Top 10 Essays of 2014

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About halfway through this year I decided I wanted to try to read more online essays, keeping track of those that I read and putting them together as a best of collection at the end of the year. This is the result of that and you can probably see where I tend to lean when it comes to the in-depth online browsing. There are some long reads, some investigative journalism, think pieces about popular culture, as well as where pop culture crosses over with racism, sexism, etc… We are probably at the peak era of good writing about current events being available for free all over the internet and so I really enjoyed putting this one together.

10. “The Bill Cosby Issue: Processing the Fall of an Icon” by Wesley Morris and Rembert Browne

Here Rembert and Morris write about how the news of the allegations against Cosby affect them, particularly as black Americans who grew up appreciating and inspired by his image and the work that he made.

It doesn’t make sense, and then when it begins to make sense, you don’t want it to make sense. Because it tramples so much of what you thought you knew. And not just what you thought you knew about Bill Cosby, but what you thought to be undeniably true about good people. It rattles your beliefs about the identifiable qualities of a good man, a good father, a good husband, a good black American archetype.

9. “The Future of Iced Coffee” by Alexis C. Madrigal

On the outset it’s a profile of Blue Bottle coffee and their attempt to grow their product throughout the country. The article transcends this and becomes about those small minimal products we come to adore and what happens to them as they begin to grow in influence and popularity. Is it possible to keep that which made you unique while growing to a size where uniqueness is frowned upon?

All of which returns us to the question we began with: Can Freeman turn Blue Bottle into Starbucks without … turning it into Starbucks?

“Could we be the first 20-store chain, or 50- or 100-store chain that doesn’t suck?” Freeman asked rhetorically, in an interview with TheNew York Times in January. The question can be applied to his new product, too: Can Blue Bottle be the first company to make 20,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 cartons of iced coffee that doesn’t suck?

8. “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” by AO Scott

Scott explores the evolution of culture, particularly the way that adulthood has been and is portrayed. While it seems that our culture is now obsessed with youth fiction and stories, Scott notes that previously “adult” stories were mostly about a certain type of middle-aged white man. He plays with this tension, lamenting the loss of stories for adults, while celebrating the new voices that this loss has allowed to enter.

I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.

I’m all for it. Now get off my lawn.

7. “We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome” by Tasha Robinson

I’m a sucker for a theory in pop culture especially one that helps to define varying social issues in surrounding culture. Here Robinson creates what she calls “Trinity Syndrome”–a seemingly empowered and “strong” character that when it actually comes time for her to do something needs to be rescued by a male character. Robinson points out that these seemingly progressive characters are just as regressive as former ones.

“Strong Female Character” is just as often used derisively as descriptively, because it’s such a simplistic, low bar to vault, and it’s more a marketing term than a meaningful goal. But just as it remains frustratingly uncommon for films to pass the simple, low-bar Bechdel Test, it’s still rare to see films in the mainstream action/horror/science-fiction/fantasy realm introduce women with any kind of meaningful strength, or women who go past a few simple stereotypes.

6. “The Full Boyle: Guys Who Don’t Hear ‘No’ Just Aren’t Funny Anymore” by Genevieve Valentine

This one ranks here because Valentine brought to my attention something I hadn’t really thought of before. She addresses a disturbingly familiar character trope in which loser guys pressure women into dating them. In movies we chuckle at characters’ attempts to pick up girls and cheer when they get them–we can all relate to feeling insecure. In real life though women feel pressured all the time and we throw out words like stalker and creep. Has pop culture leaked into real life? It’s hard to say, but Valentine makes some interesting points.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has steadily and disappointingly played it for laughs that Boyle refuses to listen when Rosa says no, when it reads closer to straight-up harassment. This is no slow-burn demurral. Part of the joke, in fact, is her badass exterior, as if it means she should be up for the challenge. Her attempts to shut him down include: “That’s nice, and I like you as a person, but I’m just not that into you romantically,” and, “You’re starting to make this weird. I’m not into you that way and I have a boyfriend,” which would, to most people, read loud and clear. But Boyle’s been painted as one of those hopeless-romantic TV sad sacks who has a long pine ahead of him, fixated on Rosa long past the point where it was funny.

5. “The Dadliest Decade” by Willie Osterweil

A hilarious and insightful look at what caused the rise of the dad film in the 90s and what exactly it meant that these were being made.

The nineties have sometimes been framed as an assault on family values, what with the Culture Wars and the president’s penis’s interchangeability with a cigar and all, but it was the nineties that saw the dad ascendant in popular culture. By 1990, even the youngest baby boomer was twenty-six, and most of them were solidly in their thirties and forties. They were losing their grip on cool. And they were having kids. It was only natural that they’d want to dramatize the experience.

4. “A Warrior’s Moral Dilemma” by David Wood

An interesting article that touches on the effects of war beyond PTSD–something often ignored in our celebration of soldiers and war. Wood explores the “moral dilemma” in which soldiers go in and out of real life where the things they’ve done are actually seen as immoral, but must be accepted in war. A must read and necessary response to the horrors of war.

It is what experts are coming to identify as a moral injury: the pain that results from damage to a person’s moral foundation. In contrast to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which springs from fear, moral injury is a violation of what each of us considers right or wrong. The diagnosis of PTSD has been defined and officially endorsed since 1980 by the mental health community, and those suffering from it have earned broad public sympathy and understanding. Moral injury is not officially recognized by the Defense Department. But it is moral injury, not PTSD, that is increasingly acknowledged as the signature wound of this generation of veterans: a bruise on the soul, akin to grief or sorrow, with lasting impact on the individuals and on their families.

3. “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” by Questlove

Questlove explores black culture and the influences and failures it has had over the years in this multi-part series. Someone who has been so influential and is a connoisseur of this, he offers interesting critiques and thoughts about the evolution of culture.

Black culture, which has a long tradition of struggling against (and at the same time, working in close collaboration with) the dominant white culture, has rounded the corner of the 21st century with what looks in one sense like an unequivocal victory. Young America now embraces hip-hop as the signal pop-music genre of its time. So why does that victory feel strange: not exactly hollow, but a little haunted?

2. “The End of Food” by Lizzie Widdicombe

An eye-opening look into Soylent, a food-like substance that breaks food down into its most basic and substantive nutrients, a cheaper and perhaps sustainable way of providing for our bodies. Widdicombe looks at its history and asks questions about the ways we eat and whether losing these to something like Soylent would be a better way to feed the population or something that would isolate us further, lessening the need for face to face interaction in the name of progress.

Living on Soylent has its benefits, though. As Rhinehart puts it, you “cruise” through the day. If you’re in a groove at your computer, and feel a hunger pang, you don’t have to stop for lunch. Your energy levels stay consistent: “There’s no afternoon crash, no post-burrito coma.” Afternoons can be just as productive as mornings.

But that is Soylent’s downside, too. You begin to realize how much of your day revolves around food. Meals provide punctuation to our lives: we’re constantly recovering from them, anticipating them, riding the emotional ups and downs of a good or a bad sandwich. With a bottle of Soylent on your desk, time stretches before you, featureless and a little sad. On Saturday, I woke up and sipped a glass of Soylent. What to do? Breakfast wasn’t an issue. Neither was lunch. I had work to do, but I didn’t want to do it, so I went out for coffee. On the way there, I passed my neighborhood bagel place, where I saw someone ordering my usual breakfast: a bagel with butter. I watched with envy. I wasn’t hungry, and I knew that I was better off than the bagel eater: the Soylent was cheaper, and it had provided me with fewer empty calories and much better nutrition. Buttered bagels aren’t even that great; I shouldn’t be eating them. But Soylent makes you realize how many daily indulgences we allow ourselves in the name of sustenance.

1. “How Youtube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star” by Amy Nicholson

This is number one for the way it widened my perspective on a certain event. Sure it may seem a sort of shallow thing, but ask anybody about Tom Cruise and you get a sort of eye roll, that guy is crazy sort of look. Nicholson points out that the things that lead to Cruise attaining this image were not actually based in fact–he went crazy, he fell into a cult, etc…–but were firmly based in the rise of the internet and the way it empowered and emboldened gossip bloggers. She then delves into how the internet shapes our opinions on people with its quick reactions and rapid news cycle.

A weird thing happens when people watch a viral video. In catching up with a cultural touchstone, the clip everyone’s talking about at the water cooler, we assume we’re on top of the whole story. After all, we’ve seen what everyone else has seen. Whatever gets edited out isn’t part of the conversation.

Tom Cruise and Oprah talked on TV for 43 minutes. “Tom Cruise Kills Oprah” was 15 seconds. Even the longer YouTube clips of Cruise on Oprah’s couch clock in at only four minutes. Yet it was the latter two that were shared, discussed and remembered.

With all context gone, we’re judging soundbites of Cruise on a screen. We forget he was experiencing a live, long and loud interaction — a literal stage performance before a raucous crowd.

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