Thoughts on life after the PhD
There’s horrible stuff going on everywhere right now, so maybe we all need some good media to consume. Here’s some stuff I’ve been reading / watching / listening to lately that gives me a bit of hope in a supremely fucked up world:
Tayari Jones on the Death, Sex, and Money podcast. This podcast is great in general for its concise, well-structured interviews about usually-taboo subjects, but Anna Sale’s recent conversation with Tayari Jones was a standout. I particularly liked the way that Jones talked about feeling like a caretaker / support system for past boyfriends, who she thought were brilliant artists but were really just emotional vampires (hoo boy, I’ve been there).
Unspooled. I’m hopelessly addicted to How Did This Get Made?, the post-bad movie conversation podcast that’s much better than actually sitting through plenty of the movies that the hosts watch. Unspooled, in contrast, tackles AFI’s top 100 movies, with hosts Paul Scheer and Amy Nicholson mixing film studies, trivia, personal reactions, and the occasional tangent. It’s new but it seems great so far–I especially like the fact that the female half of the podcast takes on the role of film expert (not so common in the film crit / film podcast world), and that the show is super informative without feeling snobby. The first episode is about Citizen Kane, a movie I haven’t seen since college and really want to revisit now.
Killing Eve. It’s probably a side effect of peak TV that even really high-quality shows just can’t hold my interest anymore. So the fact that this one hooked me so thoroughly within the first two minutes–as contract killer Villanelle eats ice cream in a diner, makes eye contact with a little girl, and carefully tries to shape her face into something resembling warmth and empathy before dropping the mask to reveal a truly terrifying deadness–says a lot about how good it is. From Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s razor-sharp writing to the perfect musical choices to the layered characterizations to the tight, careful plotting, I’m already impatient to watch the next episode. And like so many good shows and films of late, I’m definitely noticing what this one DOESN’T do. It’s about a contract killer, but it doesn’t focus on graphic images of violence (they happen, they’re just not lingered over). Said contract killer is a beautiful young woman, but so far we haven’t seen her naked, and when sex does happen it’s brief and not at all gratuitous. And we don’t seem to be heading toward a big reveal about the Tragic Past that made Villanelle the way she is, or any hint that she has a soft spot for certain kinds of people. For once, just like her male counterparts in the endless murder mysteries and crime shows that have come before, she’s just allowed to be amoral and inscrutable.
And for God’s sake give Sandra Oh more work.
Elif Batuman on Japan’s Rent-a-Family Industry. I am endlessly fascinated by the subject of compensated intimacy, which is a fancy way of saying “paying for the appearance of an intimate relationship.” Sex work is, of course, the main example, but it’s a much bigger industry than that–we pay the staff in fancy hotels to treat us like we’re royalty, we pay massage therapists to relieve muscle aches but also to make us feel soothed and calm, we pay therapists to analyze the most intimate details of our lives. People who pay for certain types of intimacy–cuddles, pretend relatives, a virtual girlfriend–are usually the objects of scorn and ridicule. So I was delighted that Batuman’s article for once didn’t make people who pay for intimacy–specifically, people in Japan who “rent” people to pose as their family members, for a fascinating variety of reasons–as freaks or losers. I could say more, but really, just read it. It’s heartbreaking and compelling and reminds us to think before we laugh, because in the end it’s really, really hard to completely separate money from intimacy.
(Some people I know have criticized this article for yet again focusing on a very niche aspect of Japanese culture and presenting it as everyday [the number of people using these kinds of services in Japan is arguably quite small, and the article makes it seem as if a lot of people are using them]. This is a legitimate criticism, but I don’t think that this article falls into the usual “Japan is freaky” category of English-language journalism. At least it makes a point of interviewing [with a translator] a large number of Japanese experts, as well as the staff and clients who take part in the rent-a-family service. And it also repeatedly makes an effort to paint the clients and the staff as three-dimensional human beings operating within a culture where there is a definite need for these kinds of services.)
Jia Tolentino and Reply All on Incels. Like a lot of people, I’m weary of distinguished publications devoting so much energy to “getting inside the heads of” truly vile people (though I’ll make an exception for Nellie Bowles’ recent NYT profile of Jordan Peterson, if only because she actually calls him out repeatedly on his bullshit and portrays him, appropriately, as a moron and a miserable attention-seeker). Jia Tolentino’s very, very concise piece on “incels” is really the last bit of analysis I need to read on this topic, because it spells things out so clearly: incels aren’t lonely rejects who just want to be loved, they’re deeply hateful people who feel entitled to sex with hot women, and who see rape as a totally legitimate way to get what they’re entitled to. Can we please stop talking about them as if they deserve an ounce of our sympathy?
On a related note, the podcast Reply All has a fascinating episode about the origin of the term incel, which was coined back in the 1990s by a queer woman who wanted to create an online space where adult virgins could support each other. It’s an intriguing look at how an innocuous idea, word, or image (think Pepe the Frog) can morph over time into something toxic.
Ali Wong’s Hard Knock Wife
I was a big fan of Ali Wong’s first Netflix special, Baby Cobra, and I’d argue that this one is even better. It’s crude, loud, and definitely not for everyone, but she’s got a persona that is so, so appealing–piercing stare, oversized glasses, a way of transitioning seamlessly between a whisper and a shout, a 100% take-no-bullshit mindset. There’s a lot of barely-contained rage in this one, which feels especially cathartic right now.
If like me you’re eagerly awaiting the next installment of Saga and need a light, sweet one-shot comic to tide you over, I highly recommend the Kate Leth & Megan Levens collaboration Spell on Wheels. It’s got modern-day witches, a road trip, and potential romance with a goat-guy. What more could you want from a comic? (Cover and in-between art from Jen Bartel? Hey, it has that too!)
The New She-Ra
Who knows if it’ll be any good, but this show was like the cornerstone of my childhood after school TV-watching experience, so I’m thrilled to see it getting the dust-off with a new set of talented writers & voice actors.
Incidentally, there’s been a lot of Twitter fighting over rebooting properties like this (They’re also doing a Thundercats reboot), with more than a few people saying that the new versions are “ruining” the old. Which always makes me wonder…did these people WATCH the old ones? Because, as C. Spike Trotman pointed out, they were NOT GOOD. Sure, we were kids, we would watch anything, but those things were cheaply produced (She-ra re-used so many animation sequences that it sometimes felt like the whole series amounted to only a couple of minutes of original content). And they basically existed to sell toys. So if someone wants to take a crack at them with more money and more emphasis on quality, I’m all for it.
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