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

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.

‘We Are All Responsible’: How #MeToo Rejects the Bystander Effect

CSA Archive / Getty, Collage by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 8 minutes (2,357 words)

Halfway through Dirty John, the Bravo series based on the life of sociopathic con artist John Meehan, the titular character’s first wife, having discovered her husband of several years has been cheating and shooting up, meets one of his friends in a diner. Sitting stone-faced across from her husband’s grinning college buddy, she learns how “Dirty John” got his nickname through an ever-expanding laundry list of scams his classmates witnessed: being a “dog” with women, conning old people, credit card fraud, insurance fraud. She says nothing, but it’s clear from her face that she is getting progressively more enraged at this man for having repeatedly stood by and watched as the father of her children mistreated a succession of people. At one point, it seems to kind of dawn on the guy that the fruits of his failure to act might in fact be sitting right in front of him, so he issues a half-assed mea culpa: “I lived with him that year and we had good times, or whatever, but he never talked about things and I never asked.” Read more…

Teen Girls Finally Get to Touch Themselves

Netflix / Netflix / Hulu

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 9 minutes (2,569 words)

There was a time when people believed masturbating would leave them blind, hairy-palmed, and STD-riddled (okay, the last one was me — I was a kid in the nineties). The ancient Sumerians were down with it — for both men and women — but two centuries of moralists ruined masturbation for everyone. Even now, the act isn’t especially celebrated, particularly if you’re a girl. It’s hard not to think of boys specifically when studies show that kids learn to jerk off from their friends and the media, rather than from their parents or schools. And while I can’t think of one teen movie where a boy isn’t caught with their hands full (of semen), I can barely think of one where a girl is. I read Deenie like everyone else — apparently Judy Blume’s balls-out approach to female masturbation is still rare in YA 46 years later — but there was a dearth of girls getting themselves off in pop culture and, perhaps accordingly, a dearth of girls talking about it in my actual life. This made me feel all those things that have since become stereotypical themes when it comes to women and masturbation: shame, guilt, like there was something wrong with me.

Read more…

The New Scabs: Stars Who Cross the Picket Line

Invision / AP, Matt Rourke / AP, MediaPunch / AP

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 10 minutes (2,439 words)

“Maroon 5 is just Red Hot Chili Peppers for virgins.” “This is the Fyre Festival of halftime shows.” “Anyone else think Adam Levine looks like an Ed Hardy T-shirt?” The Super Bowl halftime show was worth it for the social media stream it kicked off; otherwise, it was notable only for the fact that Maroon 5 (along with Big Boi and Travis Scott) turned up at all when so many others (Rihanna and Pink and Cardi B) turned the gig down. “I got to sacrifice a lot of money to perform,” Cardi B said. “But there’s a man who sacrificed his job for us, so we got to stand behind him.” Though she ended up appearing in a Pepsi commercial anyway, Cardi’s heart seemed to be in the right place, which is to say the place where protesting injustice is an obligation rather than a choice (of her other appearances around the Super Bowl, she said, “if the NFL could benefit off from us, then I’m going to benefit off y’all”). The man she was referring to was, of course, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee in 2016 during the national anthem to protest systemic oppression in America and has gone unsigned since opting out of his contract. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” the ex-San Francisco 49er said. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
Read more…

The Lost Boys of #MeToo

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 10 minutes (2,500 words)

At the end of An Open Secret, the 2015 documentary by Amy J. Berg about child sex abuse in Hollywood, a card reads: “The filmmakers emphasize that this is not a gender based issue. We chose to tell these specific stories, but they are representations of a greater issue that affects both boys and girls.” It was an odd thing to read after watching a 99-minute film — one that could not secure a distributor and was self-released on Vimeo — in which no girls were mentioned. Whether or not it was intentional, the statement had the effect of equating the two genders, erasing any nuance that might exist in a male victim versus a female victim. It leaves the impression that the abuse we predominantly talk about  which, in our current climate, targets girls and women  is the standard. So the way girls and women are mistreated and how they react to this mistreatment is how all of us do. The fallout from Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby and R. Kelly is the fallout from Michael Jackson and Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer and Gary Goddard. Read more…

The Classroom Origins of Toxic Masculinity

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2019 | 8 minutes (1,974 words)

Covington Catholic High School, St. Michael’s College School, Georgetown Preparatory School. All three are Catholic, mostly white, mostly rich, all-boys, and all three have recently made the news. At Covington, student Nick Sandmann went viral after a video emerged showing him, surrounded by a bunch of white classmates in the same glaring MAGA hats fresh off the same anti-abortion rally, mocking Native American Indigenous Peoples March attendee Nathan Phillips. At St. Mike’s school — Canadian, suggesting we may be less nice than we are similar — several students were charged after a video appeared on social media in which their fellow classmates were assaulted, one with a broomstick. Eight boys were eventually expelled after several incidents were investigated, all, according to reports, involving football and basketball players. Georgetown Prep, meanwhile, made the news when Christine Blasey Ford accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were teenagers while fellow Georgetown student Mark Judge watched. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said. The quote reverberated across social media once again after the Covington video went viral.

Read more…

True Crime and the Trash Balance

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2019 | 9 minutes (2,514 words)

In his satirical 1827 essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” Thomas de Quincey called himself a connoisseur of murder before assuring us he hadn’t actually committed one himself. In her new book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, late author Michelle McNamara also ensures that we know her interest is personal, not prurient (it originated with an unsolved crime in her childhood neighborhood). Most of us have excuses for our interest in true crime, as though enjoying it offered real insight into our own predilections. The quasi-religious impulse to consider this a perversion of society’s innate morality has led to a flurry of theories about the source of our fascination, with four main hypotheses recurring: true crime can be a cathartic conduit for our primal urges, a source of schadenfreude, a controlled environment to experience the thrill of fear, and way to arm us (women particularly) with the knowledge to keep ourselves safe. A psychologist, speaking to NPR in 2009, provided the perfect précis: “our fascination with crime is equaled by our fear of crime. It’s two sides of the same story.”

True crime is less embarrassing, like so many things, when it’s scrubbed clean. On my shelf, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s News of a Kidnapping and Dave Cullen’s Columbine stick out for how unobtrusive they are amidst the loudly stylized spines of Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me and Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, among others. With their unadorned print (no drips) and minimalist art (no claret), these tasteful soft covers pass for literature. They are comparable to “prestige” podcasts like Serial and S-Town and series like Making a Murderer and The Keepers, Netflix shows in which the classic hallmarks of true crime programs — overly explicit, overly emotive — are massaged into character-driven narratives for the graduate set. In the midst of this influx of classy crime content, watching throwbacks like Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly, in which survivors are tasked with reliving their abuse and tear-stained grief is the closeup du jour, starts to feel like an ignominious act.

In 2016, at the beginning of the true crime renaissance, The New Yorker asked Popular Crime author Bill James whether, regardless of the highbrow livery, it was fundamentally “distasteful” (New Yorker for “trashy”) to transform tragedy into entertainment. “Well, certainly there is something distasteful about it,” James said, but, “When there is a car wreck, we ask what happened to cause the car wreck.” That is to say: The crime itself is distasteful (or trashy), therefore it’s necessarily distasteful (or trashy) when we address it. So, either we can refuse to interrogate crime, full stop, or we can ensure that the grief we cause is for a greater good. It is a sort of trash balance — less exploitation, more justice — with only one bad ending instead of two.

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True crime was lurid straight out of the birth canal. Born in the mid-sixteenth century, it was the offspring of

Elizabeth Brownrigg, seen here in action, was hanged in 1767 after one of her abused servants, Mary Clifford, died from her injuries. (Hulton Archive / Getty)

two relatively new developments: criminal justice and the printing press. Historic crime reports’ graphic nature is typically associated with a depravity believed to appeal to the unrefined, uneducated, and unmoneyed, but that was not the case with these early publications. Though they were often branded with explicit woodcuts that would have been understandable to even the illiterate, they also boasted rhyming text and only went to those who could afford them, predominantly the upper echelons. In “True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism,” published in The American Historical Review, Joy Wiltenburg writes that “emotive language, direct dialogue, building of suspense through circumstantial detail, and graphic description of bloody violence were common in the genre.”

Favored cases were in-family and usually involved multiple deaths. The focus was on the victims, while the moral of the story was that sin begat punishment. “The combination of truth with appeals to the heart underlined the religious focus of these works,” writes Wiltenburg. “Virtually all crime accounts published during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries connected their stories with an edifying Christian message.” This message associated brutality with the devil and positioned public order as the path to virtue. “[Sensationalism] has had religious, political, and cultural impact,” Wilternburg sums up, “promoting the ready acceptance of punitive government actions, the advancement of religious agendas, the internalization of mainstream emotional expectations, the habit of vicarious emotional experience, and the focus on distinctive individual identity.”

With a reputation for being insensitive to and financially exploiting both criminals and their victims, true crime is often accused of sensationalism, but that term wasn’t coined until the 19th century, a time that favored rational thought over the emotive prose of journalists. “While sexual scandals and other shocking events have become staples of modern sensationalism,” writes Wiltenburg, “its chief focus has always been crime, especially the most bloody and horrifying of murders.” The 1800s also gave us our first detectives, who inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin stories and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, the latter not only centering crime fiction as a genre, but granting it a modicum of respectability. The gutter was still within spitting distance, though. Penny dreadfuls arrived — demon barber Sweeney Todd in tow — as early versions of popular culture in the form cheap mass-produced serials for young, increasingly literate working-class men, featuring salacious gore; like the true crime paperbacks of today, they supplied affordable, digestible scandal to entertain tired people with no time. The last gasp of the penny dreadful coincided with the precursor to O.J. Simpson’s so-called trial of the century: The Lizzie Borden case. The 32-year-old Massachusetts woman’s trial for the axe murder of her parents spawned a media phenomenon and firmly established the mass appeal of true crime. The next century saw the trash-fired genre shooting off in various directions, from tabloids like The National Enquirer to paperbacks like Lacey Fosburgh’s Closing Time to shows like America’s Most Wanted.

Then there was In Cold Blood.

“Until one morning in mid-November 1959, few Americans — in fact, few Kansans — had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.” Before In Cold Blood, this is not how real crime stories read. What Arthur Conan Doyle did for crime fiction, Truman Capote did for true crime. His 1965 experiment was released as a four-part serial in The New Yorker and became the reference point for every other high-brow true crime work in every other medium. “The motivating factor in my choice of material — that is, choosing to write a true account of an actual murder case — was altogether literary,” Capote told The New York Times. “It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,’ as I thought of it.” He believed only those with the “fictional technical equipment” — novelists, not journalists — like him could do it. The factual inaccuracies that have since emerged suggest that Capote’s belief in his own skills — he neither taped nor took notes during interviews — were as sensational as the genre he was hoping to reinvent. His book is still, however, considered the pinnacle of crime lit.

It was Capote’s book that the Times referred to when designating Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line a “nonfiction feature film,” per its distributors, in 1988. This exercise in lyrical fact was groundbreaking in its own right: an elegant piece of true crime as an advocacy tool. The subject of a false conviction, Randall Dale Adams had his case thrown out with the help of evidence Morris uncovered. It’s a straight shot from The Thin Blue Line to Serial, which blew up true crime podcasting in 2014. But while an appeal followed this program’s highly subjective long-form reexamination of Adnan Syed’s conviction for killing Baltimore teen Hae Min Lee in 1999, it was Capote — “a leap in narrative innovation on the scale of In Cold Blood” — who was once again cited, this time in The New Yorker. Serial’s executive producer has said they were trying to avoid an exploitative “Nancy Grace type of a titillating thing,” but the program was serialized with its own version of a cliffhanger each week, and provided its own hero, the avatar in our ears, reporter Sarah Koenig. Yet Koenig bristled at the suggestion by the Times’ Magazine that this was entertainment. “I don’t think that’s fair,” she said. “I’m still reporting.”

As though the two were mutually exclusive. As though true crime could only be trash if it were

MP Christopher Atkinson in a pillory (with his hat) in London in 1783 after being convicted of perjury. (Hulton Archive / Getty)

entertainment, and could only be entertainment if it weren’t journalism. Of course, this negates the nature of media. To entertain — to entertain a thought, for instance — is merely to take it into consideration, to allow it to hold one’s attention. Journalism is made to entertain; if it weren’t, reports would not be called “stories” and there would be no need for inverted triangles or kickers or pull quotes or anything else to catch our attention. Because to deliver the news there has to be someone to deliver it to, and that necessitates their entertainment. Otherwise the news is nothing but fact; there is no story.

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“Many of the differences between trash culture and high culture show only that storytelling adapts to changing economic, social and political conditions,” Richard Keller Simon writes in Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition. It’s something to consider when watching Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly. The series was produced by a network for women branded by its schlocky aesthetic and penchant for frothy romance. An exec at Lifetime has admitted it has “erred on the tabloid side” and Surviving R. Kelly, which has a number of black women recounting the decades of abuse they say the singer has inflicted on them, exhibits the familiar tropes: the inflated score, the voyeuristic set pieces, the abused women on display. In an interview with Complex earlier this month, showrunner dream hampton revealed that she received a number of notes from Lifetime and that she was pushed to find more victims. “I didn’t like the salaciousness of stacking up all of these people who survived him,” she said, “but I got the corroboration part.” The result is a series that orchestrates rescue attempts and highlights the explicitness of Kelly’s brutality, while only gesturing vaguely at the cottage industry he has fostered over the past three decades in order to victimize black women and at our collective failure to see these women as victims at all.

When I watched it, I couldn’t shake a feeling of ickiness, particularly when one of the victims was asked to describe her abuse and dissolved into tears. We didn’t need to see that scene from the pee tape so many times, we didn’t need a tour by one victim of the room where she was allegedly tortured, we didn’t need to watch as one mother reunited with her daughter. (I’m not even including the questionable stylistic choices). The whole endeavor read trashy, old-school Lifetime. “I saw someone kind of try to drag me about why isn’t this on something more premium like Netflix. But this to me is the perfect place for it,” hampton told Complex. “I know that women watch Lifetime, and that black women make up the majority of those viewers.” Reading this made me doubly uncomfortable. It suggested that to get black women’s attention you had to feed them trash. And, okay, maybe black women weren’t trying to mute R. Kelly over The Chicago Sun-Times’ original reporting, but none of us were! The world has changed since 2002, and all of us — including black women — have become more sophisticated about predation.

“The average American today has greater familiarity with the legal process, thanks in part to procedural dramas and the round-the-clock media coverage of splashy crimes that began with the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s,” writes Lenika Cruz in The Atlantic. “And people are more aware than ever of flaws in the criminal-justice system, including police brutality and wrongful convictions.” This means that true crime has had to hustle to keep up with its audience, reframing from the crime itself to seeking its closure. NPR noticed the new true crime formula in 2015, with programs like Serial and HBO’s The Jinx (and later Netflix’s Making a Murderer and APM’s In the Dark) concentrating on ongoing cases that could be affected by new reporting. Andrew Jarecki, director of The Jinx, called this subject matter “live ball,” and so here we are in the live-ball era of true crime in which Robert Durst literally burps up a confession on camera before he is charged with murder. “Can the genre sustain this? Can they really sustain true crime as an advocacy medium?” Michael Arntfield, founder of the Cold Case Society, asked The Pacific Standard. “The success and the legitimacy of the medium hinges on being able to stay within this framework of advocacy ahead of strictly sensationalism or profitability.”

But even advocacy has its limits. Netflix’s runaway success Making a Murder eschewed Serial-like narration and Jinx-like reenactments, but contorted almost 700 hours of footage into supporting a theory that the filmmakers had already formulated, that convicted murderer Steven Avery was innocent despite everything pointing to the contrary. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos told the Times they secured interviews where others didn’t because of their “tempered approach.” Like those books on my shelf, this refined series passed for high culture.

The most balanced true crime isn’t actually true crime. Last year, American Public Media launched the second season of their hit podcast In the Dark, hosted by Madeleine Baran. Over 11 episodes, it examined the six trials of Curtis Flowers for the same murders. Even though the precipitating incident was the crime, the attention was on everything else; the reporting team embedded itself in Flowers’ Mississippi hometown for a year, ultimately producing not only a strong — dare I say entertaining? — sense of place, but a rigorous analysis of the systemic failures of the investigation. “For us as reporters, we’re here to look at the people in power and look at the systems in place that raise questions about whether or not the criminal justice system is fair, whether it is just using facts,” Baran told NPR. “So what that results in is not our place to say. But certainly, in this case, what we’ve shown is that the evidence against Curtis Flowers is weak. So this becomes a question now for the courts.” While other podcasts rely on their relatability, this one doesn’t have to — the story is enough. In the aftermath of Baran’s team’s exhaustive reporting, the Supreme Court has agreed to reconsider Flowers’ conviction. It is a rare case in which the balance seems to be moot. It’s all justice.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

The Laws of the Awards Podium Protest

Getty Historical, John Shearer / AP, Matt Sayles / Invision / AP, Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2019 | 10 minutes (2,437 words)

Imagine Bradley Cooper won the Oscar for A Star Is Born. And imagine that, in his place, a beautiful young Mexican woman in traditional huipil dress — white tunic, floral embroidery — calmly approached the podium and held up her hand to block the award being extended to her. Imagine that woman stood at the microphone and told a room full of Hollywood celebrities and an audience of millions, “Bradley Cooper very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award and the reasons for this are the treatment of Mexicans today by America.” What would the response be? Would they boo like they did in 1973 when Marlon Brando sent activist Sacheen Littlefeather on his behalf and she basically said those same words but swap out Mexicans for Native Americans? Since then the Hollywood awards season podium has increasingly become a place of protest, though not without some parameters. It would not be unexpected over the next two months to see a woman of color holding the industry accountable on stage — Regina King did just that last week at the Golden Globes — but seeing a white man — a representative of the population largely responsible for oppression within Hollywood — addressing not only the problems within his world but his own complicity in it? That’s not the way things are done. But to quote Cooper himself in A Star is Born: “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” Read more…