Author Archives

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

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.

A Rich Awakening

iStock / Getty Images Plus

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2019 | 9 minutes (2,392 words)

We all the know the stats, that by 2030 the richest 1 percent could be hoarding two-thirds of the world’s wealth. Tax the rich! Redistribute to the poor! It’s the kind of thing you hear lately set to some lame music in a weirdly cut NowThis News video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Rutger Bregman. (It’s always some scrappy progressive, not some bloated billionaire because, I don’t know, *yawns, eats some cake.*) Perhaps the rich will be moved by the fact that income equality is not only bad for the collective mental health, but their own? No? That the 10 percent’s multiplying accessories — private jets and yachts and enormous holiday homes — hogs nearly half the world’s emissions, killing the earth we all share? No? Nothing? What’s that you say, infrastructure investment started plummeting just as inequality began rising? But all the philanthropy! Which, sure, America’s largest donors may give a little more than before, but they also make way more than they used to. And as Jacobin magazine recently noted, “those nations — mostly in Scandinavia — that have the highest levels of equality and social well-being have the tiniest philanthropic sectors.” When you have equality, you don’t need long Greek words.

To recognize this, as a rich person, you need to have a sort of reverse double consciousness. “Double consciousness” originates with W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, who coined it in 1897 as one way to describe the experience of  being an African American in a white supremacist world. In The Atlantic Monthly he defined it as, “…this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others….” The concept is based on being oppressed. What I’m talking about is an inverted version based on being the oppressor. It is the recognition that not only do you have outsized means, but that they come at the expense of others. It requires not only self awareness, but other awareness, and it’s a prerequisite for change.

Roy Disney’s granddaughter, Abigail, for instance, has given $70 million away over the past four decades, which is more than she ever inherited. “The problem is that there’s a systematic favoring of people who have accumulated an enormous amount of wealth,” she tweeted after a viral appearance on CNBC last month in which she said CEOs were overpaid. “The U.S. must make structural changes by taxing the wealthy.” To say that, she had to have had some kind of awakening — but what was it? In her case it was a sudden burst of extraordinary wealth and its human toll — not on others, but on the wealthy themselves. In 1984, when the heiress was in college, Michael Eisner became the chairman and CEO of Disney and launched its stocks into the stratosphere. Abigail’s father embraced the excess income — the too-big private jet, the too-much drinking — and no one questioned him, not even about his alcoholism. “That’s when I feel that my dad really lost his way in life. And that’s why I feel hyperconscious about what wealth does to people,” she recently told The Cut. “I lived in one family as a child, and then I didn’t even recognize the family as I got older.” Read more…

On Flooding: Drowning the Culture in Sameness

A 37-meter-long floating sculpture by U.S. artist Kaws in Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong, March 2019. (Imaginechina via AP Images)

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | March 2019 | 7 minutes (2,006 words)

In 1995, the Emmy nominees for Best Drama were Chicago Hope, ER, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files. In 1996, the Emmy nominees for Best Drama were Chicago Hope, ER, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files. In 1997, the Emmy nominees for Best Drama were Chicago Hope, ER, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files. That is: Two cop shows set in New York, two medical shows set in Chicago, and some aliens, spread across four networks, represented the height and breadth of the art form for three years running.

I literally just copied that entire first paragraph from a Deadspin article written by Sean T. Collins. It appeared last week, when every site seemed to be writing about Netflix. His was the best piece. Somehow, within that flood of Netflix content, everyone found that article — it has almost 300,000 page views. I may as well have copied it for all the traffic my actual column — which was not about Netflix — got.

There was definitely a twang of why bother? while I was writing last week, just as there is every week. Why bother, and Jesus Christ, why am I not faster? The web once made something of a biblical promise to give all of us a voice, but in the ensuing flood — and the ensuing floods after that — only a few bobbed to the top. With increased diversity, this hasn’t changed — there are more diverse voices, but the same ones float up each time. There remains a tension that critics, and the larger media, must balance, reflecting what’s in the culture in all its repetitive glory while also nudging it toward the future. But we are repeatedly failing at this by repeatedly drowning ourselves in the first part. This is flooding (a term I just coined, so I would know): the practice of unleashing a mass torrent of the same stories by the same storytellers at the same time, making it almost impossible for anyone but the same select few to rise to the surface.
Read more…

The Makeover Scene Gets a Makeover

Natalie Seery / Netflix, Allyson Riggs / Hulu, Richard Shotwell / Invision / AP

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | March 2019 | 8 minutes (2,283 words)

There’s a thing my psychiatrist likes to say in response to anyone who hints at the idea that they might one day be cured of whatever it is that makes them who they are: Weave your parachute every day; don’t wait until you need to jump out of the plane. It’s a paraphrased quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn, widely recognized as the father of mindfulness in the clinical sphere (this involves the secular meditation you get in a hospital as opposed to a yoga studio, though it is originally adapted from Buddhism). The program he developed in the ’70s, mindfulness-based stress reduction, is used for everything from pain and depression to what I have, which is severe anxiety. It’s kind of hard to explain what the program looks like practically, but basically, it’s rooted in meditation that cultivates awareness of your thoughts and your body, which ultimately allows you to choose your actions more deliberately. To an extent. Mindfulness doesn’t exactly alter how you think — a lot of shitty thoughts are just kind of automatic — and it doesn’t modify your fundamental personality. But it gives you a modicum of choice.

I’ve been doing this for five years and I will have to keep doing it until I’m dead. I’m not jazzed about it either. The point — and the point of that parachute quote — is that this is an ongoing, lifelong thing. It does not take three hours, it does not take a week. Those units of time may sound arbitrary but they refer to three recent examples of self-actualization presented as a switch, as something you can virtually just decide. Most notably, Shrill, the Hulu series adapted from Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, in which Aidy Bryant plays a fat pushover who in six 30-minute episodes learns to stand up for herself. But also After Life, Ricky Gervais’s Netflix series — also made up of six 30-minute episodes — in which a grieving widower with no filter learns how to be happy again. And Queer Eye, the reboot that just returned to Netflix for a third season, which follows eight people learning how to love themselves … inside of a week. Read more…

How the Shock Jock Became the Outrage Jock

Ben Hider / Invision / AP, Jeff Chiu / AP, Charles Dharapak / AP

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | March 2019 | 8 minutes (2,111 words)

In the past, the bow tie seemed to hold him together, kind of. Tucker Carlson had always been as red-faced and obstreperous as so many other conservative pundits, but he had never been known to be “cunty” or “faggot”-level offensive. Still, it wasn’t much of a shock earlier this week when progressive watchdog Media Matters unearthed him spouting slurs like that — a couple of racist remarks rounded out the misogyny and homophobia — during a series of appearances on Bubba the Love Sponge Clem’s radio show between 2006 and 2011. From Monday to Tuesday, after the first recordings surfaced, Tucker Carlson Tonight hemorrhaged almost half its advertisers.

That bow tie had been a flourish of propriety: a strip of cloth separating him from a loudmouth like Howard Stern, the “shock jock” who looks and acts like a dollar store rock star, grabbing his crotch for whoever will listen. But he dropped it the year he appeared on that radio show. It was Stern who hired Bubba the Love Sponge Clem (yes, that’s his legal name) in the mid-2000s to host a show on his second satellite radio channel, and it was on that show that Carlson crossed the line. That was where the shock jock and the political commentator proved that they were one and the same — the former played off conservatism, the latter played it up, but both relied on its foundation. “Well, you’re talking about God and illegals,” Carlson told Clem. “I thought we were just going to be talking about blow jobs.”

But what’s the difference, really? Blow jobs were once used for shock value. Now it’s “illegals.” The punch line being that neither one of them is transgressive in the end.

* * *

No one used the words shock jock for Joe Pyne, the host of It’s Your Nickel (that’s a reference to pay phones, kids, and I’m including myself here) who pioneered in-your-face talk radio in the ’50s and went on to create TV’s The Joe Pyne Show, which sometimes devolved into actual physical altercations between him and guest. No one really knew what to make of him. His unconventional style — dressed-up to dress down “pinkos” and “women’s libbers” and riff on, rather than read, reports — was neither news nor entertainment. It seemed to be best described (well, The New York Times and Time both did anyway) as an “electronic peepshow.” The personality-free press of the time considered Walter Cronkite the most trusted man in America and Johnny Carson the funniest, but Pyne, with his syndicated show on more than 200 radio outlets, was the most Machiavellian. “When it comes to manipulating media,” Icons of Talk author Donna Halper told Smithsonian Magazine, “he was the father of them all.”

Pyne briefly descended from his soapbox in the mid-’60s — for a week’s “vacation” — after bringing a gun to his show during the Watts riots, suggesting the world wasn’t quite yet ready for his kind of conservative appeal. It took until the mid-’80s, when the FCC was no longer so hard-assed and political correctness was all the rage, for Howard Stern to turn the shock jock into a thing. The idea was that PC America was muting real America, and personalities like his were there to liberate our ids … usually on the way to work. “They were pushing the limits of what you could hear on the public airwaves,” TALKERS Magazine publisher Michael Harrison told Thrillist of mavericks like Pyne and Don Imus, who set the stage for Stern. “That was the key to the whole thing: that it was on the ‘sacred public airwaves.’”

Full disclosure: I have always hated Howard Stern. His banality offends me: “The closest I came to making love to a black woman was I masturbated to a picture of Aunt Jemima on a pancake box” — that’s the kind of joke he makes. It’s the sort of quip that leaves a dumb bro stuck in 1992 in stitches. To be offensive your words have to have power, and his … don’t. He swears a lot and cajoles his guests into talking about fucking and snorting and it’s all very Free Speech, Motherfuckers! He can be sexist and racist and classist, because, hey! He’s sexist about men too! He’s racist to everyone! He drags every class!

Sorry, I just fell asleep.

The rebellion is a pose, because at the heart of Stern and all the other shock jocks is conservatism — 2.1 kids, strong moral fiber. They can joke about fucking and inhaling, because they ostensibly aren’t doing either. So what positions itself against PC America, in fact, at its core, feeds into it — the conservatism is the rebellion. Knowing that, you can see how Don Imus calling the members of Rutgers’ women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos” can happen as late as 2007 on his radio show Imus in the Morning (he was fired by CBS and NBC, then hired by ABC). As David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker 10 years before Imus’s offense, personalities like Stern and Mancow Muller and Opie and Anthony appeal to the “audience that feels put upon by a new set of rules — sexual harassment guidelines, the taboo against certain kinds of speech — and wants release, if only in the privacy of the drive to work.”

The audience meaning white heterosexual men. The shock jock industry itself is predominantly white men (Stern’s foil, Robin Quivers, is a black woman, but she has never been the star attraction). Which is not to say that women can’t be as “offensive,” it’s just that the people in charge of hiring them would prefer them to be barefoot and pregnant. There are shockingly few exceptions. Wendy Williams, who rode the wave of ’90s hip-hop and shamelessly confronted celebrities like Whitney Houston with tabloid gossip (she also had a bad habit of trying to out rappers) was christened by New York magazine in 2005 as the “shock jockette.” She was “the black Howard Stern” right down to the middle-class moralism. Other than Williams, the female media personalities who cause offense — Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham — tend toward conservative commentary, presumably because the men on the top floor think they will be less likely to break a nail in those environs. “The complaints of Western feminists look like petty self-absorption when you line them up against human rights abuses in Third World military dictatorships,” is a thing Ingraham came up with — a misogynistic comment cloaked in doublespeak.

This genre of radio personality was dubbed by my colleague Ethan Chiel as the “outrage jock,” the political version of a culture and entertainment-aligned predecessor, who arose in the late 1980s after the FCC regulations on political talk became less clear. This is where a bow tie comes in handy. The outrage jocks market themselves as transgressive, but instead of fighting conservative America, they uphold it, a stance they brand subversive in a sea of progressive liberal media. Rush Limbaugh, who has the most popular talk radio show in America — 15.5 million listeners, according to Talk Magazine — was dubbed by National Review as the “Leader of the Opposition” back in the ’90s. “Rush took radio at a time when the norm was basically NPR. He comes into that church and blows it up,” radio host John Ziegler told The Washington Post in 2015. “Our presidential politics have become a kind of church. The media says, ‘You’re not allowed to say this, or this, or that, because we’re in church.’ People are sick of that.”

So: Stern 2.0, except instead of shouting about pussy, Limbaugh — not to mention Glenn Beck and Michael Savage — shouts about policy. You may remember him calling women’s rights activist Sandra Fluke a “slut” in 2012 for advocating for contraceptive insurance coverage. “She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception,” said the man who has been married four times. “She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps.”

Limbaugh needs a brushup on his sex work nomenclature, among other things. But if you want to talk about pimp: Janet Jackson’s nipple ultimately killed the shock jock. In case you aren’t old, it happened during a performance of “Rock Your Body” at the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show in 2004, when Justin Timberlake tore off the right cup of Jackson’s bustier, exposing her breast. (Per Jackson, the red bra underneath the rubber was supposed to stay behind, but came away accidentally.) In response, more than 500,000 complaints, all of them from people presumably with nipples of their own, were reportedly lodged with the FCC. President Bush responded two years later by signing the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which raised the penalty for broadcasting “indecency” tenfold. With that, Howard Stern fucked off to satellite radio and the rest of the shock jocks kind of followed suit. Tucker Carlson was what was left behind.

* * *

“Does she have a good body? No. Does she have a fat ass? Absolutely.” Tucker Carlson did not say that. That was Donald Trump in 2013 talking to Howard Stern about a pregnant Kim Kardashian in a radio show appearance that reemerged during his election campaign. On the same show, across almost two decades, the future president also agreed that his daughter was “a piece of ass” and dismissed flat-chested women and women over 35 (thank God). For all his work to divide the nation, Trump had a big hand in bringing shock and outrage jocks together, dissolving any sort of wall (!) between them. “If the political class is appalled by the notion that anything from the morass of ’90s shock-jock radio could become part of a presidential race,” wrote Virginia Heffernan in Politico in 2016, “it may be just as surprising to Stern’s fans, who proudly embraced the outsider-ness of a guy who couldn’t seem further from inside-the-Beltway political chatter.” TALKERS’s Harrison has called Trump “the first shock-politician.”

By the time Trump entered politics, shock jocks were no longer defining the culture and conservative commentators were filling the vacuum. They entered the mainstream on networks like Fox and the intellectual dark web via Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin. “The shock jocks weren’t defeated,” wrote Dan Jackson at Thrillist. “They went viral.” This is where Tucker Carlson fits in. He called his resurfaced xenophobic, misogynistic, and homophobic comments from Bubba the Love Sponge’s show (he described women as “extremely primitive,” supported child rapist Warren Jeffs, and compared the behavior of Muslims to animals) “naughty,” then equated contrition with betrayal. “We’ve always apologized when we’re wrong and will continue to do that,” he said on Tucker Carlson Tonight Monday. “That’s what decent people do; they apologize. But we will never bow to the mob.”

Almost 70 years after the first shock jock hit the air, Carlson was toeing the same party line as his predecessors. “They claim that they’re just entertainers and yet they deliver this toxic mix of pseudo journalism, misinformation, hate-filled speech, jokes,” Rory O’Connor, author of Shock Jocks: Hate Speech & Talk Radio, told The Guardian in 2009. “It’s all bound together so when it’s convenient for them to be entertainers they say, hey, it’s all just a joke. But when it’s not, they say they’re giving you information that you need.” Carlson’s comments were only shocking because they veered so sharply away from Beltway politics; with his regressive approach no longer couched in policy, they revealed him for the person he is. And even though advertisers have pulled out of his program, the notion that he could disappear like Stern is one from another time — conservatism is the status quo and there’s always room for it now, particularly when it masquerades as information rather than entertainment.

After Megyn Kelly left Fox, Tucker Carlson took her spot, and if Carlson were removed, a new version of him would sprout in his place. This whack-a-mole quality to outrage jocks extends, more troublingly, to their politics — if they are not outraged about one thing, they will immediately find another. They are as adaptive as comedians like Stern, use facts as props to play journalists like Cronkite, and influence voting and policy just as seriously. As Jon Stewart scolded Carlson and his cohost in 2004 on the CNN show Crossfire: “You’re doing theater, when you should be doing debate.” And without the FCC to shut them down for good, or at least out them as entertainers, the only hope is that their audience will realize that the most transgressive thing to do is to stop listening.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

The Teen Idol Vanishes

Adam Scull / AP, Getty, Collage by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | March 2019 | 8 minutes (2,230 words)

Dylan McKay was never quite there. In the physical sense — he would kind of just turn up out of nowhere on Beverly Hills, 90210, in random staircases or under random cars, and disappear just as fast — but also, like, existentially. He was supposed to be a high schooler, but you could never imagine him in class, getting bored, learning. He seemed to know everything there was to know anyway, even though he was only 17 — but he wasn’t really 17. He had this sort of aged face, with the eyebrow scar, the never-ending stacks of lines on his forehead, the throwback pompadour, the Homeric sideburns, and seemed to have the sexual history of a middle-aged playboy. Depending on the circumstances, he exuded the hard-partying past of a retired rock star or the bodhisattva-like wisdom of an ancient yogi. Even though he had supposedly hit puberty only four years ago.

All of this resulted in an otherworldly, ageless icon of adolescence that was impossible to grasp completely because of the way it constantly vacillated between poles — old and young, violent and gentle, smart and goofy, rich and poor, public and private. But Dylan McKay’s was the kind of mythic narrative that could only float along on a dearth of details, the holes filled in by our imaginations. By a pubescent girl, for instance, who thought the “Dylan” in her new class would be something like the Dylan at West Beverly only to find he was as acne-ridden and awkward as she was because he was an actual teenager. As opposed to Luke Perry, a 24-year-old actor whose biography was so elusive that Dylan McKay stood in for him, turning both of them into this perennial abstract symbol of romantic teenage-hood. Read more…

The New Old Hollywood

Carlos Amaya / Sipa USA / AP, Charles Sykes / Invision/ AP, Richard Shotwell / Invision / AP

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 8 minutes (2,147 words)

Some people missed Jack Nicholson at the Oscars this year. They were expecting to see the octogenarian — shades on — where he always is: front row, leaning back, just about sucking on a cigar. They expected the stars on stage to shout across the room at him and him to shout back, like the Dolby Theatre is his own personal living room. Because that’s how it is when you’ve been in the industry since you were teenager and you’ve been nominated for countless Oscars and you’ve won three — it’s age that bestows the privilege, but also work. Oh, and race. And gender too. Also sexuality. So, yes, with all those things squared away — whiteness, maleness, heteroness — in an industry that privileges all three, after several decades you acquire the kind of legendary status where you don’t stand on ceremony because everyone else is standing for you.

So where was Jack? I don’t know; I didn’t notice he was gone. How do you notice when Spike Lee’s in his spot? This guy who won a Student Academy Award back in the eighties, leaning back, side-eyeing everyone, shouting back and forth at everyone too. Just like Jack except, like, more. In his grape suit and his grape hat and his grape glasses, Lee peacocked the hell out of the red carpet with his fists up, Love and Hate forged across his fingers — were those rings or brass knuckles? Oh, wait, I remember, they’re from Do the Right Thing. They’re both. And then there’s those gold Air Jordans commissioned by the man himself for the filmmaker himself because, like Jack, he is also one of those basketball guys who sits in the front row of every game. Of course, the look — designer Ozwald Boateng, who worked on Black Panther, did the suit — is a lot more of a statement than Jack would ever make. But, then, Spike Lee is a lot more of a statement.

This is the new old Hollywood. Where Jack Nicholson was well-ensconced, now the seats of note are no longer occupied solely by the old white men who once claimed all the accolades for building the industry. Instead you have the people who have worked just as hard for just as long who are no longer being overlooked — more than that, they are being recognized as essential to the future. While Meryl Streep briefly appeared to take Nicholson’s spot, the aggressively decorated actress served as a bridge to the rarer, and therefore more powerful, recognition of the legacy of black artists — Spike Lee, Oprah, Cicely Tyson — not only for their own achievements coming up within a much less diverse industry, but for how they, like so many older people of color in so many other industries, have set the stage for the younger (second?) generation facing a less hostile world, built on the work of their predecessors.

* * *

It started with Oprah, because what doesn’t? Back in 1995, David Letterman launched the Oscars by walking across the stage to where the queen of daytime was sitting, and saying, “Oprah?” From the audience, in her regal chocolate gown, sprinkled with diamonds, even her wave regal, she mouthed, “Hi,” because that’s all you have to really say when you’re Oprah. She proceeded to laugh good-naturedly as he introduced her to Uma, but no one wants to remember that terrible punchline, and anyway, the point was Oprah. Only 10 years after launching her syndicated talk show — in a field saturated with white men — Oprah was a big enough name to open Hollywood’s biggest night of the year. But she was only 41 then, so: big enough, but not old enough to be the kind of legacy that just sits and watches as everyone orbits around her. That came later.

In the interim, Oprah was named the most influential woman in the world multiple times over. She became so pervasive in the culture — her show, her magazine, her cable network — that she became less of a person and more of an emotion. Her fame transcended race and gender and sexuality, even body. So when she was seated at an awards ceremony, even if she was there for no real reason, the feeling was: obviously, this entire edifice would crumble if Oprah weren’t here. And when she wasn’t there, she still was. Because Oprah is everywhere. So when E! News joked in 2017 that she was “probably the most-thanked person in Emmy history” it seemed fitting. As John Oliver said when he accepted the award for writing in a variety series, “I’d like to thank Oprah, because she is sitting right there and it seems inappropriate not to.”

Oprah herself thanked Sidney Poitier last year when she became the first black woman to receive the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes. “I remember his tie was white and of course, his skin was black. And I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that,” she said. “There are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given the same award.” Though she has been fully embraced by a white audience and industry, culminating in Globes host Seth Meyers joking of a possible Oprah presidential run in 2020 (it was less of a joke to the media, which covered the story incessantly) it is easy to overlook how she affected black artists. But two fellow giants of film and television — Tyler Perry and Shonda Rhimes — offered a reminder. Perry admitted that he started writing when Oprah said that it was a cathartic act on her talk show. And when Shonda Rhimes was honored at the Television Academy Hall of Fame ceremony in late 2017, her speech on Oprah mirrored Oprah’s on Poitier: “She was a black woman on television, and then she was a black woman taking over the world through television.”

With more young artists of color getting powerful faster, more older artists of color, many without Oprah’s platform (no one has that platform, to be honest), are lifted up along with them. As a guest editor for TIME’s second annual “Optimists” issue, filmmaker Ava Duvernay chose Cicely Tyson, who received an honorary Oscar in November, to be the cover star. “.@ava I have been asked multiple times what it feels like to be on the cover of @TIME?” the 94-year-old actress tweeted. “My humblest answer is, had u not been guest editor, I would probably never know.” Like dominoes, the inspiration tips down from one generation to another to another. Sidney Poitier inspires Oprah, Oprah inspires Shonda Rhimes, Shonda Rhimes inspires Issa Rae. And the recognition tips back up again.

Then there is the direct support provided by one generation to the next. In the interview accompanying his Rolling Stone cover last year, Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman revealed that Phylicia Rashad was once his acting teacher, but also helped him a whole lot more than that; she would feed him and drive him places and even got her friend Denzel to pay for him to attend a prestigious program in Oxford. And the support extends across ethnicities. Upon winning a SAG Award this year for her role in Killing Eve, Sandra Oh acknowledged three black actors for their encouragement throughout her career. “I want to thank Alfre Woodard. In 1997 — she’s never going to remember this — in 1997, she whispered in my ear, ‘I’m so proud of you out there. We fight the same fight,’” she said. “Jamie Foxx, in 2006, pulled me aside and he said, ‘Keep going,’ and in 2017, Lena Waithe, she just embraced me and said, ‘You already won. It’s in the work.’ So thank you to my fellow actors.” The fight is everyone’s, of course, and the solidarity across race, gender, sexuality, age — everything — is the real win.

* * *

“Spike Leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” That’s how it sounds when one of your oldest friends announces that you’ve just won your first Oscar. Samuel L. Jackson was the one to read out the BlackkKlansman filmmaker’s name as the winner of best adapted screenplay. And Lee responded by jumping into his arms, wrapping his legs around Jackson so you couldn’t tell who was hugging whom. It was the celebration of a long-awaited formal welcome into the Hollywood family, the culmination of an almost 40-year career in which Lee had been trying to carve out a space as a commercial filmmaker. He always had the critical support (BAFTA, Palme d’Or, Cesar, Emmy, Peabody nods and wins) and the exposure (Malcolm X, He Got Game, 25th Hour, Inside Man) but the largely white establishment, symbolized by the Academy, had remained elusive until now.

Despite going from film school straight into the festival circuit, despite the popularity of his films — She’s Gotta Have It made about 70 times its budget — Lee had to hustle for himself because the industry wasn’t doing it for him. On the advent of his third film, Do the Right Thing, The New Yorker stated of Lee, “the most prominent black director in the American movie industry, he probably feels as if he were sprinting downcourt with no one to pass to and about five hundred towering white guys between him and the basket.” But some white gals were offering assists. Ahead of the Oscars, Kim Basinger’s off-script moment at the 1990 ceremony while presenting best-picture nominee Dead Poets Society went viral. In the clip she called out the Academy for “missing” Do the Right Thing, which she said told “the biggest truth of all.” Whether or not it was intentional, Barbra Streisand’s presentation of BlackKklansman as one of the best picture nominees this year echoed Basinger’s words. “It was so real, so funny and yet so horrifying because it was based on the truth,” Streisand said of the film. “And truth is especially precious these days.”

Even though BlackKklansman lost the Best Picture award to Green Book — “Every time somebody is driving somebody, I lose,” Lee quipped (Driving Miss Daisy won in 1990, while Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated) — its director’s influence ricocheted across the ceremony. When Ruth E. Carter became the first black woman to win best costume design for Black Panther, she thanked Lee for her “start,” referring to her first gig on his second film, School Daze, in 1988. “I hope this makes you proud,” she said. The connection not only points to the limited opportunities for filmmakers of color — if Spike Lee didn’t hire you, likely no one did — but to Lee’s own ethos, to portray black society in all its complexity from within it. ‘‘A lot of black artists start off with a black base, and once they get big, they get co-opted and cut all ties to the black community,’’ he told The New York Times in 1986. He did not plan to do the same, nor has he. And a growing number of current artists of color — from Shonda Rhimes to Jordan Peele to Lena Waithe — are taking his cue and hiring as diversely. “Here’s the thing: Without April Reign, #OscarsSoWhite and the former President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences … I wouldn’t be here tonight,” Lee said after his Oscar win. “It’s more diverse … That would not have happened without #OscarsSoWhite and Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Facts.”

Though the most popular films have not improved their representation over the past decade, television is seeing increased diversity and these Oscars were the most inclusive in recent memory. Three out of the four acting trophies went to people of color, while two black women — Black Panther’s Carter for costume and Hannah Beachler for production design — made history in their categories. As Lee alluded to, this is only possible through changing optics, the slow trickle of diversity into the establishment that builds, generation upon generation, toward a welcome deluge. The result is a new and improved Hollywood that reflects reality over antediluvian ideals, in a world that is moving in the same direction — from politics, to science, to tech, to everything. And while it’s rare to catch the actual changing of the guard, Indiewire’s Eric Kohn managed to freeze a symbolic moment after the Oscars in which Spike Lee, trophy in hand, asked Black Panther director Ryan Coogler how old he was — 32 to his 61 — before saying, “Man! I’m passing it to you.” It was Lee acknowledging his own legacy in the direct presence of its heir. As he had said during his speech earlier in the night: “We all connect with our ancestors. We will have love and wisdom regained, we will regain our humanity. It will be a powerful moment.”

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.