Backtalk: Haute Couture Blackface

This week, Dahlia and Amy are back! They’ve got pop culture picks! They’ve got read, watch, and listen recommendations! They’ve got so many rage-induced opinions! In recent months, controversies have popped up in the news with the discovery of prominent politicians and actors donning blackface and prestige design houses releasing couture designs with unmistakable references to blackface. Amy vs. Dahlia wants to know who should win the Oscar’s Best Picture award! Amy thinks the beautifully-filmed “Roma” is the winner and Dahlia’s brilliant pick is “The Favourite.” What’s your choice? Text “Oscars” to 503-855-6485 to let us know what you think!

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Amy can’t get enough of Pen15 out on Hulu. It’s a hilarious and irreverent look at the 7th-grade lives of two BFFs.


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[theme music]

AMY: Hi. Welcome to Backtalk, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Amy Lam, Contributing Editor at Bitch Media.

DAHLIA: I’m Dahlia Balcazar, Senior Editor at Bitch Media.

AMY: And welcome to our first show of 2019! If you are a regular listener, you’ll notice that we were gone for a minute, but now we’re back! We needed to take that time off for a second to recalibrate a little bit, and we are so excited to be back. I missed doing this so much. I missed talking to Dahlia and hashing things out with you guys. [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: Aw, aw.

AMY: Yeah. This is like such a— You know, it’s just one of those things you don’t realize how integral it is to a part of your life until you kind of stop doing it for a minute. So, yeah.

DAHLIA: Totally.

AMY: So, I’m excited to be back! And we kick things off each episode by talking about our fave pop culture moment. Dahlia, what is yours?

DAHLIA: Okay. I am so excited to be back for many reasons, but very much to share this pop culture moment that happened to me in January. And I was like, Oh! But we don’t have a Backtalk episode this week! I can’t talk about it. So, I saved it to talk about it all the way until now. 

I, Dahlia Balcazar, am obsessed with the reality show Vanderpump Rules on Bravo. You should watch it, if you don’t watch it, ‘cause it’s about—it’s just Shakespearean in nature—but it’s about scheming and lying and cheating and manipulating and trying to get rich. It’s about a group of servers at a restaurant, but it’s a reality series. And it’s been on for maybe six or seven years that I have been watching fully that entire time. So, I feel very close with the people on Vanderpump Rules, and I know them, and I know their hopes and their dreams and their fears. And in January, I went to one of their new restaurants, not expecting to see a single one of them, just going to have the ambiance and say I was there and maybe take a selfie in the bathroom and steal a matchbook or something like that. We walk into the restaurant, and immediately, my friends and I realize that like everyone and actually almost everyone from the cast of Vanderpump Rules was in the restaurant. We didn’t know this at the time, but it was one of them, it was Katie Maloney’s birthday party. And we got sat down, and suddenly I realized that I was sitting in between the cast of Vanderpump Rules and the bathroom. And so, all night they were like walking back and forth from the bathroom back to their area, and we kept like sort of tapping them on the shoulder and being like, “Oh my god. Hi. We love you. Can we take a photo?” And it was just the best day of my life!

AMY: [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: I felt a little bit like I was at Disneyland, especially ‘cause I was in Southern California. But it felt like, I remember being at Disneyland with my autograph book and like, am I gonna get to take a picture with Minnie Mouse? And it really felt like that when I was like, Oh my god. There’s Jax. Oh my god. There’s Kristin. And again, it’s like I’ve been watching these people for six or seven years of my life, and in some ways, I know more about them than my favorite musicians or my favorite actresses. And so, I just felt so wild to see these people, to feel in this kind of like weird Disneyland kind of tourist dream. Some of them were nicer than I thought they would be. Some of them were less nice. But all of them were more beautiful and tall in person. And it was just the best pop culture moment of my entire life.

AMY: I really appreciate that one of the best days of your life is essentially about how you got seated by the bathroom at a bar. [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: Not just any bar!

AMY: Like I said, I don’t know the show. I don’t know these people. But I know that you’re excited, and that makes me excited for you. So, that’s all that matters.

DAHLIA: What’s your pop culture moment, the first one of 2019?

AMY: My favorite pop culture moment is Don Cheadle, who was recently on SNL, on the show in between the breaks before he introduces the band, he was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Protect Trans Kids.” And it was such an incredible moment of allyship. But I just really love his work. I loved him when he was on Boogie Nights and when he had a show, I think it was on Showtime, called House of Lies. He’s such a great actor, but to see him do this type of allyship on such a huge platform like SNL was so important.

And you know the thing that I was thinking about is that I don’t really watch SNL that much anymore. But I didn’t even know he was gonna be on the show, and the incredible thing, I think, was that I don’t really know that much about that episode besides the fact that he did this, that he wore a t-shirt that made the statement. Because trans folks are being targeted and are so vulnerable at this moment in time right now. And for him to say something like this on such a huge platform was so important. And I feel like it was such a viral moment, and nobody else knows what happens on that episode besides that he did this. And you know, I think that some people could say that this is a performative type of allyship, like what has he really done or whatever. But I think it’s important to note that he didn’t have to do this, and people with platforms don’t have to say anything. But when they do, it means something, as evidenced by the fact that people were talking about this so much after he did it and nothing else about the episode. So, shout out to Don Cheadle for making a statement and for it being heard on such a big platform.

DAHLIA: Yeah, I feel like you know, Amy and I, we talk so much about what celebrities and musicians and actresses can do to show that they’re an ally or show that they’re learning and growing. And I can see how someone would say like, oh, this is performative. Like what does this really shift? But I think it’s always important when someone with any power decides to share essentially the stage or to share a moment and to use what you have and to say like, “Here I am on stage. Everyone is looking at me, and I have this blank canvas of my shirt.” Or like maybe some celebrities hold up signs that talk about issues they care about while they’re being photographed by paparazzi or things like that. And obviously, it’s not the only thing that Don Cheadle should do, but it’s always meaningful, I think, when someone chooses to share the power and the attention they have with someone less powerful.

[cutesy bells ring]

DAHLIA: It is the first Amy Vs. Dahlia of 2019. If you’re not familiar with Amy Vs. Dahlia, you know, it seems like Amy and I get along all the time, but actually we argue.

BOTH: [Laugh.]

DAHLIA: And we haven’t had a chance to publicly argue all of this year, so maybe we have a lot of pent up arguments inside of us. This week we’re gonna argue about the Oscars, which are happening this weekend. I can’t believe it’s so fast. And the question before us, what movie will win Best Picture? I will make my argument first.

I think that The Favourite is going to win Best Picture this weekend. On one level, the movie is so good. Everyone in it: Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz. Everyone is so good. There’s so much depth, there’s so much history, it’s sexy, it’s fun, it’s beautiful. I think it’s a really interesting and frankly a kind of aptly depressing comment on success and social mobility and power in this moment. But all of that I think is partially why it’s gonna win. But I have to say I think it’s gonna win Best Picture because many of the other choices, I think, are too much of a “statement” for the Oscars, and I think the Oscars don’t wanna do anything weird this year. They don’t wanna get in trouble at all from anyone! And I think they think that their best bet will be The Favourite. So, on one hand, I think it totally deserves it. On the other, I think the Oscars are like, I don’t want anyone to be mad at us this year. What do you think?

AMY: Well, so, when we were first discussing what we would like suppose we would choose as our pick, I actually was like yes, The Favourite. That’s an amazing film. I’m actually super duper support your support of The Favourite. I think it was such fun and interesting storytelling happening in that film. But I think it’s interesting that you’re saying that if they chose that as the Best Picture that it wouldn’t be making a statement because it would be. Because it’s a film about three women, and not about three women pining over a man. So, I think it would be making a statement if the film was chosen. Just a note.

But speaking of women and being centered, my pick is Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma I think it was such a beautiful film. It’s kind of a portrait memoir that centers on the life of a domestic worker, which is actually based on Cuarón’s own middle class upbringing in Mexico City in the ’70s. And it stars Yalitza Aparicio, who is a first-time actor. Her background is that she had gone to school to study to be a teacher, and she just went on this casting call by happenstance and then landed this role. And it’s like this really sort of famous folk legend kind of thing that Cuarón keeps talking about how when he called her to tell her that she got the role, she reportedly said, “Well, I have nothing better to do.”

BOTH: [Laugh.]

AMY: Didn’t think it was a big deal. But for a first-time actor, she did such an amazing job. It’s just such a gorgeous treatment. It’s so beautifully and tenderly shot. And I’m just thinking a lot about what it means to center the life of a domestic worker in stories that often marginalize them. And I just really appreciate a really great “international film” with subtitles, or as my partner calls them, “the ready kind.” [Laughs.] But I know that there’ve been some criticisms about the film about what does it mean to show character growth or development for the domestic worker Cleo in the narrative? But I think that a lot of it might owe to the fact that Yalitza is a first-time actor, and there may be some things that she’s able to do and bring to the script, and maybe there’s some things that may have been limiting for her. But I think that understanding the background of how this film was made and what its intentions were really helped me to appreciate the film so much better.

And I think that, yes, I think that the Academy would be making a statement if they did pick this as the Best Picture, especially in this moment in time in the United States of America where we have an administration who targets and explicitly says that there’s so many different populations of folks who live in this country who are not valuable to this country and actually should leave this country. I think that it would make an important statement to say that this film about domestic workers, about Mexicans, is something that’s worthy of being seen and to be adored and to be loved and celebrated. So, my vote is for Roma. And it’s two hours and 15 minutes, and it’s on Netflix, so you can watch it now. But it is just so beautiful. I can’t get over how fucking beautiful. It was shot in black and white. Gorgeous storytelling. And I just wanna see more of this! And I think that if it was given this Best Picture award, it would embolden more filmmakers to make films that are about sort of like the everyday quiet moments in our lives that actually go on to cause ripple effects for generations to come. So, please, please, please, let this win.

I don’t know if it’ll win. I actually think that A Star Is Born might win, which is also a really fun movie. And the Academy, I think, loves awarding films about themselves, in a way. And I know that A Star Is Born is about the record industry, but I think those are kind of like masturbatory in that way.

BOTH: [Laugh.]

AMY: So, I wouldn’t be surprised. But I’m hopeful that maybe Roma might get it.

DAHLIA: Well, Amy, I feel like this is a rare instance of you being so much more optimistic than I am. Because even you were saying it would be a statement for Roma to win because it would say like these kinds of narratives are valuable, or films in other languages are valuable. And I really, I’m not so sure that the Oscars is interested in making— I get what you’re saying: that a movie about women not through the male gaze winning would still be a statement, but I think it’s maybe like a bit of a safe first statement. But I’m looking right now. I’m seeing that Roma is only the 11 movie not in English to be nominated for Best Picture, so it would totally be really, really incredible if it won. But I still do not think it will happen.

But! Amy and I could argue about this all day, obviously, but we are eager to hear your thoughts. The way this works is you text a keyword to us at 503-855-6485. So, text the word “Oscars” with an “s” at the end to 503-855-6485. Let us know what you think about the Oscars, and then we will read some of our favorite comments and reflect further on what happened at the Oscars on our next episode of Backtalk.

AMY: And we know that some of you might be listening to this episode after the Oscars have aired. And in that case, just ignore who won the award, [laughs] and just vote with your heart. And usually your heart is saying my answer.

BOTH: [Laugh.]

DAHLIA: That’s true. I wish that weren’t true. The Backtalk audience’s hearts always go for Amy.

AMY: But we do acknowledge that some of you might be listening to this after the Oscars have already aired, and you know the results. But in that case, just pick one of the two that we’ve decided and let us know.

[cutesy bells ring]

DAHLIA: It’s been a minute since we’ve had an episode of Backtalk, so we haven’t been able to talk about this trend that is resurfacing in pop culture and politics: politicians and brands are using blackface to sell their products or to celebrate, I guess. I think this started, this newest cycle of brands and very famous people having to apologize for their use of blackface started again around the holidays. Prada, the fashion brand, had a line called Pradamalia, sort of like they’re supposed to be animals, and they had these little toys that were shaped like monkeys. They had black bodies. They had large red lips. Immediately, they got called out on Twitter. People were saying that these figures were obviously references to figures in blackface. Prada pulled them, but they had this really, I think, ridiculous statement that says, “Pradamalia, our imaginary creature, is not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface.” Which I think is ridiculous. Like everything has a reference to the real world because everything is in the real world.

So, that started with Prada around December, and then in February, a photo surfaced of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. This was on his med school yearbook page where he had his own sort of spread of pictures of himself and his friends. And there was a photo of two men, one in blackface and one wearing a Klan outfit. This, again, is on his yearbook for his med school. At first Governor Northam said that the photo was of him. Then he said it wasn’t. Where he’s landed is the most embarrassing defense I’ve ever heard, is Governor Northam said that he remembers that he dressed in blackface a different time. On a different occasion, he dressed up in blackface for a Michael Jackson party. So, he remembers that, so he knows that this picture isn’t of him because he doesn’t remember. He remembers the one time he did blackface so much that he knows this one isn’t him, which again, makes no sense.

AMY: Wow. [Chuckles.]

DAHLIA: This is a photo on his yearbook, but that’s his excuse. He’s actually, Governor Northam is unable to seek re-election. This will be his last term. And he said that he is not gonna step down but that he’s going to pledge his final three years to policies aimed at “healing the state’s racial divide.” After that, Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring was probably like, oh my gosh. I have to admit this before someone finds a photo of me doing it. Because he also pulled a press conference to say, now that we’re talking about blackface, I have to tell you that I also dressed in blackface at a party.

So, that is two of Virginia’s leaders, General and Attorney General, who dressed in blackface at a party. Then there’s also Prada from the holidays. And then this month, Gucci, another fashion brand, had a sweater, a black balaclava sweater, that sort of it was kind of like a turtleneck, and you pulled it up over a part of your face. You have this black fabric covering your face and then these bright red lips that are also really clearly in this legacy of blackface imagery. Gucci also pulled that sweater, and the creative director of Gucci wrote, “The fact that, contrarily to my intentions, that turtleneck jumper evoked a racist imagery causes me the greatest grief.”

In the last few weeks, Katy Perry had to pull some black shoes—she has a fashion line too—because they also had imagery really similar to Gucci’s sweater and to the Pradamalia figurines. Because so many people are talking about these instances of white people using or selling blackface, people on Twitter have been pointing out SNL has had blackface skits for a long time. Jimmy Fallon did blackface. Jimmy Kimmel has done blackface. The journalist Yashar Ali tweeted this photograph of Grace Coddington, who is the former creative director of Vogue and now a contributor at Vogue, it’s a photograph of her in her home with several Mammy figurines that are hugely racist and hugely offensive.

And you know, it’s not just, I think, these instances, although of course, they are worth talking about. But I think what is so, what feels so overwhelming and why I really wanted to talk about this this week is this isn’t the first time that Amy and I have talked about something like this or a celebrity or a brand has tried to sell something in blackface and then had to apologize because they got rightfully called out. But I think that what is sort of the overwhelming feeling I have and what I wanted to sort of reflect on with Amy is like these people aren’t just a few people here and there. These are largely our large culture makers, not just for American culture, but global culture. Like what is a bigger culture maker than the creative director of Vogue? Who is a bigger culture maker than the governor of a state? You know, how can it be bigger than Prada and Gucci? And to think that not just is this imagery still proliferating pop culture with people still saying, “I didn’t know it was offensive. Oh, I’m so sorry,” but our culture makers are invested in these images and these aesthetics. And they think they’re cool and interesting and funny. Still!

AMY: Yeah, I think what’s interesting when we think about this and to juxtapose these politicians “getting caught” with these pictures of them in blackface, and then with the resurfacing of photos of contemporary performers now, like you’re saying Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon who were also once in blackface for “comedy,” versus brands using it, is like there was this history of performing blackface. And I think popularly, it wasn’t yet considered completely offensive and a very cancel-able offense, but now that people are understanding that and knowing that and understanding the harm that that perpetuates, folks are much less likely to perform it and to wear it. And so, there’s that aspect of it that’s happened with the resurfacing of these images verses, like you’re saying, how these brands now are using it as an aesthetic. And these brands are completely, that’s what they sell you on are aesthetics. Period. Full stop. No questions about it. They’re fashion brands. And like with Vogue, it’s a magazine about selling you looks, period. Full stop. No questions.

And so, when we think about the evolution of what blackface has been operating as in our culture, it’s interesting to understand that like yes, people are less likely to perform it, but how come these brands are now using it as an aesthetic and then playing, like pretending that they’re ignorant to its history of it? And so, it’s just I think, like we talk about very often, it just really speaks to the insidiousness of white supremacy and how it’s just one of those weird monsters, or not weird, but just one of those monsters, that just kind of like morphs and reforms into ways to put marginalized folks in their place, you know. I think that white supremacy is just one of those things that doesn’t disappear. It just changes what it looks like to remind folks of who they are either as the people who benefit from white supremacy or the people who are often oppressed by it. Like in this case, yes, people are more aware of to not perform it anymore or to say, “This is something I did in the past,” or “I didn’t mean any harm from it” and to not speak to all the negative side effects of it. But to say, “I don’t do that anymore. This is unacceptable. I’m so sorry I did it ever,” but to now being these gigantic fashion houses using it as a marketing ploy or to insert it in their designs and to say, oh, this was not intentional. And also, those fashion houses are led by white folks, like no question about it. And for them to say like, we didn’t intend to do this, we also talk often about what are intentions versus impact. And the impact is you are, in a way, perpetuating this very racist history of blackface, and you need to own up to it.

I’ve also heard sort of remarks about how well, this wouldn’t have happened if there were people of color in the room, specifically if there were Black folks in the rooms of those design houses. And I’m not sure if that’s true, not because, I’m not saying that Black folks aren’t quick to recognize those things, but just because they’re in the room doesn’t mean they have power. And it’s also, I think, unfair to place so much responsibility on the shoulders of people of color in those rooms and to maybe put their jobs at risk to speak out and to say, “This is fucked up. We shouldn’t be mass producing this product that has so much racist history.” Because ultimately, it’s up to the people in power at those fashion houses to have approved those things.

And I don’t know if I really believe this plead of ignorance, you know. I think that we, as a culture, not just as an American culture, but also I think as a global culture, we understand there is racial history behind blackface. And to ignore it or to plead ignorance to it, I don’t think flies at all. And for these gigantic brands, especially these gigantic brands, that get so much hype in certain communities, especially within the hip hop sphere, people really fucking flex and floss with these brands. And for them specifically to do this I think is such a fucking slap in the face. To say that we so disregard a huge population of these folks are who buy our products, who like give us so much free advertising in their art. And then to make these products and say like, “Oh, we had no idea. This has no connections to blackface.” Don’t fucking lie to us. Like you guys are artists. You understand history. You understand the impacts of what aesthetics mean and the things that they’re saying. So, I just don’t buy any of it. I think that it is just speaking to the seriousness of white supremacy and how this shit is sneaking in in ways that are trying not to be sneaky. [Laughs.] And then when they get called out, they’re like, “Oh my! I had no idea!” It’s like, fuck you! You did have an idea. You did it anyway. Just fucking say it!

DAHLIA: I think this the point you’re making about objects versus performance is super, super interesting because blackface, as you said, does have its origin in performance and minstrelsy shows where white men pretended to be Black men in this hideous racist makeup. And I think that you’re totally onto something that’s shifting sort of the representation or the imagery of blackface from performance, from a human body and a person and their specific performance intentions, say, shifting that to an object. I think it’s much easier to say like, “Oh, the object isn’t racist. I didn’t intend for it.” Just like Prada said, this has no reference, not intended to have any reference to the real world. Like this is just art. This is just an object. These are just colors. You know, I think it’s so much easier for these brands to sort of cut these, pretend like they’re cutting these ties to what this imagery actually comes from because it’s packaged into a toy that you buy or a sweater, and it’s kind of so decontextualized from its origin.

And that reminds me a little bit of sort of this argument around Confederate monuments. Because I was thinking, in this photo of Grace Coddington where she’s in her home, and she has these Mammy figurines that are behind her are sort of in a lineup of a whole bunch of other ceramics. So, it’s clear that she’s like a ceramics collector. And these racist and offensive figurines that she has, I’m sure that they are antiques. I’m sure that they cost money. And I know that they were made in the 1940s or the 1950s. And I think that because there is that, there actually is history attached to these objects, I think it becomes easier for people who don’t mind having this imagery around or who like it or think it’s kind of funny or think it’s charming, for them to say like, oh, but this is just history. This is art. This is an antique. This doesn’t really have any relation to real people or real oppression or real prejudice. Or you know, this wasn’t even anyone’s intention. This is just art, or this is just a toy that I bought.

AMY: And it’s like, no! We understand the implications of these types of objects. And I think that for these gigantic fashion houses to say, it’s just an object, it’s just art, is so disingenuous because it isn’t just objects and art. These are things that you’re trying to sell. You know, these are things that you’re charging a premium for. Also because this isn’t like your run of the mall, mill brand. Uh. Run of the mall! Ha. Run of the mill mall brand, that you go to the mall, you pop like $20 for it. No, these are things that cost like hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars for these products. So, then there’s this issue of like, now white supremacy is so insidious that it wants you to pay money, like pay good-ass money, for these objects and these objects that have such a fucking racist history behind them in in their aesthetics. And so, it’s like this morphing of how we consume white supremacy then, because if we compare that to the performance of blackface and how these politicians where they have these photos resurfacing of themselves in blackface, they’re like, they kind of think it’s no big deal because they don’t understand why we’re making such a big deal about these decade-old images of them.

But I’m trying to think of where they were in their head while they were doing this. ‘Cause like the performance of blackface isn’t just like, oh, I dressed up in a costume about it. Because we often talk about how yeah, you can dress up like Michael Jackson without literally putting on dark makeup on your skin. But when you’re doing that, what are you saying? And I think oftentimes, when non-Black people of color put on costumes where they literally do something to their skin tone, it’s not just like an homage or like, I’m just putting on costumes. It’s often, I think, tinged with a sense of mockery. And I think to not recognize that is to B.S. us. And I think that that mockery and performance of blackface is also a type of consumption. So, I think that in these cases, we’re talking about the consumption and mockery of Blackness, but it’s just that it’s changed in how it’s being shown.

Like if decades ago or even a decade ago, we see Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon performing it, it’s like there’s a tinge of like, well, look at these Black guys with this dark makeup on them. And even if they didn’t do it with a sense of mockery, there’s like this undertone of it that we cannot ignore. But they did it also for us to consume. They got paid a lot of money to perform those things for us to consume. And now the thing that has changed, those men will not perform it. But it’s just like morphed into this different thing where these gigantic fashion houses that are prestige fashion houses have created literal objects for us to buy so that we can consume it in another way. But in the end, what’s happening is like there’s no arguing it, but that we are consuming mockeries of Blackness. We’re consuming objects that are steeped in the racist history of dehumanizing Black folks. And I think that this continued plead of ignorance of, “No, we’d had no idea! Ugh,” it’s just such bullshit.

Because whether you are a comedian who puts on blackface, or whether you are a fashion house who designs these products is that these are two sects of industries that I think are deeply steeped in history and references. They’re not idiots. These are people and artists who understand references, who understand history, and who look toward history to design new things. And to say that like, oh we were very deeply unaware of this, it’s like such a slap in the face for anyone who has a basic understanding of how any of this works. Like don’t try to sell me anything that is racially tinged, or like how mainstream media tries to whitewash racism or racially-charged items with pleading ignorance that you were unaware of this. Because you are an entire industry who builds off of references, who understands where you’re coming from so you don’t design old shit again because you wanna try to sell new shit. But don’t lie and say that you are creating this new shit based on so much racist fucked up shit and then play it off like it’s no big deal. I think that’s the reason why we wanted to talk about this is ‘cause we’re fucking tired of it. [Laughs.] And for all of this shit to come out during Black History Month, it just goes to show how fucked up everything is! And I don’t know what to do! [Laughs.]


AMY: I guess I miss yelling into our void on our podcast. [Laughing.] It’s what I miss doing!

DAHLIA: No, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of clarity around my thoughts about this because of your yelling. But also I think this— No, but really, really. Thinking about how it is that we are consuming.

AMY: Just don’t do it. It’s that easy. Just don’t do it. I just don’t understand. I’m flabbergasted that we need to even continue to talk about this, but also, I’m not because white supremacy doesn’t sleep. [Laughs.] It’s like it’s just, I think, fueled by the existence of people who continue to uphold it. And so, it’s just one of those things that we have to like, I guess it’’ just one of those things that we have to keep talking about because so many people continue to feign ignorance about it. So, I think if we continue to talk about it, maybe it will become a less likely thing. Because like we’re saying, it’s morphed from being performed to being made into goods that are literally consumable. But I guess it’s just time will tell, and we shall see.

[cutesy bells ring]

All right! So, we end each episode by giving you our read, watch, and listen picks. And I have your watch pick, listeners, and I’m so excited to share this. I think it’s getting hyped a little bit, but if you haven’t heard anything about this, or if you have heard about it, I’m gonna continue the hype train for PEN15, which is on Hulu. Oh my god! What a fucking incredible show.

So, PEN15, if you write it out, it’s kind of like a juvenile way of writing “penis,” which… [chuckling] which even just saying that makes me laugh, so. [Laughs.] Which is ridiculous. But it is a show on Hulu. It is created by and stars Maya Erskine—I hope I’m saying her name right—and Anna Konkle. It is so irreverent. It’s so fucking funny. It’s about my Maya and Anna who are in real life like thirtysomething women who play two seventh graders, and they actually— So, it’s about them being seventh graders and going through all that shit. And so, they go to school, and they act with a bunch of other 13-year-olds who are actual 13-year-olds, but they’re thirtysomething year old. So, just that juxtaposition alone is like so fucking funny.

So, I watched the first two episodes of it while I was at the gym, and I was literally laughing out loud and also tearing up, crying a little bit because the show hits such emotional highs and lows. I was floored. And I think the reason why I was so emotionally floored was maybe a little bit two-fold. Maybe one part of it was like I was PMSing a little bit. [Laughs.] But also I think genre-wise, the show and the themes that it plays with, it feels really, really well-trotted by shows like The Wonder Years. But these types of shows often focus on the experiences of boys and their coming of age. And we’ve seen shows like this like a show I really loved was My So-Called Life, which is about Angela Chase, like our fave young white girl. [Chuckles.] But in this show, it was just so different because it’s like they’re coming at it from an angle of comedy too. But it’s also just so well done and so hilarious. It’s about girls and girlhood and their friendship between Maya and Anna and about how they’re just like big fucking weirdos and all the hormones and shit that are going through them. And I just really, really wanted to shut out how amazing the writing and acting is between Maya and Anna.

And in the first episode—a little bit of a spoiler—it’s about the first day of seventh grade, and it’s just so cringeworthy in all the best ways. But there’s this storyline about how Maya has been given the title of being like the ugliest girl in school.


AMY: And yeah, it’s so fucking heartbreaking. And the thing about Maya is that she’s Japanese American. She’s biracial, and it was just, I think this is one of the reasons why I cried was because to see her being given that title and to have to come to terms with it while she’s in school— I think she gets told that she’s been given the title by like third period. So, she’s in the middle of her first day of school, and she learns this. And then to see her grapple with it. And this is a comedy. It just flooded me because to see an Asian American woman who’s playing a seventh grader come to terms with the fact that she’s been labeled the ugliest girl in school and to have felt that ugly in my own youth, to see her do that, it just fucked me up. I cannot believe this show got made. So, yes, if you have Hulu or get a fucking Hulu password and watch PEN15. It will fuck you up in so many good ways, especially if you’re a little older, and you understand these references. But I just cannot speak more highly of it. I can’t wait to watch rest of the season. I think the entire season is now up on Hulu. ‘Cause when I watched it, only the first two episodes were up. So, please check it out: PEN15.

DAHLIA: I love shows where, or any acting, when actors have to be children, and then they act with children.

AMY: [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: I love that! It’s so funny.

AMY: It’s so good!

DAHLIA: And the kids are always so good too. [Laughs.]

AMY: Yes! It’s so funny. And then also, I think it was in the second episode, there’s this sort of like these weird makeup things are happening. Yeah, so, I’m like, as a grown ass woman, I’m like, Oh my god! I hope these grown ass women aren’t trying to fucking kiss all these boys, you know. And so, I think there’s also that weird tension as a viewer while you’re watching this where you’re like, what the fuck is going on? But of course, nothing scandalous happens. But I think that that tension makes it funnier. [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: Totally.

AMY: And to see what they actually do, just heightens it. I think that Maya and Anna are comedic geniuses. And I think that they deserve everything that’s gonna come for them just based on this series alone. Like what an amazing, amazing show.

DAHLIA: I’m gonna steal your Hulu password and watch it.

AMY: [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: I have the read pick this week. I wanna recommend the memoir The Glass Eye by Jeannie Vanasco. I think I read it in one day I was so into it. So, it’s about this young woman named Jeannie, and as she’s growing up, she learns that her father had a previous marriage and had three daughters, one of whom died, and her name was also Jeannie. So, she’s named after her dead half-sister. And Jeannie promises her father that she will write a book for him the day that he dies. And then the book is sort of about the next decade of her life as she tries to grapple with her father’s death and also sort of piecing together the mystery of her half-sister’s death and sort of why her father named her after her and what that means for her life. The author, Jeannie Vanasco writes really, really evocatively about mental illness, and I think this is what really made this book stand out for me. There are scenes where she is describing her mania, especially there’s a scene that happens during Hurricane Sandy where she’s having a lot of mania, but also there’s a hurricane coming. It just like was some of the most really evocative writing about mental illness that I think I have ever read. I really loved this book. It’s really beautiful. It’s a little sad but also really moving. It’s called The Glass Eye.

AMY: Wow. That sounds so good. I am literally gonna check that out now. That sounds so—

DAHLIA: I loved it. You would like it.

AMY: Yeah. Okay. I’m literally jotting that down. And my listen the pick is a track by a one-woman band called IMAGES, all caps. It is like jangly garage rock vibes. And full disclosure, the one woman in IMAGES is Elsa Nekola, who is also a classmate of mine in my MFA program. [Laughs.] So, she also has a really incredible a short story that’s in the most recent issue of lit journal Ploughshare I wanna shout her out ‘cause I fucking love her and her music. She’s also a musician! Like shout out multitalented women, for sure.


AMY: [Laughing.] Yes! So, this track is “Quicksand.” And you can listen to it on her Bandcamp, and also, you can buy the cassette tape on a cassette tape label called Painted Blonde, which we’ll have linked to the web page that the podcast will be on so you can get a little really beautiful gold cassette tape and listen to her entire EP. And this track in particular is called “Quicksand.” I love it. Check it out, and thanks for listening.

DAHLIA: Thanks for listening.

[“Quicksand” plays]

DAHLIA: Thanks for listening to Backtalk. This show is produced by Cher Vincent. Bitch Media is a reader- and listener-supported feminist nonprofit. If you wanna support the show and our work, please head over to and donate.

by Amy Lam
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Amy Lam was a contributing editor and co-host of Backtalk at Bitch Media. Find her at & Twitter / Instagram.