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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.

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | October 2019 |  8 minutes (2,066 words)

This will be impossible to tweet. It always is. How do you siphon 2,500 words into 280 characters? More importantly, how do you turn a measured thesis into something interesting, and by interesting I mean shareable, and by shareable I mean divisive. It’s one thing to say, I don’t know, “Todd Phillips is a no-talent ass clown;” it’s another thing to imply that over more than a thousand words analyzing the bottomless lack of depth in Joker. “It was literally like ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it fucking Joker,’” the director told The Wrap in September, his defense against accusations that his film intentionally glorified a character who many considered an incel antihero. And it wasn’t just the critics. Victims of the 2012 Aurora shooting, which took place during a The Dark Knight Rises screening, even asked for donations to survivor funds and gun violence intervention programs. Phillips was confused by the controversy. “Isn’t it good to have these discussions about these movies, about violence?” he asked. “Why is that a bad thing if the movie does lead to a discourse about it?”

It’s not a bad thing, except this isn’t a discourse. To have a discourse you need a modicum of intellectual humility on both sides, which is to say, both sides need to have some idea that what they believe might be wrong in order to actually be receptive to the opposing opinion. Neither Phillips nor the social media mob he was taking issue with were having a discourse. It’s hard to blame the latter, since the thing getting in the way was not so much them as it was the medium. It’s easier to blame Phillips, whose party line is that he broke the mold by taking a simplistic trope and turning it into a profound piece of art that explores contemporary fears, when, in actual fact, it only signals depth while remaining superficial. In a similar display of contradictions, now that his clown movie is being swept up into a complex discourse, Phillips is refusing to engage with it, instead opting for reductive dismissal that mirrors the online critiques he so openly disparages. Read more…

Grow Up

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | September 2019 |  8 minutes (2,168 words)

There’s a scene not quite midway through Mermaids, the ’60s-set coming-of-age drama starring Cher and Winona Ryder in which the mom acts like a kid and the kid acts like a mom, where Ryder is walking through her small town just after JFK has been assassinated. She passes adult after adult, each of them staring at the ground, shell-shocked, mourning. Then she comes across a bunch of children playing in some dead leaves and her voiceover breaks the silence: “It feels like there isn’t a single adult left on the entire planet.”

No kidding. I’m an adult but that is exactly how I feel right now, and it must be worse for kids: For Mari Copeny, now 11, as she sits cross-legged, alone, holding up a sign: flint mi has been without clean water since april 24th, 2014. For Autumn Peltier, now 14, the First Nations Canadian who confronted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016 about his continued support of oil pipelines: “People my age are starting to notice how adults are treating the planet.” For the tens of thousands of students in Hong Kong who attended demonstrations instead of their first day of school in order to stand up for democracy amid violent protests. With no future, there’s no need to go to class, one sign read. For the sea of kids who took part in the March For Our Lives to call for U.S. gun legislation in the wake of a cascading number of school shootings. For all the children who continue to strike alongside Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist initially inspired not by the adults finally taking action, but by the kids calling out their inaction.

Most of these people can’t vote, remember. Imagine how that must feel. Imagine knowing what to do but not being able to do it. Imagine how frustrating that must be, how powerless. Now imagine being the person who can do it. And imagine laughing instead. Asked for her message to world leaders at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York earlier this week, Thunberg said, “My message is that we’ll be watching you.” Delighted, the audience laughed and clapped. How adorable! But Thunberg remained stone-faced. Then her eyes reddened, then she started to cry. “I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean,” she seethed. “Yet you all come to us young people for hope? How dare you!” Her anger came from knowing that, despite sounding scientists’ climate alarm for the millionth time, there would be no solution, because, “you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.” And this is where it’s at right now as we face the end: The children, who have no power, are the only ones who know what to do with it. Read more…

Cahiers du Post-Cinéma

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | September 2019 |  9 minutes (2,452 words)

The new release I most wanted to see during the Toronto International Film Festival was Unbelievable, the Netflix series that is neither a movie nor was it screening at TIFF. I was more taken by this miniseries, based on the ProPublica and Marshall Project investigation of a number of real rapes in Washington and Colorado, than by any of the movies I saw. But then, I have a particular affinity for this kind of mid-budget drama: real-looking people solving real problems in a real world, wading through the complications of humanity — “God shows up looking for someone to be of service, clean things up a bit, and he says, ‘Whom shall I send?’” — this is my shit. It’s the kind of thing you saw regularly at the cinema in the ’70s but that now tends to be relegated to streaming sites. I wonder how much of my affinity for Unbelievable — eight hours, three days — had to do with the fact that I could watch it at home. Alone. For free (well, Netflix-account free). Whether if all other things had been equal, but it had been playing at TIFF, I would have felt the same. Would I have felt the same had I chosen it over something else, doubt over my decision percolating in the background? Or if I were watching next to critics who liked it much more than I did, or much less? Or if I’d had an anxiety attack because I was assigned a middle seat (aisles only)? When the stakes are high, it’s harder to see past them. Read more…

The Myth of Making It

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 |  7 minutes (1,849 words)

I think maybe I thought I made it a couple of times. Both of them had to do with jobs. Both were fleeting feelings — very much tied to age and stage of life — and I’ve never felt the same way again. I don’t know what “making it” would even look like now: maybe having enough money to buy a house (see: acquire an “asset”) and not be immediately broke? I’d probably still feel dissatisfied because I didn’t write some book or win some award or, like, live around enough trees. That lack of internal contentment, I think, is the problem. It’s what makes grasping at outside validation so fruitless. An already mythical idea, “making it” becomes ever more elusive when measured externally — by accolades, wealth, any sort of acquisition. It becomes as fungible as those things are, whether according to your own circumstances or to the world’s. You’re either competing with yourself to outdo what you’ve already achieved, or you’re competing with someone else for a bigger share of some pie (and there’s always someone else). Or maybe you aren’t consciously competing with anyone; you just have this kind of profound insecurity that follows you from triumph to triumph, serving only the market you buy into, in order to stave it off, but no one else.

Take Tyshawn Jones, who’s only 20 and has already been named Skater of the Year by Thrasher magazine, but who can’t stop talking about what he doesn’t have. Or actress Kirsten Dunst, who’s been nominated for award after award, but still feels uncelebrated. Or Bill Hader, whom The New York Times Magazine recently confronted about his show’s success. (It received 17 — 17! — Emmys nods.) The Barry creator conceded the win, but also acknowledged the difference between external praise and the way he berates himself internally. “It never ends,” he explained. “That’s the thing.” That’s the thing with making it, it sows the seeds of its own destruction. Because implicit in the promise that you’ll succeed is the assurance that you never will. 

* * *

If the god in On Becoming a God in Central Florida is ambition, then the devil is an alligator. In the first episode of the Showtime series, which takes place in a 1992 that looks like 1982, a sweaty, mulleted version of Alexander Skarsgård named Travis Stubbs gets pulled into a pyramid scheme that obsesses him to such a degree that he can’t sleep. Starved of rest, he hallucinates a glowing white moose in the middle of the road (idk) and crashes into a swamp, where he is promptly consumed by a gator. Before his soul is claimed, his wife, Krystal (a big-haired, heavily lacquered Kirsten Dunst), balks at the millionaire idols he flashes in front of her face, accusing him of buying into a fantasy. In their wood-paneled bungalow, their newborn asleep, Krystal motions to their surroundings and says, “I know this is inconceivable to you, but this is more than I ever expected.” As irony would have it, the show arrived around the same time as an interview in which Dunst expressed dissatisfaction with a career that her character would likely be barely able to conceive of. In the viral clip taken from her appearance on SiriusXM’s In Depth with Larry Flick, Dunst confessed she had never felt empowered in her three decades of acting. “I’ve never been recognized in my industry. I’ve never been nominated for anything,” she said, adding, “I just feel like, ‘What did I do?’” As if to prove her point, Reuters tweeted and then deleted a post about her Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony, describing her as “best known for her role as Spiderman’s girlfriend.”

The truth is that Dunst has been recognized. She’s been nominated for multiple Golden Globes (the first at age 11!), for Cannes Best Actress, for an Emmy. She just got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for god’s sake. “I know that all you have is your work at the end of the day and that’s all people really are about,” Dunst told Flick. “I’m, you know, intelligent enough to know that and have perspective.” But she’s worked for three decades and what does she have to show for it — $25 million and a few award nods? Equivalent actress — this isn’t a science, but bear with me — Anne Hathaway is seven months younger, has worked 10 years fewer and has an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and an Emmy. Oh, and apparently she’s worth $35 million. As Dunst said, “Sometimes you’re like, ‘Mmm. It’d be nice to be recognized by your peers.’ You know what I mean?”

Yes, I fucking do know what you mean. Because I am you, but much much poorer and much much less famous. In her SiriusXM interview, Dunst wondered whether she played the game enough, but then admitted she always does what she’s supposed to. “It’s not like I’m rude or, like, not doing publicity or anything,” she said. Her frank bewilderment was achingly familiar. I have had the same conversations over and over and over again. I do good work, I show up, I promote. But I never get awards. When a stranger says they know my writing, I am genuinely shocked. From where I’m sitting, Dunst has made it. But then: Hathaway. In North America, wherever you’re sitting, you’re always aware that someone else is doing better. 

The cliché is that money can’t buy you happiness, but it’s increasingly obvious that what can help make you happy is not knowing how much more everyone else has and not storing your value in your savings account. This year’s World Happiness Report named Finland the most contented country on the planet despite it trailing both Canada and the U.S. in gross domestic product. The highest-ranking countries had not only healthy incomes but also robust social support systems, freedom, and generosity, none of which have much to do with making you feel accomplished but are rather about making you feel as worthy as everyone else. In Scientific American, Finnish well-being expert Frank Martela explained Finland’s position in the context of human beings’ impulse to compare. “If everybody else is doing better than you, it is hard to be satisfied with your life conditions, no matter how good they objectively are,” he wrote. “By not displaying, let alone exaggerating, their own happiness, Finns might help each other to make more realistic comparisons, which benefits everybody’s happiness.” 

The American Dream, that anyone can work hard and ultimately come out on top, is like an anti-happiness plan: A good life is not measured by social support or freedom or empathy, but by material gain. Showing off your wealth shows off your success, which shows off your value as a human being. This goes double for artists, whose livelihoods are that much harder to secure. Triple for marginalized communities, who have to work that much harder than everyone else. While all of this striving is a boon for capitalism, it’s a disaster for the people living under it.

I don’t want to add patriarchy to this whole thing, but why not. It’s the part that genders success so that Dunst complains about recognition, while men complain about money. It makes sense if you think about what guys are traditionally supposed to be: powerful breadwinners. This is where Tyshawn Jones lives. In a sprawling profile this weekend, The New York Times Magazine called him New York’s first skateboarding superstar. But even though this kid barely out of his teens has claimed the highest honor in his field — Thrasher’s cover and Skater of the Year Award — won a sponsorship deal with Supreme, cofounded a hardware and apparel company, opened a restaurant, and even designed his own shoe, none of it is enough. He doesn’t have a Vogue cover, for one thing. That’s power. And he doesn’t have Nyjah Huston money. “Everybody don’t like him, but I respect him,” Jones said. “He one of the only niggas who really got rich off skating, like really rich, like $2 million crib, like Lamborghini — I think that’s tight. There’s skaters who can’t even get by with $500 a month.” There’s a big gap between $6 million (Huston’s reported net worth) and $6,000, but Jones isn’t comparing down, he’s comparing up. That’s what successful people do. 

So it’s either about recognition or it’s about money, money or recognition. But both come second to the end goal of making it, the Platonic ideal of the Valuable Citizen. Self-actualization, community, autonomy … those things are nice, but they aren’t particularly profitable for a capitalist society. Material is. And measuring success materially keeps success perennially elusive because the standard of comparison is always shifting under your feet. This insecurity keeps the gears of patriarchal capitalism turning as we stumble over one another to feed them and ourselves. The market exploits and perpetuates the constant feeling that we’re not good enough, or, in Jones’s case, not secure enough, by convincing us it has the answer. Every payday or product whispers to us that we’re that much closer to making it — whatever it is — without ever actually allowing us to get there.

* * *

“Finally it has happened to me right in front of my face / My feelings can’t describe it / Finally it has happened to me right in front of my face / And I just cannot hide it.” The 1992 CeCe Peniston song “Finally” is about love, but in On Finding God it’s about making it. The dance hit blasts right after Krystal decides to take over her husband’s dream, the one that turned him into gator food. The animal now lies skinned in her garage, but what might have acted as an exorcism has instead resulted in transference. If the alligator was the devil claiming Krystal’s husband’s acquisitive soul, Krystal now appears to have inherited it. But this time around she’s not the one being sacrificed; she’s all in on the scheme, and everyone around her serves as the oblation. 

This is success in America now, where the closer we get to whatever its manifestation is — whether it’s wealth or acknowledgment or something else — the further we get from our humanity. The only way to get out of it is to fundamentally understand that making it is a myth. Rather than making a pact with the devil, which is to say, buying into validation we know will never be enough, we have to reject the premise of the pact. Bill Hader, as insecure as any of us, chooses to coexist with his self doubt. While this may be disappointingly human to some, his is not a fantasy life based on comparison — it’s him at his most honest. As renowned dancer Martha Graham famously observed, it is here that an artist’s magic resides: “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Rock Me Gently

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 |  9 minutes (2,273 words)

I have no reason not to believe Rolling Stone when it calls cover star Harry Styles a “21st century rock star.” He certainly looks like one: shirtless, tattooed, his hair a tousled mess, and a smile that may not say big dick energy but definitely says he knows what to do with it. He could be 1977 cover star Peter Frampton, when he was named “Rock Star of the Year.” There’s even a tagline to the left of Styles’s nipple promising sex and psychedelics. But then you start reading, and the setup begins to break down. Sure, he has a reputation for fucking a lot, but it all sounds very consensual and age-appropriate. He also seems unfailingly polite, not to mention sunny. I mean, he gets sad — his new album is “all about having sex and feeling sad” — but he’s not broody and doesn’t seem like he’d ever trash a hotel. This is a guy who appears to sort his problems out the way therapists tell us to: friendships, meditation, even work. “I feel like the fans have given me an environment to be myself and grow up and create this safe space to learn and make mistakes,” he tells the magazine. He describes himself as vulnerable and loose (the mushrooms and weed can’t hurt). Rolling Stone describes one moment as “rock-star debauchery” but all he did while tripping was bite off the tip of his own tongue — the only person he bled on was himself. As for everyone else, he just wants them to feel loved. “I’m aware that as a white male, I don’t go through the same things as a lot of the people that come to the shows,” he says. “I’m just trying to make people feel included and seen.”

The classic ideal of the rock star — the depraved renegade with infinite hotel bills, addictions, and infidelities — is dead. The charismatic young white man (it was usually a young white man, sometimes several) who rebranded selfishness as revolution has been overthrown, taking with him a part of the individualist, white, patriarchal capitalist system he came from. In his place, new rock stars, sometimes white and male, often not, have sprung up to nurture rather than destroy — instead of shutting us out, they let us in. Read more…

White Looks

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 |  8 minutes (2,132 words)

 

They have a deep emotional investment in the myth of “sameness,” even as their actions reflect the primacy of whiteness as a sign informing who they are and how they think.

—bell hooks, Black Looks (1992)

 

I’m experiencing some deep angst about this essay. That anxious feeling where you’re standing on the edge of a cliff on a perfect day — no wind, no sound, no bird of prey — and you’re almost certain you’ll throw yourself off. Every time I email a black critic for this article, it’s even worse because I can’t even tell if I’ve jumped or not. Like I’m dead at the bottom of that cliff, but I have to wait for a reply to be informed. That I’m dead. This is what white people call “white fragility,” right? “Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race,” Robin DiAngelo wrote. (As book critic Katy Waldman noted, many people of color could have written White Fragility in their sleep.) I am in fact biracial — my father is white, my mother is Pakistani (she grew up in England) — but I pass. I barely identify with my Pakistani side, except when I see a group of Pakistani people. Then I’m like Hey. I know you. (Even though I don’t.) I don’t think this when I see a group of black people. Although, what’s that line in Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist? “To be an antiracist is to realize there is no such thing as Black behavior.” To be an antiracist is to realize there is such a thing as White behavior.
Read more…

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

The Anti-Hate Pop Culture List

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

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

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

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

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Death Proof

Sony Pictures, Illustration by Homestead

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

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

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

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

Free Solo

Hulu, Photo Illustration by Homestead

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


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

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

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