‘Spotlight’ and the Argument for Investigative Journalism

Spotlight, 2015’s front-running film, details every step of journalism’s investigative process. You see Brian d’Arcy James scanning through records long before big data was all the rage. Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams go door-to-door for information, slowly winning the trust of a few subjects who are willing to talk.

It’s a painful exercise to watch—sometimes tedious, often times emotionally draining—and it’s nothing like the big, bad journalism movies of the 20th century. We’re not following Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as they dashingly expose Nixon’s corruption. We’re not allowed the romanticism of fancy ’40s films like Citizen Kane or His Girl Friday. We don’t even immerse ourselves in the thrilling drama of Absence of Malice, or the lustful environs of The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City. 

Instead, Spotlight is about a newsroom that looks like a newsroom and acts like a newsroom. It’s about four reporters who together expose a system of abuse and crime.

Spotlight is now the talk of the town. Last week, it won Best Feature and Best Screenplay at the Gotham Independent Film Awards, and most fans of the silver screen have it on their bracket for an Oscar.

What makes it so effective is that it communicates the urgency of the fourth estate without diluting it with glamour or Hollywood sensationalism.

When viewers walk out of the theater, they are convinced that the public service the Boston Globe provided was absolutely necessary, that they need watchdogs monitoring the prevalent institutions of the 21st century. Whether big business, the government or Church, establishments have power, and a few people wield a lot of authority. Without someone holding them accountable, it’s easy for atrocities to happen and justice to sit just out of reach.

 

 

For those who haven’t seen Spotlight yet: the plot covers an investigative journalism team at the Boston Globe that’s devoted to long-term projects.  In 2002, Spotlight published a tell-all on the Boston Archdiocese that highlighted an extensive legacy of priests committing child abuse and the Church covering it up. They popularized a personal, controversial scandal, saving young Catholics around the world from violation and trauma.

Indeed, investigative journalism has been one of the most important devices for effecting change throughout history. Of course, it’s difficult to measure impact, but Nellie Bly infiltrated a women’s asylum and wrote about the awful health conditions; soon, the government reformed their facilities. E.D. Morel exposed the slave-like conditions on rubber plantations in the Congo, and King Leopold II was forced to step down from his post. Even the Civil Rights Movement relied on journalists to spread the word. They showed the nation racism and the nation showed them solidarity.

The 2002 scandal is one of many examples of investigative journalism’s influence on sociopolitical change. But a 2010 study reported that only two percent of media development funding is going toward investigative reporting. Two percent. Meanwhile, apps and startups are grabbing grants wherever they can for another banal project that will probably fail in the first few years. And what’s trending on Facebook? Kylie Jenner and Jennifer Lawrence. Celebrity gossip is more en vogue than ever, as are reblogs and listacles with little-to-no substance.

The public sphere is in desperate need of quality, well-financed investigative journalism. Sure, funding is a dicey subject—leading media sponsors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation may have an agenda, and journalism is supposed to be fair, if not objective. Still, investigative journalism is a time-intensive, laborious field and requires resources to be successful.

It also mandates readership. What would have happened if the Boston Globe had printed their report to no response? What if survivors’ stories had been told but unheard? That would have been the greatest tragedy of all, and one that is realized often. In a technological age, competing voices override each other so that the public doesn’t know where to concentrate.

But we must find a way to concentrate. We must. So when the still-existent Spotlight publishes its next big catch, we’ll be ready to react.

How ‘Master of None’ Rebels Against Millennial Pressures to ‘Overachieve’ and ‘Settle Down’

Warning: Spoilers Ahead.

I just finished the first season of “Master of None.” The last episode is neither happy nor hopeful—none of the words we associate with conclusions. Especially with comedies, we look for stories to gracefully fit inside a vacuum and make us smile at the end, warm with feelings of fiction’s possibility. As Dev boards a plane, Aziz Ansari doesn’t give us what we expect: a romantic scene—maybe a proposal—on the other side of the flight. Instead, Dev jets off to Italy to learn about his one true love: pasta.

I like that ending. I like it very much.

“Master of None” is progressive in many ways, most of which have been written about at length by others. Ansari wittily explores parents, diversity in Hollywood, texting etiquette, Nashville, vegetarianism, misogynistic micro-aggressions, the best tacos in New York City—too many subjects to enumerate here. The series has similar appeal to his standup, but tucked inside a script filled with laughter also lie poignancy and honesty about the world around us. For example, Ansari speaks to something I’ve often struggled over: how do those of us who have grown up with every opportunity, reaping the benefits of our parents’ labor, ever understand the encounters with racism, sexism, etc. they went through before we were born? These questions mandate a sense of humor like that embedded in “Master of None,” for without it, we might choose to ignore them for their jarring realism.

But the theme I relate to most appears in the finale, when both Rachel and Dev escape on their own separate wanderlust journeys. Ansari considers a uniquely millennial problem—we’ve been pushed and pushed, all our lives, to practice Beethoven’s third movement of Moonlight when our fingers are already aching from exhaustion, to cram for tests because we won’t get into an Ivy without a 4.0, to fight for that internship so we can have a career one day. We’ve been pushed to be mini-professionals in any field we try; even playing with American Girls when we were seven was a formal lesson about history, not just time with dolls. And since we were kid robots, we were told that soon, we’d get to live. We just had to pay our dues, work hard and go through the paces. When we graduate, then that’ll be our moment to experience—to adventure. Right? But even before we turn 20, the pressure’s on to find our soul mate, or at least someone who’ll do the job of being a life-long companion. “Who are you dating?” adults ask. “The clock’s ticking,” they say.

Yes, it is, so when do we get to live?

Whenever I check out my Facebook newsfeed, it seems like someone I grew up with is getting engaged or married or having a baby. Meanwhile, today I tried to make cereal and spilled milk everywhere as people watched and laughed (thank goodness for liquid-proof raincoats). Sometimes, when you’re like Rachel and Dev and have spent a lifetime chasing ambition, you can feel constantly behind on both a professional and personal level. You’re trying to grab onto your dreams, or at least a title that sounds nice and important. Meanwhile, you realize you’re half a fully formed human and have the maturity of a Pikachu plush toy. You want to run around the globe, taking in every corner from Tokyo, to Venice, to the new Chinese restaurant down the street. But you’re not supposed to do that—it’s irresponsible. You’ve been striving your whole life to “make something of yourself,” and now that you’re almost there, people want you to “settle down.”

That’s why I’m obsessed with “Master of None.” It rebels against the “ticking clock,” and the “making something of yourself,” and the “settling down.” It reminds us that maybe we’re selfish, but that’s okay because sometimes we need to hop off our rockers for a while and try something spontaneous. Forget about chronology. Forget about expectations, and the vacuumed stories we’ve been conditioned to want for ourselves.

Just live, because the moment is now. What are we waiting for?

 

Girl Walks Home Alone: An Ode to the Upper West Side

I go on walks late at night. 11 p.m. is too early; there’s still a buzz then, swirling bodies prancing and gabbing up and down the street. I want pitch dark; I want the darkness to bleed into my bones. The lamppost and stars can be my company, and then I’ll be content in the silence, invisible like a phantom unstuck in air.

I travel in circles, kicking out restless energy one step at a time. Sidewalks don’t have names anymore; I recognize the places. There’s the gate where someone once pulled me back for a kiss. And the church that felt so peaceful the first time I sat on a pew. That’s the building where I once got lost and laughed, because it was okay to be lost in those days. And that park—I never did visit the peacocks.

A few streets below is my favorite Thai restaurant, where I usually meet my friends to grin and almost never cry. There’s the corner where pitiable, harmless men heckle; they wouldn’t dare touch me after my eyes make them weak. And here, the daisies. This store has the prettiest daisies, but I’ve never bought a bouquet.

I started going on walks when I moved to New York City for school. I would jaunt around campus, waving at security guards and smiling, or sometimes not smiling. I’d pause to look out on our library from across the quad, its lights dancing in the hazy winter wind. The sight made me feel calm for the first time in my life.

But campus became too small, and too repetitive. I knew people. They would stop me, on my walks, at 11 p.m., and I would politely nod and say, “How are you?” and my mind was not with them. The question was not whether I liked them or wanted to see them. I liked them very much, but I needed the navy sky to envelop me so I could feel like I existed and didn’t exist in the very same moment, and I couldn’t do that over conversation.

So now I walk later, around a wider circumference. And I put my headphones in, and they make me feel real things for the first time in 24 hours. If I’m anxious, I listen to “Later On;” or “Raise Hell” when I’m stir-crazy; or “Stone Cold” when I’m very, very sad and nostalgic.

I start the walk shaking and frozen, my body protesting, pleading for the warmth of my apartment. But as I keep moving, my cheeks feel warm and all of a sudden I can’t feel my face and it’s glorious. It’s glorious, to feel and not feel all at once. And my eyes—I can see without a veil shrouding them. The veil of stress, of tension, lifts. I’m free.

Rarely, I invite others to join me on my walks. They have to be a particular type of person, the walking type. I don’t mean avid exercisers; most anyone with lungs should be able to keep up with me in my heels. They have to be the type of person who could talk, who could say something interesting that made me want to sigh instead of scream.

But usually, I walk alone. I look at stones and bricks and towers and cracks in the concrete and think of bittersweet memories, and it fills me with hope. I peer up at the architecture that hangs above and wonder how bad man can be if he can make something so beautiful. I stare past that, squinting, and imagine a light lodged in the blue expanse. Maybe it’s a star, but probably it’s an airplane. I don’t care—to me, it’s a star, and I make a wish.

What We Want From Art

Claude Monet, White Frost Sunrise, 1889

I’ve always loved art. When I was a child, my parents dragged me to museums across the country; at first, I was resentful, but then it became a regular habit in my life, like eating at least once a day, or sleeping when the clock allows. So while I was in Chicago last weekend, nothing stood against the opportunity to return to the Art Institute. I would go to bed early and wake up bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to spend a lifetime among Japanese fan designs, a collection on Dionysus, the cautionary images of Ivan Albright, Monet’s haystacks and Mondrian’s lines forming squares.

Meandering in and out of rooms at the Art Institute, my eyes jumped from painting to painting. I was transfixed by the essence of certain pieces—not so much the content, but what it meant. Something about the museum calmed me; I lived in this blurred region of my brain where I wasn’t perfectly conscious of my consciousness, submerged in the experience of experiencing.

For a long time, I didn’t know why I loved art, or why I craved it. I tracked some of the appeal to escapism. Growing up in a town that I learned to hate, I constantly sought a new place to go, either in body or imagination. Art let me dive into a time and place different from my own. I could visit the bawdy brothels and dance halls frequented by Toulouse-Lautrec, or go back to the Byzantine era and meet Justinian’s wife, Theodora. Adventure lay in every piece of glass tucked inside a mosaic or brushstroke on a canvas. I so desperately wanted to fly away to faraway worlds, to discover new spaces and faces; art let me do that.

But in the past few years, art has become almost the opposite of escapism for me. When I moved to New York City, I started writing about dance and theater regularly, attending a show every few weeks. After a year, I stopped, and for about three months I rarely made my way to auditoriums or black boxes. And I was sad, always sad. I felt like something was missing, and when I decided to review again, it was like I had found myself in every performance, every line of a play or arch of a dance move.

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Piet Mondrian, Composition C, 1935

I finally realized why art means so much to me after visiting the Art Institute. It seems obvious now, but I’ll share my personal revelation anyway:

Art says what I can’t. The irony of my life is that I’m a writer, but I’m very bad at expressing myself. In conversation, and especially with people I don’t know well, I get nervous. If I don’t know how to speak their language yet, I don’t speak a language at all, falling into exasperated tongue-ties as I try to say something—anything—of meaning. On an unintimidating page, however, I can’t always capture the moment perfectly, just as I want it.

But language can only convey so much. I don’t know how to talk about when the auburn leaves whirled from the concrete, spiraling upward to the sky, and how stunning they were, but also how they made me sad because they reminded me that everything is ephemeral and the world will never be the same as it was in that second. Monet could have shown that, the leaves swirling. He could have made them hopeful and tragic at the same time, playing with light until the scene was just right and everyone could see what I saw.

This is the power of art, and why it’s so important to me. Both the visual and performing arts know what to say, and how to say it, usually without saying anything at all. They defy the manmade confines of language to really look at the world, as it is, and express a thousand feelings in one simple gesture. Art speaks for me when I’m at a loss for words.

I think that’s why artists create, too. It’s funny, looking at changes in art and the historical events that might drive them. For example, the return to order after World War I: painters wanted to make sense of the chaos they had witnessed, some at the front, others at home. Maybe they didn’t know how to talk about the destruction—mangled bodies and ruined lives—but it’s all there, in the classicist allusions, in the stark, lucid lines. We can read books like Mrs. Dalloway to gage the effects of World War I, and that’s all right, but really it’s much more productive to look at a few of these tableaus. It’s all there, hidden in the subtext of the superficial.

This is what we want from art: an immediate method of communication that doesn’t have to obey the cold regulations of language. Something visceral. Something ugly and beautiful. Something improper. Something cruel and comforting. Something like the thoughts we can’t express—the “us” below the surface.

Why I Don’t Get the Military

It’s 3 a.m. and I should be reading Red Cavalry. Instead, I’m thinking about how little I know of war. Not really what war is, but why we war.

A few hours ago, a reminder popped up on my laptop screen: November 11 is Veteran’s Day. As I stared at the icon, I couldn’t shake a feeling of complete ignorance. I’ve been trying to understand combat for years now, but maybe I never wanted to know how it truly felt—to be an 18-year-old boy caught in crossfire.

As the child of two lawyers whose family’s only veteran was my doctoring grandfather during Korea, I honestly can’t place where my interest in war came from. What I’ve heard from legends and fables, though, is that it’s in my genes. While in college, my mom marched off to boot camp one summer, not to train per se, but to try to imagine what it felt like to enlist. She wanted to go into politics and justified her curiosities about the army with lofty ideals on the need to understand war as a government official. She lasted three days, I think; like me when I went to the Naval Academy Summer Seminar, she couldn’t swallow the system mandated by the military. People joked that we were both like Private Benjamin, except we never overcame our frou-frou tastes for a heroic conclusion.

Family anecdotes aside, I read my first “war book” in high school. I was home-schooled as a kid, and my curriculum included watered down versions of Homeric epic, but it wasn’t until Flags of Our Fathers that I came face to face with a modern war narrative. I remember thinking it was boring until the end, when the soldiers came home. I devoured that section like brunch on a Sunday morning because it was emotional and made me feel something. The other stuff—bombs and bullets—didn’t grip me. In fact, for the first 300 pages, I regretted not choosing one of the other optional readings. In Cold Blood sounded especially enticing and everyone was raving about how provocative it was. Flags of Our Fathers was so alien that I didn’t even know how to talk about it.

Then, my teacher assigned The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam sketches. Simultaneously, my junior English class had a project: we were each given a name on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, and we had to put together a mini-documentary on our subject. I think most people saw the work as tedious, but I got into it, tracking my soldier’s past. I reached his sister, mother and friends, all still alive and grieving half a century after the death of their loved one. They found solace in talking about him, and it made me feel happy to think I had helped them in some way. I didn’t know what it meant to grieve then; I had never lost anyone. But the idea that I had done something good bonded me to the project—I always wanted to do something good, but never knew how.

During the aforementioned stint at the USNA a few months later, I wore a flower in my hair every day, and would wake up at 5:30 am to put on makeup before morning exercise. Suffice it to say that after the recruiting trip concluded, I knew military life wasn’t for me. But that weekend, on my way to college visits, I asked my dad to let me visit the Vietnam Wall so I could see my soldier’s name etched in stone. Now, it seems voyeuristic, but then I just crouched by it, sobbing. I couldn’t explain it; I didn’t know him. I had never known him. He died two decades before I was born, or even conceived of. But somehow, he was mine.

Four years later, and I’m taking a college course on “How to Tell A War Story.” I signed up because last year it popped in my head that one day I might want to do some war journalism. I figured it could be useful to see how the greats wrote about combat; after all, books are made to teach. In theory, I wanted to learn about war, so I could know what it felt like to straddle the line between life and death. Admittedly, I’m a masochist and enjoy danger, but I’m too jumpy to ever seek it out with reckless abandon. So to envision it and place myself in the characters’ shoes seemed like the next best thing.

A week and a half before the term started, my father died of cancer. I was not home, but I had watched him fading for a year now. I knew what death was like, I thought. I could relate to stories of war because I had witnessed the destruction of a human body. Plus in war, soldiers usually die quickly. Logically, I had seen something much worse—a slow, painful crash of the limbs that took the spirit with it.

As I plunged into my “How to Tell A War Story” coursework—nearly a book per class—a recurring motif irritated me. Almost every author told me that I was reading for no reason because I could never understand war. This spurred the question: then why read? I was spending entire days taking in texts that apparently taught me nothing, because I couldn’t get it. If I hadn’t been there. At the front. The thought was recapitulated over and over, with only one breath of fresh air from Phil Klay, who urged his reader to try to imagine. I thought he was right, that I could get it if only I tried hard enough. I just had to keep reading, and I would picture it—what warfare looked like.

Until we studied All Quiet on the Western Front. It was then that I realized I didn’t want to know what it was like to be in World War I, Vietnam or Afghanistan. I couldn’t stomach it, reading about the Germans who were just as human as us, and who were well-intentioned, and who had families, and who didn’t have to die. I didn’t want to feel how Paul did after stabbing a Frenchman, staring at his withering corpse for hours. It frightened me. I put up a block, deciding I would not understand, not because I couldn’t theoretically, but because practically it might make me explode.

Still, I continued to talk in class. I’m a garrulous person, and I like driving a point home, even if my voice is so quiet that nobody can hear the wisdom spouting from my mouth, which is more often than not complete garbage. One night, to my surprise, a colleague told me I was wrong about something I had said in discussion. “I don’t believe in forcing a dichotomy between right and wrong,” I laughed. “I do,” he said, and he was serious. He told me why I was wrong, and I felt steam gurgling in the pit of my stomach. I was ashamed, because he was right, I was wrong.

Yesterday, a friend of mine who served in the military asked me why I never wrote articles about war—why when given a platform, I chose to dash off pieces on pop culture instead of something that could really make a difference. I didn’t respond because the steam was gurgling again and I knew my answer wasn’t good enough. “Because I wouldn’t know what to say,” I thought. “Because I don’t understand. Because I haven’t wanted to understand.”

The truth is, civilians have plenty of tools at our disposal to learn, but we decide we’d rather just watch. I have tried to use books to figure out what war is, not why we war. It’s the distinction between a picture and the text beneath it; I never searched for the explanation, and I had never considered my role in stopping war. I just wanted to feel good, selfishly, like I had done my part to tell and take in the soldier’s story. I didn’t really think about my part in making him a soldier, idly sitting by as he risked his life and saw friends die.

With my non-military family in South Texas, recent wars haven’t touched me. But they’ve touched someone. They’ve touched the people who are fighting, and the families who mourn them.

So maybe it’s time we try to rethink the “why.” This Veteran’s Day, we can stop regurgitating one-liners like “thank you for your service” and start proactively educating ourselves on how to create a world where fewer people have to serve. If we haven’t been there, we won’t understand war, but if we get why it’s waged, that’s enough to make a difference. And a difference—well isn’t that the start of something good?

The New ‘James Bond,’ Or Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

They’ve done it. They’ve ruined Bond.

A feat previously inconceivable, Hollywood has taken one of Western culture’s immortals and killed him. The Blockbuster industry has made the impossible a reality; they’ve sucked dry all of the verve from the most interesting man in the world, leaving him a bag of breathless bones—a sketch of his former self.

I really must applaud those responsible for so wholly committing to the complete destruction of the icon whose line, “shaken, not stirred,” has slipped from millions of lips. In true Bond-villain fashion, the writing team couldn’t be contented by a merciful, quick assassination; no, over nearly three hours, they chopped him into bits one predictable line at a time until he was not even a specter of himself.

007 is my favorite spy (because I know so many). I formed my attachment to him while studying in England, and for several years of my life, my foremost aspiration was to eventually become a Bond girl (one of the few who survived, if at all possible, though I’d take what I could get). While walking to the subway a few weeks ago, one of my friends who had never seen a Bond film asked me how I could be a feminist and still enjoy the deplorably objectifying series. The answer was simple in my logic: as a feminist, I have the right to like what I do, just like anyone else. That includes Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, Lena Dunham and Toni Morrison, and James Bond and Nicki Minaj, and that’s not wrong.

My problem with Spectre has nothing to do with its treatment of women. Yes, Daniel Craig robbed the cradle with Léa Seydoux, her baby face contrasting the deep crevasses in his. But I’ve gone for older men, and I’d be a hypocrite to call out the maturity gap everyone seems to dwell on, citing Hollywood’s apparent ageism and misogyny as sources of adversity for actresses. What I will say is that, while age is just a number and shouldn’t define relationships, chemistry means more. Craig looks like he feels creepy when he barely grazes Seydoux without any sense of the debonair Bond whose strength and weakness are women. Funnily enough, the only time he eases into that seething, sensual bachelor is while seducing widow Lucia Sciarra, played by the beautiful Monica Bellucci, who’s four years Craig’s senior.

But forget romance. This series has always been rather thick when it comes to women. Still, Spectre’s issue has nothing to do with gender politics; it is barbarically daft writing coupled with apathetic performances that make for its demise. Critics have condemned Craig’s first three films for their starkness and lack of sensitivity; they say he’s too raw for the role, which is precisely why he’s my favorite. Spectre seemed to assuage these sourpusses with an old-fashioned opening before the first scene and a plot so unrealistic it wandered into stupidity. Things happened without intention or explanation; it felt like writers John Logan, Robert Wade and Neal Purvis piled into a room and brainstormed how best to replicate the Bond of another era, only with less mastery. After all, Craig is not Sean Connery, who was great for the ’60s and ’70s, but would seem silly now. Craig’s whole purpose was bringing Bond into the 21st century, and he’s done so for three movies. Why revert now?

Perhaps Craig knew the script was shit and the result would be malarkey. For whatever reason, he seemed completely uninterested in Bond from the first minute he stepped onscreen. His face throughout resembled a protesting teenager—he would show up to set, but wouldn’t like it. His viral quote about shooting another Bond sequel, “I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists,” was engraved in his body language. He made it blatantly obvious: he’s done with 007.

In fact, the whole effort felt exhausted. The story was exhausted. The writers were exhausted. Craig was exhausted. I get being exhausted, but then don’t waste your time and mine pushing through the exhaustion for money’s sake. This is my qualm, and why I was so infuriated by Spectre: it’s not alone in ruining a perfectly wonderful piece of fluff by beating it over the head to bleed out as much mindless content as possible. The previews before the show included a Rocky sequel and the new Star Wars. Hunger Games comes out in a few weeks. Almost every notable hit is part of a franchise, most of which have lost any spark they once had.

The saddest part? Everyone involved in Spectre is hugely talented. Logan’s a Tony-winning playwright; Craig’s a stage actor who can make an impact when he wants. The rest of the cast has impressive credits to their names, including Christoph Waltz, who is maniacally droll and unbelievable here, but has proven his acting chops elsewhere. All of this possibility is being wasted because of a few bigwigs who want to make big bucks.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for new Bond films if they’re done well, add to the narrative and don’t feel vacant. But if all we get is a skeleton—no flesh or blood—I’d rather skip.

That’s why Spectre sent me on this tirade: it represents where we’re going as a society: lazy, empty and all about the money. The stories we tell are the precedent we know. If our precedent is void of anything but a few blowing booms and tired quips, what’s the purpose of that?

Why I’m Sick of ‘Sex’

“Sex” gets boring.

Not sex itself. I love sex, but sex is, by definition, an act. It’s something we do, not something we brainstorm about at a pow-wow. I’m sick of sex dominating the public dialogue, always creeping into pop culture to make something “sexy,” “sensual” or “orgasmic.” Most of my life subscribes to none of those adjectives and I’m ready to consider the billions of topics that aren’t so trendy, but that reflect reality, where even if you have sex for an hour every day (lucky), 95% of your time is still free for drudgery.

Just logging onto Facebook gives a decent sample of our obsession with talking about sex. My newsfeed is filled with Cosmo, Bustle and Jezebel articles about the best ways to get off, like that’s the most urgent item on the national agenda. Recently, a story from The Tab went viral—contributing idiot William Lloyd penned a personal essay on why he doesn’t do cunnilingus, and the Internet exploded as even self-proclaimed “fuck bois” implied that Lloyd was a misogynist. A new reveal about hookups dots Thought Catalog or The Odyssey’s homepage every few minutes—I would know, I wrote a few of them. They’re constantly published because they make for awesome clickbait. People want to read about sex: why it’s good, why it’s bad, why it’s good and bad. Why did you tap on this headline?

As a theater critic, I go to a Broadway or off-Broadway show almost every week. I used to be excited whenever I climbed down the subway stairs en route to midtown, but now I know exactly what I’ll see performed: some variation on sexual angst. A woman sleeps with her husband’s best friend; a tapper in the ’30s rouses two hours of innuendos; a governess in the 19th-century crushes on her mistress; a few teenagers sing about how much they want to be touched, as they masturbate. All of the subjects are engaging, if a bit trite, and they should be explored. But after you’ve seen the same themes manipulated to fit new plots over and over, they become tiresome.

Even books, so sacrosanct with their printed pages that remind you of libraries, are wet and hot. Fifty Shades is obviously the abomination of our age, shaming great authors like Virginia Woolf, Erich Maria Remarque, Toni Morrison and Tony Kushner. The fact that I’ve met someone casually toting around a book about polyamory makes me feel things—not good things.

“I don’t make love…” #FiftyShades

A photo posted by Fifty Shades Of Grey (@fiftyshadesmovie) on

Some people say this pop-culture-inspired conversation raises “awareness” about “sex positivity,” but Cosmo’s sex tips are more likely to get you sent to the hospital than give you an “education.” Our sex culture is one of voyeurism. We want to hear about the most absurd, dramatic situations that can happen in coitus, but when push comes to shove, the U.S. is still home to a sexually repressed population. In fact, Millennials may be less freaky beneath the sheets than our parents (and that’s embarrassing). A Time article from May cited a study, which “found that millennials were likely to have had an average of about eight partners, while Boomers were more likely to have had 10 or 11.” This seems significant as is, but Time also came up with a separate survey that claimed “almost half of twenty somethings have not had sex at all in the last year.”

I blame Kant (perhaps illogically—he was, after all, a philosopher in 18th-century Germany). I never liked Kant; I knew that he was inciting something dangerous when he advocated that his Enlightenment contemporaries “argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey.” He, and others like him, championed talking and not acting. And now that’s all we do: gab. Sex is apparently always on our minds, but seldom anywhere else.

This isn’t really a new problem. Critics have demonized pop culture’s promiscuity for decades. According to some, Elvis’ existence meant the end of civilization as they knew it. But with the Internet, there’s so much “sex” establishing a new normal. As consumers, we talk about sex because sex is what’s cool. It’s what trends; it’s what sells tickets. It’s what we know.

It’s a shame—paradoxically, we philosophize about our animal instincts. Sex isn’t rational, so it shouldn’t be rationalized. It also shouldn’t be the primary source of discussion in the media, and then on the street. Remember Friends, the TV show? I’m not saying that’s what my life looks like 24 hours a day, but it gets a whole lot closer than William Lloyd and Fifty Shades. Even Girls, which is supposedly the millennial version of Friends, has sex represented in nearly every scene. Had Lena Dunham’s writing been more honest, pre-graduation Shoshanna would have been crying about the midterm she had to turn in by midnight, not the boy who didn’t want to pop her cherry.

If I’m being frank, most of my time is spent either with friends or alone working. Not with an S.O., or a friend with benefits or even a date—definitely not with a boyfriend. The people, who are there for me, and the ones I truly care about, are those who grab Starbucks after class, or who go to Dig Inn for a quick catch-up on a Tuesday night, or who order Seamless and watch a documentary with me in my room. Sometimes, those people are romantic, but usually they’re just friends. Maybe I’m a naïve 20-year-old who’s awkwardly caught in a land where buds trump lovers, but that’s where I’m at.

I’m sick of “sex”—not of having sex, but of talking about it. I’d rather discuss things like Syria, or climate change, or the U.S.’ deteriorating education system. But if our entertainment—our talking points—must be about everyday life and the gossip that consumes it, can’t it at least portray who we are? I want to see me and my friends on stages, in pages and on screens, talking about our lives, our work, our dreams and our breakdowns. And if need be, show sex 5% of the time.

My point is this: let’s do it, but not constantly dwell on it.

 

This Is How ‘You’re the Worst’ Is Destroying the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

The television: a magical land of stereotypes, neatly packaged for dramatic or comedic effect. What happens onscreen—narratives interlaced to entertain for 30 minutes—rarely mimics reality. Humans are messier than we like to portray ourselves; we’re equally complicated and simple, but almost never glamorous. And yet we learn our performative behavior from T.V. shows; after all, we’ve been nurtured to replicate the relationships and mannerisms on our favorite sitcoms since our first exposure to Disney Channel.

In a tech-obsessed society, where film has nearly replaced books as our resource for self-development and imagination, it can be disconcerting when our role models act nothing like us. We adapt to be more like them, but they never return the courtesy, exhausting the same predictable B.S. that made them popular in the first place. The representation I find most annoying (though probably not most disconcerting—see: racism) is that of the “manic pixie dream girl,” a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin after the release of Elizabethtown in 2005. With the help of fresh, talented, beautiful actresses like Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel, the “manic pixie dream girl” has been fetishized as the ideal manifestation of womanhood, where the pixie in question appears but never acts, armed with the psychological depth of a toothbrush.

These days, Ms. Manic mixes with the “basic bitch,” another reprehensible sketch of femininity. T.V. characters wear Anthropologie sundresses, while they engage in some idiosyncratic activity that’s supposed to be cute and Instagram-able. Maybe their sorority’s haunted. Maybe they live in an apartment with three guys. Maybe they worship Beyoncé. Who cares? They’re still quirky and adorable, but that’s about it.

And that’s a problem. Though I can’t speak for other women, my quirks aren’t so adorable—they’re real and sometimes terrifying. Don’t get me wrong, I like Anthropolgie, and will always bow to Queen Bey, but I’m not a manic pixie dream girl. I’m just manic. I could never be vegan, for example. If I, by some horrific accident, ever had a child, I wouldn’t dare name it after fruit or a sea mammal. When I go to yoga, it’s not the big event of my day and I certainly don’t throw on my matching Lululemon. Instead, it’s a pretend vacation from the 12,000 deadlines lingering in my mind, the lack of sleep and the struggle to live up to my own expectations and those that have been thrust upon me. When I go to Starbucks, it’s because I need caffeine. Whatever they toss in my cup is going to be a whole lot cheaper and more delicious than the artisanal, hipster brand all the haters frequent.

Sure, I’m neurotic, but it’s not going to make you want to squeeze my cheeks (both sets).

That’s why I’m fan-girling over Gretchen Cutler. FXX’s unabashed 21st-century romcom, You’re the Worst, is my go-to work break. I’ve ignored calls from people I love to focus on a pre-recorded Amazon Instant Video episode, for which I spend $1.99 of my weekly budget un-begrudgingly. While my friends binge-drink on a Thursday night, I pretend like I’m studying. In reality, I’m curled up in my dorm room, imbibing every word of Stephen Falk’s script (I guess the secret’s out). Season one hooked me with its hysterical commentary on millennial commitment-phobia, a disease that’s so rampant it might as well be called an epidemic. But Season two has taken You’re the Worst from recreational to essential, as Falk fearlessly explores topics deemed taboo by the mainstream entertainment industry.

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing archetypal about Falk’s female protagonist/antagonist. Gretchen isn’t especially likable, and she’s definitely not perfect. Her quirks are also flaws. Following her story, I see my own, minus the mountains of cocaine. So when, in last week’s episode, she admitted to having chronic depression, it gave me pause. I recognized some of her habits in myself and my friends. I’ve run off to my room to sob when no one was looking, like her late-night car escapades because I’m ashamed to be publicly vulnerable. I’ve felt so overwhelmed that I’ve chosen to ignore my problems instead of addressing them or blamed others for my own issues. I’ve lashed out when I’m hurting, just to cause pain. I’ve felt things I didn’t think I could tell anyone because they wouldn’t understand.

Over lunch one day, my table mate and I discussed our connection to Gretchen. We didn’t share superficial dialogue about “totally being able to relate” just to seem cool, empathetic or knowledgeable. Instead, we expressed our earnest gratitude for the reassurance we weren’t alone.

What’s the saying: with great power comes great responsibility? Pop culture has a huge impact on the community, and by extension, the individuals who comprise it. It’s up to screenwriters to decide what they want to tell the American audience. With You’re the Worst, Falk has used his platform to make viewers think about stigmatized subjects. He’s offered valid societal criticism without falling into tropes. There are no “basic bitches” in his scripts, and even better, no “manic pixie dream girls.” All of his characters are just young adults, like me, struggling to grasp themselves and the world around them.

Believe it or not, despite some of the bombs he drops, Falk still manages to make me laugh. That’s the beauty of it—nothing seems so bad when you’re not going through it alone. That’s why I can’t wait for a new episode to come out every Wednesday. I’m ready for my weekly dose of reality, sugared by the fact that I’m not the only one watching.