Author Archives

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

The View From 5-Foot-3 (and a Half)

Illustration by Homestead

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Fashions Fade, But Fleabag Is Forever

Steve Schofield, Amazon / Illustration by Homestead

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | June 2019 | 8 minutes (2,150 words)

This is a love story. A dangerously elegant woman (noble stock) in lips the color of a dying rose (not a lipstick, but a blend of oils, waxes, and pigments based on MAC’s Dare You), hair a roaring bob, a cigarette perched on her Erté fingers, stands pensively against a brick wall (real?), the burnished light (not real?) casting the kind of shadow that fills in the blanks — and the cleavage. This is Fleabag (of the Amazon series of the same name, written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge), taking a breather behind a restaurant during a fraught family dinner, a fourth-wall-demolishing millennial café owner who could pass for a femme fatale in a film noir. A big part of that latter fantasy is the navy blue jumpsuit she’s wearing (Love, $50), or, more accurately, embodying. The keyhole at the front is more like a door ajar, two strips of material like curtains begging to be parted while threatening to close. Her shoulders jut out, her back is exposed — this is as naked as chic is allowed to be. It is a sleeveless, backless, armless, chestless (well, sort of) number that requires legs for days. To wear it the way Fleabag does, you basically need to be Fleabag, which means you basically need to be Waller-Bridge, whose androgyny (she dressed as a boy when she was a kid), sexiness (she dressed what we think of as the opposite of a boy when she discovered them), and sylphlike stature are as impossible to mimic as the rest of her.

When everyone ran out to buy that jumpsuit last week, that is what they wanted: everything it entailed, from the lights illuminating the scene right down to the It Girl inside. In her ode to the jumpsuit, The Cut’s Kathryn VanArendonk — who bought two sizes just to be sure — wrote not so much about how it looked as what it meant: “It’s revealing in a way that feels like a choice rather than a plea.” A British fan then polled Twitter: “Will buying the Fleabag jumpsuit solve my emotional problems AS WELL as making me look bomb?” The only answers she provided were “Yes” and “Absolutely.”   

“I think people don’t always view contemporary costuming as hard, and it’s really hard,” says Emma Fraser, creator of the TV Ate My Wardrobe blog. “It’s not just about throwing together an outfit,” she explains, it’s using clothes as “an extension of who that character is.” The last time a television star’s style migrated en masse into off-screen culture may have been The Rachel in the ’90s: the shaggy hairdon’t of the Friends everywoman played by Jennifer Aniston, whose face was normal enough that every woman thought a mere haircut could be a conduit for a New York City life that didn’t suck. Fleabag gives us an updated version of that same generational aspiration — the bold red lip, the navy jumpsuit, the “achievable” look and life. Describing the character’s allure, Fraser inadvertently defines the millennial: “Everything can be a mess, but you can still kind of be put together.” Watching television can be like window-shopping, shallow characters being little more than clothes horses for pricey brands, so seeing a layered antiheroine whose affordable accoutrements are inseparable from who she is feels revolutionary. And who, these days, doesn’t want to be part of a revolution? As Waller-Bridge herself texted Fleabag costume designer, Ray Holman, (referencing Twitter): “The jumpsuit is a movement.”

* * *

Broadchurch brought Waller-Bridge and Holman together five years ago — she was acting on the series, he was doing costume design. He was too busy to work on the first season of Fleabag so Jo Thompson designed that one, but when Thompson was too busy during the second season, Holman stepped in. He read the script first, of course, because he always does that before accepting a project. And despite only having one episode’s worth of material, he took the job. “Oh my god,” he recalls Waller-Bridge telling him, “I did a little dance in the office when you said yes.” Holman had a limited BBC budget (he wouldn’t reveal it, but they reportedly spend around $1 million total per episode, pocket change next to Game of Thrones$15 million) and didn’t want anything to stand out (oops). Holman purchased a handful of jumpsuits, wide-leg jeans, striped shirts, and canvas shoes — all items he had discussed with Waller-Bridge — for around 12 outfits total. None of it was expensive: Fleabag runs a cafe in London, remember. “She is stylish but completely High Street,” Holman tells me. “It’s quite a generic urban look, really. It’s quite practical, but slightly stylish.” One of his secrets, he says, was dressing Fleabag according to her situation, rather than just her personal style. The flashback to her mother’s funeral was the hardest because it balanced two opposing ideas: Fleabag’s grief, and, more largely, the objectification of women even in their grief. In that scene, Fleabag appears in head-to-toe black, wearing a blouse that would not look out of place in a courtroom.

As much as the first season of Fleabag is about loss, the second is about love. And isn’t it like that messy bitch to fall for the one guy she can’t have sex with. When we first meet the priest (aka “the hot priest,” played by Sherlock’s Andrew Scott), it’s not clear he is one. He’s unknown to Fleabag, just a random sweary guy at the table of her family dinner. He’s not wearing the dog collar (the audience shouldn’t have any preconceived notions, says Holman). Instead, he is rumpled, in a lavender linen shirt designed by Oliver Spencer, master of the relaxed Brit look (as if that isn’t an oxymoron). Father looks good, but not too good. “He’s quite poor,” the costume designer explains. “He’s not a rich Catholic priest so he doesn’t have many clothes and the clothes he has, they’re old.” He’s not the point anyway. This episode belongs to Fleabag. Fleabag and her jumpsuit (and, okay, her priest boner).

“It could be a disaster, it could be absolutely brilliant” is what Holman thought when he first saw the jumpsuit in the basement of the Oxford Street Topshop in London. It was designed by a small local label, Love, which was founded by Teri Sallas and her husband, Toby, in 2003. “I wanted to make something that covered everything up but was still sexy,” Teri told The Guardian. Though the jumpsuit has been identified everywhere as black in color, Holman insists that he bought two versions – one black, one navy – and that the one on screen is blue (he just never corrected anyone, not to mention that Love, according to Toby, hasn’t produced that version “for some time.”) Holman hesitated because he knew a bra couldn’t be worn under it, but that’s also part of its charm — the apostatism of wearing such a thing to a family gathering. Fleabag’s slightly profane clothing choices, by the way, are deliberate. It’s part of her “off-key” character, which is why we find her in a too-short red dress at her dad’s wedding (that one sold out in the U.K. too) and this too-dressy jumpsuit (paired with sneakers). Maybe she hasn’t seen her family for ages and she’s trying a little too hard. Or maybe Waller-Bridge just put on the jumpsuit and fell in love with it. Holman says that when she wore it for the first time, it was a “wow moment” for them both. Waller-Bridge had two words for it: episode one.

The first episode of the second season has Fleabag at a fancy restaurant celebrating her parents’ engagement. Her family hasn’t been together like this in more than a year, since everything blew up between them over various mishaps, a number of them starring Fleabag. This jumpsuit is her, grown-up — elegant, but, still, showing some tit. The struggle within (and without) her continues, but on a more subdued level. At the table she is wry and ramrod straight, her sideboob teasing the holy father beside her. Smoking behind the restaurant, alone, in the dark, the glow of the street lamp bringing out her curves, she is introspectively sultry. “You look strong,” her dad says. And when she and the other father end up back there alone for the first time, instead of asking for his blessing, she keeps her sins to herself. “Fuck you,” the priest calls to her naked back. It’s a Fleabag kind of benediction.

The second season of Fleabag originally aired on the BBC in March, but British site Stylist didn’t track down the jumpsuit until about two months ago, at which  point it sold out. Since the show’s Amazon premiere on May 17, American viewers have been similarly clambering to buy it. Holman was “completely surprised” by the response and bemused by the “jumpsuit as movement,” but thinks it’s great they helped a local indie label boost its sales. Fraser, who is also British, is witnessing the cycle for the second time and offers some prosaic reasons for the transatlantic phenomenon, including availability (shot in advance, shows often come out when the clothes are no longer available) and affordability. Not to mention practicality — per VanArendonk, the jumpsuit “could so easily pass for something much more expensive, but which I can put on without fretting about stains, child smudges, wrinkles, weird crotch lines, or much at all in the way of further styling” — as long as you have a body that approximates Waller-Bridge’s. Fraser provides the contrasting example of Killing Eve (another series developed by Waller-Bridge), with its aspirational “outlandish” costuming, particularly Villanelle’s translucent bubble gum pink pouffe-frock from the first season. “Nobody could afford that Molly Goddard dress,” she says, “and where would you wear that?”

But the jumpsuit is more about the story of Fleabag, which it serves to represent. This is the story of a young woman who looks like she has it together but doesn’t, and if you get just close enough, you can see it. This is a woman who knows who she is, but still feels the need to perform, who is constantly wrestling with the push and pull of revealing too much and too little. And in the perfect chiaroscuro, this is a woman who thrives on the frisson of impossible love. But it’s also about the story of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the It Girl whose singularity, which is what everyone keeps trying to imitate, is It precisely because of its indivisibility from her. This is a woman who can be easily conflated with the character she created from elements of her own life. When Slate asks why so many journalists want the jumpsuit, the answer is obvious: because they want to create an award-winning one-woman play (Fleabag) in their 20s, because they want to helm two series (Crashing, Fleabag) by the time they are 30 (and then a third, Killing Eve), because they want to be hired to appear in a Star Wars film and to brush up Bond. If they can’t have Waller-Bridge’s career, at least they can have her clothes.

* * *

The Fleabag jumpsuit actually appeared on the red carpet (the black version, anyway) a full six months before it appeared on the show, but no one remembers that. Waller-Bridge wore it, along with a huge grin, up-swept hair, and patent leather flats to a screening of Killing Eve in September. In that context, without a cigarette, without her flapper do, without the brick wall or the glowing light or the cleavage or the priest, the jumpsuit lost its mystique. In those photos it has reverted back to a, well, black jumpsuit. The same thing happened each time someone posted a photo of themselves in it. Even when it suited them, which was often, it didn’t have the same power without Fleabag’s context. And the more people bought it, the less impact it had. Like the sparkly white dress in Cinderella, the sleek black jumpsuit dissolved in the daylight.

The irony is that these writers would have been better off, you know, writing. Because that’s what they really want — to be this famous writer, to be who she is and what she creates. Of course, that costs a lot more than $50. A jumpsuit is a tangible symbol of the life these women want and the fallacy, as understandable as it is in a culture that silences women as well as writers — why am I doing this, again? — is buying a well-cut piece of dark material as a shortcut to that life. Fraser was actually one of the few women writers who resisted the jumpsuit’s siren song, but it was a close encounter. She was about to buy it before remembering who she was: a woman who had other jumpsuits, and who also needed to wear a bra. A woman who did not have a production company turning her body into a genre, who wasn’t living a fictional romance with a man of God, who didn’t live a real life in which she herself was an idol (well, by Hollywood standards). “I had it in my basket,” Fraser says, and then she asked herself a question that, ironically, is very Fleabag: “What are you doing?”

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

The Artificial Intelligence of the Public Intellectual

morkeman / Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2019 | 8 minutes (2,228 words)

“Well, that’s a really important thing to investigate.” While Naomi Wolf’s intellectual side failed her last week, her public side did not. That first line was her measured response when a BBC interviewer pointed out — on live radio — that cursory research had disproven a major thesis in her new book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love (she misinterpreted a Victorian legal term, “death recorded,” to mean execution — the term actually meant the person was pardoned). Hearing this go down, journalists like me theorized how we would react in similar circumstances (defenestration) and decried the lack of fact-checkers in publishing (fact: Authors often have to pay for their own). The mistake did, however, ironically, offer one corrective: It turned Wolf from cerebral superhero into mere mortal. No longer was she an otherworldly intellect who could suddenly complete her Ph.D. — abandoned at Oxford when she was a Rhodes Scholar in the mid-’80s, Outrages is a reworking of her second, successful, attempt — while juggling columns for outlets like The Guardian, a speaking circuit, an institute for ethical leadership, and her own site, DailyClout, not to mention a new marriage. Something had to give, and it was the Victorians.

Once, the public intellectual had the deserved reputation of a scholarly individual who steered the public discourse: I always think of Oscar Wilde, the perfect dinner wit who could riff on any subject on command and always had the presence of mind to come up with an immortal line like, “One can survive everything nowadays except death.” The public intellectual now has no time for dinner. Wolf, for instance, parlayed the success of her 1991 book The Beauty Myth into an intellectual career that has spanned three decades, multiple books, and a couple of political advisory jobs, in which time her supposed expertise has spread far beyond third-wave feminism. She has become a symbol of intellectual rigor that spans everything from vaginas to dictatorships — a sort of lifestyle brand for the brain. Other thought leaders like her include Jordan Peterson, Fareed Zakaria, and Jill Abramson. Their minds have hijacked the public trust, each one acting as the pinnacle of intellect, an individual example of brilliance to cut through all the dullness, before sacrificing the very rigor that put them there in order to maintain the illusion floated by the media, by them, even by us. The public intellectual once meant public action, a voice from the outside shifting the inside, but then it became personal, populated by self-serving insiders. The public intellectual thus became an extension — rather than an indictment — of the American Dream, the idea that one person, on their own, can achieve anything, including being the smartest person in the room as well as the richest.

* * *

I accuse the Age of Enlightenment of being indirectly responsible for 12 Rules for Life. The increasingly literate population of the 18th century was primed to live up to the era’s ultimate aspiration: an increasingly informed public. This was a time of debates, public lectures, and publications and fame for the academics behind them. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for one. In his celebrated “The American Scholar” speech from 1837, Emerson provided a framework for an American cultural identity — distinct from Europe’s — which was composed of a multifaceted intellect (the One Man theory). “The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future,” he said. “In yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all.” While Emerson argued that the intellectual was bound to action, the “public intellectual” really arrived at the end of the 19th century, when French novelist Émile Zola publicly accused the French military of antisemitism over the Dreyfus Affair in an open letter published in  L’Aurore newspaper in 1898. With  “J’Accuse…!,” the social commentary Zola spread through his naturalist novels was transformed into a direct appeal to the public: Observational wisdom became intellectual action. “I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness,” he wrote. “My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul.”

The public intellectual thenceforth became the individual who used scholarship for social justice. But only briefly. After the Second World War, universities opened up to serve those who had served America, which lead to a boost in educated citizens and a captive audience for philosophers and other scholars. By the end of the ’60s, television commanded our attention further with learned debates on The Dick Cavett Show — where autodidact James Baldwin famously dressed down Yale philosopher Paul Weiss — and Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. (also famously destroyed by Baldwin), which would go on to host academics like Camille Paglia in the ’90s. But Culture Trip editor Michael Barron dates the “splintering of televised American intellectualism” to a 1968 debate between Gore Vidal — “I want to make 200 million people change their minds,” the “writer-hero” once said — and Buckley, which devolved into playground insults. A decade later, the public intellectual reached its celebrity peak, with Susan Sontag introducing the branded brain in People magazine (“I’m a book junkie. … I buy special editions like other women shop for designer originals at Saks.”)

As television lost patience with Vidal’s verbose bravado, he was replaced with more telegenic — angrier, stupider, more right-wing — white men like Bill O’Reilly, who did not clarify nuance but blustered over the issues of the day; the public intellectual was now all public, no intellect. Which is to say, the celebrity pushed out the scholar, but it was on its way out anyway. By the ’80s, the communal philosophical and political conversations of the post-war era slunk back to the confines of academia, which became increasingly professionalized, specialized, and insular, producing experts with less general and public-facing knowledge. “Anyone who engages in public debate as a scholar is at risk of being labelled not a serious scholar, someone who is diverting their attention and resources away from research and publicly seeking personal aggrandizement,” one professor told University Affairs in 2014. “It discourages people from participating at a time when public issues are more complicated and ethically fraught, more requiring of diverse voices than ever before.” Diversity rarely got past the ivy, with the towering brilliance of trespassers like Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston, among other marginalized writers, limited by their circumstances. “The white audience does not seek out black public intellectuals to challenge their worldview,” wrote Mychal Denzel Smith in Harper’s last year, “instead they are meant to serve as tour guides through a foreign experience that the white audience wishes to keep at a comfortable distance.”

Speaking of white audiences … here’s where I mention the intellectual dark web even though I would rather not. It’s the place — online, outside the academy, in pseudo-intellectual “free thought” mag Quillette — where reactionary “intellectuals” flash their advanced degrees while claiming their views are too edgy for the schools that graduated them. These are your Petersons, your Sam Harrises, your Ben Shapiros, the white (non)thinkers, usually men, tied in some vague way to academia, which they use to validate their anti-intellectualism while passing their feelings off as philosophy and, worse, as (mis)guides for the misguided. Last month, a hyped debate between psychology professor Peterson and philosopher Slavoj Žižek had the former spending his opening remarks stumbling around Marxism, having only just read The Communist Manifesto for the first time since high school. As Andray Domise wrote in Maclean’s, “The good professor hadn’t done his homework.” But neither have his fans.

But it’s not just the conservative public intellectuals who are slacking off. Earlier this year, Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of The New York Times, published Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts. She was the foremost mind on journalism in the Trump era for roughly two seconds before being accused of plagiarizing parts of her book. Her response revealed that the authorship wasn’t exactly hers alone, a fact which only came to light in order for her to blame others for her mistakes. “I did have fact-checking, I did have assistants in research, and in some cases, the drafting of parts of the book,” she told NPR. “I certainly did spend money. But maybe it wasn’t enough.” Abramson’s explanation implied a tradition in which, if you are smart enough to be rich enough, you can pay to uphold your intellectual reputation, no matter how artificial it may be.

That certainly wasn’t the first time a public intellectual overrepresented their abilities. CNN host Fareed Zakaria, a specialist in foreign policy with a Ph.D. from Harvard — a marker of intelligence that can almost stand in for actual acumen these days — has been accused multiple times of plagiarism, despite “stripping down” his extensive workload (books, speeches, columns, tweets). Yet he continues to host his own show and to write a column for The Washington Post in the midst of a growing number of unemployed journalists and dwindling number of outlets. Which is part of the problem. “What happens in the media is the cult of personality,” said Charles R. Eisendrath, director of the Livingston Awards and Knight-Wallace Fellowship, in the Times. “As long as it’s cheaper to brand individual personalities than to build staff and bolster their brand, they will do it.” Which is why Wolf, and even Abramson, are unlikely to be gone for good.

To be honest, we want them around. Media output hasn’t contracted along with the industry, so it’s easier to follow an individual than a sprawling media site, just like it’s easier to consult a YouTube beauty influencer than it is to browse an entire Sephora. With public intellectuals concealing the amount of work required of them, the pressure to live up to the myth we are all helping to maintain only increases, since the rest of us have given up on trying to keep pace with these superstars. They think better than we ever could, so why should we bother? Except that, like the human beings they are, they’re cutting corners and making errors and no longer have room to think the way they did when they first got noticed. It takes significant strength of character in this economy of nonstop (and precarious) work to bow out, but Ta-Nehisi Coates did when he stepped down last year from his columnist gig at The Atlantic, where he had worked long before he started writing books and comics. “I became the public face of the magazine in many ways and I don’t really want to be that,” he told The Washington Post. “I want to be a writer. I’m not a symbol of what The Atlantic wants to do or whatever.”

* * *

Of course a public intellectual saw this coming. In a 1968 discussion between Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan on identity in the technology age (which explains the rise in STEM-based public intellectuals), the latter said, “When you give people too much information, they resort to pattern recognition.” The individuals who have since become symbols of thought — from the right (Christina Hoff Sommers) to the left (Roxane Gay) — are overrepresented in the media, contravening the original definition of their role as outsiders who spur public action against the insiders. In a capitalist system that promotes branded individualism at the expense of collective action, the public intellectual becomes a myth of impossible aspiration that not even it can live up to, which is the point — to keep selling a dream that is easier to buy than to engage in reality. But an increasingly intelligent public is gaining ground.

The “Public Intellectual” entry in Urban Dictionary defines it as, “A professor who spends too much time on Twitter,” citing Peterson as an example. Ha? The entry is by OrinKerr, who may or may not be (I am leaning toward the former) a legal scholar who writes for the conservative Volokh Conspiracy blog. His bad joke is facetious, but not entirely inaccurate — there’s a shift afoot, from the traditional individual public intellectual toward a collective model. That includes online activists and writers like Mikki Kendall, who regularly leads discussions about feminism and race on Twitter; Bill McKibben, who cofounded 360.org, an online community of climate change activists; and YouTubers like Natalie Wynn, whose ContraPoints video essays respond to real questions from alt-right men. In both models, complex thought does not reside solely with the individual, but engages the community. This is a reversion to one of the early definitions of public intellectualism by philosopher Antonio Gramsci. “The traditional and vulgarized type of the intellectual is given by the man of letters, the philosopher, the artist,” he wrote in his Prison Notebooks — first published in 1971. “The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader’ and not just a simple orator.” It doesn’t matter if you’re the smartest person in the room, as long as you can make it move.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

The Erotic Thriller’s Little Death

TriStar Pictures / Netflix

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2019 | 10 minutes (2,585 words)

Who do I have to fuck and kill to get a good erotic thriller? One of the first publicity stills from What/If, the new Netflix series starring Renée Zellweger, had the actress in a white dress, legs crossed, smiling enigmatically, her surroundings moody. It was a transparent reference to Basic Instinct, the vulvular Verhoeven from 1992 that marked the climax of the golden age of erotic thrillers, particularly the titillating cross-examination in which femme fatale Sharon Stone sits in a white dress, no underwear, legs alternating between crossed and uncrossed, smiling enigmatically, her surroundings moody. What/If is a sex reversal of Indecent Proposal, Adrian Lyne’s naughty take on the American Dream about a rich stranger offering a struggling couple $1 million to spend one night with the wife. The series flirts heavily with its soft-core antecedents. “This whole idea was ripped right out of a bad ’90s movie,” says Jane Levy (in the husband role in What/If). “I thought that film was quite decent,” is the awkward reply from Zellweger (as the Robert Redford character).

The difference here is that the 50-year-old actress’ knees remain firmly closed, just as the erotic thriller has ever since its mainstream demise in 1995. Her show is marketed as a “neo-noir social thriller,” presumably because creator Mike Kelley (of Revenge soap) considered the gender flip feminist, but its refusal to fully embrace the genre it’s attempting to be, either sexually or thrillingly, is the latest example of the erotic thriller’s latter-day impotence.

“Erotic thrillers are noirish stories of sexual intrigue incorporating some form of criminality or duplicity, often as the flimsy framework for on-screen softcore sex,” Linda Ruth Williams writes in The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema (2005). That’s the clinical description, but the most alluring aspect of these films (and, later, shows) was how clinical they weren’t. It was the “flimsy framework” around the saxophoned, vaseline-screened sex that really made them seductive. These films lingered on their characters, teasing out the personalities that were about to be pummelled, entering their layered lives of cutely chaotic homes and old friendships and workplace frustrations, not to mention the texture of the cities — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — in which that setup was about to unravel. The stories about these ideal homes being threatened by a sensual interloper served as a metaphor for the sociopolitical climate of the time, in which second-wave feminism and its single career women were wreaking havoc on traditional family values and, more specifically, on the power position that men had secured for so long.    

The hottest time for the mainstream erotic thriller was the 15 years from 1980 until 1995, when multiplexes were flooded with glistening, underappreciated masterpieces like The Last Seduction, starring Linda Fiorentino as the other kind of Queen B, and less successful limpets like Body of Evidence, in which Madonna proved that she can’t act when she’s naked either. Since then, per Williams, “the explicit has become implicit.” Unless you are a foreign auteur, mainstream prurience is sublimated into the supernatural and the traumatic — even the young adult — and the modern adult erotic thriller is stripped of grit to become 50 Shades of Grey, an appropriate title for the interchangeable sterile “intrigues” of the suburban set. What/If rides the trend of ’90s nostalgia, in which the culturally relevant (if not always critically acclaimed) is resurrected for the sake of kitsch, with little consideration for its original milieu. But the erotic thriller is a genre born of a cultural climate that isn’t so different from the one we are in now, so why can’t it make us come?

* * *

You can measure the erotic thriller’s critical reputation by how little it has penetrated academia. Porn has spawned its own journal, and yet the study of titles like Wild Things appears to be relegated to only three books, including Nina K. Martin’s Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller. She has a predictable explanation for the lacuna: “It’s for women,” she tells me, “and it’s not edgy enough.” It’s true: If you were old enough to masturbate in the ’90s, not only could you watch a young David Duchovny lubing women up on cable (Red Shoe Diaries), you could also Blockbuster and chill (which we just referred to as “renting”). Between the flaming porn and the brooding thrillers at the local video store languished sultry VHS covers with titles like Savage Lust scrawled over images of half-dressed couples embracing against black backdrops. “It gave a lot of people the opportunity to have a one-handed watch that actually had a story,” says Martin, “and that you could watch with someone as a couple and kind of get off.” The last one she remembers — the last good one, I would argue — is 2003’s In the Cut, one of the rare feminist erotic thrillers, which opens with a woman watching another woman going down on a man. But these days you wouldn’t get a major Hollywood star like Meg Ryan appearing in such a film (or behind it — it was a Nicole Kidman production), nor would you get a filmmaker of Jane Campion’s caliber directing it.

The erotic thriller came out of film noir, so it makes sense that one of the earliest neo-noirs, Body Heat (1981), was inspired by Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic Double Indemnity. Kathleen Turner never really washed off the sweat of her debut, in which she plays the wife of a wealthy businessman who convinces her lover, an inept lawyer — “You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.” — to kill her husband. The film was so ecstatically received that it spawned the Body Heat Society, a woman-run film fan club before that was de rigueur. “It’s the perfect story of the perfect seduction,’’ founder Royelen Lee Boykie told The Chicago Tribune in 1987. But it was Fatal Attraction (1987) that really hit the collective G-spot. Producer Sherry Lansing wanted to make a feminist version of the British film Diversion, in which a married man has an affair and gets his comeuppance. “When I watched that short film, I was on the single woman’s side,” Lansing told Susan Faludi for her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991). “I wanted the audience to feel great empathy for the woman.”

The men who ran Hollywood did not. To understand how the erotic thriller, which could have been a genre that celebrates women owning their sexuality, became its opposite, you have to understand the time in which it arose. This was the 1980s, the decade in which liberated women were trying to mind their own business and start a career and men were interpreting the shift as a direct shot at mankind and the murder of the nuclear family. That’s how Fatal Attraction’s single career woman becomes “the most hated woman in America.” The studio refused to keep Michael Douglas’s cheating husband unsympathetic, going against Lansing to make Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest a crazy-faced psycho killer. To protect the family man, they sacrificed the independent blond who knows what she wants, turning her into a woman-shaped threat to fundamental American values that can only be taken down by the traditional housewife’s phallus — sorry, pistol.

This was, according to Williams’s book, “the perfect erotic thriller blueprint.” And in some ways, Fatal Attraction, which dominated the box office and the cultural conversation, was perfect. Director Adrian Lyne had been chosen off the success of Flashdance, and it was his attention to detail — the authentic discussions between family and friends, the messy homes, the dizzying ambience of New York — that makes the movie a classic. “It adds the seeming irrelevancies that are most important,’’ he told The New York Times. But it was also Michael Douglas. The man who became the face of the erotic thriller — he also starred in Basic Instinct, Disclosure, and A Perfect Murder — was able to be hero and antihero at the same time, both championed and maligned. In Williams’s words, he was “the representation of flawed, crisis-ridden masculinity and the concomitant decline of male cultural and social authority.”

Only five years after Fatal Attraction, the blockbuster erotic thriller blew its load for the last time with Basic Instinct, which not only commanded record earnings, but was popular despite — because of? — the perceived anti-gay sentiment of its bisexual femme fatale. Then the genre died; it’s fitting that the man who brought the erotic thriller to climax with Basic Instinct also killed it with Showgirls. Director Paul Verhoeven had the chance to earn the NC-17 rating designed to bolster now well-established adult fare, but he failed and the erotic thriller became a studio risk. Perhaps this was enough to kill it, considering Hollywood’s increasing need to make bank, but it was buried for good by a political landscape that reinforced America’s growing puritanism, an industry saturated with cheap knockoffs like Fair Game (starring supermodel Cindy Crawford), and the rise of free online porn and graphic auteur cinema.

But it was only a little death. The specter of Beyoncé floats over a new form of mainstream erotic thriller, one which has been scrubbed for its debut. In 2009, Queen B reintroduced us to blockbuster eroticism with Obsessed, which was dubbed “the black Fatal Attraction” — a married man is terrorized by a woman at his office — but had none of its predecessor’s charm. Producer Will Packer is famous for his aspirational black rom-coms (This Christmas, Think Like a Man), and Obsessed shared the same generic aesthetic. The specificity of the best erotic thrillers was thus replaced by an all-encompassing generality — suburban-style wealth with interchangeable houses, offices, clothes, people, even storylines. Here, again, men were in charge (producing, directing, writing), so the politics remained largely the same — the man is castrated by the single woman, the mother is the reigning power who restores order — while Hollywood’s mixed feelings about black intimacy meant the erotic part was cooled way down. A stream of nonwhite erotic thrillers lifted this framework, most recently Unforgettable and When the Bough Breaks, though the genre’s biggest (white) release of the past decade did too.

“Uh, oh, uh, oh, uh, oh, oh, no, no,” sang Beyoncé over and over in 2015 leading up to the release of 50 Shades of Grey, for which she recorded a heart-pounding version of “Crazy in Love.” E.L. James’ S&M “book,” I suppose you would call it, which started out as Twilight fan fiction, was a phenomenon among housewives and the biggest mainstream erotic thriller in a decade, attracting an audience of mostly women who were so desperate for some hot sex on-screen that they were willing to pay $13 to see a movie based on a story that read like its writer had never actually had sex. 50 Shades of Grey is potentially the least foxy film of all time — wooden acting, wooden script, wooden directing, but absolutely no wood. “Are You Curious?” the marketing kept asking us. Don’t be: It basically looks exactly like Obsessed, except in a farcical display of our current conversation around consent, the heroine has to sign a contract before she can fuck. This was two years before we started talking about how men in Hollywood have abused their power, which could be why the two men who produced this cock-up thought it made sense to have Dakota Johnson play a woman who is willing to sign a paper in order to have Jamie Dornan’s rich, dead-eyed white man bore the pants off her (we can get that for free!).

* * *

“Your pants are on fire.” “You have no idea.” Within the first five minutes of Indecent Proposal, Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson are having flaming sex — various positions, various body parts — on their kitchen floor. This is frenzied makeup fornication after a fight that resulted in his boxers landing on the boiling stove. In What/If, the analogous couple takes four episodes to get seriously steamy — like, in a shower. OK, they also have sex, but it is so pure it involves garters and is artfully shot through the slates in a banister. This is the erotic thriller now, a pale imitation of its white-hot heyday, in which romance is an afterthought and the thrill is gone. That clinical uptightness that was missing from the originals, which made them so seductive, has me wondering why they even bother anymore. But then again, it tracks that a culture steeped in nostalgia but fixated on box office performance would strip the erotic thriller, a once lucrative genre, down to its superficial parts — a gesture at sex, a glance at intrigue, the broad strokes of a vague threat to patriarchy — to sell it out to the widest audience possible. This would in part explain why the new films and shows have been denuded of their specificity — in character, in location, in aesthetic — though that also aligns with how aspiration is framed now, a time of sporadic employment in a digital (not that kind) dictatorship, as a sterile McMansion in which the comfort of wealth has replaced the comfort of relation.

Then there’s the sex. While men don’t want women to own their sexuality and are skittish in the wake of so many of their male peers screwing up, women don’t want to be objectified or reduced to their sexuality anymore either. Even if Fatal Attraction would make sense coming from a man right now, Martin thinks actresses, awakened to gender parity and intimacy standards, would be unlikely to take on the role. “It’s such a loaded grey area now,” says Martin, observing that sex is either problematized within a relationship as in Sex Education and Gypsy, or it’s associated with trauma as in Top of the Lake (another Campion) and Sharp Objects. That the rare erotic thriller comes from auteurs out of Europe (François Ozon) or Asia (Park Chan-wook) is unsurprising considering their divergent approach to sex and gender. In America, meanwhile, the spectacle has taken over the sexual — women are more concerned with saving the world than in exploring their sexuality. And, sure, I’m all for women solving the climate crisis, but we also have sex lives. And all the talk around consent suggests that it’s the perfect time for cinema to explore the nuances of sexuality (not to mention the widespread panic over millennials having less of it — I mean, would you in this economy?)

Instead, any prurience that threatens to limit the largest possible impact has been folded into the supernatural, since Twilight, which also introduced sensuality into the YA world, culminated in series like You and Riverdale. All of this is not to say that you can’t still find erotic thrillers, just that they have retreated to the margins. What was once a mainstream film — A-list actors and filmmakers — about a queer femme fatale, is now a queer erotic thriller — unknown actors and filmmakers — that only surfaces on streaming sites like Netflix for niche audiences whose algorithms call it out. You can get free porn online, you can pay for a good thriller in the cinema, but you can’t get both together. No wonder I found myself nodding along to the last two words of What/If, a scene in which Zellweger’s femme fatale orders a martini, perhaps to distract her from all the sex she’s not having. “One olive,” she says. “Very dry.”

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Falling Stars: On Taking Down Our Celebrity Icons

Illustration by Homestead

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2019 | 7 minutes (1, 868 words)

The shorthand iconography of the star has been the iconography of excess — furs, gold, pearls, diamonds, stacks of cash, lots of lights, lots of people. It’s luxury personified, the human being at its apex, the kind of intermediary between gods and humans that the ancient Egyptians didn’t just dress with jewels, but buried with them, transcending mortality. And who doesn’t want to be immortal? Especially these days, when we are very much the opposite: when aspiration has been replaced with desperation and extinction is the inevitable end, or maybe hell, but definitely not heaven. The old accoutrements of success, the ones that defined celebrity — wealth, power, decadence — are going extinct too. And anyone who continues to buy into them, is either performing satire (see Billy Porter in city-spanning golden wings) — or is, well, Drake.

The “God’s Plan” singer, who upon last estimation was worth around $90 million, unveiled his own private Boeing 767 cargo plane, Air Drake, in an Instagram video last week, a pair of praying hands on the tail fin speaking for us all. “No rental, no timeshare, no co-owners,” he said. No reality check either, apparently. While Drake framed it as his way of supporting a homegrown business (Ontario’s Cargojet), his very own “Heat of the Moment” lyrics — “All the niggas we don’t need anymore / And all the cops are still hangin’ out at the doughnut shops / Talkin ’bout how the weather’s changin’ / The ice is meltin’ as if the world is endin’” — caused a number of people to point out his hypocrisy. (He captioned the video, “Nothing was the same for real,” which I don’t believe is a reference to the planet’s demise, but maybe he was being meta.) It had been only seven months since Kanye and Kim Kardashian West were vilified for flying aboard a 660-seater Boeing. Basically alone. “No big deal,” Kardashian West said on Instagram. “Just like a chill room. This is, like, endless.” No, there’s an end. Their chill trip happened less than two months after the end days climate report came out.

At one point these stars were icons of the kind of success we aspired to. But having seen how the old capitalist system they symbolize has destroyed the world, the movement to destabilize it has also become a movement to destabilize them as its avatars. This includes idols of technology like Mark Zuckerberg, the once-envied wunderkind who is now someone who should be held “accountable”; business giants like Disney CEO Bob Iger, whose compensation is “insane” according to one member of the family dynasty; and political stars like Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, both of whom were called out for their campaigns’ big donors. In our culture today, the guy who makes music out of his closet has the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the revolutionaries are schoolchildren. “The star is meant to epitomize the potential of everyone in American society,” writes P. David Marshall in Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture. “The dialectical reality is that the star is part of a system of false promise in the system of capital.”

* * *

The debate over whether success should be defined by wealth goes as far back as civilization itself. I asked my brother, a philosophy professor specializing in the ancients (I know), when it first turned up in the literature, and he told me it was “the base note” through most of Plato. Then there was Socrates, who thought knowledge, not wealth, should be the marker of success, versus Aristotle, who thought wealth was essential to the good life. Regardless of their differences, greed, my brother said, was almost always considered pathological. But then along came capitalism, which was popularized (peut-être) by French socialist Louis Blanc, who wrote Organisation du Travail, in which he defined it as “the appropriation of capital by some to the exclusion of others.” Within capitalism, greed became associated with productivity, which was correlated with a successful economy, and so greed was good (you try not to quote Gordon Gekko!). Along with it, those who were greedy were accepted, even admired, under certain conditions. A 2015 study had a bunch of U.K. teenagers excusing Bill Gates’s extreme wealth (more than $100 billion) as merit-based, the necessary evil of a capitalist system in which a hard-working individual can triumph the way they would like to one day.

The celebrity is the ultimate symbol of success, which, under capitalism, becomes the ultimate symbol of greed. “Celebrities reinforce the conception that there are no barriers in contemporary culture that the individual cannot overcome,” writes Marshall. And though Julius Caesar ended up on a coin, dating the monetization of fame back to ancient Rome, you can blame the French Revolution for a modern star like James Charles, who launched a YouTube channel of makeup tutorials at age 16 and within four years had more than 1.7 billion views. After the monarchy was overthrown, power and fame no longer required inheritance, which is why celebrity is sometimes (erroneously) associated with rebellion. But while the common man was ascending, so was individualism, along with mass media and the industrial revolution. The lord and serf were replaced by the businessman and employee and bourgeois culture expanded at the expense of its working-class analog. The icon of this new capitalist society, which had been weaned on the Romantic Era’s cult of personality, was the commodified individual who reinforced consumption: the celebrity. As Milly Williamson explains in Celebrity: Capitalism and the Making of Fame, “Celebrity offers images of inclusion and plenty in a society shaped by exclusion and structured in want.”

Is anyone playing the Kim Kardashian: Hollywood game anymore? The object was to use anything you had access to, whether material, money, or people, to advance. It was clearly a meta-tongue-in-cheek bit of cutesy puff, but it also wasn’t. Kim Kardashian West is you in the game and you in real life. Consumerism isn’t just consumption, it’s emulation. We consume to improve ourselves as individuals — to make ourselves more like Kardashian West, who is presented as the pinnacle of success — as though our self-actualization were directly associated with our purchasing power. And the same way we have commodity selves (I am Coke, not Pepsi; Dell, not Mac) we have celebrity selves. For instance, I’m a Winona Ryder person, not a Gwyneth Paltrow person (is anyone?). So my identity could very well be solidified based on whether I can find that Tom Waits shirt she always wears. And in these days of faces of brands, shaping yourself around Kim Kardashian West can actually mean shaping yourself around a $15,000 dress. “It is pointless to ask what Kim Kardashian does to earn her living: her role is to exist in our minds,” writes George Monbiot in The Guardian. “By playing our virtual neighbour, she induces a click of recognition on behalf of whatever grey monolith sits behind her this week.”

So who cares, right? So what if I want to be a $5,000 Louis Vuitton bag slung over Michelle Williams’s shoulder? It’s a little limiting, I guess, but fine (maybe?) — if we can trust the world to run fairly around us. According to a 2007 study in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, Brits who closely followed celebrity gossip over other types of news were half as likely to volunteer, less politically engaged, and the least likely to vote or protest. “It’s the capacity of these public figures to embody the collective in the individual,” writes Marshall, “which identifies their cultural signs as powerful.” It also identifies them as inert proxies for real community action. There is a veneer of democracy to consumerism, in that we are free to choose what we buy. But we are exercising our freedom only through buying (never mind that the options aren’t infinite); we are not defined as citizens, but as consumers. That the consumer has eclipsed the citizen explains in part why the appeals around climate change have been increasingly directed at the individual, pointing out how they will personally suffer if the world around them does — in a sea of individuals, the planet’s distress was not impetus enough. “The most important democratic achievements have been the result of working-class struggle and collective movements,” writes Williamson. “What is really extraordinary about working-class identity is not the potential celebrity in each of us, but precisely the solidarity and collectivity that is largely hidden from media representations of ordinary people.”

* * *

When Time released its list of the 100 most influential people in the world last month, I noticed that under the Icons category one of the images was a silhouette. Among all of those colourful portraits of famous faces, Mirian G. was an individual erased. I initially thought it was a power move, that this woman had chosen to trade in her identity for a larger cause. It turned out she was a Honduran asylum seeker, part of a class-action suit filed by the ACLU on behalf of families separated at the border, and that she had to be anonymous to protect herself. “In 2018, over 2,700 children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border,” wrote Kumail Nanjiani. “Since that number is so unfathomably large, I think it is helpful to focus on one woman’s story.” In essence, the magazine found a way around the individual-as-icon, turning a spot for one into representation for many. It was a timely move.

It’s not that fame has become defunct — one study found that a number of millennials would literally trade their family for it — but celebrity isn’t the opiate it once was. Younger generations side-eye star endorsements, while online influencers, who affect the tone of friendly advice, have acquired monumental cache. (Though James Charles recently lost millions of YouTube subscribers following a very public fallout with fellow beauty vlogger Tati Westbrook, he still has more than 13 million.) It comes with a catch, though: Millennials will actually pay more for brands that are socially responsible. This aligns with the growing number of young activists, not to mention the U.S.’s youth voter turnout in 2018, the highest in a midterm election since 1982. As Williams concludes, “celebrity culture presents the human in commodity form, but it also consists of its opposite — the human can never be fully contained by the self-as-commodity, and the persistence of humanity is, in all circumstances, a cause for hope.”

While the citizen and consumer were once conflated, they now coexist, a separation that sometimes leads them to be at odds. The celebrity, the symbol of the latter, can in the same way clash with the former. In a context like this, Alyssa Milano’s ill-conceived sex strike, the latest case of a celebrity ham-fistedly endorsing feminist activism, is no longer simply swallowed in good faith. There is no good faith left, not even for our stars. They are symbols of an economy that consumes everything in its path, and struggling with them is part of a collective struggle with the inequitable, exploited world we live in, one in which each callout will hopefully add up to some semblance of change.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

After a Fashion

Vianney Le Caer / AP, Illustration by Homestead

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2019 |  8 minutes (2,349 words)

Rufus: Models help people. They make them feel good about themselves.
Meekus: They also show them how to dress cool and wear their hair in interesting ways.
Zoolander: I guess so.

The schadenfreude was swift and it was sharp the moment the Met Gala announced this year’s theme: camp. “do you ever wake up in the middle of the night because you remembered the met ball is camp themed this year and so many celebrities are going to have to explain what they think camp is,” tweeted New Yorker fashion columnist Rachel Syme. The idea that the fashion industry, infamously out of touch, was not only bypassing urgent matters of the present to focus on the past, but that the past it chose is defined by its indefinability — Susan Sontag’s attempt, “Notes on Camp,” is a series of contradictions for a reason — was too delicious. We were all Divine, in drag, crouching next to that puli, waiting for that shit. And when Lady Gaga and Celine Dion showed up vamping their souls out, it was the perfect symbol of fashion’s near-constant missing of the mark even when it is the mark. Because camp, a lurid pink flourish on the margins of society, is at its core the opposite of what fashion has become: a sanitized institution that sets itself apart from the mess of our reality. “Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp,” wrote Sontag, “what is merely decorative, safe, in a word, chic.”

The stars who seemed to intrinsically understand camp, from Danai Gurira to Natasha Lyonne, are familiar with the fringes of Hollywood. And it was a surprise to no one when Billy Porter — who made his name in Kinky Boots — arrived like the second coming of Tutankhamun, in head-to-toe gold, carried by a coterie of beefcakes. This is the man whose name few knew three months ago, whose style alone threw him to the top of the red carpet, above the old A-listers in the likes of Chanel and Valentino. Like Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, he is fashion precisely because he poses outside of it. Established fashion these days is a place where tradition trumps trendiness, and the biggest couturiers seem to be moving backward rather than forward. Prada, Gucci, Burberry, and Dolce & Gabbana, among others, have lately made missteps so basic it has become clear that being clueless is not the exception but the rule. “Fashion is old-fashioned,” says Van Dyk Lewis, who has worked as a designer and teaches fashion at Cornell University. “The clothes might be cool, but actually the sentiment of fashion in our moment isn’t.” Read more…

Critics: Endgame

Illustration by Homestead

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2019 | 9 minutes (2,309 words)

It’s a strange feeling being a cultural critic at this point in history. It’s like standing on the deck of the Titanic, feeling it sink into the sea, hearing the orchestra play as they go down — then reviewing the show. Yes, it feels that stupid. And useless. And beside the point. But what if, I don’t know, embedded in that review, is a dissection of class hierarchy, of the fact that the players are playing because what else are you supposed to do when you come from the bottom deck? And what if the people left behind with them are galvanized by this knowledge? And what if, I don’t know, one of them does something about it, like stowing away their kids on a rich person’s boat? And what if someone is saved who might otherwise not have been? If art can save your soul, can’t writing about it do something similar?

The climate report, that metaphorical iceberg, hit in October. You know, the one that said we will all be royally screwed by 2040 unless we reduce carbon emissions to nothing. And then came news story after news story, like a stream of crime scene photos — submerged villages, starving animals, bleached reefs — again and again, wave after wave. It all coalesced into the moment David Attenborough — the man famous for narrating documentaries on the wonders of nature — started narrating the earth’s destruction. I heard about that scene in Our Planet, the one where the walruses start falling off the cliffs because there is no ice left to support them, and I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. Just like I couldn’t bring myself to read about the whales failing to reproduce and the millions of people being displaced. As a human being I didn’t know what to do, and as a cultural critic I was just as lost. So when Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation launched “Covering Climate Change: A New Playbook for a 1.5-Degree World,” along with a piece on how to get newsrooms to prioritize the environment, I got excited. Here is the answer, I thought. Finally.

But there was no answer for critics. I had to come up with one myself.

* * *

Four years ago, William S. Smith, soon to be the editor of Art in America, attended the Minneapolis-based conference “Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age” and noticed the same strange feeling I mentioned. “The rousing moments when it appeared that artists could be tasked with emergency management and that critics could take on vested interests were, however, offset by a weird — and I would say mistaken — indulgence of powerlessness,” he wrote, recalling one speaker describing “criticism as the ‘appendix’ of the art world; it could easily be removed without damaging the overall system.” According to CJR, arts criticism has been expiring at a faster rate than newspapers themselves (is that even possible?). And when your job is devalued so steadily by the industry, it’s hard not to internalize. In these precarious circumstances, exercising any power, let alone taking it on, starts to feel Herculean.

Last week’s bloody battle — not that one — was only the latest reminder of critics’ growing insignificance. In response to several celebrities questioning their profession, beleaguered critics who might have proven they still matter by addressing larger, more urgent issues, instead made their critics’ point by making it all about themselves. First there was Saturday Night Live writer Michael Che denigrating Uproxx writer Steven Hyden on Instagram for critiquing Che’s Weekend Update partner Colin Jost. Then there was Lizzo tweeting that music reviewers should be “unemployed” after a mixed Pitchfork review. And finally, Ariana Grande calling out “all them blogs” after an E! host criticized Justin Bieber’s performance during her show. Various wounded critics responded in kind, complaining that people with so much more clout were using it to devalue them even more than they already have been. “It’s doubtful, for instance, that Lizzo or Grande would have received such blowback if they hadn’t invoked the specter of joblessness in a rapidly deteriorating industry,” wrote Alison Herman at The Ringer, adding, “They’re channeling a deeply troubling trend in how the public exaggerates media members’ power, just as that power — such as it is — has never been less secure.” 

That was the refrain of the weeklong collective wound-lick: “We’re just doing our jobs.” But it all came to a head when Olivia Munn attacked Go Fug Yourself, the fashion criti-comic blog she misconstrued as objectifying snark. “Red carpet fashion is a big business and an art form like any other, and as such there is room to critique it,” site owners Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan responded, while a number of other critics seized the moment to redefine their own jobs, invoking the anti-media stance of the current administration to convey the gravity of misinterpreting their real function, which they idealized beyond reproach. At Vanity Fair, chief critic Richard Lawson wrote of his ilk offering “a vital counterbalance in whatever kind of cultural discourse we’re still able to have.” The Ringer’s Herman added that criticism includes “advocacy and the provision of context in addition to straightforward pans,” while Caroline Framke at Variety simply said, “Real critics want to move a conversation forward.” Wow, it almost makes you want to be one.

I understand the impulse to lean into idolatry in order to underscore the importance of criticism. Though it dates back as far as art itself, the modern conception of the critic finds its roots in 18th-century Europe, in underground socially aware critiques of newly arrived public art. U.K. artist James Bridle summed up this modern approach at “Superscript,” when he argued that the job of art is “to disrupt and complicate” society, adding, “I don’t see how criticism can function without making the same level of demands and responding to the same challenges as art itself — in a form of solidarity, but also for its own survival.” Despite this unifying objective, it’s important to be honest about what in actual practice passes for criticism these days (and not only in light of the time wasted by critics defending themselves). A lot of it — a lot — kowtows to fandom. And not just within individual reviews, but in terms of what is covered; “criticism” has largely become a publicity-fueled shill of the most high-profile popular culture. The positivity is so pervasive that the odd evisceration of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, for instance, becomes cause for communal rejoicing. An element of much of this polarized approach is an auteur-style analysis that treats each subject like a hermetically sealed objet d’art that has little interaction with the world.

The rare disruption these days tends to come from — you guessed it — writers of color, from K. Austin Collins turning a Green Book review into a meditation on the erasure of black history to Doreen St. Felix’s deconstruction of a National Geographic cover story into the erasure of a black future. This is criticism which does not just wrestle with the work, but also wrestles with the work within the world, parsing the way it reflects, feeds, fights — or none of the above — the various intersections of our circumstances. “For bold and original reviews that strove to put stage dramas within a real-world cultural context, particularly the shifting landscape of gender, sexuality and race,” the Pulitzer committee announced in awarding New Yorker theatre critic Hilton Als in 2017. A year later the prize for feature writing went to Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, the one freelancer among the nominated staffers, for a GQ feature on Dylann Roof. Profiling everyone from Dave Chappelle to Missy Elliott, Ghansah situates popular culture within the present, the past, the personal, the political — everywhere, really. And this is what the best cultural criticism does. It takes the art and everything around it, and it reckons with all of that together.

But the discourse around art has not often included climate change, barring work which specifically addresses it. Following recent movements that have awoken the general populace to various systemic inequities, we have been slowly shifting toward an awareness of how those inequities inform contemporary popular culture. This has manifested in criticism with varying levels of success, from clunky references to Trump to more considered analyses of how historic disparity is reflected in the stories that are currently told. And while there has been an expansion in representation in the arts as a result, the underlying reality of these systemic shifts is that they don’t fundamentally affect the bottom line of those in power. There is a social acceptability to these adaptations, one which does not ask the 1 Percent to confront its very existence, ending up subsumed under it instead. A more threatening prospect would be reconsidering climate change, which would also involve reconsidering the economy — and the people who benefit from it the most.  

We are increasingly viewing extreme wealth not as success but as inequity — Disney’s billion-dollar opening weekend with Avengers: Endgame was undercut not only by critics who questioned lauding a company that is cannibalizing the entertainment industry, but by Bernie Sanders: “What would be truly heroic is if Disney used its profits from Avengers to pay all of its workers a middle class wage, instead of paying its CEO Bob Iger $65.6 million — over 1,400 times as much as the average worker at Disney makes.” More pertinent, however, is how environmentally sustainable these increasingly elaborate productions are. I am referring to not only literal productions, involving sets and shoots, but everything that goes into making and distributing any kind of art. (That includes publicity — what do you think the carbon footprint of BTS is?) In 2006, a report conducted by UCLA found that the film and television industries contributed more to air pollution in the region than almost all five of the other sectors studied. “From the environmental impact estimates, greenhouse gas emissions are clearly an area where the motion picture industry can be considered a significant contributor,” it stated, concluding, “it is clear that very few people in the industry are actively engaged with greenhouse gas emission reduction, or even with discussions of the issue.”

The same way identity politics has taken root in the critic’s psyche, informing the writing we do, so too must climate change. Establishing a sort of cultural carbon footprint will perhaps encourage outlets not to waste time hiring fans to write outdated consumers reviews that do no traffic in Rotten Tomatoes times. Instead of distracting readers with generic takes, they might shift their focus to the specifics of, for instance, an environmental narrative, such as the one in the lame 2004 disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, which has since proven itself to be (if nothing else) a useful illustration of how climate change can blow cold as well as hot. While Game of Thrones also claimed a climate-driven plot, one wonders whether, like the aforementioned Jake Gyllenhaal blockbuster, the production planted $200,000 worth of trees to offset the several thousand tons of carbon dioxide it emitted. If the planet is on our minds, perhaps we will also feature Greta Thunberg in glossy magazines instead of Bari Weiss or Kellyanne Conway. Last year, The New York Times’ chief film critic, A.O. Scott, who devoted an entire book to criticism, wrote, “No reader will agree with a critic all the time, and no critic requires obedience or assent from readers. What we do hope for is trust. We try to earn it through the quality of our writing and the clarity of our thought, and by telling the truth.” And the most salient truth of all right now is that there is no art if the world doesn’t exist.

* * *

I am aware that I’m on one of the upper decks of this sinking ship. I have a contract with Longreads, which puts me somewhere in the lower middle class (that may sound unimpressive, but writers have a low bar). Perhaps even better than that, I work for a publication for which page views are not the driving force, so I can write to importance rather than trends. I am aware, also, that a number of writers do not have this luxury, but misrepresenting themselves as the vanguards of criticism not only does them a disservice but also discredits the remaining thoughtful discourse around art. A number of critics, however, are positioned better than me. Yet they personalize the existential question into one that is merely about criticism when the real question is wider: It’s about criticism in the world.

I am not saying that climate change must be shoehorned into every article‚ though even a non sequitur would be better than nothing — but I am saying that just as identity politics is now a consideration when we write, our planet should be too. What I am asking for is simply a widening of perspective, besides economics, besides race, beyond all things human, toward a cultural carbon footprint, one which becomes part of the DNA of our critiques and determines what we choose to talk about and what we say when we do. After more than 60 years of doing virtually the same thing, even nonagenarian David Attenborough knew he had to change tacks; it wasn’t enough just to show the loss of natural beauty, he had to point out how it affects us directly. As he told the International Monetary Fund last month: “We are in terrible, terrible trouble and the longer we wait to do something about it the worse it is going to get.” In Our Planet, Attenborough reminds us over and over that our survival depends on the earth’s. For criticism to survive, it must remind us just as readily.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

When Did Pop Culture Become Homework?

Kevin Winter / Getty, Collage by Homestead

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2019 | 6 minutes (1,674 words)

I didn’t do my homework last weekend. Here was the assignment: Beyoncé’s Homecoming — a concert movie with a live album tie-in — the biggest thing in culture that week, which I knew I was supposed to watch, not just as a critic, but as a human being. But I didn’t. Just like I didn’t watch the premiere of Game of Thrones the week before, or immediately listen to Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You. Instead, I watched something I wanted to: RuPaul’s Drag Race. What worse place is there to hide from the demands of pop culture than a show about drag queens, a set of performance artists whose vocabulary is almost entirely populated by celebrity references? In the third episode of the latest season, Vietnamese contestant Plastique Tiara is dragged for her uneven performance in a skit about Mariah Carey, and her response shocks the judges. “I only found out about pop culture about, like, three years ago,” she says. To a comically sober audience, she then drops the biggest bomb of all: “I found out about Beyoncé legit four years ago.” I think Michelle Visage’s jaw might still be on the floor.

“This is where you all could have worked together as a group to educate each other,” RuPaul explains. It is the perfect framing of popular culture right now — as a rolling curriculum for the general populace which determines whether you make the grade as an informed citizen or not. It is reminiscent of an actual educational philosophy from the 1930s, essentialism, which was later adopted by E.D. Hirsch, the man who coined the term “cultural literacy” as “the network of information that all competent readers possess.” Essentialist education emphasizes standardized common knowledge for the entire population, which privileges the larger culture over individual creativity. Essentialist pop culture does the same thing, flattening our imaginations until we are all tied together by little more than the same vocabulary.

***

The year 1987 was when Aretha Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Simpson family arrived on television (via The Tracey Ullman Show), and Mega Man was released on Nintendo. It was also the year Hirsch published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. None of those three pieces of history were in it (though People published a list for the pop-culturally literate in response). At the back of Hirsch’s book, hundreds of words and quotes delineated the things Americans need to know — “Mary Had a Little Lamb (text),” for instance — which would be expanded 15 years later into a sort of CliffsNotes version of an encyclopedia for literacy signaling. “Only by piling up specific, communally shared information can children learn to participate in complex cooperative activities with other members of their community,” Hirsch wrote. He believed that allowing kids to bathe in their “ephemeral” and “confined” knowledge about The Simpsons, for instance, would result in some sort of modern Tower of Babel situation in which no one could talk to anyone about anything (other than, I guess, Krusty the Klown). This is where Hirsch becomes a bit of a cultural fascist. “Although nationalism may be regrettable in some of its worldwide political effects, a mastery of national culture is essential to mastery of the standard language in every modern nation,” he explained, later adding, “Although everyone is literate in some local, regional, or ethnic culture, the connection between mainstream culture and the national written language justifies calling mainstream culture the basic culture of the nation.”

Because I am not very well-read, the first thing I thought of when I found Hirsch’s book was that scene in Peter Weir’s 1989 coming-of-age drama Dead Poet’s Society. You know the one I mean,  where the prep school teacher played by Robin Williams instructs his class to tear the entire introduction to Understanding Poetry (by the fictional author J. Evans Pritchard) out of their textbooks. “Excrement,” he calls it. “We’re not laying pipe, we’re talking about poetry.” As an alternative, he expects this class of teenagers to think for themselves. “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are all noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life,” he tells them. “But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” Neither Pritchard nor Hirsch appear to have subscribed to this sort of sentiment. And their approach to high culture has of late seeped into low culture. What was once a privileging of certain aspects of high taste, has expanded into a privileging of certain “low” taste. Pop culture, traditionally maligned, now overcompensates, essentializing certain pieces of popular art as additional indicators of the new cultural literacy.

I’m not saying there are a bunch of professors at lecterns telling us to watch Game of Thrones, but there are a bunch of networks and streaming services that are doing that, and viewers and critics following suit, constantly telling us what we “have to” watch or “must” listen to or “should” read. Some people who are more optimistic than me have framed this prescriptive approach as a last-ditch effort to preserve shared cultural experiences. “Divided by class, politics and identity, we can at least come together to watch Game of Thrones — which averaged 32.8 million legal viewers in season seven,” wrote Judy Berman in Time. “If fantasy buffs, academics, TV critics, proponents of Strong Female Characters, the Gay of Thrones crew, Black Twitter, Barack Obama, J. Lo, Tom Brady and Beyoncé are all losing their minds over the same thing at the same time, the demise of that collective obsession is worth lamenting — or so the argument goes.” That may sound a little extreme, but then presidential-hopeful Elizabeth Warren blogs about Game of Thrones and you wonder.

Essentializing any form of art limits it, setting parameters on not only what we are supposed to receive, but how. As Wesley Morris wrote of our increasingly moralistic approach to culture, this “robs us of what is messy and tense and chaotic and extrajudicial about art.” Now, instead of approaching everything with a sense of curiosity, we approach with a set of guidelines. It’s like when you walk around a gallery with one of those audio tours held up to your ear, which is supposed to make you appreciate the art more fully, but instead tends to supplant any sort of discovery with one-size-fits-all analysis. With pop culture, the goal isn’t even that lofty. You get a bunch of white guys on Reddit dismantling the structure of a Star Wars trailer, for instance, reducing the conversation around it to mere mechanics. Or you get an exhaustive number of takes on Arya Stark’s alpha female sex scene in Game of Thrones. One of the most prestige-branded shows in recent memory, the latter in particular often occupies more web space than its storytelling deserves precisely because that is what it’s designed to do. As Berman wrote, “Game of Thrones has flourished largely because it was set up to flourish — because the people who bankroll prestige television decided before the first season even went into production that this story of battles, bastards and butts was worth an episodic budget three times as large as that of the typical cable series.” In this way, HBO — and the critics and viewers who stan HBO — have turned this show into one of the essentials even if it’s not often clear why.

Creating art to dominate this discursive landscape turns that art into a chore — in other words, cultural homework. This is where people start saying things like, “Do I HAVE to watch Captain Marvel?” and “feeling a lot of pressure to read sally rooney!” and “do i have to listen to the yeehaw album?” This kind of coercion has been known to cause an extreme side effect — reactance, a psychological phenomenon in which a person who feels their freedom being constricted adopts a combative stance, turning a piece of art we might otherwise be neutral about into an object of derision. The Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman called it “cultural cantankerousness” and used another psychological concept, optimal distinctiveness theory, to further explain it. That term describes how people try to balance feeling included and feeling distinct within a social group. Burkeman, however, favored his reactance as a form of self-protective FOMO avoidance. “My irritation at the plaudits heaped on any given book, film or play is a way of reasserting control,” he wrote. “Instead of worrying about whether I should be reading Ferrante, I’m defiantly resolving that I won’t.” (This was written in 2016; if it were written now, I’m sure he would’ve used Rooney).

***

Shortly after Beyoncé dropped Homecoming, her previous album, Lemonade, became available on streaming services. That one I have heard — a year after it came out. I didn’t write about it. I barely talked about it. No one wants to read why Beyoncé doesn’t mean much to me when there are a number of better critics who are writing about what she does mean to them and so many others (the same way there are smart, interested parties analyzing Lizzo and Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame and Rooney). I am not telling those people not to watch or listen to or read or find meaning there, I understand people have different tastes, that certain things are popular because they speak to us in a way other things haven’t. At the same time, I expect not to be told what to watch or listen to or read, because from what I see and hear around me, from what I read and who I talk to, I can define for myself what I need. After Lemonade came out, in a post titled “Actually,” Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak wrote, “It’s easier to explicate what something means than to illustrate what it does. If you want to know what it does, watch it or listen to it. It’s at your fingertips. … Right is right and wrong is wrong, but art at its purest defies those binaries.” In the same way, there is no art you have to experience, just as there is no art you have to not experience. There is only art — increasingly ubiquitous — and there is only you, and what happens between both of you is not for me to assign.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

 

None of the President’s Men

Warner Bros.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2019 | 10 minutes (2,422 words)

INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY

SORAYA sits down at her laptop with a cookieor some cake or that weirdly oversize banana bread. As she startsworking on a column like this one, the woman next to her, workingon a spreadsheet, glances at Soraya’s desktop and turns to her.

WOMAN: What do you do?

SORAYA: I’m a columnist.

WOMAN: Holy shit, that’s cool.

I starred in this scene two weeks ago, and again just this past week at a party. The women don’t have to tell me why they think it’s cool, I know why: Carrie Bradshaw. An apartment in New York, a photo on the side of a bus, Louboutins, tutus, and a column at the top of each week. Which is why I qualify it every time: “I don’t make as much as Carrie Bradshaw.” Yes, the job is cool, and it is holy-shit-worthy because so few journalists are able to actually work as journalists. But I’m freelance: I can cover my rent but can’t buy a house, I don’t get benefits, and I might be out of a job next week. Not to mention that I might not be so lucky next time. The women usually turn back to their admin after that — admin looks a lot cooler than journalism these days. But only if you’re not going by Sex and the City or basically every other journalism movie or series that has come after, all of which romanticize an industry which has a knack for playing into that.

“This is the end of an era, everything’s changing,” Gina Rodriguez tells her friends in the trailer for Someone Great, a new Netflix rom-com in which she, a music journalist, gets a job. At a magazine. In San Francisco. This is not a sci-fi movie in which the character has time traveled back to, I don’t know, 1975. It is only one recent example of the obfuscation of what journalism actually means now. There’s also the Hulu series Shrill, which presents itself as if it were current-day but is based on the life of Lindy West, who had a staff job at the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger when you could still have a staff job and make a name for yourself with first-person essays, i.e., 2009. Special (another Netflix show) also harkens back to that time, and though it’s more overt about how exploitative online media can be — the hero is an intern with cerebral palsy who writes about his disability (which he claims is from a car accident) for clicks — the star is still hired straight out of an internship. (What’s an internship?)

Hollywood romanticizes everything, you say? Perhaps, but this is a case where the media itself seems to be actively engaging in a certain kind of deception about how bad its own situation actually is. In February, The Washington Post, which is no doubt still benefiting from the press off the still-gold-standard journalism movie — 1976’s All the President’s Men — ran a Super Bowl ad narrated by Tom Hanks, which applauds late journalists Marie Colvin and Jamal Khashoggi, who, in their words, brought the story, “no matter the cost.” The spot highlighted what we already know, which is that we need journalism to be a functioning democracy and that many journalists risk their lives to guarantee it. What it kept in darkness (ha), however, was that to do their job properly, those journalists need protection and they need resources — provided by their editors and by their publishers. Hanks, of course, starred in The Post, Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film based on the journalists who reported on the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The ad was using the past to promote the future, rather than dealing with a present, in which more than 2,400 people lost media jobs in the first three months of the year and journalists are trying to unionize en masse. But that’s not particularly telegenic, is it?

* * *

The romanticized idea of the journalist — dogged, trenchcoated — really took off at the movies. In 1928, ex-reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote a play which was adapted into The Front Page, a 1931 screwball that became the journalism movie prototype, with fast dialogue and faster morals. My favorite part is that not only is the star reporter trying to quit the paper (in this economy?), but his editor will do anything — including harboring an accused murderer — to keep him on staff. Matt Ehrlich, coauthor of Heroes and Scoundrels: The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, once told me for Maclean’s that The Front Page came out of the “love-hate relationship” the writers had with the industry even back then. “The reporters are absolute sleazebags, they do horrible things,” he said. “At the same time The Front Page makes journalism seem very exciting, and they do get the big scoop.” Ehrlich also told me that some initially thought All the President’s Men, which eventually became the prototype of the journalism movie, was reminiscent of the earlier era of the genre. In case you are not a journalist and so haven’t seen it, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman starred as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Washington Post reporters whose stories on the Watergate burglary and subsequent cover-up helped lead to President Nixon’s resignation. While the film also played fast and loose with the truth, it had a veneer of rumpled repetitious reality — not to mention a strong moral core that made taking down the president with a typewriter seem, if implausible, at least not impossible.

In February, Education Week reported that a survey of 500 high school journalism teachers across 45 states found that, in the past two years, 44 percent of U.S. school teachers saw a rise in journalism enrollment and a 30 percent increase in interest in journalism higher education. “This is this generation’s Watergate,” the executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association said. “With President Trump, everyone is really in tune to the importance of a free press.” Sure. But this isn’t 1976. No doubt there are scores of WoodSteins out there, but not only do a number of journalists no longer have the resources or the time to follow stories of any kind, they rarely have the salaried staff positions to finance them, nor the editors and publishers to support them doing the job they were hired to do. In All the President’s Men, executive editor Ben Bradlee asks WoodStein if they trust their source, before muttering “I can’t do the reporting for my reporters, which means I have to trust them. And I hate trusting anybody.” Then he tells them to “Run that baby.” These days there is little trust in anything beyond the bottom line.

The myth is that All the President’s Men led to a surge of interest in journalism as a career. But in reality it was women, increasingly educated post-liberation, whose interest explained the surge. (My editor is asking: “Is it an accident that shitting on journalism as a worthy profession coincided with women moving into journalism?” My reply is: “I think not.”) Still, women remain underrepresented in the field to this day, a fact reflected by the paucity of movies about the work of female journalists. While there were scores of ’70s and ’80s thrillers built around male reporters with too much hair taking down the man, for the women … there was The China Syndrome, with Jane Fonda as a television reporter named Kimberly covering a nuclear power plant conspiracy. And, um, Absence of Malice? Sally Field is a newspaper reporter who sleeps with her subject (I mean, it is Paul Newman). I guess I could include Broadcast News, which stars Holly Hunter as a neurotic-but-formidable producer and personified the pull between delivering the news and delivering ratings (the analog version of clicks). But Network did that first and more memorably, with its suicidal anchorman lamenting the demise of media that matters. “I’m a human being, GODDAMN IT!!!” he shouts into the void. “My life has value!!!” You don’t hear female journalists saying that on-screen, though you do hear them saying “I do” a whole lot.

The quintessential journalism film and the quintessential rom-com are in fact connected. Nora Ephron, who was briefly married to Carl Bernstein, actually cowrote an early script for All the President’s Men. While it was chucked in favor of William Goldman’s, she went on to write When Harry Met Sally, and I’ll forgive you for not remembering that Sally was a journalist. She probably only mentions it twice because this was 1989, an era in which you decided to be a journalist and then you became one — the end. The movie treats reporting like it’s so stable it’s not even worth mentioning, like being a bureaucrat. Sally could afford a nice apartment, she had plenty of time to hang out with Harry, so what was there to gripe about (Good Girls Revolt would suggest Ephron’s trajectory was less smooth, but that’s another story)? Four years later, in Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan is another journalist in another Ephron movie, equally comfortable, so comfortable in fact that her editor pays her to fly across the country to stalk Tom Hanks. This newspaper editor literally assigns a reporter to take a plane to Seattle from Chicago to “look into” a possible lifestyle story about a single white guy. (Am I doing something wrong?!?!)

Journalism and rom-coms were fused from almost the start, around the ’30s and ’40s. The Front Page went from being a journalism movie to being a rom-com when it turned its hero into a heroine for His Girl Friday. The reporter repartee and the secretive nature of the job appeared to lend themselves well to Hays-era screwballs, though they also indelibly imprinted a lack of seriousness onto their on-screen female journalists. After a brief moment in the 1970s when The Mary Tyler Moore Show embodied the viability of a woman journalist who puts work first, the post-Ephron rom-coms of the 2000s were basically glossy romances in “offices” that were really showrooms for a pink-frosted fantasy girl-reporter gig no doubt thought up by male executives who almost certainly saw All the President’s Men and almost certainly decided a woman couldn’t do that and who cares anyway because the real story is how you’re going to get Matthew McConaughey to pop the question. I can’t with the number of women who recently announced that 13 Going on 30 — the movie in which Jennifer Garner plays a literal child successfully running a fashion magazine — made them want to be journalists. But the real death knell of the aughts journo-rom-com, according to rom-com columnist Caroline Siede, was in 2003 with How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days in 2003. In that caper, Kate Hudson has a job as a columnist despite thinking it is completely rational to write a piece called “How to Bring Peace to Tajikistan” for her Cosmo-type fashion magazine.

* * *

In 2016, the Oscar for Best Picture went to Spotlight, which follows The Boston Globe’s titular investigative team — three men, one woman — as it uncovers the Catholic Church abuse scandal. The film earned comparisons to All the President’s Men for its focus on journalistic drudgery, but it also illustrated the growing precariousness of the newsroom with the arrival of the web. In one scene, executive editor Marty Baron expresses shock when he is told it takes a couple of months for the team to settle on a story and then a year or more to investigate it. At the same time, Baron and two other editors are heavily involved and supportive of the three reporters, who went on to win the Pulitzer in 2003 and remained on the team for years after. Released only 12 years after the fact, the film suggested that journalists who win Pulitzers have some kind of security, which, you know, makes sense, and is maybe true at The Boston Globe. But two years after Spotlight came out, David Wood, who had won HuffPost its only Pulitzer, was laid off. As one of BuzzFeed’s reporters told The Columbia Journalism Review after BuzzFeed shed 15 percent of its staff, “It’s this sense that your job security isn’t tied to the quality of your work.”

“We have so much to learn from these early media companies and in many ways it feels like we’re at the start of another formative era of media history where iconic companies will emerge and thrive for many decades,” BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti blew hard in a memo in 2014, referring to traditional outfits like Time and The New York Times. But both those publications have unions, which Peretti has been clear he doesn’t think “is right” for his company. “A lot of the best new-economy companies are environments where there’s an alliance between managers and employees,” he said in 2015. “People have shared goals.” In this case the shared goals seem to be that Peretti profits (his company was valued at more than $1 billion in 2016) while his staff is disposable.

Which brings us back to the Globe in 2019. That is to say the real one, not the romanticized one. This version of the Globe hires a Gonzo-esque leftist political writer named Luke O’Neil as a freelancer and publishes his “controversial” op-ed about the Secretary of Homeland Security’s resignation titled “Keep Kirstjen Nielsen unemployed and eating Grubhub over her kitchen sink.” “One of the biggest regrets of my life is not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon,” it opened, and it concluded with, “As for the waiters out there, I’m not saying you should tamper with anyone’s food, as that could get you into trouble. You might lose your serving job. But you’d be serving America. And you won’t have any regrets years later.” The article was gone by Friday, pulled upon the request of the paper’s owners (O’Neil sent me the original). According to WGBH, a now-deleted note on the opinion page stated that the article “did not receive sufficient editorial oversight and did not meet Globe standards. The Globe regrets its lack of vigilance on the matter. O’Neil is not on staff.” And, oh, man, that last line. It says everything there is to say about modern journalism that is unspoken not only on-screen but by the culture at large and the media in it. It says you serve us but we provide no security, no benefits, no loyalty. It says, unlike Spotlight or All the President’s Men or even The Front Page, we do not have your back. Because if they did, you better believe it would have a good chance of ending up on-screen.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

For the Thirsty Girl

Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2019 | 9 minutes (2,387 words)

“She’s got the nerve to say / She wants to fuck that boy so badly.” These are the lyrics to the titular track from Third Eye Blind’s 2003 album Out of the Vein (stay with me). They are written by Stephan Jenkins, who has admitted his three-year relationship with Charlize Theron acted as inspiration. Whether or not that particular song is about her, one thing is clear: Charlize Theron knows she wants to fuck a specific boy, even if she is uncertain who that boy is. “I’ve been single for ten years, it’s not a long shot,” she said recently in some interview, dorkily referencing the title of her new film, which is about a presidential hopeful who falls for Seth Rogen (why not?). “Somebody just needs to grow a pair and step up.”

Charlize Theron is thirsty. That surprises people. And by people, I mean me. How is it possible that Charlize Theron has to desire at all, considering she is so desired herself? (Doesn’t one negate the other?) You could sense an army of unworthy men clutching their collective pearls in response to her statement. That this statuesque blond with the kind of face you only see carved out of marble not only has to, God forbid, ask for it, but that she can speak like a sailor about it, shatters the pristine image of beauty — no wants, no desires — she otherwise projects. Theron’s words jolted us back to her humanity. The balls she asked for were the balls to approach her with desire, knowing that she has the power not to desire in return. Charlize Theron is dictating the expression of her thirst, but also the man who is worthy of it.

If the original iteration of “thirst” was a plunging desperation, this one is an uplifting affirmation. NPR traced its root, “thirst trap,” back to 2011; but Jezebel actually defined the singular “thirst” first in 2014, as lust “for sex, for fame, for approval. It’s unseemly striving for an unrealistic goal, or an unnecessary amount of praise.” This was the definition picked up in 2017 by The New York Times Magazine, imbuing thirst with negativity. But in the intervening years, women got a hold of it. These women, objects for so long within an atmosphere of men’s ambient lust, emerged to twist thirst from a cloying wish into full-bodied desire. Out of the wreckage of male toxicity, they used thirst to mark the men who remained worthy. There’s a reason Theron is still single — few men can step up. What’s more, in a world run by female desire, some are terrified of being left unwanted if they do.

* * *

It’s hard to get a clear picture of female desire across a history mostly seen through the male gaze, afflicted as it was with the rare myopia that focuses only on the virgin and the whore. So you had virtuous, prim, usually classier orderly women who were worth marrying, and sinful, messy, gutter-dwelling hysterics who were worth a quick screw, and that’s it. If a woman expressed desire and wasn’t faking it for money, she was a deranged man-eater, like a witch or a harpy. Men’s lust was natural, women’s was the most unnatural. Eventually, fandom offered a means of escape. “While it was risky for individual women to lose control or to surrender to passion, there could be safety in numbers,” wrote Carol Dyhouse in Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire. So women swooned all over the place for Franz Liszt in the mid-19th century before having a collective orgasm over Vaslav Nijinsky, then Rudolph Valentino — the first man (the first person) for whom the word “sexy” was deemed worthy of use. What these men had in common was fluidity — of gender, of sexuality, of race. “I hate [him],” cartoonist Dick Dorgan wrote of Valentino. “The women are all dizzy over him.” Real men hated this new masculine ideal because real women wanted it and they couldn’t deliver. So they took sexy back. The Hays Code put women who wanted sex in movie jail and in their place installed women with whom men wanted to have sex.

The new “sexy” icon became Marilyn Monroe, described by Molly Haskell (From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies) as “the lie that a woman has no sexual needs, that she is there to cater to, or enhance, a man’s needs.” It is a meandering but fairly unbroken line from Monroe to reality star and one-time child bride Courtney Stodden, who has not only physically fashioned herself into her idol, but also appears as troubled. In a recent interview with BuzzFeed, the now 24-year-old pitied her boyfriend for not cashing in on his expectations. “He thought he was going to get in a relationship with this hot young celebrity who’s all sexual and fun,” she said. “He gets in there and I don’t have sex, I’m a mess, and I’m crazy.” So, not really much change from the original dichotomy, the one which limits big-busted babes like her, like Kim Kardashian-West, to conduits for sex. The latter can launch her career off a sex tape, while Jennifer Lawrence, the slapstick virginal non-bottle blonde, can almost be undone by a couple of photos. And forget being a woman who has sex with more than one man; Kristen Stewart had to apologize publicly for that, forced to do a glorified perp walk in a world where husbands have had mistresses longer than Edward Cullen has been undead.

Almost every article I read about female sexuality cited Freud — specifically his inability to figure out what women want. It says a lot that on this subject we are still deferring to a psychoanalyst who predates women’s liberation. It served men like Freud and those who followed him to theorize that women had a lower sex drive (unproven and kind of the opposite), were more romantic than randy (unproven and kind of the opposite), because it meant women could not use men for sex the way men used women. Yet, as Psychology Today reported back in 2013, “If women believe that they will not be harmed and that the sex will be good, their willingness to engage in casual sex equals that of men.” Relax, bros, rape culture keeps that in check. “It is anti-sex and anti-pleasure,” writes Laurie Penny. “It teaches us to deny our own desire as an adaptive strategy for surviving a sexist world.” And now you can stop relaxing; since women have begun dismantling that world, they have also begun releasing their desire — these days better known as thirst.

Some men think the objectification of women has simply turned into women’s objectification of men, but that’s not what thirst is: Where the male gaze limits women to the flesh, the female gaze fleshes men out. Famous guys provide an aspirational model, with women filling in the holes with their wants, showing real guys how to enhance themselves to satisfy women like Charlize.

We have women of color to thank for pushing men to meet us halfway. Their brand of lady thirst went mainstream in 2017, the year ELLE announced “the Golden Age of Thirst Journalism,” and BuzzFeed got celebrities to read “thirst tweets” — their fans’ horny messages — and launched the “Thirst Aid Kit” podcast. That show centered on the famous crushes of hosts Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins, from established hunks like Chris Evans to pensive actors of color like John Cho. “We are two straight black women talking about lust and desire and sexuality,” Adewunmi told Salon last year, “and all these expressions of humanity [are] not something that has traditionally been given to black women.” In their wake, black Canadian writer Kyrell Grant quietly articulated the concept of “big dick energy” (in reference to recently deceased chef Anthony Bourdain). “It’s a phrase I’d used with friends to refer to guys who aren’t that great but for whatever reason you still find attractive,” she wrote in The Guardian. But while black women are stereotyped for being game, they aren’t expected to set the rules. The Cut sought to profit off the term without crediting Grant, effectively muting her, though it was writer Hunter Harris whose desire was more directly silenced.

Vulture’s resident thirst critic — “i have something adam can drive” — was suspended by Twitter last week amid protests by fellow writers. “JUSTICE FOR HUNTER HARRIS, a thirst maestro and one of the funniest people on this hellsite,” Alanna Bennett tweeted. I DM’d Harris for the details of her suspension and she told me that a photographer had issued a copyright complaint about an image she used last summer in a tweet on the “secret romance” between Rihanna and Leonardo DiCaprio (she can’t remember the exact words and, because Twitter removed it, she can’t check). Around the same time that this happened, Quinn Hough, the editor of a tiny online film and music publication, Vague Visages, went viral (in a bad way) after pulling a strong anti-thirst stance on Twitter. The tweet in question has since been deleted, but Hough told me via email that he’d written “a poorly worded thread after seeing tweets from young critics that I thought were excessive and wouldn’t necessarily be acceptable in a professional environment.”

With women being the ones who thirst tweet most visibly, Hough’s comments were interpreted as an attempt to police women’s desire. “I just get very angry at any kind of sex-shaming because I’ve been told my whole life that if I express sexual desire, I’m a slut or dirty,” Danielle Ryan tweeted in response. “It really comes across differently to women.” While Hough’s site may be small, he still acts as a gatekeeper in the world of criticism, a conduit to larger more established outlets. His discrimination against what appeared to be young female writers, was a microcosm of a wider systemic double standard, particularly when he claimed, “Critics can say anything they want, but expressing sexual desire for subjects will minimize their chances for a staff position somewhere.”

This is where Hunter Harris resurfaces. The simultaneous timing of her suspension with the Vague Visages pile-on acted as a trigger for women accustomed to being muted, turning a copyright notice into a symbol of the suppression of black women’s desire. Meanwhile, other Twitter users expressed their delight at Harris’s expulsion. “It’s sad that @vulture encouraged her psychosis, but will probably be looking to dump her, now that @hunteryharris got her twitter account suspended,” wrote one guy who goes by Street Poetics (“PhD in These Streets”). A man he referenced in that same tweet, Jurg Bajiour, responded, “It’s true. @hunteryharris seemed to want to show me that it was *her job* to endlessly horny-tweet about actors.” (Harris denies this).

The missives were rich considering male film critics readily maintain staff positions despite waving around their boners in their actual reviews. “I didn’t miss Lynda Carter’s buxom, apple-cheeked pinup,” New York’s David Edelstein wrote in his Wonder Woman review. You may remember him also writing of Harry Potter, “prepubescent Watson is absurdly alluring,” in a review that originally appeared in Slate in 2001 and resurfaced after his Wonder Woman hard-on. Compare this to famously thirsty film critic Pauline Kael, whose books boast titles like I Lost It at the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: “There is a thick, raw sensuality that some adolescents have which seems almost preconscious. In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta has this rawness to such a degree that he seems naturally exaggerated.” There is a lot of sex here, but Kael is not the subject, Travolta not the object, and it layers rather than reduces. In fact, Female Film Critics’ Twitter poll on critical thirst — “What do you think of ‘thirst’ in film criticism?” — which followed the Vague Visages controversy, attracted 468 votes with a runaway 44 percent responding, “A grand tradition (Kael!)” Still, Hunter Harris admits she felt odd being erroneously credited as its icon. “i dont want to be like a martyr for the horny cause lmao,” she told me via DM, “but it is very nice that ppl are defensive of woc being openly desirous !”

* * *

While thirst is most common in the field of Hollywood celebrity — ground zero for idolatry — it has recently moved into politics, a place where masculinity has increasingly become a bone of contention. At one time we thirsted for Justin Trudeau’s “it’s 2019” yoga moves; more recently that thirst turned toward an emo crossdressing Beto. “Ojeda and Avenatti as candidates are like the guy who thinks good sex is pumping away while you’re making a grocery list in your head wondering when he’ll be done,” political analyst Leah McElrath tweeted in November 2018. “O’Rourke is like the guy who is all sweet and nerdy but holds you down and makes you cum until your calves cramp.” While politicians have an extensive history of abusing their positions for their own sexual gratification, this explicit dispatch from the beltway still left a number of us open-mouthed. Yet this is where we are — in the context of a presidency rife with toxic masculinity oft expressed in terms of sexual harassment, good sex acts as an analogy for progressive politics.

Over the past couple of years, women have also elected Noah Centineo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeff Goldblum, and Mahershala Ali as worthy of their thirst. Like the men who have historically inflamed female desire, they represent an aspirational form of masculinity, one which counteracts the retrograde misogyny trumpeted by the president. The thirst women express for these men’s physical form is informed by the men’s insides as much as their outsides. And the strongest men do not shrink at the prospect of not measuring up, but adapt the way women always have. In this new world, on the red carpet for their shared movie, Long Shot, Charlize Theron’s Alexander McQueen gown is matched by Seth Rogen’s Prada suit. “I was highly aware I was going to be standing next to Charlize for a lot of pictures,” Rogen said at the time. “I always have that image in my head of Beyoncé next to Ed Sheeran in a T-shirt, and I don’t want that.” Finally, it’s no longer about what a guy wants.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.