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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.

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 Longreads

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

“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.”  

* * *

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. 

***

 

“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. 

***

“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.”

* * *

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?

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Menace Too Society

Illustration by Homestead Studio

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2020 |  10 minutes (2,378 words)

It’s taken two years for #MeToo to wake up France, but at least it did. The country appears to finally see the men it has created, which is more than can be said of North America, trapped in the cancel culture stage, calling out everyone except itself. That lack of self-awareness is easy to miss, though. There’s a lot of wokeness floating around these parts — we even have a “woke” princess, although Meghan Markle’s self-appointed royal defection alone could never really loosen the monarchy’s grip on Britain. And for all the hand-wringing by Hollywood stars over diversity, there is once again an established structure above them that resists the change they represent, one that inevitably rears its head in heavily white male awards seasons. France appears to know this now, but only because it was told so by a woman it nearly destroyed.

“I’m really angry, but the issue isn’t so much me, how I survive this or not,” French actress Adèle Haenel told Mediapart in November. “I want to talk about an abuse which is unfortunately commonplace, and attack the system of silence and collusion behind it which makes it possible.” The 31-year-old Portrait of a Lady on Fire star was talking about her alleged abuse from the ages of 12 to 15 at the hands of her first film director, Christophe Ruggia, who was in his 30s at the time. In a follow-up sit-down interview with the same site, Haenel emphasized that she wasn’t canceling anyone; this wasn’t about censoring individuals, but about calling attention to an entrenched society-wide ill and the culture that upholds it. It was this depersonalization that seemed to free up France to reflect, something still largely missing from U.S. conversations — from #MeToo to inclusivity in entertainment to royal affairs — that are all rooted in a foundational hierarchy the entire population is complicit in preserving. “When we come up against the control of the patriarchy,” explained Haenel, “we talk about it as though it were from the outside, whereas it’s from the inside.”

* * *

Barely a week into the new year, two of the most celebrated members of the most prestigious institution in the U.K. turned their backs on it. On January 8, the Sussex Instagram account dropped a shot of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle with 195 words that defied centuries of British tradition. “After many months of reflection and internal discussions, we have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution,” it read. “We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent.” The announcement, which also stated the couple plans to split its time between the U.K. and North America, came not long after the airing of an emotional ITV documentary in which Markle admitted, “I never thought that this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair.” Anyone who watched her say that, who saw the same defeat in her face that they saw in Princess Diana’s decades prior, who saw Harry’s frustration at the thought that it could all happen again, who saw the royal family barely ripple in response to Prince Andrew’s association with a registered sex offender, would not only understand this separation, but expect nothing less. How else to exercise your opposition to a patriarchal empire than to forsake its number one emblem?

But the media took it personally — it was a door slammed and shut tight in the face of their badgering, which had become as much of a presence as the royals themselves, a constant reminder of British society’s supplication at the feet of an outdated overlord. Piers Morgan expressed his preference for the old prince, the fratty drunk who cosplayed a Nazi, amid reports that Madame Tussaud’s had swiftly relocated the royal couple’s wax figures from its esteemed collection. The local response reeked of personal injury, as though the duo had turned its nose up at the greatest gift the country had to offer, rather than what they actually did: kicked off a long-awaited internal confrontation with the colonial inheritance of a populace that insists on running on its fumes. As Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, told NPR, “Instead of taking this as an opportunity for introspection as to what is it about the upper strata of British society that is hostile for a person of color like Meghan Markle, what we’re seeing now is the British media just lashing out again and blaming everyone except themselves.” “Everyone” being “non-aristocratic, non-white interlopers,” which is to say, the people who actually populate Britain. 

If Prince Harry is the future, Prince William is the past, and it’s fitting that he not only presides over the kingdom (or will, one day) but its version of the Oscars. The day before his brother’s adios, the BAFTAs announced that for the seventh year in a row, no women were nominated for best director, and in addition, all 20 of the acting nominees were white. In an internal letter, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts’ chief executive Amanda Berry and film committee chair Marc Samuelson called the lack of diversity “frustrating and deeply disappointing,” as though it were entirely out of their hands. Yet the 8,000-member committee is chaired by Pippa Harris, who cofounded a production company with Sam Mendes nearly two decades ago, which may explain why 1917, the war epic Mendes directed and coproduced with Harris, was the only nominee for both best film and best British film. This sort of insularity may be unspoken but it is not inactive, it has repercussions for which films are funded and how they are marketed and ultimately rewarded. 

“BAFTA can’t tell the studios and the production companies who they should hire and whose stories should get told,” Samuelson told Variety, deflecting the blame. But the academy’s site claims it discovers and nurtures new talent and has a mission that includes diversity and inclusion, so why does its most recent Breakthrough Brits list appear to be three quarters white? As former BAFTA winner Steve McQueen observed, there were plenty of British women and people of color who did exceptional work in film this year — in movies like In Fabric, The Souvenir, Queen & Slim, and Us — and were nonetheless overlooked, implying a more deeply ingrained exclusion, the sort that permeates British society beyond its film industry and keeps the country from actually perceiving non-white, non-male stories as legitimate art. Snubbed Harriet star Cynthia Erivo confessed to Extra TV that she actually turned down an invitation to sing at the BAFTAs, evoking Markle’s absences from a growing number of royal engagements. “It felt like it was calling on me as an entertainer,” Erivo said, “as opposed to a person who was a part of the world of film.”

Awards as a whole are representative of industry-wide limitations, which, as ever, are tied to the dominance of a particular group in the larger society. The Oscars, dating back to the ’20s and established to garner positive publicity for Hollywood (while extinguishing its unions), seem to persist in the belief that that is tied to white male supremacy. I probably don’t have to tell you the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just elected another middle-aged white man as its head (David Rubin) and has a member base that is 84 percent white and 68 percent male. And that’s an improvement after April Reign’s viral 2016 #OscarsSoWhite outcry. “It’s not about saying who is snubbed and who should have been nominated,” Reign told The Huffington Post at the time, “it’s about opening the discussion more on how the decisions were made, who was cast and who tells the story behind the camera.” And yet the response, as always, has been tokenism — one black nominee here, an Asian one there, a one-for-one reaction to cancel culture which provides momentary relief but no real evolution. The individual successes of Moonlight and Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman and even Parasite, not to mention Spike Lee being named the first ever black Cannes jury head, can’t ultimately undo more than 100 years of white male paternalism. The Oscar nominations this year, dominated by four movies that are very pale and very violent — Joker, 1917, The Irishman, and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood — encapsulate the real soul of Hollywood and the society in which it was forged. It is no mistake that, as The Atlantic outlined, the ceremony neglects “domestic narratives, and stories told by women and people of color.” Harvey Weinstein, who turned awards campaigning into a brutalist art form while allegedly brutalizing women behind the scenes, may no longer be the Oscars’ figurehead, but his imprint endures.

À propos, Les Misérables, a gritty drama about a bunch of men facing off with a bunch of other men (oh, and some boys too) in a poor neighborhood in Paris, was the French submission to this year’s Oscars instead of Haenel’s critically preferred film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a lush period romance about two women in love. It was that film’s director, Céline Sciamma, for whom Haenel returned to acting in 2007 with White Lilies (and with whom she had a romance off-camera) years after her experience with Ruggia drove her from the industry. Though she opened up to Sciamma about being sexually abused, Haenel didn’t go public until she was firmly established with two Césars (the French Academy Award equivalent) to bolster her legitimacy — she knew that otherwise society, French and otherwise, sides with men. “Even if it is difficult to fight against the balance of power set out from early adolescence, and against the man-woman relationship of dominance, the social balance of power has been inversed,” Haenel told Mediapart in November. “I am today socially powerful, whereas [Ruggia] has simply become diminished.” This was a crucial but deemphasised aspect of the shift in America which took place after a slew of A-list white actresses — women who were held up by society and thus listened to — accused Weinstein of abuse, a shift which did not take place after a slew of lesser known women, many of them women of color, accused Bill Cosby. (That the latter is black no doubt also played into the country’s lingering racist belief that all black men are latent criminals, so obviously he was a predator, right?) With none of these longstanding prejudices addressed, however, they risk being repeated, as the system which permitted these men to abuse their power prevails.

“What do we all have as collective responsibility for that to happen. That’s what we’re talking about,” Haenel said in her sit-down interview. “Monsters don’t exist. It’s our society, it’s us, it’s our friends, it’s our fathers. We’re not here to eliminate them, we’re here to change them.” This approach is in direct opposition to how #MeToo has been unraveling in the U.S., where names of accused men — Woody Allen, Michael Jackson, Matt Lauer, R. Kelly, Louis C.K., Weinstein — loom so large on the marquees that they conveniently block out reality: that they were shaped by America, a place that gives golden handshakes to abusers, barely takes them to trial for their alleged actions, and sometimes even cheers them on. It’s not that women here have not been saying the same thing as Haenel, it just seems to be that their message is lost in the cacophony of proliferating high-profile cases themselves. Haenel’s resonance sources from not only the relative anomaly of a French woman of her stature making such claims, but also the fact that she is so much more famous than her alleged perpetrator and that her age at the time makes it a clear instance of abuse. Perhaps it also has to do with her disclosure coming amidst the ongoing yellow vests movement, which has primed France’s citizens to call for all manner of accountability.  

Haenel’s alleged abuser has since been charged with sexual aggression against a minor, though she initially refused to go through the justice system, which she saw as part of a deeper systemic bias that resulted in her abuse. UniFrance, which promotes French films internationally, has openly backed the actress and is in the process of creating a charter to protect actors, and, in a historic move, the French Society of Film Directors dropped Ruggia, its former copresident. Meanwhile, Gabriel Matzneff is also being investigated following the publication of a memoir by Vanessa Springora in which the publishing head describes her teen sexual encounters with the then-50-something-year-old French writer who has always been open about his affinity for underage girls and boys. And the same country that supported Roman Polanski in the aftermath of child sexual assault allegations several years ago is now protesting him in the wake of Haenel’s disclosure. As she said when asked about the Oscar-winning filmmaker on Mediapart, “the debate around Polanski is not limited to Polanski and his monstrosity, but implicates the whole of society.” The French media calls Haenel’s #MeToo story a turning point, one which highlights not the individual — even she expressed regret that it fell on one man — but on a society which believes victimization is in any way excusable. 

* * *

“It’s possible for society to act differently,” Haenel said. “It’s better for everyone, firstly for the victims but even for the torturers to look themselves in the face. That’s what being human is. It’s not about crushing people and trying to gain power, it’s about questioning yourself and accepting the multi-dimensional side of what a human being is. That’s how we build high society.” Up until this point we have been primarily concerned with identifying the bad seeds and having them punished and even removed, without really wrestling with the environment in which they have grown — doing that means facing ourselves as well. We name names and call out institutions — like Hollywood awards and the British royal family — and then what? What remains is the same system that produced these individuals, these same individuals simply establishing new institutions with the same foundations. Identifying what’s wrong doesn’t tell us what’s right. It wasn’t until Haenel was introduced to a filmmaking crew that was entirely female, that listened to her and supported her, that she could identify not just what shouldn’t be, but what should. “What society do we want?” she asked. “It’s about that too.”

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Happily Never After

Illustration by Homestead Studio

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2020 |  8 minutes (1,978 words)

“And when they bombed other people’s houses, we / protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not / enough …” On January 3rd, Ukrainian immigrant Ilya Kaminsky quote-tweeted his poem, “We Lived Happily During the War,” after it went viral the day Iranian general Qassem Suleimani was assassinated on the order of President Donald Trump. The poem appeared in his long-awaited 2019 poetry collection, Deaf Republic, about a town that responds to the killing of a deaf child by itself going deaf, a parable of the present-day United States, a country that responds to its own demise (and the rest of the world’s) by blocking its ears. His tweet went up in the midst of increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran and ahead of the death of more than 50 people in a stampede during Suleimani’s funeral procession. It went up months into bushfires ravaging New South Wales that have destroyed millions of hectares and killed roughly half a billion animals. It went up in the wake of a slew of antisemitic attacks across the country. Last Sunday, while thousands in New York marched in solidarity with the Jewish community, the Hollywood awards season kicked off in Los Angeles with the Golden Globes, and the media started gleefully tweeting about couture as though the destruction of the world had politely paused for the occasion. The timing made me think of a friend who recently asked: What if all the people who went to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — tens of millions of Americans — protested instead?

“Now’s NOT the time to live happily,” read Kaminsky’s tweet after he extended his thanks for his poetry’s dissemination. He did not squander the moment the way so many of us often do, advising instead that we “write quality journalism & spicy op-eds & protest poems, get out in the street if you’re able. We won’t live happily during another war.”

But aren’t we already? Read more…

Still Waters

Participant, Killer Films

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2019 |  9 minutes (2,330 words)

About halfway through Dark Waters, after corporate lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) has agreed to hear out farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), after he has seen that hundreds of cows on the Tennant farm have died, after he has connected this to their town’s water system, after he has linked that to the chemical company DuPont, after he has tied that to PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acid), after he has found that PFOAs are a man-made forever chemical that can cause tumours and that the company that runs the town is effectively destroying everything within it, after all of that he’s about to sit down his pregnant wife (Anne Hathaway) to explain it to her when she looks at him square in the face and says, “I’m not listening to this.”                          

That should have been the tagline for the movie. It should be the tagline for the world. Dark Waters’ largely ignored release mirrors the larger apathetic response to the climate crisis as a whole. And yet a number of critics who saw it threw away their nonstick pans (PFOA is used to create Teflon), proving the film had the power to spur people on to some kind of action. But if it’s that effective and that timely — show me a global corporation that isn’t hoarding power and destroying the planet — why is no one talking about it? Why did only two movies seem to grab all the column inches over the past few weeks: Marriage Story, a movie about Noah Baumbach’s (sorry, “a couple’s”) divorce, and The Irishman, a movie about an aging mobster? Surely the planet has greater reach being, you know, where we actually live? 

That seems to be the problem. Dark Waters is not just about one plutonium plant (Silkwood), a single nuclear power plant (The China Syndrome), or even a Catholic church abuse conspiracy (Spotlight), it’s a story about systemic corruption that courses through the entire world. As the film’s director, Todd Haynes, told the New Yorker, “There’s no silver bullet, no magic solutions.” No one wants to listen to that.

* * *

Environmental films have been around almost as long as films themselves, and our responses to them have varied as much as our responses to the natural world. Pare Lorentz’s 1936 short The Plow That Broke the Plains, about how aggressive farming created the Dust Bowl, was actually sponsored by the U.S. government. But then World War II ended and America got richer, which meant a lusher population if not a more fruitful landscape. Lorentz wanted to keep making political movies (and what are environmental films if not political), but no one was funding them — one of the most popular films of the 1940s was called The Best Year of Our Lives. Then, in 1958, a woman named Olga Owens Huckins noticed that ten of her favorite birds had died after a DDT mixture was sprayed around her home and alerted her biologist friend Rachel Carson — she responded by writing Silent Spring.

With the 1962 arrival of Carson’s opus on pesticides — the DDT mosquito spray turned out to be killing Huckins’s birds, poisoning marine life, and was possibly also carcinogenic to humans — Americans awoke to the world around them and its abuse by corporate America. The Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970 (not to mention Earth Day) to sate their concerns, while activist groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth sprouted up, outcrops from the era’s wider counterculture movement. This was an epoch in which regular people speaking truth to power could actually be heard. In 1976, All the President’s Men was one of the top five highest grossing films of the year and it remains the high-water mark of whistleblowing movies, while 1979 remains one of the best years ever for overtly political filmmaking in Hollywood. That year both Norma Rae, the Sally Field starrer about union activist Crystal Lee Sutton, and The China Syndrome, about the safety coverup at a fictional nuclear plant, competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. For the latter, Jack Lemmon won Cannes’ best actor for his role as the plant’s shift supervisor, and for the former, Field won the best actress Oscar. Both films were critical and commercial successes. It didn’t hurt that the nuclear power industry accused China Syndrome of mendacity, only to be hoisted on its own petard less than two weeks after the film’s premiere by the Three Mile Island nuclear partial meltdown and radiation leak in Pennsylvania.

But the 1980s came along and activism turned into consumerism. The average American now wanted reassurance, not revolution. So they reverted to conservatism, they pushed the government to deregulate, and instead of paying taxes, they watched their money pile up around them as they stayed indoors watching MTV, only trekking to the movies for escapist blockbusters. They were encouraged to buy and buy and buy, spending rather than questioning. If there was disaffection, it wasn’t with the corruption of higher powers so much as the corruption of their own psyches. In the midst of all this, Silkwood was released in 1983, with Meryl Streep playing another whistleblower. Despite its star power — Streep being Streep, Cher getting serious, Kurt Russell going dramatic — the film didn’t have the same success as its predecessors. Audiences now preferred ghostbusters and gremlins and Indiana Jones, an archeologist who unearths fortune rather than failure.

In the following decade, going to see a movie about the planet usually meant going to see an action movie with an non-man-made threat — asteroids were a favorite. From Deep Impact to Armageddon to Dante’s Peak to Volcano, these were movies about nature attacking us rather than the other way around. It speaks to how out of touch they were that Disney executives of all people, part of the corporate community that helped mold Hollywood into an action-hero-centric fantasy universe, would think that Michael Mann’s studious 1999 slow burner The Insider, about Brown & Williamson Tobacco’s attempt to silence whistleblowing biochemist Jeffrey Wigand, would have the same traction as All the President’s Men two decades prior. Despite its seven Oscar nominations, it didn’t land a huge audience.  Circumstances were different for Erin Brockovich, the film about an energy corporation poisoning a California community that came out a year later. Julia Roberts was one of the biggest stars in the world and though she wasn’t playing a superhero, the story presented her as its clear heroine with the enemy an equally clear corporate entity (Pacific Gas and Electric) negligently harming a specific location. The film is shot warmly, the dialogue is colorful, and the narrative is propulsive. Most important, it has a happy ending. The road to Erin Brockovich’s $2.5 million bonus at the end of the film led to an Oscar for Roberts and $256.3 million in worldwide box office.

That was the last time a big screen eco-thriller saw that kind of fanfare, the dissipating attention coinciding (after September 11th) with dissipating attention to nature as a whole. A Gallup poll graph tracking Americans’ interest in environmental protection versus economic growth from 1985 to 2019 shows the former steadily decreasing to a trough around 2011 — the aftermath of the great recession of 2008 — before it starts increasing again, while the latter is almost its mirror opposite. So the more people focused on the economy, the less they did on the environment and vice versa. It’s telling that the media’s favorite climate movie of the past two decades is The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich’s 2004 B-movie in which a series of weather events coalesce into a new ice age (he had it the wrong way around). More of a grab at cash than epiphany, the Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle is essentially nightmare nature porn, the money shot a hero conquering climate change. Unfortunately, the real story is a lot less euphoric. “We’re all participating in the climate crisis — if there is an enemy, it’s us,” Per Espen Stoknes, author of What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, told the New York Times in 2017.

An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 film of former vice president Al Gore’s 2004 global warming slideshow, sort of tried to get that across. Despite its dryness, audiences seemed to have some thirst for an updated climate checkup and upon its release, it broke box office records, got standing ovations, and won the Oscar for best documentary. It has been credited with rejuvenating the environmental movement, though the aforementioned Gallup graph questions how much it actually did. This wasn’t like Blackfish, where it was clear SeaWorld was to blame, or Super Size Me, which could point the finger at McDonald’s. Who do you hold accountable for global warming? As Stoknes said, “It’s hard to go to war against ourselves.” 

More than a decade elapsed before Sir David Attenborough shocked his audiences by finally changing his tone from wonder to dread in the Netflix series Our Planet. “I would much prefer not to be a placard-carrying conservationist. My life is the natural world,” he told TIME. “But I can’t not carry a placard if I see what’s happening.” The natural historian was able to piggyback climate change awareness off an established brand in the way HBO miniseries Chernobyl would later riff on the 1986 disaster everyone knew about. Proving that television seems to be more hospitable to climate content, the latter dominated the discourse for weeks. Part of that was the arrestingly horrific first episode, but much of the talk also heavily associated the worst nuclear disaster in history with Trump. “We look at this president who lies, outrageous lies, not little ones but outstandingly absurd lies,” show creator Craig Mazin told the Los Angeles Times. “The truth isn’t even in the conversation. It’s just forgotten or obscured to the point where we can’t see it. That’s what Chernobyl is about.”

Dark Waters isn’t so different. Though it’s based on a lesser-known disaster, this one is farther reaching. The film adapts the 2016 New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich about Bilott suing DuPont on behalf of thousands of West Virginians and Ohioans affected by PFOA (the company settled for nearly $700 million in 2017), so the events it dramatized are more recent and the ties to those in power more direct than Chernobyl would be. “I hope that the movie starts to spur bigger conversation about who our government is actually working on behalf of,” Ruffalo, who is also a producer on the film, recently told Fast Company in the rare bit of mainstream coverage. Instead we were too busy trying to figure out how autobiographical Marriage Story was or whether Martin Scorsese was right about Marvel movies not being real cinema. When Haynes’s Dark Waters was covered, the question was not why this stylish auteur had made this ambling eco-thriller, but why he hadn’t made anything else. A master of deconstruction, Haynes had in fact denatured the genre beyond its basic elements — the company, the chemical, the casualty, the turncoat — to create a film that echoes the futility of our current circumstances. Bilott isn’t a hero; he’s a human being who sees a fellow human being destroyed by a corporation, who is himself destroyed by trying to help. Every advance is only an inch, every setback a foot. When he finally, after years, uncovers the truth, when he proves DuPont has in fact poisoned people, there is no happy ending. DuPont simply rejects reality and refuses to accept responsibility, forcing Bilott to file no fewer than 3,535 personal injury lawsuits.

Haynes was inspired by Silkwood and All the President’s Men, but the world we live in is now DuPont’s. This is a year in which only 65 percent of polled Americans believe in prioritizing environmental protection at the risk of economic growth, in which the latest climate talks ultimately came to nothing because world leaders would rather quibble over technicalities; a year in which six of the top 10 grossing films were made by Disney, in which a movie like Dark Waters actually increases the stocks of the company it calls out because, as the president has proven time and again, being honest about how awful you are is more rewarding that not being awful at all.

* * *

“Here’s the thing: for many of us, climate change isn’t a disaster movie, it’s a kitchen sink drama,” climate scientist Kate Marvel wrote in Scientific American earlier this year. And though we’ll watch kitchen sink dramas, we prefer our humdrum slogs toward justice illuminated by big stars, or at least a romantic plot. Climate change is too relentlessly depressing; we need some kind of hope so that it doesn’t all seem so impossible, or at least distracts us from the allure of giving up. But I can’t think of anything less hopeful than denial. I can’t think of many things more depressing than the woman sitting next to me scrolling through her phone during our screening of Dark Waters while Bilott described how a company had put so much PFOA into the world that she almost certainly had some of it inside her body — maybe the critics who watched the movie and just wondered why Haynes hadn’t made another lesbian melodrama; maybe the wider audience that continues to go to the movies and conduct the various other aspects of their lives without focusing on the largest scale of all because it’s too abstract compared to an unpaid bill or a sick relative; maybe the part of that audience that could actually change things and doesn’t, like that scene in Dark Waters where Bilott holds up a picture of a baby with a congenital deformity and DuPont’s CEO, while affected, ultimately does nothing. As Haynes explained to The New Yorker: “There’s no way to just end corporate greed and corruption. But there are steps to take, and we just have to keep taking them.”

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

The Great White Nope

Marco Livolsi / Getty, Illustration by Homestead Studio

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2019 |  12 minutes (2,912 words)

I wouldn’t call Canada racist. I’m not being nice when I say that, I’m being polite. Canadians are like that. That kind of polite where you hear a racial slur and pretend it didn’t happen. Or you see some bro get too close to a woman and you walk right by because it’s not your affair. This is not a confrontational country. I remember one recent Toronto subway ride where a white workman fresh off some job site, boots muddy, reflector bib on, interrupted two men — one brown, one white — who were about to brawl. You could feel the entire car getting progressively more tense as their voices escalated. But the workman got between them. “Come on guys, we’re all tired. Chill,” he said. And they did. And when it was my turn to get off, I thanked him. “It’s just what you do,” he said. I assume he was from out of town.

With all the free health care, the gun control, the less-extreme wealth disparity, Canadians can convince themselves that they’re superior to Americans. But none of that makes them any less racist, it just makes the racism easier to overlook; with a country that does so many things right, how can they be wrong? Our media is a microcosm of this denial, a lesson in what happens when your industry contracts to a handful of major newspapers and magazines, one major national broadcasting corporation, a smattering of websites, and one watchdog — and is only getting smaller. More than one fifth of Canada’s population is made up of people of color, but the popular press acknowledges that about as much as it acknowledges that the industry itself is overpoweringly white. The result is a media landscape that is overwhelmingly conservative — politically, and in every other way — and overwhelmingly lacking in perspective about it.

Outside of broadcasting, our newsrooms are supposed to self-regulate and yet there are no — zero — updated reports on their demographics. But a new study published by The Conversation last month analyzed two decades of the country’s three biggest newspapers, looking specifically at news and politics op-ed pages where journalists’ identities are clear. “Over the 21 years, as the proportion of white people in Canada’s population declined, the representation of white columnists increased,” Asmaa Malik and Sonya Fatah reported. Since 2016, whites have been overrepresented by 11 percent in these newsrooms. As Maclean’s Andray Domise, long one of the few black columnists in the country, writes, “Too many of my white colleagues in journalism still seem to believe their profession and the assumed stance of objectivity places them at a distance from white supremacy.” That these journalists can’t see their own means they can’t see anyone else’s. This is why I don’t work in Canadian media. It doesn’t really see me or anyone else who isn’t white.

* * *

I was genuinely shocked to get this job. I had written one story for Longreads — fittingly, a reported feature about Justin Bieber’s vacillation between Canada and America — and a few months later, the site’s editor called me from New York and offered me a weekly column. For most of the phone call I was confused. I think I literally said, “So this is an actual job?” I didn’t understand how this could happen. Thirteen years into a journalism career and I had never once been handed anything. Not even one story. I was inured to 13 more years of proving myself over and over and over again, even with the same editors at the same publications. And yet this guy had decided, after I had only written once for his site, that I deserved an actual job. That would NEVER happen to me in Canada. It HAS never happened to me in Canada.

In a now 14-year media career, I’ve landed 14 job interviews in Canada (that I can remember) and only once secured a position. I was repeatedly told not to take it personally, but from my first internship on, it’s been Sisyphean. I was recently told by an old journalism professor, unprompted, that I was one of my graduating year’s most promising, but the industry kept insinuating the opposite. I just assumed the white guys in my class, and a good number of the white girls, were getting jobs because they were exponentially better than me. I wrote for white editor after white editor, met with white exec after white exec, and nothing seemed to stick. Not too long ago, a friend of mine at the CBC — an older white guy — helped me get a job interview, which went well … until it veered into the details of my Pakistani history. Another (white) editor asked me to coffee, invited me to pitch, and never took anything I did, while their (white) spouse continued to appear prominently in their pages. Yet another group of editors, all white, declined to give me a job (which went to a white journalist), then offered me a short series of articles — about race, obviously — one of which they mismanaged so badly that we never worked together again. One major newspaper commissioned so many features from me in a row that I asked my editor to be made a permanent employee; they tried to lower my rate instead. As the years passed, I watched white woman after white woman, younger, less experienced, get staff job after staff job and thought: Oh, shit, do I just suck?

Canadian media is designed so that journalists of color give up. In 2017, black columnist Desmond Cole loudly resigned from The Toronto Star, having had his space reduced and his activism questioned. “My contributions to the Star are in sharp contrast with the lack of tenure, exposure, support, and compensation I have received in return,” he wrote on his blog. (Cole’s first book, The Skin We’re In, is out next year). Also in 2017, freelance journalist Septembre Anderson revealed she had given up journalism and was turning to web development after hitting her head against a walled-off industry for seven years. “Racialized voices just aren’t being heard,” she wrote in Torontoist. “They aren’t making decisions nor are they carrying them out.” In 2018, The Globe and Mail reporter Sunny Dhillon also resigned, despite having nothing else lined up. “I have worked as a journalist in this country for the last decade and with the solutions as obvious as they are unacted upon — hire more people of color, hear their voices, elevate them to positions of power or prominence — I cannot say I am particularly optimistic,” he wrote on Medium. Shriveling newsrooms usually shed their newest, usually more-marginalized staffers first, but a 2017 Public Policy Forum report on Canadian media questioned “exactly how many jobs have been lost in journalism — and how much frustrated talent has fled.”

I’m still in journalism not because of Canadian media but in spite of it. It was the editors outside of the country who hired me for their newsrooms: as a film and art editor at Time Out Dubai, as an entertainment editor at The New York Daily News. In Canada, it was the women who threw me a bone, mostly freelance assignments (though one woman actually hired me as an editor for AOL Canada). To fill in the blanks — too many to count — there was my mother. Because as much as this is about media with a dearth of opportunities for nonwhite journalists, it is about which journalists have the financial support to keep going anyway. Early last month, an Excel sheet circulated in which a number of American journalists anonymously revealed their salaries. Most of the journalists were white, and many of them reported wages too meager to survive on in the big cities where they were living. A number of people noted the discrepancy and wondered what kind of financial support these journalists were getting from their families that so many people of color were not.

So here it is: I am a woman of color and my mother is the reason I could do an unpaid internship in California, which got me my first job, which got me my second job, which got me my third — and, in between, she floated me when I couldn’t quite make ends meet. I wasn’t living off of her, but she was keeping me alive. On the one hand you could call her a patron, on the other hand she’s a vexing reminder to a number of journalists who are probably better than me that they do not have this extra support — a disproportionate number of whom are people of color like me. An extreme version of this leg up, of course, is nepotism, something I have not experienced but that so many white journalists in Canada have. Highly positioned media people whose families are also highly positioned in media, include: Toronto Life editor in chief Sarah Fulford, whose father, journalist Robert Fulford, has the order of Canada; former Walrus editor in chief Jonathan Kay, whose mother is National Post columnist Barbara kay; not to mention all those CBC staffers’ spouses who secured CBC contracts.

In September, the publicly funded Canadian educational channel TVO aired an episode of current affairs program The Agenda with Steve Paikin, asking, “Is Canadian Media Losing Its Touch?” The panel was made up of Paikin, who is white, and two other journalists, a man and a woman, both also white. All three of them focused on the shrinking industry, never once mentioning its racism. But just three months prior, several mainstream media organizations were excoriated for belittling the landmark National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Final Report, the more-than-1,000-page document of 2,000+ testimonials outlining how colonialism in Canada has systematically destroyed First Nations communities. Instead of white Canadians grappling with the country’s long-awaited admission that they not only live on stolen land but have also helped decimate the people to whom Canada actually belongs, they diverted attention to the term “genocide.” Canada’s two largest newspapers, the Globe and the Star, published board-wide editorials denying those three syllables, while the Post had a Catholic priest doing the same. As journalist Justin Brake tweeted: “Colonialism is ubiquitous. Even in journalism.”

That was already clear two years ago when the (now ex-)editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, in an issue meant to celebrate Indigenous writing, called for white journalists to aspire to a nonexistent “cultural appropriation prize” in order to enrich their work. In response, high-ranking members of the country’s leading media companies — the Post, Maclean’s, CBC, Rogers — offered cash for its coffers. More recently, there have been several incidences in which newsroom photographs have circulated on social media showing a sea of white faces. In October, the Globe was sideeyed for hiring a white woman, Robyn Urback, from the CBC to add to its prodigiously white team — reporter Robyn Doolittle quipped, “Robyn, I look forward to everyone confusing us in the years to come.” — which only got whiter once Indo-Caribbean columnist Denise Balkissoon left earlier this month for a higher-ranking position at Chatelaine magazine.

“Since working my first paid jobs as a journalist in 2007, I have been constantly told, explicitly and implicitly, that nobody will care about stories about people who are elderly, Aboriginal, racialized, queer, living with a disability or chronic health condition, or living with an active addiction or mental health concern,” University of British Colombia writing instructor and former magazine editor Jackie Wong told rabble.ca in 2016. This irresponsible coverage is being predominantly identified by journalists of color, who are also the ones principally assigned to write racialized articles. The Star’s Tanya Talaga has named the requirement to constantly advocate for and be a workplace’s symbol of diversity “the invisible workload.” Journalists of color are often siloed into multicultural media spaces like the Aboriginal People’s Television Network or smaller publications. Vicky Mochama, now the culture, society, and critical race editor for The Conversation, had a column for Metro until 2018, while Sarah Hagi wrote for Vice until she didn’t, then a site called Freshdaily, until it unceremoniously dumped its entire editorial staff after two weeks. Meanwhile, Kyrell Grant, the freelance writer and Twitter deity who coined the term “big dick energy,” occasionally publishes in places like Vice. “Black women are consistently thought leaders whose uncited ideas regularly appear in mainstream media,” Anderson wrote in Torontoist, “but it’s increasingly apparent that our bylines don’t.”

White journalists, meanwhile, are increasingly insulated from critique. Maclean’s’ Domise apologized for being a gatekeeper, for instance, while those who actually created the gate to keep the likes of him out remain silent. It’s virtually impossible to fix the problem in mainstream Canadian media because it won’t even acknowledge that there is one. What it will do is apologize for suggesting that white people could be at fault for anything. Last month, correspondent Jessica Allen of The Social (Canada’s The View) was forced to apologize for saying hockey players tended to be white and tended to be bullies, both of which are true. “We would like to apologize to everyone who was offended by the remarks,” CTV announced in a statement. In a recent interview with the newsletter Study Hall, BuzzFeed’s Scaachi Koul admitted she was professionally ostracized after she tweeted in 2016 that BuzzFeed Canada was looking for pitches, particularly from “not white and not male” writers: “I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had with executive-level editors in Canada who wouldn’t work with me because they thought I was racist against white people.” Koul now works in New York.

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I suppose it follows that my favorite place to work in Canada is not in fact a media company. Hazlitt is an online literary magazine run by a publishing company, Penguin Random House, and its long-form nonfiction skews experimental. It’s probably no coincidence that Hazlitt is where Koul got her start and where plenty of other people of color like me can write long, rambling essays on the nature of everything, something a media landscape as homogenous as Canada’s has no appetite for. Both of the editors I worked with — the editor in chief and senior editor — are white, but they’re what you might call allies if you’re so inclined, and they understand writing at a molecular level. Hazlitt is equivalent to a magazine like The Believer or a site like Grantland. It’s there that I got my only National Magazine Award nomination in 2016. But the site is small, and you can’t live off it. My job search to supplement my work there included a failed  interview to write news for an elevator screen and naming 500 color swatches for a marketing company. Then Longreads called. Did I mention the guy who hired me is not white?

I’m not really sure what to say to Canadian journalists of color who don’t have that opportunity or the support to create it. Because it’s not really about them. It’s about the white Canadians who are hogging all the power positions and refusing to admit that, let alone step aside. It’s about their refusal to make it a priority to hire people of color from top to bottom because they refuse to see these journalists’ absence as an issue. Domise has credited his column at Maclean’s to a “handful of editors” who recognized the magazine’s lack of diversity. But the columnists around him are still majority white. Our media seems to have a really hard time reflecting 20 percent of our population, of not overrepresenting whiteness to the point of implying its supremacy.

In June, the CBC and Radio-Canada announced that by 2025, they would have at least one non-white person working as a key creative — producer, director, writer, showrunner, lead performer — on each of their programs. One. More recently, a friend who works at one of the bigger media companies in Toronto mentioned that they were hiring but that all of the applications “sucked.” Knowing the number of journalists who have lost their jobs over the past 10 years, I was baffled. Considering the same white people are often shuffled around the industry over and over again, I asked if they had gone beyond submitted applications to ask peers, to check social media, to look into other publications that have recently closed down. My friend looked at me in embarrassment. That’s the look that I think every white journalist in this country is missing. 

Canada is racist: there I said it. My country is racist and its media is racist and its journalists are racist. Not saying it doesn’t make it any less true. Canada is multicultural, yes, that doesn’t mean its media is; the industry that is supposed to inform this country is whitewashed, and its information is whitewashed too. Politically, socially, economically — in every way — Canada misrepresents itself. What results is an entirely misinformed public but, more than that, a public represented by an industry that cloaks itself in white and believes that saying nothing will make it invisible. You’re not invisible. You may not see us, but we see you.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Bully for You

Maystra / Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2019 |  14 minutes (3,476 words)

A few years ago I wrote an essay about my best friend having a baby and my inability to handle it. I wrote about the almost familial closeness of our friendship, about my difficulty parsing what we actually were (friends? more than friends?), and ultimately about the impossibility of accepting someone else getting in the way. I’m not going to relitigate the piece, that’s not what this is about, but I continue to stand by any writer who is sorting themself out in their work and who is self-aware enough to acknowledge their part in their mess. No one else did; I got about 600 comments, pretty much all of them negative: “Want to feel creeped out? Read this. So many issues in one person.” What I remember most, though, were the writers, more famous than me — one of them very famous — dismissing me — not my work, me. What the fuck was I even talking about? Who does that? Fuck no, they don’t want to read that. (Like I was some ancient untouchable, like I was contagious.) Almost all of them were women; all of them known for writing, among other things, about the intricacies of their lives; all of them claiming to make daily work out of forging a space for marginalized voices. But this, a woman wrestling with her feelings about another woman, seemed to be where they drew the line. I wasn’t a murderer, I wasn’t a psychopath, I wasn’t a white nationalist, I wasn’t a criminal, I wasn’t even a cheater, for God’s sake, and yet one of them was offended enough to actually block me on Twitter: “Wow, this is such selfish bullshit.”

Women may be encouraged to bleed out onto the page — there’s a reason the personal essay boom was predominantly populated by them — but it also opens them up to deeper cuts. Not only are they dissected in a way men are not, but the response to this writing, by people of all genders, skews more emotional as well. The motif is so well established by now that it’s almost a rule; at the very least it should be anticipated. And yet, the recent unprecedented pile-on of women writers hectoring a former university student who dared to critique a popular young adult novelist had one of these women telling me, “It never crossed my mind that people would look her up or harass her. That is … bizarre and wildly inappropriate.” 

In 2015, I didn’t expect most people to engage with the mechanics and anatomy of my writing, but I did expect the writers to. I was surprised when they didn’t. I was surprised that it all came down to a headline: This woman abandoned another woman. That I had spent months dissecting 14 years of emotions — that I had distilled them into 2,323 words — was beside the point. The point was that those writers were Good People, and Good People don’t abandon friends, much less friends who are mothers. I was not a Good Person, so there was nothing to consider beyond that. This is where being a writer, any artist really, can be at odds with being a human. Ideally, you meet the artist, the work, the ideas with no judgment. In reality, you meet them with yourself and all the limits of you. In this instance, that also entailed the particulars of being a female writer, which are very different from those of a male writer. Women not only have to withstand all the obstacles faced by every artist in a world that does not value art, but, within that, in a world that also devalues them as women, and therefore their — our — stories. They can’t just write, they have to fight to do it. And as subjugated populations have throughout history, they group together for strength, in order not only to defend themselves, but also other women who can’t — other women they choose, with whom they have a moral affinity, who are deemed worthy of representing their gender. 

This is the powerful woman’s fundamental hypocrisy. Not every powerful woman, but a healthy number. As aggressively as she clears a space for women she approves of is as aggressively as she rejects women she doesn’t. This isn’t so much about who she dislikes, though there’s that. It’s more about women she believes are espousing views that conflict with The Cause of Women™, which is what she and her circle are determined to protect. It’s understandable, yes, but it’s not excusable. A slew of apologies followed the YA mess, with all of the writers making the right sounds, but that was unsurprising. They think, they analyze, they write a good game, the best game, but their actions don’t track with their words. They say they are defending young women’s interests as they attack a young woman. They say they want women to be unlikable, but spurn them for that very same thing. “I am not a politician or a priest or a rabbi,” Roxane Gay, one of the YA supporters, wrote to me. “I’m allowed to make mistakes.” Sure, everyone makes mistakes, but who gets punished? Read more…