Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Sept. 25)

Sep 25, 2017

When the credits come up at the movies, the pages in a book run out, or the last commercial rolls over the end of a television episode, the story might be over. But the discussion is just getting started. Here at Act Four, we’ll get together every week to talk about the best (and worst) in pop culture. We’ll also try to sort out why the stories we love mean so much to us, and what they mean for the rest of the world.

Yikes, sorry guys, I didn't mean to get a late start. We'll hang around here until 2:05. I want to get started right away, but I hope that you all had wonderful weekends, and that those of you celebrating Rosh Hashanah had rewarding celebrations with your friends and families.

Thinking Puerto Rico today. Considering it's part of the United States without being a state (can't relate being in the District of Columbia) what are its representations in pop culture. J-Lo aka Jenny from the block? She more part of the diaspora. Anita in "West Side Story? Not really set in Puerto There was the sorta "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" prequel starring Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, and Aarons Eckhart whose tit'll escapes me at present.

Well, there are a lot  of musicians from Puerto Rico, and the country has often been used as a stand-in for Cuba in movies.  And there are tons of Puerto Rican novelists and writers, including one of the co-founders of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. But I have to be honest, I went and googled a bunch of lists in part to answer your question, in part because I don't feel like Puerto Rico has a defining piece of pop culture for me. Instead, the country is more defined for me by my close family friends who live there. None of which is to say that Puerto Rico hasn't produced great artists, musicians or writers, just that this is an area where my own experience feels lacking. I would be curious to hear from anyone in the audience who has a piece of culture they associate indelibly with Puerto Rico, or who has thoughts on how the cultural depictions or lack thereof have shaped mainland Americans' thinking (again, or lack thereof) about the island. It's been really disturbing to me to see Puerto Rico be so overlooked in the wake of Hurricane Maria, so this subject is much on my thoughts.

I've loved the first four or five seasons of the show, but I didn't really agree with the effort of the season finale last year to tie the show to black lives matter because I think that newbie guard who killed Poussey could have killed anyone and I felt like people were trying to make it seem like a great show because it was political, whereas I just felt like the show was a great show and while it has made me more empathetic to women or transgendered people or especially convicts, it hadn't made a political point I disagreed with. I was worried that the entirety of the 2017 would just be rehashing that one plot point so I've put watching it on hold. Should I dive back into it, because it's a good show?

I am genuinely intrigued by this question, because "Orange Is the New Black" has always struck me as a show that did an incredibly good job of making its political points through great characterization. It's kind of shocking to me that you thought "Orange Is The New Black" *wasn't* political beforehand. The whole series is about disparities in sentencing based on race, the treatment of trans and pregnant women in prison, the imbalances of power between guards and inmates, and the rise of the private prison industry. Maybe it means that the show did a good job that you absorbed all of these points while still perceiving "Orange Is The New Black" as a character-driven drama. But if you missed that it had an argument or a point of view all along, or you're offended by the show's engagement with Black Lives Matter, I honestly have to encourage you to revisit what show you thought you liked in the first place.

Do you track Trek at all or are you exclusively Star Wars? What do you think of the new show with its strong female characters and heightened inter-personal conflict?

I am not a "Star Wars" partisan. CBS didn't make "Star Trek: Discovery" available to critics before it aired, and I was traveling for the Jewish New Year yesterday, but I'm excited to check out the episodes this week.

My first impression of the concept of intersectionality was that it was a justification for black, native american people, sexual minorities and women to fight each other's battles against what they view as a patriarchal construct against straight white males and encourage an us vs them mentality. Then I recently had a family function at a cousin of mine who is a sociology major. She says that intersectionality is that what defines you isn't one thing like being black or being gay. Instead, everyone's multiple things. Why can't liberal people use that as a source of understanding for the people they ordinarily attack as in: "You're white but you're also from a region of the country with an endemic cycle of poverty so you're chances of upward mobility are something that isn't necessarily something I should ignore" or "You're a churchgoer but that doesn't mean you're a conservative voter or that you seek to oppress gay people"

Intersectionality began its life as an idea as a legal concept articulated by the professor Kimberle Crenshaw. She used it to explain situations where a person was having an experience that couldn't be fully explained or legally remedied by one facet of their identity. A less legalistic example might be the average wages among women of color, which can't be entirely explained just by the fact that they're women or by the fact that they're non-white. Their wages are the product of two overlapping set of biases in society. Does that make sense?

Since I don't tend to use intersectionality as a way to rank who is theoretically most oppressed, I'm not really sure I can give you guidance on why the hypothetical liberal you're upset with uses the concept the way that they do. But the point of intersectionality is to explain the specific ways people's identities shape their lives, which is not really what you're suggesting we do.

I think instead, what you want is for people to just stereotype people a little bit less and not make assumptions based on a single characteristic of someone they don't know very well. I don't really think that's about intersectionality. I think that's about politeness and assumptions of good faith, and everyone across the political spectrum can always benefit from a healthy dose of both.

Perhaps we should all watch NASCAR?

Certainly, at least one NASCAR team owner is making a bid for Trump fans by declaring that anyone who doesn't stand for the anthem has no place not just on his team but in the United States. I get that as a business decision, I guess. But as civics, it seems exhausting and awful.

I've watched three episodes of The Vietnam War, and so far I find it imperfect but still enlightening and sobering. One of the things that stuck me while watching episode 3 is how similar the Vietnam War is to ongoing U.S. involvement in the Middle East, especially Afghanistan. Both conflicts depend in large part on airstrikes, whether that involves napalm or drones, and are rooted in the aftermath of colonialism. Another thing I find fascinating is the role of the media. Because the Vietnam War was the first televised conflict, Americans at home really got an up-close and personal look at the brutality of war, which helped prompt widespread anti-war sentiment. Yet, I don't feel like news coverage of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan had as substantial an impact. So, I guess this is a long-winded way of asking, how do you think media coverage of war has changed since Vietnam? And how has public response to war and the military evolved?

My colleague David Ignatius actually wrote a great column about this in 2010, and he explained what has changed. During the Vietnam War, American (and Vietnamese) journalists basically had the run of the conflict. If they wanted to get to the front, they might have to talk themselves onto a chopper or insinuate themselves with a battalion, but pretty much could go where they wanted and could get themselves. That's how America got reporting like Morley Safer's famous broadcast showing Americans burning Vietnamese villagers' huts. Now, journalists are formally "embedded" with military units, which means that they have access and a measure of protection, but they're also operating in an environment where everyone is aware that a reporter is there and the consequences of doing something that could be reported the way it was in Vietnam. That produces reporting that can be intimate but also, as Ignatius argues, quiet limited. I'm not sure there's been a broadcast that was as visceral as Safer's, or photography that's been quite as immediate as Eddie Adams' photo of an execution during the Tet Offensive (which Burns and I discussed in the latest episode of my podcast).

I thought Orville was misguided but I also think that Seth MacFarlane has produced a lot of work and some of it is quite good. I personally thought Ted was crass and lowest-common-denominator, but I loved A Million Ways to Die in the West and thought he was very lampshading of the criticism that might pour out against him and very charming and genial as an Oscar host. He also made a fine SNL host. Then there are various opinions about American Dad, Family Guy (which most people agree relies on random, scattershot humor), and Cleveland Show and I think he did a show with Patrick Stewart? Anyways, I have a feeling that critics are more inclined to rain down on a project of his more than an average viewer because they have been forced to watch the work of a prolific man who made a lot of stuff and already felt blah about some of his earlier stuff. What are your theories?

Honestly, Seth MacFarlane is just not particularly to my taste. I'm not that fond of crude humor, which is one of his stocks-in-trade, and I think it's rare when crudeness generates much insight in his work. (That said, I did find "Ted" pretty funny because even I make exceptions.) MacFarlane talks a lot about wanting to be a latter-day Norman Lear, but he's just never struck me as terribly engaged with the ideas he says he wants to get us all talking about. And something like "The Orville" just seems to lack an independent rationale to exist other than "Seth MacFarlane wants to do Star Trek." 

I don't really think that critics are bored of him. After all, someone like Ryan Murphy pumps out a ton of television, all of which is provocative (if not all highly-acclaimed). David Simon pretty much always has a show on. Ditto Mike Schur and Jenji Kohan. But we're not bored just because we've seen their basic worldview articulated before and now are seeing it articulated or explored in a new way. I just find MacFarlane sort of boring, and there's just not that much more to it than that!

What perversion makes it "challenging" to see a film that considers infanticide and cannibalism "funny"? Yeah, I get the digs at faith-based belief, but really? Disgusting and sad use of a theatre.

May I acquaint you with Francisco Goya's "Saturn Devouring His Son," an immensely disturbing but still important painting?

Has Donald Trump finally mis-read popular culture catastrophically, including possibly members of his "base," by obscenely denouncing NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem, hold up a fist, bow their heads, and other signs of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and his supporters? I suspect he may finally have "jumped the shark" politically.

Well, I think for his purposes, Trump has read the current mood pretty well. There is a serious strain in our culture and politics right now that suggests that anything that makes liberals angry is good, that treats celebrities as if they're highly-trained animals who ought to bow to their masters rather than people with rights, and that revels in highly simplistic ideas of patriotism and good citizenship. Trump sort of hit a trifecta in bashing NFL players, especially at a moment when football's ratings are pretty soft. I don't know that this is a stance that will make him nationally popular, but it will definitely help him with a segment of his base and with some Republicans who get knee-jerk about things like the national anthem.

Just reading Hank Steuver's review of her first show. I gotta say, I'm not surprised. While I think Kelly has skills, none of them ever appeared to include warmth or connecting with people - in person or on screen. Was NBC just desperate for a "big get"? Was it the same executives that thought Chevy Chase and Pat Sajak were going to be big late night stars? Can this talk show be saved?

My husband and I have been talking about this a lot, since he's the senior fellow at Media Matters, and thus has been following Kelly's rise more closely and for longer than pretty much anyone anywhere. We've basically concluded that either Kelly doesn't have a good sense of what her talents are--prosecutorial interviews--or that she wishes her talents were for something else. It's been sort of bizarre to me to see her talk about how much she wants to find joy and connect emotionally to people. Which maybe she does, but perhaps a $17 million contract with NBC is not the place to work that out?

Lin Manuel Miranda has been tweeting that he is putting together a roster of entertainers with Puerto Rico roots to presumably put together a benefit show. Should add visibility get J Lo, Marc Anthony, etc.

And now I really feel like I have a case of the Mondays. Thank you for this reminder, and yes, that's a great idea!

That is the title of that is sort of rare that instead of Puerto Ricans inside the continental United States, stories focuses on Yankee WASPs in San Juan. Still hard to "This is Puerto Rico" movie like Doctor Zhivago is to Russia or Angela Ashes is to Ireland.

An interesting observation!

In light of his conviction today, I must say that Huma looked great at Hillary's Politics and Prose event last week!

I try really hard not to speculate about people's inner lives based on their outer appearances, especially when their job is to look put-together in public. And I'm not real good at speculating about people's marriages, either: private life is weird, and most of us are overly-confident about the decisions we'd make in similar situations. That said, I exchanged a bunch of (non-sexual) emails with Anthony Weiner early this year for a story, and that guy comes across as real unpleasant.

I know you don't cover sports, but do you see this spilling out into your work?

I've got a column on the subject, specifically on the uses of celebrity, in edit as we speak!

Well, if you're disturbed about the destruction of Puerto Rico being overlooked, you should talk to your co-workers and editors. There are no fewer than seven articles about NFL protests on the front page of the digital edition and one about Puerto Rico, and that's not really about Puerto Rico itself, only about Trump apparently not tweeting about it. The Washington Post's front page is telling its reader what's important to it and what it thinks is important to its readers. If you think otherwise, then speak up to those who can make a change.

My colleagues have done amazing reporting on Puerto Rico and we've published a ton of stories on what's going on there. 

I thought it was hilarious AND appalling that good ol' boy Richard Petty thought himself qualified to give etiquette lessons to anybody. This is the guy who slammed another (civilian) driver in a road rage incident. Oh, and he was campaigning to be NC's Secretary of State at the time. He was not elected then but nowadays...?

Oh my goodness is that some interesting and disturbing context!

From last nights Vietnam episode -the reporter talking to the soldier while he was shooting at Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive -the soldier who said he was just trying to make it through so he could go home and go to school -I thought both wow, that's amazing media report but also -how dangerous was that, both to the reporter and to the soldier -being distracted by the reporter during the firefight. Such a report would never happen today

Totally true! It's all so disturbing and immediate.

I get such a chuckle out of the rationalizations of end-timers after their predictions always prove to be untrue (most recently Saturday's, based on the fake-science of numerology).

Have you ever watched the "Parks and Recreation" episode "End of the World"? If not, it might tickle your funny bone. In it, the main character, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) has to deal with a local cult that's constantly predicting the end of the world and getting permits for end-of-the-world observances in the park. It's a very sharp look at the social value of disastrous predictions for the people who believe in them. And it's deeply silly and fun.

Not sure there's a direct comparison to a static painting and a gory movie, replete with sound effects. Think: "Rape of the Sabine Women".

The original poster was questioning whether there is any value in depicting said subjects at all. 

I think that most people realize that when you're on the job, you have certain expectations for your conduct that include not potentially angering your customers. Players who kneel during the National Anthem ARE angering some of the teams' customers; that was evident from the booing from the stands and the sudden rise in sales of Alejandro Villanueva, a player who came out of the locker room by himself to stand during the Anthem. I realize that most of the people who work with are pleased with the protest, especially since it thumbed Trump in the eye, but there are ways to make your point without being respectful of the National Anthem.

Actually, the NFL's rulebook only says that players have to be on the sidelines during the national anthem, not that they have to stand or do anything else during it. People of some religious beliefs don't salute the flag or sing the national anthem, so it's a difficult thing for an employer to enforce. 

I think it's worth debating what it means to be respectful of the national anthem. No NFL player who's taken a knee during the anthem has ever disrupted the song, or anyone singing it or standing for it. This weekend, Rico Lavelle even proved that you can simultaneously sing the anthem at a stadium and take a knee while doing it. I think it's worthwhile for you to consider if you see any respectful way for people who feel uncomfortable singing or standing for it to opt out of the national anthem. If not, why not?

The late film/movie-stars José Ferrer and Raúl Julia (which also gives José's recently-deceased actor/musician son Miguel Ferrer PR roots).

Thank you for the reminder!

celebrities and NFL players are the 1% in the US in terms of income. Yet, Trump has managed to side with the 99% while liberals are rushing to support the 1%. It is a fascinating way that politics and pop culture collide.

That's a very simplistic way to look at things. First, it's not as if 99 percent of Americans believe that athletes don't have any right to protest. Second, you can be an extremely rich person and still come out in favor of policies that would help more vulnerable people. By your own standards, Trump could literally never be anything but a 1 percenter, and his voters are choosing glitz over their own self-interest.

Are you sure that's how he felt about it? (wink) To confirm that there is a Trump Tweet for every occasion, he tweeted in (I think) 2013 that Huma should dump Weiner. One of the few tweets of his I agree with 100%, and I have to wonder how history would have been different if she did.

We were talking about a complicated legal question regarding documentary filmmaking, so I'm reasonably sure I was safe.

And that's one of those counterfactuals that is probably best not indulged. Even if Abedin had sought a divorce, it's pretty hard for women not to get blamed for their n'er-do-well husbands, whether current or former.

I'm a little confused but it doesn't seem like FEMA operates there? If Puerto Ricans are American citizens shouldn't they get the same help as other Americans? Or is federal help there and I just haven't heard about it?

FEMA is in Puerto Rico, but the island's governor has been trying to get more of the island declared a disaster area so it will be eligible for certain kinds of relief. And Congress may not vote on more disaster relief until October, which understandably leaves folks in Puerto Rico feeling strained and anxious. Yes, all Americans deserve disaster relief. But the fact that Congress has to find the money to give it to them can make this process feel more political than equal.

Seems as though Trump's going for ever-narrower and deeper, which doesn't seem like a winning plan long-term. Thus far, only one NASCAR co-owner Richard Petty is agreeing with Trump re peremptorily firing employees for protesting the anthem, and at least with his drivers under contract he might not have that right. LINK: https://www.si.com/racing/2017/09/24/nascar-owner-fire-national-anthem-protest

As I mentioned above, I think that culture wars stuff can both deepen Trump's base and pull in some conservatives who dislike him but are somewhat reflexive about displays of patriotism. That the NFL's ratings were fairly low this week will also probably allow him to claim a victory. I don't pretend to understand people who vote on the basis of thumbing their nose at liberals, but there appear to be a fair number of them. I am not at a place in American politics where I feel terribly comfortable making many predictions.

My friends and relatives in my depressed home town of Johnstown, PA, are still Trump supporters and do NOT choose glitz. They boycotted watching the Emmys in droves, for instancr.

Trump himself is all sorts of glitzy! My point, though, is that the original poster's analogy doesn't really hold up very well.

I never had stock in TheDonald's intelligence, but he makes a comment and it dominates the social media sphere like mad. Beyond the comment itself, the man can stir the national conservation. Plus the standing at three national anthem or preserving statue of Confederates are the more mild and good faith soung in parts of the White nationalists agenda for the President to sick which is sick, but clever too. Still it feels what was imost important

He is incredibly good at what he does, even if what I think he does is ruinously bad for the rest of us.

Whew! Sorry for the late start (and the moderately punchy conversation today). Hope you all are having good weeks. See you back here on October 2 to talk the end of "The Vietnam War," "Star Trek: Discovery" and anything else that's on your minds.

In This Chat
Alyssa Rosenberg
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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