by Akshata Atre
I “quit” social media a while ago. I mean, I didn’t quit entirely. It’s actually kind of impossible to do that if you’re a college student who wants to at least maintain the appearance of having a social life. But I still scrambled all my Instagram passwords, blocked Twitter, and only used Snapchat back in freshman year (of college) for maybe two months. But I’m still unfortunately bound to my Facebook account. I just can’t find a way to not have one and remain even somewhat in the loop. I did delete the app (the main one and messenger), unfollow all the people I’m friends with, and remove a ton of my page “likes,” though. Yet, even with all those measures in place, I still get that dopamine rush when I do login and see that I have a notification, even if it does turn out to just be someone’s birthday. Something about those red bubbles with tiny white numbers in them just inadvertently triggers that response in me-- and I really, really hate it.
The most frustrating thing about the whole situation is that, of course, those red bubbles are designed to elicit that exact emotional reaction. That’s the whole point of them. They’re meant to get you to log onto the site or open the app and scroll. And scroll. And scroll. And for what?
Not to sell you products, but to sell you. Your attention.
And that’s a distinction that’s made clear in the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. In the film, a group of former Silicon Valley tech executives & other experts dive into the inner workings of Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and the like. One of the key takeaways from the film is that the algorithms that run these platforms are a) programmed to have an outcome that is directly linked to profit; b) trying to do everything they can to keep you using the app/site longer in order to achieve that profit goal; and c) not even fully understood by the people who made them anymore.
That second point that really stuck with me throughout the film, particularly when it was dramatized in one of the several scripted storylines presented in the film. In this storyline, the algorithm is portrayed by three men behind a screen who are feverishly trying to maintain the main character’s attention in order to win “bids” from various companies who want to put advertisements in front of him. We see how they use increasingly personal push notifications to draw him back into the app. Then, once they get him back on the app, they start pushing extremist political content into his feed, sucking him in even further.
This story, although depicted in kind of a cheesy way, is not far from the truth. We’ve all heard about how terrorists are using social media to recruit people, and even how YouTube’s algorithm pushes increasingly extremist content the further down the rabbit hole you go. The latter is of course a great example of how this desire to increase engagement (which is essentially the point of an algorithm like YouTube’s) can lead people to content that is largely opinion-based and nonfactual.
This essentially means that we no longer share a common understanding of what truth is. Because we’re not all getting the same information when we open Google. The algorithm literally prevents that from happening-- if we see the truth, we’re not always going to like it. And the algorithm doesn’t want that. It wants us to like what we see. So it shows us things we already agree with, regardless of whether or not it’s true, playing into our confirmation biases and keeping us scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, all the while collecting information that allows advertisers to target us so directly it’s scary. And the longer we scroll, the further we’re split into right and left, the lonelier we get, the sadder we get, the more anxious we get, and the further we get from reality and truth itself.
So back to the first point about algorithms-- why are social media companies allowing their algorithms to push this kind of content and manipulate us this way? Profit. Their whole business model is based on finding ways to get your attention and then selling that attention, your attention, to advertisers, who are essentially funding these platforms. But it’s really more than just your attention; as Jaron Lanier puts it in the film,“it’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.” Think Instagram influencers, extremely targeted ads, and the like. You don’t even realize that’s what’s happening half the time. And that is worth SO MUCH MONEY.
Money is what this all comes back to at the end of the film. These companies are making so much money that they have no reason to stop these out-of-control algorithms, to stop collecting our data, to stop selling us. A corporation (contrary to the infamous Citizens United case), is not a person. It has no conscience. It’s not going to make ethical decisions for the sake of being ethical. The only way the machine will stop is if it’s forced to because of a monetary penalty or incentive. Regulations, taxes, changing the stock market so that it’s not a short-term quarter-over-quarter growth system, these are all solutions presented by the people interviewed in the film. And these options (excepting the third) have, in fact, worked in other industries.
Until those larger systems change, tech companies aren’t going to make any changes themselves. And those systems won’t change unless people demand that they do. As many terrible things as there are going on right now, I really believe that this is an important issue to address. Because so long as we as a society can’t even agree on what is actually happening, what the truth is, we are never going to reach a solution on any of the many pressing issues we’re facing. You can’t build a car if half your designers think they should be building an airplane and the other half think they should be designing a submarine. And you can’t address climate change, discrimination, or economic inequality if people don’t even agree that they’re real.
Thankfully, the interviewees in the film do offer a variety of actionable solutions at the end of the film, which I won’t list out here because I highly recommend you watch the film yourself. But what I would like to share are a couple stanzas from Bastille’s latest song, What You Gonna Do???, which came out in July of this year. As usual, their words are as poignant and timely as ever.
"Shake, rattle and roll / You got control / Got my attention / Make me tap and scroll / You got control / Got my attention
Listening, you got us listening / So what you gonna do with it? / You got us listening
So what you gonna do? / Now, what you gonna do with it? / Make me paranoid / Love me, hate me, fill the void / What you gonna do with it? / So who am I? You decide / Inside out, you read my mind / What you gonna do with it?"
And since we can’t all get in the faces of tech CEOs to ask them this question, watch The Social Dilemma (and maybe also read The Circle and reread 1984) and then do what you can to stop being a product and find the unfiltered truth.
by Lucas Fink
I put down the controller and watch, hypnotized and shaking with anxiety, as the early-20s woman I’ve been playing as for the past 5 or so hours struggles to keep her toes on the bucket beneath her while the noose tightens around her neck. This is Abby. Her face, veins bursting forth from her forehead, is dimly illuminated by the warm glow of a burning car nearby. Another woman emerges from the dense redwood forest just beyond the car, lifts Abby’s shirt to reveal her stomach, and holds a knife up to it: “They are nested with sin”. These are the Seraphites. Before she can disembowel Abby, two men drag a young Seraphite girl into the clearing, whom, at the behest of the woman, shatter the girl’s arm with a hammer. An arrow then flies out from the foliage, followed by another, killing the two men. While the panicked woman shoots blindly into the forest, Abby sees an opportunity and wraps her legs around the woman’s neck. The girl with the shattered arm picks up the hammer and digs its sharp end into the woman’s eye. Abby removes her legs but now hangs freely, suffocating. A Seraphite boy with a bow-and-arrow runs out from the forest, whom the girl orders to cut Abby down. Abby collapses to the pavement, stands up slowly, rips the hammer out of the dead woman’s eye, and turns toward the treeline, from which demonic shrieks echo. “The infected are coming”, whispers the girl. “Stay behind me”, Abby orders. The camera, never having been interrupted by a single edit during this cutscene, centers itself behind Abby, and now, with no transition between the cutscene and gameplay, I’m playing as Abby, about to fuck up some mushroom zombies with a hammer.
This is The Last of Us Part II, a video game written by Halley Gross and Neil Druckmann, directed by Druckmann, developed by Naughty Dog, and sequel to what is widely regarded as the best narratively-driven video game of all time, The Last of Us. The game follows a 19-year-old woman named Ellie on her brutal, increasingly hellish quest for revenge amidst a post-pandemic United States. Abby is also in the game(saying more would be a mega-spoiler).
The game is really good. So good that I felt compelled to write an excruciatingly detailed summary of one of the game’s most riveting, and grisly, set-pieces. This grisliness, this shocking and often upsetting violence, has stoked significant controversy. In the first TLoU, protagonist Joel’s path of carnage never really feels unjustified up until the climax(the best final act of any piece of media ever), as both his life and that of a 14-year-old Ellie, who’s immune to the virus and potentially the key to unlocking a vaccine, are at stake. Furthermore, the game goes to great lengths to make the combat gameplay feel incredibly uncomfortable and gruesome; when you shoot an enemy with a shotgun and hear their bubbling, sputtering gasps as they hit the floor, you wince and shift your weight on the couch anxiously; you don’t scream “hell yeah epic gamer moment!!!”. In the second game, though, each murder Ellie mercilessly enacts is entirely avoidable, and Naughty Dog ratches up the violence’s gritty, disturbing realism to such an extent that I at multiple points ended up putting the controller down and refusing to play while I paced around my living room to re-center myself. When you kill someone, their friends and loved ones will cry their name in anguish. When you stealth-kill a dog with your bow-and-arrow so it doesn’t sniff you out and reveal your location, you’ll hear an absolutely GUT-PUNCHING whimper and its owner will turn around and cry “LUCY!”. I could go on.
I’ve heard criticisms that (A)the game is nothing other than a miserable, guilt-ridden slog through the darkness of humanity’s heart, that (B)the game just “wags its finger” at the player the entire time making you feel guilty, and that (C)its theme amounts merely to “revenge/violence bad”. I’ve also heard criticisms made by reactionary, misogynist assholes who think “Abby’s biceps are unrealistically big” and “queer folk shouldn’t be in this game because games should be apolitical ”; these should be immediately thrown out the fucking window. I’ll engage with the former set of grievances because, while I disagree, they are actually substantive and interesting and warrant a meaningful response.
Firstly, the game is not a miserable slog. The horrific, absolutely gutting moments of tragedy and violence are far from the only content the game presents; countless funny, beautiful, and serene respites populate the narrative. Gross and Druckmann don’t brandish carelessly the emotional weapon of tragedy and violence; they use it sensitively and selectively.
Secondly, “the game” is an abstract, inanimate noun; a text can’t “wag its finger at the player”. If anything, the game is wagging its its finger at its central characters; they are the perpetrators of these atrocities, not the player. The player is just along for the ride. I can understand, though, why it is so difficult to distance yourself from or to assess unbiased by empathy a character when you control most of her physical actions. The game, though, only allows you to control how the violence happens, not what happens or who gets killed. Often, the game even denies the player control over the how and just presents a small on-screen prompt: “press square to strike”. Naughty Dog didn’t set out to make a role-playing game and as such afford the player absolutely no influence over the game’s events; that’s the point. They’re telling a linear story here via an interactive medium.
Thirdly, to argue the writing is lazy because “revenge bad” is the only thing the game has to say is wildly reductive and short-sided. Even if that singular message was the only thing the game communicates, who cares? Classic works of literature and film often boil down to absurdly simple central conceits, not to mention that there’s a vast reservoir of widely-loved texts for which “revenge bad” is really the only theme(Moby Dick, to mention one). TLoU 2 is about identity, perspective, nature and humanity’s existence within and/or apart from it, understanding the Other, cycles of violence, and, yes, revenge. I could’ve just written on all those themes, which probably would’ve produced a more original and insightful essay, but a rant in defense of the game is probably more fun to read and I’m at 1,000 words.
I'll totally lend you my PS4 so you can play this game.
At my best, I have between nine and thirteen rings adorning my fingers. This collection has developed since the day I realized that although my mom rebukes the wearing of jewelry, I, as a person separate from her, canin fact wear it anyway. My collection is vast and highly varied; from that which you accumulate from toy dispensers at pizza parlors to my prized $25 opal band, my fingers have worn it all. Although I have amassed hundreds of rings - the horrible ornamental things of my experimental middle school days, my now-refined silver bands and signets - there remains one type of ring I admire the most, yet never have had the pleasure of wearing: a posy ring.
A 16th century posy ring, inscribed with “un temps viendra” (exterior) and “mon desir me vaille” (interior).
Of course, my greatest impediment to owning a posy ring is the simple fact that they are from a bygone era and place: early modern Western Europe. Sure, I could certainly obtain a modern version - if it were not for the hundreds of dollars that endeavor would cost me. Even more cash, though, if I wanted a genuine medieval relic; on the low end, approximately $2000 would get me a “late medieval gold posy ring”.
For those who may not know, a posy ring is a ring (surprise!), often a simple band of gold, inscribed with a posy, or rhyme. The inscription can be on the outside or inside of the ring, though most I have come across boast the more secretive rendition, with the engraved rhyme on the interior of the band. They were a late medieval, early modern phenomenon, most popular from the 15th to 17th centuries in England and France. Though I mainly associate them as being tokens of affection given between lovers, they could also signify gifts of respect or prestige (especially in examples where the rings have been encrusted with a jewel of some sort).
There is something about this alliance of text and ring that is endlessly appealing to me. Of course, the ravenous historian in me loves that they’re historical objects I would happily wear now and use (and abuse) as a means to make every conversation about my personal historical interests. But, as a writer, and as someone who has often found a certain poignancy in text that I fail to reach in spoken word, these little posies simply radiate tenderness and passion. You wouldn’t go through all the trouble of inscribing a gold band with a few words of rhyme if you didn’t resonate wholly with those words. Especially when you consider that many rings were inscribed on the interior, and thus were not an immediate or obvious display of wealth; rather, they were a personal message, passed between individuals bound by a golden band gracing one of their fingers.
Perhaps they feel so meaningful because their message is hidden, tucked beneath a ring of gold. Or maybe it is the action of those words existing against your skin, directly in contact with your person, your body, pressing against you with no barrier, no boundary. The words are truly yours; they are tangibly connected to you every moment the ring is on your finger.
Oh, how I swoon. 17th or 18th century posy ring, inscribed with “Many are the stars I see but in my eye no star like thee.”
Beyond the ring’s basic construction, though, are the words. The ring carries with it not just the inherent value as a luxury item, a gift, but the added significance of text. The gifter offers not only an extravagance, but the ultimate romancing: a line of poetry. Like a lock of hair, or a wallet photo, a bit of that person is with you, but even closer - their words meld with your body as something that you wear, perpetually hugging your finger. At a posy ring’s base, the meaning is derived from those words or symbols engraved upon it. Otherwise, it’s just a band.
Arthur Humphreys’ 1907 A Garland of Love: A Collection of Posy-Ring Mottoes catalogues an alphabetical list of just what the title says. Some are swoon-worthy, while others feel nonsensical in our modern age. They are just a few words (limited, of course, by the size of the band), yet feel so personal, so purposeful. I have collected a few of my favorites below:
On a broader note, I admire the medieval tradition of integrating text and art. The concept of merging word and visual culture or art is typical of the early modern Western world. You can see it in paintings, as well; Fra Angelico’s 1450s Armadio degli Argenti, a set of nine panels depicting Jesus’ life, is bordered by Latin text explaining the corresponding scene of each panel. Illuminated manuscripts exemplify the ultimate medieval combination of text and image. In a more playful way, Jan van Eyck signs “Johannes de eyck fuit hic,” or “Jan van Eyck was here, 1434,” on the wall of his Arnolfini Portrait.
A page from a French illuminated manuscript, the Book of Hours, dating to 1410. Notice not only the words below the illustration of the Annunciation, but the strip of text within the image as well. And, of course, the beautiful, colorful natural decoration filling the page!
Considering its era, the inclusion of text proclaims something unattainable to most: literacy. The ability to read in your vernacular, be that English or French (although there is the occasional Latin inscription) was reserved for certain classes - those who could afford education and those who were educated by the church. With the innovation of the printing press in the 15th century, the accessibility of text as a mode of communication between the greater populus of Western Europe certainly expanded. But was the common farmer or barkeep reading through publication upon publication to locate the perfect line for their sweetheart? Likely not. Even more unlikely when considering the cost of gold and the expense of inscribing it.
So, this was a fashion of the rich - unsurprisingly, and somewhat disappointingly. I want so badly to imagine two commoners in the English countryside, dressed in bonnets and tunics, sneaking about and sharing their secret affections tucked away behind the bands on their fingers. I want to think of them romancing each other by candlelight, creating poetry out of their love and feeling the need to capture it in the valleys of a ring’s engraving. Of course, this idyllic image is shattered when I remember their sense of hygiene, or lack thereof, and what it would be like to be a commoner or a woman or generally a person in 15th century England. The magic of the posy ring remains, though.
What would I want on the posy ring I’d give to my partner? You set my heart ablaze, forever and always.
A 17th century posy ring, engraved with “trew love is my desyre.”
pc creds: a Lucas sobbing in the middle of Work Song
I get it; shit got crazy and you were nearly deafened when Tyler finally played Who Dat Boy. Now, having committed you and your friends’ hysteric screaming of “WHO HIM IS?!” to digital memory, that experience is re-visitable. Re-visiting is super cool; scrolling back through your camera roll to find that one video is fun and reveals the nuances of the moment that would’ve been lost to time. You can hear your phone’s speakers falter and hiccup as they attempt to regurgitate those smothering 808’s; you can remember the guy who elbowed you while moshing; you can, to an extent, re-experience the moment.
That's all well and good. What I take some issue with, though, is the commodification of memories that the digital realm encourages. I don’t like how social media transforms experiences into products, into mere things to be bought and sold. This phenomenon is specific to late capitalism and has been explained by many smart people - like Mark Fisher, Don DeLillo, and Jean Baudrillard. I’ll try to apply their analyses to those Snapchat stories of concerts you have to hurriedly tap through.
Capitalism is really good at turning everything in the world into things that can be bought and sold and into spaces in which buying and selling can happen, and could not give two shits as to whether or not whatever it happens to be commodifying is a papaya or a human person. Deleuze and Guattari call this tendency deterritorialization, the process by which territories once considered sacred - like the human body - are stripped of that sanctity so the territory can be exploited to generate profit. Eventually, capital ran out of physical spaces and things to convert into markets and commodities, so it found new territory into which it could expand: the mind, our private subjectivities. How can it imperialize this new space? It must need nonphysical means by which to conquer nonphysical space. Cyberspace is the perfect tool for capital here, which is why communication technologies have accelerated in complexity at such blinding speeds. Thanks to the internet, your time and intellectual labor have been more thoroughly colonized and your thoughts, dreams, and memories have been newly colonized. This the “information economy”.
The internet allows you to share your thoughts and experiences and, as those thoughts and experiences circulate through cyberspace in the form of Tweets and Tik Toks, they take on a life of their own and become commodities. All commodities are, as Guy Debord describes, invested with this spectacular nature, which is to say they try to convince us they’re way more awesome and cool and interesting than they actually are. Once you actually attain, say, the Yerba Mate, it is instantly “impoverished”, losing the spectacular aura and becoming just another canned energy drink dressed up in hip, socially conscious imagery.
How exactly, then, do Tik Toks and Snapchat stories operate as spectacular commodities? What are Snap stories selling? They sell you, the idea of you as a hip, indie, cool, cultured, fun-having person that goes to Tyler, the Creator concerts. They also sell the experience of a Tyler, the Creator concert, and of concerts in general. Snap stories convert your experiences into things sold to others as affirmations of your coolness and into advertisements for those experiences. Thinkers like Baudrillard argue that all of culture is like this now, and as a result there are no real experiences, or real anything, anymore. Reality has been totally subordinated to the hyperreal, to simulacra that live independently of their ostensible referents. We care more about the Snapchats than whatever the Snapchats are of/whatever they represent; we care more about making a good Tik Tok than going to the concert and having fun. As a result, Snapchats have become simulacra, or representations that don’t really represent any reality.
A beautiful example of the above is in Don DeLillo’s AMAZING book White Noise. In it, the protagonist Jack and his friend Murrary drive past a billboard advertising “The Most Photographed Barn in the World”. Jack and Murray find the barn-which is just a garden variety barn-and, observing as all the tourists frantically snap pictures, Murray remarks “Nobody sees the barn.” How fucking PROFOUND is that? Just as nobody cares about the actual Tyler concert, nobody cares about the barn. The actual barn is dilapidated and boring, and the actual Tyler concert was a stressful, sweaty, smelly, painful mess and after Glitter someone threw up on you. Instead, we elevate the barn to mythic levels of importance by photographing it; as Murray elaborates, “Each photo taken contributes to the aura.” The aura of the hip music scene is similarly bolstered by Snapchats of the Tyler concert, which are beautiful and perfect and only reveal what you want them to.
I’m in no way saying concerts aren’t fun; they’re incredibly fun and I miss them intensely and I was just exaggerating the barn-concert analogy. I’m also very much guilty of techno-addiction and as a result struggle greatly with “being in the moment”. Instead of using the concert as an opportunity to fashion a digital fantasy thereof, though, we should just take a couple of pictures and then be there, amongst the sweat, vomit, and everything else.
At the end of the Fyre Festival documentary on Netflix, an interviewee notes that a company is charging people to sit in a luxury jet parked on a tarmac and take selfies, and that the company is successful. Baudrillard came up with all the “hyperreal simulacra” stuff in the 1970s, and DeLillo wrote White Noise in the 1980s. They fucking time-travelled.
by Akshata Atre
Representation is all the rage on TV nowadays. Well, at least for Netflix. So it wasn’t really surprising to learn that Mindy Kaling was approached by Netflix to write a semi-autobiographical show about the Indian-American experience. When I first heard about the show, I was pretty excited. The only other piece of Western media about an Indian girl I can think of is Bend It Like Beckham. (Which, by the way, is amazing, and I will forever stand by that, aside from the very disappointing ending, but that has more to do with my love for Keira Knightley, so not super relevant here.)
ANYWAY, back to the show at hand (titled Never Have I Ever, which provides for a series of cutesy “...episode titles”). Like I said, when I heard about the show, I was very excited. I love Mindy Kaling, and I trusted that she would write a funny, relatable show. But then I watched the trailer and it was just . . . not at all what I was expecting. It was all shirtless boys, friend drama, teenage angst-- just basically a standard teen romantic comedy drama. Save for a few snippets of a Ganesh puja, it was all just so . . . generic American high school. Nothing seemed really specific to the fact that the main character, Devi, is Indian.
I was really hoping that the show itself would prove me wrong. But, unfortunately, it didn’t. The first two episodes in particular were extremely off-putting. Devi’s fervent pursuit of a boyfriend in order to “get over” the tragic loss of her father, after which she was psychosomatically paralyzed for months, was extremely emotionally jarring. But on top of that, aside from her brief conversations with her mother about her “blessed” textbook (which felt like a weird stereotypical jab), I felt as though Devi could easily have been replaced with any number of white actresses in those first few episodes.
Episode 4, “Never Have I Ever. . . felt super Indian,” was one that I thought would turn the show around (at least in my eyes). The episode is about Devi attending a Ganesh puja held by the local South Indian association. Devi is super unhappy about going, because she’s the type of Indian girl who isn’t super thrilled about the fact that she has to participate in Indian traditions. Which is a completely fair take, especially since Kaling said that this particular attitude is one she had growing up in an extremely white community. There are a couple of characters at the event that sort of call Devi out on her attitude (one of whom alludes to Kaling’s own experience with a college roommate who was very proud of her Native American heritage, making Kaling question her own relationship to her heritage) but Devi doesn’t buy into it. She remains semi-embarrassed about her presence and participation in the event and uncomfortable about her itchy sari.
This dual-culture dilemma is something that almost all first generation Indian-American kids struggle with. People approximately fall along a spectrum ranging from “trying to ignore the fact that they’re Indian and changing their name to something American” to “being super proud and wearing a lengha to school on Diwali.” There’s ultimately no right answer to where people end up-- a lot of it is based on where you grew up and if there were other Indian kids at your school. But what didn’t gel with me was the fact that Devi was suddenly super cool with the fact that she was wearing a sari when her main love interest, Paxton, said that it looked good. I don’t really know how to articulate how that whole interaction made me feel other than to say it was. . . icky.
Overall, although I did enjoy the jokes about aunty gossip and how no one understands what pujaris say, the episode just felt like a rehashing of Kaling’s “Diwali” episode of The Office. Which is a great episode, it’s just kind of specific to the time in which it was made (the episode aired in 2006). So I was hoping we could move beyond the stereotypical jokes about Indian parents wanting their kids to get married and just generally being hella judgemental. I would have loved to hear more about the girls in the episode who tell Devi that their Bollywood dance teams compete at a national level, instead of remaining focused on Devi’s negative judgements about that accomplishment. And again, while I get that this episode was meant to reflect Kaling’s struggles with accepting her culture, as someone who has felt embarrassed about wearing a salwar kameez in public, it would have been really nice to see desi kids in a show being proud of their heritage in less of a vignette/side-plot type of way.
An amazing dance performance . . . and then Devi (in the turquoise sari) judging it.
I think that Kaling’s own struggle about her cultural identity is the reason why this show feels more aspirational than representational. In her interview on Fresh Air, Kaling herself said that she never had a boyfriend in high school, in part because she was forbidden from dating, but that she remained boy-crazy. So by making this show about Devi pursuing (and ultimately ending up with two) non-Indian love interests, it almost feels like Kaling wrote a story about what she wishes her high school experience had been like. And that experience, as my mom put it after she watched the show, is what Indians of her generation thought American high schools were like based on reading Archie comics. That is to say, the show doesn’t reflect the reality of life in an American high school, or the reality of the first generation Indian-American experience.
Aside from what might have been Kaling’s own personal aspirations, the whole show overall felt like it was written not for Indian-Americans, but for white people. So many of the show’s jokes scream “look at me, I’m just like you. . . I’m just brown.” It feels like Devi is (or at the very least the show’s writers are) constantly trying to prove that she’s just like any other female lead in a John Hughes movie or a DCOM. Which is what I mean by saying the show is aspirational. It’s aspiring to a reality where white people think that immigrants have similar life experiences to them. But that’s not always the case. And it’s TOTALLY FINE and HEALTHY to acknowledge that.
This is the same reason why Kelly Kapoor and Tom Haverford (characters from The Office and Parks and Recreation, respectively) hardly ever acknowledge the fact that they’re Indian. Both Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari (the actors who portray these characters) grew up in predominantly white communities and really just wanted to fit in. But it’s not the 80s anymore, and if Kaling really wanted to represent modern teenagers like she has said, I think her sensibilities about racial relations in America (at least regarding South Asians) could have evolved in parallel to the show’s writing about Instagram and internet slang. We’ve moved beyond the need to prove that Indian-Americans can “fit in.” We don’t need to show that Indian-American teenage girls can be “complicated” in the ways that characters in teen rom-coms are. What we need is a show about how we're complicated in our own ways, and how those complications do, in fact, relate closely to our heritage and relationships with our communities. Being Indian is not, as one Vanity Fair writer so eloquently put it, “just one aspect of the general bullshit” that Indian-Americans have to “put up with.” A person’s culture is a part of who they are, not something that should be perceived as forced upon them. And to depict it as the latter does more harm than good.
This is why I feel that shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Kim's Convenience have been more relatable and enjoyable than Never Have I Ever and Ansari’s more adult Master of None. These shows take the time to flesh out all the members of the families around which they are centered, and as such provide a more multifaceted and complex depiction of what it is like to be a first-generation immigrant. Within the Huang family on Fresh Off the Boat, for instance, we get to see the range of how immigrant children relate to their heritage-- Evan and Emery follow their mother Jessica’s approach to tradition and schooling, while Eddie immerses himself in the music of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. Even the parents reflect this dichotomy; the father, Louis, really tries to fit into the Orlando community by opening a country-themed steakhouse while Jessica remains committed to imparting Taiwanese traditions to her children. It should be noted that these shows also enjoy a great deal of controversy in their respective communities-- Eddie Huang, whose book Fresh Off the Boat inspired the TV show, feels that it does exactly what I have just criticized Never Have I Ever for doing.
This all goes to say that it’s hard to write shows that appeal to all members of the first-generation, broadly Asian, immigrant community. The lead actress of Never Have I Ever, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, wrote that the show only tells the story of one Indian-American girl’s experience, and that “there are still many stories waiting to be told.”
While that may be true, I still feel justified in my frustration that Never Have I Ever was the first show to try to give us that representation. I’d like a show that doesn’t call me out for not having had a “typical” American high school experience full of parties, friends, school trips, and cringey romantic interactions. I think a family show, for instance, would be better than a To All the Boys I've Loved Before-type show about an erratic and sometimes downright unlikable teenage girl. For instance, Never Have I Ever only has one Indian-American teenage boy with a speaking role, and he disappears altogether after his one minute of screen time. And Devi’s father is only ever shown in flashbacks.
So, as Ramakrishnan said, there are a LOT of other stories to be told. I just wish-- and really feel like they could have-- been told in this show. Because representation really matters, and it’s more than just putting a person of color in a leading role. While researching for this piece, I came across this really great quote from Jean Yoon, the actress who plays Umma on Kim's Convenience:
“It’s really important to have representation because people who don’t see themselves on screen start to feel invisible and their stories are not understood by others, and it’s really easy to sort of slide into this place where you stop recognizing your own value.”
I have, at many moments in my life, felt invisible and misunderstood, in part because I felt so alone in my experiences regarding my relationship with my parents, the constant pressure I put on myself to do well in school, and my struggles to communicate with my family back in India. And watching Never Have I Ever didn’t make me feel less alone. And that kind of sucks, because I fall smack dab in the middle of the very specific target demographic for this show.
But it’s not all a downer. ABC is reportedly moving forward with a show centered around an Indian-American family as a spinoff of Fresh Off the Boat (as of October 2019). The characters that will star in the show have actually already appeared on an episode of FOTB, and the actress set to play the mother is none other than Preity Zinta, who was one of my FAVORITE Hindi film actresses when I was younger. (Like, I can’t even begin to express what a huge star she is, she’s amazing.) So while Never Have I Ever may not have given me the representation I was looking for, I think there’s hope yet for a show that does provide a more complex and holistic insight into the Indian-American experience. And it might be with Preity Zinta!
by Katherine Schloss
They have finally recovered the bodies of the missing Kennedys. I’ve found that it’s so easy to give into the mystique of their curse. I’m certainly one to be drawn in by the fogginess that surrounds it, the mystery that their uber rich family is shrouded in. They’ve certainly been continuously blessed with fame and fortune, but one can only stop and wonder if the number of deaths and freak accidents that they’ve racked up is actually unprecedented, or if it merely feels magnified because of our intense fascination and following of all things Kennedy.
Curses are linked to supernatural powers, and ending up with one comes with all the implications that someone- or something- is out to cause you harm. I think it’s really interesting that some people walk around with a “victim mindset” in that way. It’s easier to point to something as the cause of an unhappiness, or to blame the bad things that have happened to you on misfortune. Looking at the famous Kennedy family specifically, there is folklore surrounding them, with conspiracy theories pointing to a curse that has manifested in everything from cars launching into bodies of water, botched lobotomies and the famous shooting which has yet to be completely solved and therefore remains subject to scrutiny by the masses.
Why do we find celebrities so entrancing? This question is asked again and again by anyone who cares to take a second to analyze their own obsession with the world of glitz and glamour, where old movies insist that, in the pursuit of fame, celebrities are selling their souls to the devil. They take a risk, and many end up in the hallowed halls of rehab, all for the price of the construction of a “personality.” We fall in love with, or love to hate, the fragments that they give us, following a trail of golden little nuggets of information. Nowadays, the sneak peek into their lives that we get on social media and in “stripped-down” interviews can be addicting. But how much of that would have existed if they hadn’t entered into a contract? How much of their glamorous life was written in the stars and preordained, and how much resulted from years of working towards the image that we idolize?
My art history professor told my class that, when the Cleopatra film came out in 1963 with Liz Taylor at its helm, it brought with it a trend of false eyelashes and the “new Egyptian look.” She managed to capitalize on an image that was ancient and totally unrelated to her own culture, merely because of the starpower that she held. We hold onto these images of decadence, copying those that have their fascinating lives on their hills and many who, in this quarantine, have the luxury of hiding in their mansions without reason to ever leave their shiny infinity pools and manicured pastures.
Watching old Keeping up with the Kardashians episodes- hey, we’ve got to allow ourselves some guilty pleasures during this quarantine, right?- I’m reminded of how we love to pit celebrities against one another as if everything is just one big ‘ol reality t.v. show. We love to read about the drama, to spice things up when we find our own lives to be mundane or stale. Where does the individual end and the personality begin? When writing a thesis on David Bowie and his creation of a sort of alter ego in the form of Ziggy Stardust, I was fascinated by how he described the struggle of trying to separate himself from the persona that he’d crafted purely for the entertainment of anyone who would listen. We criticize celebrities for being unable to handle the fame which somehow comes to encompass a culture where we expect them to be well-adjusted and expect them to share the secrets of their well-adjusted life with the public as well. Who are we to expect an inside peek? It’s as if no stone can be left unturned, no second left unrecorded.
I saw today that there’s speculation that Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik are expecting their first child. As I stared at the pixels that combined to create pictures taken from moments in their tumultuous on-again off-again relationship where they were actually beaming, I couldn’t help but wonder who it was that had leaked this highly personal information. There’s certainly a darker side to things, one where influencers like Caroline Calloway are cancelled and labeled as scammers by fans that had once heralded her posts about her dreamy days at Cambridge. This overload of information that exists at our fingertips has erased some of the intrigue. We no longer have to wait for a magazine to come out in order to see the latest celebrity gossip, and celebrities have literally started opening their doors up to us in Architectural Digest videos galore. I’m slowly starting to feel that celebrities are just like us, but with a whole lot more money and a whole lot less privacy.
I am not immune to the cult of personality that surrounds these moguls. I’ve been known to drool over Princess Di’s drove of fabulous and innovative outfit choices, I spent years trying to understand who Jackie O was aside from her husband, and singers like Maggie Rogers remain my spirit animal. The few times that I’ve been able to talk to these figures that I look up to or love to love- which has mainly been at stage doors or at small concerts- I’m struck by how little I’m able to muster, despite the fact that I’m usually a big talker. Though it may feel like it, we will never truly know the people whose voices fill our earbuds, whose posters covered the walls of our angsty teen years, and whose red carpet choices will continue to shape our own wardrobes for years to come. And that’s okay. We certainly rely upon a pop culture shaped by such individuals as a form of escapism, and I undoubtedly will continue to try to find the magic in the personas that they’ve so carefully created for me to indulge in. On the other side of things, I hope that at the end of the day we find ourselves in our individuality to be all the more valuable and precious, crafting our own personalities and lives based on the people and things that we are influenced by and basking in the fact that we don’t have to drive in cars with tinted windows. I, for one, can’t wait to freely walk around in Trader Joe’s once the quarantine is over, searching for my favorite off-brand takis. At least the mob won’t have something to say about that.
by Yasmeen Adin
I am stuck in Berkeley for the foreseeable future. At least until travel restrictions back home loosen up. Even then, if I am able to go back home, it remains unclear if I will be able to return to the US. Amidst all this uncertainty, finding any glimpse of positivity can be difficult. Feeling obliged to be positive feels even worse during a global crisis that directly affects the most vulnerable among us. The constant reminders to remain positive while navigating the uncertainty of the situation are becoming draining and unbearable. I am frustrated and anxious and depriving myself from the right to feel so in order to convince myself that everything is okay. But it is not. Yet what has been keeping me and many others grounded so far is the sense of community that was immediately cultivated during this crisis.
From the earliest stages of the progression of this pandemic, it became clear that the ideals valued the most in our modern capitalist societies would get us nowhere. The evils of this system that governs us, from our day-to-day lives to the institutional level, were exposed to everyone. Since when is meeting the deadline of a paper considered more important than mourning the death of a beloved person who did not even get a proper funeral? Since when is profiting off of the backs of workers considered more important than their health and well-being? Since when is physically hurting others to get a roll of toilet paper considered more important than putting those more in need first? Glorifying these flaws in the name of individualism, productivity, and economic growth contribute to normalizing and embedding them in our behaviors and cultures. But there are those who refuse these norms and resist back against them. They choose collectivism in their resistance to showcase the inadequacy of our governments.
Since the very first few days of the shelter-in-place order and social distancing that led to many folks leaving or losing their jobs, links and databases to independently-initiated funds have started circulating. They act as financial compensation for BIPOC, disabled, unemployed, houseless, and LGBTQIA+ folks, and they uplift creatives and freelancers and others who live paycheck to paycheck. Others began tabling to give out food, basic medical services, offer shelter, and fulfill other needs that governments and corporations have failed to address. Even after weeks of debate, the work that these institutions have accomplished (i.e. the stimulus package, which was only passed after weeks of debate), does not help many people who still lack access to basic needs. As a result, acts of humanity and solidarity performed by individuals and nonprofit organizations are being highlighted and publicized to hide the failure of the systems that were supposed to serve us. However, they also prove that what will get us through this eventually will be our fight as a community, a unit, a collective, not individual corporate leaders or a collapsing government.
by Lucas Fink
(Image via NPR, sourced from EPK. The Bling Ring is now streaming on Netflix)
The Bling Ring is an incredibly frustrating 2013 film written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Sofia Coppola, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, also wrote and directed the very good 2003 film Lost in Translation. I am choosing to not celebrate her successes as a filmmaker here and will instead elements of The Bling Ring I found to be crass and problematic. This decision may seem at odds with the effusive praise I’ve piled onto other movies in past posts. But we don’t need to be positive all the time. Sometimes movies are not good. Such is life.
The Bling Ring, based on actual events, is about a group of teenagers who break into the lavish homes of celebrities and steal their things. I can’t remember how many are in the group nor can I remember any of their names. There are three the film wants the viewer to pay attention to, though. I used Wikipedia to learn their names. Mark, solidily acted by Israel Broussard and the only character in the film with some semblance of a moral compass, is the audience stand-in. Rebecca, stiffly acted by Katie Chang, is an obsessive, borderline-sociopathic kleptomaniac. Nicki, elevated to the level of pure caricature by Emma Watson, is absurdly conceited and obnoxious. They steal from celebrities, enjoy doing so, and are then caught. Such a premise seems ripe for social critique. How does a culture dominated by spectacle, by celebrity, images, and commodities, a culture in which - to plagiarize a smart French dude Guy Debord - direct experience has been replaced entirely by mere representation and appearances; how does such a culture affect the youth who inhabit it? It’s a really good question. Thankfully, the film never concerns itself with it. Instead, the film spends an hour and a half relishing in how ridiculously stupid and vain its characters are. Look at these stupid and superficial teens! YUCK! Doesn’t their behavior repulse you? Aren’t you nauseated and appalled by the detestable behavior of these stupid teenagers? Can you believe that some stupid teenagers actually did this stuff? Isn’t that insane? Imagine being such a stupid, vapid TEENAGER.
I’m sorry if I belabored the “stupid teenager” thing. I just felt the need to make it clear how heartless the film is. It’s not just that its characters are “one-dimensional,” it’s that the film ratchets up the one-dimensionality so much that the characters become literal incarnations of all that is evil and abhorrent and then takes sadistic pleasure in highlighting that evil and abhorrence. I should note here I’m not at all against satire or hyper-exaggerated characters. But satire uses its hyper-exaggerated characters to reveal the contradictions or absurdities of the world those characters live in. The Bling Ring doesn’t do that. Its non-characters aren’t used to criticize consumerism or digital capitalism. Instead, they just exist for you to laugh at and be disgusted by.
A VICE News Special in 2014 profiles Alexis Neiers, the member of the “Bling Ring” portrayed by Emma Watson. Alexis had an abusive father in her childhood and was addicted to heroin in her teenage years, when the events of The Bling Ring took place. Alexis now writes for VICE about addiction amongst youth and is a certified substance abuse counselor. What a stupid bad person.
I’m kidding. She’s obviously a decent person with nuance and depth and trauma. Most people are. That’s my main issue. The film individualizes responsibility instead of politicizing it. The film’s answer to “why does everyone seem so superficial and vain now?” is “because they’re just like that.” In the final shot of the film, Emma Watson turns to the camera and says something superficial and vain so the viewer can laugh and go “yeesh; people suck.” People like her are the problem, certainly not larger socio-economic forces. The movie is pretty to look at, though.
Watch Lost in Translation or Tiger King.
by Davis Benz
My therapist is trying to convince me that asking people I don’t know to hang out does not make me look desperate. She says it’s “flattering.” Then why was I conditioned to believe that trying to make new friends is a sign of weakness? I recently realized that if someone sees my invitation to #hangout as desperate that’s their fucking problem. Anyway, before the pandemic, I used to sit next to people in class and I felt weird about asking them to hang out. But why? Is it because of social conditioning from middle school? Maybe. Yeah, that’s it.
Tinder is fun, I guess? I keep seeing guys I know IRL who I think are cute but I’m scared to be like “let’s hang out.” I mean “let’s hang out” has so many connotations I just choose to opt-out entirely. Specificity is key. It’s different with men in their thirties. They’re not as scared of rejection. As Jenna Rink once asked, why can’t I be “thirty, flirty, and thriving?” Ever since I transferred to Cal I’ve realized that we’re all scared of being perceived as craving human interaction. But why? Does it insinuate that we are social rejects? Who cares? And what if we are that’s badass. The whole conformity thing is getting old to me. I don’t want to fit in, all the best people do their own thing anyway. But that is so much easier said than done.
I hate small talk. However, there is an art to it. I try to make small talk in subtle ways. I’ve noticed the cool/hip topic right now to talk about with strangers is the #virus. I want to challenge that. We’re all aware of it so let’s fucking talk about something else! If this is truly the end of life as we know it (which it’s not) I want to hit up all the guys I think are hot, I mean what else is there to do? Seriously. I’ve noticed that mutual intimidation gets us nowhere. Ruminating about all the things I could have said is a waste of time. I’m done with regrets. I’m going to talk to everyone without fear. Even you.
There is power in expressing vulnerability. I’m learning how to be my most authentic self. What I mean by that bullshit is I’m learning how to access internal validation rather than searching for approval from others. Guess what? Everyone doubts themselves. Or at least I do. But I’m also obsessed with learning, growing, and evolving. As much as I want that one guy who I matched with on Tinder to validate my existence, I also know that all the love I need I can give to myself. But hit me up if you want to chill. ;)
by Quentin Freeman
Some schools have snow days. So far this year, UC Berkeley prefers to spice it up with Our State is On Fire Days, Worldwide Epidemic Days, and All Our Grad Students are On Strike For Livable Wages Days. Whoever said school was boring? The UC Berkeley grad students voted to go on a full strike starting Monday, March 16, in demand of a cost of living adjustment (COLA) and in solidarity with the 4 other UC campuses currently on strike. Starting Monday, not only will our classes be virtual, but if your GSI is one of the students on strike, it’s no guarantee that they’ll happen at all. Wondering what to do with yourself to fill the time (besides support your GSIs and wash your hands)? Spring break trip to Italy get cancelled? A little freaked out by campus’s new pre-apocalyptic vibe? Consider the following:
Get outside! Berkeley is home to some delightful hiking trails, and nature is only a walk, bike ride, bus, or BART away. Work out those lungs and get some Vitamin D, and word on the streets is that trees can’t spread the virus. Short of using our cancelled classes as an opportunity to live out your hermit-in-the-forest dreams, check out the Fire Trails for some local action, or take the 67 bus to Tilden, where you can stroll through redwoods and around lakes. Want to get out of Berkeley? Head to Briones Regional Park just over the Berkeley Hills for some beatific rolling hills, or make the longer trek to Point Reyes National Seashore-- accessible by public transit!
Listen to Radioactive by Imagine Dragons. Yeah, it might not be the most uplifting song to go with the crumbling university, but what a banger. Get yourself fired up to take on whatever the world wants to throw at you, from glitching internet on your Zoom lecture to a full-scale, nuclear-fallout-style apocalypse.
Teach yourself a new skill or hobby. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar, or speak Gaelic! Learn to embroider, identify edible plants, practice your survival skills, or perfect your latte art. Maybe take up woodworking so you can build that off the grid cabin of your dreams! Now’s your chance to memorize all the lyrics to It’s the End of the World As We Know It by R.E.M.!
Feeling romantic? Hozier’s Wasteland, Baby! is the ultimate album for when it’s the end of the world, but you’re also totally in love. Highlights from the record include No Plan, complete with driving beat and nihilistic discussion of how there is in fact no plan for the universe, and everything will at some point return to darkness-- but at least you’re watching the final sunset with your girl! A little more on the acoustic side of things, check out the titular track, Wasteland, Baby: a soft, delicate ballad with lyrics like poetry. I mean, “And the day that we watch the death of the sun / that the cloud and the cold and those jeans you have on / That you gaze unafraid as they saw from the city ruins /Wasteland, baby / I'm in love / I’m in love with you” -- nobody ever said the end of days had to be a turn off. The album is full of great date ideas for the end of the world, if you need any inspiration.
Maybe don’t read The Stand by Stephen King unless you really want to lean into this whole pandemic thing. A nearly thousand page post-apocalyptic horror epic, The Stand is a fabulous way to kill a couple dozen hours. Its intricate web of characters, slightly disturbing world-building, and unfortunately very timely premise of apocalypse-by-disease keeps you riveted and a tad freaked out-- but very grateful that our own pandemic is not quite as horrifying and end-of-the-world-inducing as the fictional virus in the novel.
However you decide to fill your time, don’t forget that in reality, COVID-19 isn’t the harbinger of the end of days; as truly unfortunate as this situation is, it’s only temporary. Wash your hands, be careful, go home if you want, but don’t fall prey to the panic. See you on Zoom!