Swiping Through Mugshots on a Saturday Night: How Community Facebook Pages Indulge Our Cruel Desires

for Tiffany Lazon

And most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, a male wailing is not a dancing bear.

– Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land

When the Stranger says: “What is meaning of this city?

Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”

What will you answer?

“We all come together to make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?

…Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger. Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

– T.S. Eliot, “The Rock”

Last month, news outlets in Albany, Oregon reported a break in a local missing persons case, the disappearance of a 37-year-old woman named Tiffany Lazon: Tiffany’s DNA was found on a circular saw that had been in possession of her husband Craig, an Albany man with a history of domestic violence and sexual assault. In 2015, Tiffany accused her husband of attempting to murder her, but her reliability as a witness was called into question due to her history of drug addiction. She later withdrew her testimony. After Tiffany’s DNA was discovered on the circular saw, local police found a large quantity of blood on the floor of a U-Haul truck that Craig rented earlier that month. Due to mounting physical evidence, Craig Lazon was arrested on January 21st on the charge of first-degree murder.

Let’s begin with a truth universally acknowledged: the majority of comment sections on the internet are riddled with trolls, unproductive infighting, and *alternative facts*. Though I certainly acknowledge this truth, I felt shaken by the prevalence of cruelty and misinformation in the comment sections of news articles about Tiffany’s death. A number of people attacked Tiffany’s character and blamed her “lifestyle” for the violent circumstances of her death, stubbornly ignoring the complex truths that establish a context for the murder. I’ll address just two of them here: 1) Oregon, Tiffany’s home state, has the highest drug addiction rates in the country but is ranked dead last for mental health treatment, a vital component of successful drug rehabilitation. 2) Recovering from a drug addiction– like opioid use disorder, for example– is mind-bogglingly difficult, which is why the relapse rate for short-term, abstinence-only rehabilitation (still the most commonly availably treatment model) is somewhere around 90%.

Okay @NancyFromDowntheStreet? Can we perhaps consider some of these things before proposing a solution as inane as “tell them to stop doing drugs”?

Comments on articles about Tiffany Lazon exemplify a disturbing set of social media habits which have nestled comfortably into the culture of community Facebook pages. In recent years, these pages have become increasingly popular as local newspapers–with their social pages, classifieds, dating profiles, and opinion articles–have fallen by the wayside.

In order to illustrate the true nature of these habits, I present to you just a smattering of the reductive and often shockingly inhumane comments that I have encountered since becoming a member of the page. All of them were posted in discussions of two of the community’s favorite topics: addiction and homelessness.

Snapchat-360125742 (1)
A comment on a news article about Tiffany: “There is a history of mental illness, drug issues, & evidence of similar accusations BEFORE this husband was ever IN the picture.”
A comment on a thread about the influx of unsavory characters into the utopian paradise that is Albany, Oregon, “The more you do to invite people to move here, the more miscreants come too.”
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A popular post on the “What’s Up, Albany?” Facebook page . This massively oversimplified rendering of addiction masquerades as common sense and employs humor to distract us from the fact that it is stupid as all hell. A more accurate comic strip might represent a young man who had a traumatic childhood, went to an underfunded school with overworked teachers, was failed by a nation that relies on GoFundMes for adequate medical and mental health care, and is just goddamn lonely, so he starts abusing pain pills. After becoming addicted, he bankrupts his parents by attempting rehab six times; he is suicidal throughout. He would do anything not to be dopesick, so he increases his intake of the pills until he becomes an IV heroin user. He dies of an overdose. But that’s not as funny, is it?
I found these comments on a community member’s post about an interaction they had with someone clearly suffering from mental illness and/or addiction.

I hope it’s clear that these comments do not quite foster what one might call a “communal” environment (which is ironic, because a lot of these commenters are the very same folks constantly bemoaning the fact that the community of Albany has been summarily ruined by rapists, Californians, and other “miscreant” bad hombres). Speaking of irony, do people not understand that it is a bit hypocritical to condemn violent criminals by calling for their”extermination”? It appears…not.

And so here we are, arriving at the main event. In the following paragraphs, I will illustrate three of the most concerning trends cropping up in community Facebook pages. I prioritized these topics by way of a highly scientific methodology called *my own opinion*. Hypocrisy abounds!

1. Using (and sharing) mugshots, security footage, and candid photos as salacious forms of entertainment:

In the last year or so, I have witnessed the rise of a concerning trend in which “concerned” community members post photos of an individual to “warn” others about their alleged criminal behavior. Of course, some of these people are actual criminals, and regular mugshot-perusers aware of their crimes may photograph them in the community with prior knowledge of their records. However, not everyone cares about little ethical habits like fact-checking and verifying sources, so this habit has also become a favorite of those who have no qualms about taking an iPhone photo of some guy in the Home Depot parking lot and speculating that he is “probably” a pedophile.

In a February article for The Marshall Project titled, “Newsrooms Rethink a Crime Reporting Staple: the Mugshot,” Keri Blakinger noted that click-through mugshot galleries have been “an easy moneymaker for struggling newsrooms: Each reader click to the next image translated to more page views and the opportunity for more advertising dollars.” However, vocal opponents of this transparently shady practice have caused some outlets to discontinue posting the photos. Blakinger’s article features one of these advocates, Johnny Perez, who highlighted the fact that the galleries “reaffir[m] existing biases and create biases where none exist.” Perez is highlighting biases against people of color here; however, his analysis could also apply to the assumptions we make about gender, social class, and sobriety status–all things people seem to think they can ascertain from mugshot photos.

In my community Facebook page, I regularly see people comment on the appearance of people in mugshot galleries, criticizing everything from their hairstyles to the meth bites that dot their faces (“This chick looks about 80 years old. This is why we don’t do meth, kids.”), tagging their friends in the comments (“Remember this guy from high school? @KarenFromHighSchool), and, one of the most concerning phenomena, suggesting that that they “think” the person pictured is the same person who they saw lurking by the local playground last week. Apparently, the public cannot be sated by the mere titillating drama of an official mugshot or a clip of security footage*, but must also indulge in creating their own true crime content (a bespoke and locally-sourced mugshot gallery, if you will).

It is certainly possible that the alleged criminals of “What’s Up, Albany?” are guilty of the crimes of which they are being so informally accused. But if Black Mirror has taught us anything, it’s that we should wonder (and worry) about what happens when unverified gossip on social media turns on an innocent person, and ruins their mental health, their reputation, or their livelihood in the process.**
This leads me to gross internet trend #2, which is admittedly quite similar to trend #1, but with more pointed critiques of serial Yelp-ers and more serious consequences for suburbanites without a criminal record.

2. Complaining (and spreading unverifiable information) about local employees and businesses:

When I worked at an independent bookstore, someone wrote a public Google review about me that falsely summarized a conversation I had with a customer. The review addressed an incident that the reviewer had no context for or background information about (sound like a familiar pattern, yet?). The interaction involved an older woman who had been a long-time customer of the bookstore, and who treated me like I was the dirt beneath her feet. She spoke to me like I was an idiot, said nasty things about me and my workplace, and berated me constantly about things that were outside of my control (forgetting, like many retail customers, that most low-wage employees have absolutely no control over things like return policies or store stock).

The best meme in the entire universe.

After holding my tongue like a good retail Barbie for months on end, smiling gently at the woman instead of standing up for myself, one fateful afternoon–I cracked. The woman came into the store, peering around as she often did when she was looking for something to complain about. In less than two minutes, she found something: the music we were playing was too distracting, she said, and demanded that we change it to something without words, as she cannot browse if there is music playing that contains words! Admittedly, this was not the ideal moment to stand up for the low-wage workers of America, and I am not necessarily proud of my response that day, but I had reached my boiling point after months of enduring this woman’s wrath. I stared straight at her, fixing her with an undoubtedly unscary stare, and said Not everything in this store is designed for you. *** It was not a kind statement, but I contend that it’s true. And if you have been in my position, you know that you can only suffer through so many hours of human beings verbally pooping on you because they can’t use their Amex card or because the discount doesn’t apply to the item before the steam starts coming out of your ears like a cartoon character. Unless you are a saint. In that case, bravo oh blessed one!
So now you know what happened. But get this: according to the grand record of alternative facts that is the world wide web, something much more cruel and sinister went down at the bookstore that day. According to the reviewer, a fragile, innocent old woman walked into the bookstore, and I told her–apparently out of the blue, with no justification to speak of– that “This bookstore isn’t for people like you,” suggesting that I was some granny-hating millennial heady with minimum wage power instead of a depressed twenty-something who got a higher score on the “Discover Your Mental Age Quiz” than her own grandmother.

To this day, the “eyewitness account” of my alleged bigotry is on display in the glorious annals of Google Reviews. If the reviewer had included my full name in the post, her false account of events would have become an easily searchable record of my character, and this record would be visible to people, like those on hiring or admissions committees, who have a say in decisions that affect my future.

I recently observed the pitfalls of recounting injustices online after a much more serious event in our community. This January, an 11-year-old resident of Corvallis, Rhianna Daniel, was killed while passing through a crosswalk on her way home from school. Before a reliable account of the incident was available online, several members of the city’s community Facebook group decided to tell their version of events. Some of these comments suggested that the accident was a hit-and-run. When the official report of the incident was released, it became clear that this was not the case. Rhianna was hit by a local physician who stopped his car, performed CPR, and stayed with her. By all accounts, the physician was a kind, well-liked community professional. And yet, for a time, he was labeled a senseless murderer who left a child dying in the street.
Many of the comments about Rhianna’s death reminded me of the way in which the media misrepresented Susan Klebold, the mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold.

Though we all know the tendency of major news outlets to play up the aspects of a story that will most capture viewers’ attention (Nightcrawler, anyone?), Susan’s memoir provided a detailed rendering of some of the particular ways in which they attempted to imbue their source materials with even more drama. For example, aerial shots of the Klebold home were shot to make the the building look like a sprawling mansion, a tactic meant to pair nicely with the developing “truth” that Susan Klebold was a wealthy, frigid matriarch incapable of rearing a bloodthirsty neo-Nazi. The reality, of course, was much more muddled, The reality was that unlike Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold was a generally kind and well-behaved child who grew up in a relatively peaceful middle-class home. The reality is that he went to significant lengths to obscure his activities and the extent of his mental illness from his parents. And no one likes that kind of ambiguity.
3. Promoting psuedoscience, multi-level marketing schemes, and fear-mongering warnings that disproportionately impact the vulnerable:

I will not waste time on why multi-level marketing schemes, chaotic-evil corporations that target poor people, single parents, and people down on their luck, are disgusting. Others have done it much better. Check out, for example, this mini-doc from VICE about the way LulaRoe scammed tens of thousands of their “consultants,” or this John Oliver episode exposing MLMs that target poor folks and immigrant communities. The masterminds of these corporations are the worst kind of human gym socks. The kind that make you question why you even wear socks, or have a nose, or go to the gym in the first place.

I work in a library, and I have learned a lot through my job about how misinformed I was about computer literacy in middle America. I used to assume that most young Americans, for example, are able to successfully navigate tasks like checking email and conducting a Google search. However, I am reminded on a daily basis that this is not the case, and that there many people of all ages and from a variety of backgrounds who struggle with the digital skills that more privileged folks consider basic. All that is to say that it can be difficult to determine the reliability of the source of a Facebook post without a sufficient level of computer literacy, and that–technological devices aside– a lack of education can make parsing the rhetoric of advertisements, scams, fake data, and alternative facts extremely challenging.

Some recent examples of fake news-y warnings and alternative facts on my community Facebook page include “why North Korea’s next target is the mid-sized suburb of Albany, Oregon” and an advertisement for a lesson in iridology, a “not useful and potentially harmful” pseudoscience. (<- “Hi!” says this hyperlink, “I am a peer-reviewed article! You should consult sources like me instead of @LilyfromSpinClass”). When you see these posts, they might seem so laughably fake or scammy to you that you assume most people will arrive at the same conclusion. But sadly, this is not true. While there are definitely some willfully ignorant people on this planet, those who have the money and resources to access better information, you might be surprised by how many people lack the tools critically analyze marketing, propaganda, and lies. And if I have learned anything from my sojourn into this wild corner of the internet, it’s that this vulnerable population makes up only a fraction of those who “communal” Facebook practices hurt the most.

Do I have all the solutions to these problematic phenomena? No, of course I don’t. I’m just an underemployed millennial with a WordPress account. I do have some suggestions, though:

Reporting a crime? Contact your local P.D. directly.

Want to accuse someone of pedophilia, drug trafficking, or child abuse? Contact your local P.D. … directly!

Want to disseminate information associated with fields of study you have no expertise in? Please don’t.

Want to learn some cold, hard facts, and become a better voter, consumer, or neighbor in the process? Visit your local library. Conduct research by reading a variety of unbiased sources, perhaps with the assistance of an information professional (like a librarian).

Want to recruit a poor single mother into your more-than-vaguely-cult-like MLM? No again. Please put the Rodan & Fields down.

As I conclude this little essay, I would like to call attention to the following short video, which summarizes all that is terrible about community Facebook pages in a much more concise (and ultimately more memorable) manner than I do here. Thanks, Nicole!

Notes & References

My thinking in this piece was informed by Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble and Amber Jamila Musser, two scholars whose essential work on the ways in which racist attitudes proliferate online informed my graduate thesis. Noble is known for illuminating the ways in which search engine algorithms reflect (and produce) problematic and violent biases. In her essay “Teaching Trayvon: Race, Media, and the Politics of Spectacle,” for example, she demonstrates how your search terms end up reflecting your prejudices, which ultimately leads you to more content that confirms what you already think. So much for doing “research”…

* Dear reader, you should know that the local police department has gotten in on this too! Just like in ye olde Wild West, the Albany Police Department has been posting mugshots and screen caps of security footage on their Facebook page, occasionally with their own jokey witticisms attached as captions. While again, I understand that these posts might help to solve crimes, it seems that they also serve as forms of gossipy entertainment. The APD’s tone in some of these posts strikes me as remarkably unprofessional, but that could be due to the fact that I am a decidedly un-fun person.
**And look, I am not just spouting off at the mouth here. I know this stuff is bad. And even if it doesn’t seem immediately harmless now, it contributes to crueler, more ignorant biases in communities both digital and geographical. How do I know this? Well, because I wrote a whole Masters thesis about it (sort of). My project investigated the ways in which violent “spectacles” circulate on the internet (think police brutality videos) and how online trends and memes (think Pepe the Frog) evolve into racist, white supremacist hate symbols. There is some boring literary theory in there, so I will give you some highlights relevant to this article: social media, with its personalized algorithms, paid-for “top search results,” and made-for-you echo chambers, is not a great place to gather information and images and think about them critically. It’s better for staring at things we already agree with and nodding profusely, getting enraged by hateful or misinformed opinions from “the other side” with no hope for meaningful dialogue, and laughing at memes we may never know the origin of.
***Though my work experience in Disability Accommodations has shown me the myriad ways in which we must make spaces more accessible to those with disabilities, I am speaking primarily about customer preferences here, and particularly those that employees simply do not have the capacity or authority to alter at a customer’s whim.

Further Reading
Citizen by Claudia Rankine, a mixed-media masterpiece that grapples with racism, misogyny, loneliness, and identity.

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble, a book that expands upon the principles I summarized in “Notes & References.”
Betting on Zero (2017), a Netflix documentary about the big yikes international MLM we know as Herbalife.

A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Susan Klebold, an empathetic, well-researched memoir that highlights some of the ways in which news outlets manipulate complex truths in order to market more scandalous and digestible stories to American audiences.

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy, a powerful and well-researched history of the opioid crisis which focuses in particular on Central Appalachia and the parts of Virginia that Macy covered throughout her career as an investigative journalist. A text that– by virtue of its empathetic storytelling and masterful takedown of Big Pharma corruption–allows the reader to connect more deeply with the humanity of addicts and their families.

This is a post from Tiffany’s personal Facebook page. I think her words should remind us that she does not deserve to be discussed as a one-dimensional caricature of a drug addict nor a subject of holier-than-thou gossip, but as a complex human being whose suffering reflects our failures as a community.

6 Scenes in TV Shows & Film That Changed How I Think About Gender

“From men, I learned to praise the thickness of walls./From women,/ I learned to praise”

— Ocean Vuong, “To My Father/ To My Unborn Son”

“The moment of queer pride is a refusal to be shamed by witnessing the other as being ashamed of you.”

— Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

I am not the first person to point out that a lot of folks’ first exposure to any kind of gender-bending in popular media was the freaky sewn-corpse bodysuit scene in The Silence of the Lambs. And I am certainly not the first person to assert that this is not a good thing. Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how many stories, images, and characters our culture will need to create (and consume) in order to replace the frightening image of a serial killer tucking his penis behind his legs with something complicated and real in its stead.
I think the answer to that is: a whole damn lot of them.
In this article, I would like to show you some scenes from TV and film that made me think more critically– and in some cases, more lovingly– about gender. I’m not saying that any of these scenes are perfect. They aren’t. But they meant something to me when I watched them, and they inspired me to be a better activist, partner, and human being.
As Pride 2019 loses its summery luster, leaving behind its ever-lengthening trail of corporate advertisements shrouded in glitter and rainbows, I encourage you to consider the perennial gifts of these cinematic moments. They all deal either implicitly or explicitly with some aspect of gender presentation, performance, or identity, and they all have made unique and powerful impressions on my mind. I consider these characters and the shapes of their lives often; I’m hoping that perhaps they’ll inspire you, too.

1. Breaking Bad: Hank Schrader Panics in an Elevator, Cries


I recently consulted Wikipedia to confirm my suspicion that Hank Schrader, Breaking Bad’s finest DEA agent/brother-in-law, was created as a kind of bro-y, charismatic foil to Walter White (who, as you probably know, does not quite possess either of those qualities. Case in point, Walter’s infamous excuse for ending up half-naked in the hospital, “I was in a fugue state!” has become a popular justification for selfish acts of wrongdoing in my house.*)
Apparently, Hank’s character was originally designed to function as pure comic relief, devoid of the characteristic dimensionality of the show’s complex cast of characters. However, over time, inspired by actor Dean Norris’ real-life intelligence and sensitivity, the show’s creators began to add nuance to the character, focusing on the ways in which the unadulterated masculinity required of his job and the psychological trauma of gun violence affected his well-being. Go figure.

In “Breakage,” the fifth episode of the series’ second season, Hank enters the elevator of his office building after receiving a promotion. His boss has just compared him to a great white shark, suggesting that his pursuit of local druglords has earned him a spot at the top of the police department’s proverbial food chain. His colleagues congratulate him as he walks down the hallway; his partner ribs him for getting a big head– all of this while he struts around like a rooster in a hen house. But the moment Hank realizes he’s alone in the elevator, the doors closing him up in that small and private space, he is struck by the airless intensity of a panic attack.
It’s worth noting here that the viewer is hardly prepared for this moment. It presents itself, just like panic does, as a kind of narrative shock. It’s also worth noting that, generally speaking, Hank appears unrattled throughout his daily encounters with drug cartels and hitmen; that is, he tends to favor making racist, macho, and misogynistic jokes about those around him over confronting the realities of his job with sincerity. But there in the offices of the Albuquerque Police Department, after a particularly violent shootout with a meth distributor named Tuco, he unexpectedly snaps, allowing the viewers to witness his cool exterior give way to fear and trauma.

Ultimately, this moment is not an isolated event. Hank takes a hiatus from work, enters a kind of depression spiral, and develops a passion for aesthetically-pleasing rocks. Yeah, we’ve all been there. The domino effect that results from the panic attack thus becomes a cascade of shame and failure, all messy and vulnerable and human.
While the season two elevator scene was scripted, it shares its emotional resonance with another moment in Breaking Bad. This one takes place during Season 3. While filming the episode “One Minute,” Dean Norris began to cry too much for director Michelle MacLaren’s liking. According to the Wikpedia entry, which I am not ashamed to cite,** “Norris felt that Hank’s self-realization in the episode was the turning point toward his becoming a better man, and set the stage for his decisions later in the series: [Norris] opined that ‘Hank wants a clean soul.’” The entry also notes that the director was unable to elicit the kind of stoicism she was looking for in the scene, and that “Norris was eventually filmed from the side to obscure the fact that he was crying.”
Simply put, the elevator scene is important to me because we are taught that boys don’t cry. Except that they actually do–especially, you know, when they are hurting, feeling vulnerable, and suffering from PTSD.

2. Transparent: A Young Maura Pfefferman Plays in a Bomb Shelter


The shadow that has been cast over Transparent in the last year*** is one of the great sadnesses of my art-loving life. This show meant a lot to my family when someone close to us came out, and we were able to have a lot of important discussions about gender, class, and sexuality after happily binge-watching it together on our beat-up leather couch.
One thing I really love about the show is that most of its characters are desperately lonely and problematic, uncertain and passionate and desperate for comfort. Lately, it seems like when people call out for the representation of marginalized people in art, they (justly) want the characters representing those people to be complex– but also, often implicitly, to be observably good. Otherwise, it feels like a step in the wrong direction. I get this. We don’t want a repeat of Buffalo Bill, or grotesque racist tropes like Mickey Rooney’s landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But the problem with wanting all of the characters representing marginalized people to be generous, put-together, and morally righteous is that marginalized people, just like any people, are not always purely good, and making them appear so upright and flawless can deny them of their human complexity.
In other words, I loved Transparent because of its chaotic messiness, not in spite of it. I appreciated its insistence that love and support can exist even when they fail to resemble our ideal versions of them. When Maura’s kids learn that she is transgender, for example, they mess up a lot (a lot a lot a lot). But they still fight for her. In this scene, for example, Maura’s eldest daughter Sarah calls out a stuffy, transphobic soccer mom for telling Maura that she can’t pee in the girl’s bathroom. “This is my father, and he’s a woman. And he has every right to be here,” she says angrily. Sara messes up by misgendering Maura here, but her immediate impulse is to stand up for her parent with loving ferocity. And that feels real to me.


I want to include dozens of scenes from Transparent on this list (like this one, where Maura deals with the aggressive bureaucracy of the TSA while trying to fly to Israel). But the scene I’ve chosen is a flashback to Maura’s childhood in the 1950s. Here, a young Maura–who was assigned male at birth–reads quietly and plays dress-up in the privacy of her grandfather’s bomb shelter. Sarah Vaughn’s “Make Yourself Comfortable” plays in the background. The scene is characterized by a kind of peace and quiet that is rare on the show. Maura’s child-self appears wholly content, as if she feels safe for the first time in her young life. In some ways, the scene connects to a moment later on in the season, when Maura decides to get rid of the constricting, uncomfortable shapewear that she has been wearing to achieve a more feminine body type. The insistence on comfort— rather than appearance or performance– as the ideal antithesis of dysphoria is striking to me. Maura is a woman, but like so many women, she is tired of making herself suffer in order to appear stereotypically womanly in public. The peace that she appears to feel as her shapewear floats down to the sea is the kind of peace I wish everyone could feel in their bodies.

3. Destroyer: Erin Bell Bleeds, Beats People Up


Ever since I stepped out of the movie theater after seeing Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, I have been practically grabbing people off of the street to get them to see this film, mostly because it features a tough female character who is not strong in a palatable, modelesque way, but in a real, painful way not principally constructed for the male gaze. Destroyer is about cruelty and autonomy and sacrifice, but, like Transparent, it’s also about what happens when people who are hurt continue to love one another. When love doesn’t quite look like love, but exists anyway.
In an article about the film for The Guardian, Guy Lodge wrote, “Genre films like Destroyer are rarely framed around female characters; when they are, the heroine tends to be portrayed as dully indestructible, her feminine attributes either pushed aside in favour of ‘one of the boys’ toughness or flattened into a one-dimensional form of girl power.” I agree, and it’s for that reason that after seeing Destroyer for the first time, I described it to a friend as “True Detective, but femme. And dimensionally so.” I’m all for girl power, but Erin Bell’s brand of power, like the Pfeffermans’ messy advocacy, looks more like something I would see in real life. And perhaps I’m alone in this, but representation seems less effective as a tool of advocacy if characters only function as two-dimensional renderings of actual human beings.
I didn’t choose one scene in particular for this film because it’s really Erin Bell as a character– her movements and hesitations, her tenderness and aggression– that strikes me more profoundly than any moment by itself. In many ways, Erin Bell reminds me of Detective Sarah Linden, the protagonist in Netflix’s dark cop-drama The Killing. That character, played by (the forever underrated) Mirielle Enos, wears minimal makeup, a near-permanent frown, and a series of hideous cowl-neck sweaters in neutral tones as she attempts to solve the violent murder of a young girl. While I think it’s important to see glamorous women in strong roles on screen, it’s something like a relief to see Linden, a depressed single mother in dire financial straits, looks somewhat believably look like both of those things. I wish I had seen more women like Erin Bell and Detective Linden when I was younger, and understood that strength does not always and need not always coincide with external beauty.

4. Dallas Buyers Club: Rayon Goes to See Her Dad, Tells Him She is Dying


Despite its status as an awards season darling, Dallas Buyers Club has garnered a lot of flak since its release. The criticism levied upon the film has not only addressed the writers’ depiction of Ron Woodroof, who apparently was not the homophobic asshole the film made him out to be (for effect), but also of Jared Leto’s portrayal of a trans woman named Rayon, who did not actually exist (but does in the world of the film…for effect!). For a breakdown of some of the most cogent arguments surrounding this film’s problems, check out “The Trouble with Representing HIV-AIDS in the Very Troublesome Dallas Buyers Club” and “Don’t Applaud Jared Leto’s Transgender Mammy.”

While I understand and care about Dallas Buyers’ problems, in truth, I did not think about them when I was a lonely teenager watching this movie in the theater. What I did think about was how much a single scene, Rayon’s visit to her dad’s law office, seemed to wipe out all others in the wake of its sheer emotional pain. During this exchange, Rayon’s father remarks that he supposes he should thank her for wearing men’s clothes that day, to which Rayon responds,
“Are you ashamed of me? Because I hadn’t realized.”
“God help me,” the father responds, rolling his eyes in response.

“He is helping you,” Rayon says, “I have AIDS.”
Rayon’s confident words here, her father’s smug rejection, her visible awkwardness as she occupies an ill-fitting suit– it all meant something to me. Right there in the theater, the scene made me silently commit myself to fighting for trans people however I could, even though I had no idea at the time what that might look like or require.

5. Tangerine: Alexandra Gives Sin-Dee Her Wig


In graduate school, I wrote a term paper about Sean Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine, which is an amazing project for at least two reasons: 1) It was entirely shot on an Iphone 5, and 2) It features two actresses who (like Dean Norris of Breaking Bad) helped inspire dialogue and character development in the script simply because of who they were.
I’ll spare you the academic details of my paper, but the point of my argument was this: most of the films we see about transgender people are undeniably tragic. From Boys Don’t Cry (1999), which depicts the violent murder of Brandon Teena, to Dallas Buyers Club, which I’ve discussed above, audiences are provided with consistent reminders that transness is inevitably linked with suffering and death. And of course, historically speaking, this is true. But it does contribute to a kind of one-dimensionality that makes transgender people appear less like everyday folks and more like exotic spectacles– stange, abnormal creatures worthy of our pity.
In Tangerine, Baker challenges one-note trans narratives by following a day in the life of two trans sex workers in Los Angeles, Alexandra and Sin-Dee Rella (played by Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). The plot is constructed of two narrative lines: one follows Sin-Dee and Alexandra as they look for Chester, Sin-Dee’s pimp and boyfriend. The other follows an Armenian cab driver, Razmik, as he hides his interest in transgender women from his family. Despite the clear presence of poverty and transphobia in both of these narratives, the atmosphere of Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra’s adventures is often undeniably comedic. As the women walk—quickly, with quirky, experimental electronic music (often chosen by the actresses) playing loudly in the background– they banter, argue, gossip, and laugh. In several interviews, Sean Baker has noted that some of the funniest lines in the film were written by Taylor and Rodriguez, who also called him out when lines in his original script contained language they would never use in real life.
For some of the same reasons that I loved Transparent, I like the messiness of this film. It strays away from sentimentality without abandoning sincerity, a tone that can be difficult to accomplish when grappling with the bleak heaviness of marginalization and trauma.
At the end of Tangerine, after a particularly funny confluence of each of the film’s characters in a Highland Ave. Donut Time, a group of men driving by our protagonists throw urine on Sin-Dee, shouting slurs through the window and ruining her wig. The scene then shifts. Sin-Dee and Alexandra are sitting together on a late-night public bus. Without speaking, Alexandra slowly pulls off her wig and hands it to her friend. After yelling and bickering throughout the movie, the women smile at one another, saying nothing. The frantic energy and chaos of the film seem to coalesce and then disappear, fading into the softness of this single quiet moment.
To be honest, before this point, I felt like I didn’t understand what this film was trying to accomplish. But when I saw Alexandra pull off her wig and give it to Sin-Dee, I felt myself saying Oh in my head. And it felt like a little prayer.

6. Phantom Thread: Alma Cooks DDL a Vaguely Feminist Omelette


When I was a preteen, I read Jane Eyre, and I have to confess that pretty much every feminist, moral, and socioeconomic critique it contained was lost on me. Sorry, Charlotte. I didn’t notice a single element of literary mastery in the narrative because I found the story so unbearably romantic. Knowing this, you can imagine my disappointment when I reread the book years later, and my favorite English professor savagely roasted Mr. Rochester by pointing out that he only allows Jane a modicum of power when he becomes physically incapacitated.****

The same interpersonal dynamics present in Jane Eyre rear their ugly, misogynistic heads in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 masterpiece, Phantom Thread. Like Brontë, PTA provides viewers with a host of pretty distractions: drool-worthy gowns, incredible music, and a breakfast meet-cute for the ages. I loved all of it, of course. I would have loved it on the merit of Jonny Greenwood’s score alone.
Unlike Bronte though, Paul Thomas Anderson clearly establishes a critique of his male protagonist’s controlling nature and icy misogyny throughout the course of the narrative.”You have the ideal shape,” he tells his love-interest Alma as he conflates her with a lifeless dress form. Gag. Ultimately, PTA acknowledges that in order for Alma to achieve anything that looks like autonomy in her relationship, she needs to perform the same function as the Thornfield house fire in Jane Eyre; that is, by incapacitating the man she loves in order to survive his methods of control. Grim, I know. What is particularly incredible about the way Alma’s plan plays out in this scene is the way in which PTA slowly unveils the fact that Woodcock knows precisely what Alma is trying to do to him. And because he also knows that he will not be able to relinquish control on his own, he willingly drinks your milkshake–the omelette Alma cooks for him– and becomes complicit in his own poisoning. The film ends in the shadow of this meal, an act of mutual concession both shockingly brutal and surprisingly pragmatic.

Brief & Honorable Mentions: Under the Skin, Ex Machina, and Neon Demon




I am placing these three films in a posthuman/science-fiction category of their own here, primarily because a) I don’t have the space to write about them, and b) because they all contribute to the idea that womanhood… can kind of suck.***** In fact, as the films’ narratives suggest, the experience of being a woman is a lot like being a powerful alien that is still ultimately unsafe, a robot controlled and objectified by men, and an insecure teen who has to feed from others in order to become successful herself. Good stuff. Would recommend.

Notes & Further Reading:

1) Along with, of course, “I am The Danger!” which maintains a comedic potential that can never be overstated.
2) In K-12 and college, we were always taught not to cite Wikipedia. In graduate school, we were discouraged from letting our students use it. The Norris passage I quote from is mostly derived from this Vulture interview, but I like the freedom of citing a resource so academically taboo. S/o to Wikipedia, my darling & muse.

3) Andrea Long Chu wrote a great article for affidavit about Transparent’s creator, Jill Soloway, and the role she played in Transparent’s fall from grace.
4) TLDR: Mr. Rochester becomes burned and blinded in a house fire (mansion fire?) set by Bertha Antoinetta Mason, mental-illness sufferer, kidnapping victim, and purveyor of this very attic.
5) It’s also worthwhile, of course, to mention Spike Jonze’s Her and HBO’s Westworld in this regard, but those two get so much buzz that they don’t merit as much attention here.
The text of the section on Sean Baker’s Tangerine was adapted from my 2016 paper, “Aberrations in Tangerine: The ‘Pleasure and Alrightness’ of Alexandra and Sin-Dee Rella,” written for the 2016 PCA/ACA Conference in San Diego, California.

To the AirBnB Guest Who Felt “Very Unsafe” in My Neighborhood

To the AirBnB Guest Who Felt “Very Unsafe” in My Neighborhood

for Angel; thank you for sheltering me


“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it’s nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”

– Thomas Merton (to Dorothy Day)

Are people the only holy land?

– Naomi Shihab Nye, “All Things Not Considered”


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Oak Park, Sacramento. 1994. This is my family.



A recent AirBnB guest informs us that she had to leave our listing because the person she was traveling with felt “very unsafe” in our neighborhood. She never steps foot on the property, but still finds it necessary to evaluate her stay through the AirBnB rating feature. 2 stars for “Location”. She writes the phrase “very sketchy” in the justification portion, perhaps in the event that we did not understand her the first time.

In the online form’s suggestion box, she tells us that we need to make it explicit in our description of the property that we live in an environment of such offensive squalor and ill-repute.



As I thought about this woman’s disgust, images of my surroundings naturally entered my mind. It’s true that our neighborhood is not the most well-kept cluster of streets in the area. Many homes are old and run down. Some homes have old cars, furniture, or appliances in their front yards, which are often bordered by chain link fences and protected by large dogs. In other words, there are a lot of people around here who don’t have a lot of money, and sometimes it shows.

But two brand-new homes and two new duplexes have just been built on our street. And just now, at the start of spring, bunches of bright tulips have sprouted all over several of our neighbors’ yards–some still holding their petals together in compact crowns of red or yellow, others falling open widely and loosely, as if to gather up more rays of sun. It’s a particularly beautiful time in our neighborhood, when the seemingly interminable months of Oregon gray give way to more vibrant and explicitly joyful things.

And most importantly, even if all of the above wasn’t true, the people who live in our neighborhood are kind. They are mothers and grandparents, retail workers and long-haul truckers. Faced with more than most of us will ever know, they are just trying to get through each day that they live. And they are the most loyal neighbors I’ve had in my life.



Something about the incident with the AirBnB guest reminded me of a conversation I once had with my ex-boyfriend’s mother. One afternoon, while sitting in his fancy home in the suburbs–where his neighbors would report his family to the HOA if they left the garbage cans out on the curb for more than one night (oh, the abject horror)– I ranted about the fact that several people in our town had begun to complain about the new extension to the BART line. They believed that because folks from “bad” areas of the Bay Area like Richmond and Fruitvale were now able to enter the pristine upper-middle class paradise that was Pleasanton, California, local crime was on the rise. Oh, and our high school was losing its spot in the national ranking. And, my God, the local mall had become a hotbed of iniquity!

At the time, I primarily (and naively) associated the phenomenon of rich people turning their noses down at poor people, and especially poor people of color, with BBC miniseries characters that used the word “riff raff” and documentaries about segregation. So I was surprised when my boyfriend’s mother quietly replied, “Well I hate to say it, but I agree with them.” At that age, I knew that racism remained a powerful force in the world. But admittedly, it didn’t fully hit me until that moment that racist elitism was very much alive and well in the supposedly progressive and educated corners of this country. It just sounded a lot more polite.

My boyfriend’s mother once cried at dinner while telling me that because her kids were mixed-race, people often assumed that she wasn’t their real mother. Even in bougie, organic vegetable-slinging Bay Area supermarkets, strangers would make comments to this effect. She also once asked me privately, again with tears in her eyes, if her son was doing drugs. She had given her children nice things, a great school, and a beautiful home. She wanted to believe that this–at least in part– both protected them from the worst parts of the world and kept from them ending up like the “riff raff” from Richmond.

It’s true that her kids turned out smart and creative, well cared for and certainly well-dressed. But they were still victims of racism. They still failed classes and did drugs and hurt people. Because more than anything, they were human beings like everyone else.

It’s not likely that I will ever see the AirBnB lady again. But if I did, and I was brave, I would want want to tell her this:

When I was in middle school, I went to Pismo Beach– a popular (and considerably non-sketchy!) tourist spot close to my hometown– to spend the weekend beach camping with my best friend. We were sitting in the crook of a tree in a little coastal forest set back from the shoreline when two teenage boys stumbled up to us.

“Hey!” one said, pointing at my friend, “Hey, you. My friend wants to fuck you.”   

I flinched. I had never heard the word used that way before. I remember watching my friend as she stared blankly back at him–her eyes wide and slightly frightened– before smiling awkwardly and quietly laughing it off. Because I was (always) the anxious one, I immediately suggested that we leave. So we did, climbing the sand dunes back to our nearby campsite. My friend seemed unhurried, and that upset me.

When I looked behind us, I could see the boys following us. Though it was far from the most dangerous moment of my life, it felt like the beginning of something. Images from that day instantly seared themselves into the part of my brain concerned with my safety, my body, and my visibility as a woman. I remember the first boy’s face in particular, his expression of surprise as he lost his footing and slipped down the side of a dune while matching our footsteps in the sand. Over a decade later, that face and that collapsing sand dune are still right here, sticking in the recesses of my memory.

After we closed the door to the RV, I turned around to confront my friend, asking her through tears why she didn’t take the incident more seriously. Though I can now look back at that day and see with adult eyes that those boys were drunk, and that they probably came up to us on account of a joke or a dare, the framing of the incident –even in my child’s mind– carried with it the threat of violence. My friend disagreed with me. She shrugged, and said that she had already dealt with this kind of thing before. So much so, in fact, that it didn’t really bother her. We were twelve, maybe thirteen.



When I was a sophomore in college, several boxes of my stuff were stolen from the garage of the house I was living in on a nice, tree-lined street in Portland. While walking home one day, a man drove by me, rolled his window down, and called me a whore before driving away. On another occasion, a man standing next to me at a local bus stop told me that he was going to shove vegetables up my vagina.



When I was a junior in college, a man stalked me in the even more well-manicured “University Park” neighborhood adjacent to my university. He followed me as I walked home. He waited for me outside of my house. Our campus Public Safety referred me to the Portland Police Department, who sent over an officer with experience in sex crimes. He asked me a series of questions to determine if the man might be a violent serial rapist.

Later that year, after a string of local robberies, someone broke into our house.  



While studying abroad in Spain, I grew used to getting catcalled and propositioned while walking down the street, a daily occurrence known as the culture of the piropo. Most days, I remained unbothered by it. But one afternoon, while walking down one of the most famous, populated (and touristy! and clean!) streets in all of Granada, two men walking in my direction would not leave me alone. I was tired, I was late for class, and I was sick of feeling like I was constantly on display. So, feeling angry, and knowing there were plenty of people nearby, I turned around and held up one middle finger to each of them. I thought they might laugh, or simply grimace uncomfortably and walk away, but instead they started shouting at me again. Louder this time. They shouted, among other things, that they were going to put me in my place by raping me.



Of course, none of these moments could be labeled anomalies. Most are familiar to women, queer folks, and people who present themselves in ways that offend mainstream culture. People of color, religious communities, and transgender people are frequent victims of hate crimes, street violence, and premeditated acts of violence.

But then again, we all know that people considered anomalous or offensive to mainstream sensibilities are not the only ones subjected to danger. 223 American students have been shot dead in school shootings since Columbine.* Many of them have been killed by white American boys in “good” neighborhoods.

In light of all this, in many ways, I know that I’ve been lucky. But the moments I’ve shared still speak to the fact that violence wears many faces in this world, and that these faces continue to bare their teeth even in places we consider safe.



I’ll never forget the moment in the Netflix documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, when commentators described the reason that officials let Bundy, the violent rapist and serial murderer of dozens of American women, study law unattended in an Aspen, Colorado courthouse after he was caught. They said it was easy to trust him because he was charming. He was handsome and articulate. A well-dressed, well-educated white man. The documentary suggested that even when people were provided incontrovertible evidence of Bundy’s murders, they could still not quite believe that he was the “kind of guy” to commit such heinous crimes.

On June 7, 1977, Bundy jumped out of Pitkin County courthouse window after the one security guard assigned to him went out for a smoke. After landing on the ground, Bundy ran down the street in plain sight, where he was able to escape for six days before capture.




These are painful stories. But I would want to tell the AirBnB lady more than just painful stories.  I would want to tell her beautiful ones, too.

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My babysitter, friend, and next-door neighbor Angel with me as an infant. Looking through old photos, I continue to be struck by all of the ways she taught, cradled, and protected me.

The day after I was born, I was brought home to a small house in Oak Park, historically one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Sacramento before its rapid gentrification in the 2000s and “revitalization” during the tenure of Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. There, I lived my first years kissed and carried by folks who were the best neighbors my parents ever had. Though our neighborhood continued to struggle with drugs, and my grandmother would call us in a panic because she saw our block on Cops, we were always okay. That was largely because of the privileges that we had been afforded. It was also because we were surrounded by good people, and because we took care of one another.

During elementary and middle school, I lived in a small city on the Central Coast of California called Santa Maria. For a couple of years, my parents worked for a nonprofit organization that worked with local low-income teenagers– many of whom were first-generation students whose parents came from Mexico– to teach them job skills, help them write resumes, and develop connections in the community.

I remember sitting on threadbare couches, watching Telemundo while my dad helped the kids and their parents fill out paperwork for the program. These families lived in small houses in run-down neighborhoods that looked much like the one in Oak Park and the one I live in today. These families treated me like family. Years later, I majored in Spanish partly because I wanted to make Spanish-speakers who might need a hand in the community feel as safe and welcome as they had made me feel growing up.

It’s 2019. I have grown up. And my country’s president, Donald Trump, has an extensive track record of framing people from “shithole countries” as dangerous, banning people from our country on the basis of their religion, and calling immigrants “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists.”** No,  Trump, you enormous pile of human vomit. The drug dealers, criminals, and rapists are right here, no matter what they look like, and no matter how well you think their curated surroundings and impressive credentials conceal their various and violent sins.



If these truths are truths you are unwilling or unable to confront (perhaps because you yourself automatically consider pretty white people and their pretty white homes as bastions of safety, or perhaps because you have spent a great deal of money on landscaping yourself), then I advise you to do a bit more research before you reserve a room in the *slum capital* known as Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and consider paying for a nice night at the local Hilton Garden.



Notes and Further Reading

* Of course, this article came out in April of last year, so this number is larger now. It does not include the number of students who survived their gunshot wounds.

**I was going to call these methods Nazi-esque, but no, they are actually just copied…directly from the Nazis.

Check out this article for a bit of a primer on this issue, which summarizes Holocaust historian Christopher Browning’s essay “The Suffocation of Democracy”. Here’s a little excerpt from author Zack Beauchamp: “Browning’s essay covers many topics, ranging from Trump’s “America First” foreign policy — a phrase most closely associated with a group of prewar American Nazi sympathizers — to the role of Fox News as a kind of privatized state propaganda office.”