Category Archives: Pop culture

The Politics of Reading “Go Set a Watchman”

Last night, my fiancé asked me how I’m going to read Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman.

“Will you read it as a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, or will you read it as the rough draft of a novel that an editor saw and said, ‘Eh, try again?'”

It’s a question that those of us who actually looked forward to high school English class are mulling over: How do we approach this book? And how do we approach it with controversy around whether the elderly author of the work, who spent her entire post-Mockingbird life vehemently stating that she was unwilling to publish another novel, has suddenly decided it’s time to publish the forebear of To Kill A Mockingbird? Are we supporting the hangers-on of a famous woman who may not have her wits about her by buying the book and talking about it?

Quite possibly.

But I just can’t resist. Another Harper Lee novel was American literature’s white whale (to mix my literary metaphors). Watchman is likely going to be a disappointment when compared to Mockingbird—it was rejected by Lee’s editor in the 1950s and didn’t get much of an edit for its 2015 release. While it’s sold as a stand-alone novel, critics are already highlighting segments that echo across both books and viewing the work as a draft, not its own entity.

Another aspect of the hullabaloo around the release of Watchman is the character of Atticus Finch, who is apparently not the saintly, color-blind presence he is to young Jean Louise in Mockingbird. Friends in my Facebook feed have openly stated they won’t read the book due to the character assassination of a fictional character. Even parents who named their sons Atticus are outraged, which is a whole different blog post for another time.

I’m willing to take the ride on Go Set a Watchman. Remember: To Kill a Mockingbird is told by adult Jean Louise reflecting on a series of remarkable events from her childhood as Scout. The narration stays closer to Scout, with some wry winks from Jean Louise’s more mature narration. Go Set a Watchman takes place two decades later, when Miss Finch is in her late 20s. Are the memories you have of your parents the same at 26 as they were when you were six? Doubtful.

My plan is to avoid as many reviews and hot takes of Go Set a Watchman as possible, and to read it both as a sequel to Mockingbird while remembering that it served as a draft for one of American literature’s strongest works. No spoilers, please!


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A Hypothetical Retail Controversy

Let’s examine a hypothetical situation, shall we?

For the purposes of our story, let’s imagine a retailer. It has a storied history of selling overpriced, mass-produced clothing for young adults. Because it is not known for being inexpensive, it must ruthlessly maintain an image of being cooler than all the other fast-fashion retailers. This consists of partnerships with artists and designers looking to make a quick buck by slumming, and oftentimes generating outrage by selling clothing that is offensive as it attempts to remain edgy.

The hypothetical interior of a hypothetical store

Sometimes, this means appropriating the name of a minority group to sell panties. Other times, it means selling products that are at best dunderheaded appropriations of clothing items from other cultures or an unfortunate arrangement and placement of “patchwork and geometric patterns.” At worst, the retailer steals ideas and designs from the independent artists who are arguably cooler than this hypothetical retail behemoth. In each case, the retailer apologizes for its poor taste after dozens of shocked media outlets call for comment.

So when this hypothetical retail store elects to sell an article of clothing that is, at best, a very inappropriate placement of “holes… from natural wear and fray” on a shirt referencing the location of a massacre on peaceful protesters 44 years prior, who would be surprised? Why would we breathlessly scorn this retailer for its poor choice of color and complete lack of respect for American history, spilling barrels of ink to in the rush to be the first to condemn this theoretical idiocy?

I’d like to think, in this entirely hypothetical situation, we’d raise our collective eyebrow. Instead of rushing to tweet our outrage, we’d explain to our kids why a blood red sweatshirt with the name of that particular location is a reminder of a hideous event in American history that should not be repeated—especially as we, as a nation, continue to grapple with how to handle peaceful protest without resorting to violence against our own citizens. We’d see this naked grab for headlines and outrage for what it is; an attempt to appear ballsy and antiestablishment for kids who are too young to know that actual rebels don’t buy pre-distressed shirts at the mall.

Good thing this is all hypothetical.

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The Real (Non-Digital) World

I spent the better part of Sunday in a stupor watching reruns of The Real World: San Fransisco. When it originally aired in 1994, I was thirteen, sneaking reruns when my Mom wasn’t home because she’d expressly forbid my watching MTV. I remember being impressed by the cast’s sophisticated lives: going to shows, riding cable cars around the city, racing soapbox derby cars down the steep streets of San Francisco, and meeting boys in bars. To my rural barely-pubescent brain, this all seemed wildly exotic and like something I couldn’t wait to do when I grew up.

Watching the episodes nearly 20 years later, I was struck by something different: the complete lack of devices that are now ubiquitous in our lives. When Judd goes out to work on his cartoons in a cafe, he uses pen and paper, as does everyone studying or working around him. When Puck and Cary are talking at a bar, there were no cell phones on the table or in anyone’s hand. There were newspapers in nearly every shot. And the kids were reading them! One even got a job at a paper! I don’t think the casts of the modern seasons of The Real World are even literate.

Perhaps it’s the editing of the show evolving over the decades, but there seemed to be much more stillness in the San Francisco episodes. Nobody is diving for a phone every few seconds. Many of the scenes take place in the house, not during a blur of sloppy nights out at bars that lured the MTV stars inside and provided them scads of free booze. Issues are resolved with calm words (largely), not fists. It made me wonder if we’ve lost something in the past 19 years.

Then this morning I read that our addiction to technology is ruining our capacity to connect with each other in a genuine way.

When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health.

If you don’t regularly exercise this capacity, it withers.

I propose we start throwing Analog Parties.

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Casting Whitey Bulger

In today’s Boston Globe, the Names column had a little bit of fun with the news that Johnny Depp has been signed to play Whitey Bulger in the film adaptation of Black Mass. Obviously, pretty much anyone other than Depp should play this part. Without a doubt, the first name that pops into everyone’s head to play Bulger is Matt Damon. Probably because he’s already working on a Bulger movie in which he would play Bulger.

But there’s got to be somebody who could play Bulger other than Depp. Right? Such as:

Jeremy Renner. He was in The Town, and if memory serves his accent wasn’t as bad as Blake Lively’s.

Mark Wahlberg. He’s expressed interest in getting the rights to Bulger’s story. He’s probably going to want to wait until that rumored jailhouse meeting actually happens to see if he’s going to get the goods or not. (Hint: He’s not.)

Ed Norton. He was born in Boston, and his IMDb profile says he’s know for playing “intelligent but troubled characters.” Sounds like the understatement of the year.

Daniel Craig. Can he learn a Boston accent? Let’s hope so.

All the old guys law enforcement thought were Whitey during his time on the run. For the post-capture jailhouse scenes, naturally.

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Down on Downton

Hamming it up

Shortly before the holiday crush, I was left to my own devices and turned to Netflix Streaming to alleviate my boredom. Since so many people whose opinions I respect had raved about Downton Abbey, I watched two episodes of the first season. After the second episode, I tweeted a stunning realization.

Just watched two episodes of Downton Abbey on Netflix. I…am totally going to be addicted to this show, aren’t I?

After several nights of hours-long viewings of the remainder of Season One and all of Season Two, I was all caught up just in time for the start of Season Three on PBS. I was thrilled. What would become of Meestah Bates? Oh, to see the sparks fly between Mary and Cousin Matthew! More Dowager Countess sass! Drop-waisted skirts in the Twenties!

Last night, I foolishly decided to watch the Patriots lose to the Ravens instead of watching Downton Abbey. Thankfully, OnDemand allowed me to catch Season Three, Episode Three.

What a disappointment. [NOTE: Spoilers abound below.] [But not in an overall-season-Three sense. You people who watched all the bootleg episodes online this summer are the same ones that tried to see every present before Christmas morning when you were a kid. Don’t you want to preserve the magic?!]

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Journalism is… not that

Earlier this week, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote a post titled “Journalism Is Not Narcissism.”

Susan Shapiro, an author and college journalism teacher, has a piece in the New York Times in which she explains that her “signature assignment” for her students is to write an essay confessing their “most humiliating secret”—when asked why, she replies “Because they want to publish essays and sell memoirs.”

Wait. What? Susan, can you clarify?

When Kenan, the Bosnian physical therapist treating my back injury, saw me grading student papers between leg lifts, he asked, “What I did on my summer vacation?”

I told him that, actually, the first piece I assign my feature journalism classes is something a little more revealing: write three pages confessing your most humiliating secret.

That… doesn’t sound like feature writing. That… sounds like personal essay writing. Which is great! Took a class on it during my senior year at Emerson. But, when I think of journalism, I think of someone who goes into a war zone or gets tips from high-level sources in parking garages or sits though interminable community meetings—at the very least at least steps outside his or her own immediate sphere to discover another’s story and relay it. There’s something dangerous and noble about the work a journalist does. While writing about your own disasters can be both dangerous and noble, it’s… not journalism, per se.

When I tell people I went to Emerson and the jobs I’ve had since, they assume I majored in journalism. Nope. It sounds like what this lady is teaching isn’t journalism either. If her students want to publish essays and sell memoirs, she should direct them to the nearest creative writing department. Stat.

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Lady Gaga Gets Physical

Late last week, Jezebel went on a tear about Lady Gaga’s supposed weight gain and the nasty reaction from the tabloids. At the time, I guessed it was part of the performance-art pop the star tends to peddle to her fans. We lost our goddamn minds when Gaga started walking around without pants and singing about her Poker Face a few years ago. The only thing our culture can’t tolerate more than a weirdo pop star is when a woman who isn’t a size 0 puts on a revealing outfit and cavorts like it’s not a big deal. Great fodder for an artist who’s about to go on tour.

Today, Gaga took to her own social networking site with pictures of her in her underwear to inspire her fans to accept their flaws and share that oogy stuff that lives in their brains on the Internet for some mass catharsis.

This profile is an extension of that dream. Be brave and celebrate with us your “perceived flaws,” as society tells us. May we make our flaws famous, and thus redefine the heinous.

I had a series of reactions. They came roughly in this order.

  • Oh, that’s a nice idea. I hope this helps some people.
  • knew she’d find a way to work this into her pop/art/commerce machine.
  • Um. I’d like to be fat like Lady Gaga is fat.
  • Shut up, nasty thoughts. Isn’t that the whole problem? That we judge women (and men too!) on their appearance and weight and not by their behavior? Although it’s a bit of a jump, isn’t it better to command your minions to, “Post a picture of what you see as your fat ass and then forget it. Let it go. And let the fat asses and small boobs of others go and judge these people by how they treat you and others. View your body and their body for what it is: a vessel for our souls as we go through life and if we nourish it—with food and fitness and love—it’ll treat us well.” (The fine folks at Bitch had similar thoughts.)

Good for Gaga for trying. But it’s going to take a lot more than a website and some pop stars posing without clothes to change our social mores.

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