This week, Dahlia and Amy get creepy and ghouly about screen horror (as opposed to the horror of our everyday lives). In this Halloweeny episode, we dig into the role of horror film and TV and how it helps us cope with our lived realities. We’ve also got a Petty Political Pminute starring our least favorite ventriloquist dummy, Jared Kushner. In this week’s Amy vs. Dahlia, we’re debating the metaphor of the Haunting of Hill House: Is it all about childhood trauma or white supremacy? Text “Haunting” to 503-855-6485 to let us know!
The remake of the cult-classic Suspiria is coming out this weekend! Dahlia really wants to love it but is a little worried about Dakota Johnson and the film’s disprespct of the feminist artist Ana Mendieta.
Wow, the newly released Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon has just been announced a finalist for the Carnegie Medal prize—and much deserved. Laymon’s book is a marvel of truth telling, layered in his experiences growing up as a Black boy in southern Mississippi and as an adult navigating a world that wasn’t build for him or his. Get this book now, find him on tour, read Kiese Laymon.
Kohinoorgasm’s dreamy, pulsing track “Chalo” is a mood, a vibe, a break of sunshine we need for our shitty days.
Photo credit: Steve Dietl/Netflix
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DAHLIA: This episode of Backtalk is supported by University of California Press, Publishers of Making All Black Lives Matter. In Making All Black Lives Matter, award-winning historian and longtime activist Barbara Ransby maps the Black Lives Matter movement to its feminist roots as she profiles the movement’s impact and looks toward its future. Angela Davis calls Barbara Ransby, “the perfect example of a dedicated scholar-activist: and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Patrisse Kahn-Cullors says, “the book is one of the most important texts of our generation.” Making all Black Lives Matter is available wherever books are sold.
AMY: Hi and welcome to Backtalk, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Amy Lam, Contributing Editor at Bitch Media.
DAHLIA: And I’m Dahlia Balcazar, Senior Editor at Bitch Media.
AMY: And every episode, we talk about our favorite pop culture moment. I am so excited to hear about yours, Dahlia.
DAHLIA: OK. Ariana Grande is one of my favorite pop stars, and she has been dating this like, to me, seemingly loser guy. Although he works on Saturday Night Live, I don’t think he’s that funny. His name is Pete Davidson, and they were engaged. And a few weeks ago, we had a piece at bitchmedia.org written by one of our contributors, Caroline Reilly, about a joke that Pete Davidson made on Saturday Night Live. Let me play the joke.
[recorded clip starts with audience laughter, applause]
COLIN JOST: Well, the man doesn’t always have to be the breadwinner in a relationship.
PETE DAVIDSON: God damn right, Colin!
PETE: He does not. Yeah, last night I switched her birth control with Tic Tacs.
AUDIENCE: [response mixed with laughter and groans, one person yelling, “Oh my god.”]
PETE: No, I believe in us in all. But you know…but you know, I just wanna like make sure that she can’t go anywhere.
DAHLIA: Caroline wrote about how that joke is actually what’s called “birth control sabotage,” which is a common form of intimate partner violence in which a person attempts to coerce or control someone’s birth control decisions. And it really makes you think like that joke, ha ha ha I’m just gonna switch out her pills, sort of like—not that it works as a joke but—makes sense in people’s brains as a joke because that idea of trapping someone into having a relationship with you because you get pregnant or they get pregnant is everywhere! It’s so, so pervasive. So, I really love this piece. I don’t like Pete Davidson.
And then all of us over at Bitch had a huge laugh because here at Bitch, we’re always charting what kind of tangible impact our work makes. And I jokingly said—because actually two days after this article came out, Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson broke up—so, I came to a meeting, and I was like, “Uh…tangible impact is that Ariana Grande notes that Pete Davidson is a piece of shit. And she broke up with him because he’s a piece of shit. Thanks to us.” That’s totally a joke. That’s not true. But I like to think it is.
AMY: My favorite pop culture moment is way more frivolous. It is this YouTuber. Her name is Brandi Fernandez. Her YouTube channel is Brandi TV, and it’s Brandi with an i. And I found her on Twitter ‘cause somebody made a clip of one of her videos. So, what she does is she eats an edible, and she gets hella high.
AMY: And then she does makeup tutorials for like really fucked up Halloween costume looks. And it is so good! I implore you to just destress your life and go to her channel. It is Brandi TV. And the one in the videos I thought was amazing was when she dressed up as Pennywise from It. It is phenomenal. She’s so stoned, she’s so funny, and the costume actually looks not bad considering that she used, she needed to have a skullcap before she put the wig on. But she didn’t have a skullcap. So, she ended up using a plastic bag. [laughs] So, considering that it’s just kind of haphazard, and she’s fucking stoned as hell. And you know, she’s just doing this really wacky makeup tutorial. It’s so funny, and it’s just like one of those things where I feel shit, I don’t feel good about life, I go to her channel, and I just watch her do really strange makeup tutorials. And it is the best. And I think that I want everybody to watch her stuff.
[cutesy bells ring]
DAHLIA: It’s been a while since we’ve had a Petty Political P-minute I think just ‘cause it’s hard to feel petty sometimes when there’s so much tremendous horrible things happening. But, the whole Bitch office was talking yesterday about Van Jones’s interview with Jared Kushner. I, horribly, watched all of it this morning somehow. It’s like 30, 40 minutes. And here’s how it starts.
VAN JONES: How did you get this job? [laughs] I mean it’s like you have the dopest job in the world, like the Secretary of Everything. Do they bug you when they call it Secretary of Everything?
JARED KUSHNER: Yes.
VAN: Yes. [laughs] That’s good.
AMY: The fuck kind of question is that?
DAHLIA: I think maybe Van Jones is trying, throughout this whole interview I think like, maybe he’s trying to subtly be like. “You’re completely unqualified for this job.” Like maybe those are sort of like the questions that he’s asking. But imagine: you start out this interview. You’re like, hey! You’re like the most important person in the world. This is your first interview. “How did you get this job, man? Like you’re so cool and smart. How did you get here?”
We all know! It’s horrible nepotism and the destruction of our democracy. That’s how he got there. OK. And then on top of that, I listened to the whole interview, and Van Jones over and over is like, “I just really want people to know how you think.” Like, “How do you think? How does your brain work?” And Jared just keeps, I mean he’s like…he’s like a little capitalist Charles Dickens’ dream. Anyway. OK. That’s trying to describe his pale demeanor is Dickensian. And he’s always like, [squeaky voice] “Well, my three steps to”—this is my impression of his voice—”my three steps are that I always one, I do a lot of research. Two, I have conversations with people. And three, I take action! And that’s how I accomplish things.” And that’s like this big insight into how Jared’s brain works! Is his three-phase approach of research, talking to people, and accomplishing things.
And! Van Jones was asking him about the journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was just murdered and let Jared Kushner slide by with the skeeziest kind of answer where he was honestly saying like, well, we’ll see what kind of facts we believe. Well, we’re doing, we’re looking at facts, and later, we’ll determine which facts are credible. Uh, Jared! If they’re facts, like credible? Oh my god! I can’t even engage with his argument because it’s so fucked up. And I don’t know. Like I’m so petty mad obviously, but one, I can’t believe this happened, that Van Jones let this sort of fawning, praise-y interview happen. And two, I was just really—I don’t know why I’m shocked but—really shocked by the amount politicians can be on TV and just lie/not answer questions outright.
[cutesy bells ring]
AMY: Hi! It’s Amy from Backtalk!
SOLEIL: And Soleil from Popaganda.
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SOLEIL: Become a member!
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AMY: And as always, we really appreciate your rating and reviewing us on iTunes. It really helps boost our visibility. And one of the reviews I really loved recently is from a user named Emmylou Banks. And in part, it says. “Too often, women are expected to be polite and diplomatic. But in the face of so much oppression, we need to be able to honestly and unapologetically process and express our emotions. Thank you for being willing to do that and not skirt around important issues. I know it can be exhausting, but the work you’re doing is so important and greatly appreciated.” Thank you so much for this great review! It really helps us to know that people are listening and that we’re some kind of conduit for your own feelings. Because like we say often, this work is kind of exhausting, but it’s so worth it knowing that people understand and appreciate it and are listening.
[cutesy bells ring]
DAHLIA: On every episode of Backtalk, Amy and I argue about something super important. Last episode, we argued about which faux feminist marketing tactic is most terrible. Is it one, faux self-care in the vein of, “You’ve had such a hard day. It’ll all be better if you have some chocolate. Buy some bubble bath. Capitalism is great.” Or is it how vaginas are constantly linked to femininity and woman-ness and femaleness in every kind of advertising that you can think of? And! Oh my god. So many people participated this week. It was so wonderful to watch the votes come in.
Amy, I’m sorry to say that I won, and faux self-care is the most annoying feminist marketing tactic according to the Backtalk audience. But we got so many super funny and insightful responses. And so Amy, read some of your faves.
AMY: So, one of my faves is from somebody who voted for the so many vaginas being the worst thing about feminist marketing. And they said, “#GirlPower and empowering women is not restricted to those born with vaginas, and frankly, it’s bullshit that corporations are profiting from something that excludes so many real women from feminism.” That is exactly the point I was trying to make, and I’m so glad we have such smart listeners who were able to parse media and advertising and understand this. So, even though I didn’t win this round of Amy Vs. Dahlia, I still feel very heartened ‘cause we got so many great replies from people who texted in and voted.
DAHLIA: I really like this one, Amy. I can’t help but always pick the jokes about how great you are ‘cause they’re so great! OK. This one says, “I dislike them both equally, but this is just payback for when Amy lost pho vs. ramen and dog vs cats. Pho is literally five times better than ramen because although I like ramen, it’s overrated and super bougie now. You can still find the best pho in hole in the wall, out of the way restaurants, and the dirtier the restaurant, the better the pho. Plus, Amy is right nine out of ten times.”
DAHLIA: And we have this little feed where we can see what people are saying. And when I saw that I mean of course, I was delighted, but I was like Amy, who did this?! Whoever you are.
AMY: It wasn’t me. I promise.
DAHLIA: I know. Amy is like, it wasn’t me, but I love it. We both love it. And our next argument is gonna be part of the way through our segment.
I’m super, super excited because this is our Halloween episode, and it gives me the fondest feelings. Because Amy, I think the first episode of Backtalk I was ever on, which was, I don’t know 10 years ago at this point, was the Halloween episode! In fact, I think specifically, I feel like people were like, “Oh, Dahlia’s like obsessed with scary stuff. Maybe you should let her on Backtalk to talk about Halloween stuff.” [laughs]
AMY: Actually, I think that is how it happened.
DAHLIA: I know. It is. You think I’m joking, but it’s completely true. Luckily, I’m not the only one who is obsessed with Halloween here at the Bitch office. And so, all of us have been talking about all of the ghost pop culture and the Halloween pop culture that’s coming out. I mean of course because it’s October, because it’s Halloween time. But also, I think this year has been—this year in the past few years have been—really stand out years for horror pop culture. This year we have the anniversary reboot of Halloween. We have a Sabrina the Teenage Witch reboot. You have a Charmed reboot. There’s a— Oh, I was about to say a movie, but I’m saving that for my watch recommendation. You know, Amy and I went to go see Hereditary earlier this year, which I think is like one of the greatest horror films of all time. There’s just so much really fascinating, ghosty, creepy pop culture going around. And in fact, we have a really great piece by our Co-founder, Andi Zeisler, about the feminist power of female ghosts: sort of how ghosts in movies like The Ring or The Grudge represent the vengeful spirit of a wronged woman. And also this fall’s issue of which is the ghost issue, which is sold out. But you can still read pieces from it online at Bitchmedia.org. And so, our whole office has been talking about creepy stuff for a few weeks, and I got a whole bunch of people to watch The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. I got you, Amy, to watch it. I got our producer Ashley to watch it, and I got our production designer Chan to watch it. Of course I made my cat and my boyfriend watch it with me. But I think, well, I was gonna say we all loved it, but I guess I’d say maybe we didn’t all love it, but we’re all obsessed with it.
And it got us thinking about the deeper symbolism and meaning in particularly The Haunting of Hill House but also horror films more generally. And we have an Amy vs. Dahlia debate specifically about The Haunting of Hill House this week. We actually texted all of you who have ever texted us back in Amy vs. Dahlia. You get sort of saved to this Backtalk list, and then we can text you when a new episode comes out. Or last week, we texted to say, “Hey, we’re gonna argue about The Haunting of Hill House if you wanna get in on it.” It was really funny: a bunch of people texted like, “Yes. Awesome. Yes.” And someone texted, “No, thank you.”
DAHLIA: And I appreciate your honesty. But the Netflix series is based on Shirley Jackson’s classic horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House. What I think is really interesting is that the TV show really expands from the novel. Because the novel is about adults in a haunted house, and the Netflix series is many of those same events. But instead of happening to adults, they happen to children. And the TV series is about a family growing up in this haunted house, and they experience a very devastating loss there because it’s a haunted house, and the house wants to kill them. And they grow up with very fractured relationships and ultimately have to come back to the house to confront the horror that was done there. And we have a very important argument to have about it. And Amy, please begin.
AMY: So, immediately after I finished watching the show, I got on a group chat with Ashley and Dahlia. And I was like, you guys, I have a wacky theory about the house. [laugh] So, our Amy Vs. Dahlia is about what the house represents in the show. And my very wacky but very accurate interpretation of the house in The Haunting of Hill House is that the house is essentially a stand-in for systemic oppression. And in this case, I will be more specific: I think that it’s a stand-in for example, as a metaphor for white supremacy. So, in the show, the Crain family moves into this house, and the premise is that the parents wanna fix it up and flip it. So, there’s this notion that it is seemingly, the space is seemingly inhabitable. It is very malleable, but actually it is very static and austere. Which is how I think systemic oppression is when we’re living in it. We think that like we can change it, that it’s very malleable. But actually, it’s very fixed. And the house itself, it gaslights its residents, when the people who live in it are suspicious about what the fuck is going on. And I think that white supremacy tends to like gaslight people all the time.
And in the end, I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s like the white people who want the house to continue to stand even though it should be destroyed. Because the white people have nostalgia that’s tied to the house, regardless of how destructive and harmful it is to the people who enter it. Which I think is like in a way, it’s kind of like a statement on how the show can be about how white people uphold white supremacy. And this is also supported because it’s in the text, as we say in academia.
AMY: Because there are a lot of peripheral POC, like people of color, characters in this show, but none of them enter the house. Because I think it’s trying to say that white people uphold white supremacy, i.e. the house. And they have to interrogate the ways in which they do it. And how does that affect the people of color in their lives peripherally? So, that is my argument about why I think the house in The Haunting of Hill House is a metaphor for white supremacy and how fucked up, how insidious it is, how it gaslights the fuck out of people, and how it just makes you feel like shit and will follow you for the your life.
DAHLIA: OK. Texts are multivalent, and I’m not saying you’re wrong. But what I think—and I have the backing of an entire piece I wrote about it at Bitchmedia.org—what I think is that the house represents trauma, and the house represents pain and grief. Let’s say all of those three emotions: pain, grief, and trauma. And the reason why the series is about these characters as children is because it’s when their little psyches and their little personalities and their little egos are being formed. And instead of growing up in a nurturing, healthy environment—although they have very nice, loving parents—they grow up in an environment where they are being, as you said, gaslit, but gaslit and abused by mean ghosts. And when they come to their parents, and they’re like, “I saw a freaky ghost,” they’re like, “Well, you probably didn’t see a freaky ghost.” And so, then the kid internalizes all of the horrible things that the freaky ghosts are doing to them. And because the show shows you two timelines—it shows you the Crains as children when they’re being abused by mean ghosts and the Crains as adults—you see that as adults, they’re completely fractured, their relationships with each other are broken, they have various addiction issues, and they’re all trying to self-medicate in whatever way.
These fractures and the trauma that they have experienced—this is a tiny spoiler—because of the loss of their mother and because of the loss of their sister, and I kinda think of like a childhood in a haunted house is like a Chekov’s gun rule. So, my favorite rule. There’s so many rules of theater: Chekov the playwright says if there is a gun in the first act, it’s going to go off in the second. Like that just is the rule of how drama builds. So, if there is a child growing up in a haunted house in the first act, they’re gonna come back and have to face the horror in the next one. And that, to me, is what is really interesting about how The Haunting of Hill House expands from the source material, is that it asks us to look at what trauma does to children. Not just you know like “fantasy trauma” of ghosts getting in your face and yelling at you, but actual trauma, actual loss like the loss of a parent or the loss of a sibling or feeling like you can’t trust your father anymore. Like these are real situations that very negatively impact these children and kind of devastate their lives until they’re able to come back together when they reunite at Hill House to take on the evil once and for all. So, my theory is that the house represents the repression of trauma. That’s my argument.
So, if you wanna vote on our multivalent takes on The Haunting of Hill House, please do because this is like the most passionate though I think we have ever been about an Amy Vs. Dahlia ‘cause we’re so jazzed up about Haunting of Hill House. If you text the word haunting to 503-855-6485, you’ll be prompted to vote. And if you save us in your phone, we’ll text you when a new episode goes up or if we have another TV show we think you should watch so we can all argue about it. But please text us now, and we’re just gonna keep talking about horror. Text haunting to 503-855-6485.
AMY: And I did wanna say one more thing in my argument that is in the text of the show to support my argument is that—and I don’t wanna spoil it—but there is a part where they’re talking about being awake and being woke. And I think that the people who are awake in this house are the ones who are most affected by and are noticing the impact of what this house is doing to them, i.e. the people who are like fucking “woke.” And I kinda fucking hate that word.
AMY: But the people who are woke to the destructiveness of systemic oppression are the ones who are more deeply impacted because they’re feeling it more. And so, that’s why I really truly think that, I don’t think it’s the intention of the show or Shirley Jackson when she originally wrote the book, that like the house is meant to portray or be a stand-in for systemic oppression or white supremacy, but I think it could be read that way. And that’s I you read the show, and it actually make the show better for me.
AMY: And you know what? I was thinking more deeply about this ‘cause I knew we were talking about horror. And I think that the act of watching horror is like this micro-view of how we feel when we’re experiencing life outside of watching a show, like life in real life in a way. So, it kind of is this microscopic zoomed-in view of and this exacerbation of how we actually feel about the world. And in a way, it’s a release you know, when we’re watching horror to be like, this is exactly how I feel when I hear about this new fucked up policy that Trump is trying to enact against trans people. Or like this is exactly how I feel when, this is the exact horror that I feel physically when I’m hearing these stories about how the Trump administration is detaining children at the border. And so, I think that in a way, horror can be a stand-in to evoke these feelings that are about fictional worlds but could actually mirror how we feel about real life. And in a way, it’s cathartic to make us wrestle with these feelings and to know that we can have these feelings but in this sort of isolated space of like, OK, you’re just watching a horror show or movie without having the weight of feeling like this is the real world that we’re living in. I think it’s a really special type of escapism that is necessary, and in some ways, therapeutic.
DAHLIA: Well, last year, Get Out was the most successful non-franchise horror film of all time. And Amy, I don’t agree with your argument about The Haunting of Hill House, but I do agree with it sort of like more broadly about horror. Tananarive Due is a scholar and a professor who’s teaching a class at UCLA called The Sunken Place, which is about Black Horror. And I actually was able to take that class online last year, and something that she said that is really, like will stay with me forever is she was talking about how America has always been the site of horror for many populations. You know, that the story of Black people in America has always been a story of violence and murder and kidnapping and you know, horrors. And maybe not the entire story of let’s say, Indigenous people in America, but much of the history of Indigenous people in America has been the same. And she was talking about how that specifically ignites the genre that she was calling a Black Horror, which encompasses films like Get Out and also The Candyman, but films that are about the insidiousness of white supremacy and its deep embeddedness in so many aspects of our culture. And I think that that is part of why horror as a genre is so popular now, like you’re saying, Amy.
I think that you know, not to say that terrible things didn’t happen in Spain, but America has kind of—I hate to say—like a fresher history of violence and terror than a lot of other countries and certainly a history of violence and terror that I think that a lot of people are aware of and that it sort of is in the background of so much of American life, you know. Like Tananarive Due said, the history of Black life in America has always been one of horror. And I think just sitting with that and thinking about actual American histories and the violence in those legacies and what they’ve left in our narratives and in our pop culture, I think that that can be really illuminating for thinking about the horror that we’re drawn to now. Like Margaret Atwood says that everything that happens in The Handmaid’s Tale is something that had happened in real life. And you know, so much horror right now is trying to intentionally draw comparisons to the age that we live in, and horror is literally more successful than it’s ever been. And I think that’s because we are living in this time literally of such horror and a time when we can, I think, really clearly see our violent legacy as a country.
[cutesy bells ring]
AMY: Every episode, we wrap it up by letting you guys know what we’re recommending for your read, watch, and listen. I have your read pick today, and it is the memoir Heavy by Kiese Laymon, my thesis adviser. [laughs] I’m not just recommending it because I’m a student but because this is an incredible book. This book is just so many things, and at its core, it’s about reckoning with oneself. And Kiese just digs so fucking deep. This book explores his childhood with his mother and grandmother in Jackson, Mississippi, how these real issues have sort of spilled into his weight, both physically and metaphorically and the ways that addictions have grown from it and the role that addictions have played in the lives of his family members. There’s just so many layers to this book. Like any sort of just a human being, that I can’t do justice by explaining it. It just feels like a truth that he had to write. I just can’t speak enough about Kiese, not just as a writer but as a thinker and the way he thinks about love and harm and destruction and how we think about it to ourselves.
And he’s also actually touring the U.S. right now, and I implore you to check out his tour dates, and if he’s anywhere near where you are and you get a chance to see him read and talk, he’s just such an incredible presence and thinker. And he’s just so fucking humble too. But please check out this book. It is called Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon.
DAHLIA: I am on pins and needles about my watch pick. This weekend the remake of Suspiria comes out. Suspiria is one of my all-time favorite horror movies. It is a really, really vibrantly colored, really scarily scored movie about a young ballerina who is in a ballet academy run by witches. Could there be a better plot? No, there could not be a better plot. It’s being directed by the director of Call Me By Your Name. So, I’m very excited on that note. Also Tilda Swinton is gonna be the head witch. And! Dakota Johnson is playing the lead. And I don’t know what to think about that because I saw all of the Fifty Shades of Grey movies, and I really hated them a lot. So, I really want to love Suspiria. I’m very hopeful, and I’m gonna see it. Wish me luck.
AMY: And my song pick: it as a track called Chalo by the artist—and I hope I’m saying their name right—it is Kohinoorgasm. [chuckles] I really love this song because I love the video. The song is so dreamy and pulsing and perfectly weird, and I learned about this track because the video’s director, Jing Niu, visited our campus recently to talk about her work. But it’s just such a beautiful track, and we thought that we should end this sort of scary, creepy episode with something more lighthearted. So, please enjoy this track. Thank you for listening.
DAHLIA: Thanks for listening.
[Chalo plays: a hazy, beautiful dreamy song with angelic Hindi vocals]
Thanks for listening to Backtalk. This show is produced by Ashley Duchemin. Bitch Media is a reader- and listener-supported feminist nonprofit. If you wanna support the show and our work, please head over to Bitchmedia.org and donate.