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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Ex_Machina

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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.”

Millennial Circles of Hell Pt. 2: The Internship

I signed a contract to work with Oregon Bride, a magazine owned by Tiger Oak Media, on 8/17/17.

The issue to which I contributed came out on January of 2018.

Today’s date is 01/20/19, one year and five months after I signed that contract, and I still have not been paid for an ounce of work I did for Oregon Bride.


Who Is That Sad Little Person?

In the summer of 2017, I had just graduated with an MA in English, and had also just embarked upon the heinous job search that I discuss in detail here. Last November, Longreads editor Aaron Gilbreath wrote about about my job-search piece in an article called “The Humanities Marketplace as a Circle of Hell,” an apt description of my post-graduate life. The name of today’s post is a nod to Gilbreath’s title, and an introduction to one of the finest traditions of millennial living: the unpaid internship.*

During the Summer of My Job-Hunting Discontent (TM), I knew that my resume contained more experiences in academia than it did in editing or publishing. So, when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to take on an internship at Oregon Bride, a bridal magazine that my friend had just starting working for that summer. My friend explained that, historically, the magazine has not paid its interns; however, she could assign me to write freelance articles and serve as her editorial assistant for a stipend of $500. The magazine approved the arrangement, and I accepted the terms. I was sincerely looking to forward to the opportunity— not simply to boost my resume, but to learn more about how print publications get made.

I want to begin by stating two things. Firstly, I do not at all intend to blame my friend (who no longer works for the magazine) for any of the events I describe in this article. She is a kind and talented person who, like me, did not know the character of the magazine’s parent company until she began working there. And secondly, (because, according to some of the nastiest commenters on my job search article, I need to articulate this more emphatically), yes, I do realize and take responsibility for my own mistakes in this matter.**No, I am not asking anyone to throw me a “pity party”.*** I am simply here to write about something that happened to me with the hope that someone else might find it helpful. I am also here to roast some higher-ups for not paying the hard-working Americans that create their product. So take that, Trump-supporting malcontents.

The requirements of this internship, for the most part, were not unreasonably work-intensive. Beyond assisting the Senior Editor, I was charged with proofreading, writing a series of brief articles, and updating digital materials (such as the magazine’s Vendor Directory). I was also asked to attend a few days of October photoshoots for the magazine’s Spring/Summer issue.

Although taking several days off of my minimum-wage retail job was not my best financial decision, and I could not stop calculating and recalculating how much losing that take-home pay would affect my partner and I that month, I was sincerely looking forward to the photoshoots. To me, they represented a chance to learn about the process of creating a print publication from a new perspective. I had worked on proofreading, formatting, and editing in the past, but this week would allow me to learn about the real-time creation and design of magazine content– something that higher-ranking editors typically do.

To save money on the October trip, I crashed at a friend’s place, where I was momentarily calmed by pink wine and a (nostalgic, but definitely not ironic) viewing of the Disney Channel Original Movie Cadet Kelly. However, the next morning, anxious about the week’s busy schedule and the high price of food in Portland, I also made a really horrible decision called replacing my meals with high-protein shakes. Friends, family, colleagues: please don’t do this. Unless, of course, you want to wreck your bowels; in that case, be my actual guest.  

Florals? For Spring? Groundbreaking.

I will spare you the details of my “professional” experiences that week, mostly because they primarily consisted of me feeling like Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada: getting coffee for the crew, writing down the names and style numbers of various gowns, and feeling insecure about my cheap clothing and frizzy hair. It was a slightly more fast-paced and considerably bougie-r work environment than I was used to, but it went relatively okay. At one point during the first day, I felt pretty sad watching PAs feed one of the models pistachios like she was a tiny, underfed bird, but c’est l’industrie, I guess?

Everything went okay, that is, until the next day– when my 24-year-old car broke down in the middle of a busy Portland intersection while I was transporting hundreds of dollars worth of flowers in the backseat. Within the hour, I found myself ugly-crying in the Portland rain, knowing I probably didn’t have the money to get the car fixed, and calling my friend/editor thinking that someone else would have to bring the flowers to the set. Except, of course, there was no one else. So I called an Uber from the tow truck driver’s phone (mine had died at that point), placed the flowers in the backseat, and rode to my friend’s house, where I borrowed her car to drive three hours to deliver the flowers.

On my way to the photoshoot location, I was asked to pick up lunch for the crew again: a catering tray of Subway sandwiches, chips, fruit, and a few other things. Unlike the last time I picked up food for the crew, no one gave me a company credit card or mentioned anything about paying for the meal. Knowing that I was already late to the shoot, I was too nervous to call and talk about reimbursement– the people I was working with had made it very clear that they were not to be bothered about little things like that– so I emptied out a large portion of all of the money I currently had in my checking account to pay for lunch.

When I finally reached the set– a plateau somewhere in the Columbia Gorge– I was told that I wasn’t really needed, and that, given what had happened to my car, I should go home and deal with it. I gave a staff member my receipts for the food I had bought, and she said she would reimburse me later. So I promptly drove the three hours back, where I spent a good deal of time plotting to sell my plasma and/or my 1970s Peugeot street bike in order to pay for my fruitless attempts at career-building.

Is There Some Reason My Coffee Isn’t Here? Has She Died or Something?

Interestingly enough, as I look back on this period of time, it isn’t actually the fact that I never got reimbursed for my purchases that frustrates me; instead, it’s the fact that the amount I spent on food and coffee for everyone was such a negligible amount of money to that person that she did not think of how much that purchase might impact me (a definite pattern during those days of photoshoots). I wondered if she, along with the other higher-ups at the magazine, knew what it was like to be making minimum wage with an undergraduate student loan–and, if they did, why they couldn’t transform that empathy into an acknowledgement that it might be difficult for an intern to pick up the check.

As I noted earlier, the issue to which I contributed came out in December of 2017. For the “freelance” portion of my arrangement with the magazine, I ended up interviewing several different winners of our “Real Weddings” feature (a portion of the magazine devoted to describing Oregonian weddings that actually happened, as opposed to those staged in the magazine for advertising purposes), and wrote about them. Was this the most compelling work I have ever produced? Absolutely not. But I did…do the work.

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My attempts to contact the magazine about payment resulted in extraordinarily vague and noncommittal responses from several Tiger Oak staff members. I realize that it is not the responsibility of an editorial staff to deal with accounting issues, especially for employees that they have never worked with. But the fact that these employees, by way of a justifying their business practices, continued to emphasize how “transparent” they are about their failure to pay freelancers in a timely fashion angered me to no end. I was also angered by the fact that several staff members blamed my friend for not being emphatic enough about just how late “late” really means for Tiger Oak Media. While I’m a big fan of transparency, transparency is not the issue at hand. Here’s a hot take: being transparent about an unethical practice doesn’t magically make it an ethical one. 

After doing some digging online, I have discovered that this is not the first time a freelancer has been utterly stiffed by this magazine, a fact further supported by comments on job review sites such as Glassdoor and Indeed. According to my research, Tiger Oak’s failure to pay its freelancers has been going on for at least a decade; in fact, this 2010 (2010!) article states that “The situation got so bad that the Minnesota Attorney General sent a letter to Tiger Oak asking about the delays.” Another article published in 2010, this piece by Oregon Live columnist Steve Duin, questions the legality of Tiger Oak’s internship program a.k.a. its propensity to rely on unpaid labor that does not clearly benefit its often-desperate interns.

Look, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on finance or even the publishing industry, so can someone explain to me how the hell a company like Tiger Oak continues to stay in business without paying those that create its content? I mean, ostensibly, each magazine’s salaried employees continue to make something; otherwise, I’m sure the company would have gone under a long time ago. My guess is this: that the powers that be at Tiger Oak Media know that very few freelancers are going to take them to small claims court when the cost of doing so, in most cases, will end up being more than the freelancer is owed. But you would think that at some point, they could not sustain these business practices. You would think.

But hey, then again, maybe not? Since this has happened, I have started reading a lot of material online about freelancers who simply never get paid by their clients. Even in my own town, this has happened to a group of freelancers who wrote for The Corvallis Advocate. According to the article, they are owed thousands of dollars in back pay. And yet, I still see that paper going out to local newsstands.

According to their website, Tiger Oak Publications publishes “more than 27 magazines” (So… 28? 29? The fact that they aren’t forthcoming about the number of publications they have itself seems a little sketchy…). Because I have come to learn that many of Tiger Oak’s publications take over a year to pay their freelancers, not just Oregon Bride, that means that–potentially– freelancers for 27 (28? 29?) magazines, most of whom are probably already not doing so hot in the finances department, are having to wait a unreasonable amount of time to get paid for their work. In what other industry is this okay?*

Do you want to know what’s particularly funny about Me, Myself, and my Mistakes? Despite having learned some important lessons from this whole situation, I began another unpaid internship this year, this time with Sundress Publications. But I love it, and here is the difference:

* At Sundress, I was told very explicitly that working for the publication was a volunteer opportunity. I was provided with a specific and thorough contract that defines responsibilities on both my part and the part of supervisors. I was also given a very manageable workload (10 hours a week), which respects the fact that when someone who is not a trust fund baby does an internship, they might also need to work a paying job during the day.

* The editors at Sundress have made it clear that they are invested in supporting interns. They created social media posts to introduce us, for example, and collected our bios in order to give us more exposure. The editor that I work with directly created a detailed handbook to help us navigate the publication’s day-to-day processes, and has made herself very available to support us when she assigns us tasks. Did I mention that everyone who works at Sundress is a volunteer? Undoubtedly, that fact contributes to the healthier workplace culture of the publication, but it also reminds me that the editor I work with does not have to do nearly half of the things she does to be a great supervisor. I have already begun to learn about working for a publication of this size and type because of her commitment to mentorship. And isn’t that pragmatic sort of learning supposed to be what an internship is really about? Not just paying for catering platters and crying?

But what do I know? I’m just an overeducated twenty-something who has more degrees than I do positive work experiences. And if the responses to my blog posts are any indication of what life is like for today’s debt-ridden and often-exploited young folks, then I can confidently discern that I am not alone. At least I am not like my brother, whose own “paid” post-grad internship at a large L.A. nonprofit ended up compensating him in a handful of Starbucks gift cards. 

Afterword:

The very day I intended to post this piece, I received a letter in the mail from Tiger Oak. I was momentarily excited. Perhaps today, I thought, perhaps today I can finally address that “check engine” light. Or get some sensible orthotic shoes.

But OH LOL, fam. It’s Tiger Oak peddling some swill about how we “may have noticed” never getting paid for our work, and using some fancy corporate rhetoric to suggest that this event is a fluke– an isolated incident that was caused by mistakes in this year’s accounting– instead of a business practice that has lasted for at least ten years. Oh, and don’t worry, they have worked out a solution that is fair for the both of us. Oh, happy day.

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Notes:

* Or perhaps, in this case, the “late-paid internship”?

** For example, not signing a contract that stipulates a specific payment date. Way to go, amateur Athena!
*** A real-life piece of textual evidence from a reader like you. Thank you, empathetic reader! Cheers!

**** This is a serious question. I would like to know if you work in an industry in which this is okay. Enlighten me (kindly please, for the love of God) in the comments.

All subtitles courtesy of The Devil Wears Prada (2006), directed by David Frankel.