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

So Much More Than Enough

Hulu

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2020 | 10 minutes (2,564 words)

Lynn Shelton was the kind of artist no one asked for, but the only one you really wanted. The kind of person who was so good — so empathetic, so altruistic, so honorable — her work couldn’t help but be good in all the same ways. But in the face of what film became — a monstrous inequitable monopoly — she played too kind, too female, too independent, too old. When Shelton died suddenly on May 15 at only 54, from a blood disorder no one knew she had, artists more famous than her surfaced one after the other to remember her flawless reputation and critic after critic emerged to fawn over her career. It was so familiar, all those people so quick to praise in private but almost never in public, until, you know, it kind of doesn’t matter anymore. The reality was that Shelton had made eight films, directed countless television series, and still had to audition for jobs even when she knew the people giving them. The reality was that she had to work in TV to pay for the work she really wanted to do. The reality was that people in the industry knew her name, but no one outside of it did. “The main reason women make inroads in independent film is that no one has to say, ‘I pick you,’” she told The Los Angeles Times in 2014. “I’m not pounding on anybody’s door. I’m just making my own way.” 

As existence increasingly became exhibitionism, Shelton made being a private success — being a good person making good work — more valuable than being a public one. Which is why I loved her more than any other artist around. Because it wasn’t just about loving her films, it was about loving her as a filmmaker, as a woman. Because, somehow, over two decades, she was always pure independence — fervent, uncompromising, relentless and humble, humble, humble — despite the constant pressure to be otherwise. Because, to me, she was the only kind of artist to be.
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On the Hotness of Not Getting Any

DryWrite / HBO, Element Pictures / BBC

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2020 | 10 minutes (2,500 words)

Isolation is horny as fuck. Not for everyone, obviously, but if you’re single and you live alone. . . I mean, I have never thought this much about sex in my life. Not even in high school. Although this does kind of feel like high school: snacking, jerking off, sort-of working, snacking, jerking off. Or maybe we’re regressing to a point in history when we were exclusively driven by our basest instincts: horny, hungry, trying not to die. In between we binge-stream. And through this fogged up lockdown-induced lens, the horniness of what we are watching is compounded by our own.

Normal People is the big one. The Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s critically felated millennial romance is softcore for hipsters: an outcast girl and a sensitive jock, both of them equally brilliant (of course), having some messy, bildungsroman-style sex over the years (to Imogen Heap, in Malick-ian light) like that’s all the world is. The sex is hot, but everything that happens right before it is hotter. All that staring, all that sizzle — by the time they actually do it, it’s almost an afterthought. Almost. The same goes for Run, the HBO series by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s creative partner, Vicky Jones, about two ex-lovers fleeing their lives to the kind of loin-tingling wit that got us through the Hays Code. Here, once again, the foreplay is the sex. Then there’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the French period piece in which two women, with their eyes alone, strip, fuck, and share a cigarette before they physically do all three.

This is the kind of hot — leg-crossing, side-eying — where you don’t have to say it out loud, you feel it. The kind of hot spun by women from Europe, where sex doesn’t have the same moral implications it does in America. But more than that, it’s a hotness related to a wider move toward women reclaiming their own stories, their own sex. We all know by now that sex under the male gaze tends to objectify women — hotness, in the hands of men, is predominantly naked women getting fucked. Permission is neither here nor there. Under the female gaze, sure, naked women get fucked too, but there’s also enthusiastic consent. Great sex is not orgasm upon orgasm so much as agreement upon agreement, through looks and gestures and breaths and talk — the personification of ongoing accord, no permission slips or questions necessary. The point being that sex isn’t sexy unless it’s between people, not just their bodies; people who change their minds as well as their positions. In isolation, where you have nothing to do but wait for it, it only makes you hotter to watch not only the physical restraint and psychological tease, but every move, every look, every word that says “Yes!” before it’s screamed aloud.

* * *

I have no idea where or when I first heard the term “edging,” but I think it was a couple of years ago. I recall being told that it came from teenagers who used it to describe holding off orgasm deliberately to make it that much stronger in the end, a kind of pleasure binge that seemed to fit that generation (if everything sucks, might as well overdose on suckage). Which is not to say that climax control is new; it goes back to Tantric and Taoist traditions, where it’s less about splooging as hard as you can and more about a kind of physical transcendence. But the idea of mindful sex, of really feeling everything — together — instead of just trying to get yourself off as quickly as possible, didn’t really hit conservative America until the sixties. Masters of Sex reintroduced us to William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the couple responsible for the huge human sexuality study published in 1966 that identified the four-stage sex response: excitement (arousal), plateau (pre-orgasm), orgasm, resolution (post-orgasm). Of course, it turned out that cycle was generally reserved for men, while women across the country were left dissatisfied (and often pregnant). But the sixties and seventies brought heightened awareness of women’s rights along with heightened awareness of sexuality.

Enter edging. “Understanding this new kind of orgasm can be especially difficult for men. When it comes to pleasure, women are the first in line.” This comes from the worryingly titled Extended Massive Orgasm by Vera and Steve Bodansky, a 2002 addition to a slew of slow masturbation and one-hour-orgasm how-to books, all of which fall under the rubric of edging. The Bodanskys emphasize being fully present — fully engaged with yourself and your partner — and aware that the mechanics of sex are not the sole source of pleasure. A human being has a psychological as well as a physical self, and sex also has both elements; eye contact, verbalizing, variations in touch, and breathing responsively aren’t requirements for ejaculation, but they definitely make it more agreeable. Which is why the Bodansky book, somewhat patronizingly, addresses men the way it does. Because sex has been generally dictated by men, it has generally served them and them alone. Putting women first doesn’t mean men are neglected, it means women aren’t.

But Hollywood is still predominantly run by men and men predominantly run it the old way when it comes to heat (erotic thrillers were a brief light at the end of the tunnel, but then the tunnel just kept going). Think of Game of Thrones or anything on Starz: what passes for hot, once again, is conventionally beautiful women with no clothes on being bent over. The physical part may be there, but the psychological part, not to mention the consent, is not. Which is why reality series like Too Hot to Handle (contestants win by not touching) and Love Is Blind (contestants get together before seeing each other) are not particularly orgasmic, though they are positioned as the perfect pandemic watch. The payoff of edging requires real chemistry and it helps to have some real stakes thrown in.

Which is not to say it can’t be fictional. There are nine sex scenes in Normal People. Actually, there are more than nine, but there are nine between the two superficially polar-opposite teens we follow from high school to college. (There are only 12 episodes). Try finding a story about Normal People that doesn’t mention its horniness. You can’t; horniness defines it. Obviously, being particularly susceptible in lockdown to anything related to the possibility of sex has affected how we respond to it, but this is also the kind of hotness that transcends pandemics. Let me explain, with Connell and his little chain.

Connell (Paul Mescal) isn’t just hot because he looks like an animated version of Michelangelo’s David, he’s hot because he looks like an animated version of Michelangelo’s David and is shy. He is hot because he is entirely uncomfortable in his own skin despite inhabiting skin in which he should be entirely comfortable — he is a super-smart, super-handsome, super-athletic white man; how much better can he have it? Connell is hot because despite all of that, he can’t stop staring at the guileless-verging-on-neurodivergent-poor-man’s-Anne-Hathaway Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) when Marcia Brady (that’s not her name, but does she ever look like her) can’t stop staring at him. He is hot because he is charmed as fuck when Marianne, during their second kiss, blurts out the “guy” question: “Now can we take our clothes off?” He is hot because he gives Marianne an out during her first time. He is hot because he takes Marianne’s advice about his future. He is hot because he is inconsolable when he realizes how badly he has treated her by keeping them secret. Connell is hot because as much as Marianne is at his mercy, he is even more at hers.

And the sex scenes in Normal People are hot because the director realizes all of this — that the hotness is as much in everyone’s heads as it is in their bodies. “In some movies, they treat sex scenes like they treat car chases or gun fights, like an opportunity to try a different form of filmmaking,” Lenny Abrahamson told the Irish magazine Hot Press. “How I shot, if we were moving from dialogue to sex, there’s no point where we enter a different dimension, it’s just a continuation of their interaction.” The way the show is filmed, the confined settings, the proximity of the camera to their faces, their eyes — all of it magnifies the intimacy. But it isn’t just in the shooting, it’s also in the choreography. With the help of intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, every frisson between Connell and Marianne — from every long gaze and every small touch to all that heavy breathing in flagrante — coalesces into an intoxicating six-hour expression of the fluid physical connection between two characters whose psychological connection (whose verbal agreement, even) came first. It’s like nothing else exists but them. These two are entirely in it with each other.

While Run is less about what’s in their heads than what’s coming out of their mouths, its not-so-brief encounter on a train has a similarly close-quartered intimacy. The HBO series stars Merritt Wever as Ruby, a wife and mom of two, and Domhnall Gleeson as Billy, a Jordan Peterson type. The two exes reunite after 15 years on a cross-country trip to escape their lives. She has her family to lose, he has his book deal. The stakes are slightly uneven, but their banter is not: their edgeplay is their wordplay. Like Normal People, the camera stays close to the two lovers who are already confined in their seats (and, later, “roomette”) shoulder to shoulder, face to face, almost mouth to mouth. Just like we do, they become so hot off each other’s proximity that they are forced to take breaks to secretly masturbate in the bathroom. Both of them. Separately.

But here again, as in Normal People, the woman ultimately has all the power. With a family back home, this is Ruby’s encounter to take or leave, not Billy’s. It is her thirst that fuels the ride, not his. “I turned up to have sex,” she says. And later, “I want to fuck you… now.” These exclamations are all the more pregnant for the person saying them — Wever herself has admitted she did not see herself as a lead in a rom-com (Gleeson had already done About Time). And yet here she is not only in one, but subverting it. A man admitting he wants to fuck a woman who might not want to fuck him isn’t transgressive, it’s a cliché. But a woman admitting she wants to fuck a man (more conventionally attractive than she is, more successful, more single) who might reject her? That’s hot. So will he say yes? Do we even need him to anymore? “Holding back on the sex was always something we knew we had to do,” creator Vicky Jones told Refinery29. “Because it’s not really a will-they-won’t-they, since they do. It’s, will they have sex and how?” But with foreplay this good, the sex can’t help but be an anti-climax.

That upending convention, that the woman dominates really, suggests why the queen of edging is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a queer love story by a queer filmmaker (Céline Sciamma) about a painter named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and her subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). There is no dilution here by the well-trod tropes of male sexuality, there is only a pair of  women drowning in each other. The female gaze turns in on itself as Marianne’s view of Héloïse becomes ours. The film’s title summons the slow burn of their relationship, with every new plateau advancing so achingly slowly — Marianne even seeks consent before repositioning Héloïse’s arm as she sits for her, which is the first time they touch — that every act, when it comes, is that much more extreme, the whole thing mimicking that aforementioned menacing “massive extended orgasm.” It takes 13 minutes for the heroines to meet, despite being in the same house, and even then, one of them is only introduced from behind in a black head-to-toe cloak, a funereal tease. This is no meet-cute; it’s the slowest reveal ever, with her cloak fluttering in the breeze until a mess of blond strands escape, which almost make you gasp despite yourself, before the whole hood falls to expose the back of a blond head. And then, suddenly, the faceless woman is running to her death, we think, until she stops right at the edge of a cliff and, abruptly, turns, her flushed face, her great blue eyes, downplaying the grand mort to a petit mort. “I’ve dreamt of that for years,” Héloïse says breathlessly, post-coitally. A pure distillation of the female apex, no wonder the French, their sexual legacy defined by males, thought the film wasn’t erotic enough.

* * *

The hottest scene in Normal People, ergo the hottest scene of my isolation, doesn’t actually include an orgasm. And it, fittingly, takes a while, not arriving until near the end of the second half of the series, which was directed by Hettie Macdonald. Now in college, no longer dating, Connell and Marianne are sort-of-not-really watching some sports game in Connell’s hot, cramped childhood room in a haze of hormones. Everything is sweating. She stares at him. He stares at the screen. She pretends to sleep. He gets up. “Want some ice cream?” He goes, she stays. He returns. It’s not ice cream, it’s penis-shaped rocket popsicles. And the room is dripping in sex. When Marianne stretches out her bare feet to his end of the bed, I squeak. She says she wants him to kiss her. He says he does too — the pain on his face! — but they always end badly and he doesn’t want to lose her friendship. Fuck. She gets up to leave, telling him not to drop her off at home ‘cause he’ll miss the rest of the match. Olive branch: “I forgot there was a match on, to be honest.” Game on.

Even though the sex is ultimately abandoned (I won’t spoil it), it doesn’t matter. This prelude is more satisfying than 99 percent of the orgasms I’ve ever watched. Despite all the sexual tension, the woman still ultimately commands the room. Theirs and ours. In that Hot Press interview, director Lenny Abrahamson, who shot the first six episodes, laughed perversely about the show coming out during a worldwide pandemic. “You start to miss the human touch, people’s skin — and that is all over the show,” he said. “God help everybody!” But it wasn’t Abrahamson behind the episode I’m talking about, it was a woman. And while it’s true that thirst can hurt, it can also take the edge off, as that scene choreographed by three women — conceived of by Rooney, directed by Macdonald, managed by O’Brien — proves. No one finished, but it wasn’t about that. Because all the elements were there, all that want and all that permission. And that was enough for me, if for no one else. And what was that line again? “When it comes to pleasure, women are the first in line.”

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

What Happens If I Don’t Like Fiona Apple?

Getty / Photo illustration by Longreads

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2020 | 10 minutes (2,481 words)

Even the way I first listened to Fetch the Bolt Cutters was oppositional. It wasn’t intentional. I knew I needed about an hour to listen to it all the way through. I knew I couldn’t really do anything else in order to give it my attention. So I took Fiona Apple’s inside record outside. At four in the afternoon in Toronto, the sun was piercing and it was open-coat weather, a strange way to listen to Apple’s nicotine voice and bedroom lyrics. Walking in the middle of a day so bright I needed to squint even through sunglasses, “Fetch the bolt cutters/I’ve been in here too long,” bounced out of my headphones, a jazzy paradox. As everyone knows by now, the album was made by a shut-in, a “messianic figurehead,” according to the New Yorker, who hadn’t produced an album in eight years. A backstory all the better for conjuring the image of a mythical genius at work on an inevitable masterpiece.

I didn’t get it.

Claustrophobia is the overarching theme, even if it isn’t, of the album that came out of Apple’s exile. And during a crisis in which we all feel that same thing, it was inevitable that the concept would eclipse the music itself. It’s also understandable that not answering Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ call would feel particularly alienating — Slate music critic and Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste author Carl Wilson, who I contacted for this column in befuddlement, said that even he was surprised by how much attention Apple’s fifth album was getting. But in the present atmosphere, with physical connection forbidden, every other kind of connection becomes that much stronger. A man singing on his balcony in Rome unites a building, and a woman pounding on a piano in her home in Venice Beach unites the rest of us. Most of us. In normal times, having the dissenting opinion is a point of pride. In pandemic times, where all you want is to not be alone, it’s a cause for concern. Which is why it felt so important to figure out why I didn’t much like Fetch the Bolt Cutters.

* * *

Technically I started listening to Apple’s album before that walk. Motivated by the unanimous praise, I went to YouTube and played the first track, “I Want You to Love Me.” But the second I heard whatever that sound is, I don’t know, a keyboard and cymbals chucka-chucka-chucka-ing, I thought, “Fuck, no.” I am not listening to that experimental shit. Later, in a more studious frame of mind, I persisted. And after about 20 seconds, that sound liquefied into a cascade of piano trills which would be familiar to any ‘90s Apple-ite. At the risk of sounding reductive, this is kind of how Fetch the Bolt Cutters goes if you aren’t feeling it; verses of relief surrounded by weird shit that plays like the opposite of an actual melody. In between hangs the kind of Apple-isms that have always clanged in my ear — mouthfuls of the kind of poetry that was once limited to high school but now stalks us all on Instagram — not to mention the insufferable repetition of words and phrases and the obnoxious holding of never-ending notes like “youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.” At the end of “I Want You to Love Me,” Apple discharges a lengthy, high-pitched throat warble that reminds me of Andie MacDowell’s dolphin-like vocalization in the 1991 Bruce Willis flop Hudson Hawk, a squall that causes Sandra Bernhard to sneer listlessly, “Just shoot her.”

I’m not going to make you suffer through much more of my non-critical thinking around music, but there’s definitely a sensation with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, if you listen to it from start to finish, of a knot being untied, of the songs relaxing into something more digestible as you pass the halfway mark (Editor’s note: “Are the songs relaxing into something more digestible, or are you relaxing into the songs?” Author’s note: It’s not me, it’s her). What doesn’t morph is the subject matter, which, restricted as it seems to Apple’s interpersonal grievances, seems all too confined for a project that was already confined in its production. The whole thing just struck me as too insular for how sweepingly it was being lauded. And despite the claims at raw unprocessed sound, those dog barks on the title song are so strategically placed I was more tickled by the actual dogs barking behind the fence I passed while listening to it. But then you can’t deny the added texture Apple’s voice has acquired with age and her own liberation from her old song strictures. The song I momentarily hated the most on the album, for the opening repetition of its title (“Ladies,” sixteen times!), is also the one I liked the most. Despite the clunky lyrics — “ruminations on the looming effect and the parallax view” — some subterranean motor seems to power this track through the history of music, from folk to rap to whatever, sailing between genres like there’s nothing to it. When people talk of genius, when Pitchfork gives the album 10 stars, I hear a glimpse of that here.

That’s the tension. If I just thought everyone had bad taste, or was dumb, I wouldn’t be tortured by disliking Fetch the Bolt Cutters. My lack of connection to it suggested I was missing some substantial sliver of intellect, which is something I can’t abide as someone who never really feels smart enough. So I groped for a music critic to explain it to me. But if I felt alienated from this particular cultural event, critics didn’t seem too concerned about inviting me in. “She sings, scats, lightly raps — and proceeds to curl her voice into an extended-vocal contortion à la Yoko or Meredith Monk, over a Reichian piano loop, signaling an avant-garde inclination,” Jenn Pelly wrote at Pitchfork. Wait, what? That isn’t critical analysis, it’s critical flexing. At The New Yorker, Carrie Battan’s use of the term “feral authenticity” to describe Apple’s oeuvre — based on her penchant for avoiding the public —  recalled my mother’s duo-syllabic reaction to Apple (“hippie”) but not much else. So, I emailed Carl Wilson. Then I called Wilson; that’s how desperate I was for Wilson to explain what was wrong with me. “I feel a little stymied by your question,” he rightfully responded, “how can I tell you how to like something you already know you don’t like?” 

But then he proceeded to write the kind of email that should have been an article, the kind of explanation that’s the reason Wilson is my favorite music critic. That space between the music and the person listening to it? He writes the bridge. Wilson explained that the reaction to Fetch the Bolt Cutters felt “disproportionate” because of Apple’s absence for so long and because it is “of the moment in its theme and feel.” That includes its lyrics on the sort of gender issues we are currently confronting — not to mention Apple’s transcendence of musical boundaries, mixing disparate genres from cabaret to hip-hop — and that raw home-recorded style that opposes today’s ubiquitous hyper-produced singles. Wilson also noted the self-selection of music critics. And that most of the reviews I read on Apple’s album were by white women, on a beat that has famously had a dearth of female voices as a whole, does imply her music still hasn’t shaken that decades-old Lilith Fair connection. 

“Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan back when — like you, I kind of felt that she was good but not great, maybe a little too self-conscious and strained to be great,” Wilson explained. But then he heard Apple’s fourth album, The Idler Wheel…, in 2012. That’s when he thought she had finally self-actualized (upon his suggestion, I listened to that album too and, indeed, the last track, “Hot Knife,” would not sound out of place on her new record). On Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Wilson noticed the piano that Apple forefronted in the past melded into layers of rhythm and percussion and vocals, her monotonous deep bluesy voice fracturing into a wider range of pitches. “To my ears that’s really opened up the space in her style, which I used to find too suffocating,” he wrote. “It has an immediacy that I find really rare in music right now, allowing by turns for both vulnerability and rapture.”

After all of that, Wilson’s final words could have very well been all he had written: “[M]aybe you just find Fiona Apple a bit much.” The irony is that the same thing I critique her for — for being too solipsistic, for making it all too self-centered — is the same reason I can’t hear her straight. My reactions to art are as impulsive as my consumption is lonely. It’s why, ultimately, I can’t trust critics’ taste though I can trust their analysis, and why I can’t trust the artists themselves, only their art and my own experience of it. If you think about it, it’s a little crazy to believe in your gut when your gut is at least in part influenced by exposure: “acquired taste” is a thing for a reason. And yet I always seem hellbent on independently deciding on the quality of everything. If nothing else, I am entirely secure in my judgment, because, the thinking goes, I may not know much about anything else, but I know myself perfectly. 

I know, for instance, that I have a particular aversion to hippies, and that during the making of this album, Apple chanted around her house with various other musicians, banging on a box of her dead pet’s bones. I know I am intimidated by the blues and by jazz and reject them because of how stupid they make me feel, a symptom of my more general difficulty with engaging in art I don’t at least marginally understand. I know I have a particular aversion to beautiful women in the arts, because it’s never just about the art. I know this particular beautiful woman has dated powerful men — most notably the director Paul Thomas Anderson, as he got more and more famous — and that never means nothing, good or bad. And I know I resented Apple as a teen for being publicly tortured when she was publicly everything girls like me tortured ourselves for not being — good enough, but, more importantly, the right package to cover up for it (as Apple herself sings: “I resent you for never getting any opposition at all.”) I know all of this, but I feel it more.

Unfortunately, you can’t think yourself out of the way you feel.  “A lot of the record is about feeling confined, emotionally and societally,” Wilson explained, “and about thinking of ways to liberate yourself.” But had Fetch the Bolt Cutters not alienated me musically, everything around it would have. I’m skeptical of blanket accolades; that something can appeal so globally suggests a lack of originality. And I can’t escape (liberate myself from?) the fact that being told another artist has achieved perfection is, as they say, triggering. The idea that someone has unlocked everything they are capable of and created something that is so purely them that it transcends time and space, God-like, to become an indisputable piece of perfection — it’s the thing every artist wants, for all their neuroses and all their intellect and all their values to coalesce into this object that by virtue of being so essentially them is essentially the rest of us as well. It’s incredibly rare, but you see it in work like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, for instance, or Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, both of which have had the added advantage of being recognized for their greatness. But this rarity makes each new proposed addition to the canon seem less believable than the last. 

More than that, though, it plagues every other artist. Every time we hear that someone else has achieved mastery, or at least been recognized for achieving it, we’re reminded that we haven’t and likely never will (let alone be acknowledged for doing so). That’s the deepest feeling of isolation for an artist of all of them, that chasm between them and immortality. That’s the one they fear most that they (I) will never breach.  

* * *

I listened to Fetch the Bolt Cutters on a Spotify mix, so the album ended and then rolled into “Criminal,” Apple’s Grammy-winning 1997 single and perhaps her best known. Hearing that smooth lyrical piano and that even smoother voice felt like slipping into sweats after a long day in a pencil skirt; I think I may have sighed aloud. (Apple wrote “Criminal” when she was 17 and maybe that says something: that my music appreciation is stuck at that age.) The song, about how bad she felt for getting things so easily by virtue of her sexuality, recently resurfaced in Hustlers, with Jennifer Lopez making her entrance as stripper doyenne to Apple’s adolescent croon, “I’ve been a bad, bad girl.” That was another piece of popular culture that was unanimously praised that I was only so-so about. The difference is that I felt no tension there. I know films, and I could explain why I didn’t like Hustlers much. Because of that, because I had a reason, I allowed myself to dislike it. And until my editor mentioned it, I didn’t think that had anything to do with my gender. But now I’m starting to think it does — men never seem to require permission to opine, they don’t feel the need to be informed to do so. Which is not to say I shouldn’t — it’s to say they should. Because it means meeting a piece of art halfway, respecting the spirit in which it was made, and respecting the artist who made it.

As much as I continue to feel dissatisfied with my response to Fetch the Bolt Cutters, I’m less troubled after speaking to Wilson and researching Apple herself. A Rolling Stone profile from 1998 reminded me that when she was a kid, she carried around this quote by Martha Graham: “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” It’s the same quote I used in a column last August. And according to her New Yorker profile from March, Apple continues to display a photograph of Graham on her piano, the one she played on Fetch the Bolt Cutters. So even if I couldn’t connect to that album, I could, in a way, connect to the woman behind it, another isolated artist, unrested, just trying to keep marching.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

My Body Is Not a Temple

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2020 | 10 minutes (2,540 words)

Your bread is making me sick. I don’t have to eat it. I see it. Everywhere. In every tweet, every photo, every message. It’s spread from all over my social media feed to all over my news feed. Always that round pebbly brown and beige crust. Rustic as fuck. Even if you can’t touch it, smell it, taste it, the starter is the proof. That cement-looking mix with the gas bubbles shoved into those mason jars everyone seems to have. When I see it, all I can think is: Desperation. I think: That bread can’t save you. You will die, maybe even sooner rather than later  — despite the bread. Because that bread is made of yeast. And that yeast is alive, just as you are alive. And just as your body does, it reacts to the world unpredictably. So, if it makes you feel better, write down the exact ingredients, the precise measurements, but your recipe can’t account for random events and neither can you. As uncertain as you are that that starter will turn into that bread is as uncertain as you are that your body will survive all of this. Neither is trustworthy.

I get it. I also operate according to the delusion that I can control my body. That I created the way I look. That I deserve all the credit and all the blame. That it has nothing to do with the food industry pushing synthetic shit down my throat or the healthcare system for ignoring that fact, or anything, you know, cultural or political. That the foundation for my well being resides entirely within the four walls of my flesh. It’s the physicality of it, I guess — I inhabit it, which automatically makes it seem as though I have authority over it. But that’s where the body, the reality of it, collides with the reality of a virus. The way you can’t see it; the way it invades you, invisibly. It exposes the human body for what it really is: something that is at all times at the mercy of the unknowable. But when have we not tried to conquer the unknown? It’s human to want to survive, but humans have also created conditions in which what we conceive of as the ingredients we need to survive — the natural world, a peaceful coexistence within it — is opposed to our daily lives.

* * *

“Humans currently find themselves in a kind of alternative world. Put more simply, everyone is out for themselves. They no longer notice all the things that are wrong around them,” says the pale cachectic man with the unfortunate bangs who lives in the cabin in the woods in the German crime series Pagan Peak. “People are constantly trying to wield power over others by exploiting them. Criminals, corrupt politicians, greedy managers, unscrupulous investors. The whole rabble. These people are causing the whole system to collapse. Everything’s falling apart. And what remains?” At this point the man has moved to his doorstep with the eastern European immigrant he is speaking to, both of them looking up at the stars as the snow surrounds them: “The woods. The sky. That remains.” It all sounds very Rousseau-ian (and Herzog-ian), until you realize this same man has spent the entire series killing one person after another — a “greedy manager,” a “corrupt politician,” an influencer, and even, inadvertently, a child — as a means of re-establishing, “order between man and nature.”

It felt uncanny to watch a show I initially knew nothing about hew so closely to the current moment. To watch a story about nature’s dominion over man, man’s belief in his dominion over nature, and death after death after death, as the same narrative unravels around me. Gregor Ansbach, the man exalting the natural world while executing those who populate it, is in tech, because of course he is: he is Jeff Bezos is Jack Dorsey is Mark Zuckerberg, wealthy white tech entrepreneurs convinced they can transcend the limits of the planet. Men whose ambition of immortality extends from their professional legacies to their own physiques. You knew the homemade artisanal bread trend came from Silicon Valley, right? “Ever looking for spiritual leaders to guide them out of moral bankruptcy, and to connect them back to the offline world they had previously abandoned,” Dayna Evans wrote in Eater in 2018, “the disruptors, engineers, and tech bros of Silicon Valley and beyond had found themselves a new prophet.” 

But bread is no prophet, and it was never the point. The point is supremacy. If you can fix anything mechanical that comes your way, you can fix anything anatomical that does, right? The body is just a machine, yes? These men flex in confirmation by troubleshooting themselves just as they troubleshoot everything else; self-improvement through intermittent fasting, through silent meditation retreats, through fitness trackers. Having mastered the virtual world, the physical world they rendered redundant is now all they live for — these laymen we turned into Gods for creating proxy lives, have turned “real” life into a luxury only they can afford.

The shift toward more stasis, less action, more inside, less outside, more ordering, less making, has been a long time coming. It’s hard to know how much I have chosen this life of constant internal work — thinking, thinking, thinking — and how much I’m just succumbing to a general cultural gravitation. And yet those afforded the least time to cultivate lofty internal lives are now the ones rescuing everyone else. The doctors, the nurses, the pharmacists, the grocery store clerks, the delivery men and women, the sanitation workers. They are the only ones that we really need; the ones whose pictures have not been painted, whose music has not been composed, whose words have not been written, because of all the other work they have to do. The only work that matters, really. It’s emasculating, to feel like this — to be completely useless in the final analysis. For your only means of helping to be by doing nothing. 

At the same time, it’s hard to shake this creeping sense of betrayal. That one’s lifestyle is being pathologized. Those of us who live primarily a life of the mind — the academics, the writers, the coders, the designers, the people who work in their basements and living rooms even outside of a lockdown — have lately been lauded for our proficiency at staying in. But it’s a compliment that drips with denigration. It says your lifestyle suits a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic…but not much else. The question I keep getting, “How do you live like this?” implies that my life is the symptom of an illness. It does not imply that it is the symptom of an economy in part created by those same techies who originated it, who profit from the rest of us being unstable — working from home, all the time, no guarantees — and who clear the landscape of any other option. To be told that to protect ourselves within this isolation we must do everything we’re in the habit of not doing (standing up, working out, eating well) lays the blame at our feet. To be told this in the exact moment that old habits provide the only solace (dressing for comfort, comfort eating, even comfort watching) keeps us on the back foot. But, then, not budging is also our thing.

The return to old movies and television shows isn’t just because the production of new media is on hold. They are both a reminder of a world — a time — outside the pandemic, though even then it is near impossible not to infect the past with the present (social distancing most notably). We are going back to plague art for a guide, it seems, but we are also going back to other works that appeal to specific feelings provoked by the pandemic. At Vanity Fair, K. Austin Collins wrote about hearing someone sneeze within his general vicinity and then sprinting home to shower before throwing on The Thing, John Carpenter’s 1982 thriller about a research team in Antarctica riddled by an elusive alien infection. Of course, it’s the blood test, the “peak set piece,” he focuses on. “What’s clear is that for everyone on screen, the question of their own blood, and not just that of their compatriots, is a mystery. Their eyes shift from I know I don’t have it to, in the moment of being tested, Do I?” he writes. “The central condition of The Thing isn’t just the isolation or the infection, however. It’s the unknowing. The uncertainty one might have about even their own body.”

That’s it. That’s the thing (hah). The untrustworthiness. The lack of trust in anyone, including yourself. How unsettling. The most unsettling. What’s the point of having agency, of being self-actualized, when your physical self might betray the whole thing? Even despite the face mask and the hand sanitizer and the social distance and the exercise and the salad, so much salad. That very slight discomfort behind my eyes, the sinuses quick to congestion, the minor wheeze when I jog in the afternoons, the almost imperceptible dryness in my throat — is it the pollen in the air? The dry heat from the radiators? Or is it the thing? The thing that I expect to get but not really. The thing that I expect to kill me but not really. But will it? All that fast food I’ve eaten, all that exercise I haven’t done, will it finally catch up with me? What did all those survivors and all those asymptomatic people do? Did they get eight hours of sleep every night? Did they stress less (you know stress immunosuppresses, right)? What choices did they make that their bodies chose life?

“Overwhelmed by choice, by the dim threat of mortality that lurks beneath any wrong choice, people crave rules from outside themselves, and successful heroes to guide them to safety,” writes Michelle Allison in The Atlantic. “If you are free to choose, you can be blamed for anything that happens to you: weight gain, illness, aging — in short, your share in the human condition, including the random whims of luck and your own inescapable mortality.” What she is really talking about is all that bread, all those greens, all that running we never did before. She is talking about tricking God.

I don’t believe in God but that doesn’t mean I’ve escaped Christian morality; it’s baked into our bread (sorry, I’ll stop talking about bread — you first, though). And root vegetables. And hundred-mile Peloton rides. Ever heard of “moral treatment”? It’s the treatment of the mentally ill by manual labor, sanity “through self-discipline.” It reminds me of the people who suddenly start going to church when something bad happens, like they can hedge their bets by  paying their dues before Jesus gets wise. Or addicts who think they can wipe themselves clean — of all those cigarettes, all that alcohol, all that sex — by loudly getting healthy. All those people on social media sharing their kale-stuffed recipes as though the virus will give them a pass for good behavior. As Allison wrote, “clean eating rarely, if ever, occurs in secret.” (Comfort eating, on the other hand, exclusively does.)  That’s why the scariest Covid-19 stories are the ones about the healthy kids who died anyway, the adults with “no underlying conditions” who were swept away. And still there’s an explanation: They were just unlucky edge cases. There was something about their bodies the family didn’t share. Some reason. Something knowable.

What we do know is devastating enough. Which is that even if we do everything right, we are still at the mercy of an unpredictable virus and a healthcare system that is as capricious. Bureaucracy is a body too, one which, it has become increasingly obvious, is itself disintegrating. Without it to support us, we attempt to keep ourselves in order, in hand, in control. It is a task on a larger scale, perhaps, but one that is not so different from trying to command the recalcitrant yeast in our kitchens. Maybe that’s why I gravitated toward Eliza Hittman’s new indie, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which navigates the labyrinthine bureaucracy around abortion in America and serendipitously got a wider release because of the pandemic. The film follows a 17-year-old girl on an odyssey from Pennsylvania to New York in the hopes of terminating her pregnancy. When Autumn’s hometown clinic initially confirms she is pregnant, she is told she is 10 weeks along — two-and-a-half months in, plenty of time to abort. Preternaturally resigned, Autumn doesn’t react much beyond a brief wince when the doctor introduces, “the most magical sound you will ever hear,” before the “wow wow wow” sound of the unwanted fetus pulses out of the machine beside her. But she can handle it  — “I’m fine, just tired,” she says days later. This is in New York at her Planned Parenthood appointment, right before she is told she is 18 weeks pregnant, not 10. She’s not fine then. 

I read April’s response to hearing she is in her second trimester as betrayal, by both the health institution and by her own body. The system she can’t trust is all around her, but also within her; the first deception was by her own body, falling pregnant without her consent. Her devastation is born of the realization that not only can no one else in her life be trusted, she can’t even trust herself.

* * *

“If we cannot escape death,” writes Allison, “maybe we can find a way to be declared innocent and undeserving of it.” But that’s hard to do when the only thing you can really do is nothing. When you can’t manifest the one thing you want in the place that invented manifest destiny. When the entire plan is based on the lie that our bodies are not destabilized by forces as unpredictable as the system in which we find ourselves. Which is the reason we all feel so defeated despite all the vitamins and the pilates and the hand washing. To expect yourself to be responsible for your body, in all its uncertainty, is to underwrite an existence which is at odds with itself. Mortality has no more morality than a virus. Both are unreliable. Both are indifferent. Both affect us as they wish no matter our desires. 

Convention dictates that I end this on a hopeful note, but our culture pits hope and death against one another — and death is always the eventuality. Of course, definitely, wash your hands, social distance, of course, of course, but don’t expect a guarantee. And don’t expect that that uncertainty must be tragic. That our bodies can’t ultimately be controlled means that we are fundamentally free from trying. So sure, make bread if it helps you feel better. Or don’t. Just know it’s all the same in the end, and the end is baked into the beginning.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

We’re Not All in This Together

Getty / Photo Illustration by Longreads

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2020 | 8 minutes (2,043 words)

Call it a dystopia, call it the apocalypse, whatever it is, the fact is, right now, we all have the capacity to kill each other. It’s not an exaggeration, it’s just a fact: We are literally holding each other’s lives in our hands. In a pandemic, every single person’s actions have the most extreme consequences for every single other person. I’m not sure how you can get more serious than that. I’m not sure how people can STILL not take that seriously.

Fuck. It’s hard to express anger without just expressing it. The second you write it down it loses that volatility. How do I convey the rage I’m feeling right now watching families continue to gather together, watching friends clandestinely meeting, laughing like they aren’t responsible for the rising death toll? Should I do it in physiological terms? Ok, I’ll list the symptoms like an illness, since that’s what we’re working with right now: Shallow breath, rapid heart rate, adrenalin. A fucking waterfall of expletives. Shaking. I’m literally shaking with rage. My face is permanently scrunched, my throat twisted, like I’m perpetually getting ready to scream — to shout and kick and yell and punch. Or maybe an analogy works better. Feral animals, threatened and fearful, can explode into bouts of wild insanity. One minute they’re calm, the next they’re thrashing and biting, their eyes bulging and unseeing, their entire body a fist. Blind rage: Uncontrolled, undirected, unstoppable.

I saw all of those unctuous half-naked bodies packed onto a sweltering beach in Australia, knowing there was a pandemic, and I thought of all the humid holes in the ground packed together in Iran, awaiting the same number of dead bodies. I saw all those stupid drunk kids in bars in the U.K. knowing there was a pandemic, and I thought of all those abandoned nursing homes in Spain full of the same number of scared seniors left to die on their own.

But I’m not feral. So I just sit here, in the most populous city in Canada, simmering. And when I walk outside, when I run on the road, and I see a park full of people, or strangers face to face, I fucking stare. And I fucking shake. And I don’t say, “What the FUCK are you doing?” Because when I’m told to stay away for everyone’s health, I do. Even if they don’t. Even if they are the 20 percent who believe this is all blown out of proportion, who have the power to sink the 80 percent of us who don’t. Even if they are the reason we went from 90 percent of coronavirus cases spread by travel to 90 percent spread by community. In an apocalypse, a stranger can be a comfort. In a pandemic, they’re nothing but a threat. The community that is left is found in the human beings who distance themselves, not for themselves alone, but for everyone else. Maybe so many people don’t get it because it’s a human paradox: That the further apart we are, the closer we become. Read more…

Performance Art: On Sharing Culture

Stefano Mazzola / Awakening / Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | March 2020 |  9 minutes (2,261 words)

The image that struck me most was the empty piazza. That Italian square — I believe it was in Venice — with no one in it. Maybe a bird or two. It looked inviting but also wholly unnatural. A city square is made for people, lots of people, people from everywhere. If people aren’t there, does it cease to be a square? I wondered the same thing about the Louvre and its tens of thousands of objects with no one to look at them — is it still a museum, or is it just a warehouse? I wondered about all those Berlin concert halls with no one to hear their music, all those Indian cinemas with no one to watch their films, all those crumbling ruins everywhere, standing there with no tourists to behold them or to record that beholding for everyone else. At this particular point in history, does art exist if we aren’t sharing it? 

By sharing I mean not only sharing a moment with the art itself, but also sharing the space with other people, and more literally, sharing all of that online — posting updates on Facebook, photos on Twitter, videos on TikTok, stories on Instagram. This kind of “sharing” is constriction rather than expansion, regressing back to the word’s etymological root of “cutting apart.” This contortion of a selfless act into a selfish one is symptomatic of a society that expects everyone to fend for themselves: Sharing online is not so much about enlightening others as it is about spotlighting yourself. It’s impossible to disconnect the images of those now-empty spots from the continuous splash of reports about the coronavirus pandemic gouging the global economy. In America, the economy is the culture is the people. Americans are not citizens; they are, as the president recently put it, “consumers.” And on the web, consuming means sharing that consumption with everyone else. That the images suddenly being shared are empty exposes the big con — that in reality, no one has really been sharing anything. That social distancing is nothing new. Read more…

A Crying Public Shame

Getty / Illustration by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | March 2020 |  10 minutes (2,569 words)

“Can I talk to you in private?” No one wants to hear those words. The impulse is to assume you’ve done something egregiously wrong. The expectation is that you are about to be punished. The conviction is so strong that the only good thing about it is that, at least initially, you can suffer without anyone else knowing about it. You might even thank the punisher for coming to you directly, for keeping it between just the two of you. It’s the least someone can do when they are about to theoretically ruin your life.

A lot has been written about privacy online, in terms of information, in terms of being policed. Ecuador is currently rushing to pass a data protection law after a breach affected as many as 20 million people — more than the country’s population. A lot has also been written about callout and cancel culture, about people being targeted and cast off (if only temporarily), their entire history dredged up and subjected to ex post facto judgement; Caroline Flack, the British television presenter who recently committed suicide while being hounded in the press and online amid allegations she had assaulted her on-again, off-again boyfriend, was seen as its latest casualty. But there hasn’t been a lot of talk about the hazier in-between, about interpersonal privacy online, about missteps once dealt with confidentially by a friend or a colleague or a boss, about the discrete errors we make that teach equally discrete lessons so as not to be repeated in public. That’s not how it is anymore, not in a world tied together by social media. Paper trails aren’t just emails anymore; they take in any move you make online, most notably on social media, and the entire internet is your peevish HR rep. We’re all primed — and able — to admonish institutions and individuals: “Because of social media, marginalized people like myself can express ourselves in a way that was not possible before,” Sarah Hagi wrote in Time last year. “That means racist, sexist, and bigoted behavior or remarks don’t fly like they used to.” 

Which is to say that a lot of white people are fucking up, as usual, but now everyone, including white people and people of color, are publicly vilifying them for it as tech’s unicorn herders cash in on the eternal flames. And it’s even worse than in the scarlet letter days: the more attention the worse the punishment, and humiliation online has the capacity for infinite reach. As Sarah John tweeted after one particular incident that left a person hospitalized, “No one knows how to handle cancel culture versus accountability.”

* * *

“Is that blood?” That was my first question after a friend of mine sent me a message with a link to a few tweets by a person I’d never heard of, the editor-in-chief of a small site. The majority of the site’s staff had just resigned, the impetus being a semi-viral tweet, since deleted, of a DM the editor had sent a Twitter chat in 2016: “I was gonna reply to this with ‘n—a say what?’ Then I was like holy shite that’s racist, I can’t say that on twitter.” According to Robert Daniels at the Balder and Dash blog on rogerebert.com, tweeters, mostly white, piled on — some even called the EIC’s workplace demanding they be fired — before the office-wide resignation. Videos embedded in the tweets I saw showed the editor crying through an apology. (Longreads contacted the editor for comment; they’ve asked to remain anonymous for their health and safety.)

Initially I thought the videos were just a mea culpa, but then I saw a flash of red. Though the details are muddied by a scrubbed social media history, the editor appeared to have harmed themselves. Ex-colleagues rushed to their aid, however, and they were eventually hospitalized. If that wasn’t horrible enough, a filmmaker named Jason Lei Howden decided to avenge the EIC. With scant information, apparently, he targeted individuals on Twitter who weren’t involved in the initial pile-on, specifically blaming two people of color for the crisis — Valerie Complex and Dark Sky Lady, who had not in fact bullied anyone but had blogged about Howden. The official Twitter account of Howden’s new film, Guns Akimbo, got mixed up in the targeted attacks, threatening the release of the film.

There are multiple levels to this that I don’t understand. First, why that DM was released; why didn’t the person simply confront the EIC directly? Second, why did the editor’s staff, people who knew them personally, each issue individual public statements about their resignations into an already-growing pile-on? (I don’t so much wonder about the pile-on itself because I know about the online disinhibition effect, about how the less you know a person online, the more you are willing to destroy them.) Third, why the hell did that filmmaker get involved, and without any information? Why did the white man with all the clout attack a nebulous entity he called “woke twitter” — presumably code for “people of color” — and point a finger at specific individuals while also denying their response to one of the most inflammatory words in the English language (didn’t they realize it was an “ironic joke,” he scoffed)? As Daniels wrote, “This became a cycle of blindspots, and a constant blockage of discussing race, suicide, and alliance.” Why, at no point, did anyone stop to think about the actual people involved, about maybe taking this private, to a place where everything wasn’t telegraphed and distorted? 

Paper trails aren’t just emails anymore; they take in any move you make online, most notably on social media, and the entire internet is your peevish HR rep.

I had the same question after the BFI/Thirst Aid Kit controversy. In mid-February, the British Film Institute officially announced the monthlong film series THIRST: Female Desire on Screen, curated by film critic Christina Newland and timed to coincide with the release of her first book, She Found It at the Movies (full disclosure: I was asked to participate, but my pitch was not accepted). The promotional image included an illustration of a woman biting her lip, artwork similar to that of three-year-old podcast Thirst Aid Kit (TAK), a show that covers the intersection of pop culture and thirst. Newland later told The Guardian she wondered about the “optics,” but as a freelancer with no say on the final design, she deferred to the BFI. She had in fact twice approached TAK cohost Nichole Perkins to contribute to her book (the podcast’s other cohost is Bim Adewunmi). Perkins told me in an email that she wanted to, but her work load eventually prevented her. And while TAK did share the book’s preorder link, the BFI ultimately failed to include the podcasters in the film series as speakers, or even just as shout-outs in the publicity notes — doubly odd, given that Adewunmi is London-based. Quote-tweeting the BFI’s announcement and tagging both the institute and Newland, TAK responded, “Wow! This sounds great. Hope our invitation arrives soon!”

The predictable result was a Newland pile-on in which she was accused of erasing black women’s work, followed by a TAK pile-on — though Perkins told me her personal account was “full of support and kindness” — for claiming ownership over a term that preceded them. All three women ended up taking time away from Twitter (which is a sacrifice for journalists whose audience depends on social media) though Newland has since returned. I asked Perkins if she had thought about dealing with the situation privately at first. “I did consider reaching out to Christina before quote-tweeting, yes,” she wrote. “I wonder if she considered reaching out to us, especially after she saw the artwork for the season and admittedly noticed ‘something going on with the optics,’ as she is quoted as saying in The Guardian.” Eventually, the BFI contacted Perkins and Adewunmi and released a statement apologizing “for their erasure from the conversation we are hoping to create from this season” and announcing a change of imagery. They also noted that Newland, as a guest programmer, was not responsible for their marketing mistake, though no reason was given for their omission. “I have no idea why the BFI or Ms Newland didn’t include Thirst Aid Kit in the literature about the Thirst season,” Adewunmi wrote to me. “I was glad, however, to see the institution acknowledge that initial erasure, as well as issue an apology, in their released statement.”

At around the same time, a similar situation was unravelling in the food industry. Rage Baking: The Transformative Power of Flour, Fury, and Women’s Voices, an anthology edited by former Food Network VP Katherine Alford and NPR’s Kathy Gunst, was published in early February. The collection of more than 50 recipes and essays presents baking as “a way to defend, resist, and protest” and was supposedly inspired by the 2016 election. The hashtag #ragebaking was used to promote the book on social media in January, which brought it to the attention of a woman named Tangerine Jones, whose Instagram followers believed the idea had been stolen from her and alerted her — and the rest of the world. Unprompted by Jones, Alford and Gunst DM’d her to say they had learned the term elsewhere and that the book was “a celebration of this movement.” Jones called them out publicly, publishing their DMs in a Medium essay entitled “The Privilege of Rage,” in which she described how she came up with the concept of rage baking — using the #ragebaking hashtag and the ragebaking.com URL — five years ago, as an outlet for racial injustice. “In my kitchen, I was reminded that I wasn’t powerless in the face of f**kery,” she wrote. Jones’s supporters started a pile-on, her article shared by big names like Rebecca Traister, who had contributed to the collection and requested that her contribution be removed from future editions. 

In an abrupt turn of events, the Jones advocates were promptly confronted with advocates of the book, who redirected the pile-on back at Jones for kicking up a fuss. “It is beyond f**ked up that my questioning the authors’ intentions and actions is being framed as detrimental to the success of other black women,” she tweeted. Their silence resounding, the Simon and Schuster imprint ultimately issued a statement that failed to acknowledge their mistake and instead proposed “in the spirit of communal activism” to include Jones in subsequent printings. Unappeased, the baker called out the “apology” she received privately from Alford and Gunst, who told her they were donating a portion of the proceeds to the causes she included in her post (though their public apology didn’t mention that), and asked if she would be interviewed as part of the reprint. “Throwing black women under the bus is part of White Feminist legacy,” Jones tweeted. “That is not the legacy I stand in, nor will I step in that trap.”


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According to Lisa Nakamura, a University of Michigan professor who studies digital media, race, and intersectionality, cancel culture comes from trying to wrest control in a context in which there is little. It’s almost become a running joke the way Twitter protects right-wing zealots while everyone else gets pummeled by them. It follows then that marginalized populations, the worst hit, would attempt to use the platform to reclaim the power they have so often been denied. But as much as social media may sometimes seem like the only place to claim accountability, it is also the worst place to do it. In a Medium post following their Howden hounding, Dark Sky Lady argued that calling out is not bullying, which is true — but the effects on Twitter are often the same. “The goal of bullying is to destroy,” they wrote. “The goal of calling out and criticizing is to improve.” Online, there appears to be no improvement without destruction in every direction, including the destruction of those seeking change. On one end, a group of white people — the EIC, Newland, Alford, Gunst — was destroyed professionally for erring; on the other were the POC — Perkins, Adewunmi, Jones — who were personally destroyed, whose pain was minimized, whose sympathy was expected when they got none. The anger was undoubtedly justified. Less justified was the lack of responsibility for how it was deployed — publicly, disproportionately, with countless people’s hurt revisited on specific individuals, all at once. 

We know how pile-ons work now; it’s no defense to claim good intentions (or lack of bad intentions). There were few gains for either side in any of these cases, with the biggest going to the social media machine that feeds on public shame and provides no solution, gorging on the pain of everyone involved without actually providing constructive way forward, creating an ever-renewing cycle of suffering. A former intern for the ousted EIC tweeted that she understood the impulse to critique cancel culture and support the editor, but noted that “there is something sad about the fact that my boss used a racial slur, and I am not allowed to criticize.”

* * *

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed author Jon Ronson told Maclean’s in 2015 that one of his biggest fears is being defined by one mistake, and that a number of journalists had basically told him, “I live in terror.” I am no exception. Just recently I experienced a comparatively tame callout on Twitter, and even that moderate critique made me drop an entire book project, wonder about a job opportunity that subsequently dissolved, and second-guess every story idea I’ve had since. The situation was somewhat helpful in making me a more considerate person but was exponentially more helpful in making me anxious and in inspiring hateful fantasies about people I had never met. I am 100 percent certain that the first gain would have been made just as successfully had people spoken to me privately and would have saved me from the second part becoming so extreme that I had to leave social media to recalibrate. The overwhelming sense I’m left with is that if I say something that someone doesn’t like, even something justifiable, my detractors will counter with disproportionate force to make whatever point it is they want to make about an issue that’s larger than just me. What kind of discourse is that which mutes from the start, which turns every disagreement into a fight to the death, which provides no opportunity for anyone to learn from their failures? How do we progress with no space to do it?

“I think we need to remember democracy. When somebody transgresses in a democracy, other people give them their points of view, they tell them what they’ve done wrong, there’s a debate, people listen to each other. That’s how democracy should be,” Ronson told Vox five years ago. “Whereas, on social media, it’s not a democracy. Everybody’s agreeing with each other and approving each other, and then, if somebody transgresses, we disproportionately punish them. We tear them apart, and we don’t want to listen to them.” The payment for us is huge — almost as big as the payout for the tech bros who feign impartiality when their priority is clearly capital and nothing else. This is a punitive environment in which we are treating one another like dogs, shoving each other’s noses into the messes we have made. Offline, people are not defined by the errors they make, but by the changes they make when they are confronted with those errors, a kind of long game that contradicts the very definition of Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. The irony of public shaming on social media is that social media itself is the only thing that deserves it.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Wait, What?

Chung Sung-Jun / Getty, Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2020 |  9 minutes (2,335 words)

I used to think I was the only one who dealt with this particular existential crisis. It’s the one where every choice you make coincides with the torture of knowing that you didn’t choose something else. And that something else, by virtue of not being chosen, has infinite potential for being the right choice. It’s a fallacy, of course. Because usually there is no right or wrong decision, just a decision. And when that decision is made, it’s not as final as all that. It’s one option in a series of options your life is made up of, some of which have bigger consequences, most of which have smaller ones. But that fallacy is what we bring to any prize or award or, you know, any competition that culminates in a reward of some kind. It makes sense, because it’s binary — you get it or you don’t — but the consequences usually aren’t. It certainly feels like your life will fundamentally change if you win, but more often than not that’s not the case. The choice is made, everyone goes ballistic, and pretty soon after everything goes back to how it was.

A South Korean movie with subtitles was not supposed to win four Oscars, an 18-year-old girl who makes music in her brother’s bedroom wasn’t supposed to take home five Grammys, and a foul-mouthed British woman shouldn’t have bagged three Emmys. There’s a cognitive dissonance to all of this, because, by now, we expect our institutions — Hollywood or otherwise — to make the wrong choices, which we expect because these institutions are populated by people who don’t actually reflect the world, only its most privileged citizens. And what’s a greater distillation of an out-of-touch industry’s allegiances and exclusions than the awards it bestows? The Emmys are The Big Bang Theory, the Grammys are “Shape of You,” the Oscars are Green Book. Filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, the one who took home those four statuettes for Parasite, could have been speaking about any number of ceremonies when he infamously said last year of the Oscars, “They’re very local.” Which I took to mean that the Academy tends to reward not only Americans, but work that expresses the white capitalist values that form American society (and Hollywood within it). When Parasite won, the dissonance didn’t just suddenly resolve itself, because we knew underneath that win that Hollywood itself hadn’t actually changed. So we burdened what should have been a moment of unadulterated joy with analysis — about the work, about the winner, about the voters, about the audience, about cinema. In Parasite terms, we covered it in peach fuzz.

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It’s weird when deserving people win. It’s like a mindfuck. That’s what I thought (and tweeted) after Bong Joon-ho won the final Oscar of the year. What else do you say? It’s like being in the middle of a verbal sparring match with someone and they suddenly spit out something reasonable. You’re struck dumb. The Oscars almost never get it right, and when they get it wrong, it’s wrong (remember Crash?). This year, seeing the stage full of artists who are usually shut out of the ceremony — non-Americans, people of color, people with actual talent — accepting “Hollywood’s biggest honor” infected us all with such a severe case of cognitive dissonance I could hear our brains collectively short-circuit. And because of the way cognitive dissonance works, because it means we do everything we can to reconfigure the situation to align with what we believe to be true — in this case, that the Academy is “local” — Parasite’s Best Picture win was encumbered by mental acrobatics. It was as though no one wanted to get too intoxicated because they had experienced the sobering return to the status quo so many times before. The award became a spoil of war over identity politics, doubly here, because not only is Bong South Korean, but Parasite is also in Korean. That meant no one could just enjoy its triumphs outside the context of its ethnic dynamics.

It was barely more than a month ago that Issa Rae deadpanned, “Congratulations to those men,” while announcing the all-male Oscar nominees for Best Director. In the all-white-but-one category, the best we could hope for was a win by the Asian genius, who, as luck would have it, had also made the best film (enough about The Irishman). And when Bong’s film was announced after a suitably dramatic pause by Jane Fonda, it all went so smoothly, it was like it was meant to be. This wasn’t the Moonlight fiasco, that embarrassing stutter in 2017 where the ceremony juddered with a, yeah, no, the better one, the black one, that’s the one that won, sorry, where’s the trophy? But that historic faux pas is still so fresh that its shadow is still cast across the Academy’s stage. It’s a not-so-distant reminder that stories like those continue to be interlopers, and one that partially but inevitably eclipses wins like Bong’s, which, all things being fair, should not have to answer for it. But he does. Per Adam Nayman at The Ringer, “a skeptic might wonder about the enthusiasm of any filmmaker — even such an obviously wry, self-styled subversive — desiring membership to a club that’s not always open or accommodating.” It’s true, but it is also true that this is a wonder that does not tend to greet the likes of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino. Because nothing they do, nothing they or their films represent, really clashes with this particular gentlemen’s club. They are white men presenting films focused on white men to a group of white men. There is no dissonance there to correct.

Unless you’re Joaquin Phoenix, who briefly shouldered the dissonance plaguing his marginalized peers. Prior to his Oscar win, the Joker star was extolled on social media for his self-flagellating speech at the diversity-blind BAFTAS. “I think that we send a very clear message to people of color that you’re not welcome here,” he said, reportedly to some uncomfortable silence. “This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem.” While Phoenix initially walked off the BAFTAS stage leaving his trophy behind, picking up the Oscar so soon after that implied a tacit acceptance of Hollywood’s problematic politics, if not Britain’s. Engaging in the awards ceremony, being bowled over by a win of any kind,  implies that on some level you respect the institution, you believe in it. The only way around this, really, is full-out rejection.

Several actors have avoided any hint of hypocrisy by extricating themselves from awards proceedings entirely. Marlon Brando infamously sent an Indigenous woman to reject his Oscar on the grounds of the film industry’s mistreatment of the Indigenous community, while George C. Scott preceded him by refusing to participate in 1970 in what he called a “two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons.” (That he did engage later somewhat undercutting his stance.) This has bled outside the Academy, to other industries where awards act as the ultimate expression of their ideals: Julie Andrews snubbed the Tonys for snubbing the rest of her team, for one, while knighthood after knighthood has been passed over over the years to protest the enduring monarchy. After declining the Nobel Prize for Literature, Jean-Paul Sartre outlined how an award is inextricable from its awarding body and the awarding body’s history. “The writer who accepts an honor of this kind involves as well as himself the association or institution which has honored him,” he wrote. “The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case.”

Increasingly aware that awards doled out by older institutions are misrepresentative of the culture and, in the case of the Grammys at least so committed to misconduct they will essentially fire even the CEO for confronting their sexism, artists have turned to smaller events for direction. Free of institutionalized myopia, they move more fluidly with the times. Before the Nobel committee announced it was awarding genocide denier Peter Handke the literature prize, for instance, The New York Times published a conversation among critics in which the Booker Prize (big in the industry, less outside of it) was floated as more indicative of the literary world’s proclivities; two women, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, shared the award the same year Handke won the Nobel. Meanwhile, the Independent Spirit Awards have openly owned their status as the official alternative, riffing this year — “we recognize female directors — all two of them!” — on the gaping lacunae the Oscar nominations left behind. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell won the top prize, while Adam Sandler secured a long-awaited win for his frenetic, lived-in performance in Uncut Gems. On the podium, the Sandman directly confronted the Academy he had only poked fun at on social media. He compared the situation to being passed over in high school for most good looking — in favor of a “feather-haired douchebag” — and winning best personality instead. “So let all of those feather-haired douchebag motherfuckers get their Oscars tomorrow night,” he said. “Their handsome good looks will fade in time, while our independent personalities will shine on forever.”  

Oscar winner Bong does happen to have feathered hair, but cognitive dissonance still accompanied his victory as a corrective for how unexpected it was. Parasite won four awards, yes, but why no acting prizes? Racism, obviously. The wider skeptical responses to what appeared to be attempts by the Academy to be a little “woker” further unmasked them as shallow performance, sometimes literally. The opening Janelle Monáe–led musical number? “Diversity,” a number of critics of color deadpanned. Natalie Portman’s cape festooned with the cursive names of overlooked female filmmakers? Hypocrisy. Her production company has worked mostly with men. Meanwhile, Renée Zellweger’s win was just a reminder of Judy Garland’s lack of wins, and Joaquin Phoenix’s speech was more like an ad for PETA. The complaints had varying levels of validity, but why the impulse to make them so expediently? There seemed to be this overarching need to expose the flaws in what appeared to be a precarious night based on a set of arbitrary choices — to cast aside these momentary remedies to reveal the foundational faults that cannot in the long run support them. 

This is the drive to push for deeper systemic change where we can, to protest where there is nothing apparent to protest, to miss no chances. To revel in a win is to fleetingly ignore everything that’s wrong, and there’s no time left for that. A symbol of progress like Parasite thus becomes shackled by its own symbolism, dragging along the wider sociocultural implications with its artistry. It then becomes not only a perfectly executed piece of filmmaking, but the Oscar anomaly, the one which bolsters our expectations of the Academy, the foreign film which secures a wider theatrical run post-win, the popular nonwhite release standing in for all the nonwhite releases.

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“Cognitive dissonance is a motivating state of affairs,” wrote social psychologist Leon Festinger, who coined the term. “Just as hunger impels a person to eat, so does dissonance impel a person to change his opinions or his behavior.” Bong didn’t expect to win over the Oscars. The dissonance he felt was clear in the way he admired his trophy on stage, the way he proceeded to lead a standing ovation for fellow nominee Scorsese, who he quoted — “The most personal is the most creative” — and praised along with the remaining nominees: Tarantino, Todd Phillips, and Sam Mendes. “If the Academy allows,” he concluded. “I would like to get a Texas chainsaw, split the Oscar trophy into five and share it with all of you.” That the director from South Korea who made a quintessentially South Korean film felt the need to create a feeling of inclusivity on a quintessentially American stage says something about where America, if not the Oscars, is right now. That is to say, that marginalized communities, while protesting their historical treatment, can also recognize the merits of the institutions that have neglected them, deferring to aspects of their legacies despite their lack of diversity. 

But the opposite is rarely true. The institutions and the people who represent them should be deferring to the populations that they have overlooked for so long. But they don’t; just look at Tarantino’s refusal at Cannes to even engage in a question about gender politics with respect to Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Which is why Phoenix’s words at the BAFTAs were so powerful, because he was admitting that in some sense it is a zero-sum game, that his chance denied someone else’s, that he was complicit in this denial. It was groundbreaking when it really shouldn’t be, when for nonwhite filmmakers like Bong this level of discourse is expected.

Generally, it’s up to the outsiders to help other outsiders. On the Oscars red carpet, Bong made sure to mention Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, which had been overlooked, despite taking Best Picture at the Independent Spirit Awards. Insiders seem to miss this heightened urgency around inclusivity because it is not urgent for them. Critics clamored to determine what Parasite’s win could mean for American cinema, but that question was beside the point. The unexpected win by an international artist on domestic soil says less about the cracks in Hollywood’s traditions than it does about the world, which almost imperceptibly but certainly is changing both despite us and because of us, both for the worse and for the better, with marginalized populations leading the biggest changes of all. As always, Bong was already aware of this communal dissonance before everyone else. As he said at the Lumière Festival in October: “When I made Parasite, it was like trying to witness our world through a microscope. The film talks about two opposing families, about the rich versus the poor, and that is a universal theme, because we all live in the same country now: that of capitalism.”  

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Regarding the Pain of Oprah

KMazur / Getty, Photo Illustration by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2020 |  8 minutes (2,233 words)

On the cover of Susan Sontag’s 2003 book-length essay Regarding the Pain of Others, her last publication before her death, is a Goya print from his graphic 19th-century series The Disasters of War. It shows a reclining soldier passively taking in a dead man hanging from a tree, a body in a row of indistinguishable dangling bodies. Its pain — and the indifference with which that pain can be met — is the perfect illustration of Sontag’s book, which was her response to the query, “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” She questioned whether the representation of suffering has any hand in ending it. “For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war,” Sontag writes. 

Is that why American Dirt, a sensationalized, stereotype-ridden piece of telenovela exploitation written by a self-identified white (later Puerto Rican–grandmother identified) woman, was met with a seven-figure deal and trumpeted by a publishing industry — Oprah’s Book Club most notably — that ignores countless Latinx stories? Is that why On the Record, a documentary initially backed by Oprah about various women accusing Def Jam cofounder Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct, premiered at Sundance when so many other films about women’s oppression have not? Both of these works have been held up in the tradition of pain iconography and as part of a wider culture that both defers to and is let off the hook by Oprah, its designated high priestess of compassion. An indigent black girl from the rural South, she was an exemplar of one of the most neglected demographics in America. That this capitalist society made her a billionaire for inspiring a cultural bloodletting has immunized it from the sort of criticism levied when white men like Jerry Springer (or white women like Gwyneth Paltrow) do the same thing. 

But the merciless critique Oprah has received both for her support of American Dirt and lack of support for On the Record points to a framework that simultaneously benefits her and uses her as a shield. This empathetic entrepreneur’s predictably myopic choices — just like her acolytes’, from Dr. Phil to Reese Witherspoon — may not serve the majority, but they do serve the system that lets her take the fall for its larger failures of representation. Oprah is one of the most salient testaments to capitalism. 

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“People want to weep,” Sontag writes. “Pathos, in the form of a narrative, does not wear out.” She may have been referencing war photography, but the sentiment applies to all narrative forms of suffering, which “are more than reminders of death, of failure, of victimization. They invoke the miracle of survival.” This almost superhuman transcendence of misfortune, this ability to raise yourself out of your primordial pain toward the heavens, is the prototype for the American Dream. It is also the perfect paean to plutocracy. Oprah is the prime example: teen mom, child sex abuse, teen pregnancy, drug use. While working her way toward a journalism career, she was told early on that she was too emotional while anchoring the news. It was here that she found a gaping hole in the market: Oprah turned her “failure” into a touchy-feely talk show, eventually netting herself a cult of personality and an empire approaching $3 billion. Her triumph over her past imbued her with the authority to turn beleaguered strangers’ private torment into public good and served as testament to a hierarchy of success founded on flagellation. “There is nothing greater than the spirit within you to overcome,” she said on The Oprah Winfrey Show. “You and God can conquer this,” conquering here implying profiting. She was proof that it worked. Oprah may not think you are responsible for your own misery, but she does believe you are responsible for flipping your misfortune, just like she did. As she told a women’s economic conference in 1989, “There’s a condition that comes with being and doing all you can: you first have to know who you are before you can do that.”  

Her suffering was transformative, a brand of anguish Sontag defines in her book with an unintentionally spot-on characterization of how Oprah, who referred to her talk show as her “ministry,” secularized (and capitalized on) a pious approach to hardship. “It is a view of suffering, of the pain of others, that is rooted in religious thinking, which links pain to sacrifice, sacrifice to exaltation,” Sontag wrote. The people Oprah chose to interview (Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston), the books she chose to plug (Toni Morrison, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces), and the films she chose to produce (Beloved, Precious) — all followed this same general trajectory from trauma to some semblance of deliverance, hewing with her own personal experience. They also served to convince the most downtrodden members of the population that the system was only failing to work for them because they failed to plumb their own souls deeply enough. If capitalism was unprofitable for them, it’s because they weren’t doing the work — not in the industrious sense, but in the therapeutic one.

Oprah’s recent projects fall well within that tradition, including On the Record, the Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering documentary she was executive producing for Apple TV+ (it will now air on HBO Max), which centered around a group of women accusing Russell Simmons of sexual abuse. (He has been accused by at least a dozen women in total and denies all the charges.) The question is why this high-profile film by multiple-award winning filmmakers that already had a distributor was playing at a highly sought-after festival, when a struggling independent film could have used that rare opening to seek distribution? Instead, the news out of Sundance focused on whether Oprah, who pulled out of the film at the last minute over creative differences, was siding with Simmons or not — whether she was betraying not only her own race, but her own brand (the enabling of struggling black women to claim their due). “In my opinion, there is more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured,” she said in a statement. This reads to me as uncomfortably on brand, Oprah squeezing as much as possible out of a desperate situation — particularly if it’s at the expense of another capitalist success story, in Simmons’s case — to get maximum returns. But this isn’t all down to her own prurience. It’s the industry around her (including Apple) that encourages her to do this, that pays her excessively for it — the same industry that doesn’t even consider the marginalized stories that do not comply with those standards (standards upheld by a black woman, remember).

Having said all of that, it is also a function of technology that our culture expects us to bleed out to survive. The more intimate media becomes, Sontag argued, the further our shock threshold moves. “The real thing may not be fearsome enough,” she wrote, “and therefore needs to be enhanced or reenacted more convincingly.” This is where you get a situation like Jeanine Cummins’s “trauma pornAmerican Dirt, the latest Oprah’s Book Club pick, about a Mexican migrant fleeing a drug cartel across the border with her son. “I’m interested in characters who suffer inconceivable hardship,” Cummins writes in her author’s note, “in people who manage to triumph over extraordinary trauma.” It was a direct dial to Oprah, and in particularly unfortunate timing, she expressed her support for this hyperbolic yarn about a fictional woman of color’s pain on the same CBS morning show in which she discussed pulling her support from a documentary full of actual women of colors’ pain. In a video posted on Twitter, Oprah held up the Cummins book, with its cover of watercolor birds and barbed wire, and gushed: “I was opened. I was shook up. It woke me up. And I feel that everybody who reads this book is actually going to be immersed in the experience of what it means to be a migrant on the run for freedom.” Her description reminded me of Sontag’s portrayal of graphic battle imagery: “Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!” American Dirt was another in Oprah’s Apple streaming projects, part of her ambition to make “the world’s largest book club,” and it showed a level of outdated hubris that was revisited tenfold upon her mentions.

While the flesh-and-blood migrants who are dying at the border have not been much of a priority to the world of capitalist enterprise, the literary industry’s corner offices have been effusive in their tone-deaf praise for American Dirt, which last year celebrated its release with — no shit — barbed twig centerpieces. The hypocrisy was too much for the Latinx community (and social media) to bear. They balked at a non-Mexican woman who claimed her husband was undocumented (he’s Irish) and painted her nails with her book cover (more barbed wire) being edified for a cheap piece of Mexican cultural appropriation, while their own perhaps less uplifting (see less white) stories were serially overlooked — Oprah’s Book Club has never chosen a Mexican author. “The clumsy, ill-conceived rollout of American Dirt illustrates how broken the system is,” wrote Mexican American author and translator David Bowles in a heavily circulated New York Times op-ed, “how myopic it is to hype one book at the expense of others and how unethical it is to allow a gatekeeper like Oprah’s Book Club to wield such power.” He pointed out that a bestseller doesn’t just happen; it’s deliberately made by big publishers sinking money into its promotion and rallying press and booksellers around it. One book’s immoderate gain is then every other book’s loss: For three months in the wake of Oprah’s book announcements, other books’ sales plummet. This is a clear impoverishment of culture, but, more importantly, it limits the dissemination of ideas that do not serve big business’ hierarchical ideals. Trauma is valued as long as it’s sanctioned by the small number of powerful people who maintain an overwhelming amount of sway over the capitalist system they uphold. The voices that are ultimately projected are their own, serving their interests and no one else’s. As Drew Dixon, the woman at the center of the Simmons doc, said, echoing Bowles: “Oprah Winfrey shouldn’t get to decide for the whole rest of the world.” More importantly, the machine that created her shouldn’t get to either. 

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“So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering,” Sontag writes at the end of her book. “Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.” In the case of Oprah, it proclaims hers while hiding the main accomplices. Once among America’s most oppressed populations, her triumph is not only immune to interrogation, so is American plutocracy for having anointed her as its apostle. Oprah gamed the system that once neglected her, and her success lends it a veneer of progress and perpetuates it into the future. With her accumulated power, she shifted taboos and secured the first black American president approximately 1 million votes. But Oprah’s $2.7 billion net worth, her $25 million private jet, her empire — none of these are incidental. They are emblems of a world which has traded millions of people’s poverty for a handful of people’s riches, millions of perspectives for one authority. Oprah may still be full of good intentions, but good intentions are no longer as significant as actions, and every one of us is now accountable — and not just for ourselves. It is not enough anymore to ask people to lift themselves by their bootstraps now that people are aware that those straps are all rigged to snap.

In the midst of American Dirt landing at No. 1 on the Times bestseller list, its publisher acknowledged mistakes but also announced its epic book tour, the one which elbowed out so many other more worthy books and authors, was being canceled over safety concerns. The move proved that Flatiron — also publisher of five Oprah books — fundamentally buys into the notion that when the country’s marginalized populations interrupt the capitalist machinery, it’s a risk to the country itself. The Hispanic Caucus has since requested a meeting with the Association of American Publishers. Bowles, meanwhile, praised the director of a border library — Kate Horan of Texas’s McAllen Public Library — for declining to be part of a pilot partnership with Oprah’s Book Club. Sontag writes that a transformative approach to suffering like Oprah’s is “a view that could not be more alien to a modern sensibility, which regards suffering as something that is a mistake or an accident or a crime. Something to be fixed.” But Horan’s response to the question “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” is neither Oprah’s nor the opposite — it is to reject the war itself. Oprah serves up war stories to the system that is responsible for them — her response is to meet suffering with suffering. The Latinx community sees the paradox even if Oprah, in her prism of privilege, cannot. “We’ll never meekly submit our stories, our pain, our dignity,” writes Bowles, “to the ever-grinding wheels of the hit-making machine.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Be a Good Sport

Getty / Illustration by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2020 |  9 minutes (2,284 words)

I hate jocks. Like a good Gen X’er, I walked around my high school with that patch on my backpack — red lettering, white backdrop, frisbee-size. A jock high school. It’s impossible to overstate the contempt I had for sports as a kid. I hated what I took to be phony puddle-deep camaraderie, the brain-dead monosyllabic mottos, the aggressive anti-intellectualism. More than that, there appeared to be a very specific cruelty to it. The way there were always a couple of kids who were always picked last. The collective bullying if someone didn’t measure up to the collective goals. And none of the teachers ever seemed to be as mean as the coaches. They strutted around like grown children, permanently transfixed by the ambitions of their adolescence, actively excluding the same kids they had mocked in their youth.

When I hear about sports stars who kill or commit suicide or generally behave antisocially, I always think: no wonder. In a culture that destroys your body and your mind, no wonder. It’s something of a paradox, of course, because, as we are repeatedly told, physical activity is often essential to psychological health. But why is it so rarely the other way around? I watch Cheer and I watch Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez and I watch former NBA star Delonte West get callously thrashed and I wonder why these athletes’ inner lives weren’t as prized as their motor skills. That’s not true; I know why. It suits a lucrative industry that shapes you from childhood to keep you pliable. And what makes you more pliable than mental instability? What better way to get a winning team than to have it populated with people for whom winning validates their existence and for whom losing is tantamount to death?

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There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the Hernandez doc when there’s an unexpected crossover with Cheer. A childhood photo of the late NFL star and convicted murderer flashes on-screen as we learn that his female cousins made him want be a cheerleader. It was the same for Cheer’s La’Darius Marshall, who is shown in one snapshot as a young cheerleader, having discovered the sport after hanging out with one of his childhood girlfriends. Both men came from dysfunctional backgrounds: Marshall’s mom was a drug user who ended up in prison for five years. He was sexually abused, not to mention beaten up by his brothers; Hernandez found his own mother distant, and he was also physically and sexually abused. Both found solace in sports, though Hernandez had the kind of dad who “slapped the faggot right out of you,” per one childhood friend, so he ended up in football, his dad’s sport, instead. But their similarities underscore how professional athletics, when so closely tied to a person’s sense of self, can simultaneously be a boon to your mental health and its undoing.

Killer Inside is a misnomer for a start. Everything pointed to Hernandez’s conviction for murdering another footballer (semipro linebacker Odin Lloyd) — or at the very least a fair amount of psychological distress. (I’m not certain why the doc chose to focus on his sexuality — besides prurience — as it seemed to be the least of his concerns.) As he said himself to his mom, who almost immediately replaced her dead husband with Hernandez’s cousin’s husband when he was just a teenager: “I had nobody. What’d you think I was gonna do, become a perfect angel?” The way he fled from his home straight into the arms of a University of Florida football scholarship, having wrapped up high school a semester early, is telling. Football made him somebody. He depended on being a star player because the alternative was being nothing — as one journalist says in the doc, at Florida you had to “win to survive.” 

If the NFL didn’t know the depth of his suffering, they at least knew something, something a scouting service categorized as low “social maturity.” Their report stated that Hernandez’s responses “suggest he enjoys living on the edge of acceptable behavior and that he may be prone to partying too much and doing questionable things that could be seen as a problem for him and his team.” But his schools seemed to care more about his history of drug use than his high school concussion (his autopsy would later show chronic traumatic encephalopathy) or the fact that he busted a bar manager’s eardrum for confronting him with his bill. Physical pain was something you played through — one former linebacker described a row of Wisconsin players lining up with their pants down to get painkiller injections — and psychological pain was apparently no different. “It’s a big industry,” the ex-linebacker said, “and they’re willing to put basically kids, young men, in situations that will compromise their long-term health just to beat Northwestern.”

Cheerleading, the billion-dollar sport monopolized by a company called Varsity Brand, has a similarly mercenary approach. While the money is less extreme — the NFL’s annual revenue is more than $14 billion — the contingent self-worth is not. A number of the kids highlighted in Cheer had the kind of childhoods that made them feel like Hernandez, like they had nobody. Morgan Simianer in particular, the weaker flyer who is chosen for her “look,” radiates insecurity. Abandoned by both her parents, she was left as a high school sophomore in a trailer with her brother to fend for herself. “I felt, like, super alone,” Simianer said. “Like everyone was against me and I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t important to anyone.” Though Marshall’s experience was different, his memories of growing up are almost identical to his fellow cheerleader’s. “I felt like I was really alone,” he said. “There was nobody that was gonna come save me.” Like Hernandez, sports was all they had.

And if a competitive sport defines you, then its coach controls you. Hernandez’s father, the ex-football heavyweight, was known as the King; Monica Aldama, the head coach on Cheer, is the Queen. Describing how she felt when Aldama remembered her name at tryouts, Simianer said, “It was like I’m not just nobody.” For her ability to literally pummel a bunch of college kids into a winning team in half the regular time, Aldama has been characterized as both a saint and a sinner. While she claims to be an advocate for the troubled members of her team, she fails to see how their histories skew her intentions — her position as a maternal figure whose love is not unconditional ultimately puts the athletes more at risk. Aldama proudly comments on Simianer’s lack of fear, while it is a clear case of recklessness. This is a girl who is unable to express her pain in any way sacrificing her own life (literally — with her fragile ribs, one errant move could puncture an organ) for the woman who, ironically, made her feel like she was worthy of it. “I would do anything for that woman,” Simianer confesses at one point. “I would take a bullet for her.” Jury’s out on whether Marshall, the outspoken outsize talent who regularly clashes with his team, would do the same. His ambivalent approach to Aldama seems connected to how self-aware he is about his own struggles, which affords him freedom from her grasp. After she pushes him to be more empathetic, he explains, “It’s hard to be like that when you are mentally battling yourself.”

That Cheer and Killer Inside focus on the psychological as well as the physical strain faced by athletes — not to mention that athletics have no gender — is an improvement on the sports industries they present, which often objectify their stars as mere pedestals for their talents. The Navarro cheerleaders and Hernandez are both helped and hurt by sports, an outlet which can at once mean everything and nothing in the end. This is the legacy of the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, which followed two teen NBA hopefuls and was as much about the intersections of race and class as it was about basketball. Not to mention OJ: Made in America, the 2016 ESPN miniseries that explored how the story of the football star and alleged murderer reflected race relations in the United States in the mid-’90s. Conversely, mainstream film and television continues to be heavily male when it comes to sports, focusing on individual heroics, on pain leading to gain — the American Dream on steroids. Cheer and Killer Inside expose this narrative for the myth it is, spotlighting that all athletes have both minds and bodies that break, that their legacies as human beings are not about what they have won but who they are. But the climate in which they’ve landed cannot be ignored either, a social-media marinated world in which sports stars are no longer just players but people who are willing to be vulnerable with their public, who are even further willing to sign their names next to their problems for The Players’ Tribune, the six-year-old platform populated by content provided by pro athletes. “Everyone is going through something,” wrote NBA star Kevin Love in an industry-shaking post in 2018. “No matter what our circumstances, we’re all carrying around things that hurt — and they can hurt us if we keep them buried inside.”

Fast-forward to that new video of former basketball pro Delonte West, the one of him having his head stomped on so hard in the middle of the street that I still wonder how he survived it. He also came from an underprivileged, unstable background. He chose the college he did for its “family atmosphere.” Like Simianer, he fixated on his failures and played with abandon. Like her, he also had trouble verbalizing his feelings, to the point that they would overflow (in anger for him, tears for her). Though he says he was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, he considers his biggest problem to be “self-loathing.” But why? He was a sports star who signed a nearly $13 million contract in his prime — what better reason for self-love? A study published two years ago in the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, profiling the psychological well-being of 99 elite athletes, may provide an answer. The study found that those with high perfectionism, fear of failure, and performance-based self-worth had the highest levels of depression, anxiety, shame, and life dissatisfaction. Those with a more global self-worth that did not depend on their performance had the opposite outcome. As if to provide confirmation, a subsequent study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise that same year revealed that athletes with contingent self-esteem were more likely to burn out. When sports become your only source of value, your wins ultimately don’t come to much.

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The irony of all of this is that I came back to sports as an adult for my mental health. Obviously, I’m not an elite athlete — whatever the opposite of that is, I am. But having no stakes makes it that much easier to use physical activity for good. Nothing is dependent on it; that I’m moving at all is victory enough. But my circumstances are different. My jock high school was a private school, sports were (mostly) optional, and elite academics were where most of us found validation — and financial stability. “Conventional wisdom suggests that the sport offers an ‘escape’ from under-resourced communities suffering from the effects of systemic neglect,” Natalie Weiner writes in SB Nation. “If you work hard enough and make the right choices — playing football being one of the most accessible and appealing ways for boys, at least, to do that — you should be safe.” This reminds me of Aldama telling a room of underprivileged kids with limited prospects, “If you work hard at anything you do, you will be rewarded, you will be successful in life.” This is the American Dream–infused sports culture the media has traditionally plugged — the one, ironically, dismantled by the show in which Aldama herself appears. As Spike Lee tells a group of the top high school basketball players in the country in Hoop Dreams: “The only reason why you’re here, you can make their team win, and if their team wins, schools get a lot of money. This whole thing is revolving around money.” 

In the same SB Nation article, which focused on how school football coaches combat gun violence, Darnell Grant, a high school coach in Newark, admitted he prioritized schoolwork, something both Cheer and Killer Inside barely mentioned. “My thing is to at least have the choice,” he said. Without that, kids are caught in the thrall of sports, which serves the industry but not its players. Contingent self-worth does the same thing, which is why mental health is as much of a priority as education. The head football coach at a Chicago high school, D’Angelo Dereef, explained why dropping a problematic player — which is basically what happened to Hernandez at U of F, where coach Urban Meyer pushed him into the NFL draft rather than taking him back — doesn’t fix them. “They’re not getting into their brains to figure out why,” Dereef told the site. “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a big cut — that’s not going to stop the bleeding.” While the NBA was the first major sports league to address mental health in its collective bargaining agreement in 2018, in mid-January the WNBA signed its own new CBA, which only vaguely promised “enhanced mental health benefits and resources.” That the sports industry as a whole does not go far enough to address the psychological welfare of its players is to their detriment, but also to their own: At least one study from 2003 has shown that prioritizing “athletes’ needs of autonomy” — the opposite of contingent self-worth — as opposed to conformity, has the potential to improve their motivation and performance. In sports terms, that’s a win-win.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.