hottie appears as a hardboiled antihero. “It’s a high school show,” he said, according to Thomas. “It should start in a high school.” But it’s 15 years later and Moonves is out, having resigned in disgrace amidst a series of sexual misconduct allegations, and there’s a new season of Veronica Mars, this time on Hulu, at the top of which Veronica is back outside a seedy motel, alone. The image of the lone woman is as strong as it ever was. And perhaps it is even more poignant these days as a symbol of transgression in the wake of our collective awareness around men’s control of the world. In this moment, the singular femme represents the possibility of a future without the trappings of the past. She’s less marshmallow than s’more. Read more…

This (Wo)Man’s Work

Bulat Silvia / Getty, photo collage by Homestead

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | June 2019 |  11 minutes (2,804 words)

What is it about my work that makes it so much less esteemed than so many men’s? Was it not produced with enough sweat? With enough brain power? With enough complaint? What is it that gives a man sitting in an ergonomic chair, staring at a computer screen, typing on a laptop, so much more gravitas? Maybe he’s not doing it with a fan pointed at him, like I am. Maybe he doesn’t have a bottle of water next to him. Or is it the bouquet of flowers on my desk? Does the smell transfer to my work? Is labor produced in a sweet-smelling room less insightful? If you shut your eyes and I put my work in one of your hands and a man’s in the other, will you be able to weigh the difference? What if neither of us have done anything yet? Will you be able to weigh it then?

“1 in 8 men believe they can make a better film than Andrea Arnold,” one person tweeted last week. I laughed. It was a quip amalgamating two stories that dominated social media that same week, both impressively undermining women’s work. One was a survey of 1,732 Brits conducted by YouGov that found that 12 percent of the men believed they could win a point off Serena Williams, a tennis champion who holds the most Grand Slam titles combined — singles, doubles, mixed doubles — of any player currently on the pro tennis circuit. The second was a report from IndieWire, citing a number of anonymous sources, that claimed the second season of Big Little Lies, directed by British auteur Andrea Arnold, was ripped out from under her and put back in the hands of first season director Jean-Marc Vallée to do with what he pleased. To be clear, Arnold is an Oscar-winning filmmaker who has claimed the jury prize at Cannes three times. Vallée is not. Like him, she has directed episodes on four TV series. But there’s one key thing that Vallée had that she didn’t: an established rapport with Big Little Lies creator David E. Kelley.

Oh, male bonds; so reserved and yet so unconditional. This is the kind of alliance that has Eddie Murphy backing John Landis to direct Coming to America a year after Landis was charged with involuntary manslaughter (he was acquitted). This is the kind of camaraderie that has Prince Andrew attending a welcome-back-to-New-York party that registered sex offender Jeffrey Epstein reportedly threw for himself. These are extreme examples, but in essence, they show men supporting men they like, no matter the quality of their work, what they’ve done. 

Imagine how men who have done nothing so problematic are treated by their male friends. Imagine if literally any women were treated that way.

Read more…

The Big Sick

Illustration by Homestead

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | July 2019 |  7 minutes ( 1,978 words)

 

“The sickness rolled through me in great waves.” Whenever I’m sick, I read The Bell Jar. I know, ironic, but there’s a chapter where Sylvia Plath describes her central character having food poisoning and it always makes me feel better — her ability to capture how urgent it feels, how relentless, how it reduces you to a vehicle for vomit and diarrhea. How cleansed you are afterwards just for you to do it all over again, eventually. It’s comforting that someone writing two decades before I was even born not only experienced this exact feeling, but could reproduce it so clearly. “There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”

Nostalgia is a kind of vomiting. It’s not like you re-watch your favorite parts of Heathers because bile compels you to. But there’s the same idea of deconstructed repetition, although in nostalgia’s case, it’s so you can climb back into your memories, where you can lock yourself into a space untroubled by reality. It’s a thing that keeps coming up (sorry) because of how we manufacture culture now — not just online but in a world owned by big media. There has always been significant reworking of past cultures, but I don’t think popular culture was ever the commodity it is now, where Mickey Mouse isn’t just a drawing but an intellectual property (IP). At no other time has mainstream culture felt like such an opiate, so tied to appealing to mass comfort. Out of this comes the new season of the bingeable Netflix series Stranger Things, which is less its own story than a collection of its creators’ pop culture memories; Disney churns out live-action remakes of every one of its films until the elephants come home; and then there are the countless stories in the press celebrating the anniversaries of every movie/show/album ever made.

I guess you can’t really blame anyone for wanting to keep puking up the past when the present is so insufferable. Except anyone is not everyone, and the relief is a ruse. Read more…

Out of Toon

Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | July 2019 |  8 minutes ( 2,193 words)

 

More than 11,000 people retweeted Michael de Adder’s controversial cartoon of Donald Trump next to a golf cart, asking the drowned bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria if he could “play through.” Had each of those people paid the cartoonist the same $100 reprint fee as the daily comic site The Nib, de Adder would have made at least $1.1 million off a single drawing. As it stands the cartoon was shared widely and the cartoonist did a slew of press spots, but probably did virtually no business, maybe only that $100. “They rush to grab it and post it and get the traffic, but they don’t pay for it,” says Matt Bors, founder of The Nib. “Never would they consider actually paying the cartoonist.” The Nib did.

But it’s apparent how people with money feel about The Nib. At the end of June, First Look Media, owned by billionaire Pierre Omidyar, announced it was closing the digital long-form magazine Topic and would no longer be funding The Nib, a haven for cartoonists that, unlike newspapers with their piecemeal offerings, gathered together the work of a group of artists, many of whom were neither white nor male. Contributing editor Sarah Mirk told me that the site actively worked to find diverse contributors — women, artists of color, nonbinary artists — and paid them a living wage. “We are elevating the voice of the people who are marginalized in our society and who don’t get the chance to get published in traditional media outlets,” she says, adding, “that’s part of why it’s so especially disappointing and frustrating to have our funding cut out of the blue.” In almost six years, The Nib has published 4,000 comics and paid cartoonists $1.5 million. It was first backed by Medium, then, starting in 2016, by First Look, where the staff was working toward subscriber-based funding before it was dropped.

“After three and a half years, we will no longer provide funding for The Nib, however, we are working to transition it back to Matt Bors so he can continue to publish independently,” Jeannie Kedas, the chief communications officer at First Look Media, wrote to me in an email. “We have been honored to support and provide a home for The Nib during the last few years and are thankful to Matt and his fantastic team for their provocative and impactful work. We look forward to seeing where he takes The Nib and its unique brand of comics next.”

Mirk believes First Look’s decision had to do with The Nib’s modest revenue even though, within four days of the announcement, they had 1,000 new members. “There’s a huge demand for this,” Mirk says. “That’s not the problem. The problem is the people who are deciding the funding levels of media don’t understand comics, don’t see their potential, don’t want to fund them, and don’t get what we do.” Read more…

If I Made $4 a Word, This Article Would Be Worth $10,000

Illustration by Homestead

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | June 2019 |  10 minutes ( 2,574 words)

What in the actual fuck. I thought journalists, even just culture journalists, were supposed to be brave. I thought they were supposed to risk their lives, even just psychologically. I thought they were supposed to shout and swear and beat their breasts — fuck everything else. At the very least I thought they were supposed to tell the truth. If any of that’s true, I don’t know what the hell all the people around me are doing. All the people who, I’ve been told again and again, don’t want to bite the hand that feeds, even though the food is shit and the hand is an asshole. I’m ashamed that I was tricked into believing they were better than so many of the people they report on, that their conspicuous support for unions and an industry full of undervalued workers was anything more than a performance. I didn’t think journalists, even just culture journalists, were supposed to be cowards. 

***

If you don’t know who Taffy Brodesser-Akner is, you are very likely not on Media Twitter and I salute you. At one point, Brodesser-Akner was invariably described as one of the busiest freelancers in America and you really did see her byline everywhere. Five years ago, she found her niche writing celebrity profiles for GQ and The New York Times, for which she won three New York Press Club awards. Journalists adore her not only for her prowess at cutting down the various gods we love and hate in equal measure, but also for her ability to lure the reader into being her coconspirator by nimbly threading herself through each story. Because of that, and because of the reach of the publications themselves, and — perhaps most importantly — because of her popularity among her peers, her articles almost always go viral. In 2017, Brodesser-Akner became a staff writer at the Times and this month she is promoting her first novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble

On June 14, Cosmopolitan published one of roughly 5 million interviews with the debut novelist, this one by Jen Ortiz. I was scrolling through Twitter on a break from writing back-to-back columns and noticed the usual gushing posts by journalists with blue checkmarks next to their names. Those tweets are no real indication the person has actually read the interview they’re sharing, but whatever, because, like, it’s Taffy, you know her! Who doesn’t stan her!?! It’s funny, if you search the article URL in Twitter, initially it’s just tweet after tweet of outsize praise — “I loved this profile of the master profiler” — then, like a sudden stop sign on a 90 mph expressway, there it is: “what in the actual fuck.” That one’s mine.

I’d read the article. I’d seen one of those first tweets and, like I always do, I’d read it for the holy grail every author is looking for: the secret to writing a successful book without wanting to papercut yourself to death with it. “I’m actually the second writer Cosmo has sent,” Ortiz noted, but for some reason her employer still made the mistake of sending someone who had worked with the subject at GQ. Or maybe that’s not a mistake. I don’t actually read Cosmo, and I suppose I should have before I announced with bravado the death of the puff piece last May. Either way, there I was, reading merrily along, then suddenly, like that tweet, I stopped. It was just a line, a line in a small, kind of out-of-place paragraph: “When I started doing the ‘I don’t get out of bed for less than $4 a word’ thing, people started paying me $4 a word.” What in the actual fuck. 

This is what it meant when I posted that quote and those words: It meant, what in the actual fuck.

It meant what fucking other freelancers in the world are making $4 a word right now. It meant what fucking magazines in the world are paying $4 a word right now. It meant what fucking lies is this industry telling us when so many people — people in actual war zones — only dream of making 50¢ a word. It meant in what fucking world can a freelancer treat $4 a word like it’s not near-impossible for the rest of us. The meaning was so obvious that I honestly didn’t think anyone would even notice the message. But they did. And they mistook it for something I didn’t mean at all: “Fuck Taffy.”

The reaction was swift and violent, and, from what I could tell, divided into those who could read (predominantly marginalized writers) and those who could not (predominantly nonmarginalized writers). My point was being illustrated in real time by the journalism industry’s 1 Percent, the mostly white legacy media reflexively rallying around one of their own — T!A!F!F!Y!! Their aggressive cheers distracting from the faceless, nameless collection of freelance writers who were not there to fight, but to have a conversation about parity — about equity — the way the original tweet was intended. These were the freelancers who, like me, had worked their asses off for years and watched disconcertingly as the better their work got, the less it seemed to get them. Unable to make a living, a number of them quit. (Blame Longreads for my recalcitrance.) Like me, they were told it wasn’t personal, but I can’t think of anything more personal than choosing to hand one person a feast while everyone else gets the scraps. Obviously journalism isn’t uniquely inequitable, but it’s particularly egregious for an industry built on telling the truth to do the complete opposite when it comes to its own mechanics. Journalists intent on exposing everyone else refuse to interrogate themselves, relegating most intel to subtweets or DMs, if it’s online at all.

This is the problem with my tweet, or, why it caused such a fuss. For one thing, I’ll cop to not being very diplomatic. In retrospect, “what in the actual fuck” is not the best way to start a conversation about pay disparity, but if we’re being honest, it’s still probably the best way to get it noticed. For another thing, I was calling out an individual who is beloved by the journalism community. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t taking issue with her personally (quid pro quo), that I was highlighting her comment as an example of a systemic issue, that it was the system I had a problem with — nope, nope, nope. What mattered was that in an industry in which it is frowned upon to even side-eye your colleagues in public, I put the word “fuck” within the vicinity of a marquee writer’s name. And I was a nobody. Which is why it became Taffy and her allies versus “the freelancers.” The dominant side had a face, the other side did not. The star reporter once again came out on top, buoyed by a nebulous mass of forgettable freelancers.

Her supporters were loud as fuck, but when you actually looked at what they were saying it literally boiled down to: Taffy Brodesser-Akner is astronomically talented, which is why she is making astronomically more than you, who are not talented, and how dare you say women should be transparent about money then punish her for doing just that, have you even seen how much men make? I mean, what in the actual fuck are you talking about? This is not about one woman. It’s not even about gender equality (for once). It’s about exploitation. For all I care, Taffy Brodesser-Akner could be Michael Lewis with his $10 a word. The point is the same either way — it’s one journalist making several (many several) times what the rest of us do in an industry in which we’re constantly being told there is nothing left to give. Clearly there is, it just happens to be reserved for an exclusive group of self-congratulatory writers and editors benefiting from a corrupt system. And if you dare point out the unfairness of their profit, the whole lot becomes reflexively defensive, distracting from the real issue because it’s their loss and everyone else’s gain if it’s ever addressed. So let’s just attribute $4 a word to a woman achieving against all odds — yaaass, queen!— and move on.

Uhm, okay, but if $4 a word makes you a queen, does that make the rest of us serfs? And why are the serfs mostly, like, LGBTQ writers, people of color, and women in independent publishing? Distressingly, some women seem to have bought into the idea that they make a lot less than certain writers because they are way less talented and hardworking, but I’m finding it hard to believe that so many marginalized writers are less talented and hardworking than so many white people. Am I suggesting the system might be rigged in favor of upwardly mobile white journalists in the vicinity of New York and their upwardly mobile white friends in the vicinity of New York who run the industry? (Could this explain why the Times reviewed its own staff writer’s book and interviewed her on top of that?) Possibly? Maybe? No? Come on! We’ve been banging on about intersectionality and privilege for the past 100 years (it feels like). Has none of that penetrated? Because if one more person suggests that maybe I should just ask for $4 next time, as though I’m not already risking assignments every time I beg for 50 cents, as though organizations aren’t systematically standing in the way of the ability to negotiate, I swear … Just take one look at that clause Vox has been slipping into their contracts, the one preventing freelancers from sharing their rates publicly in order to get better (read: fair) ones. Are you really going to argue that a system that situates the Taffys — and sure, the Michael Lewises — of the world above the rest of us, apart from us, making wads more cash for their “talent and hard work,” is in any way ethical?

I mean, you could just say nothing, which a lot of journalists did. Writers I’d been cordial with unfollowed me. Writers I thought were actual friends said nothing, which I took to be complicity with the elite journalists, whose ranks they were one day hoping to join, or maybe who they were just trying not to piss off. Writers I hung out with weren’t even sure I wasn’t just being a dick. The ones who supported me, who even DM’d me, were overwhelmingly women of color, queer women, and women who had been serially underrecognized, not to mention a couple of guys who’ve been pushed past the point of giving a fuck. On their timelines, a number of the women indicated that everything that needed to be said about the elites could be found in their mischaracterizations of the $4 a word conversation. That these women predominantly used subtweets to make that point publicly implies that, as mad as they were, they were also aware that those same elites still controlled their livelihoods. The irony is that the same people who accused me of being anti-feminist for trying to talk about pay gaps (yes, that’s as stupid as it sounds), were all over Jezebel’sThe Lie of Feminist Meritocracy.” It’s an instance of bold-faced hypocrisy I can only explain by the fact that the piece was written generally enough that they could revert to performative protest without threatening their own position in line for the brass ring.

“Hey I’ve been working all day and off Twitter. Did I miss anything?” Taffy tweeted jokingly the day after the Twitter shitstorm rolled in. A few days later, in an interview with BuzzFeed’s morning show, she called it a disservice to pay transparency, before refocusing the conversation on her emotional support network of defenders. “I had the warmest kindest weekend on Twitter, where I found out that all these people admired me and liked me. I was like, ‘I love Twitter,’” she said, concluding, “It was a really great moment for me.” The coup de grace came right at the end, when she mentioned that at the time it all went down, she’d been lonely and in a terrible hotel in Atlantic City writing a terrible story: “That could be why I get $4 a word.” Oh, girl. There are journalists actually putting their lives on the line for a shot at $1 a word, maybe, if they’re lucky. Christ. I mean, you could say I’ve got sour grapes or envy or jealousy or, I don’t know, a hysterical obsession … with … what? Basic human decency? I can’t imagine how many marginalized journalists seethed at the idea that innate ability and a little elbow grease were the reason a select few journalists made several times more than their pittance. Where was the acknowledgment that those same people were almost always friends with the gatekeepers, that those gatekeepers almost exclusively share their friends’ work, which gets them more work, which leads to better work, which gets them book deals, which leads to higher salaries, ad infinitum?

***

Taffy and I kind of came up as freelancers around the same time — we were friendly if not actually friends. Dying to do work like hers, I emailed her in 2014 and asked for advice. I explained that, despite all my efforts, I hadn’t gotten anywhere near the kinds of bylines she had and I was still struggling financially. She was generous. She mentioned being relentless and lunching with editors. So I tried harder. I even lunched with a few people. Two years later, I received an email from her out of the blue. Bright Wall/Dark Room had just published my essay on the two sides of Christian Slater. I had pitched the profile months earlier in March, but it had been turned down by a number of publications, including GQ and the Times (Taffy freelanced for both at the time). BuzzFeed had offered me $400 for 3,000 words but I said no. By the time June rolled around, even that option had passed me by, but I really wanted to write the piece so I pitched BW/DR and I took $100 for it. I asked for more, but being such a small outlet they honestly didn’t have the money. So, yeah: $100 for 3,000 words. That’s $.03 a word. I figured I wouldn’t be granted an interview with Slater, who I had followed for three decades, and for such a small fee I didn’t bother going to the trouble. But I researched to make up for it and wrote the profile anyway, partly while juggling a holiday in Tobermory — I remember everyone going out to the water while I edited in a slice of sun in the cottage. The piece went up July 11th. Taffy emailed me a day later to congratulate me — she had just gone to proof at GQ on what she described as an identical piece. She regretted coming second. That is to say, I literally had Taffy herself telling me that I had beaten her at her own game, despite playing with less. Of course, she was probably paid a little more than $100. In fact, if she was already making $4 a word at the time, that would have amounted to $17,000 — 170 times my fee. As I was saying, what in the actual fuck.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

‘Women Created Our Worlds:’ Native Art Reclaims Its Power

Parka, Artic and Subarctic, ca. 1890-1910. Image: John Bigelow Taylor. Collection of Minneapolis Institute of Art

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | June 2019 |  7 minutes ( 2,039 words)

The final report of the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is 1,071 pages of 2,380 people — from survivors to their family members to community Knowledge Keepers — outlining how colonialism’s resolve to split First Nations communities from their culture has led to gendered violence that continues to this day. “To put an end to this tragedy, the rightful power and place of women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people must be reinstated, which requires dismantling the structures of colonialism within Canadian society,” one commissioner said. “This is not just a job for governments and politicians. It is incumbent on all Canadians to hold our leaders to account.” That involves voting for those (preferably Indigenous, preferably female) politicians who support this dismantling, not to mention hiring Indigenous women, especially for positions of power. Instead, Canadians quibbled over whether or not the whole thing could be categorized as a genocide. The response was a chef’s kiss, a perfect example for why the inquiry had to be conducted in the first place: Indigenous women, women who originally had as much power as men, who imbued their community’s art with this power, are universally overlooked. Except this time it’s in the public record.

A third of the people cited in the report were allowed to testify in the form of art, which ended up in the National Inquiry’s Legacy Archive, a collection of more than 340 pieces by more than 800 people that serves as a historical record of myriad Indigenous identities. “We characterize these expressions, through art, as the act of ‘calling forth,’” the report explained. “This includes calling forth the legacies of those who no longer walk among us; calling forth awareness that leads to concrete action.” Calling forth also confronts the embarrassing (and persistent) colonial tradition of ignoring Indigenous voices. Of, for instance, starting public events by acknowledging the First Nations land on which they are being held, but without actually providing the First Nations people much of a space for their work. But Indigenous artists, women in particular, are refusing to be shut out; see the recently announced Netflix partnership with three Indigenous Canadian organizations or the first major North American retrospective of Native women’s work, Hearts of Our People, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. “It has to be said that none of our communities need an exhibition at a fancy art museum to tell them that their women are important and what their women do is important,” cocurator Teri Greeves tells me. “This exhibition needs to happen in an art museum for the broader audience so, hopefully — my prayer — that they understand what we’ve always known, [which] is that these women created our worlds.”

* * *

A quick Canadian history lesson for those of us who only remember Louis Riel and that book by Tomson Highway: The white settlers, armed with Christian patriarchy and blunderbusses, entered Indigenous communities hundreds of years ago and saw matrilineal societies in which power and money were passed down through women, and they were like, wha? They saw men and women with complementary roles that were equally respected and were like, wait … ? Then they saw women as advisors and policymakers and that was it. Civilization said women were designed to pump out babies and keep house and these Natives were fucking it all up with progress. So in order to convince everyone these people were better off with him, the white man came up with some bullshit about there being two kinds of Native women, the pure Pocahontas types who had the good sense to want to be civilized (read: subservient), and the Squaw, whose off-the-chain libido had to be contained in order to protect the settlers’ fragile morality (guess the ball-busting bitch wasn’t sexy enough to get her own stereotype). As laughably reductive as all of this was, it had staying power. “The myth of the deviant Aboriginal women continues to plague us, reinforced by dominant cases that coalesce prostitution and Aboriginal women into a single entity,” Lubicon Cree scholar Robyn Bourgeois said in 2011. “Contemporary Canadian society dismisses violence against Aboriginal women and girls today on the basis of these perceived deviances.”

The Indian Act officially cut down women by shifting all of their power — political, financial, familial — to men. Until 1985, First Nations women could only really define themselves through a man. Even when women were the breadwinners, their rights and recognition remained limited. Instead they became the target of their men’s resentment, and their wider invisibility made them highly vulnerable to serial killers like Robert Pickton. Convicted of murdering six women in 2007, he admitted to killing 49 in total, having preyed predominantly on sex workers on the east side of Vancouver, a group in which Indigenous women were overrepresented — another reflection of the obstacles faced by the community. For more than a decade, activist groups like the Native Women’s Association of Canada have been unofficially tracking missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. According to the National Inquiry, they are 12 times more likely than other Canadian women to be killed or disappeared. But it wasn’t until 2016, a year after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report advised it, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau launched the national inquiry. (In the U.S., meanwhile, since 2017 lawmakers have been attempting to pass Savanna’s Act, which would establish a law enforcement database to track disappearances.)

“The borders between the U.S. and Canada weren’t created by indigenous people, but by outside influences,” Jill Ahlberg Yohe, cocurator of Hearts of Our People, told The Guardian earlier this month. “All this work is connected to our history, whether it was made in 1500 or 2019.” Several years ago she asked Kiowa bead artist Teri Greeves to advise on a different exhibit, and out of their conversations came the realization that Native women’s art, as a whole, had never been surveyed. “She was shocked by this,” Greeves tells me. “I was not.” Greeves’s mother had a trading post for more than 25 years where her daughter noticed that the women on their reservation made everything. It turned out the iconic Native American art — beadwork, baskets, ceramics, textiles — was a way for these women to communicate. Greeves’s mother, who her daughter refers to as a “Native fashionista,” looked for literature on these textiles but found nothing. So she conducted her own research and put on educational fashion shows everywhere from museums to the YMCA. But it was more than fashion, just like the ceramics and the baskets were more than housewares. “There are layers of meaning in all this stuff,” says Greeves, “and if that’s what you mean by art with a capital A then, yes, that’s what our ladies are doing, they’re making art.”  

Not that any gentlemen cared. At the turn of the century, concerned that the destruction of Native culture would mean the destruction of Native art, a bunch of institutions sent students to save it. (Apparently the people who made the art were less important — artists were rarely, if ever, identified.) These young men all went to the same places and gathered the same objects, which is why so many of us can only call to mind a few types of Native art — Sioux warrior shirts, for instance — while the real scope is more vast and variable. (Alongside Canada’s 600+ First Nations, there are 577 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States.) The collectors also dealt primarily with men, even though the women were making most of the work being sold to the white man. “If they weren’t even seeing their own white women,” says Greeves, “how were they seeing the Native women?” Today, when you walk through Native collections in museums and galleries the (limited range of) objects are often only identified by tribes, but were largely made by women. “It’s just that no one’s said it,” says Greeves.

But over the past few years, Canada’s art institutions have started to. In 2014, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights exhibited Winnipeg-based Métis artist Jaime Black’s REDress Project, an installation made up of donated red dresses that symbolize missing and murdered Indigenous women. First created in 2010, it has since traveled to the Smithsonian and red dresses have become a recognized symbol in Canada of this exploited population. In 2017, the National Gallery of Canada established the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, which house almost 800 works, while Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario launched a department for Canadian and Indigenous art. Retrospectives of the works of Annie Pootoogook, Rebecca Belmore, and Christi Belcourt followed, and last year a nationwide project, “Resilience,” included 167 billboards exhibiting the work of 50 female artists. Film and television have been slower to adapt — Netflix just announced the cancellation of Chambers, their only original series (and one of my favorites) starring a Native American lead, San Carlos Apache actress Sivan Alyra Rose. In Canada, however, Indigenous Screen Office (ISO) associate director Kerry Swanson says that the Truth and Reconciliation report was “a watershed that shifted the dialogue.” The ISO was formed two years after that and this month — seven days before Chambers got the axe — Netflix unveiled a partnership with the ISO, ImagineNATIVE and Wapikoni Mobile. The deal involves six initiatives for First Nations producers, directors, and screenwriters, which wasn’t necessarily out of the goodness of Netflix’s heart — it was part of their five-year $375 million agreement with the federal government, which includes $19 million to develop Canadian talent.

Twelve Canadians will also be included among the 115 artists making up the millennium-spanning Hearts of Our People retrospective. Asked around five years ago to help curate the collection, Greeves, despite being an artist (not a curator), said yes in order to continue her mother’s legacy. But because she could not speak for other Indigenous groups, and because, not being an elder, she couldn’t even speak for her own, Greeves and Yohe gathered 21 artists and academics, mostly Native, to circumvent the trap of curatorial tokenism: “Museums are colonial institutions, so we’re working within a format that is set up to not listen, and we’re all aware of it because we’ve all been silenced.” With no men present, recreating the gendered spaces they form on their own reservations, the women felt comfortable enough to freely exchange ideas. The result was a show organized into three loose themes: Legacy, Relationships, and Power. The first refers to the knowledge passed down through generations, the second to the relationships that include but also extend beyond the natural world, and the third to the power of Indigenous women, in all areas of life.

* * *

When you think about what art’s supposed to be — how much it should mean — and then you think about Native art and how its meaning transcends not only us, but also space and time, it starts to look like it belongs in galleries and museums more than anything else. Not only was each work of the past sacred, but each existed to be disseminated; Indigenous work was not generally considered the property of any one individual. What it does need, however, are women, because women are the keepers of its history. If they disappear, the art disappears and vice versa. Each work not only serves to preserve Native history, but the voice of the woman who makes it and all the women who came before her. “When I go to make something, I am praying on it,” Greeves tells me. She prays for the animals that gave up their lives for the materials she uses, for the person she is making the work for, for where it goes after that, the same way the women did before her: “When I look at the historic stuff, what I know is that all that stuff was made in prayer.” And when you look at all of that work together, when you acknowledge that you don’t know about the culture that is all around you, that the pieces the women have poured themselves into are teaching you what you thought you knew, the voices of Indigenous women become so loud they’re no longer possible to ignore.  

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

The View From 5-Foot-3 (and a Half)

Illustration by Homestead

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | June 2019 |  9 minutes (2,497 words)

Okay, I’m not even that short, but I just watched Reese Witherspoon get called “untrustworthy” on Big Little Lies for being 5-foot-1 so I have to talk about it. I’m actually 2.5 inches taller than she is — I’m aware that insisting on that half inch makes me sound like a pedantic asshole — but that’s still short enough that when I lost half an inch it felt like a betrayal. I don’t know where that half inch went; all I know is that one day I was 5-foot-4, and the next I was 5-foot-3-and-a-half. Who cares, right? Terry Gross is 4-foot-11 and recently interviewed Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who is 5-foot-9 and asked the Fresh Air host if being short affected her. I could basically hear Gross’s shrug through the microphone. And same. But now that I think about it, that’s a heavy shrug.

Witherspoon was disparaged by Meryl Streep, who was playing the mother of a man who abused his wife. In a sense, the former was representing feminism; the latter internalized misogyny — that unpleasant habit we have of acting out sexism despite ourselves. What’s interesting is that most of us don’t actually need a Streep to do it. We’re pretty good at hacking away at our own self confidence, conjuring imaginary competitions with other women, isolating ourselves from them, all of which has the self-sabotaging effect of perpetuating the behavior that keeps us down. It’s not really about height, but height is as good a marker as any for how the world sees us and how we see the world (and ourselves in it) — in other words, for how trustworthy 5-foot-3-and-a-half becomes.

* * *

In the Big Little Lies scene in question, Madeline (Witherspoon) is at a coffee shop and notices Mary Louise (Streep), the mother of the guy she saw getting pushed to his death last season (it’s a soap). The way Madeline’s holding her muffin, that blush-pink blouse with the bow and the matching makeup and the black cardigan — she looks like such a lady who lunches. A small lady. While she is phonily consoling the older woman, Mary Louise suddenly exclaims, “You’re very short.” The face Witherspoon makes is perfect. She says, “Excuse me?” but with her head a little down so it looks like her entire face is puckered and she’s time traveled back to eighth grade when she was a 13-year-old girl saying, “What did you say, bitch?” to some bitch. Mary Louise kind of backtracks but not really: “I find” — somehow Streep manages here to look down at Witherspoon while looking up at her — “little people to be” — at this Streep ever so slightly toggles her head back and forth like she’s not tossing off a total insult — “untrustworthy.”  

There’s a lot going on here, chiefly the clashing of present and past: Madeline is now, Mary Louise is then. You’ve got this younger woman who watched as her best friend’s abusive husband was killed, then covered it up without losing much sleep because he was a piece of shit and the (fictional) world is better off without him. Then you’ve got this older woman, the mother of the abuser, who believes her son was done wrong, not realizing that he was the one doing all the wrong. So, really, if you want to be Feminism 101 about it, this is the patriarchy confronting feminist progress and trying to subvert it. But it’s a lot easier to fight that when you’ve got Streep right in front of you than when she’s in your head.

I don’t think I’ve ever been reduced to my height like this, but it often defines how I think of myself. As a child I was often one of the smallest in my class, and while I would’ve preferred to be one of the tallest, at least I wasn’t one of the kids you don’t even mention. Like being short meant being original. Like at least I owned one superlative — if not the smartest or prettiest — and it wasn’t one that was obviously bad, like being the dumbest or the meanest (although the latter I kind of liked too). I think that all came less from my actual stature and more from wherever my shoddy self-esteem did. I saw my shortness as a stand-in for the interesting personality I was pretty sure I didn’t have. It was like a flipped Napoleon complex, which isn’t about his height — he was 5-foot-7! — but about being compelled by what you perceive as a disadvantage to overcompensate by being outsize in some other way. My perceived disability was that I was invisible, so I outsized the meaning of my shortness. (By the time I grew out of my height defining my originality, I was memorable for other things. Like my sparkling personality.)

We aren’t a very tall family, but it’s always made sense to me that the men are bigger than the women, like that’s how it’s supposed to be, Darwin-style. The women are dainty and elegant and the men can be whatever the fuck they want — they’re taller, just like they’re smarter. So from the start, height was a moral issue, and if there was a discrepancy between mine and any other girl’s, there was a problem with one of us. Every time I’d see a much taller girl I’d think, Jesus Christ, thank God I’m doing one thing right. As if it were a conscious decision I’d made, as if I had anything to do with how I looked. It’s gone the opposite way in adulthood; whenever I’m in a room with a taller woman, I feel way less visible. Actually, that’s a nice way of saying I feel like shit. I feel like a farmhand from the Middle Ages or like some dumpy nursemaid from *waves absently* that same era — an uneducated unsophisticated plebe. The best women — richer, smarter, prettier‚ are all tall and thin and long-limbed and I’m a runt.

Knowing that all of this has to do with historic myths about gender and health and beauty — not to mention that I literally cannot find a pair of pants I don’t have to hem — creates the shoe paradox, which is a thing I just made up but which is also very real. It’s the feeling of being very riot grrrl when you wear any sort of flat “unfeminine” shoe like a Converse or a Doc, like you are embracing your deficiency of not performing femininity appropriately (come to think of it, this is kind of an addendum to that short-being-original thing). The paradox comes in when you suddenly decide to wear heels, which don’t make you feel like a traitor but, on the contrary, imbue you with even more power because you are no longer suffering from that nonexistent deficiency. It makes no sense to me either, but then neither do the rules of a patriarchal society.

I’m not sure how much my outspokenness has to do with how I look as opposed to how I feel, but my size appears to affect how people react to it and, sort of, how I do too. Basically, I have this idea of myself as a bulldog-chihuahua, some small, pugnacious cartoon animal — growing up, my aunt called me chooha, or mouse, because I squeaked — like a fightercock with no real power. Scrappy. It seems like a lot of guys see me that way too, as endearingly mouthy but ultimately unthreatening. It has the dual effect of being simultaneously flattering and demeaning. That extends to my perceived helplessness, too. On planes I’ll be reaching for my bag in the overhead compartment and some dude will stretch over me and grab it, then smile like I’m an adorable idiot in a losing battle that he would’ve just as happily laughed at but decided on chivalry instead. I know that’s what some of them think, because it’s sometimes what I think when I’m helping someone smaller than me. When I have to ask for some item in a store that’s on an unreachable shelf, I hear myself invariably flirting with the clerk and it feels triumphant that there’s a reason to allow a (preferably hotter) person to help me. And I hate myself for it.

When I’m alone with a guy who’s bigger than me, regardless of how he looks or even how stupid he might be, I’m instinctually deferential. I thought this was weird until my editor just noted that it’s “a pretty understandable safety mechanism, no?” YES (although now I am actually questioning how stupid I am). (Ed. note: not remotely stupid.) But I think it also has to do with my even more problematic ingrained belief that most men are smarter than me (I know, I know) as well as being stronger than me (generally true). So height, regardless of the other person’s agency, becomes this zone of self-reflection where ultimately the shorter I am the less substantial I am. But then there’s the boyfriend paradox, which is not unlike the shoe paradox. I’m dating a guy right now who’s 5-foot-10, which means that when we hold hands, I can only really comfortably grab his last two fingers — yeah, it’s cute — but that also means that hugging him, because he can envelope me, feels more secure. The paradox here is finding comfort in belittling myself, which, magically, works no matter the height. I dated a guy who was 5-foot-6 and thinner than me — “I’m indie thin!” — and while hugging him felt more equal, the fact that he was thinner than me was more noticeable because we were basically the same size, which was like facing a constant living reminder that I’m unable to not be fat. The point being that internalized misogyny ensures that YOU WILL NEVER WIN.

Being a short woman in a group of women can make me as self-conscious as being a short woman in a group of men. With men I’m always struggling to be heard, although I don’t know how much that has to do with being short and how much that has to do with just being a woman. It’s fucking annoying and either makes me louder than usual or more quiet. Women don’t have to do anything to diminish me, they just have to be standing there. Most of my friends are about the same height as me, but when I’m with one who’s much taller I always feel like Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy — you know, the con man greaser who wheels and deals. I have no idea why I think I look like Dustin Hoffman. No, I do; it’s because I have this conception of myself as small and savvy and naughty and taller women generally as a bit more, well, Jon Voight as naive gigolo. It’s funny because when I’m with someone the same height as me, I’m less conscious of how I look; I’m not an outlier, so it’s a nonissue.

None of this has literally anything to do with who any of us actually are. It has to do with the false ideas I (we) have of myself in the presence of men and other women and the false ideas I (we) have of men and other women and how those things work together to make me (us) self-destruct.

Ironically, the Ratso Rizzo thing probably also comes from my unwillingness to be overlooked. I’m very much “I’m walkin’ here!” when someone taller stands in front of me at a concert or sits right in front of my face at a movie theater. It’s usually a man and I usually want to stab him for being inconsiderate even if he isn’t aware. BE AWARE! Speaking of stabbing, I’m not actually short enough for my height to determine how safe I feel. I think I would feel as unsafe alone at night with a man walking behind me even if I were 6 feet tall, because I assume men are stronger than me regardless of their size. What I do notice is that I have intense anxiety in a crowd that I might not have if I were able to see over everyone’s head. I remember this psychologist relating my anxiety to my size. She said that she commonly got small women coming in and she compared us to small birds or squirrels — you know, how they’re skittish and their hearts beat really fast? Because they’ll basically be trampled or eaten if they don’t have hyperawareness. Maybe that’s what reads as untrustworthy in shorties, their lack of trust in not being stomped.  

* * *

A few scenes after the “untrustworthy” one in Big Little Lies, Madeline bumps into Mary Louise again in her real estate office because this is a soap and everyone’s always bumping into everyone else. Madeline has since exchanged her black flats for a pair of grapefruit stilettos, and Mary Louise notices: “I see you’re wearing heels.” At that Madeline confronts her about being an asshole and Mary Louise apologizes and explains that she had some shitty best friend in boarding school (of course) who made her this way: “She was just an itty-bitty little thing with a big bubbly personality that was designed to hide that she was utterly vapid inside. You remind me so much of her and I suppose I punish you for that.” Witherspoon’s face, again. And Streep, again, does this great thing, where, when Witherspoon basically tells her to eff off and walks away, Streep gives her shoes another look and chuckles, with an “Oh, sweetie” cock of the head. Like the idea that Madeline could transcend who she is is endearingly pathetic.

At the risk of playing into the sexist tradition of pitting women against one another, there’s a frustrating feeling that Mary Louise — who is only five inches taller, by the way — has won. That her misogyny has insinuated itself into Madeline to the point that she has actually changed the way she looks in order to appease it. But it’s only a short (ha) stay. Madeline later comes to the rescue of her best friend, Celeste, who is Mary Louise’s daughter-in-law, who vaguely gestures to some kind of emergency. Mary Louise, distraught, asks, “What kind of an emergency?” To which Madeline shruggingly replies, “The kind short people have?” As Madeline walks away you notice she’s wearing running shoes. I love how the connection between two women — Madeline and Celeste — can act as a shield against sexism (in this case, Mary Louise’s). Would that we could all be that strong. Which makes me think of the poll I tweeted asking how tall everyone thought I was. The majority answered 5-foot-5, almost the same height as Streep. I’m not going to pretend that doesn’t make me feel better, but I’m working on it.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.